In this article David Robinson explores how historians communicate, interpret and commentate on the work of Edward Said. As David acknowledges, most Arts and Humanities students will encounter Said’s canonical work, Orientalism, at some point during their degree. For those uninitiated or inexperienced in literary criticism, however, it can be a difficult, even opaque, text. Unsurprisingly, many turn to commentaries on Orientalism; to borrow a bad pun from the work under review here, to see what has been said about Said. David argues that while Daniel Martin Varisco’s Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid, (Seattle, WA., 2007) is certainly a comprehensive study and is to be recommended to students as a reference work on Said, it fails in its primary aim of going ‘beyond the binary’ of East versus West.
David Robinson is a second-year, AHRC-M3C-funded PhD student supervised by the Department of History at the University of Nottingham. His thesis is entitled ‘Orientalism or Meridionism? Comparing Imperial and European Travel Writing in the Creation of British and European Identity’ and explores the British construction of Italy and India as cultural and geographical spaces contributing to British identity formation.
Edward Said’s Orientalism is the seminal work proposing a ubiquitous ‘othering’ of the Orient by Europe, evident in canonical European literature from Aeschylus onwards, a process Said called ‘orientalising’. Said claimed that the Orient was ‘almost invented’ by the West, as a feminised, exoticised, and eroticised space; an unchanging and unchangeable mirror-image of the rational, morally and culturally superior Occident. ‘Orientalising’, claimed Said, was largely responsible for two centuries of European imperialism. Attracting adoration and vitriol equally, Said was an American scholar with a Palestinian heritage, politically active in the cause of his cultural homeland. Orientalism has, consequently, a significant political edge, polarising opinion as either a brilliant expose of Western prejudice, or a polemical rant which ‘invents’ the West as equally as Said accuses the West of inventing the East. Regardless, Orientalism has remained in print since 1978 and ‘its influence can hardly be disputed.’ Credited by many as the founding text of post-colonialism, Orientalism remains one of the most cited academic works of modern times.