On Reading Orientalism

18 Aug

As no-one really seems to read my translations of lesser known 20th century Arabic stuff I thought I could even write something in English. This is, in part, a response to this blog by @jacobinism. However, it is also partly just an discussion of how I read Said’s influential book, Orientalism.

Orientalism (as a concept), after the publication of the book in 1978, has become so widespread and important that it is not even necessary to read the primary text for anyone interested Middle East to know at least the main arguments. Uncharitably, I suspect that a decent percentage of people who talk about ‘Orientalism’ have read more than the introduction of the ur-text. This essay will not discuss the debates that followed the publication of Orientalism. It simply intends to give one possible interpretation of the main arguments as they appear in the book.

The key point I want to make in this essay is that the book Orientalism is much more guarded in its conclusions than many – both critics and supporters – claim. It is also much more specific in its focus than many claim. That is to say, the book does not present a comprehensive way for the West to engage with other cultures rather it specifically and pointedly criticises ways certain traditions of Western scholarship engaged with different cultures.

One could be forgiven, considering what people say, for thinking that Orientalism argues that any Western scholarship on the Arab world is necessarily invalid. But when you actually read the book it is considerably more subtle than that.

Firstly, the majority of Orientalism is dedicated to the works of specific Orientalists working in specific intellectual traditions and not to the idea of scholarship in the abstract. Yes, the book does argue that all of these scholars’ works were (at least unconsciously) affected by the imperial ambitions of their countries. It would be impossible to dsipute that is a major theme. But this does not mean that it is arguing that all scholarship on the Arab World by people from imperial powers must be ‘Orientalist’.

The book argues against the view that, because people are writing literature or non-political scholarship, they must be non-political. Even writers like Burton, Nerval, Flaubert, who seemed so independent, who sometimes even seemed to prefer ‘The East’ to their own countries, politically supported colonialism. To quote:

“Orientalism, which is the system of European or Western knowledge about the Orient, thus becomes synonymous with European domination of the Orient, and this domination effectively overrules even the eccentricities of Burton’s style… [I]t also reduced the personalities of even its most redoubtable individualists like Burton to the role of the imperial scribe” pg. 197

            “Most Humanistic scholars” the introduction says “are, I think, perfectly happy with the notion that texts exist in contexts … Yet there is a reluctance to allow that political, institutional, and ideological constrains work in the same manner [as intertextual or generic constraints]” pg. 13

A large part of Orientalism tries to show that specific Orientalists (e.g. Lane, Lamartine, Burton, Chateubriand, Gibb, Massignon, etc., etc.) could not separate their work from the political background of their field. They are not attacked as specific people but as representative of a system of education and discourse that dictated a prejudiced view of the orient.

Orientalism collects several examples of these opinions. One Professor MacDonald, quoted by Gibb, says the Arabs have a “lack of a sense of law” (pg.106). Lamartine, argues the book, says Arabs are “waiting anxiously for the shelter [of European colonialism]” (pg. 179). Orientalism then links these views with the views of politicians like Cromer who declare Egyptians to have “light intellectual ballast” pg. 212. It is this correspondence between the intellectual and the political-climate of the time that most interests the book and what most of it is dedicated to proving.

Thus when @jacobinism argues “The Orientalists Said attacks in Orientalism were not the imperial stooges of his imagination. They were learned classicists and multi-lingual philologists motivated by a desire to know about and to understand cultures, traditions, and peoples unlike their own.”  Said would surely argue that they may have tried to be such but they could not escape their ingrained politics.

[But I do not want to discuss which side of the argument right or wrong. If you want to see a longer counter-argument to Orientalism see Robert Irwin’s his book Lust for Knowing. In this book he deals, as Orientalism does, not with generalities but with the works of particular scholars. Though he does come to a very different conclusion!]

I argue that Orientalism is specific in its arguments but it has been read in a much stronger way since its publication. @jacobinism quotes Ibn Warraq saying that “[Orientalism] taught a whole generation of Arabs the art of self pity – “were it not for the wicked imperialists, racists, and Zionists we would be great once more””. But Orientalism specifically says that “[‘Orientalism’ is not] representative and expressive of some nefarious ‘Western’ imperialist plot to hold down the ‘Oriental’ world” (pg. 12)

Some have extrapolated the ideas of the book to mean than no Western scholarship on the Arab World is valid. And to go further, if one accepts this, one might say that no scholarship by someone from within a powerful culture about a culture over which they exert some power is valid. As @jacobinism says, some argue that “Western criticism, study, analysis of the Orient undertaken from a position of Western power and ‘privilege’ are colonialist by the very nature” (his emphasis).

This is a conclusion that I hope we do not have to reach. It is a short step from here saying that the only valid study of a culture comes from within itself. Not only does this put me out of a job (as someone doing a PhD on 19th and 20th century Egyptian engagements with ancient Greek culture) but it also makes global intellectual life much poorer.

I also argue that this is a conclusion that Orientalism does not want to reach. Though perhaps it has caught on in some circles because Orientalism itself does not ever offer a idea of what non-‘Orientalist’ study of the Arab World might look like. At times the book is quite pessimistic about the study of other cultures. (As @jacobinism quotes)

“Every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric. Some of the immediate sting will be taken out of these labels if we recall additionally that human societies, at least the more advanced cultures, have rarely offered the individual anything but imperialism, racism and ethnocentrism for dealing with ‘other’ cultures” pg.204

So one could be forgiven for thinking that Orientalism argues there is no hope for cross-cultural studies. Yet neither is this a necessary conclusion do get from the book nor is it the conclusion that the book itself draws. Perhaps we should say that the chances are slim but it is not impossible!

The reason that the book does not propose a way for ‘Westerners’ to study ‘the Orient’ without succumbing to their prejudices is because the book is meant to be reactive not programmatic. As I have been trying to argue, Said is arguing against a defined tradition of scholarship which he sees as racist and imperialistic by its very nature and NOT saying that ‘The West’ by its very nature could never study ‘the Orient’ validly. So just because the book does not propose a model for cross-cultural study that does not mean it is impossible just that it is not the project of the book to do so.

Indeed in the conclusion of the book itself Said writes:

“My project has been to describe a particular system of ideas, not by any means to displace the system with a new one” pg. 325

and adds

“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.” pg. 326

Orientalism aimed to attack a particular manner of scholarship but not western scholarship on the Orient as a concept. It did not wish to destroy all the divisions between different cultures (East/West, imperialist/ anti-imperialist, have/ have-not) nor to ignore them but to be aware of them in our study. “We cannot get around[these divisions] by pretending they do not exist” writes Said at the end of Orientalism “on the contrary, contemporary Orientalism teaches us a great deal about the intellectual dishonesty of dissembling on that score, the result of which is to intensify the divisions and make them both vicious and permanent.”

One reading of the quote in the paragraph above could allow us to rescue ‘the Orientalists’ even in a post-Orientalism context and not even have to react againt Orientalism. That is to say, once we have acknowledged his mistakes, we can read Lane like we read Plato. It is common to gloss over the bits in Plato (and in fact all ancient writers) that are racist, misogynistic, promote slavery, etc. and focus on other messages or ‘the spirit of the message’. If we accept Orientalism and say that 19th and early 20th century scholarship was basically racist and imperialist it is still possible to profit from the scholarship if we recognise its failings.

The goal of this essay was not to argue for or against the ideas in Orientalism but merely to set out how I, personally, read the book. Like most scholarship it was a reactive book not one that was setting out a plan for the future of scholarship on ‘the Orient’ and certainly not one that was arguing that ‘Westerners’ could not work on ‘the Orient’. In my eyes, it was intended to be an attack on a particular style of scholarship and the argument has now morphed (shall we say been developed) into a much stronger statement of intent that it ever was. before

[The page references are from the 2nd RKP edition. I believe they are the same as the first edition too]

[Thanks to @jacobinism, who I’m sure has read the book in case he thought I was attacking him, for the inspiration to write this]

[If you want to know what I do think about the arguments in the book, I am generally convinced (at least if you read it as I say above) though think they are often a little overstated]


One Response to “On Reading Orientalism”

  1. Unrepentant Jacobin (@jacobinism) August 18, 2013 at 8:17 pm #

    Dear Raphael,
    Thank you for this thoughtful response to my piece. A full response to your response would require another full post, but a few points just briefly…

    I have to say, I think that to interpret Orientalism simply as a warning that sources are subject to the biases of their authors and times strikes me as excessively generous and an argument unworthy of the book’s 400-odd pages. On the contrary, Said claimed to be pulling back the curtain to reveal the real reasons for the Orient’s failures – a conspiracy of oppression.

    If this was not what he meant, and friends and foes alike horribly misinterpreted him, then one can only conclude that the book’s attempts to communicate ideas were an abject failure and that Said made his case with unpardonable carelessness. But note that Said did not appear particularly concerned with disabusing people of these false impressions while he was alive. Indeed the rest of his writing seems rather to reinforce them.

    This from Said: “I doubt that it is controversial, for example, to say that an Englishman in India or Egypt in the later 19th Century took an interest in those countries that was never far from their status in his mind as British colonies. To say this may seem quite different from saying that all academic knowledge about Egypt is somehow tinged and impressed with, violated by, the gross political fact [of Imperialism] – and yet *that is what I am saying* in this study of Orientalism”. [Said’s own emphasis, Orientalism, Pg 11]

    On page 3, Said makes it plain his target is not this or that scholar but the discipline of Orientalism as a whole: “Orientalism is a Western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient…Without understanding Orientalism as a discourse, one cannot possibly understand the enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage – even produce – the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively”.

    (This insistence on portraying the Orient’s experience of the West as one of passive violation is part of what feeds the self-pity, victimhood and scapegoating that Warraq and Makiya and others have identified as retarding Arab and Muslim progress.)

    On page 6, Said refers, not to scholars at all, but to the opinion of the Orient held by “the average nineteenth century European”.

    There are scattered denials, equivocations and qualifiers throughout Orientalism, most of which are, to my mind, entirely disingenuous, but the over-riding hostility to the West found in Orientalism and in Said’s work in general, is abundant. Not only did he unscrupulously omit information that would have damaged his case, but he also misrepresented those Orientalist scholars, travel writers and texts he did examine.

    Said’s main error is that he was trying to essentialise open societies, which resist essentialisation by virtue of their very openness. He fails (or refuses) to realise that what gave him the freedom to publish his anti-Western polemics and to enjoy the rewards of their acclaim is precisely what gives Western democracies their value: the space for dissent and a plurality of opinions, to which he neglects to even pay lip service. Warraq cites example after example of sympathetic portrayals of the “Other” in Western thought/literature dating back to Classical Antiquity, the result of a guiding impulse was to know and understand not to judge and dominate.

    For all his stressing of the importance of the context in which the works he attacks were produced, Said is content to provide only the aspects of this context which serve his argument. The result is a distortion of the truth – an objective truth in which Said also professes to disbelieve. The question repeated endlessly by Said’s critics (and now being asked of Reza Aslan) is whether these distortions arise from cyncism or ignorance.

    By the way, as an example of how disingenuous Said allowed himself to get…Page 331: “I have no interest in, much less capacity for showing hat the true Orient and Islam really are…” If this is true, as opposed to false modesty and/or weasel words, then why should we give any weight whatsoever to his claims that others have essentialised and misrepresented them? By what marker can he judge, other than a priori assumption.

    So, we must continue to disagree about Orientalism and the motives of its author. I find ‘Orientalism’ to be a crude, ideological cudgel, given a prettifying veneer of sophistication, dressed as it is in scholarly, pretentious prose and jargon. But its success is actually attributable to the degree to which it catered to an appetite for Western masochism, which it both fed and fed on. In this the West is culpable in its own flagellation.

    Okay, that was much longer than intended and there’s still much to say. And just to confirm – yes, I have read it. 🙂

    Thanks again for your reply. I’ll put a link to your post at the foot of my own.


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