Keith Windschuttle & Edward Said: The Devil’s in the Detail?

Keith Windschuttle’s essay ‘Edward Said’s Orientalism Revisited’ (Quadrant Magazine, Jan-Feb 2000), suggests that Edward Said’s Orientalism has three claims.

One of the claims is that: ‘… Although it purported to be an objective, disinterested and rather esoteric field, Orientalism functioned to serve political ends. (p.22).

Secondly, ‘… Orientalism helped define Europe’s own self image.’ (ibid.)

Thirdly, ‘Orientalism has produced a false description of Arabs and Islamic culture.’ (ibid.)

Windschuttle is critical of Said’s Orientalism; for my part, I would like to take a largely ambivalent stance.

I am aware, of course, that Windschuttle is a deeply controversial historian of Australian history. My intention here is not to treat him as an ‘authority,’ or even (pace Carl Sagan) to adjudicate his status as an expert on history and on historiography. I will say, however, that Windschuttle’s three claims are broadly in line with my understanding of Said’s book ‘Orientalism;’ albeit, with some caveats.

Firstly, while Orientalism does emphasize the role of Orientalist scholarship in power games, Said’s text does not read to me as a malignant conspiracy theory (nor, of course, do I suggest that Windschuttle intends to imply such in the essay I am discussing). The emphasis appears to be on structural matters, and not purely on personal motivation alone; if at all!

Secondly, as regards the second claim, I don’t think the most charitable version of Orientalism is one which takes the text as implying that only Westerner idealize or demonize an ‘Other’ as one’s own inverted mirror image; such representations being merely an Occidental abuse of discourse and of power. Rather, Said’s focus is on Orientalism, which is a vast enough area in itself; but that does not necessarily say much about what others do. To find analogue to such idealistic strategies of representation Said is discussing here is not difficult; there are numerous examples in the world of today, and indeed of the past and of the future!

Thirdly, I think the reference to ‘false’ representation of Arabs and Islamic culture is half correct. To me, Said’s emphasis seems not so much to suggest that Orientalism is mainly flat-out wrong in a black or white, either-or sense.

Of course, this is not to say that Said is in denial about the possibility that Orientalist scholars may indeed have made clear-cut factual errors. Rather,  I believe that Said does not conclusively decide between factual errors and more grey areas of interpretation. For me, Said’s book really does present its work of interpretation as an interpretation and not as C S Lewis’ proverbial ‘high truth itself.’ But this, of course, is not to say that for Said, anything goes, and a rhetorical arms race (a true and authentic race to the bottom, if ever there were such!) is at issue here.

To everyone who is highly critical of Said’s text, I recommend reading it again with fresh eyes.

And to those who are either cautiously or even naively supportive of its core tenets (or if you prefer, of its purported core tenets), I also recommend a further exploration.

Whatever the merits and demerits of Said’s book, and of Said as a person, I believe it is difficult to be one-sidedly for and against his book Orientalism, and indeed of postcolonial discourse more broadly. There is much to be criticized in the field, but also much to be welcomed. As a final year PhD candidate in Chinese Studies at King’s College London, I am not at all favorable towards uncritical praise or uncritical criticism of postcolonialism, Said, Orientalism, or indeed Said’s corpus in a broader sense.

And more: what common ground might Said be said to share with his antagonists, whether those of his own lifetime, or later writers? If Bernard Lewis, Ibn Warraq, and so many other thinkers are able to conduct semantically meaningful critique of Said, then perhaps there are enough common premises to lead serious thinkers to beware of a dichotomy between The Good Guys and The Bad Guys? Are there only two sides, after all?

Plenty of food for thought…

About the Author
Jonathan Ferguson is a Chinese graduate of the University of Leeds (BA, MA) and King's College London (PhD). He has written on a range of publications including Times of Israel, Being Libertarian and Secular World Magazine. He is a strong believer in individual liberty, individual justice and individual equality before the law. He stands with Israel, with the girls of Revolution Street and of course, with anyone who takes the courage to prefer the David Gilmour and Phil Collins eras to the pretentious artsy-fartsy dark ages of 80s rock... in the face of the all-too-predictable vitriol that is hurled at us!