The Philosophical Legacy of Said: Relativism and Positive Resistance

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Impact of Said

Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) is second to none in terms of its scope and impact upon Area Studies. Indeed, 2018 marks the fortieth anniversary of this monumental text and it is debatable as to whether it is possible to say something new and meaningful on it, given the abundance of commentary it received over the decades. Such commentary has focused on the theoretical structure of Said’s thesis (its roots in Foucauldian archaeology), the reappraisal of seminal European texts (from Kipling to Conrad), and, perhaps most importantly, how Orientalism still dominates the discourse on the Other (by academic scholarship, popular media, and politicians).

Briefly, the thesis that the Orient is defined in opposition to the Occident; essentially as a means of self-defining the Occident and legitimizing the domination of the latter upon the former. This understanding of the Orient manifests in numerous cultural, academic, military and popular phenomena. Accordingly the Orient is always presented as mystical, feminine, despotic and liable to domination, in diametric opposition to the Occident, which is rational, masculine, enlightened and destined to dominate. This thesis is drawn from the exegesis of various texts, and can be followed in multiple contexts, from novels and encyclopedias to other forms of scholarly and literary production.  As a result, Said makes the point that when the non-European is taken as a subject, it is always read in terms of a negation vis-à-vis the European.

Many texts written in the past two centuries that touch upon this relationship, have been accused of essentialism and reductionism; they have been charged with being “Orientalist.”

Indeed, it is my contention that the exposure and focus of scholarship on examples of Orientalist thought has been excessive and has ultimately contributed to the failure of a meaningful non-Orientalist discourse developing.
In this short article I will argue that Said has been largely embraced by followers who express relativistic thinking; such relativistic readings of Said have led to ‘defense through dissolution’ (which is a pacifying form of thinking). Accordingly, I argue that Said should be read as espousing a substantive view based upon a moral standard of the human being, and that this reading of Said defeats the relativistic approach and leads to positive contributions.

Saidism and Relativistic Thought

Said introduces his text with references to the methodological approach that he will use in order to forward his thesis. He tells us that he has been influenced by Michael Foucault and in particular Foucault’s work in The Archaeology of Knowledge. In this text Foucault outlines a historical method by which discourse (episteme) emerges and functions in society. He explains that episteme is a knowledge-power complex, through which discourse (as the definition of things) functions as a mechanism of control and imposed power. Here, we are told that subjects of study, whether a patient or a prisoner, are understood and classified into a matrix of knowledge claims (‘this is madness,’ ‘this is transgression’) which serves as a differentiae to what is deemed normative. It is through this categorization that the abnormal is distinguished from the normal, and this is then fed into social sanctions which can be imposed or used to address the abnormal. The knowledge-power complex is such that people in society, and the entire society itself, can understand their position, and the position of others, within this episteme. Much of Foucault’s oeuvre can be read as case studies of how the knowledge-power complex has come to be in various contexts: notions of sexuality and madness (knowledge forms), the hospital and the prison (power forms) and explicitly, in the Technologies of the Self, government itself (knowledge-power).

One way of reading Said’s Orientalism is to approach it as an additional case study, this time into the episteme of the Orient(al). In the Foucauldian spirit, Said is seen as tracing various instantiations of knowledge-power domination in the works of various European scholars writing about the so-called Orient. In doing so, Said is able to reveal that rather than producing scholarship which is “neutral”, these works are all instances of the Western mind structuring the Orient as a counterpose to self-definition (as mentioned in the introduction to this article). Importantly, the Other (the Oriental in this context) is ultimately denigrated, through negation, and the Occidental is legitimized in conceiving itself as superior. This also serves to legitimize political-cultural-militaristic domination (iterations of colonialism in non-Western lands).

Scholars, and other commentariat, have shown great enthusiasm for Said’s thesis for a number of reasons:

  1. Orientalism provides an explanation, and a metatheory, through which a vast array of books, films, journalist articles, art works, etc. can be read and exposed within a framework of domination. Orientalism is a grand theory which is able to consume all that falls within its remit.
  2. Orientalism concerns power. The explicitness with which Said’s thesis connects knowledge claims to actual oppression, viz. European colonialism, allows his theoria to immediately concern itself with praxis.
  • Orientalism is philosophically rich and is situated in a tradition of a powerful methodology, developed and augmented in the last century. The historical method – the genealogical approach – was pioneered by Nietzsche, who was able to brilliantly propose understanding contemporary norms, not through metaphysical investigations (getting to the Truth or Reality of things), but rather by observing how a particular idea, belief, moral claim (claims of knowledge), has developed over time and what function it played amongst people throughout its development. In one of his last interviews, Foucault proclaimed that ‘I amsimply a Nietzschean’, and it is clear that Said is very much a Foucauldian.
  1. As a corollary to the above, Orientalism is also not Marxism. Marxism, socialism, nationalism, etc. were all powerful narratives of political resistance within the non-West, however, many thinkers from these regions, particularly after the 1960’s, became dissatisfied with these programs. One reason is that these programs were alien to too much of the non-Western societies. Another reason is that these programs were largely failures. Indeed, what emerges ideologically, in much of the anti-colonial movements, is some form of hybrid socialist-nationalism (Baathism in the Arab world is one example of this), or nativism (in the guise of a strange form of Islamist-nationalism, c.f. Sudan). Whereas social movements, with relative mass appeal, could appeal to intellectual ideology (albeit defunct), the literati could find in Orientalism a robust discourse rooted in modern philosophy (anti-metaphysical) and methodology.
  2. Said was Palestinian. It is not often commentated upon, but it is my contention that the symbolic power of a Palestinian, so articulate and erudite, cannot be underplayed. Here was a voice situated within the great symbol of Western colonialism in the Levant. What could be more poetic and powerful than this?

To summarize: here was a discourse that was grand, took concern with the immediacy of colonialism and politics, proved philosophically rich and methodologically robust, and developed/delivered through the pen of one of their own.

The above is perhaps the prima facia way of reading Said, however, less obvious are some of the consequences to i) the theoretical underpinnings of this view, and, ii) the practicality of this reception. I address this in turn below.

Some Consequences of Simplistic Readings of Said

To begin with the theoretical issues, Said’ thesis relies on claims about how all knowledge (truth claims) are produced, namely, within a knowledge-power complex. The individual author, or branch of study, is always read within this complex and interpreted, through the revealing genealogical-historical method, as part of this dominant discourse-episteme (normativity). As a result of this, no subject exists as an object of (potential) knowledge. Here all subjects are construed within the knowledge-power complex. With this line of thought, whenever a subject is spoken of in concreto (or with definition), all that the genealogist must do is reveal how this subject has been constructed.  In doing so they can expose how the subject is being dominated. Definition is effectively essence, and essentialism then becomes a pejorative term (and Plato turns over in his grave).

“…As a result of this, no subject exists as an object of (potential) knowledge. Here all subjects are construed within the knowledge-power complex. With this line of thought, whenever a subject is spoken of in concreto (or with definition), all that the genealogist must do is reveal how this subject has been constructed. “

The consequence of this is that knowledge and truth are clefted. Such separation is a head first dive in to relativism, the argument that there are no objective truth claims which are valid or discernible as mind-independently true. There are many ways to think of relativism, however for the purposes of this essay it is necessary to think of it in terms of anti-metaphysicalism. In the social sciences, be they sociology, anthropology, literary studies, history, etc., the notion of stable and objective definitions of things (essentialism) is to be rejected.

This reading and form of Saidian-relativism then opens up a can of worms.

Firstly, the problem of value judgement: If all there is to say about a subject is how it has been construed within the knowledge-power complex, then based upon what are we judging the construal? For example, it might very well be argued that the Oriental was construed as liable to domination, as irrational, etc., but then if one goes about placing a value judgement (‘colonialism was an awful thing,’ ‘it was bad for these people that they were construed in this way,’ etc.,) then we are ourselves uttering moral construal which is itself subject to the genealogical method. We are left simply unable to morally condemn (an act soaked in metaphysics) – which is surely what we are right in doing – without rendering ourselves incoherent and hypocritical.

A second theoretical concern is the problem of a truth standard. In addition to being unable to morally condemn, one is also unable to offer any meaningful comment upon a subject. Interestingly, many historicists (in particular from the Cambridge School), are very explicit about this claim: one can neither assert that some episteme is true nor false, rather one must be clear that the historicist is providing merely a description. Normativity is the subject that is being genealogically unraveled, as such, one cannot then enter into a normative discourse. The claim that the Oriental is irrational, is to be analyzed and exposed, but it is not to be denied via a claim that ‘in truth the Oriental is rational.’ I will return to this point below.

Concerning the practical consequences of this view, much regressiveness is exhibited. For instance, scholarship becomes almost entirely focused, in fact fetishistic, on genealogical exposure and analysis of texts (books, films, journalistic articles, etc.,) that even tangentially touch upon a non-Western subject matter. The sheer volume of this kind of scholarship and commentary is truly phenomenal, and it continues till today. There are two main problems with this approach:

  1. Alternatives are not being written, and new knowledge is not being produced. This is perhaps the most regressive aspect of Saidian-relativistic scholarship. For all the volumes of books that have been written on how this or that text is an example of a particular iteration of Orientalism, how many actual books have been written that take the Orient as a subject of study (rather than study the study of the Orient). This has been a profound waste and the damage cannot be underestimated.
  2. This view has biased readers towards important texts and studies from which much can be gained. The relativistic reading-framework is such that texts which have genuine value are being shunned.

These two points can be augmented by reflecting upon the nature of Orientalist thought from not only the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (the main thrust of Said’s critique, the height of colonialism), but over the entire modern period. It is my contention that almost all of these texts are extremely valuable from a historical-knowledge perspective, and are not to be reduced, or pejoratively spoken about as exclusively reductionist or essentialist.

For example, the placing in to Purgatory of the Arabic language philosophers, alongside the pagan Greek masters of Plato and Aristotle, is the highest respect that Dante bestows upon any non-Christian  (despite his more sinister accounts of the Prophet Mohammed) in The Divine Comedy (1320); Said cites Inferno in Orientalism but fails to flesh out this very point. Indeed, the portrait of Mehmed II by Gentile is an excellent piece of stand-alone art typical of that particular epoch of the Renaissance period (1480). Here there is no evidence of an Orientalist construal, indeed, he is depicted as thoroughly European. Raphael’s depiction of Averroes in ‘The School of Athens’ (1511), is clearly honorific. Moreover, the Germans, Herder (d. 1803) and Goethe (d. 1832), offer sustained treatments of Oriental subject matter, that are complex (often showing rampant essentialism, whilst at other times demonstrating meaningful nuance). The criticism levelled at Said concerning German Orientalism (that German work was produced without the context of a German colonial empire) is valid. Furthermore, Louis Massignon’s (d. 1962) work is quite excellent and his encyclopedic work has preserved an awareness of many texts which would have otherwise been neglected. Finally, one need only to read the highly accomplished translations into English of the likes of Gibb (d.1901), Arberry (d. 1969) and Nicholson (d. 1945), in order to pay them the highest respects.

All of these texts have been read within the framework of the relativistic iteration of Saidian orientalism, but to reduce these texts solely to the knowledge-power complex is to profoundly impoverish one’s own sight. Many of these texts are masterful, and deserve meaningful scholarly attention and recourse to truth-generating claims. What is meant by this is an attempt to establish what some truths, about various topics which concern the Orient, may entail. For example, when Saidian-Orientalists point out that the Orient is essentialized in terms of political despotism (c.f. Weber (d. 1920)), the question still remains as to what kind of political structure existed at various times in various places. Perhaps there is some comparative insight that can be drawn from these claims? More importantly, the questions at hand must be still investigated and positive theses must be drawn based on these investigations.

Activism begets Scholarly Paralysis

Relativistic-orientalism simply provides no positive knowledge and furthermore retards the ability of students and scholars to approach a text with a view to gaining/contributing substantive knowledge.

A final regressive practical consequence of the relativistic view has been the total and utter disconnect between the literati and popular society. Such (counter) orientalist discourse has no real meaning to people. Nationalism, Marxism, Islamism are all ideological programs which have remarkable spectrums of intellectual commitment. For example, nationalism can take the form of racism, and fascism, but it can also take the form of romanticism, and as such cross-class consciousness and solidarity is able to form. Similarly, Marxism can appeal to the intellectual-bourgeoisie and the proletarian. In contrast to this, Saidian colonial/post-colonial theory is niche.

by Justin McIntosh, – Own work – WikiMedia Commons.

Before turning to presenting a non-relativist reading of Said, it is worth noting one final, pragmatic point. Namely, the relativistic-Saidism has been remarkably unsuccessful in reversing orientalism. Not only is there an absence of popular meaningful discussion of these points (many people don’t understand or are put off by its obscurantism and relativism), but also the result of its enthusiastic embracement, in academia and the wider liberal intelligentsia, has done almost nothing to change perceptions of the Orient(al). Still between the racist-right and the savior-left, the narratives of the Oriental savage (right) and the abject helpless subaltern (left-liberal), are common in that they are discourses of domination. Relativistic-orientalism has paralyzed the non-Western mind, whilst failing in any way to protect it from domination.

Towards a Substantive Saidism

There is no doubt that much of Said’s insights in Orientalism need to be preserved and deeply reflected upon. The text is rich and presents an invaluable point of departure for thinking about how the depiction of the Other functions in the power dynamics of domination. Moreover, his reading of this dynamic within the framework of the knowledge-power complex is enlightening and provides multiple avenues of thought. As described above, one of these avenues is a form of ‘resistance by dissolution,’ which is a critique of knowledge claims in order to reveal how they do not speak to the truth of a matter but rather are a form of domination. In this approach, the subject is dissolved (knowledge claims impinging upon a particular matter) and shown to be bogus. One cannot maintain the dominant discourse because it has been shown to be baseless and this is a form of resistance. This is the relativistic reading I have criticized above.

Another avenue of reading Said’s Orientalism, whilst rejecting relativism and maintaining his insights, is by thinking of the text as doing two things:

  1. The text is making us aware of the context within which knowledge is produced and how power influences knowledge claims.

This is important because knowledge is not produced in a vacuum and one should always be aware of who, and within what structure, knowledge claims are being made. I take this point to be one of a warning, or a caveat, but not the totality of interpretation. What is meant by this is that a text should be read whilst keeping in mind the relationship between power and knowledge. This is distinguished from the claim that knowledge is a product of power, and as such, knowledge claims are to be read within a spectrum of possible interpretation. It is certainly possible that a text was written with colonial intent (for example, much of the French anthropological work was done in order to organize the Franco-colonial domains), but it is also possible that a text was written by a curious mind. On this latter possibility, I believe that the translations cited above are very good examples of people fascinated with and honoring of what they read as great, civilizational, pieces of work.

2. The text encourages the reader to think independently.

 A thoroughly implicit motif in Orientalism is that one should think again, where one is invited to reflect and re-evaluate how a ‘truth’ has come to be known as true, and how knowledge is complicated by context. I use the term ‘reflect’ because this is not a claim of rejection: Said is to be read as inviting us to think deeper on artefacts. I also use the term ‘complicated’ because this is not a claim of determination: Said is showing how formative power can be, not that knowledge is determinately formed by the coerce of power.

These points concern factors and forces, which are all part of the nuanced approach that one must take when approaching sociological, anthropological, literary, and historical knowledge. With this approach, genealogical unravelling shows how complex a subject is, not that it is always and necessarily reductionist or essentialized.

“From a philosophical perspective, the implied relativism, which so many readers of Said’s Orientalism wholeheartedly took on, can be replaced with a reading that presents a substantive backbone that holds the text together.”

From a philosophical perspective, the implied relativism, which so many readers of Said’s Orientalism wholeheartedly took on, can be replaced with a reading that presents a substantive backbone that holds the text together. By substantive what is meant are affirmative claims to truth: that there is a stable subject and that this ‘subject’ (which I will define in terms of a human being) has normative demands. As I will argue, this substantiveness is a claim about human beings, and certain moral attitudes that are rightful to them.

Concerning the substantive claims, it must be admitted that readers of Orientalism, and of Foucault’s early texts (cited above), do seem to have good reason for reading the texts in relativistic notions. These texts certainly present themselves as quite militant statements to the effect of how determinate power is in terms of knowledge. The madman, the criminal, the Oriental, etc., just are constructed. It is meaningless to think about what madness is without some notion of rationality – and rationality is itself a contentious notion (what exactly is rational?); It is meaningless therefore to speak about the criminal, or of sexual pathologies, without notions of what is deemed normative (what lays beyond the acceptable? What is the boundaries of acceptability?). Likewise, it is meaningless to speak about the Oriental without some comparative reference (indeed, how can the Oriental be spoken of if there is no difference? … and difference itself is constructed). All of these points are valid and they are good reasons to think about knowledge as socially constructed rather than metaphysically real, or true, in some sense of the word.

However, what becomes clear is that there are normative commitments and standards with which both Foucault and Said build and critique power-knowledge structures. I believe it is uncontroversial to claim that both thinkers condemn various discourses (those mentioned above) and indeed push for emancipation. Here there is a negative claim, which is a moral judgement that is passed upon a knowledge assertion, and a positive claim, which is a moral proscription as to how things should/can be. The latter point is emancipative and implies moral progress, notions which are incompatible with relativistic readings of their respective texts. The voluminous commentary and writings on the political affairs of their time (hence, both must be considered academic-activists) is clear evidence for this. They were certainly not paralyzed by their own thought or relativism.

A Humanistic Universalism

As a point of departure to understanding how and why this substantive reading (one that is non-relativistic) is in tune with the intent of these thinkers, one need only to look at Said and Foucault’s more mature reflections on their seminal works. Without detailing these commentaries, it is clear that both thinkers explicitly recognize and work against, relativistic readings because they are able to see how such readings undermine meaningful resistance and progress. Said in particular identifies the problem of how claims of subjectivity, because they are in fact social constructs, preclude the possibility of meaningful knowledge being generated. Recall that the relativistic readings of knowledge-power assume that knowledge is the product of a power that dominates and subordinates a subject: whilst maintaining the correct observation concerning the interrelatedness of knowledge and power, non-relativistic readings can then propose that a mechanism of transferring power, or generating power, is to produce knowledge for oneself. This is to become empowered.

Here the possibility of the non-Western subjects speaking for themselves is put forth. ‘We’ are not subalterns, rather we are agents imbued with volitional possibilities. Speaking of ‘we’ in quotation marks highlights the complexity of who the subject of the discussion is: if there is a ‘we’ there may be a group excluded from this ‘we,’ or the ‘we’ may be referring to a more universal collective. It is within this context that the most substantive commitments of Said (and Foucault) become clear: the ‘we’ is a reference to human beings, where human being is spoken of in abstracto.

Many relativists will find the invocation of the term ‘human’ an anathema. Indeed, the term has been thoroughly critiqued for decades now by post-colonial, feminist and race theorists. However, in all these cases there is little to no acknowledgment that criticism of the notion of ‘human,’ as largely reification of a nineteenth century notion of a ‘white-rational-European-man,’ without offering a substantive replacement, destroys the possibility of critique itself. Saying, disparagingly, that the ‘human’ in human rights is basically this ‘white-rational-European-man,’ is not actually saying much unless one follows through with what one believes is the consequence of this. The statement can be made in terms of how every claim to ‘human’ is a construct that is a form of domination (relativistic), or in terms of how that particular claim of human is problematic. The latter claim is based upon the working assumption that there is such a thing as a human being; a notion that assumes there is commonality and fraternity among humankind.

This is an abstract notion. A notion that underpins the condemnation of particular types of discourse and actions. The construal of the non-European as irrational and liable to domination is immoral because the non-European is ultimately a human; subjugation of women, or racial claims of superiority, are all condemned in reference to a higher notion of humanas. However much the relativist seeks to dissolve this notion, as soon as the slightest moral or normative utterance is made they become hypocritical. In Said’s case (as well as in Foucault) the standard by which they are (implicitly) morally condemning is the notion of a Self (humanas in abstracto) that is free and rational. This makes them effectively Kantian.

In fact there is plenty of evidence for this type of thought, one where moral condemnation is made in accordance to a particular notion of truth. For instance, Said describes, and is clearly condemning, the response of Egyptians to the invasion of Napoleon: he speaks about them running to the mosques and offering prayers, in the belief that God would not allow such a thing as preposterous as the invasion of Egypt by non-Muslim armies to come to fruition. There are multiple layers to Said’s condemnation: the response was superstitious and inept. How would the relativist address this claim? Another example can be drawn from Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth where he quite explicitly condemns the explaining, and resistance to, colonialism via the invocation of spirits (jinn), and, even witchcraft and magic. He is forceful in telling the reader that these are not ways in which to understand the world. These examples also highlight the notion of moral progress, because they condemn certain types of discourse as false, and read colonialism/racism and other similar pehnomenon as terrible things from which people are to be emancipated. I have italicized ‘people’ because it carries with it the notion of the human which is substantive and universal.


It is my strong belief that knowledge production, based upon the substantive notions of the freedom and rationality of all peoples, is the appropriate way in which to interpret the spirit of Said and respond to the realities of domination (discursive and actual), that he so eloquently speaks about. Ironically, the scholars of Orientalism (in the relativistic trend) have defined the orient through the discourse of the West – in other words, they chose to study the ‘other’ by exposing the structures of knowledge-power viz. colonialism and yet, their approach precluded the study of the non-West as independent of this Western thought.

In closing I will offer some avenues by which positive contributions to this broad subject may take place. Firstly, the study of actual texts from these regions will be a great first step: to attempt to read and interpret hereunto unstudied manuscripts and other artefacts and thereby bring attention to them. Secondly, from the perspective of us here (writing in the Anglophone), embarking upon as much translation as possible is yet another much-needed initiative. Recently there has been a remarkable increase in translations of modern Arabic literature and this is a tremendous and exciting contribution. Unfortunately, the language community that I additionally belong to – Turkish – has failed to make available anywhere near enough literature in the English language. Thirdly, readers and commentators should do their best to recall and assert that the people from these regions are endowed with agency. One of the condemnations expressed by Said is the depiction of the non-European as passive and confined to abode of eternal suffering. Readers should hold, forthright in their minds, that these are people who have personalities and lives which are complex and creative. As humans, rationality and freedom are capacities, which are expressed (concretized) in multifarious and iridescent ways. This is as true for the ‘Oriental’ as it is for the rest of humankind.