Edward W. Said (1978)

It’s hard to criticise such a classic, and I really expected to like it more than I did. It still reads well after over half a century.

But… do we really believe that the behaviour of an entire continent – Europe – was shaped by the writings and fantasies of a few pioneers? Do we believe that we can extract the fundamental beliefs of a myriad of managers and workers from close reading of a few key texts? Do we believe, indeed, that those key texts have such internal consistency that it’s meaningful to parse them sentence-by-sentence to extract the author’s own beliefs and expose their inconsistencies?

We academics would like to think that our writing was read in this was, was important in this way. But I find it hard to believe, and I don’t think the situation was different a century or more ago. The valid criticisms made of “Western” attitudes to “the East” (accepting that these are gross generalisations) neglect the fact that similar criticisms were made of other, “Western” groups. Substitute “working class” for “oriental” in many works of the nineteenth century and you’ll see the same points of sloth, mistrust, and dependency being made.

The besetting issue seems to actually be a lot simpler: the danger of treating any group as a group, and eliding the individuals’ characteristics in search of general schemata. It’s something that still goes on, and still has to go on if we want to make sense of the world. It’s just that we need to be conscious of the limitations that this imposes on our reasoning.

2/5. Finished Saturday 17 November, 2018.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)