TWENTY YEARS AGO, when I was studying for a degree in Chinese, I took several courses in Chinese history, culture and civilization, but few of them got much beyond a perusal of the Confucian classics, a smattering of poetry and a summary of dynastic events. Again and again the basic concepts of Confucaianism were presented as they existed in some timeless, essentialist paradise of Western scholarship, and even quite modern events were interpreted in the light of such Western concepts as "human-heartedness," "propriety" and so on-often with surprising results. The various regions and populations of China, not to mention its epochs, were unified and foreshortened. Often an actual, vibrant tradition-the Taoists' search for immortality, for instance, and their experiments with sex, herbs and necramancy-was ignored in favour of the presumably higher, "philosophical" Taosim, that is, a reading of the Tao Te Ching that made it sound like The Imitation of Christ. Modern developments, such as the ease and thoroughness with which the communists dispensed with ancestor worship, seemed inexplicable to us, convinced as we were that Confucianism was eternal and ubiquitous.
In Orientalism, Edward Said studies those kinds of blind spots-the vested interests and self-pertuating biases that have informed, or rather deformed, the study not of China but of the Near East. The book is a long indictment of French and English scholarship since 1800. According to Said, Orientalism (he has deliberately chosen the outmoded word, since he sees its maligan influence continuing even today in Arabic "area studies" conducted in America) began as a Christian hatred of Islam and grew as a concealed form of imperialism. Along the way the Arab world has also served the needs of European writers for an exotic realm of the imagination-a supine, "female" world that poets and novelists could subject to their wills.
Said contends that Orientalists have always written about the "Arab mind" as though there were a single, collective identity, uninflected by history, politics, nationality, economics or private destiny. Few scholars have concentrated on individual Arabs or granted them distinct personalities. As Said puts it, "An Oriental man was first and Oriental and only second a man." To a large extend, the current hatred and fear of Arabs, he feels, is a modified form of anti-semitism. Zionists and those Westerners who are irritated by rising oil prices have managed, he says, to transfer onto the Arabs and animosity once reserved for Jews Said writes: "For the Jew of Pre-Nazi Europe has bifurcated: what we have now is a Jewish hero ... and his creeping, mysteriously fearsome shadow, the Arab Oriental."
Underlaying all of Said's arguments are his convictions that history cannot be reduced to the notion of culture and that racial and ideological stereot ypes inevitably result in racism and dogmatism. More particularly, the myopia of Orientalism he ascribes to imperialism; The study of the Near East, he contends, has always paralleled and furthered Europe's territorial and economic ambitions. "My contention," Said writes, "its that Orientism is fundamentally a political doctrine willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the west, which elided the Orient's difference with its weakness."
Saidhs analysis of the wrongheadedness of Western scholarship is subtle and often acute. (His method has been drawn to some extent from Michel Foucault's The Archelogy of Knowledge). To Said, Orientalism is a fiction, a representation, a closed system, one that had developed according to its own rules. These rules have subdivided the experience of a whole region into neat categories convenient to scholarly classification-though not necessarily conducive to a better understanding of the subject. Worse, the "subject" has been treated as a passive topic to be probed, dissected and judged rather than as a living reality, complex and autonomous, that can be understood only through participation, collaboration, idendification. Worst of all, according to Said, is the Western impulse towards "essentialism," the belief, in this case, that every bit of data gains meaning only when attributed to an essence-that is, to the Orient," that ahistorical, multinational fiction.
I learned a great deal from Orientalism, and I admired its arudition and passion. I do, however, have many questions about it. Said often overargues his case, so fierce is his polemical rage. His attacks on the ethnocentrism of Western Orientalists become so heated that they begin to sound like radical epistemological arguments against our capacity to know anything at all. Certainly, it is hard to imagine a body of knowledge that could withstand his furious assault. Though Said names a few acceptable scholars at the end of his book, I doubt whether their work (or anyone's) could sneak past the cristicisms lodged at the beginning of the book. Said's position on Orientalism drifts from an initial critique of all systems of knowledge to specific complaints about the corruption and smugness of particular scholars. Sometimes Said sounds as though he regards "truth" as a fiction invented by positivists; if he is right, then Orientalism is just one more instance of a universal failure to achieve veracity. But at other times he sounds as though Orinetalists are simply guilty of bad scholarship, which could be improved (and be made truthful) if only they would reform their methods and expunge their false preconceptions.
Then, what he condemns scholars for (their subsuming individual Arabs to large generalizations about their "culture"), he Himself is guilty of, since he presents Western scholars as prisoners of their culture's misleading habits of mind. Said writes, "No scholar ... can resist the pressures on him of his nation of of the scholarly tradition in which he works." How does he reconcile such a statement with his earlier remark that he, unlike Foucault, believes "in the determining imprint of individual writers upon the otherwise anonymous collective body of texts constituting a discursive formation like Orientalism?" On the one hand, Said sees the scholar as the pawn of an overpowering tradition; on the other, he blames scholars for corrupting their discipline. (He writes, "I would not have undertaken a book of this sort if I did not also believe that there is a scholarship that is not as corrupt, or at least as blind to human reality, as the kind I have been mainly depicting"). Orientalism suffers from a methodological confusion, one senses, is Said's rage against the high-handed and ignorant ways in which Westerners have presented Arab populations. The setiment may be justified, but the overarguing it promotes seems confused.