Monday, July 28, 2008

Final Oriental Thoughts

So I finished reading Orientalism, and I just want to make a few quick notes on the book before moving on to another post.

In his Afterword, written 15 years after Orientalism was first published, Said addresses some of the issues that had been on my mind as I was reading the book. The major one was that it has been accused of being an expression of anti-Westernism. Said breaks down this accusation, then refutes it with a well-written explanation that declares his book to be “anti-essentialist [rather than anti-Western], radically skeptical about all categorical designations such as Orient and Occident” (p. 331).

I hope the following collage of excerpts from the Afterword accurately portrays his explanation:

“[H]uman identity is not only not natural and stable, but constructed, and occasionally even invented outright … [N]o one finds it easy to live uncomplainingly and fearlessly with the thesis that human reality is constantly being made and unmade, that anything like a stable essence is constantly under threat … We all need some foundation on which to stand; the question is how extreme and unchangeable is our formulation of what this foundation is …

“My objection to what I have called Orientalism is not that it is just the antiquarian study of Oriental languages, societies, and peoples, but that as a system of thought Orientalism approaches a heterogeneous, dynamic, and complex human reality from an uncritically essentialist standpoint; this suggests both an enduring Oriental reality and an opposing but no less enduring Western essence, which observes the Orient from afar and from, so to speak, from above” (pp. 332 – 333).

I highly recommend the last 27 pages of Said’s book: his conclusion, which consists of the last four pages of the book’s final chapter; and his Afterword. I enjoyed these sections more than any other part of Orientalism, as they summarize his thesis and address what I felt were key issues he had left out of the body of his argument.

Oh, and the final gem I came across while reading Said’s conclusion:

“I would not have undertaken a book of this sort if I did not also believe that there is scholarship that is not as corrupt, or at least as blind to human reality, as the kind I have been mainly depicting. Today there are many individual scholars working in such fields as Islamic history, religion, civilization, sociology, and anthropology whose production is deeply valuable as scholarship. The trouble sets in when the guild tradition of Orientalism takes over the scholar who is not vigilant, whose individual consciousness as a scholar is not on guard against idées reçues all too easily handed down in the profession” (p.326).

Yes! Said has redeemed himself! Not all work done in the West is biased! People can move past their cultural boundaries! We can all sympathize and identify with “Others”!

God, am I one happy child.


J. said...


Can you post the examples from Lawrence and Renan to which you referred in the previous post? Without the examples, it's hard to have a level discussion.


nkaravatos said...

Although I have never read this entire book (forgive me, Father) I am familiar with Said's ideas.

I feel Said's most "redeeming" comment is positioning his ideas as "anti-esentialist."

While identity poetics/politics had been liberatory and empowering for marginalized groups, its essentialism came to be felt as expoitive and manipulative.

Recognition of our hybridism deconstructed an essential identity (Filipino or Muslim or Woman or Gay or Whatever) into contructed identities composing a fluid Self.

Living in the Middle East for several years, I have heard many people speak in the language of essentialist blocks. I have heard an unexpected amount of sentences begin with "We..." or some context such as "As a Arab, I feel..." or "As a Muslim ..."

Back home I always bristled at "We Americans ..." because what followed rarely reflected my individual conscience.

(If I am This, must I be That?)

By positioning his book as "anti-essentialist," Said says that *Orientalism* is the map or tool to uncover all essentialist positioning in history, cultural studies, etc. wherever and whenever, perhaps. And Orientalism was the site that he excavated.

But when Said swerves back into the "guild tradition of Orientalism" I feel he undermines his anti-essentialism. (However, he may be referring to a theme that he had developed in the book.)

Although I have been limited to English-speakers here on the Arabian Peninsula, I have found it acceptably mainstream to "not [be] vigilant" and to "not [be] on guard against idées reçues all too easily handed down."

In fact, I have found that challenging "idées reçues" to be more socially dangerous on the Arabian Peninsula than I have found it to be in North America where I learned these ropes.

Unfortunately, for the mainstream bookreader in the US there is a lot of ignorant clap-trap ("Orientalism"?) coming out of the alleged idea factories of The West instead of analysis with integrity.

Yes, there are authentic memiors and socio-cultural analyses with integrity, as well.

Isn't this all the ancient idea of the illusion that we take for reality? of the assumptions on which we base our decoding of signs?

I am staying in a cabin I sublet from a friend in Westhaven, CA...

[Search a google map for Ninth Avenue, Westhaven, CA 95570 and click satellite - big trees and craggy beaches.]

...and I am surrounded by the "essentialist" signs of Judiasm and Buddhism and Surfriding and The Goddess and Mezoamerica.

So, WHO is she? WHAT is she? Certainly, her Onesness is in no One thing. She could not be read essentially.

Of course, all this talk of postmodern indeterminancy flies in the face of "truths [we find] to be self-evident."

J. said...

Hi Nick! Nice to read your post. Nour, here's a review my Dad wrote over a year ago. I dug it up. He's a long time reviewer for Library Journal.

IRWIN, Robert. Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and
Its Discontents. The Overlook Press. 416p, notes,
index. ISBN 1-58567-835-X. $37.50 (hardcover).
Irwin has done everything right in this masterful
study of Orientalist scholarship from the Renaissance
to the present. (He takes a bow to the Greeks, Romans
and medieval scholars.) The book is at once a history
of Arabic scholarship in the west from the time of the
first great Orientalist, Guillaume Postel (d. 1581),
through modern days, and a thorough and level-headed
rebuttal of Edward Said’s influential Orientalism
(1978): Irwin characterizes it as “a work of malignant
charlatanry in which it is hard to distinguish honest
mistakes from willful misrepresentations. . . . “I
find it impossible to believe that his book was
written in good faith.” (4, 309) Irwin takes a subject
that could be deathly dull and makes it live: he
possesses magisterial familiarity with the sources
(more than two millennia’s worth), his judgments are
measured and urbane and he delivers his numerous
asides with a sly sense of humor. Dangerous Knowledge
is a serious work of scholarship that is a delight to
read from start to finish. Enthusiastically
recommended. David Keymer. Modesto CA.

--Reading that put me on permanent guard against Said. I have yet to sort the issue out for myself, though, so I refrain from an educated view (as I don't have one!).

I agreed with many things in Nick's post. For one, I never in my life saw such essentialism as I saw in the Middle East coming from Middle Eastern and South Asian people. I do not mean this as a diss. I'm just telling the truth. Collectivist cultures will incline to essentialism, I think.

There is essentialism in the American media now and since 9/11. And it appears on the surface to be Orientalist. But I would bet it's not, that the appearance is deceptive. After all, there's no exocitism to it, which I understand to be part of Orientalism. Rather, the Bush administration's essential categories appeal much more to religious fundamentalists and to an old American stereotype for what used to be called third world, underdeveloped countries. Usulis, then, are "evil" (the fundamentalism) and they are "backwards" (the class based essentialism). Much of what I see in the news and which insenses me, follows from one or both of those views.

I have a question for you: you are an individualist about *de*scription, yes? I take that to be your view. When describing others, remember that each person is an individual before being a kind. How are you, then, with *a*scription? Do you think that everyone should be *treated* as an individual? If so, how does that square with the collectivist idea, common to the Middle East, that some group -say the family, religion, or culture- is the locus of authority, not the individual, that the group, and not the individual, has the legitimate power to make up its mind for all its members?

Nour Merza said...

Thanks for the in-depth commentary, guys! Sorry I can't get you the examples, Dr. J, since I borrowed the book and don't have it with me. But I think we've discussed it enough to get people who are really interested to go and pick up the book.

See ya!

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