Thoughts on Edward Said’s “Orientalism” and Robert Louis Stevenson

In his 1978 book Orientalism Edward Said argues that Western academics have constructed a range of representations of the Oriental “Other” in order to facilitate imperialist domination over the region and its inhabitants. More broadly, Said argues that it is impossible for modern Western academics to decisively break from a miasma of misrepresentations that he terms “Orientalism”. Said offers three broad ideas encapsulated within his “Orientalism”. Firstly, he identifies the Western academic streams of “Orientalism” and “Orient Studies” which were complicit in lending an intellectual veneer to the brutalities of Western imperialism (Said, p. 2). Marxist critic Aijaz Ahmad points out that Said, as a stateless Palestinian, took significant risk writing such an ardent anti-imperialist polemic from within the conservative halls of Western academia, and that his “irrepressible partisanship with his national cause […] earned him assassination threats, from quarters which are known to have assassinated a great many other patriotic Palestinians” (p. 160). Secondly, and more controversially, Said proposes that Orientalism is a “style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between “the Orient” and […] “the Occident” (p. 2). Thirdly, Said conceives of Orientalism as “the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient – dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (p. 3).

Aijaz Ahmad and Kenan Malik both argue that Said conflates Western thought generally with Western imperialism in a way that is ahistorical. Both authors point to the long traditions of humanist, rationalist anti-imperialism that grew out of Enlightenment ideas of equality, scientific analysis, and human rights, which later found a particularly vocal expression in the Marxist tradition. Ahmad cautions that “to ascribe a shared cultural attitude towards Western dominance to all intellectuals who began writing after decolonization, and a structurally different attitude to all those whose intellectual formation was completed under colonial rule, regardless of their individual social and political locations, is the most arrant idealism and facilitates a very peculiar kind of ahistorical leveling.” (p. 205)

Robert Louis Stevenson’s house in Samoa with author on the porch (from Wikipedia)

In the South Pacific context, Robert Louis Stevenson serves as a rare example of a colonial-era Western intellectual who allied himself with an oppressed people against imperialism, moving to Samoa in 1889 and lending his political support to Samoans. Stevenson fits poorly into Said’s definitions of the Westerner as invariably an Orientalist. Central to Said’s concept of Orientalism as epistemology is the idea that Western academics and writers conceived of non-Western peoples as an inferior negation of their Western selves. If the West was rational, its Other was fundamentally irrational. If the West was civilised, its Other was savage. However many Western writers like Stevenson, specifically those who drew on an Enlightenment conception of human universalism and who attributed human differences not to biology but to a natural human plasticity influenced by diet, resources and climate (Squadrito, pp. 109-110), did not conceive of “the West and its others” through these kinds of negations. This conception of “othering in order to construct the self” rests, at least partly, on purely conjectural, unscientific theories of linguistic meaning-creation dating back to Ferdinand de Saussure, and taken up in anthropology by Claude Lévi-Strauss. This itself raises the problem of Said’s extreme theoretical eclecticism, a theme taken up by both Ahmad and Malik.

Said’s version of Orientalism is difficult to piece together as a coherent theory due to the way that he draws his vocabulary from a vast, or to use Ahmad’s word “bewildering”, range of critical frameworks. Often these frameworks are contradictory in their implications, such as when Said carelessly entangles historical materialist, humanist, Marxist frameworks like Gramsci’s with subjective idealist, anti-communist, antihumanist frameworks like Michel Foucault’s or Julien Benda’s. (Ahmad, 167-170) Malik and Ahmad both argue that some critical terms that Said incorporates were central contributors to exactly the kinds of imperialist and racial ideology Said is attempting to oppose. A key example is Said’s adherence to the Nietzschean insistence that language is merely “a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms” and that “truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are” (quoted in Said, p.203). Nietzschean subjectivism was a major ideological underpinning of Romantic era theories of innate racial difference, anti-socialist elite theories, and, much later, Nazism (Malik, pp. 237-238). It is important, however, to acknowledge that Said’s lack of scholarly rigour does not entirely deflate the usefulness of the concept of “othering”, at least in a weaker sense of cultural alienation or even “culture shock”, but it does strip “othering” of much of its rhetorical power because Said never makes a rigorous case to back his stronger sense of “othering” as an epistemology. There is no reason to accept that Western academics invariably thought about non-Western peoples in the sorts of binary negations peculiar to structuralist theorists, even though such a tendency in Western literature is clear enough.

Contrasting this notion of “selfhood through othering”, Jolly notes that Stevenson often identified Westerners as the “savages”

Near the end of A Footnote to History appear two examples of European barbarity: a plot to blow up Samoan prisoners, explicitly condemned as “barbarous”, and the European attempts to incite war while the Samoans held out for peace. In their belligerence, Steveson writes, “our European rulers have drawn a picture of themselves as bearded like the pard, full of strange oaths, and gesticulating like semaphore”; this image from Shakespeare’s As You Like It suggests the loose sense of barbarity as savagery – the white officials are like violent wild animals, leopards – but also one of the root meanings of a barbarian as one who does not speak a civilised language but mouths meaningless sounds.” (p. 130)

Other literary critics such as Linehan have cautioned against reading Stevenson’s racist, exploitative Western narrator in his South Sea Tales as a reflection of Stevenson’s own attitudes towards Samoan people, noting Stevenson’s active political life in Samoa and his correspondences clearly mark the character as an attempt to realistically convey the crude barbarity of imperialism back to his Western audience as a form of social critique (p. 360). Said argues that Orientalist discourse is always written exclusively for a Western audience, “Orientalism is premised upon exteriority, that is, on the fact that the Orientalist, poet or scholar, makes the Orient speak, describes the Orient, renders its mysteries plain for and to the West. He is never concerned with the Orient except as the first cause of what he says.” (p. 21) In Stevenson’s case this contentious generalisation is complicated by the fact that Polynesian cultures were oral cultures, not literate ones, so Stevenson was certainly writing mainly for a Western audience. However Stevenson also read his stories to Samoans, and among his stories are some of the first English language works that were translated into Samoan. Stevenson participated as an intermediate between Samoans and Westerners in order to denounce, not promote, the idea of a racial other, and to promote Samoan self-determination.

Finally, it is important to respect the limits of Said’s concept of Orientalism due to his adoption of Foucault’s idealist concept of discourse, which makes no allowances for materialist, scientific understandings of history. Said seems at times to view imperialism itself not as a specific stage of capitalist development – as a battle among elites for new markets and labour forces – which is the Marxist perspective, but as the outcome of a particularly “Western” kind of mindset used, throughout history, to subjugate the Oriental Other. Thus Said manages to ahistorically conflate, at least to stain, all Western thought with Western imperialist terror. Ahmad cautions that racist discourses have extremely long and powerful histories among the self-interested elites even of oppressed countries, not only in the West:

What gave European forms of these prejudices their special force in history, with devastating consequences for the actual lives of countless millions and expressed ideologically in full-blown Eurocentric racisms, was not some transhistorical process of ontological obsession and falsity – some gathering of unique force in domains of discourse – but, quite specifically, the power of colonial capitalism. (p. 184)

Works cited

Ahmad, A. (2008). In theory: Nations, classes, literatures. London: Verso.

Jolly, R. (2003). Robert Louis Stevenson and Samoan history: crossing the Roman wall. In Kucich, J. (Ed.), Fictions of empires. (pp. 127-133) Boston, USA: Houghton Mifflin.

Linehan, K. (2003). Taking up with Kanakas: Stevenson’s complex social criticism in ‘The Beach of Falesa’. In Kucich, J. (Ed.), Fictions of empires. (pp. 357-373) Boston, USA: Houghton Mifflin.

Malik, K. (1996). The meaning of race. London: MacMillan.

Said, E. (2003). Orientalism. London:Penguin.

Squadrito, K. (1979). Racism and empiricism. Behaviourism, 7(1), 105-115.


Bogle Petterson, T. (2011). Childishness, primitivism and the primitive as child in the anti-imperialist works of Robert Louis Stevenson. Unpublished master’s thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand.

Locke, J. (2001). An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. London: J. M. Dent.

Musgrave, A. (1999). Idealism and antirealism. In Klee, R (Ed.), Scientific inquiry, readings in the philosophy of science. New York: Oxford University Press.

Malik, K. (2000). Universalism and difference in discourses of race. Review of International Studies, 26, 155-177.

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2 Responses to Thoughts on Edward Said’s “Orientalism” and Robert Louis Stevenson

  1. gegallas says:

    Very fascinating post — thank you so much for sharing! 🙂 Thought you might be interested in my short film Death Is No Bad Friend about Robert Louis Stevenson in San Francisco: Best regards, G. E

    • oilymud says:

      Thanks G E. I had a scroll through your blog and really enjoyed myself, although I do find the number of tags you use makes your posts harder to pick out from each other while scrolling. If I could give financial support to such a great project I would, but I’m in no position. I hope you can realise your vision, and if you need any advice on RLS’s work when he was in the South Pacific (though that seems outside the scope of the play) my husband might find time to consult. He wrote his MA on RLS South Pacific writings. I will keep an eye on the project. 🙂

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