"The trouble with the Engenglish," stutters Whisky Sisodia in Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, "is that their hiss-hiss-history happened overseas, so they do- do-don't know what it means." Only in the past few years have we begun to grapple with our history of empire and slave-trading, asking what it might actually mean. A short stroll down Pall Mall to Buckingham Palace - past the tributes to the colonisers of East and West Africa, India and Burma - should be enough to remind us how far we have to go.
My own process of decolonisation from the sticky quarter-truths of the history I was taught at school began when I read Edward Said's monumental Orientalism (1978). Said, professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, revealed how colonial rule was justified and made possible through an exhaustive system of cultural representations of the colonised - representations that still haunt us. His contribution was not merely to develop a vocabulary to describe the ways in which non- Europeans are demonised in our society, but to reverse the way we think culture works - rather than reflecting the political, Said argues, culture actually produces it, so that "texts can create not only knowledge but also the very reality they appear to describe". The inelegant name for this form of inquiry is "discourse analysis", and the footsteps of its founder, the French historian Michel Foucault, are all over Said's work.
What makes Orientalism such a vital and powerful book is the way Said extends Foucault's investigation of the discourses of sexuality and the law to the post-Enlightenment European imagination. Said's own intellectual map is as large as that of the empire itself. Fluent in French and Arabic, he also reads Spanish, German, Italian and Latin. Orientalism reflects this polyglot learning, ranging from analysis of Aeschylus's The Persians and Flaubert's Salammbo to Balfour's foreign policy and the speeches of Henry Kissinger. His book can be read as both corollary and antidote to Erich Auerbach's magisterial Mimesis (1946). Its influence has been almost as widespread, not only in English departments across America and Europe but in sociology, anthropology and history. Orientalism has inspired its own academic field, postcolonial studies, which has generated some of the best critical work of the past two decades. It is almost inconceivable to imagine someone receiving a humanities PhD today without having come to terms with Said's legacy.
Orientalism identifies a range of strategies by which 19th- and 20th-century scholars, writers and artists imposed their authority on the East. The Orient was represented as a theatrical stage affixed to Europe, a place where jaded aristocrats, earnest second sons and tyrannical explorers could discover timeless truths, or perhaps unimagined erotic delights. Stereotypes of eastern wise men and exotic harems removed the colonial world from history altogether, substituting a timeless realm, where western man could either find (Kim) or lose his precious sense of self (The Heart of Darkness). Orientals disappear from these texts, and are seen not as people but as problems, subjects, races; the term "oriental" itself became charged with "an already pronounced evaluative judgement" it continues to possess.
Yet even as Said relentlessly catalogues the way European culture managed and produced the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically and imaginatively from 1798 to the present day, he remains generous in his judgements and scrupulously fair in his tone (he is also a courageous speaker for the plight of the Palestinians, "the victims of the victims", in his unforgettable phrase). Admitting that his love for Verdi and Kipling, Conrad and Flaubert remains undiminished by his recognition of their complicity in the imperial project, Said even suggests that the internal constraints produced by the fact of empire may have proved productive rather than inhibiting for these artists. The thought is terrifying: could the enslavement of millions of people round the globe in the name of Queen Victoria actually have acted as aesthetic stimuli for George Eliot and Charles Dickens? Ignoring such questions in the name of an aesthetic snobbery that damns the work of literary theorists such as Said - without reading them - is certainly no answer, despite the best efforts of a section of the British literary establishment.
That is not to say that Orientalism does not have its faults. Said's championing of the imagination ahead of the real begs the question of how Britain and France actually ruled their empires, if their only knowledge of them was largely imaginary. As the equally wide-ranging, if somewhat unsatisfying Culture and Imperialism (1993) makes clear, much of Said's academic career has been a not altogether successful attempt to articulate the relationship between cultural artefacts and the reality they represent. Yet there is much to be said for an analysis that, if not actually making a hero out of Caliban, at least hears the pain behind his mockery of Prospero: "For I am all the subjects that you have/Which first was mine own King".
If Britain is now beginning to understand its recent history, a recognition apparent in the work of Stuart Hall, Terry Eagleton and Peter Hulme among others, we have Said to thank in large part. Nevertheless, as long as Jim Davidson can continue to entertain Her Majesty's forces and the Daily Telegraph spew out supplements celebrating our glorious imperial legacy, Whisky Sisodia's judgement upon us is worth remembering.
Stuart Burrows, a British writer based at Princeton University, reviews regularly for the "New Statesman"