Critical Inquiry 15 (2):205-225 (1989)

At this point I should say something about one of the frequent criticisms addressed to me, and to which I have always wanted to respond, that in the process of characterizing the production of Europe’s inferior Others, my work is only negative polemic which does not advance a new epistemological approach or method, and expresses only desperation at the possibility of ever dealing seriously with other cultures. These criticisms are related to the matters I’ve been discussing so far, and while I have no desire to unleash a point-by-point refutation of my critics, I do want to respond in a way that is intellectually pertinent to the topic at hand.What I took myself to be undertaking in Orientalism was an adversarial critique not only of the field’s perspective and political economy, but also of the sociocultural situation that makes its discourse both so possible and so sustainable. Epistemologies, discourses, and methods like Orientalism are scarcely worth the name if they are reductively characterized as objects like shoes, patched when worn out, discarded and replaced with new objects when old and unfixable. The archival dignity, institutional authority, and patriarchal longevity of Orientalism should be taken seriously because in the aggregate these traits function as a worldview with considerable political force not easily brushed away as so much epistemology. Thus Orientalism in my view is a structure erected in the thick of an imperial contest whose dominant wing it represented and elaborated not only as scholarship but as a partisan ideology. Yet Orientalism hid the contest beneath its scholarly and aesthetic idioms. These things are what I was trying to show, in addition to arguing that there is no discipline, no structure of knowledge, no institution or epistemology that can or has ever stood free of the various sociocultural, historical, and political formations that give epochs their peculiar individuality. Edward W. Said is Parr Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. His most recent contribution to Critical Inquiry is “An Ideology of Difference”
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