Bernard E. Harcourt | Introduction to Critique 11/13 on Edward Said’s Orientalism

By Bernard E. Harcourt


“Foucault’s greatest intellectual contribution is to an understanding of how the appetite for or will to exercise dominant control in society and history has also discovered a way to clothe, disguise, rarefy, and wrap itself systematically in the language of truth, discipline, rationality, utilitarian value, and knowledge…. [But Foucault] seems unaware of the extent to which the ideas of discourse and discipline are assertively European and how, along with the use of discipline to employ masses of detail (and of human beings), discipline was used also to administer, study, reconstruct—and then subsequently to occupy, rule, and exploit—almost the whole of the non-European world. This dimension is wholly absent from Foucault’s work even though his work helps one to understand it; since it strikes me as being a definitive part of modern history, some account of this European hegemony over the world needs to be taken.”

— Edward W. Said, “The Problem of Textuality,” Critical Inquiry (1978).[1]


“Edward Said’s canonical texts—Orientalism (1978), After the Last Sky (1986), Culture and Imperialism (1993)—chart the worldly course of colonial and postcolonial discourses of stereotype, ‘otherness,’ and foreignness as they are established in the imaginative and institutional archives of Empire. Said’s critical power lies in revealing strategies of affiliation through which the abject ‘subject’—be it a person, a group, or a body of texts—can encounter the freedom of agency and interpretation, thereby fulfilling the mission of secular humanism.”

— Homi K. Bhabha on Edward Said, “Untimely Ends,” Artforum (2004).[2]


In many ways, Edward Said’s words remain today as vital and vibrant as they were when written in 1978. His book published that same year, Orientalism, offers a timeless historical analysis of the way in which the scholars, writers, and specialists of the Orient created an imaginary of the Oriental, and later the Arab, which served to help shape their own identity as Europeans, to justify their imperial conquests, and to help them control and dominate the colonies. Said’s writings analyze the way that knowledge operates as a cultural tool and a political weapon. Knowledge, Said argued, has material effects of reality: It shapes the conception of self and of the other—and it does so through a back-and-forth, a mutually constitutive act, that constructs an idea of the other as it shapes a conception of the self.

European culture thrived on the epistemological construction of the Orient. In Said’s words, “European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self.”[3] Building on but simultaneously against Nietzsche’s view of truth as illusions and Foucault’s theory of knowledge-power, Said crafted a sharp critique of the West—and of Western critical theory—as dependent on this recurring othering of Orientals and Arabs. “Truths are illusions that we have forgotten are illusions”: these famous words may sound too nihilistic to some, Said emphasized, but those words of Nietzsche “draw attention to the fact that so far as it existed in the West’s awareness, the Orient was a word which later accrued to it a wide field of meanings, associations, and connotations, and that these did not necessarily refer to the real Orient but to the field surrounding the word.”[4]

Yes, indeed, that was true of the Orient for Europeans especially. And tragically, it is equally true today for the construction of the category of “Muslims” for many Americans.

One can hardly imagine, in our current political climate in the United States, a timelier critical intervention than Said’s writings on orientalism as a way to capture the demonization of Muslims today—as well as Latinos and immigrants—as a vehicle to produce an imaginary American identity. When a Republican presidential candidate, later president of the United States, declares that “Islam hates us” and that “we have a problem in this country; it’s called Muslims,” we are right back, smack in the middle of Said’s writings on orientalism.

So much so, in fact, that in this seminar series dedicated to actualizing and deploying critical texts, it is almost as if Said’s writings on orientalism are too fresh to need rejuvenation. We might simply want to refresh the title to update what sounds to younger generations today like antiquated term—Orientals and the Orientalists.

Said presciently foresaw how the “Arab Muslim” would become a key trope in American culture, government, and public policy.[5] Muslims, Said predicted, would be viewed more and more as increasingly menacing, bloodthirsty, and dishonest in our new geopolitical configuration.[6] It is almost as if Said foresaw, writing in 1978, the tragic aftermath of 9/11. It is almost as if he prophesied our new counterinsurgency warfare paradigm of governing built on the fabrication, from whole cloth, of internal enemies—what I call The Counterrevolution.

To be sure, Said’s book Orientalism provoked criticism. Some historians challenged the implications of his work on how to understand the well-intentioned and painstaking labor of many erudite and truth-seeking Orientalist scholars. Others accused Said of a form of “Occidentalism.” But those controversies are of little interest today—at least, of little interest to us in this seminar series on critical methods.

Our ambition in this seminar is to return to critical texts in order to rethink our present political struggles. And so, since Said’s epistemological project remains as vital and vibrant as when it was written, and since those minor criticisms are of little interest, then how shall we deploy this remarkable work and where shall we direct our conversation?

Let me propose that we reflect on praxis.

Orientalism itself ended not so much on praxis, as with epistemology. “If this book has any future use,” Said concluded in 1978, “it will be as a modest contribution to th[e] challenge [to the worldwide hegemony of Orientalism], and as a warning: that systems of thought like Orientalism, discourses of power, ideological fictions—mind-forg’d manacles—are all too easily made, applied, and guarded…. If the knowledge of Orientalism has any meaning, it is in being a reminder of the seductive degradation of knowledge, of any knowledge, anywhere, at any time. Now perhaps more than before.”[7] Now perhaps more than ever, one might say today.

But what does one do, exactly, with that knowledge? To be sure, the critical unveiling is itself a form of praxis, but it must also serve as a prolegomenon to praxis. How can we deploy or rethink today, for our contemporary political struggles, the many insights that we discover in Said’s writings?

This is where Said’s later writings and engagements come into play—later writings like After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives (1999, with photographs by Jean Mohr), or Out of Place: A Memoir (1999), that offer a politics and ethics of migration, hybridity, and exile. Of being, in the words of his memoir, “out of place” wherever he found himself, unable and perhaps unwilling to integrate or compromise, an outsider looking in, remembering things past.

“We Palestinians,” Said wrote in After the Last Sky, “We are migrants and perhaps hybrids in, but not of, any situation in which we find ourselves. This is the deepest continuity of our lives as a nation in exile and constantly on the move.”[8] But that movement, Said emphasized, “need not always be either flight or exile.”[9] No, it may also capture something very different, and more uplifting. A sign of success at times. A reflection of the fact that, as Said wrote:

To be a Palestinian often entails mastery without domination, pleasure without injury to others.[10]

In several important essays, Homi Bhabha has engaged Said’s work, especially his later works, to think through and propose different political visions to fulfill, in his words, “the mission of secular humanism.”[11]

In an essay, “Untimely Ends,” published in 2004, Bhabha drew from Said’s writings a hopeful political paradigm, which he coined a “politics of the untimely”: it is an approach to political struggle—to the decades-long struggles of the Palestinian people—that is grounded on mutual coexistence and cohabitation, and imagines inescapably a future of collaboration. This is, Bhabha writes, “the enduring hope for a politics of proximity in a current situation in which only polarization and alienation seem possible.”[12] Quoting Said’s My Right of Return, Bhabha notes:

It is this kind of poetic and pragmatic thinking that, at its best, is invested in the aspirational ideal of Israel-Palestine as a binational state. Said’s prefiguration of a shadowed, dual citizenship would see “sovereignty as a step toward a more generous idea of coexistence, of being-in-the-world … [so that] the better option would be to say that sovereignty should gradually give way to something that is more open and more livable.”[13]

Elsewhere, in “Adagio,” Bhabha identifies another strand of resistance, which he associates with what he calls humanist slow critique. “In an earlier discussion of resistance,” Bhabha writes, “Said inveighs against the media culture of headlines, sound bites, and telegraphic forms whose rapidity renders the world one-dimensional and homogeneous. Humanist critique must oppose such eye-catching, mind-numbing institutions of instantaneity and adopt narrative forms that are longer and slower, ‘longer essays, longer periods of reflection.’”[14]

What then are the possibilities for a politics grounded in slow critique, or exile, or the untimely, or “mastery without domination”? How can we draw on Edward Said’s writings to reflect on praxis more generally, in these times, for our political struggles?

Those are the questions we will address at Critique 11/13: beyond the epistemological project, beyond the minor criticisms of Said’s work, what are the strands in Said’s writings that we can draw on to develop a new praxis for these critical times?

To explore these questions, we are delighted to welcome Homi K. Bhabha, a dear friend and colleague to the 13/13 series and one of the world’s leading critical thinkers. The Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University, Homi Bhabha is the author of numerous works exploring colonial and postcolonial theory, cultural change and power, and cosmopolitanism, including Nation and Narration and The Location of Culture, which was reprinted as a Routledge Classic in 2004. We are delighted to be joined at Critique 11/13 by Homi Bhabha.

This session on Said presents a great risk though—more so than any other previous session (except perhaps when Étienne Balibar spoke of Louis Althusser): The risk that the remarkable man, the person, and the living memory of Edward Said, a colleague here at Columbia, someone who so many knew and continue to speak of in such personal voices, that he might overshadow the critical texts and ideas themselves.

So let me emphasize, as I have done before, that we are not here to discuss the man, Edward Said, but his texts, his written traces, his words. In the same way in which I argued earlier that there is no such thing as “Nietzsche,” nor “Foucault,” but that there are only fragments, books, aphorisms, essays—many of which contradict each other—I would like to maintain and emphasize, with the greatest respect for a remarkable man, that we are here to discuss and deploy critical ideas that we find in these critical texts.

I say this without the slightest possible disrespect—as I hope you understand. The question we address is how to actualize and deploy the ideas in Orientalism, in After the Last Sky, in Out of Place, today, in our political struggles, for our political projects. To be honest, that is what I think is the greatest tribute to an author—as it is to an author who was a friend, a parent, a colleague to many here at Columbia.[15] So please join me in entering, once again, the space of praxis.


[1] Edward W. Said, “The Problem of Textuality: Two Exemplary Positions,” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Summer, 1978), pp. 673-714, at p. 705, 711.

[2] Homi K. Bhabha, “Untimely Ends,” Artforum International, Vol. 42, Issue 6 (Feb. 2004): 19-20, 170, at *4.

[3] Said, Orientalism, p. 3.

[4] Said, Orientalism, p. 203.

[5] Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1978), pp. 284-285.

[6] Said, Orientalism, p. 285, 286.

[7] Said, Orientalism, p. 328.

[8] Edward W. Said, After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), p. 164.

[9] Said, After the Sky, p. 165.

[10] Said, After the Sky, p. 165.

[11] Bhabha, “Untimely Ends,” at *4.

[12] Bhabha, “Untimely Ends,” at *3.

[13] Bhabha, “Untimely Ends,” at *3-4.

[14] Homi Bhabha, “Adagio,” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 31 (Winter 2005): 371-380, at p. 375 (quoting Edward Said, Humanism and Democratic Criticism(New York, 2004), at p. 73).

[15] I should emphasize that I arrived at Columbia in 2013, and therefore myself was never a colleague of Edward Said.