[Marxism] Edward Said

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Dec 13 07:29:07 MST 2006


What Said Said

By Scott McLemee

Many recent denunciations of Edward Said’s 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, Said’s 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 Ahmad’s 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 Said’s 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 Said’s 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 Irwin’s 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, Irwin’s 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 Irwin’s 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. Here’s a transcript of the discussion.

full: http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2006/12/13/mclemee

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