Literary and Critical Theory Edward Said
Ned Curthoys
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0060


Edward Said (b. 1935–d. 2003) was an immensely influential literary and cultural critic and one of the world’s foremost public intellectuals. He is a founding figure of postcolonial studies owing to the extraordinary influence of his germinal critical study Orientalism (1978). Orientalism remains one of the most enduringly significant critical studies of the second half of the 20th century. Orientalism transformed the meaning of that term such that it no longer refers to a disinterested field of scholarship but an expression of power relations, a way of positioning the East as inferior to the West. Many of Said’s major studies have made a major contribution to breaking down the assumption that the aesthetic is a realm of autonomous values by demonstrating literature’s complex affiliations with European colonialism and Western imperialism. Yet Said is also renowned for developing a vocabulary enabling us to theorize the ethos of the critic and the proper vocation of the intellectual. Said insists that critics are humanists engaged in worldly struggles, expressing solidarity with the oppressed, and furthering the project of human emancipation. His fierce but by no means uncritical advocacy of the Palestinian cause in historical and theoretical studies and more topical commentaries and journalism exemplified the commitments he idealized. His corpus encompasses nine important theoretical studies, numerous books, articles, and opinion pieces dedicated to the history and politics of the Palestinian and Arab–Israeli conflict and representations of Islam and the Middle East in Western media and scholarship. He was one of the most prominent analysts of the Oslo peace process and Palestinian politics under the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) while striving to encourage dialogue between Palestinians/Arabs and Israel. His work has generated a prolific response from academics and commentators in fields such as postcolonial studies and histories of imperialism, literary criticism and studies of the novel, theories of the intellectual, Israel/Palestine and Middle Eastern studies, feminist studies of Orientalism and gender studies more broadly, and regional area studies including the Balkans and Greece. The particular inflections he has given an ensemble of concepts such as humanism, secularism, and philology has increasingly become the focus of separate studies of his work. His work remains important in a world in which globalization and theories of neo-imperialism remain vital contexts in which to understand the relationship between aesthetic, critical, and economic spheres of activity.

General Overviews

There are a number of general overviews of Said’s work. Some useful critical introductions to his thought include Ashcroft and Ahluwalia 2009 (cited under Critical Introductions), which demonstrates the entwinement of Said’s critical interests with his experiences as a diasporic Palestinian. Kennedy 2013 (cited under Critical Introductions) offers a balanced, detailed analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of Said’s Orientalism while also paying attention to the relative neglect of gendered analysis in Said’s thought. McCarthy 2010 (cited under Critical Introductions) offers a very good introduction to the philosophical currents informing Said’s early work from Beginnings through to Orientalism. Veeser 2010 (cited under Critical Introductions) is an intimate “unofficial” quasi-biography by a former student of Said’s seeking to explain his intellectual trajectory from a Western educated, devoted student of the literary canon to radical intellectual. There are also some illuminating obituaries of Said that bring his political activism and critical preoccupations into close conversation including Ali 2003, which discusses the formation of Said as a politicized intellectual, citing excerpts from his interviews. Nimni 2004 analyzes Said’s lifelong project of reconciling Palestinian and Jewish narratives of exile. Massad 2004 offers a Palestinian perspective on Said’s engagement with the representational legacy of Eurocentrism and Zionism. Hochberg 2006 unpacks Said’s puzzling claim that he was the “last Jewish intellectual” while Judt 2004 points out that Said’s life and work defied all the molds that his admirers and enemies sought to assign him. Edited collections about Said are particularly important as a means of exploring an oeuvre that crosses many disciplinary borders from literature to history, philosophy, and music. A number of important collections seek to engage with Said’s sometimes puzzling conceptual vocabulary (“secular criticism, “traveling theory,” “contrapuntal criticism”) and examine the lasting significance of his exhortative critical analyses of the vocation of the public intellectual in a stratified world. Important edited collections, many of which have essays by some of the most eminent humanities scholars in the world today include Iskander and Rustom 2010, Braidotti and Gilroy 2016, Bové 2000, Curthoys and Ganguly 2007, and Döring and Stein 2012 (all cited under Edited Collections).

  • Ali, Tariq. “Remembering Edward Said.” New Left Review 24 (November–December 2003).

    Discusses the hybrid upbringing and formation of Said as a politicized intellectual, emerging from his quarrels with both the political and cultural establishments of the West and the official Arab world, citing excerpts from his interviews.

  • Hochberg, Gil Z. “Edward Said: ‘The Last Jewish Intellectual.’” Social Text 24.2 (2006): 48–65.

    Unpacks Said’s puzzling claim that he was the “last Jewish intellectual,” explaining that Said wished to “heal memory” by overcoming the partitioning of Jewish and Arab identities.

  • Judt, Tony. “The Rootless Cosmopolitan.” The Nation, 19 July 2004.

    Points out that Said’s life and work defied all the molds which his admirers and enemies sought to assign him, a Christian spokesperson for the Muslim world, an anticolonial critic with an impeccable imperial education in Cairo. Said ever succumbed to the lure of identification with nation or ideology, obituary has excellent contextual remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

  • Massad, Joseph. “The Intellectual Life of Edward Said.” Journal of Palestine Studies 33.3 (2004): 7–22.

    DOI: 10.1525/jps.2004.33.3.007

    Offers a Palestinian perspective on Said’s engagement with the representational legacy of Eurocentrism and Zionism, including the multidimensional disciplinary and discursive “travels” of Orientalism and Said’s insistence on viewing Zionism through a Western colonial framework.

  • Nimni, Ephraim. “Wada’an to a Jewish Palestinian.” Theory and Event 7.2 (2004): 1–16.

    Analyzes Said’s lifelong project of reconciling Palestinian and Jewish narratives of exile and points out that Said’s fierce criticisms of Zionism were allied to a rehabilitation of the existential milieu of diaspora Judaism.

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