A Book, an Outcry, and the Word That Academia Disowned

In Britain, Oxford University has the only department that still bears the title Oriental Studies. Is the name a badge of shame we should be fast to put behind us?

The year is 1978. At the forefront of the British economy, Prime Minister Callaghan and the trade unions lock horns. A succession of strikes permeate the final months of the year, becoming known later by a term, the Winter of Discontent, that paints the politician as a hunchbacked Shakespearean anti-hero. Across the Atlantic ocean, the Palestinian-born public intellectual Edward Said has published a new book. Its title is one word – Orientalism – and with it Said breathes a new field of academic study into existence.

Postcolonialism is born.

His point, put simply, was that the field of Oriental Studies did not aim to present Middle Eastern culture, life, history, and religion, objectively. Instead, existing essays were exercises in self-affirmation. This was not the individuals comprising this corner of academia stroking their ego on a personal level, but stroking the metaphorical ego of the culture that surrounded them. This was, specifically, the culture of the West. The study of the so-called Orient therefore did not exist on its own, and was irrevocably tied to the West, and used as a means of comparison rather than a culture that could be understood by the merits and pitfalls of its own existence.

Indeed, even the word ‘oriental’ seems to reflect this. Used not as an identifier by the people whose cultures the academic field claims to study, it frames the people of the ambiguous, borderless Orient with language the West decided on its own terms during a time of conquest and colonialism. Nowadays, the adjective would be most likely attached to a patterned rug. Applied to people, it holds uncomfortable, fetishizing connotations. This makes it all the more strange that Oxford University, which has been on the receiving end of pressure to “modernise and diversify” for a while, still claims it.

After a YouGov poll revealed that by a measure of three to one, the British public see the Empire as something ‘to be proud of’ rather than ‘ashamed of’, perhaps colonialism is not as dirty a word as it seems. Certainly not, it appears, in the eyes of the majority. By the late 70s, Britain’s age of Empire was a relic of the recent past. In the years that followed the publication of Orientalism, the British Nationality Act 1981 was passed, reclassifying British Crown Colonies as British Dependent Territories, and the term Commonwealth citizen was used to replace British subject. While it may sound pernickety, the change in political language signified a changed attitude, a symbolic end to an age of pain and suffering, and the promise of a new beginning. However the attachment of the prefix post- to the age-old word colonialism suggests these attitudes had far from disappeared.

This is the argument Said puts forward – that cultural domination may no longer be state-mandated (nor with a march of missionaries armed to the teeth with Bibles for those who listen and canes for those that don’t) but it is pervasive, it is not gone, and it is still dangerous.

While it would be inaccurate to say Said was not embroiled with criticism and debate following Orientalism’s publication, it is important to note that most of the literary debates Said found himself marred in came from the scathed side of academia whose work Said used to illustrate his critique. Most notably, was the spat between himself and Bernard Lewis, a British American historian, who derided Said’s work as “anti-West” and and giving “free reign” to his biases. In response, Said disparaged him on a number of occasions in words both eloquent yet undeniably searing.

The arguments of dead scholars may be of questionable influence to the time of now, but it is undeniable that Orientalism had a profound influence on the academic world and its discourse. Becoming the foundational text of Postcolonial Studies, and arguably being the reason for a series of departmental name changes spanning the globe is no small feat. Oriental Studies became Asian Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, and Near Eastern Studies, depending on the focus of each respective department. This reflects the acceptance into truth of one of Said’s primary critiques – that the academia he knew viewed anything beyond the borders of the West as monolithic.

While on the African front, the fight against the same view in cultural depictions of the continent and its people continues, when only one university in the United Kingdom, and one in the United States still bear the name it is perhaps not blindly optimistic to wonder if the tides really have changed.

Is the wind blowing the sails of scholarship towards a brighter future of nuance and cultural understanding?

We can hope.

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