Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia

012 298 5577

Shamsul Amri Baharuddin
THE passing of Edward Said last week is a great loss not only to the independent-minded global fraternity and those interested in orientalism as a field of study, but also by students of occidentalism, a subject that investigates the internal workings of Western civilisation.
He was, of course, famous for his magnum opus, Orientalism (1978), a book that changed the face of critical theory and shaped the emerging field of post-colonial studies.
Said was also noted for his controversial journalism on the Palestinian political situation.
What most of us forget and rarely mention is that his orientalism was the result of his deep understanding of the Occident and the complex nature of occidentalism, because he himself, as a student of Western languages and institutions, was an occidentalist par excellence.
His enormous contribution is therefore celebrated simultaneously by those interested in orientalism and occidentalism.
Said had established himself as an undisputed world-class cultural theorist in two areas: his foundational place in a growing school of post-colonial studies, through his Orientalism; and his insistence on the importance of "worldliness" or material contexts of text and the critic.
No other cultural critic has revealed so powerfully how "down to earth" theory really is, for theory comes into being in some place, for a particular reason, and with a particular history. This is no truer than Said's own theory.
In the field of identity studies, Said made a lasting impact too.
His identity as a Palestinian was extremely paradoxical and he was able, through his own experience, to demonstrate to us as to how paradoxical and constructed all identity is, particularly that of people scattered throughout the world away from their homelands.
Said's paradox of identity was indicative of the complex identities of diasporic and post-colonial peoples throughout the world today.
His book, titled Culture and Imperialism (1993), provides us with two significant ideas towards a more informed and involved understanding of the relationship between culture and imperialism.
Firstly, it is about "culture as the instrument of imperialism". He argued that we cannot really understand the power and the pervasiveness of imperialism until we understand the importance of culture.
Culture is the power which changes a colonised people's view of world without the coloniser needing to resort to full-fledged military control.
What, for instance, had enabled the British in India to rule a society of hundreds of millions with no more than 100,000 people?
It is culture that provides the kind of moral power, namely, the pursuit of a civilising mission organised in a most systematic manner, not a simple greed of loot and leave, which enabled the British to become the undisputed ruler of India for nearly two centuries.
Secondly, just as important as the need to develop a way of reading and understanding the imperialist cultural project, is the need for the colonised and formerly colonised to develop an effective response, a kind of resistance to imperialism.
Said is adamant that adopting "the politics of blame" approach, including condemning and rejecting the coloniser and blaming the colonised/victims, as a strategy of resistance, is backward-looking and self-defeating.
Instead, he suggests that post-colonial peoples may resist most effectively by engaging the dominant culture, by embarking on "a voyage in" through a variety of hybrid cultural works, which counters dominant culture without simplistically rejecting it.
This includes directly studying first-hand the Occident and its culture and civilisation.
If Orientalism provides a detailed account of how the dominant culture of the Occident operates, Culture and Imperialism examines the historical experience of resistance against imperialism that had spread throughout the various European empires.
Written into the narrative of the latter is a strategy of resistance which Said calls "a voyage in".
With these powerful contributions that changed forever the global "knowledgescape" of Orientalism and Occidentalism, it was no great surprise that, in 1999, the New York Times, in its summary of the century's achievements, declared Said to be "one of the most important literary critics alive".
Clearly, Said had crossed the apparent divide between academic scholarship and public recognition.
The New York Times accolade reflects his impact on the contemporary cultural terrain, but it also demonstrates how relevant the concept of "worldliness" has become to our consideration of creative and intellectual work.
Said's influence can be discerned in virtually all disciplines of the humanities and social sciences and well beyond.
In particular, the term orientalism is now linked inextricably to his work.A quarter of century after its publication in 1978, Orientalism remains an important, albeit much debated book. So, too, is his Culture and Imperialism which was published in 1993.
Said had emerged as a controversial figure who was both revered and reviled, but could not be ignored.
The impact of his work on scholars the world over had resulted in the proliferation of academic articles and books published since Orientalism.
The methodology of Orientalism has been appropriated by various authors who have deployed it in various geographical locations, in many different contexts of cultural relations and power struggles.
Motivated and inspired by Said, Western accounts of representation have been challenged in such disparate works as V.Y. Mudimbe's The Invention of Africa (1988), Zawiah Yahya's Resisting Colonialist Discourse (1994), Reina Lewis's Gendering Orientalism (1995), Mary Quilty's Textual Empires (1998), Sankaran Krishna's Post-colonial Insecurities: India, Sri Lanka and the Question of Nationhood (1999) and Ronald Inden's Imagining India (2000).
We must not ignore the fact that Said had a whole troop of detractors too.For example, Said was labelled by Edward Alexander as a "Professor of Terror" in his essay published in Commentary (No.88,1989), an American right-wing journal.
More recently, an Australian right-wing magazine called Quadrant (January 2000) published an essay that denounced Orientalism more than two decades after it was published.
The author, Keith Windschuttle, an Aussie academic historian, was clearly bothered that Said has had such as tremendous impact on the curators and patrons of an exhibition themed Orientalism and Works of Art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1998.
Windschuttle noted that the catalogue of the exhibition was full of quotations from Said's Orientalism.
As a result, the people who came to see the exhibition were queuing up at the Art Gallery's bookshop, each trying to obtain a copy of the prominently-displayed recently-revised Penguin's edition of Said's celebrated book Orientalism (1995).
That Said's work has penetrated the inner sanctum of the occidental's cultural institutions was, for Windschuttle, "unacceptable" and "threatening".
In other words, Windschuttle's criticism revealed that Said's Orientalism is as much about orientalism as it is about the Occident, occidentals and occidentalism.
Thus Said is an occidentalist par excellence, indeed, its best critic ever to grace Planet Earth.
It is a rather fateful coincidence that in the wake of his passing that an Institute of Occidental Studies (Institut Kajian Oksidental or Ikon) is being established at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
Is Ikon going to be a vehicle for that "voyage in" that Said proposed? That, we all have to wait and see!
Perhaps Ikon's first professorial chair should be named after Said, namely, "Edward Said Chair of Occidental Studies", with the expressed aim and focus of studying the Occident using Said's methodology thus keeping his contribution alive long after he has gone.
It is definitely a befitting intellectual gesture and a most appropriate way to honour and remember eternally the man and his knowledge-conquering and knowledge-renouncing work.
* Shamsul Amri Baharuddin is a professor of social anthropology and, currently, the director of both The Institute of the Malay World and Civilisation and the newly-established Institute of Occidental Studies at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

Blog Archive


About Me

My photo
Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia