Edward Said

Edward Wadie Said (November 1, 1935September 24, 2003) was a Palestinian American literary theorist and public intellectual who helped found the critical-theory field of postcolonialism.


  • The prevailing situation of criticism ... This has given rise to a cult of professional expertise whose effect in general is pernicious. For the intellectual class, expertise has usually been a service rendered, and sold, to the central authority of society. This is the trahison des clercs of which Julien Benda spoke in the 1920s. Expertise in foreign affairs, for example, has usually meant the legitimization of the conduct of foreign policy and, what is more to the point, a sustained investment in revalidating the role of experts in foreign affairs. The same sort of thing is true of literary critics and professional humanists, except that their expertise is based upon noninterference in what Vico grandly calls the world of nations but which prosaically might just as well be called “the world.” We tell our students and our general constituency that we defend the classics, the virtues of a liberal education, and the precious pleasures of literature even as we also show ourselves to be silent (perhaps incompetent) about the historical and social world in which all these things take place. ...

    Humanists and intellectuals accept the idea that ... cultural types are not supposed to interfere in matters for which the social system has not certified them.

    • The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983), pp. 2-3
  • The intellectual origins of literary theory in Europe were, I think it is accurate to say, insurrectionary. The traditional university, the hegemony of determinism and positivism, the reification of ideological bourgeois “humanism,” the rigid barriers between academic specialties: it was powerful responses to all these that linked together such influential progenitors of today’s literary theorist as Saussure, Lukács, Bataille, Lévi-Strauss, Freud, Nietzsche, and Marx. Theory proposed itself as a synthesis overriding the petty fiefdoms within the world of intellectual production, and it was manifestly to be hoped as a result that all the domains of human activity could be seen, and lived, as a unity. ...

    Literary theory, whether of the Left or the Right, has turned its back on these things. This can be considered, I think, the triumph of the ethic of professionalism. But it is no accident that the emergence of so narrowly defined a philosophy of pure textuality and critical noninterference has coincided with the ascendancy of Reaganism.

    • The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983), pp. 3-4
  • [An elaborated culture has a] density, complexity, and historical-semantic value that is so strong as to make politics possible... Gramsci's insight is to have recognised that subordination, fracturing, diffusion, reproducing, as much as producing, creating, forcing, guiding, are necessary aspects of elaboration.
    • Quoted in Richard Middleton, Studying Popular Music (Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1990, ISBN 0-335-15275-9), p. 248
  • Theory is taught so as to make the student believe that he or she can become a Marxist, a feminist, an Afrocentrist, or a deconstructionist with about the same effort and commitment required in choosing items from a menu.
  • The history of other cultures is non-existent until it erupts in confrontation with the United States.
    • Culture and Imperialism (1993), Chap 4, Sect 2
  • The central fact for me is, I think, that the [role of the] intellectual... cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d'etre is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.

Orientalism (1978)Edit

  • Ideas, cultures, and histories cannot seriously be understood or studied without their force, or more precisely their configurations of power, also being studied.
  • The Orient that appears in Orientalism, then, is a system of representations framed by a whole set of forces that brought the Orient into Western learning, Western consciousness, and later, Western empire.… The Orient is the stage on which the whole East is confined. On this stage will appear the figures whose role it is to represent the larger whole from which they emenate. The Orient then seems to be, not an unlimited extension beyond the familiar European world, but rather a closed field, a theatrical stage affixed to Europe.
  • It isn’t at all a matter of being optimistic, but rather of continuing to have faith in the ongoing and literally unending process of emancipation and enlightenment that, in my opinion, frames and gives direction to the intellectual vocation.
    • Preface to 25th anniversary edition of Orientalism (1994), p. xv
  • Every single empire in its official discourse has said that it is not like all the others, that its circumstances are special, that it has a mission to enlighten, civilize, bring order and democracy, and that it uses force only as a last resort. And, sadder still, there always is a chorus of willing intellectuals to say calming words about benign or altruistic empires, as if one shouldn't trust the evidence of one's eyes watching the destruction and the misery and death brought by the latest mission civilizatrice.
    • "Preface (2003)"

About SaidEdit

  • As an Egyptian of Palestinian origin teaching English literature at an American university, who had built his scholarly career on a Polish sailor that became an English writer (Joseph Conrad), Said’s assertion that western orientalists could not comprehend the East and easterners because they were born into a different culture, seems somewhat bizarre.
    • Yoav Gelber, Nation and History: Israeli Historiography between Zionism and Post-Zionism (London and Portland, OR: Vallentine Mitchell, 2011), p. 56
  • I am a medievalist, but [Said] hates the Middle Ages. Altogether he loathes the past, he does not have the ability to enter into the spirit of other ages. He lies about European novelists and twists their words; I am myself a novelist with great sympathy for some of those whom he denounces in his book [Orientalism]. Finally, I am an orientalist, too, and his book is a long and persevering polemic against my subject, so I need to ask: is there anything at all to like in Said's book? – No. It is written far too quickly and carelessly. It abounds with misprints and mis-spelled names. It is an extremely polemic book, and throughout time many polemic books for or against Islam and the Muslim world have been written, but none have been taken seriously in the same way as Said.
  • The fact is that researchers cannot build anything on Said's thoughts-dead-end. [...] He has made it difficult for Westerners to say anything critical about Islam and the Muslim world. You cannot do that because then you run the risk of getting denounced as an orientalist, i.e. a racist, an imperialist and other terrible things.
  • The ruling intellectual paradigm in academic area studies is called "post-colonial theory." Post-colonial theory was founded by Edward Said. Said is famous for equating professors who support American foreign policy with the 19th century European intellectuals who propped up racist colonial empires. The core premise of post-colonial theory is that it is immoral for a scholar to put his knowledge of foreign languages and cultures at the service of American power.
    Said has condemned the United States as a nation with "a history of reducing whole peoples, countries, and even continents to ruin by nothing short of holocaust." Said has actively urged his readers to replace their naive belief in America as the defender of liberty and democracy with his supposedly more accurate picture of America as a habitual perpetrator of genocide.
    Indeed, Said has dismissed the very idea of American democracy as a farce. Yet Edward Said is the most honored and influential theorist in academic area studies today. Recently, the Title VI-funded Middle East Study Center at the University of California Santa Barbara sponsored an outreach workshop for K through 12 teachers in which only the writings of Edward Said and his like-minded colleagues were used to explain "why they hate us." Many of the authors assigned in that workshop have been widely condemned, even by liberal and left-leaning commentators, as holding an "anti-American perspective."Yet I do not argue that only material that praises American foreign policy should be assigned in programs sponsored by Title VI. I do argue, however, that our Title VI centers, as currently constituted, purvey an extreme and one-sided perspective which almost invariably criticizes American foreign policy.
    What is needed is a restoration of intellectual and political balance to our area studies programs. In my written testimony, I refer to other examples of bias at Title VI centers.
    Title VI-funded professors take Edward Said's condemnation of scholars who cooperate with the American Government very seriously.
    • Stanley Kurtz (2003), testimony given at Hearing Before the Subcommitee on Select Education of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, 108th Congress
  • A historian of science is not expected to be a scientist, but he is expected to have some basic knowledge of the scientific alphabet. Similarly, a historian of Orientalism—that is to say, the work of historians and philologists—should have at least some acquaintance with the history and philology with which they were concerned. Mr. Said shows astonishing blind spots. He asserts [in his book Orientalism] that “Britain and France dominated the Eastern Mediterranean from about the end of the seventeenth century on [sic]” (p. 17)—that is, when the Ottoman Turks who ruled the eastern Mediterranean were just leaving Austria and Hungary. This rearrangement of history is necessary for Mr. Said’s thesis; others are apparently due to unpolemical ignorance—for example his belief that Muslim armies conquered Turkey before North Africa (p. 59)—that is to say, that the eleventh century came before, the seventh, and that Egypt was “annexed” by England (p. 35). Egypt was indeed occupied and dominated, but was never annexed or directly administered. In another remarkable passage, he chides the German philosopher Friedrich Schlegel because, even after he “had practically renounced his Orientalism, he still held that Sanskrit and Persian on the one hand and Greek and German on the other had more affinities with each other than with the Semitic, Chinese, American, or African languages” (p. 98). Mr. Said seems to object to this view—which would not be challenged by any serious philologist—and regards it as a pernicious residue of Schlegel’s former Orientalism
    • Bernard Lewis, "The Question of Orientalism", The New York Review of Books, 24 June 1982

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