[Marxism] Edward Said
lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Dec 13 07:29:07 MST 2006
What Said Said
By Scott McLemee
Many recent denunciations of Edward Saids Orientalism are probably best
ignored. After all, a stone-throwing incident hardly provides adequate
grounds for criticizing one of the most influential books in the humanities
published in recent decades. Said, who at the time of his death in 2003 was
a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, was an
extremely tenacious and vocal supporter of the Palestinian nationalist
cause. It gave even his scholarly work a degree of fame beyond the academic
world. Looking over references to Orientalism, it is often clear that many
of those ostensibly discussing Orientalism are actually much more concerned
with that famous picture of Said at the Lebanese border in 2000, hurling a
protest at the Israeli army.
First published by Pantheon in 1978 and eventually translated into some
three dozen languages, Saids book was an ambitious effort to use concepts
from 20th century cultural theory to scrutinize the way Western academics
and writers understood the East during the era of European imperial
expansion. Said treated Western literature and scholarship as an integral
part of the process of absorbing, assimilating, and policing the colonial
Other. That interpretation is now often taken more or less for granted in
some parts of the humanities.
Not that it has been immune to serious criticism including the very sharp
take-down in Aijaz Ahmads book In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures
(Verso, 1994), which accused Said of helping to foster postcolonial
studies as a form of pseudo-political academic politics. Another critique,
of a different sort, appears in a new book called Dangerous Knowledge:
Orientalism and Its Discontents (Overlook Press), by Robert Irwin.
A novelist and translator, Irwin has also taught medieval history at the
University of St. Andrews. Unlike the neocons for whom Said-bashing in
something of a sport, Irwin is sympathetic to Saids political commitment,
and praises his effort to defend the Palestinian cause in a hostile
environment. American coverage of the Middle East and especially of
Palestinian matters, writes Irwin, has mostly been disgraceful biased,
ignorant, and abusive.
But Irwin regards Saids interpretation of the history of Orientalism as
unfair and, at times, lightly informed. Irwin writes less like a polemicist
than a don. He quotes a passage in which Said commenting on the state of
Middle Eastern studies in the 12th century stretches his erudition a
little thin by referring to Peter the Venerable and other Cluniac
Orientalists. You can almost see Irwins eyebrow arch. Which other
Cluniac Orientalists? he asks. It would be interesting to know their
names. But, of course, the idea that there is a whole school of Cluniac
Orientalists is absurd. Peter the Venerable was on his own.
Beyond catching Said in various misstatements, Irwins argument is that the
field of European research into Middle Eastern language, culture, and
history was by no means so tightly linked to Western imperial ambitions as
Orientalism suggests. He is also very skeptical of the value of analyzing
Orientalist scholarship alongside Western literary texts devoted to the
East evading the distinctions between kinds of texts by treating them all
as manifestations of a colonialist discourse.
Said, as literary theorist, was prone to the sweeping generalization.
Irwin, as historian, is the partisan of noisome little facts. I suppose his
criticisms of Said will be well-received by some people in neoconservative
circles though only if they ignore Irwins palpable disdain for their
policies. (Neocons also have reason to be wary of someone so insistent on
factual accuracy, of course.) He agreed to answer a few questions by
e-mail. Heres a transcript of the discussion.
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