"Orientalism" and its Discontents
May 24, 2008 11:38 AM   Subscribe

Historian Robert Irwin reviews two books critical of Edward Said's Orientalism. Irwin's own critique received positive and mixed reviews. In this brief interview, Said explains what he was trying to do in Orientalism.
posted by ibmcginty (8 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

In his basic doctrine of the inherent metaphysical oneness of mankind (as opposed to the doctrine of The Other, inextricably linked with colonialism), Said asserts - early in the filmed interview - that, for example, every human desires freedom. I wonder what that means and if that is true.
posted by kozad at 11:56 AM on May 24, 2008

Given the context in which the work appeared, it is understandable that Orientalism would be a work of lasting influence. What's puzzling to me is its utter canonization in the academic world and the dogmatic resistance other scholars exhibit when it is met with criticism. Of the two Irwin discusses I've only read Warraq's book but it impressed me a hell of a lot more than Said's.
posted by inoculatedcities at 12:09 PM on May 24, 2008

At some level I have to agree with Irwin at one level but I don't think he goes far enough. EVERYONE else is The Other at some level. Surely his enlightened understanding of this heterogeneity of our separate makeups will prevent him from getting all bent out of shape when my troops occupy his front yard, unlike those bloody savages over yonder.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 12:18 PM on May 24, 2008

Thanks for this post. I've long been fascinated with the excessive influence of Orientalism; like Black Athena, it tapped into a deep well of liberal self-doubt among Westerners embarrassed by colonialism and its aftermath who cared less about facts than sweeping judgments. Irwin is a fine scholar (his The Arabian Nights: A Companion is very useful) and he does a good job on demolishing not only Said's mistakes but his sly use of rhetoric:
Before teasing out the meaning of this passage, it is important to look at Said’s rhetorical style. Beyond the working definitions outlined at the start, this distinction here is what he “really” means, the heart of the matter. Notice how this passage sidesteps a totalizing sense by qualifying “unconscious” with “almost”, “found” with “almost exclusively”, and “unanimity, stability, and durability” with “more or less”. This trope of the adverbial caveat dangled like catnip before the reader allows Said to speak in round numbers, so to speak, rather than giving what might be called a statistical, and thus potentially falsifiable, sense to his argument. As a result, any exceptions pointed out by a critic are pre-mitigated. The caveats appear to flow from cautious scholarship, but the latent intent is that of a polemicist.
Said was a good guy and wrote perceptively about literature, but Orientalism is a mess and should be gracefully retired.
posted by languagehat at 2:14 PM on May 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

Wow, that was really interesting. I hadn't realized how much of Said's scholarship was dubious, and I'm curious about Irwin's book, but I have to say that I'm under-prepared to evaluate claims. I do think that Irwin and Said seem to be addressing slightly different forms of Orientalism, with Irwin tackling the vocation more than the popular perception, and it seeming like Said grasped hold of a narrative thread that I recognized from canonical examples of West-views-East culture (Odalisque, etc.). That could also be why, despite (I'm taking them as valid) Irwin's pointed intra-disciplinary criticisms, Orientalism has held in inter-disciplinary discourse.

I had to read Orientalism (well, really, chose it, but it was clearly the most interesting book on the list) and dig up a handful of critics and supporters for a class presentation once (where it was too easy to support Said because Lewis's was the most popular criticism at the time, and any reasonable reading should easily favor Said over him). Everyone in the class had to write down a comment or question on a sheet of paper after each person's presentation, and generally all you got was "Good job," or something. But along with those, I got a note that said, "You're not supposed to call them Orientals"
posted by klangklangston at 2:17 PM on May 24, 2008 [3 favorites]

I've been intending to read Orientalism for some time. The core concept is widely discussed in many other history books, and the students of any "exotic" location quickly learn that lay people tend to view, say, German history quite differently than they view, for example, Japanese history. Said, of course, was writing on the perception of the Middle East, but the problem he discusses applies just as easily to East Asia.

Even some books written by actual East Asian historians are written from the standpoint that Westerners can never really understand the "Oriental" mind. Mostly they're the old guard, but that attitude is remarkably persistant.

I'm going to move Said's book to the top of my summer reading list, along with a few modern critiques.
posted by sotonohito at 3:41 PM on May 24, 2008

Progress in some fields are brought to a screeching halt for decades by the influence of one extremely influential scholar who seizes on an idea, and uses his influence to make dissent against that idea professional suicide -- and are ultimately demonstrated, after their deaths, to have been totally wrong.

The classic example of that is Sir Arthur Evans, the archeologist who was most influential in the early study of the Minoan civilization of Crete. He steadfastly refused to accept the idea that the Minoan civilization was Greek, and viciously attacked and tried to professionally ruin anyone who even suggested it. So for decades no one made any progress in trying to read the large amounts of writing he and others had recovered.

Alice Kober eventually began, and Michael Ventris completed, a decipherment of the Minoan "Linear B" script. Ventris ultimately established beyond any doubt that it was Greek. But their work wasn't possible until after Evans died.

I've heard from professional linguists that Chomsky's work in linguistics has a similar stifling influence, one from which the field probably won't be freed until after he's gone. They said this to me in private, but wouldn't ever say so in public professionally because it would end their careers.

And Said seems to have had a similar poisonous influence on this field.
posted by Class Goat at 7:29 PM on May 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's been very interesting to follow the discussion in the letters page of the TLS over the last few weeks. One of the most damning allegations in Irwin's article was the claim that Said's knowledge of French, German and Arabic (to say nothing of English) left a lot to be desired:

Said had a problem with languages. For example, when discussing the writings of Sir William Jones and Friedrich Schlegel, he was mysteriously determined to deny that Sanskrit, Persian, German and Greek all belonged to the same broad group of languages -- a sort of club to which Arabic could not belong. Ibn Warraq, in discussing Said's attitude to Orientalists, remarls that he was 'particularly jealous of their mastery of languages'. German scholars dominated Arabic, Hebrew and Sanskrit studies in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, yet Said avoided any substantial discussion of their work. Some critics have argued that this was because the pre-eminence of German Orientalists did not fit his thesis about the interdependence of Orientalism and imperialism in the Middle East, but others have suggested that it was because his German was not very good. Varisco has noted how Said mistranslates Goethe's famous line "Gottes ist der Orient!" as "God is the Orient". He has also spotted that Nerval's "La mer d'Ionie" was mistranslated as "the Ionian sky". Ibn Warraq is unhappy with Said's English, specifically with his misuse of the adverb "literally" and his confusion of scatology with eschatology. Other critics have wondered about Said's Arabic.

Ouch! However, one of Said's former doctoral students wrote to say that Said was fluent in French and German, and Irwin partly retracts his allegations in a letter this week where he writes: 'it seems clear that his French was pretty good .. [and] the odd mistake in translation can be explained by the excessive haste in which Orientalism was written and published'. But he still questions the extent of Said's knowledge of Arabic.

Another of the TLS letter-writers, defending Said, makes what I think is a really shocking remark: 'surely it is more important that Said offered a forewarning of .. the current Iraq war, than whether he might have been wrong about the decipherability of an inscription in Arabic on a wall in a painting by Gérôme'. This is a disgraceful thing for any scholar to say (essentially, that the factual mistakes don't matter as long as the political position is right) and Irwin deals with it very effectively:

Said's attack on Bernard Lewis would have been more effective if it had been more accurate and more thoroughly researched. I disagree with a great deal of what Lewis has written in recent years. I also regard Israel's treatment of the Palestinians as barbarous and unfair and have always thought that our war in Iraq is illegal, immoral and stupid. Yet none of these things impels me to endorse Said's account of past Western literary and scholarly encounters with the Middle East, for it was in general, as well as in almost every detail, false.

My impression, as a non-specialist, is that Orientalism had its moment, and the moment is now passed. Friends who work on East/West topics will groan and roll their eyes whenever the book comes up in conversation, and I recently heard a paper by a respected scholar on Western attitudes to Islam (classic Said territory) which didn't mention Orientalism at all (not even bothering to criticise it, just treating it as totally irrelevant). There also seems to be a backlash in critical theory against the 'construction of the other' -- and if you take 'othering' out of the Orientalism thesis, what's left? not much, I think.
posted by verstegan at 1:30 AM on May 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

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