Edward Said and the Academy

By Matar, Nabil | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November 2003 | Go to article overview

Edward Said and the Academy


Matar, Nabil, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Edward Said changed the face of the academy both in the United States and in the rest of the world. Although his role as a defender of the Palestinians has been recognized for its heroism, courage and integrity, his first and decisive appearance came through his academic work. It is important that this role not be marginalized as we remember a man of genius and humanity.

With the publication of Beginnings (1975) that won him the Lionel Trilling Award, Edward Said explored the construction of discourse that pointed him in the direction of his magnum opus, Orientalism (1978). In Orientalism, which a few months ago was reissued, with a new preface, in its 25th year, Said appealed to Michel Foucault's theories that examined the relationship between the power of modern government institutions and the subsequent control of subjects. Said appropriated that polarization and applied it to the Western depiction of Arabs and Muslims in post-1798 literature, historiography and colonial politics.

The West, he showed, constructed an image of the Orient by means of its intellectual and administrative power to legitimize colonization and domination. The constructs of debasement and "otherness" that were used in the 19th century, he showed, were alarmingly still in use at the end of the 20th. Although the book was focused on the Arab-Islamic "Orient," Said's theory articulated a postcolonial paradigm which other disciplines, such as gender, race and Black studies, among many, also found useful.

Although much ink has been spilt defending or attacking the arguments in Orientalism, there can be no escaping the fact that the study of literature, history, and other disciplines has changed and can no longer be approached comprehensively without a discussion of Said's "discourse of power" and its implications. Since the appearance of the book, and the raging debates it generated, course titles have changed at universities large and small, and new concepts and methodologies have entered the undergraduate and graduate curricula. Said's single book may not have been the only force that brought about the change in the academy, but it certainly was one of the most resonant, polemical and influential books of the last quarter of the 20th century. Numerous critics rose to engage or challenge Said, proposing nuanced or different models to what Orientalism had offered, but they could not but admit that they were working within the field which Said had first ploughed. (See, for example, David Cannadine's recent Ornamentalism (Oxford 2001), which disagrees with Said, but cannot but echo him).

Equally important is Said's Herculean attempt to bring the question of Palestine into the academic discourse. In his Reith Lectures of 1993, Said identified the role of the intellectual/academic as the fiercely independent upholder of a moral vision, while engaging members of the national and world community. It was such a role that he assumed toward the academy-an academy in the United States and, to a lesser extent, in Western Europe dominated by Zionist-leaning academics, Zionist-fearing academics, or simply uninformed and perhaps uninterested academics. …

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