November 3-5, 2005

Since its publication in 1978, Edward Said’s Orientalism has been translated into 36 languages. It has become a standard text in universities around the world, where it has reconfigured established fields like literary studies, history, anthropology, sociology, area studies, and art history. It is often credited with almost single-handedly inventing postcolonial studies. With such far-reaching influence, Orientalism has been lauded and attacked with equal vehemence, on both political and intellectual grounds. Yet its very scope has opened Said’s text to methodological critique, prompting critical thinking about issues of historical, political, and generic specificity that its approach does not address.

In Orientalism, Said turned the tools of philology on the great nineteenth-century philologists who, according to Said, made European imperialism not only palatable, but possible. Orientalism combined literary criticism with political analysis to claim often causal connections between knowledge and power, culture and history. By representing the Oriental as noncivilized Other, Said argued, Oriental Studies actually produced a subject who could be colonized. Critically, Said’s text argued that empire is central to European and American cultural and political history, and it insisted that one can understand this history only by crossing national and disciplinary boundaries.

This seminar will revisit Orientalism from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. We will ask questions about its methodology and its central aims, the context in which it was written, and the impact it has had both inside and outside of the academy. Do the twin phenomena of imperialism and Orientalism continue to provide a useful framework for understanding contemporary society and politics? Said contended that they do, using the central insights of Orientalism to analyze the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the American war with Iraq. But can the same concept effectively explain vastly different historical and political situations? Furthermore, what would it mean to take seriously the causal relationship Said claimed between representation and political reality? Are there ways we might want to refine or refigure this relationship; or, how might we understand its implications?

In his 1978 introduction, Said regretted that Orientalism did not move beyond diagnosis to explore “how one can study other cultures and peoples from a libertarian, or a nonrepressive and nonmanipulative, perspective.” Nearly 30 years later, the seminar will ask whether Said did in fact help to develop alternative perspectives or methods, considering, for example, his commitment to a mode of interpretation that he called “secular humanist philology.” Does Said’s work offer tools that can help us to represent—and thus, as Said would have it, to create—history not as an interminable conflict between personified abstractions, between Islam and the West, but as a product of human beings living in the interconnected, multicultural world that imperialism helped to produce?

Speakers will include: Orit Bashkin (Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations), James Hevia (International Studies Program), W.J.T. Mitchell (English), Lisa Wedeen (Political Science), Malika Zeghal (Divinity School).


  • Edward W. Said “Preface to the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition”. In Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 2003) xv-xxx. [Download]
    • Said considers both the historical and intellectual context in which his text was first written, and the continuing relevance of its central concepts.
  • Robert J. C. Young “Edward Said and Colonial Discourse” In Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001) 383-94. [Download]
    • A general introduction to Said’s contribution to postcolonial studies, which argues that Said introduced the crucial—if theoretically problematic—idea that colonialism operates not only as a form of military rule but also as a kind of discourse.
  • In Edward Said: Continuing The Conversation ed. Homi Bhabha and W. J. T. Mitchell (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005) 68-79, 99-108, 109-126.
    • Harry Harootunian “Conjectural Traces: Said’s ‘Inventory’” [Download]
    • W. J. T. Mitchell “Secular Divination: Edward Said’s Humanism” [Download]
    • Aamir R. Mufti “Global Comparativisim” [Download]
      • Each of these short essays revisits Said’s work in order to assess its importance for current political and intellectual practice. Hartoonian focuses on the relationship Orientalism imagines between politics and culture. Mitchell considers the significance and the limitations of Said’s ongoing commitment to humanism and Viconian secularism. Mufti addresses the charge that Said’s work is marked by the same Eurocentrism that Orientalism intends to critique.

Supplementary Bibliography



Israel and Palestine

  • Ben-Yehuda, Nachman. “The Dominance of the External: Israeli Sociology.” Contemporary Sociology 26.3 (1997): 271-75. Link
  • Pappe, Ilan. “Post-Zionist Critique on Israel and the Palestinians Part I: The Academic Debate.” Journal of Palestine Studies 26.2 (1997): 29-41.Link
  • ---. Post-Zionist Critique on Israel and the Palestinians Part II: The Media.” Journal of Palestine Studies 26.3 (1997): 37-43. Link
  • Ram, Uri. “Postnationalist Pasts: The Case of Israel.” Special Issue: Memory and the Nation. Social Science History 22.4 (1998): 513-45. Link
  • Shapira, Anita. “The Failure of Israel’s ‘New Historians to Explain War and Peace—The Past is Not a Foreign Country.” Link
  • Shenhav, Yehouda. “The Jews of Iraq, Zionist Ideology, and the Property of the Palestinian Refuges of 1948: An Anomaly of National Accounting. International Journal of Middle East Studies 31.4 (1999): 605-30. Link