Edward Said and a lost Western Civilization

In my Global Studies theory class I’ve always enjoyed assigning the work of Edward Said, as a basis for talking about Orientalism and Exoticism. But I’ve usually been disappointed to find that my upper-division graduate students seem to not have as much interest in Said’s work as I do. Perhaps, I’ve wondered, it’s because his work is becoming a little dated? Or is perhaps because Said takes literature and art so seriously, in an age dominated by social media and digital globalization? To be honest, I think that the Western works that Said engages with now (Euripides? Gibbons?) might seem as distant and alien to many of my students as some contemporary Middle Eastern musicians and authors. The Age of Western Civilization courses is long gone in most liberal arts colleges. I think that my students struggle to read someone who assumes that a reader has a deep familiarity with 19th century European scholars and artists. I always have students in my classes who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, although their numbers are waning. They bring their own perspectives on the Middle East and Central Asia, which have a different framework.

The irony is that on Twitter someone just referenced (I’m very sorry that I don’t remember the name of the person who tweeted it) this 2014 article by Sadik Jalal al-’Azm. On the one hand, the author provides an effective and thoughtful critique of Said’s work. At the same time, he so concisely describes Said’s argument that this piece it also serves as an effective introduction to Said. Of course as the West has diversified, the scholars that Said refers to have receded from the curriculum. A first-generation Asian-American or Latinx student may have a very different take on Said. I still think that the idea of Orientalism and exoticism are important. But reading this article crystallized some of the problems that I found I was having teaching his work, as students themselves seemed to be struggling to express similar points. If you’re teaching Said’s work, I think that this is a great piece to assign with it.

Shawn Smallman