Orientalism's Wake: The Ongoing Politics of a Polemic

By Daniel Martin Varisco | Professor and Chair of Anthropology - Hofstra University | Aug 16, 2012
Justin McIntosh, August 2004
Justin McIntosh, August 2004
Orientalism's Wake: The Ongoing Politics of a Polemic

Originally posted September 2009

More than any other individual scholar in recent history, Edward Said laid bare the discursive ideological undertones that have infested the public and academic representation of an idealized Orient. No one reading his Orientalism can fail to appreciate that much of the previous writing and lecturing about Muslims, Arabs, and stylized ‘Orientals’ reveals more about those doing the writing than about real people inhabiting a geographical space east of Europe. Appearing on the eve of the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but after the 1973 Ramadan War and Arab oil embargo, Said’s thesis resonated across disciplines and in public culture. His seminal polemic brought a new awareness of the political agenda pursued, consciously or not, by contemporary social scientists coming to terms with an explosive part of the world.

Orientalism is still widely read after three decades, as befits a book now available in three dozen languages. Thirty years in print connotes a lifetime for any modern academic text. Consider the measure of three decades; the irony may be quotidien, but Said’s text is separated from us today by the same length of time between the formation of Israel and its publication. Although Orientalism is not directly about Palestine, it is the opening sally in Said’s successive critical engagements with Covering Islam, Culture, and Imperialism and The Question of Palestine. Although Said’s pen was silenced on September 25, 2003, when he succumbed to leukemia, the debate over Said’s Orientalism thesis is far from over. In part this is due to the ethnocentric prejudice and political bias that continue to fuel depictions of the real Orient in the media and popular culture, especially after the 9/11 tragedy and subsequent global War on Terror. But, as three decades of criticism shows, the historical errors, methodological flaws and palpable polemical rhetoric in the text burden its thesis for current and future readers.

In the past three years, three major critiques of Said’s Orientalism have appeared, each attempting in a different way to put the polemic in its proper place. In For Lust for Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies (2006) Robert Irwin provides a swashbuckling account of clerics, scoundrels, and scholars as passionate curiosity seekers rather than unwitting dupes of a coercive Aeschylus-to-Lewis discourse or indiscreet French and British colonial policy. The pseudonymic Ibn Warraq launched an ad hominem attack on Said and liberals in general in his aptly titled but badly edited Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism (2007). What need be said of an incautious critic who unilaterally resurrects the Greek Herodotus as a historian “totally devoid of racial prejudice” (p. 33) and then stamps Said’s book as merely a “trawl through Western literature for filth to besmirch Western civilization” (p. 27). This modern son of a bookseller imprints a polemical farce not worth the 500-plus pages of paper it wastes.

I argue in my Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid (2007) that the literarily induced blame game binary introduced by Said is as problematic for ongoing scholarship as the East/West dichotomy that Said so rightly attacked. Unlike Ibn Warraq and more than Robert Irwin, I do not doubt Said’s sincerity or his intellectual acumen. Pointing out the flaws in Orientalism, and there are many specific ones, should neither be a defense of the way the West bested the East nor a referendum on Said’s passionate advocacy for Palestinian rights. My concern is not simply what Said said but what is to be done with a polemical text that has served its purpose and is now superseded in most scholarly assessments of Islam and cultures of the Middle East.

In hindsight Said’s contribution was not unique. Establishment thinking had already become the target of critics within several disciplines. Examples include historians Hayden White’s flirtation with the ideas of Giambattista Vico and Michel Foucault in Tropics of Discourse (1978) and Lawrence Stone’s call for a new kind of narrative history in Past and Present (1979). Sociologists Bryan Turner’s Marx and the End of Orientalism (1978) and Syed Hussein Alatas’s The Myth of the Lazy Native (1977) laid out similar claims about the colonial residue in ongoing academic study. Yet it was Said’s text, by far the most widely distributed and read, that fostered the emergence of what came to be called the post-colonial critique. By the mid-1980s the formerly colonized subaltern could indeed speak in academic halls, even if such major fetishized icons as Homi Baba and Gayatri Spivak seemed to have little interest in writing readable prose.

Unfortunately, the debate over Orientalism has centered largely on the persona of Said himself, usually in opposition to Princeton’s Bernard Lewis, the media doyen of establishment academia. The acrimony between these two men came to a head at the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) in 1986, when some 3,000 conference participants witnessed what some unknown wit labeled the “shoot-out at the MESA corral.” Armed with file cards of quotes from Lewis’ extensive writings, Said dismissed everything Lewis had to say about Arabs and Muslims as utterly worthless and Zionist. The pedantic pugilism of Said vs. Lewis readily became a comic and at times tragic sideshow to the issues underlying the polemic. The problem of an essentialized East/West binary was reduced to whether one sides with the brash literary critic or the learned don. If this was the intent of the broader “culture wars” scenario, there has yet to be a clear winner, nor a resulting peace dividend.

Orientalism, like most polemics, is rife with faults. Critics from many fields have accused Said of redefining the term “Orientalism” to include virtually anyone who wrote about the “Orient,” thus reducing the sympathetic historian Louis Massignon to the same discursively driven level as the libertine novelist Gustave Flaubert. While scholars have never been immune to ethnocentric and racial bias, it is counterproductive to blur genres and assume that trained historians and social scientists, even those who write for the seminal Encyclopaedia of Islam, ultimately must share the same latent agenda. Polemical fervor resulted in an almost total lack of nuance, a most un-Foucauldian faux-pas. Besides the indiscriminate mixing of textual genres, Said only presented examples that illustrate his argument, ignoring the many Western scholars who critiqued the biases of fellow Orientalists. As noted by many of his ardent supporters, Said also failed to examine or give credence to the subaltern voices that resisted the alleged hegemony of Orientalist discourse.

Misquotes, dropped ellipses in quotations, and historical errors plague the unrevised text of Orientalism. One of the most egregious examples of Said’s polemical blindness to the sources he read is his mistranslation of a verse from the German poet Goethe, who is denigrated as a meddling fabricator of Orientalist bias. The line is taken from Goethe’s Westöstlicher Diwan, where the possessive “Gottes ist der Orient” is garbled by Said as “God is the Orient.” Had he consulted the well-known translation by Robert Browning, that “God is of the east possess’d,” Said would have recognized that the poet was not turning Islam into a romanticized pantheism. Ironically, Goethe here is quoting verbatim from the Orientalist von Hammer-Purgstall’s German translation of the Qur’an (The Cow, 2:142). While several translations of Orientalism, such as the Italian and French, correct this error with existing translations of Goethe, most do not.

Even Gustav Flaubert, the bête noir of the sensual Orientalist gaze, is misrepresented. While it is questionable why a voyeuristic traveler who disdained academic study should be placed in the same literary bed with a trained historian or linguist, Said misquotes a passage from one of Flaubert’s private letters. If Flaubert had really said that “Inscriptions and bird droppings are the only two things in Egypt that give any indication of life,” as Said writes, he would deserve to be castigated. The quote refers to musings by Flaubert at the imposing Colossi of Memnon. As the original French reveals, Flaubert was lamenting that the only things alive “sur les ruines” of Egypt were graffiti and bird dung; contrapuntally, this seems more like disdain for the desecration of monuments by his fellow tourists than a repudiation of real Egyptians.

In addition to misreading, several seminal texts in the Western imagination of the Orient are left unread. Said totally ignores the genre of Oriental tales most celebrated in Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes (1721), a dilletante[alizing] dialogue of two Persian travelers to Paris. The target of Montesquieu’s sharp wit is not an Oriental other, but the political and religious foibles of his own society. In one of the letters the soft-spoken Rica mentions a French decisionnaire who thinks himself an expert on everything. “I spoke to him of Persia,” noted Rica, “but hardly had I opened my mouth, when he contradicted me twice, basing his observations upon the authority of [the French travelers] Taverner and Chardin. ‘Ah! good heavens!’ said I to myself, ‘what kind of man is this? He will know next all the streets in Ispahan better than I do!’” Montesquieu’s satirical swipe at the budding Orientalists of his day would make a perfect epigraph for Said’s text.

Ironically, Said’s stated hope that his text would lead to a new way of moving beyond the discourse of power as knowledge has come true in most current scholarship. This is not due to his methodological contribution, especially given the extensive criticism over his adaptation of Michel Foucault’s ‘discourse’ and Antonio Gramsci’s “egemonia,” but a result of the wider interdisciplinary assault on positivist hubris and scientism. Uncritical reading of Said’s text obscures the positive results in contemporary academic study of an area too easily imaginable as an “Orient.” After three decades, it is time to move beyond PhD thesis cataloguing of what the West did to the East and self-unfulfilling political punditry about what real individuals in the East say they want to do to the West. Edward Said brought us a long way in this process, but the politics of polemics can only go so far, as he himself acknowledged in his later years.

The term “Orientalism” as the label for a distinct field of study was abandoned 36 years ago on the 100th anniversary of the First International Congress of Orientalists, as a majority of scholars in what had been called “Oriental Studies” began to apply theoretical and methodological insights from their evolving disciplines. Said’s Orientalism helped emerging scholars come to terms with the baggage of past Orientalism, but as a polemic his text needs to be re-read in the context of the profound changes it helped foster. Serious academic study will always be subject to the limitations and inevitable prejudices of individual scholars. But the contributions of scholars should no longer be summarily dismissed as hostage to a latent hegemonic discourse that Said mislabeled “Orientalism.” The choice need not be reduced to an orthodox academic nihil obstat vs. an amateurish Nietzschean ortho-toxy.

Truth will continue to be essentialized, especially in the media and popular culture, but speaking truths (always in the plural, I should hope) to power is best served by a critical focus on the fit of observations with an assumed and irreducible reality worth studying. I am not so naïve as to assume that the damage of an opportunistic East/West clash can simply be wished away through careful research, but neither do I doubt the ability of trained scholars to whittle away at bias and misinformation through critical reasoning and refined methodologies. If we cannot completely lay to rest the ghosts of Orientalism past, at least we can stop being frightened by such a troublesome specter. The legacy of Edward Said’s significant intellectual corpus deserves no less.

 

 

Unfortunately, the debate over Orientalism has centered largely on the persona of Said himself...

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