restricted access Is There an Arab (Yet) in This Field?: Postcolonialism, Comparative Literature, and the Middle Eastern Horizon of Said’s Discourse Analysis
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Is There an Arab (Yet) in This Field?
Postcolonialism, Comparative Literature, and the Middle Eastern Horizon of Said’s Discourse Analysis

A common complaint about Edward Said’s Orientalism, by most accounts the foundational text of Postcolonial Studies, has been that its relentless focus on the western gaze resulted in an inadvertent hyper-objectification of the Arab, who remains at the end of the study an object constructed, controlled, and fully circumscribed by the discourse of Europe and America. In this essay, I will narrate an account of the dynamics of how this text, with its broadly influential strategy of colonial discourse analysis, has, surprisingly, become influential among some of the most innovative, perceptive, and engaged scholars of Arab cultural production. This story is far from simple, since it involves scholarship contending with a contradiction between the Arab as an object of discourse in Said’s classic text, and the Arab as a creator of discourse in cultural studies-oriented Arab scholarship. The complex and often halting engagement with this contradiction in newer scholarship focused on the Arab Middle East and North Africa and allegorizes, to a large extent, an acute challenge in all branches [End Page 729] of postcolonial scholarship. This is the problem of how to resist the gravitational pull of Eurocentrism.1

Over a decade ago, Bart Moore-Gilbert summarized the aforementioned criticism of Edward Said’s now classic text and its lack of usefulness to certain types of scholars. “Orientalism,” he wrote, “generally promotes an idea of the colonized subject as passive, silent and incapable of resistance. [It] seem[s] to accept at face value the power relations inscribed in the colonialist trope of ‘surveying as if from a peculiarly suited vantage point the passive, sensual, feminine, even silent and supine East’” (51).2 Indeed this style of reading Orientalism is reinforced by the book’s context within Said’s promotion of the work of Michel Foucault among American literary scholars in the 1970s. Moore-Gilbert’s comment seems to call for an acknowledgement of the ability of those on whom Orientalism was visited to act as agents, but Foucault has always been read in the United States as deeply skeptical of this type of resistance narrative. Paul Bové, for example, has described Foucault’s notion of discourse as a force extremely powerful in its ability to absorb and reappropriate all resistance:

In disciplinary societies, self-determination is nearly impossible, and political opposition must take the form of resistance to the systems of knowledge and their institutions that regulate the population into “individualities” who, as such, make themselves available for more discipline, to be actors acted upon. In this understanding of governability, truth produced by these knowledge systems blocks the possibility of sapping power; it speaks for—or, as we say in Western republics, it “represents”—others. But for poststructuralism, it is not self-evident, for example, that notions of oppositional leadership, such as Gramsci’s conception of the “organic intellectual,” will be significant alternatives to the regulating ideal of “speaking for.” Having emerged out of the events of 1968, post-structuralism remains politically suspicious of all rhetorics of leadership and all representational institutions.


Not everyone has read the possibility of resistance in Foucault’s conception of discourse as pessimistically with respect to other voices—and voices of others. Lois McNay, for example, in Gender and Agency, views Foucauldian discursive power as a substratum against which individual agency contends. Said himself, after repudiating in the essay “Traveling Theory” his own earlier embrace of Foucault, introduces Culture and Imperialism by proclaiming that the colonized does possess agency and that there are multiple narratives that must [End Page 730] be taken into account to gain a comprehensive understanding of colonialism, its discourses, and its narratives. Still, the momentum of that earlier formulation that seemed to strip the orientalized, the colonized, and the subaltern of all agency and of any voice has been enduring. As a result, the migration of Said’s influence into studies of the culture of the modern Arab world has been not only innovative, brilliant, and subtle, but also haunted by the specter of Eurocentrist discourse.

Said and the Arabs...