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Old May 27th, 2011, 01:31 AM   #1
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Is "Orientalism" still a dirty word?


Once upon a time “Orientalist” simply meant a scholar – be they historian, ethnologist, linguist or whatever – whose field of study was “the Orient” (or, more likely, one of its constituent parts).
Then, thanks to Edward Said, it became a slur, a vision of bloated white colonialism or neo-colonialism engaged in spurious ideological scholarship which was, in fact an act of “domination and denigration”.

Now, though I do like to use the stick of “Orientalism” to beat bad travel writers, novelists and TV presenters, I have always had a problem with its apparent absolutism, for a Saidian fundamentalist would seemingly have it that, as a “westerner”, the moment I choose “the Orient” for my subject matter I am engaged in that wicked “domination and denigration”. This has always struck me as thoroughly unhelpful.

Anyway, my topic for discussion here is this: is “Orientalism” still a crime? It seems that the word is in some ways being “reclaimed” (like “queer” or the N-word). William Dalrymple describes himself as an Orientalist, and I think it would a particularly humourless fanatic to accuse him of “denigrating and dominating”).
And are we now, in a post-post-colonial age, free of these hang-ups? Or are there still innate problematic issues with a “westerner” making scholarly or literary approaches to “the East”?
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Old May 27th, 2011, 01:51 AM   #2

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Edward Said was one of the over-estimated 'scholars' of his age; it was merely that his nonsense suited the prevailing nonsense of the age. People don't devote their lives to learning difficult foreign languages and studying eastern cultures because they want to dominate and denigrate those cultures. Said's account of the scholarly 'Orientalists' (if one wants to describe them as such) is ideologically driven, one-dimensional and totally unreliable. It has been adequately refuted, e.g. in Robert Irwin's 'Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and its Discontents'. From a review-article:

"Irwin maintains that Said's thesis is false, the arguments he made for it dishonest, distorted and weak, and his theoretical framework self-contradictory and evasive. He charges that Said engaged in a counterfactual rewriting of history, attacking figures from earlier eras because they did not say or do what Said thought they should have. Said's entire project, in his view, is "a work of malignant charlatanry in which it is difficult to distinguish honest mistakes from wilful misrepresentations."

Irwin takes pains to point out that, politically, he is on Said's side. "I have no significant disagreements with what Said has written about Palestine, Israel, Kipling's 'Kim,' or Glenn Gould's piano playing." This strengthens Irwin's position, as some of Said's supporters have argued that much of the opprobrium heaped on "Orientalism" has come from those opposed to Said's outspoken support for the Palestinian cause, thus serving as an example of the very Orientalist bigotry Said attacks. No such charge can be leveled against Irwin.

Irwin's strategy for demolishing "Orientalism" is to focus on the major figures in the field and to show that who they were, what they believed, and what their scholarship and attitudes were toward the Arab world bear no resemblance to Said's version. He devotes only one chapter to a direct critique of Said's book and in the final one considers other critics of Orientalism. The rest of "Dangerous Knowledge" presents the rich and complex history of Orientalist scholarship and the often eccentric men (and they were almost all men) who engaged in it. His goal is to use reality to dissolve the abstract and tendentious cloak of villainy that Said drapes over an entire scholarly field. It's on this empirical battleground, not in the lofty clouds of theory, that Irwin battles Said. He uses the history of Orientalism and the careers of Orientalists as a needle to let the hot air out of Said's 30,000-feet-above-facts balloon. And the result is one of the more spectacular deflatings since the Hindenburg.

Contrary to Said, Irwin reveals, the towering figures of Oriental scholarship tended to be unworldly, solitary figures, who, far from demonizing the Arab world or Islam, were sympathetic to it and were often regarded as suspiciously un-Christian by their contemporaries. Many were opposed to Western imperial designs on the Near East. Like scholars through the ages, they spent most of their time working diligently on often dry-as-dust textual or linguistic problems. They were also often slightly loony. The father of Orientalism, Guillaume de Postel (1510-1581), was, Irwin notes, "quite barmy": The "foremost expert on Arabic and Islam in Europe" also believed that a woman named Johanna was the angelic pope, the new Eve, the mater mundi who possessed X-ray vision that allowed her to "see Satan sitting at the center of the earth." Postel's weird ideas led the Inquisition to investigate him, but the Holy Office, in a kinder, gentler moment, decided that he "was not a heretic, merely insane."

Irwin acknowledges that a handful of Orientalists suffered from a conflict of interest because they worked on imperialist state projects, but the vast majority did not. Similarly, although a few, like Ernst Renan and Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau, were explicitly racist, most were not. They were genuinely fascinated by the Arab world and Islam, and though some of their scholarship may have suffered from received ideas and prejudice, there is no evidence to support Said's overwrought thesis that all of it did. And even if some of them were working in bad faith, Irwin argues, that did not necessarily mean their scholarship was bad. Above all, there was no unitary, unchanging Orientalist discourse. Like any other academic field, "Orientalism advances ... through disagreement and criticism rather than comfortable consensus."

Moreover, Irwin argues that Said grossly oversimplified the complex historical encounter between East and West. For much of its history, he points out, Europe either ignored Islam or regarded it as a form of Arianism, the ur-heresy that denied the divinity of Christ and was rejected by the Council of Nicaea in 325. Far from turning Islam into a menacing Other, for centuries most Europeans couldn't care less about it, being much more concerned with demonizing rival Christian sects. Nor did the West always hold the upper imperialist hand over the East: The European powers were fearful of the mighty Ottoman Empire for centuries. In short, the relationship between East and West, rather than being one of simple dominance and submission, was far more nuanced.

No one denies that the West ultimately dominated the Orient and colonized it, or that its often racist domination affected the way Westerners thought about the East. Yet Irwin points out that the history of Orientalism simply doesn't track with the history of imperialism. Some Orientalists in the imperialist heyday held strikingly enlightened and nuanced views; others were myopically "essentialist" when the Mideast was of no political or economic concern to the West whatsoever.

Against Said, who insisted that Orientalism remained frozen in place, Irwin shows that the field progressed, that knowledge increased. He believes in the possibility (not always attained, of course) of objective scholarship. He argues that academic inquiry is not merely a handmaiden of power, but has its own logic and internal development, and that successive generations of Orientalists criticized, built on and transformed the work of those who came before. "There are such things as pure scholars," Irwin writes. "I have even had tea with a few of them." This view is regarded as sentimental, naive and retrograde in certain circles, but at least you can argue for or against it on the basis of evidence. We really do know more about the textual history of the Koran than we did before, for example.

Said's radically skeptical position, by contrast, was so abstract and chameleonic that it was impossible to disprove it, since it constantly dissolved (and hid behind) a multitude of deconstructive readings. The eminent Middle East expert Fred Halladay made a telling point when he argued that the close literary analysis of texts, Said's specialty and his primary analytic technique in "Orientalism," may not be applicable to social science.

Irwin also makes the devastating critique -- one that even Said's defenders don't really attempt to rebut -- that Said ignored examples that don't fit into his theoretical framework. One of the most glaring examples was his almost complete failure to engage with German Orientalists. Said peremptorily dismissed critics who raised this issue, saying their point was "superficial or trivial" and that there was "no point in even responding to them." But if Orientalism is inseparably bound with political power, as Said posited, then German Orientalists should be of minimal importance, as Germany had no imperial stake in the Arab world. In fact, as Irwin points out, German Orientalists dominated the field for a long time. Similarly, Said completely ignored the Russian Orientalists, who in fact did serve an imperial empire in Muslim Asia. The reason is obvious: The German and Russian Orientalists didn't support Said's thesis.

The most eminent of all the German scholars of the Arab world, and indeed a figure whom Irwin calls the "greatest of the Orientalists," was a Hungarian Jew named Ignaz Goldziher. Shaped by "the overlapping worlds of the German and Jewish Enlightenment," Goldziher rejected the racist essentialism of Renan, who had "previously generalized grandly on the intrinsic monotheism of the Semitic spirit and the incapacity of the Jews and Arabs to generate any kind of mythology. Goldziher considered all that to be racist nonsense: 'There is no such thing as a psychology particular to a given race.'" Goldziher revolutionized Islamic studies, breaking major ground with his research on the hadiths (sayings of the Prophet) and exploring Islamic revivalist movements. "He believed in the future of Islam and its ability to revive itself from within. As has been noted, he was hostile to colonialism and the Westernization of the Near East. He had supported the Egyptian nationalist revolt of Arabi Pasha (in 1881-2). In 1920, he wrote a letter to a Christian Arab friend in Mosul: 'I have lived for your nation and for my own. If you return to your homeland, tell this to your brothers.' A year later Goldziher was dead."

The great scholar Albert Hourani, author of the magisterial "A History of the Arab Peoples," said "Goldziher shaped our view of what Islam is more than anyone else." Irwin writes that "a book on Middle Eastern and Islamic studies that gave no account of Goldziher's work in the field would not be worth the paper it was printed on."

And what did Said have to say about this towering figure? He mentioned Goldziher twice in passing. The first comes in a list of other scholars; in his only slightly more substantive discussion, which consists of a single sentence, he wrote, "Yet Ignaz Goldziher's appreciation of Islam's tolerance toward other religions was undercut by his dislike of Muhammad's anthropomorphisms and Islam's too-exterior theology and jurisprudence." Said concluded that the crucial fact about Goldziher's work was his belief in Islam's "latent inferiority." For Said, it seemed axiomatic that merely to express negative opinions about any aspect of Islam or the Arab world was to be a biased, racist, essentialist Orientalist. By those standards, Said himself might well have qualified, since as Irwin points out, he himself seemed to have had no sympathy for or interest in Islam.

It should be said that Said's failure to engage with Goldziher was not driven by any kind of bigotry. As is clear from his political writings -- which are much more lucid than his attempts at grand cultural theory -- Said was bitterly opposed to anti-Semitism in all its forms; he denounced terrorism and always insisted that justice for the Palestinians must be accompanied by Arab acceptance of the Holocaust and respect for the historically unprecedented sufferings of the Jewish people. The charge raised by some of his opponents that he was anti-Semitic is scurrilous. However, that fact does not excuse Said's tendentious and distorted use of historical evidence in "Orientalism." Said ignored Goldziher not because he was Jewish but because his exemplary career gave the lie to Said's thesis.

Another of Irwin's key criticisms is that Said was hopelessly confused about what the Orientalist discourse actually was. At times, he wrote about it as if it were inescapable and the Orientalists merely victims of a system of thought they were powerless to resist. But at other times, he explicitly blamed the Orientalists for being racist and imperialist. This structural ambiguity, which, Irwin acutely points out, originated in the tension between the views of Foucault and Gramsci, fatally weakened Said's argument (although it allowed him to slip out of all criticism).

Finally, as Irwin reveals, Said's convenient poststructuralist position that the Orient did not exist, but was a Western construction, ignored reality. Different regions of the world do share certain cultural traits, and it is absurd to deny that Islam plays a major role in the societies and culture of the Middle East -- and that it is a role significantly different from Christianity's in the West. To say this is not to "essentialize" those societies or reduce them to religious caricatures, but merely to acknowledge the obvious. Perhaps Said's most compelling argument, as Mike Jay notes in one of the smartest reviews of Irwin's book, is that Orientalists, obsessed with their caricature of exotic Islam, ignored the political and economic reality of the Arab world and rarely paid much attention to individual Arabs. This is true, but it is not necessarily evidence of bigotry: It took scholars in all fields a long time to understand the importance of such unglamorous realities. In any case, it's hardly surprising that Islam, the most obvious marker of difference between Europe and the Middle East, should have interested European scholars. Said cited Western pronouncements about Islam as if they were prima facie evidence of essentialist racism, when in fact they mostly seem to have been attempts -- admittedly often rather purple and unconvincing -- to make sense of it. As with many poststructuralist arguments, there is an emperor's new clothes aspect to Said's outrage at the attention that Orientalists paid to Islam."

(from here:
How Edward Said took intellectuals for a ride - Gary Kamiya - Salon.com)

Last edited by Linschoten; May 27th, 2011 at 01:57 AM.
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Old May 27th, 2011, 02:05 AM   #3

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I have always considered Said's Orientalism to be a fundamentally flawed concept. By characterising Orientalism as 'hegemonic' and 'dominating' he is diminishing the role of the very people he says are neglected by its narrative, ie. the eastern peoples. In addition, much of the evidence for this nurturing of western hegemony that he cites is drawn from sources that are not part of the historical or academic profession - often he cites statements by politicians or journalists as evidence for an in-built bias in academia.

Having said that, however, I must say that he often has something worthwhile to say on specific issues or at the level of the particular. If we can resist the temptation to draw a long bow from the 'short' evidence, much of what he says is interesting and valuable.
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Old May 27th, 2011, 02:22 AM   #4
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Linschoten,
Though I think Irwin is great, there is, I’ve always felt, at least the ghost of a man made of straw in his counter-Saidian arguments.
It’s always been fairly apparent to me that the key tenet of Said’s position is that it is of no relevance what personal attitudes towards their subject individual “Orientalists” have – it’s the very act of making an intellectual approach to “the East” as someone from “the West” that is innately “denigrating and dominating” (this, of course, is a hair-pullingly infuriating assertion, precisely because it’s so hard to counter with anything more than a frustrated howl of “But… [splutter]… that’s [grinding teeth]… no, but… [groan]… that’s just not TRUE!”, to which the Saidian would simply respond with a smug smile, and a “Prove it!”).

Demonstrating that the individual Orientalist scholars of an earlier age were deeply sympathetic to their subject, he would surely have it, is to miss the point.
The neo-Saidian Ziauddin Sardar has a very neat (if rather glib) way of summing this up: this “does not mean that it [Western scholarship] cannot, at the same time, be obsessed with the Other in a way that the Other found denigrating, even in its admiring form. A paedophile admires and reveres a child even before he denigrates and deprecates it”…

Now, I should make it very clear, I myself am a “Westerner”, who writes about “the Orient”, so I would be damning myself entirely to self-flagellating misery if I were to accept the hardcore Saidian take on things. And I don’t; it’s absurd, and it was right from the start.
BUT, for all its absurdity, it is very hard successfully to counter without dismissing its arguments entirely (which, as I think Bismarck, above, suggests, is to throw the baby out with the bathwater…)…

Anyway, perhaps to sidestep away from a convoluted discussion of Said (which wasn’t my intention), and to pare things back a bit, do we think that there are some innate issues, even in the 21st Century, in “Western” approaches to “the Orient”? If so, how do we tackle them without tying ourselves in knots of self-flagellating post-colonial misery?
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Old May 27th, 2011, 02:59 AM   #5

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Quote:
It’s always been fairly apparent to me that the key tenet of Said’s position is that it is of no relevance what personal attitudes towards their subject individual “Orientalists” have – it’s the very act of making an intellectual approach to “the East” as someone from “the West” that is innately “denigrating and dominating” (this, of course, is a hair-pullingly infuriating assertion, precisely because it’s so hard to counter with anything more than a frustrated howl of “But… [splutter]… that’s [grinding teeth]… no, but… [groan]… that’s just not TRUE!”, to which the Saidian would simply respond with a smug smile, and a “Prove it!”).


The trouble is that it is Said himself who is inserting the (very varied) researches of these (very different) scholars into that over-arching context - how many of the were really to form some general conception of the 'East' as against the 'West'? They, for the most part, were studying their particular things, and it is simply an insult to them to say that they were being drawn. willy-nilly - whatever their personal atttitudes -into a general enterpise of denigration. The point is that many of them were serious scholars who have an inestimable contribution to the understanding of their areas, and it irritates me to see an amateur laying into them and assuming a position of superiority!
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Old May 27th, 2011, 03:04 AM   #6
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Quote:
much of the evidence for this nurturing of western hegemony that he cites is drawn from sources that are not part of the historical or academic profession - often he cites statements by politicians or journalists as evidence for an in-built bias in academia.
Said vastly expanded the parameters of "Orientalism" - in his terms, it seems, it is quite simply everything. The moment a "Westerner" - be they historian, linguist, poet, journalist, singer, soldier, politician - opens their mouth (or takes up their pen) on the subject of "the East", they are engaging in "Orinetalism" (again, that absurd absolutism, which is nonetheless so hard to counter...)
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Old May 27th, 2011, 03:25 AM   #7

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Quote:
Originally Posted by timdog View Post
Said vastly expanded the parameters of "Orientalism" - in his terms, it seems, it is quite simply everything. The moment a "Westerner" - be they historian, linguist, poet, journalist, singer, soldier, politician - opens their mouth (or takes up their pen) on the subject of "the East", they are engaging in "Orinetalism" (again, that absurd absolutism, which is nonetheless so hard to counter...)
Indeed. It was a self-perpetuating myth. However, we can counter the accusation by simply by admitting any possible bias from the outset. Yes, i am european, my perspective will be european, i am steeped in the euorpean intellectual tradition and i will mostly be interested in your culture only insofar as it affects and interacts with my culture. Once we clear up that obstacle to an understanding we can begin the real work and let the sources do the talking.
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Old May 27th, 2011, 04:56 AM   #8
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Quote:
The trouble is that it is Said himself who is inserting the (very varied) researches of these (very different) scholars into that over-arching context - how many of the were really to form some general conception of the 'East' as against the 'West'? They, for the most part, were studying their particular things, and it is simply an insult to them to say that they were being drawn. willy-nilly - whatever their personal atttitudes -into a general enterpise of denigration. The point is that many of them were serious scholars who have an inestimable contribution to the understanding of their areas, and it irritates me to see an amateur laying into them and assuming a position of superiority!

The last line is, of course, the original and best argument against Said – that he was ultimately nothing more than a parlour pontificator, slating genuine experts in fields about which he knew nothing. But he was a very cunning one, because it is the very fact that he created that “over-arching context” for his definition of Orientalism which made it so hard satisfactorily to tackle it without dismissing it outright (or being rude about him!).

This is a problem because, insulted though we may feel at being tagged “Orientalist” (“I most certainly am not denigrating or dominating anyone, I’ll have you know!”) ourselves, and infuriated at seeing unimpeachably sympathetic scholars from an earlier era tagged likewise, there are times when Saidian critiques are entirely apt.
My current subject of involvement is one Thomas Stamford Raffles – who could almost have been invented as the epitome of Said’s perfidious Orientalist – “Knowledge is power,” he once wrote of his own Orientalist scholarship, “and in the intercourse between enlightened and ignorant nations, the former must and will be the rulers”!!! In the modern age, meanwhile, unreconstructed Orientalist discourses do pervade a good deal of popular discussion of “the East” (take a look at just about any mainstream travel writing for this in benign form; in less benign form, see much tabloid reporting of “the Islamic world”).
For this reason, I feel, we need somehow to be able to roundly tackle Said's (manifestly absurd) absolutist position, without dismissing it altogether - and that is very hard to do...

Although:
Quote:
we can counter the accusation by simply by admitting any possible bias from the outset. Yes, i am european, my perspective will be european, i am steeped in the euorpean intellectual tradition and i will mostly be interested in your culture only insofar as it affects and interacts with my culture. Once we clear up that obstacle to an understanding we can begin the real work and let the sources do the talking.

Absolutely, this is indeed the approach to take. Personally I also take a sort of wry, nudge-and-wink, sort of approach too (I raise you an “Asiatic despot”, and if you dare protest then you missed the irony!)…
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Old May 27th, 2011, 06:15 AM   #9
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Avoiding wether it is a dirty word it's certainly a meaningless word.

Having studdied Classics at Uni the Orient is anything East of the Bospherus and includes chunks of North Africa anyway.
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Old May 27th, 2011, 06:19 AM   #10

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No....its not.....not anymore....now that we dont have Said.

For while Said may have highlighted a problem in the tradtional concepts of Orientalism, I for one (though others may disagree) have hopefully moved beyond that point somewhat.
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