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Edward Said’s Orientalism – 40 years after

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I would like to believe that Orientalism has had a place in the long and often interrupted road to human freedom.” (Edward W. Said, May 2003)

On the 10th-12th of December 2018, the Academic Cooperation office of the Rosa-Luxemburg Foundation in Tunis, the University Tunis El Manar and the philosophical laboratory of the University of Tunis held an international symposium  focusing on Edward Said’s 1978 work Orientalism and its present-day implications. Called “Edward Said’s Orientalism – 40 years later”, the symposium was attended by an interested, diverse and interdisciplinary audience and assisted by translators who connected the three languages of Arabic, French, and English. Participants heard a number of different presentations and discussions, all directly or indirectly referring to Said’s approach of Orientalism.

Edward W. Said (1935-2003) was a Palestinian-American literary theorist and critic  whose work Orientalism (1978) is considered one of the most important non-fiction books of world literature. Said studied at Princeton University, Harvard University and taught comparative literary studies at Columbia University New York.

In his work Orientalism Said analyzed the intertwining of knowledge and power in sciences, society, politics and finally in the individual itself, following Foucault’s notion of discourse analysis (l’Orde du discours 1970).

Said’s critical discourse analysis surveyed a text corpus of French and British scientists with a scientific focus on the “Orient”, the “Arabic culture” and the “Arabic mentality”. In Said’s understanding, Orientalism is a way of thinking and a dominant system of knowledge in “western” sciences. This orientalist thinking and the emerging orientalist system of knowledge are constituted by racist and dogmatical processes of stereotyping and othering the so called “Orient”.

These processes produce colonial, oppressive and imperialist dynamics, structures and institutionalizations of the “West” over the “Orient” and are simultaneously products of the latter. And yet the dichotomous and simple splitting in “West” and “Orient” must be criticized per se. It is for good reason that Said’s work is considered a foundational document for Postcolonial Studies and is often cited in postcolonial teaching, research and critique.

During the December 2018 symposium in Tunis, it became clear that forty years after its publication, Orientalism continues to endure, change and take new shapes. Even today, persistent cultural, linguistic, and academic hegemonies are based on racist assumptions, and contribute to a feeling of Western intellectual and mental superiority, which further entrenches the hegemony of Eurocentric perspectives and marginalizes the “other”.

The symposium offered a critical, academic and transcultural dialogue, focused on the meaning of the Orientalism approach.  It encouraged participants to explore how they, as academics or non-academics with different backgrounds and with different social and personal privileges, deal with the results and structures of multiple orientalist discourses and realities, and to relate these experiences to their knowledge about Said’s Orientalism and Said’s Culture & Imperialism (1993). The symposium also shed light on the personal, intellectual, and academic responsibilities of activists who commit to advancing a world of social justice, to uncovering and dismantling orientalist and racist discourses, and to encouraging global, critical perspectives.

The symposium featured seven panels and two plenary sessions with longer presentations, which all differed significantly in subject matter. However, the theme of secular humanism, an ideal championed by Said himself, was found throughout the symposium, with different speakers exploring the complexity of this topic and its connection to democratization. Two of the seven panels were  dedicated to doctoral researchers who presented their recent projects in the fields  of history of ideas, literary science, methods of discourse analysis, and pedagogical science.

The presentations of the participants referred to globalization, capitalist-neoliberal structures, gender and queer theoretical criticism about Said’s work and perspective, Occidentalism, Intraorientalism, and the question of a Postorientalism. And yet, the splitting of “West” and “Orient” was highly criticized as the participants oftentimes appealed to “think beyond the dichotomy”. Participants also dealt with literary questions about Late Style in Said’s work, the concepts of Counterpoint and Coexistence. Among others, the works of Gayatri C. Spivak, Michel Foucault, Antonio Gramsci, Karl Marx, Theodor W. Adorno and Frantz Fanon played significant roles in the symposium.

Attendees also benefitted from presentations about Islamic history, critiques of methods of historical science, and a scientific perspective on Islamic philosophy and spirituality linked to research about “western” philosophy. Concepts such as Cultural Hybridity, Language, Identity and Multiversalism were also discussed, in addition to debates about Critics of Ideology, Religion and Ambiguities. Throughout the symposium, the role of the intellectual reflections about one’s own positionality was emphasized for its importance. New, old and reproduced forms and narratives of Orientalism on the internet and in sciences were analyzed and discussed. Even the topic of history and representation- and a so called (re-)writing of history, were a matter of interest for the audience and the participants.

The symposium “Edward Said’s Orientalism – 40 years later” stood out thanks to its multilingual and interdisciplinary structure, its diverse and critical discussions, its high level of participation and its high academic and intellectual standard. All this showcases the meaningful, critical and productive work of our cooperation with public Tunisian universities and institutes.