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Celebrating the 40th anniversary of Edward Said's Orientalism

18 September 2018
A summary of the 40 Years of Orientalism Symposium
Four decades ago, Edward Said released Orientalism, a book that transformed the study of the non-West and pioneered entirely new fields of academic enquiry. Whether Said is considered a beacon or provocateur, academics from all over the world have been touched by his work and ideas.

Edward Said photographed by Jeremy Pollard

In celebration of this legacy and to commemorate the centenary year of Asian Studies at the University of Sydney, the School of Languages and Cultures held a 40 Years of Orientalism Symposium on 13 September.

Over 70 guests including students, academics and scholars were welcomed to the Symposium to hear academics and international guests discuss Edward Said’s work and its impact today.  

The Symposium was opened by a conversation between Mark LeVine from the University of California and Dr Lucia Sorbera, about the power of narratives and how narratives have been used to dehumanise Middle Eastern, Muslim and Arab people, “One of the most important arguments of Orientalism was that narratives imagined and deployed by those in power can construct a reality that actually did not previously exist,” said LeVine, “In particular, the idea of 'Western civilization’, which has little material or empirical validity as an identity, has had incredible discursive and ideological power to shape an identity of chauvinist superiority and racist, damaging policies both towards minorities at home and societies abroad.”

Academics Devleena Ghosh, Judith Snodgrass and Dr Matthew Stavros discussed Orientalism from the perspective of Indian, Japanese and Asian Studies, directly addressing the necessity not only to shift away from the European categories of knowledge, but also to question the same system of knowledge, which is Eurocentric. The panel called for an epistemic shift, leading to a more intercolonial construction of knowledge.

“If we are engaging from Australia, what is our positioning on this? Do we have a different position or are we a province of Europe and America?”
Adrian Vickers

Ghosh offered a gendered perspective, noting that, “Being an Australian woman in India meant to be a white and peripheral at the same time, and, yes, intercolonial connections are quite important and should be studied more.”

Maegan Morris discussed Orientalism in the context of her experience of teaching cultural studies in Hong Kong, challenged the popularisation of Orientalism, “A book much more quoted than read,” said Morris. David Brophy also questioned the centrality of “the West”, bringing the example of the Uighur perspective, where the dominant colonial actor has never been the West, but rather China and Russia.

The Symposium opened a space for a discussion that appropriately intersected the history or ideas with politics, in tune with the legacy of Orientalism that, as remembered by Mark LeVine, “Was a book embedded in Said’s larger activism. Said was ready to risk everything for the causes he believed in and the ideas in the book are directly related to the struggles that defined his life.”

Many questions remained open and, of course, there was a big elephant in the room: the wave of violent racism and white supremacism that is crossing the world, including Australia, and the fear that education institutions can be complicit with them, if they do not address them unequivocally.

Again, history could be a good space to understand the dangers we are facing. On 5 September 1936, when the racist anti-Jews laws were issued in Italy, 896 Italian Jewish teachers were expelled by schools and universities and 895 of them were replaced by Italian non-Jewish professors. Massimo Bontempelli was the only one who refused to replace his colleague. Today, like 82 years ago, indifference can turn into complicity.

Said was right when he wrote that Orientalism over the years became a collective book or, in the words of Mark LeVine, “The first song of an album that has yet to be finished.” 

The Symposium was supported by the China Studies Centre and was organised by Dr Matthew Stavros, the Director of Asian Studies, and Dr Lucia Sorbera, the Chair of Arabic Language and Cultures.