Representation and Its Relevance for Political Theory in Postcolonial Constellations in the Point of View of Edward Said, Founder of Orientalism: [Essay Example], 2190 words GradesFixer

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Representation and Its Relevance for Political Theory in Postcolonial Constellations in the Point of View of Edward Said, Founder of Orientalism

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Edward Said may not be the most controversial figure in academia, but he certainly made waves when he founded the entirely new academic field of postcolonial studies. A professor of literature by training, Said’s influence extended into many different academic fields during his time. None of his work was quite as influential as Orientalism, which was published nearly forty years ago but remains highly relevant to the modern world, particularly in regards to the Western world’s relationship with the Middle East. This discussion paper addresses the main thesis of Orientalism: that the Middle East is misrepresented in Western culture precisely because it is represented in the first place. In this way, the term “representation” is key to the entire dialogue of Orientalism and even many of Said’s subsequent works. This discussion paper addresses two specific questions: first, what does Said mean by representation? And, second, do representations matter for political theory in postcolonial constellations?

The short answer to the first question is that “representation” is represented by the quote from above: representation is substituting real experience and knowledge with a perceived reality based on historically, politically, and culturally informed interpretation. Representation is not necessarily mutually exclusive of truth, but has denigrated the West’s relationship with the Middle East for centuries. Representations are relevant to the idea of ‘Orientalism’ as a whole because, as another scholar has stated, Said “advanced a comprehensive critique of Western, particularly, English, French and American, writing on the Middle East, and encompassing literature, history, political and other sciences” (Halliday 145). Representations, in this way, are the foundation of what anti-imperialists and postcolonial thinkers see as a wholly inaccurate set of knowledge across these various disciplines.

The short answer to the second question is that, yes, representations matter for political theory in postcolonial constellations because they directly influence everything from economics to foreign policy. The main takeaway of this discussion, then, is that the cultural imperialism of the modern world (which takes the form of representations) is just as real as the political and military imperialism of the past. This political theory paper does not attempt to provide a holistic summary of Said’s work, nor forward a specific opinion on the validity or value of Said’s theories in Orientalism. Instead, the discussion attempts to engage the theory itself, and address how it is relevant to the modern political world. Overall, the discussion highlights that representation is cultural critique of modern established disciplines and discourses, and that the concept remains as not only an accurate description of the state of things, but also relevant to the relationship between the West and the East today.

What is Representation?

The very first theoretical question to ask and answer is in regards to what Said means by the term ‘representation’ in the first place. Thankfully, Said is quite the talented writer, and explains both his theoretical framework and the requisite evidence in a cohesive, straightforward manner that leaves little doubt as to his meaning. As noted above, the best understanding of representation as it relates to the necessary but obviously tenuous relationship between the Western world and the Middle East, can be summarized in Said’s following words: “All knowledge that is about human society…is historical knowledge, and therefore rests upon judgment and interpretation. This is not to say that facts or data are nonexistent, but that facts get their importance from what is made of them in interpretation” (22). This is a description of ‘representation’ as it relates to the world as a whole; for instance, one’s knowledge about George Washington is dependent on the culture, politics, nation state, and other factors which situate an individual. However, its relevance to the relationship between East and West is clear: Said is saying that the West (whether an American historian or a British foreign diplomat) do not have firsthand knowledge of society in the Middle East, but only knowledge that is dependent on personal, political, or cultural judgment and interpretation. The ‘real’ knowledge of the Middle East exists, but any part of it that relates to the West is, as Said states, almost inherently subject to interpretation.

Said is not making a cultural critique of human interpretation as a whole. In this way, ‘representation’ as a theoretical term has much more to do with West versus East, or rather West with East. As Said states, “Unlike the Americans, the French and the British…have had a long tradition of what I shall be calling Orientalism, a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient’s special place in European Western experience” (20). This is the cornerstone of Said’s scholastic work, and essentially means that the relationship between Western nations – like France and Great Britain – are not solely shaped by the reality of today, but instead primarily by past interpretations of what it means to relate with what used to be called the Orient. The idea of an ‘Orient’ may be at least a century old, but it appears that the idea has stuck with cultural norms and inherent personal bias. Said clarifies this point, stating that it must be made clear “about cultural discourse and exchange within a culture that what is commonly circulated by it is not ‘truth’ but representations” (21). In other words, any cultural exchange undertaken by one culture is dependent on a representation (whether accurate or inaccurate) of the other. This representation, Said’s argument goes, is not built on contemporary reality so much as it is built on the “institutions, traditions, conventions, and agreed-upon codes of understanding” with which the foreign culture has been dealt with in the past (Said 22). What does Said mean by representation? He means that making sense of the Middle East, from a Western perspective, has not yet been dependent on the Middle East, and has instead been dependent on the West itself, creating a sort of tautological set of knowledge that may not be all that useful for moving forward.

Instead of expanding knowledge, it seems that Said is saying that representations tend to reduce knowledge: “Note how readily the ‘Arab’ seems to accommodate the transformations and reductions…into which he is continually being forced” (285). This is not a productive approach or use of knowledge, and can be potentially detrimental not only to the Middle East but to the entire relationship between Western nations and Middle Eastern nations, harming economic, political, and cultural relations. It is also clear that Said views this has harmful to academia, which may be just as important considering representations are formed by historical interpretation in the first place. The term can be even further understood by considering the different forms that representation takes, as forwarded by Said. They include “cultural relations policy”, reducing the Middle East to “merely Islam”, and making ‘the Orient’ all-important in postcolonial international relations and economics (Said 293). He goes on to state that the modern investment in the Middle East “is built on foundations of sand, since the experts instruct policy on the basis of such marketable abstractions as political elites, modernization, and stability, most of which are simply the old Orientalist stereotypes dressed up in policy jargon” (Said 321). Clearly, what Said means by representation is not only a historical description of past ills in the way that the West treated the East in academic writings, political speeches, and even economic choices like investment and development. Instead, it is an ongoing issue that reaches to the core of how the West tends to understand the Middle East – as a completely separate culture, with not too much in common, but just enough in common so as to make ‘the Arab’ a valuable investment partner.

Why Representations Matter Today

This last aspect of the term of representation brings the discussion to the secondary question of this paper: why does the theoretical framework formed by Said nearly half a century ago matter to the modern world, when we are well past colonial times? This is perhaps the more important question, since it is the entire point of Said’s writings to show that representation in the cultural exchange between East and West is not an issue of the past, but a problem both of the present and of the future. So far, the term ‘representation’ has seemed largely relevant to colonial powers of the past – France, Great Britain, Spain, and so on. However, the reason representations matter today is because they did not simply go away when colonialism (in the political and military sense) ended. This cultural approach remained in the Western psyche, in an unconscious way that potentially made it even more insidious, including within a country that has not had a colonial past (at least not in the traditional sense of the word): the United States of America.

Since World War II, the United States has also been roped into the representation approach to understanding itself in relation to the Middle East. As Said states, “A vast web of interests now links all parts of the former colonial world to the United States, just as a proliferation of academic subspecialties divides (and yet connects) all the former philological and European-based disciplines like Orientalism” (284). In other words, the colonial influence of the West on the United States did not stop with the political and military state of affairs. There was a cultural element to colonialism that was allowed to live on, mostly because it was an unconscious part of Western thought. Said goes on to say that in the decades following World War II, “the Arab Muslim has become a figure in American popular culture, even as in the academic world, in the policy planner’s world, and in the world of business very serious attention is being paid the Arab” (284). The mere fact that there continues to be this idea of ‘the Arab’ today, as late as 2016, shows that the influence of representations of the past have certainly influenced representations of the present. Said concludes this part of the discussion with a powerful statement: “A wide variety of hybrid representations of the Orient now roam the culture. Islam and the Arabs have their own representations…and we shall treat them here as they occur in that fragmentary – yet powerfully and ideologically coherent – persistence, a far less frequently discussed one, into which, in the United States, traditional European Orientalism disbursed itself.” In other words, representations remain powerful in culture, politics, and historical dialogue because they shift the ideological focus of anyone engaging with them. Taking this as theory, the argument regarding the continued prevalence of representations and their impact appears sound, since it is not difficult to conjure up an American cultural image of ‘the Arab’ as an individual or as a Middle Eastern country. This is why representation remains powerful.

However the more important theoretical point here is not that the past has informed the present, but that representation is an ongoing (and arguably undesirable) social, political and academic phenomenon that continues to limit our ability to understand the Middle East (or any part of the East, for that matter). Said goes on to say that there is no avoiding the fact that “even if we disregard the Orientalist distinctions between ‘them’ and ‘us,’ a powerful series of political and ultimately ideological realities inform scholarship today” (327). The divisions he outlines include East/West, North/South, haves/have-nots, white/colored, and more (Said 327). In this way, while the work of Said is primarily a cultural criticism of the Western world’s representation of and relationship with the Middle East, the idea of representation (and its negative consequences) does not stop there. Instead, representation remains a critical problem for the modern world – even in postcolonial constellations – because nearly everything is political: “Perhaps if we remember that the study of human experience usually has an ethical, to say nothing of a political, consequence in either the best or worst sense, we will not be indifferent to what we do as scholars” (Said 328). In other words, recognizing that nearly any discipline creates knowledge through the lens of representation may be the first step toward overcoming the inherent influence that these representations have over cultural, political, and historical discourse today.


This discussion paper has examined the idea of representation in cultural exchange, including both the definition and meaning of the term and an overview of why it remains relevant today, though we are well past colonial days. This paper has shown that the questions that Said raises are not simply sound, but profoundly critical to ensuring that historians do not act out their own clichéd adage of repeating history. Overall, this paper has shown the theoretical value of Said’s term by clarifying that representation actually does not have anything to do with imperialism in a military or economic sense, but everything to do with the cultural imperialism that has shaped the world since World War II. This form of imperialism is just as real, and may have just as much of a negative impact on the world if it continues to go unchecked. The first step to overcoming it, as the discussion has shown, is to challenge the representations as discussed above.

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