What Said Said

By Scott McLemee, Inside Higher Education, 13 December 2006

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.

Q: Some criticisms of Orientalism use it as a pretext for denouncing Said's politics. In other cases, the complaints are more methodological—pointing out that Gramsci and Foucault can't really be fused the way he tries to do, for example. Your approach is different. You share Said's perspective on the Palestinian cause, and you don't seem all that interested in nuances of theoretical pedigree. So would you explain the source or motivation of Dangerous Knowledge? What made a criticism of Orientalism seem worthwhile or necessary enough for a book of your own?

A: Several things are relevant here. First I thought that Said had libeled several generations of Orientalist scholars, mostly good and honourable men, in some cases even saintly, if often a bit cranky. Since Silvestre de Sacy and Edward William Lane could not reply—or better yet sue for libel, I thought I should take on the job. I also got irritated with people who though that my researches in the Mamluk Sultanate in late medieval Egypt and Syria necessarily had some sort of sinister agenda. Even my wife seemed to favour this notion.

Secondly, there was no history of Arabic studies except Johannes Fück's Die arabischen Studien bis dem Anfang, but that was out of date, a bit dull and in a language most Anglophone students do not read.

Thirdly, I used to be an academic. I am interested then in how knowledge and intellectual skills are and were transmitted. I am very conscious of being part of a chain of historians. I did history at Oxford and I was taught by brilliant dons with strongly contrasting personalities and methodologies. So it is not that I think Orientalists never have agendas. Most of them do, but it is precisely the variety of those clashing agendas that is so interesting.

Finally I got irritated by the way some people in Eng Lit departments seemed to regard themselves as adversarial saints, robed in white and “speaking truth to power” because they read Conrad, Austen and Flaubert in strange ways. Whereas academics who read Masudi, Tabari and Ibn Khaldun were necessarily robed in black.

Q: Said's notion of Orientalism treats it as both a source and a consequence of Western imperialism. It's a more or less massive, homogenous, cohesive body of “power/knowledge” that both constituted “the East” as something that could be understood and colonized AND functioned as a well-entrenched part of the Western imperial machinery. Your account is quite different: the Orientalists you portray are, often enough, scholars who were quite minor figures within the academic and political establishments of their day. Some seem marginal to any institutional “power/knowledge” formation one could care to identify. So what's Said doing? Is it just anachronism—seeing them as if they were part of a contemporary think tank?

A: To point out the obvious, Said was not a historian. He had no idea then how very few universities there were in 17th, 18th and 19th centuries—and most of those that did exist were in Germany. Secondly, he obviously thought that these universities had flourishing Arabic or Middle Eastern departments, so that, for example, British academic orientalists were the primary audience for Lane's Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians. This flatly is not so. If there were as many as half a dozen academic Arabists in Britain in the early 19th century I would be astonished. Without having sat down to work it out, I would be mildly surprised if there were as many as two. So yes, Said anachronistically foisted 20th-century university politics on earlier centuries.

Until, say the 1940s, Orientalists were overwhelmingly interested in religious, mostly Biblical, issues and philology. Even when Britain and the US did begin to think of Orientalism as a potential handmaiden of Empire, the academic Orientalist temperament was such that they obstinately continued to study and teach cuneiform, pre-Islamic poetry and Abbasid history. And of course, Britain's empire in the Middle East was a short-lived thing. It was falling to pieces in the 1960s.

Imperialists did not read books by Wellhausen or Muir. They read rattling good yarns about soldiers of fortune, tiger-hunting, pig-sticking or polo playing—unless they were seriously cultured, in which case they read Homer, Tacitus, and Gibbon. And reading the last of these must have given them premonitions of the decline and fall of the British Empire.

Q: Does that mean you see no connection at all between Orientalism of the old school (so to speak) and the later “area studies” work funded by Western governments? Do you see Said's book as having any critical value, at least for raising questions about the vested (geopolitical) interests sometimes at work in scholarship?

A: It is good to be alert to geopolitical interests behind university programmes, but the individuals Said attacked were not in area studies, conflict studies, development studies, or terrorism studies. That was after their time. The sort of Orientalism Said was attacking was already passing away (sadly).

And, in Britain at least, there is not much enthusiasm for funding Oriental studies. Departments are being closed down. It is even possible that Said's book may have contributed to be their being discredited and then closed down. No one in British government is prepared to confess that we are making a real mess of what we are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan and therefore we should train up some proper experts. Politics is too short-term for that.

Plenty of people had raised questions about the agendas of Orientalism before Said ever got to work. Some of them were Marxists, some were Islamicists, one was Bernard Lewis. The annoying thing about Said was that he wanted a debate based on false factual premises. Of course, there are vested interests in scholarship, but, for God's sake, if one is looking at vested interests in in Arabic and Islamic studies, most of the \u2018vesting' comes from Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Brunei with the establishments of chairs and lectureships which are implicitly circumscribed in what kinds of research they can initiate and publish.

Above all, it is a great waste of time attacking British, French, American US and Israeli scholars of Arab and Islamic culture. The people who should be attacked are Senators, MPs, Israeli generals, arms merchants, media hacks, etc. The academic dog fight is a fantastic diversion from the real horrors of what is happening in the Gaza Strip, the Left Bank and Lebanon. If one is serious about politics, the Orientalism debate is an intellectual substitute for engaging with real, non-academic issues.

Q: You note that the initial scholarly reception for Orientalism was quite critical. But the book went on to have considerable influence. How do you account for that?

A: The earliest reviewers were mostly people who knew a lot about the actual state of the field. The enthusiasts who came later did not know the field and were mostly too lazy to check Said's assertions. The book, by “speaking truth to power,” appeals to the adversarial mentality so common among students and radical lecturers.

Bashing Orientalism has seemed to be a natural intellectual accessory to opposing Israeli policies on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, American imperialism and British racism. It is much easier deliver patronizing lectures or essays about old-fashioned Orientalists than it is to actually do anything useful for Palestine (or come to that actually learn Arabic and become the “right” kind of Orientalist, whatever that would be). Also, for many students, Said's book, with its references to Foucault, Gramsci and Althusser, must have provided them with their first brush with critical theory. Exciting stuff.

Q: Much of the recent criticism of Orientalism—at least in the United States—treats Said as having been only too successful at severing any connection between scholarship on the Middle East and the needs of the American foreign policy establishment. You clearly aren't a supporter of the latter. But what do you make of that criticism? Is it fair? And do you have any concern about your critique of Said proving useful to, say, the neoconservatives?

A: Martin Kramer's book Ivory Towers on Sand has attacked U.S. Middle East and Islam specialists for having been useless as advisors of government and bad too at predicting what was going to happen next in the Middle East. While I enjoyed some of his criticisms, I am unsympathetic to this point of view. I do not think academics should serve as handmaidens to the State Department. It distorts research agendas and findings. Journalists, politicians and astrologers can try their hand at predicting the future. There is nothing in the history of historiography to suggest that historians (still less specialists in Arabic philology or Islamic prayer ritual) would be particularly good at that game. Research should be guided more by intellectual curiosity than by government funding.

As far as the current disaster in Iraq is concerned, the overwhelming majority of Orientalists—more than 90 percent I guess \u2014 were wholly opposed to the war. In Britain the expert advice that Blair asked for was entirely negative. Blair thanked them for their advice and then went his own infernal way. But, in general, it is quite rare for politicians even to go through the pretence of consulting Orientalists. And, in terms of the history of the field, this did not even begin to happen until the twentieth century and then a little more often after the Second World War.

Academics who suppose that the neocons in Washington were ever bothered by Said's book are living in fantasy land. (I feel ever so slightly tempted to join them in that territory as I fantasize about Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfield cracking open a bottle of champagne after they have read and enjoyed Dangerous Knowledge.)

Said wrote lots of valid political polemic, but Orientalism was a rotten book and it was inevitable that someone should blow a whistle on it. It has been a delusive distraction. It converted real political and social issues into a campus dog-fight. Soothing displacement activity indeed.

As to whom my book may be useful to, Bishop Joseph Butler in the 18th century made the following observation: “Things and their actions are what they are and the consequences of them will be what they will be: why then should we wish to be deceived?”