Episode 1 :  Back to the roots: a Foucauldian method and a Saidien scrutiny  

Article de Sarra Riahi

Today’s focus

Welcome to the first episode of “Started with Said now we’re here”. Today our purpose is twofold: On the one hand we aim at taking a closer look at the circumstances surrounding the birth of Said’s Orientalism (1978). On the other hand, we  strive to cast light on the methodology at work in this Saidien study. 

A particular political context 

Orientalism was firstly published in 1978, when “communism was still a viable political option and for radical social scientists Marxism was still available as a vibrant and possible tradition in the universities” (Turner, 2003). This context spurred a new radicalism among Third-World scholars. Edward W. Said is part of this new generation of scholars whose works pay attention to the legacies of colonialism in the study of literature and society. 

The birth of Postcolonial studies 

Here, I consider it appropriate to recall Krishna’s introductory definition of postcolonialism as “the perspective or worldview of those who believe that it is possible to understand today’s world only by foregrounding the history of colonialism defined in a very preliminary way as the domination of certain societies and peoples by others— over the past five centuries”.  (2008). It is in this very academic context that Said’s Orientalism was published. Said, Palestinian American, was originally from mandatory Palestine and in his own words “traversed the imperial divide West-East”. It is in this perspective that his work ought to be understood as related to a process of crossing rather than maintaining divides and boundaries. 

A Foucauldian methodology 

 In his critique, Said pays attention to discourse as he argues that without such a notion, one can not grasp the highly “systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage—and even produce—the Orient … during the post-Enlightenment period”. As defined by Foucault, a discourse is any utterance, act, or speech which produces subjects, and is to be understood from an ideal subject position. Hence, truths are historically located within a certain context which structures the discursive space and determines what can be intelligibly thought and said. Discourses are created through the practices of power/knowledge relationships. Power and knowledge are intertwined: knowledge is always an exercise of power, and power always a function of knowledge (Hall, 2013). Said’s emphasis on discourse allows to dismantle the a priori neutral, academic objectivity with which the Orient is often apprehended and depicted. 

Orientalism: a peculiar discourse 

The orientalist discourse is not a direct relationship to political power. Rather, it is produced in and maintained in an “uneven exchange with power political, power intellectual; and cultural” (2003). It is the case that a discourse such as Orientalism dominates the discursive space, hence we shall talk about a case of discourse hegemony. In addition, Orientalism’s discursive processes can be reflected in institutional practices, we shall talk in terms of discourse institutionalization. Both the hegemonic and institutional character of Orientalism are clearly accounted for as civilizing and democratizing missions both within and without Western liberal democracies come to be legitimized and often not so much questioned in themselves within the discursive/media space. Orientalist tropes are indeed ‘common-sense’ knowledge. As a matter of fact, in Said’s view, Orientalism is a large extent of our modern political and intellectual culture. 

Next on Revue Hawa

Against this background, the next episode will dive into Said’s critique and explore the making of the Oriental other as well as orientalism as a will to understand, control, manipulate, sometimes to dominate or incorporate what is, in Said’s terms, a “manifestly different world”. Enjoy x.

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