One of the prominent books of the Postmodern era, on par with Darwin‘s On the Origin of Species, Marx‘ Das Capital and Freud‘s Interpretation of Dreams, Edward Said‘s Orientalism (1978) inaugurated postcolonial theory.
Appearing at the same time as the works of Derrida, Foucault and the French feminists, it set in motion an intellectual turmoil that altered the shape of the canon of Western and Eastern academia. Said argued that while being a military and political project, colonialism was also discursive, involving the documentary and ideological construction of thought and texts through modes of representation like history, literature, music and so on. Thus Orientalism refers to the construction of the East as primitive, pagan, savage, undeveloped, criminal and needing reform. Europe and the Orient were discursively represented as binary opposites. The Orient, Europe’s Other, was integral to the very formation of the European identity; it also justified the colonial presence in the East.
Said’s Orientalisim exposed the European universalism that takes for granted white supremacy and authority. Describing the “Orient” as a Western cultural construct, Said argued that it is a projection of those aspects of the West, that the Westerners do not want to acknowledge in themselves, for instance, cruelty, sensuality and so on. The East is also understood as the fantastic realm of the exotic, mystical and the seductive, as reflected W.B. Yeats‘ description of Byzantium in his two Byzantium poems. Further, the West perceives the East as homogeneous masses, who act on impulse rather than with conscious decision, and the perception of their action is determined racially, as exemplified in the allegations against Dr. Aziz In E.M. Forster‘s A Passage to India.
In the tradition of Althusserian Marxism, Said argued that the native subject is interpellated into colonial structures and roles through ideology. Said endorsed contrapuntal reading of a text, against its grain, in order to detect the racialised imperialist discourse within it and to resist it. Postcolonial literary criticism is possible through such a resistant reading, where we identify the ideological grids of the literary texts; and develop a different historical narrative.
Contrapuntal reading takes into account intertwined histories and perspectives, to interpret colonial texts from the perspective of the colonizer and the colonized. It means, interpreting different perspectives simultaneously and seeing how the text interacts with itself as well as with historical and biographical contexts. It takes in both accounts of an issue; it addresses both the perspective of imperialism and the resistance to it. Contrapuntal reading necessitates a vision in which imperialism and literature are viewed simultaneously.
Said’s theory was criticised for its treatment of colonialism as a homogeneous structure, ignoring the differences such as its gender aspect, native complicity and the class dimension. Said’s critics argued that Orientalism concentrated too much on imperialist discourses and their positioning of colonial people, neglecting the way in which these people received, contributed to, challenged, or modified such discourses.Aijaz Ahmad‘s In Theory (1992) is one of the strongest critiques of Edward Said and postcolonial theory. He argues that Said is steeped in the High Humanist tradition when he presupposes 1) A unified European identity which is at the origin of history 2) that this history remains essentially the same up to the 20th century 3) and that this history and beliefs are immanent in the great books of the Western canon.
Homi K Bhabha, opposes Said’s homogenized approach (to subject formation), drawing on psychoanalytic and poststructuralist notions of subjectivity and language, and suggests that colonial discourses cannot “work” smoothly as orientalism might seem to suggest. Subjectivity, in the process of its formation itself, is diluted and hybridized, and hence, the identities of the colonizer as well as the colonized are unstable, shifting and fragmentary — being caught up in a complex reciprocity, and the colonial subject has various ways of subverting and resisting the colonial domination.