Edward Wadie Said was a legendary American professor of literature and comparative studies, who was more widely known in the academic world as a brilliant thinker in the area of postcolonial studies. He was famous for promoting the idea that societies that have experienced colonization typically suffer from a sense of inferiority, which fuels cultural imperialism and perpetuates Orientalism. Said’s work has become a staple of postcolonial theory and a significant influence on academic studies of imperialism, media studies, and cultural studies.
Early Years and Education
Born on November 1st, 1935 in Jerusalem, Edward Said was an American Palestinian who spent most of his childhood between Cairo and Jerusalem. He was the youngest of three sisters and three brothers. When his family moved to Cairo in 1947, Said was ten years old, and that was when he experienced the political realities of colonialism firsthand. This experience would influence his later work and life. In Cairo, Said attended Victoria College, where he received a rigorous education in both the English and Arabic languages. Said’s father, Wadie Said, was a mandatory alliance between the colonial government and the Arab population, which allowed him to see the gap between these two groups intimately. He always encouraged an education in his children, saying, “the one thing they can’t take away from you, is what you learn.”
After high school, Said moved to the United States and attended Princeton University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in English in 1957. He later proceeded to earn a Master’s degree and a Ph.D. in English literature from Harvard University in 1960 and 1964, respectively. After completing his Ph.D. in literature, Said began his career as an educator at the University of Massachusetts, where he taught from 1963 to 1965.
In 1965, Said commenced his long association with Columbia University, where he became a professor of English and Comparative Literature. In his early years at Columbia, Said focused on literary criticism and authored several books, including Beginnings: Intention and Method, Joseph Conrad, and the Fiction of Autobiography. However, his groundbreaking scholarship in the field of postcolonial studies began in the 1970s. He is considered the founder of the field of postcolonial studies, utilizing the term in his 1978 book, Orientalism, which revolutionized cultural and postcolonial studies.
Orientalism was written in response to the perception that the West had of Eastern and Middle Eastern cultures, which in Said’s view was based on a set of Orientalist assumptions and fixed stereotypes. Said argued that these Orientalist assumptions had been constructed throughout history, enabling imperialism and colonialism to propagate false narratives about the Eastern cultures. He argued that Western literature, media, and popular culture often conflate entire swaths of the world in a one-dimensional way, marginalizing and demonizing the East while affirming Western pre-eminence. Orientalism received significant criticism upon its publication, yet it was widely read and discussed, forming a new paradigm for understanding colonialism and imperialism to this day.
In addition to his work in Orientalism, Said extensively wrote on the impact of imperialism, colonialism, and political relations between the Middle East and the West. He also wrote about Palestinian issues and published several books in the 1990s on this topic, including The Politics of Dispossession and Peace and Its Discontents.
In the 1980s, Said resumed his interest in music and started writing about music criticism, becoming a distinguished critic for The Nation and New York Review of Books. He wrote several books in this area, including Musical Elaborations and Parallels and Paradoxes – Explorations in Music and Society, co-written with Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim.
Said was known for his strong political opinions and was a fierce critic of the Middle East policies of the United States and Israel. In 1986, he co-founded the Palestinian-American Congress which represented the rights of Palestinians, and he was the spokesperson leading the boycott of academic institutions that supported Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
Death and Legacy
Edward Said died of leukemia on September 25th, 2003 at the age of 67. He left a significant legacy in postcolonial studies and the humanities, promoting the idea that culture serves as a platform for political discourse. His contributions to the development of postcolonial theory, Arab-Israeli conflict discourse, and the role of the intellectual in the 21st century have influenced countless scholars and academics since the publication of Orientalism. He continues to be a leading voice in political and cultural discourses. Said’s academic work sparked a broader conversation about the representation and authenticity of non-Western cultures among both academics and the broader public. Orientalism has inspired many scholars to analyze the formation of knowledge and power in cultural encounters, and his ideas have informed myriad fields. His postcolonialism theory has also informed intersectional feminist theory and critical race theory.
In conclusion, Edward Said’s life and legacy as a leading sociologist and postcolonial theorist were dedicated to understanding the intricacies of the relationships between the West and the Middle East, emphasizing the importance of culture, representation, and political discourse, making him one of the most significant scholars of the 20th and 21st century. His work transformed academic discourse and will continue to shape the understanding of relationships between cultures, power, and knowledge for many years to come.