THE EDUCATION OF EDWARD SAID
‘What do you think of Edward Said?’ Like anyone writing on the Middle East—or other subjects—I have learnt that this is never an innocent question, but is always taken as a litmus test for a whole range of political and intellectual issues. The tone of voice often indicates the answer required. You are expected to have a strong position on ‘Edward Said’. Yet the implied status of intellectual hero or bête noir is relatively recent. Orientalism, published in 1978, was not widely read for some years afterwards; and though now often treated by admirers and critics alike as a key text for our times, was not particularly well received on the Left. This journal did not even review it. Ironically, one might argue that the vitriolic attacks on it by critics like Bernard Lewis actually helped to draw attention to what was at stake in it, and make the book the phenomenon it became. For the Left, Orientalism was certainly not a historical materialist work: it bore no relation to the kinds of political economy dominant in the late 1970s. Terms such as ‘discourse’ and ‘representation’ aroused only suspicion—so, too, did the stance of a literary critic. When he was read at all, Said was often taxed with an ‘orientalism in reverse’, just as essentialist as the tradition he was criticizing. Students—who now sometimes have to be bullied to study Orientalism critically, rather than glibly using the term as a shorthand for ‘all the things we know we’re supposed to be against’—at that time found it difficult to understand.
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