Edward Said: What Said Said

Historians in the News

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.”...

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