<< zurück / back

Holger Rossow (Universität Rostock)

Globalism, Non-Coercive Knowledge and the Possibility of Alternative Systems of Representation



Said wrote in Culture and Imperialism that "[t]he major task […] is to match the new economic and socio-political dislocations and configurations of our time with the startling realities of human interdependence on a world scale." From this he concluded that "[t]o match knowledge in the arts and sciences with these integrative realities is […] the intellectual and cultural challenge of the moment" (Said 1994a: 401). When Said wrote this, the diverse processes commonly subsumed under the term globalisation had become widely acknowledged phenomena and the term itself a buzzword in political rhetoric and scholarly discourse. Although Said obviously acknowledged the existence and relevance both of globalising processes and the corresponding discourse of globalism, he did not and, as I will argue, could not take it much further than that within the framework of Orientalism and imperialism.

In the first section of my analysis, I briefly indicate some of the new questions raised by globalisation and the ensuing limits of Said's concept of Orientalism. In the second section, I concentrate on three closely related aspects that were of major concern for Said throughout his life - the problem of representation, the question of the production of knowledge and the role of the critical intellectual in this process - to discuss the possibility of alternative systems of representation to challenge the discourse of globalism. Globalism here is understood not to be interchangeable with globalisation but as a system of ideas or a discourse that claims to provide a description and an explanation for the current processes and phenomena commonly subsumed under the term globalisation.

Limits of the concept of Orientalism

The continued intellectual force and practical applicability of Said's concept of Orientalism to important aspects of the actuality of the contemporary situation is mainly located in those areas that he characterises as `overlapping territories´ and `intertwined histories. These are discernible in the manifold continuities between our globalised world and the age of imperialism. The discursive continuities and similarities between Orientalism and globalism also appear to be self-evident. Both refer to materially founded relations of power and domination and to culturally constructed discourses that, at least partly, conceal those relations of power and subordination and justify behavioural patterns or specific actions that sustain those relations. It may be tempting, therefore, to follow Said's line of reasoning who considers most of the phenomena that others describe as globalisation basically as a continuation of imperialism or, more specifically, American imperialism. In Culture and Imperialism, Said works out the continuities between imperialism and the actualities of the contemporary world quite clearly but what remains rather fuzzy is whether there are also differences and discontinuities between his notion of a "fully global world" (Said 1994a: 4) and imperialism. It is when the territories stop to overlap and the histories to be directly intertwined that it becomes obvious that globalisation also raises new questions that can neither be comprehended fully by Said's concept of Orientalism nor by his notion of American imperialism.

                The most critical limit of Said's version of Orientalism is of a conceptual nature. It is, however, also more difficult to ascertain than the geographical and methodological limits for different reasons. One is that Said presents Orientalism as a meta-discourse (Sardar 1999: 68) which enables him to incorporate many previous definitions of Orientalism into his analysis and then to apply it to a very wide range of phenomena and practices. Sardar, for example, argues that by "[u]sing these all-embracing but contradictory definitions, Said constructs Orientalism as a relatively unified discourse spanning the entire course of history from antiquity to contemporary times" (Sardar 1999: 68). Another reason for the problem to identify the conceptual limits of Said's version of Orientalism - if applied to the late twentieth century - is his foregrounding of what he describes as `American imperialism´. This helps him to sidestep, for example, the question of the new politics in a globalized world and to contain his analysis within the framework and terminology of imperialism and empire. Nederveen Pieterse argues that this is not adequate terminology to characterise certain phenomena like the activities of today's major non-state actors, the IMF, the World Bank, transnational corporations and regional investment banks or the emergence of regional blocs which "can potentially exercise joint foreign policy (for example, the European Community) or which within themselves contain two or more `worlds`(for example, NAFTA, APEC)" (Nederveen Pieterse 1995: 59).

                To argue that Said's concept of Orientalism can not contain all aspects of a globalised world does, however, not mean that his more general notions of representation, the role of the critical intellectual and the question of knowledge can not usefully be employed anymore.

The possibility of alternative representations

Said's assumption that there is a direct and active relationship between political, socio-economic and cultural domination and systems of representation that produce and sustain each other mutually applies both to Orientalism and globalism in very similar ways. The discourse of globalism, too, is not monolithic but consists of a number of recurrent core convictions, assumptions and predictions: free-market economies necessarily work in the interest of the general public; free trade is a panacea for almost all economic problems; globalisation is a fairly novel phenomenon; the long-term effects of globalisation are positive because, although negative consequences do exist, they are not systemic; the problems and the respective solutions are basically the same for all countries; national governments have lost the power to determine policies in many areas because of pressures and restraints of globalisation; the world is becoming a community, an argument usually accompanied by lip service to global responsibility or as a pretext for interventionist policies; and, finally and perhaps most importantly, changes are unavoidable and quasi-natural - globalisation is not a choice but a reality. The discourse of globalism is often characterised by totalising theories, historical reductionism and very little acknowledgement of cultural specificities, different sets of traditions, values, beliefs and needs of countries, groups and individuals affected by processes of globalisation. Said insisted that there exists both a methodological and normative imperative to critically examine all representations and a need to challenge dominant systems, material or immaterial. This acknowledgement does, unfortunately, not automatically provide us with the means to do so in practice.

                One of the most intriguing problems, assuming that hegemonic representations and discourses can and should be challenged, is whether the establishment of another reductionist and exclusive discourse can be avoided and how more inclusive, participatory, collaborative and non-coercive knowledge can be produced. The problem can be addressed for analytical purposes on three distinct but, in practice, closely interwoven levels: first, the methodological level, second, the character of the representational system and the knowledge on which it is based and, third, the role of the intellectual in the production or critique of this knowledge.

Said demands with regard to the methodological level that

"[w]e must expand the horizons against which the question of how and what to read and write are both posed and answered. […] Instead of the partial analysis offered by the various national or systematically theoretical schools, I have been proposing the contrapuntal lines of global analysis, in which texts and worldly institutions are seen working together …" (Said 1994a: 385).

Elsewhere, Said reflects methodological problems with specific reference to the new challenges at the end of the twentieth century and argues that they can not be addressed by the polemical and oppositional models of the past but

"rather, you provide models of reconciliation by which you can situate yourself and the other in a territory or in a space that isn't all about fighting, that isn't all about polemics and oppositional politics in the crude and reductive sense of the word" (Said 2001f: 203).

Said believed that, despite all the intricate problems involved in the process of their production, representations can not be avoided. So the character of the system of representation and the knowledge on which it is founded need to be foregrounded:

"What we must eliminate are systems of representation that carry with them the kind of authority which, to my mind, has been repressive because it doesn't permit or make room for interventions on the part of those represented. […] The alternative would be a representational system that was participatory and collaborative, noncoercive, rather than imposed, but as you know, this is not a simple matter" (Said 2001b: 42).

In this context, it is important to bear in mind that Said was convinced that certain fields of knowledge are characterised by a higher degree of political importance than others. He argued that this is due to some extent to "the possibility of its direct translation into economic terms; but to a greater extent political importance comes from the closeness of a field to ascertainable sources of power in political society" (Said 1995 [1978] : 10). This perception of the relationship between knowledge and politics almost necessarily clashes with scholarly conventions about the character of knowledge in the contemporary West in general and the United States in particular. One problem for Said was to expose how

"the general consensus that "true" knowledge is fundamentally nonpolitical (and conversely, that overtly political knowledge is not "true" knowledge) obscures the highly if obscurely organized political circumstances obtaining when knowledge is produced. No one is helped in understanding this today when the adjective "political" is used as a label to discredit any work for daring to violate the protocol of pretended suprapolitical objectivity" (Said 1995 [1978] : 10).

This, I would argue, is particularly true for the production of knowledge about imperialism and globalisation because of their close relations to questions of economic and political power.

                The third level on which the possibility of alternative representations can be addressed is the role of the intellectual. Throughout his life Said never tired to voice his view of the role of intellectuals and their positioning towards authority, common sense and power: "The intellectual always has a choice either to side with the weaker, the less well-represented, the forgotten or ignored, or to side with the more powerful." (Said 1994b: 24) At the same time, he was fully aware of the obstacles that have to be faced:

"The great problem in essentially administered societies, the Western democracies, is precisely the drowning out of the critical sense. That has to be opposed by the secular intellectual and the critical sense revised for various audiences, various constituencies." Said 2001g: 223).

Said's notion of the character and function of representations, his understanding of the role and the responsibilities of the intellectual and the problems involved in the production of knowledge are admittedly not always consistent, sometimes fairly vague and often contentious. But, says Kennedy, Said was aware "at least intermittently, of the problems associated with the issue of representation" (Kennedy 2000: 148) and he "has chosen to make use of his persuasive powers as a public intellectual and to shoulder the responsibilities nonetheless" (Kennedy 2000: 149).


There is no doubt that Said's work can still provide us with useful insights into the history, character and operations of imperialism and the discourse of Orientalism. But one also has to state clearly that certain processes of globalisation and aspects of globalism at the beginning of the twenty-first century can not be comprehended fully within Said's concept of Orientalism and his critique of imperialism.

The challenges of an increasingly interdependent and interconnected world can only be addressed if the whole political, economic and social process becomes more participatory, representative and equitable than today’s arrangements. This is equally true for the process itself and the production of knowledge about that process. The divergent priorities, objectives, values, concerns and cultures of those concerned - nation-states, international institutions, non-governmental organisations, multinational corporations, global social movements, religious groups - have to be actively involved in the production of more inclusive, participatory, collaborative and non-coercive knowledge - not just be represented by somebody else.



Kennedy, Valerie (2000) Edward Said. A Critical Introduction, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Nederveen Pieterse, Jan (1995) "Globalization as Hybridization", in: Featherstone, Mike, Scott Lash and Roland Robertson (eds.) Global Modernities, London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: Sage Publications: 45-68.

Said, Edward W. (1994a) Culture and Imperialism, orig. publ. in 1993, London: Vintage.

----- (1994b) Representations of the Intellectual. The 1993 Reith Lectures, London: Vintage.

----- (1995) [1978] Orientalism, repr. with a new afterword, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

----- (2001b) "In the Shadow of the West", interview with Jonathan Crary and Phil Mariani, orig. published in Wedge, New York, 1985, in: Gauri Viswanathan (ed.) Power, Politics, and Culture. Interviews with Edward W. Said, New York: Pantheon Books: 39-52.

----- (2001f) "Culture and Imperialism", interview with Joseph A. Buttigieg and Paul A. Bové, orig. published in boundary 2: An International Journal of Literature and Culture, Durham, North Carolina: 1993, in: Gauri Viswanathan (ed.) Power, Politics, and Culture. Interviews with Edward W. Said, New York: Pantheon Books: 183-207.

----- (2001g) "Orientalism and After", interview with Anne Beezer and Peter Osborne, orig. published in Radical Philosophy, London: 1993, in: Gauri Viswanathan (ed.) Power, Politics, and Culture. Interviews with Edward W. Said, New York: Pantheon Books: 208-232.

Sardar, Ziauddin (1999) Orientalism, Buckingham and Philadelphia: Open University Press.