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  • Said’s Marxism:Orientalism’s Relationship to Film Studies and Race
  • Gerald Sim (bio)

In film and media criticism’s long-standing and ongoing examination of racial ideology, Edward Said’s Orientalism, published in 1978, is a frequently cited and foundational text. Critical theorist Robert J. C. Young credits it with founding the discipline of postcolonial studies because it redefined colonization as the enactment of not just military and economic power, but also of political and epistemic violence. It was also Said who first connected anticolonial political movements and ideological critiques with structuralist and poststructuralist theory. Whereas by the 1970s radical intellectuals had successfully challenged the “language politics of colonialism,” Said extended their theoretical articulations into questions of discourse.1 Not surprisingly, film and media studies generally engage with the book as a theoretical buttress for poststructuralist analyses of Eurocentric representations of cultural or ethnic Others. However, many of them appropriate Said’s work narrowly and incorrectly because they highlight Orientalism’s poststructuralist articulations over its materialist and humanist character. This selective reading makes assumptions that blur Orientalism’s Marxist affinities. Decades after first contributing mightily to the field’s analysis of race, the book must be reconceived and repositioned in film—and perhaps media studies too—so that it may serve to renew the field’s existing approaches to questions of race. [End Page 240]

Orientalism attends most immediately to literature, where Said finds a perception of the Near East (or Middle East) as a roughly monolithic set of ethnicities and cultures standing in diametric opposition to those of Western Europe:

On the one hand there are Westerners, and on the other there are Arab-Orientals; the former are (in no particular order) rational, peaceful, liberal, logical, capable of holding real values, without natural suspicion; the latter are none of these things.2

Said traces this paradigmatic view back to the classical period and argues that it is sustained by imaginative pressures, institutions, traditions, and cultural forces that are ideologically repeated and inherited. Orientalism was powerfully normalized through its incorporation into scientific disciplines, by way of scientists, geographers, and philosophers who were present on colonial expeditions. Thus, Said also connects Orientalism within the arts and sciences to Western domination of the Orient. His book links an intertextual examination of ideological discourses to their political-economic cause, European colonial and imperial power. Said singles out Britain, France, and the United States for their political economic influence and makes straightforward references to those nations’ “brute” political, economic, and military authority. When he speaks of “power” in the book, he does not merely refer to an imbalance of cultural or social capital tilting in their favor; instead, power comes specifically from material expressions of imperialism. If Said were merely talking about discursive representation, I venture that he would not have become a lightning rod of criticism. “The strength of Western cultural discourse” that he describes is not something ephemeral, intangible, or figurative, but instead is the part of colonialism that materially and physically oppresses.3 Responding to his critical adversary, the reactionary Orientalist Bernard Lewis, Said termed it an effrontery “to disassociate Orientalism from its 200-year-old partnership with European imperialism and associate it instead with modern classical philology and the study of ancient Greek and Roman culture.”4

Contrary to Said’s distinctly drawn nexus between culture and imperialism, film scholarship on race and Otherness often elides the connection with startling frequency. The field often misunderstands Orientalism, and those interpretations come to configure its study of race and cinema. I analyze a sample of works ranging from those who pull up Orientalism for a quick but important reference to those who engage substantively with it, including canonical work such as Homi Bhabha’s essay “The Other Question …” [End Page 241] and an anthology predicated on Said’s analysis titled Visions of the East: Orientalism in Film. Many works, such as Visions of the East and Unspeakable Images: Ethnicity and the American Cinema, are popular anthologies assigned in university courses about race and media. Therefore, the issue exceeds one of mere misinterpretation. Its implications affect how a much larger audience thinks about race.

The most egregious misreadings disregard Said’s materialist...


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