Edward Said as Masonry

by zunguzungu

Chapati Mystery noted, recently, how Edward Said’s death seemes to have ushered in a broad and sweeping effort to to obliterate his legacy. This silly review is an excellent example, written by a guy who wrote a book attacking Said (For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies) reviewing other people’s books attacking Said: Daniel Martin Varisco’s Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid and Ibn Warraq’s Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism.

Here’s enough rope for Irwin to hang himself:

“So many academics want the arguments presented in Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978 ) to be true. It encourages the reading of novels at an oblique angle in order to discover hidden colonialist subtexts. It promotes a hypercritical version of British and, more generally, of Western achievements. It discourages any kind of critical approach to Islam in Middle Eastern studies. Above all, Orientalism licenses those academics who are so minded to think of their research and teaching as political activities. The drudgery of teaching is thus transformed into something much more exciting, namely “speaking truth to power”. It is unlikely that the two books under review, both of which present damning criticisms of Said’s book at length and in detail, will change anything.”

To put it more succinctly: academics wish the arguments in Orientalism were true because if they were, these deluded academics can pretend to be political activists. And, so fervently do they wish this that they will ignore real scholarship that contraverts the Saidian thesis, scholarship such as that by this troika of mute, inglorious Miltons toiling in obscurity and in the Times Literary Review.

As Irwin demponstrates, Varisco sets out “to expose Said’s rhetorical tricks” and to critique his “use of pejorative vocabulary,” while Ibn Warraq notes Said’s damning failure to speak as many languages, or as well, as the Orientalist scholars he criticized. Leftist scholars, of course, will ignore these valiant efforts and continue to walk about with their heads in the sand (an impossible thing physically to do, I know, but such is the willful blindness of the left!). They will refuse to see, for example, that because Said uses the pejorative word “ransack” instead of “read,” “consulted,” or “examined,” it necessarily and oh-so-logically follows that all Orientalist scholars were politically neutral and unbiased scholars. Not only this, leftist scholars will fail to realize that because “Said was utterly oblivious to the humour and stylishness of Alexander Kinglake’s Eothen,” it naturally follows that, um,it’s completely obvious that, well… Actually, I don’t have a clue why this is supposed to be relevent. Here’s the passage:

“Said was utterly oblivious to the humour and stylishness of Alexander Kinglake’s Eothen. Kinglake had enough money to travel to amuse himself. But Said’s Orientalists are a classless lot. That is silly. It is impossible to browse through the early proceedings of the Royal Asiatic Society or the Société Asiatique without recognizing that nineteenth-century Orientalism was presided over by aristocrats and that for the most part the research was done by men with private incomes.”

The point this is in service of utterly escapes me. I’m open to the suggestion that Said missed something important because he used the dichotomy of West and East in ways that obscured rich and poor; frankly, I’m so open to it that I almost presume it to be true anyway, since this is an ongoing problem in “postcolonial” theoretical circles more generally. But Irwin doesn’t seem to have any sense of what Said is supposed to have missed here. Why the fuck do we care that he was utterly oblivious to “the humor and stylishness of Eothen”? It doesn’t seem self-evident to me that such a thing has any bearing on what it means to be an “Orientalist,” but Irwin declines to pick up that burden of proof. Instead, and this is typical of the entire piece, he just blasts him for having made a mistake and then draws large and sweeping conclusions from that mistake: because Said fails to recognize the stylishness of a writer no one cares about anymore, not only is his entire work bunk, but the opposite of what Said argued must now be accepted as true. I trust the logical fallacy of all this is apparent.

I think Said makes a good target, actually, because his work does indeed have a lot of problems. He could be sloppy, and because he did have a tendency to take a strong case too far in service of a particular political agenda, a book like Orientalism hasn’t aged as well as it might have. There is a great deal to pick on in that book published thirty years ago. But none of it matters, at all. People still read Said, but it’s not like they need to, not like Said is some kind of load-bearing wall without which the entire edifice collapses. The practices that Irwin tries to lay at Said’s doorstep—reading novels to discover hidden colonialist subtexts, a hypercritical version of Western achievements, and thinking of research and teaching as political activities—are not exactly inventions of this evil conniving Palestinian worm Irwin imagines as lurking in Columbia’s woodpile. I mean, for seriously, does he really think Said invented the idea of teaching as a political activity? Does he really think that Said was the first person in the world to be critical of the West? Does he really think that British novels written during the apex of British colonial expansion weren’t at least partially about colonialism?

Said could have said any goddamn silly thing and it wouldn’t have meant that any of these conclusions were right or wrong. Said, you see, isn’t a load-bearing wall; he’s more like a piece of brick and plaster that was saved when the original house was renovated. He’s not the best piece of masonry there is; he lets in some water when it rains, and the newer building materials are able to hold in heat in the winter (and let it out in the summertime) much better than technology allowed in 1978. But there’s both a certain sentimental and historical attachment to him that keeps him around. He laid the original pattern according to which the structure has grown, and that means he’s still important in understanding how “postcolonialism” as a discourse works. And sometimes his failings have been a limitation. Much of what he has to say about the West’s attitudes towards the “Orient,” for example, is simply not applicable to the texts I study, books about Africa by both Westerners and Africans, and the ways that the enterprise of “postcolonialism” often tries to stick us all under one roof does create problems (as does the broad “West” and “rest” dichotomies his work tends to suggest). But Said is still relevant not because everything he said was right but because he noticed a few very true things and tried to draw conclusions from them. One of these very true things is: that the ways in which Western scholarship produced knowledge about the “East” has tended to be self serving and imperialist, a fact which literary scholarship generally prefers not to think about. This remains true as a tendency; pointing out the ways that Said’s particular hypothesis doesn’t adequately account for this data doesn’t make the data disappear (as Irwin and ilk would like), it simply demands that we work better to produce better hypothoses, something wholly in the spirit of Said’s own work. Though Irwin would prefer not to admit it, Said was quite capable of critiquing people on both sides of the West/Rest dichotomy: he fought for Palestinian sovereignty while strongly criticizing Arafat and the PLO, and his brand of secular aesthetics was both (via its Auerbachian genealogy) implicitly quite “Western” and explicitly incompatible with most varieties of religious fundamentalism.

So Irwin is probably right that damning critiques of Said’s own work will not significantly hinder politically minded critics of a certain ideological strip from doing what it is that they do. This will occur to the extent that they are less blinded by their ideology than Irwin, an extent which, I will venture, is considerable.