Edward Said: Scholar says he took intellectuals for a ride

Historians in the News

Edward Said's"Orientalism" was a cultural bombshell that has become a landmark -- some would say a crater. One of the most popular and influential academic books ever written, it inspires condemnation and praise in equal measure. Published in 1978,"Orientalism" not only was a founding text for the academic fields of postcolonial theory and subaltern studies, but also remains one of the most-cited works in what we can broadly call the"oppositional canon." It has been translated into 36 languages, and it continues to be cited, discussed and taught throughout the world.

Said, who died in 2003, was born in Jerusalem, moving to the United States as a young man. A professor of English literature at Columbia University, he was also an outspoken advocate for the Palestinian cause, which made him extremely controversial. He sat on the Palestinian National Council but became an increasingly bitter critic of Yasser Arafat and resigned in 1991. (Said was probably the only person who could claim both that his office had been fire-bombed by right-wing Zionists and that his writings had been banned in the occupied territories by Arafat.) In"Orientalism," Said argued that from the beginning of Western civilization, Europeans have seen the East -- and in particular the Middle East -- as an alien and threatening Other, and have constructed a mythical and self-serving version of it. Said maintained that this version of the Arab world, which flowered in the work of British and French scholars in the late 18th century and continues to be accepted today, provided a justification for the Western imperialist projects that started with Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798. Far from being objective, Said wrote, the scholars of the 18th and 19th centuries served the interests of power.

This Orientalist discourse, he maintained, is racist, condescending, controlling, dehumanizing, feminizing and"essentialist" -- that is, it asserts that there is a mysterious"essence," invariably religious, that defines the Arab world. That supposed essence, Said argued, is completely mythical and artificial, based not on actual knowledge or experience of the Arabs but purely on the West's imaginary construction. In other words, Orientalism is an enclosed system, impervious to reality and indeed designed to ignore it.

This monolithic assertion of Western villainy is based on a theoretical framework that Said derived from the French philosopher Michel Foucault. The key idea is"discourse," which Foucault defined as a system of thought that defines what can be"known." This system is inextricably linked to power in all its forms -- hence Foucault's famous formulation"power/knowledge." For Foucault and Said, it was a naive illusion to believe that knowledge can exist independent of power. Because Orientalism is a discourse, no one can really escape it: it is a trans-subjective phenomenon. But Said became dissatisfied with Foucault because his theory did not allow a way out. The other thinker to whom Said was indebted, the Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci, provided the concept of"hegemony," which allows for the possibility of resistance to inviolable discourse.

In"Orientalism," Said ranged far and wide, from famous scholars like Louis Massignon and Sir Hamilton Gibb to literary greats like Flaubert and Nerval to hosts of unknown travelers and writers. He unearthed countless examples of grandiose statements made by Westerners about the mysterious, threatening, promiscuous, God-obsessed, immutable East. These statements were not coincidental or contingent, Said argued, but reflected a universal imperialist discourse that historically governed everything any Westerner could say or think about the Arab world. As Said put it in reference to the 19th century,"It is therefore correct that every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric." To the end of his life, he believed that this view of the Arab world still held sway.

Said's book provoked a furious controversy that still rages today. With America trapped in Iraq, and with the Middle East on the verge of a regional crisis, the debate about"Orientalism" is not a merely academic one. Bush's entire"war on terror," and in particular his bizarre decision to invade Iraq, could be seen as driven by Orientalist beliefs and assumptions. Moreover, ominously and quite predictably,"Orientalist" ideas in Said's sense are beginning to pop up in the national discourse. One of the peculiar ironies of the Iraq war is that its architects used politically correct pieties to justify it. Bush and former deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz repeatedly used nameless skeptics,"who say the Arab world isn't ready for democracy," as straw men to give an idealist gloss to their plans for war. Today, disillusioned and angry conservatives are beginning to rebel against these pieties. Rush Limbaugh, as usual, gave crude voice to the inchoate beliefs of millions when he said that we should just"blow the place up." As the Iraq nightmare deepens, these opinions are likely to become louder.

At this fraught historical moment, a new book, Robert Irwin's"Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents," launches the most formidable assault on Said yet. Irwin has impeccable scholarly credentials: He teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, has written on Arabic literature and art, and is the Middle East editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Irwin's book is a hybrid, both a history of the academic field of Orientalism and an all-out assault on Said's most famous book.

Irwin maintains that Said's thesis is false, the arguments he made for it dishonest, distorted and weak, and his theoretical framework self-contradictory and evasive. He charges that Said engaged in a counterfactual rewriting of history, attacking figures from earlier eras because they did not say or do what Said thought they should have. Said's entire project, in his view, is"a work of malignant charlatanry in which it is difficult to distinguish honest mistakes from wilful misrepresentations."

Irwin takes pains to point out that, politically, he is on Said's side."I have no significant disagreements with what Said has written about Palestine, Israel, Kipling's 'Kim,' or Glenn Gould's piano playing." This strengthens Irwin's position, as some of Said's supporters have argued that much of the opprobrium heaped on"Orientalism" has come from those opposed to Said's outspoken support for the Palestinian cause, thus serving as an example of the very Orientalist bigotry Said attacks. No such charge can be leveled against Irwin.

Irwin's strategy for demolishing"Orientalism" is to focus on the major figures in the field and to show that who they were, what they believed, and what their scholarship and attitudes were toward the Arab world bear no resemblance to Said's version. He devotes only one chapter to a direct critique of Said's book and in the final one considers other critics of Orientalism. The rest of"Dangerous Knowledge" presents the rich and complex history of Orientalist scholarship and the often eccentric men (and they were almost all men) who engaged in it. His goal is to use reality to dissolve the abstract and tendentious cloak of villainy that Said drapes over an entire scholarly field. It's on this empirical battleground, not in the lofty clouds of theory, that Irwin battles Said. He uses the history of Orientalism and the careers of Orientalists as a needle to let the hot air out of Said's 30,000-feet-above-facts balloon. And the result is one of the more spectacular deflatings since the Hindenburg.

Contrary to Said, Irwin reveals, the towering figures of Oriental scholarship tended to be unworldly, solitary figures, who, far from demonizing the Arab world or Islam, were sympathetic to it and were often regarded as suspiciously un-Christian by their contemporaries. Many were opposed to Western imperial designs on the Near East. Like scholars through the ages, they spent most of their time working diligently on often dry-as-dust textual or linguistic problems. They were also often slightly loony. The father of Orientalism, Guillaume de Postel (1510-1581), was, Irwin notes,"quite barmy": The"foremost expert on Arabic and Islam in Europe" also believed that a woman named Johanna was the angelic pope, the new Eve, the mater mundi who possessed X-ray vision that allowed her to"see Satan sitting at the center of the earth." Postel's weird ideas led the Inquisition to investigate him, but the Holy Office, in a kinder, gentler moment, decided that he"was not a heretic, merely insane."...

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Barrie Lambert - 12/13/2006

I read Orientalism more than 30 years ago and it struck me that Said argues a very powerful case for thinking more about how and why we think about others. It is, in essence, a brilliant polemic designed to change the way we look at the world, and only incidentally became a "founding text" - although, in so becoming, in a post-colonial, post-oil price hike world, it demonstrated very effectively Said's argument about the relationship between power and knowledge. As may Robert Irwin's book in the little bit bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan world we live in today.