Orientalism and its discontents

Published : May 19, 2006 00:00 IST

The book ignores the rigour of Edward Said's work and his explorations of critical issues of cultural representation.


For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies by Robert Irwin; Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 2006; pages 409, 25.

THE spectre of Edward Said still haunts the Western scholastic world. In a rather unacademic manner, Robert Irwin takes him to task for being a supporter of the Palestinian cause and for his contempt of the Jewish community. There is absolutely no reason why a scholar cannot have ideological leanings and focus his scholarship through analysis of history to show how the West has been responsible for biased interpretations of the East. When Bernard Lewis or Ernest Gellner took up cudgels on behalf of their discipline, Said was there to refute them. Now dead, he can conveniently be criticised and lambasted for "carrying out a conspiracy" against America and Israel, for there will be no rebuttal by him. Almost 30 years after the publication of Orientalism, along comes Robert Irwin with a counter-conspiracy to demolish a thesis that has an inherent logic behind it.

Undeniably, histories are a construction, and it was relevant to the anti-colonial mood to set the record right or to decolonise histories fashioned with the motives of endorsing Western agendas.

By 1968, after the formation of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), Said had firmly resolved not to separate the personal from the political. Time had come to "rub culture's nose in the mud of politics". The outcome of this decision was to write a dissident and subversive account of Western representations of the East.

The enormity of the task of renewal within the context of a transnational economy and the collapse of socialist projects, particularly the proclamations of the Western bourgeois school of thought dominated by Francis Fukuyama and the "End of History" syndrome, posed problems for Said. His major works need to be discussed in this context by arguing out his position as an intellectual who critiques and questions history, culture, and literature as systems of thinking that represent images of their own creation for reasons of maintaining hegemonic structures of knowledge and power. The role of the intellectual and the relevance of the issues of culture and identity stand behind his unabashed commitment to an ideology of historical reconstruction by critical and political involvement.

The rigour of Said's work has been ignored in Robert Irwin's For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies. No consideration has been given to Said's explorations of critical issues of cultural representation by unfolding epistemological shifts that have taken place under the sway of colonialism, orientalism, nationalism and xenophobia. Said uses his position of an exile to advantage because he can then raise himself above the functionless jargon and cowardice of academic intellectuals who refuse to support ideological issues to which a commitment is called for.

The tensions and contradictions present in his writings that seem to obsess critics such as Ernest Gellner and Aijaz Ahmad and now Irwin are the fundamental ingredients of a critic who is located ambivalently in the realms of both his professional exigencies and his public involvement, his transnational theoretical framework and his status as a representative of the marginalised Palestinian exile. Master narratives here collide with local histories and academic criticism with public-spirited political involvement. One sees the working of the hybrid and heterogeneous narrative of a literary historian who pays as much attention to aesthetics as well as the politics of aesthetics, which are underpinned by the meta-languages of colonialism and culture.

Said brings to the foreground the contribution of culture to the making of arts and histories. He stresses the need for literary criticism to see itself as inextricably joined to the realities of human experience along with the imperialist institutions of power and authority. Where in Orientalism, he showed how Western knowledge, far from being academic, is tainted by power and political motivation, he carried forward these conclusions into Culture and Imperialism where the creative writer's consciousness is seen to be shaped by the imperialist tendencies prevailing in 19th century England. To Said, such intellectual and critically responsible intervention is the hallmark of a secular critic necessary to draw the attention of Western readers to non-Western cultures and recognise their significant role in the ongoing processes of history.

Said has often been blamed for engaging in almost a ritual of accommodation and assimilation that does not allow him to be at home in any one culture or, for that matter, with a single theoretical position. Being geographically dislocated, he has tried to negotiate his position in the context of globalisation, yet he has disrupted inter-cultural hegemony by taking an antagonist stance against any reconciliation with Western hegemonic positions and the production of knowledge. He is, on the one hand, aware of cultural conflict and, on the other, a defender of hybridity, urging the rejection of the "rhetoric of blame". While he understands that powerful representations do get naturally accepted, his writings argue that their inherent stereotypical nature be countered by an alternative discourse, which is always conscious of the strategies of power.

Said's writings have contributed substantially to the history/theory debate in the last two decades. By taking truth to be only situational and political, he opens up the discipline of history to subaltern writing and intervention. Said does not fully reject the validity of the empirical method, but his marshalling of facts, and emphasis on the iconography of signs, symbols and language helps to provide the social and literary historian with a wider vision of history. Although it is unfair to say that all accounts of the past are false, Said sets out to demonstrate that different writings of European scholars were shaped by ideological and political exigencies of empire-building, with racial and cultural superiority inherent in the palpable designs of their political aims.

While examining Irwin's book, the reader must bear in mind the areas of historiography and representation, which are vital to Said's writings owing to their problematic nature in the area of textuality. Our understanding of the past has been hugely enlarged and deepened by Said's analysis of literature and culture, which throws light on different classes of people and large categories of experience that we were as yet unaware of. In order to stress the political character of all such literary pursuit, Said offers alternative epistemological systems to dislocate the Eurocentric perspective, which is shaped by Western literature and histories. He focusses his attention on the intervention of history and literature in historical writing itself, showing how literary narratives and politics are inextricably bound up in the texts of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and Verdi's opera "Aida". As he argues in Culture and Imperialism: "I suggested that studying the relationship between the `West' and its dominated cultural `others' is not just a way of understanding an unequal relationship between unequal interlocutors, but also a point of entry into studying the formation and meaning of Western cultural practices themselves. And the persistent disparity in power between the West and non-West must be taken into account if we are accurately to understand cultural forms like that of the novel, of ethnographic and historical discourse, certain kinds of poetry and opera, where allusions to and structures based on this disparity abound."

On the other hand, post-Orientalist history writing attempts to demystify this delusive enterprise, which conceals, in the words of Gertrude Himmelfarb, "its ideological structure behind a scholarly facade of footnotes and the pretence of facts". But it is equally vital that all such representations promulgated in the name of "authentic" and "true" accounts are also questioned, and their authority and coherence closely re-examined. As Said writes: "Stories are at the heart of what explorers and novelists say about strange regions of the world; they also become the method colonised people use to assert their own identity and the existence of their own history." This bifocal view of any writing, which is always a representation, brings into play the creative combination of fact and fiction hinting at the multitudinous and infinite possibilities of writing.

Representing reality from either side can never be an ideologically neutral activity. Said realises the problem of representation in contemporary historical and mythical-religious contexts, fully aware how they falsify and caricature and demean. His work becomes part of a larger body of theoretical analysis, which spells out the understanding of ideologies behind the writing of history and the use of materialist criticism in coming to grips with the literary mode of production. Exercising considerable influence on the direction of literary studies in universities around the world, Said has helped to turn "reading against the grain" into a critical methodology that at one level reconciles with postmodernist thinking and at another warns literary theoreticians to take a sceptical view of the lapses into extreme relativism.

There is a deep-seated concern in Said with keeping ideological phenomena at the forefront of dialectical analysis. His emphasis is on the adoption of a more globally oriented stance that rejects totalising viewpoints and academic compartmentalising to subvert the intentions of the author.

One may relate the earlier alignment of Said's liberal humanist cultural tradition imbibed from Eric Auerbach and Lionel Trilling with the larger concerns of contemporary literary theory and its post-Enlightenment loss of faith in "origins", "centre" and "end". Implicit here is the notion of unequal relationships of economic and political power that work behind myths of representations about the Orient which is integral to the European discourse and its material civilisation. Without this discourse analysis, Said argues in Orientalism, "one cannot possibly understand the enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage - and even produce - the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period."

David Pryce-Jones, who belongs to Irwin's camp, in his recent indictment of Said and Orientalism is, therefore, absolutely off the mark: "That book shifted the intellectual climate - more exactly, degraded it - by propagating a new and unusual sort of hatred, aimed at scholarship and scholars. But in Said's opinion, everybody who had ever studied or written about the Middle East [West Asia] had done so in bad faith. Epigraphists, archaeologists, grammarians and linguists, papyrologists, geographers, the lot, including poets and travellers, had nothing to do with the advancement of learning or the recording of their findings and impressions. With sinister purpose, they were imposing themselves upon innocent and harmless people. Century after century, the activity of these assorted men was not at all what it might seem but only `a rationalisation of colonial rule' and, since for most of the time there was no colonial rule, a justification of it `in advance'."

Like Pryce-Jones, Irwin forgets that, in fact, the book has to a great extent been responsible for provoking serious scholarship. Recent explosions in scholarly research on the subject of imperialism as a phenomenon that continues to dominate our understanding of culture both theoretically and empirically have shown the consequences wrought by the European colonial enterprise. The concept of cultural imperialism is now integral to the critical vocabulary of both cultural theory and international politics, and throws light on many existing systems of value, and on the ways the West looks for power structures they can understand and promote; if they do not find one, they create one. Through its contrapuntal practice, the methodology underscored by Said as well as its impetus towards the building of an interrogative practice in studying the construction of histories inspired scholars throughout the world to decontextualise and recontexualise Western scholarship and thereby endeavour to decolonise knowledge.

The Western narrative paradigm in which the author-anthropologist fashions the other is a form of domination created through a hegemonic discourse formation whose sensationalism and inaccuracy is now being questioned through the revisionist programmes of historians and post-colonial cultural critics. It is clear that the Victorian travelogue conceived of the East as "a grand harem" with endless possibilities for pleasure and perversion, thereby suggesting its moral inferiority and dog-headedness. Owing to this feature it was, therefore, ripe for colonisation. The travel narrative with its exaggerated information and fantastic accounts of far away lands produced an ethnological discourse of immense significance as it offered information about the native cultures that were to be subdued. It became the agent of the "superior" civilisation forging images of the alien by imposing its own self-perpetuating categories and alterations from the norms.

For instance, Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines is a clear account of Western imperialism and its accompanying patriarchal discourse that sets out to take control over the colonised woman, a material commodity at the disposal of the dominant power. Haggard's map of the mines converts the female sexuality repressed as a captive under the technology of Western enterprise into a site for economic production. Gender here, therefore, becomes something more than only the sexual category; it takes on the semantics of not only labour, but also exploitation and control.

Similarly, Baudelaire would experience intense passion for the black woman, Jeanne Duval, on his first journey to Mauritius. For her he would experience sexual passion and for a white-only love. Duval symbolises for him, as Rana Kabbani mentions in her excellent study of orientalism, "a voyage East, providing sexual possibilities but precluded from respectability". Her dark body becomes the "flower of evil" for him. You crave for it and yet it ruffles and agitates. We see how "Europe was charmed by an Orient that shimmered with possibilities, that promised a sexual space, a voyage away from the self, an escape from the dictates of the bourgeois morality of the metropolis".

Although Irwin gives a detailed account of research on Islam by scholars such as Hammer-Purgstall in Germany, Ignatius Kratchovsky in Russia and Ignaz Goldziher in Budapest, he ignores the strategies of the likes of Macaulay who set out with the aim of emphasising the inferiority of Eastern culture.

It is understandable that scholars such as Robert Irwin or David Pryce-Jones are still stuck in foundationalism that views narratives and historical research as free from ideology and containing basic objectivity. Controversies concerning objectivity or subjectivity, singularity or plurality, relativity or universality of truth abound in the revisionist post-orientalist historiography which treats areas of knowledge, culture, and tradition as sites of conflict. Its main purpose is freedom from essentialism. Apparently, this is a reaction to Western anthropologists and ethnographists who have traditionally followed the conservative assumption that culture is a sphere of privileged social expression.

It is this history and the writing of it that has given rise to recent exchanges between the foundationalists and the post-foundationalists, the modernists and the post-modernists. And behind these debates Said sees the struggle to reformulate variant identities and unstable polities.

Ideological expediency is always behind the biased narratives of history. On one side lies the romance of knowledge and research carried out for reasons that are not motivated by utilitarian philosophy. Whether there was intellectual curiosity or imperial conspiracy behind the corpus of knowledge of the Arabic world is debatable. Irwin mentions interesting examples of the research of the 17th century German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher, who worked on Egyptian hieroglyphics absolutely out of conjecture. So was Richard Burton, who pretended to be a serious Arabic scholar only to realise at a late stage that he should have been reading from the right to the left instead of the left to the right. Irwin disparages the work of 19th century French writer Ernest Renan who is almost put on a pedestal by Said for his remarkable research. Here too Irwin is wrong in claiming that Renan researched on Ibn Rushd from Latin translations of Arabic, whereas Renan claims that not a single text was available on Rushd in Arabic.

Irwin's arguments thus indicate that there was either not much serious research of any consequence or innumerable disagreements in the findings of scholars that lends the field of orientalism a rather ambiguous character. Said's account of the Arabic history too has been put under scrutiny and found wanting. However, it cannot be denied that there were a few serious Arabic scholars such as Sir Hamilton Gibb or Albert Hourani, and in contemporary times, Said, who do offer support for Arab nationalism and explore significant aspects of Islamic culture, thus awakening an interest in Islamic history.

However, many scholars not only had little knowledge of either spoken or written Arabic, they never visited the East, or had any contact with the Arabic people. Those who did venture forth, lacked the linguistic ability to communicate. Irwin rightly emphasises this. He has thus committed the very mistake that he accuses Said of. Cataloguing research by various Arabic scholars, he emphasises the inaccuracy of knowledge about the East, a view that is more in agreement with Said than a refutation of it. It is therefore, clear that orientalism exists as a body of contradictory accounts where various scholars are either guilty of ideological bias or have an inadequacy of communication skills.

On the other hand, recent explosions in scholarly research on the subject of imperialism as a phenomenon that continues to dominate our understanding of culture both theoretically and empirically have shown the consequences wrought by the European colonial enterprise.

The concept of cultural imperialism is now integral to the critical vocabulary of both cultural theory and international politics and throws light on many existing systems of value, and on the ways the West looks for power structures they can understand and promote; if they do not find one, they create one. Much that critics may argue that the existence of disinterested truths is an antidote to the anti-humanism of post-modernist thinking, there is yet hardly a body of writing that can claim the value of unbiased "truth".

Said might have desired a reconciliation of Israel and Palestine before his death, arguing for a common human understanding, but such utopian envisaging of a future at the moment seems to be remote.

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