Literature Study GuidesOrientalismEpigraph And Preface Summary

Orientalism | Study Guide

Edward W. Said

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Orientalism | Epigraph and Preface | Summary



Written in 2003, Said's Preface to the 25th-anniversary edition of Orientalism speaks to the political context of the text since its initial publication. He notes that since the initial publication, the political situation in the Middle East and U.S. involvement in Middle Eastern affairs have changed drastically. He emphasizes that the book is still very much "tied to the tumultuous dynamics of contemporary history." This is exemplified by the degree of political instability still seen in the Middle East at the time. He claims the mindset of Americans has changed little since the initial publication of Orientalism and argues that, in fact, the United States has likely become more diametrically opposed to viewing the Middle East as a unique human culture with distinct experiences. At the same time, Said believes, the Middle East is "scarcely better" with its "anti-Americanism." Thus, Orientalism is perhaps more pertinent today than ever. Said believes that as an explicitly "humanistic" text, his book has the capacity to provide "reflection" and a "rational argument" against Orientalism. He concludes by saying the fundamentally reductive categories of "the West," "Islam," and "America" are flawed. They provide for the equally reductive creation of "us" versus "them" sentiments that serve only to solidify feelings of animosity and provide no venue for improvement. Said suggests that these categories should be dissolved and, through the humanities, more descriptive categories should be utilized. It is only through the humanities that "injustices" can truly be rectified.

Said also includes two quotations: one by Karl Marx, "They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented," and the other by Benjamin Disraeli, "The East is a career." These quotations set the tone for the work to come, and emphasize two main points. First, Marx's quotation refers to the idea expressed in his most famous work, The Communist Manifesto. The voice of the disenfranchised is being suppressed. Thus, it is necessary for others to become their voice. Second, the commitment to study the East is just that, a commitment. The East is extraordinarily complex, in contrast to what the framework of Orientalism might suggest.


The Preface to the 25th-anniversary edition of Orientalism was written at a time when Said's work had already been praised for its insightfulness and criticized for its anti-Western, pro-Arab sentiments. Said notes that his feelings on the subject have ranged from "irritation" to a sense of "irony." As Orientalism is inherently tied to the modern political atmosphere, public acceptance is very much dependent on current political leanings. Although he does not mention this in the Preface, Said had been publically ridiculed, with members of the press actively working to discredit his reputation. Although the recognition of Western imperialism does not imply the support of Arab terrorism, this erroneous connection was made by many who saw Said's support of an Arab state as support for Islamic terrorism and anti-Semitism. In the Preface, Said notes the paradox of this position and argues that since the initial publication of Orientalism, the general sentiment toward the East has changed very little, and American imperialist policies are still in effect. It is clear that by this point in his life, Said sees the humanities as the main way through which this imperialist framework can be changed. This viewpoint has been built over many years and more fully expressed in some of his later published works. By noting this at the beginning of the 25th-anniversary edition, Said is attempting to structure the reader to approach the work strictly as a humanist endeavor. Nothing has fundamentally changed about how the West interacts with the East. The imperialist paradigm persists. Thus, the Preface acts as a call to action as much as it acts as an introduction to the text within the context of modern politics.

The Epigraph is equally important. The ideas expressed by the two quotes Said chose to include provide insights into his mindset. The choice to place Marx's quote before that of Disraeli's suggests that it is precisely because the disenfranchised cannot represent themselves that the East is so difficult to interpret. Not only is Said expressing the sentiment that the East is more complex than suggested, it has been made more complex by the fact that the very framework meant to describe it has not done so. Thus, it is necessary to speak for the disenfranchised, since the Orientalist framework has suppressed their voice. Said's choice of a quote using the word East is telling, as it does not break down the Orient further into a series of complex cultures. Rather, it begins with the simplest category to argue that this category itself is fundamentally flawed. It is within this context that Orientalism begins.

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