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Re-Orienting Orientalism

ISSUE:  Autumn 1979

Orientalism. By Edward W. Said. Pantheon. $15.00.

As Edward W. Said has himself shown, beginnings are often significant. The controversy which is sure to surround his most recent work, Orientalism, began before the work itself was finished. Said’s review article in The New York Times (October 1976) caused a minor uproar in the field of Middle East studies, and the present work has been impatiently awaited, with eagerness on the part of some and trepidation on the part of others. This is because Said’s book has landed in the midst of an intramural dispute over Orientalism, its virtues and vices, and its importance for the future of Middle East studies. One measure of the success which the anti-Orientalists, a loose coalition of native and younger scholars, have already garnered is the fact that the term “Orientalism,” once synonymous with any scholarly study of Asia, has taken on a pejorative coloration. It is now commonly used to refer to older European scholars who combine a conservative methodology with what is felt to be a contemptuous or prejudiced attitude towards the peoples of the Near East. Thus, by choosing this title, Said has, intentionally or not, alerted the reader to where his sympathies do not lie.

Like the title, the very act of writing the book is a political statement and a literary fact which may prove to be more important than the author’s arguments themselves. Edward Said, a noted literary critic, has taken on the arduous task of analyzing another scholarly field with the techniques of his own. For this he should be admired. Yet his courage should not blind us to the fact that the endeavor falls short of its mark.

What would first strike an Orientalist is that the liberal quotations and citations in French contain an unusual number of errors, too often a lack of agreement between adjective and noun (e. g. pp. 87, 90, 113, 126), while the transcriptions from the Arabic are inconsistent, to say the least. Errors of this type are particularly damaging when one is attacking a discipline which made a fetish of textual accuracy.

Some critical questions in the definition of an academic field or school can be asked: what is it, and who are its proponents? For Orientalism, a one-sentence (and all-too-easy) definition would be the scholarly study of the Orient, here, the Near East. The infinitely more difficult, and hence, more crucial question, would be that of the proponents.

Said, like others before him who have discoursed on the topic (Abdel-Malek, Hourani, Waardenburg, Gabrieli, to cite a few), recognizes that Orientalism is a complex movement whose roots were intertwined with Western historical and mental structures. The generic term “Orientalist” has, as a result, been used to cover scholars whose origins ranged from America to Europe and the Soviet Union. Yet this geographic diversity did not imply intellectual isolation. Rather, the exchange and promulgation of ideas were accomplished via professional journals and international congresses. However, national and linguistic boundaries were such that one can speak of French Orientalism, German Orientalism, and so on.

By common consent, one of the most important politicolinguistic divisions has been the German. An American scholar of the Medieval Islamic period was once heard to say that German is the first Semitic language. This statement, in the form of a paradox, contains a large measure of truth. The contributions of German Orientalism are such that no serious student of the field would allow himself the luxury of ignoring them. For this reason, Said’s omission of the German Orientalists is particularly unfortunate. Though he “freely” reproaches himself for this (p. 18), the author offers two essential arguments in defense. The first is that German Orientalists merely studied materials gathered by the English and French. This is neither wholly correct nor relevant. The second point, much more fundamental for Said, is that the Germans had no imperial presence in the Middle East. This position, questionable if one considers the Ottoman Empire, prejudges the relationship between Orientalism and imperialism which should be one of the objects of his study. Among the founders of Orientalism, it is the Germans who have most successfully survived the ravages of time. This survivability is evidenced not only by the fact that names like Goldziher and Brockelmann are still Orientalist household words but also by the fact that these authors are presently being translated into Arabic.

More significant for Said’s work, this omission may have unwittingly led him to questionable or erroneous judgments concerning the phenomena he is discussing. One result is to underemphasize the importance of a certain type of positivistic, atomized, philological discourse which has had such a profound influence on Orientalist scholarship in all countries. Much that Mr. Said finds objectionable, and rightly so, in The Cambridge History of Islam can be attributed to this source. In addition, despite linguistic barriers, the German imprint upon American Orientalism is at least as great as the British and certainly far greater than the French.

Said recognizes in the case of Gustave von Grunebaum, for example, that he “came to the United States as part of the intellectual immigration of European scholars fleeing fascism” (p. 296). In Said’s master plan, however, it would seem that these Orientalists did not affect the American development, “and consequently in the United States knowledge of the Orient never passed through the refining and reticulating and reconstructing processes, whose beginning was in philological study, that it went through in Europe” (p. 290). A glance at the Journal of the American Oriental Society would show the contrary. Instead, Said argues that the progenitors of American Orientalism would be “the army language schools” (p.291) and related institutions. (I do not know a single professor of Arabic studies who received even his rudimentary training from these sources!) The American contribution to Orientalism, for Said, is that the Orientalist does not “try first to master the esoteric, languages of the Orient; he begins instead as a trained social scientist and “applies” his science to the Orient” (p. 290). Such scholars are rare, and few are the institutions which would grant a doctorate in Middle East studies under these circumstances.

Furthermore, the philological tradition in American Orientalism is closely related to its Germanic roots. And here, the aforementioned immigration is of great importance. Upon coming to America, von Grunebaum did not leave his intellectual traditions in Europe but rather imported them with him and perpetuated them here. The same could be said for Rosenthal, Madelung, Lichtenstädter, and others. American Orientalism is without doubt the child of European Orientalism, the Germanic component being perhaps the most influential.

Unfortunately, once Said’s misconceptions regarding American Orientalism have taken root, the premise is established that American Orientalism is social-scientific and one of the “striking aspects” of this is “its singular avoidance of literature” (p. 291). “In the social-science order of things, language study is a mere tool for higher aims, certainly not for reading literary texts” (p. 291). Although these statements are logical, they are predicated on the false assumption that literature, as a discipline, is “singularly avoided.” Interestingly enough, von Grunebaum’s area of specialization, before he began dabbling in generalizations, was Arabic literature. Furthermore, the study of literature is an established field. Although there may be methodological identity crises, their mere presence testifies to the vitality of the discipline. For the Medieval period, one can cite: of the Chicago school, the excellent work of Jaroslav Stetkevych; of the structuralist critics dealing with poetry, the ground-breaking studies of James Monroe, as well as the thoughtful contributions of Andras Hamori. For the Modern period, names abound: Roger Alien, Pierre Cachia, Mona Mikhail among many. Of course, it goes without saying that these scholars are not isolated and are training others who are, in turn, breaking new and exciting analytical ground.

Since it is impossible to cite this entire discussion, the following fragments must serve as an all too typical example of Said’s overzealous search for significance (p. 291): “The net effect of this remarkable omission. . . is to keep the region . . . conceptually emasculated . . . in short, dehumanized. Since an Arab poet or novelist… writes of his experiences . . . he effectively disrupts the various patterns . . . by which the Orient is represented.” Said concludes that the force of literature “is in the power and vitality of words that, to mix in Flaubert’s metaphor from La Tentation de Saint Antoine, tip the idols out of the Orientalists’ arms and make them drop those great paralytic children—which are their ideas of the Orient—that attempt to pass for the Orient.”

As an important literary critic, Said’s “singular avoidance of literature” is regrettable. His insights would not only have been welcomed but could have been extremely valuable as well. By a curious transposition, the general avoidance of Middle Eastern literature which Said attributes to American Orientalism could also be said to characterize his work. Apart from a few short references, the author ignores the enormous Orientalist tradition of literary history and criticism. This means that in addition to the omission of the Germans, many of the most influential British and French Orientalists of the last hundred years are left undiscussed: Nicholson and Arberry, Blachere and Pellat.

This does not mean, however, that our author has ignored literature. A large part of the work is devoted to the analysis of a series of literary and semi-literary figures, including Flaubert, Nerval, T. E. Lawrence, and Gertrude Bell. Whatever influence these figures may have had upon popular conceptions of the Orient, and whatever contacts they may have had with Orientalism, they were not professional scholars of the Middle East. Said’s discussions are often brilliant and demonstrate his abilities as a creative literary critic. Unfortunately, evidence extracted from these works cannot be used to impugn scholars whose prejudices were often better hidden. Bouvard et Pécuchet is, after all, a caricature; and submitting it in evidence would be similar to using The Pooh Perplex to characterize literary scholarship.

It could be argued that Said’s choices and omissions are not fortuitous but are, to borrow his terminology, “manifest” examples of “latent” mental structures. The omission of the Germans is a case in point. For Said, “Orientalism derives from a particular closeness” (p. 4) which European powers, specifically Britain and France, underwent with the Orient. The author’s choice to “focus rigorously” upon these two schools, and later the American, was made “because it seemed inescapably true not only that Britain and France were the pioneer nations in the Orient and in Oriental studies, but that these vanguard positions were held by virtue of the two greatest colonial networks in pre-twentieth-century history.” (p. 17)

It is here that the dichotomy between colonizer and colonized is established. This dichotomy leads, in fact, to an important aspect of Said’s analytical system. His positions, in effect, tend to revolve around a set of binary oppositions, a la Levi-Strauss and Greimas (see Semiotique et sciences societies, p. 129fF.), dependent one on the other. The first, that of colonizer and colonized, flows naturally into a “we” and “they” binarism. This can be extended further and provides the following set of descriptive categories:

colonizer vs. colonized

we vs. they

subject vs. object

active vs. passive

superior vs. inferior

masculine vs. feminine

Interestingly enough, Said has taken a mental structure, that of the fundamental difference between East and West, often but not always present in his subject, Orientalism, and not only overgeneralized it but also used it to characterize historical processes in which it is clearly out of place. One major opposition, that of subject vs. object is inherent in all scholarly activity and not unique to Orientalism. In Said’s system, however, the sexual dichotomy acts to dominate and organize the others. Arab society is “to be ravished and won by the Orientalist hero,” (p. 311) just as “French scholars, administrators, geographers, and commercial agents poured out their exuberant activity onto the fairly supine, feminine Orient” (p. 220).

The tantalizing and possibly overly-systematizing characteristics of a binary system must not delude us into unquestioning acceptance. Perhaps the most significant drawback of such an analytical schema is its tendency to eliminate intermediaries. One obvious area is that of Arabs or Orientals whose raison d’etre is the scholarly study of the Orient. How do we classify, for example, highly successful scholars such as Fazlur Rahman, G. C. Anawati, George Makdisi, Muhsin Mahdi, Farhat Ziadeh, and numerous others? Or, is an Orientalist by definition a non-Oriental? If so, and this would seem reasonable, then we are spared the problem of justifying these scholars’ existence via the matrices of the binary system. (Are we all Uncle Tannouses?) The issue is not clarified by Said’s description of the noted political scientist Majid Khadduri as “a well-known Orientalist” (p. 48).

There are many statements regarding Arabs which seem inexplicable except when seen in the context of the binary system outlined above. Said laments the general cultural poverty in the Arab world, noting “most important, the lack of a single decent library in the entire region” (p. 323). Of course, the quality of a library is, to paraphrase a saying, in the eye of the researcher. Those of us who have had the good fortune of working in the library of the Arab Academy in Damascus or in that of the Institut Dominicain in Cairo, to mention merely two, can only be surprised at such a remark. And yet such a remark is consistent with the binary oppositions. If the Near East is inferior (and our binarism tells us that it is), then it must be consistent with itself and not display any signs of superiority, something which would in turn cast doubt upon the binary structures.

The following would, unfortunately, have to be viewed in this light as well: “No Arab or Islamic scholar can afford to ignore what goes on in scholarly journals, institutes, and universities in the United States and Europe; the converse is not true. For example, there is no major journal of Arab studies published in the Arab world today” (p. 323). The first misconception is that we in the West, Arabs and non-Arabs alike, can “afford to ignore” academic developments in the Middle East. The fact that some scholars might ignore such developments does not sanctify the action as a normative procedure. The parallel would be for a literary critic to disregard the works of the French structuralists, for example. Something which, though it happens, is not condoned. In either case, no dedicated and serious scholar would permit himself such a practice. Can we ignore in toto the scholarship being produced by the Arab academies in Cairo and Damascus, for example, the numerous and valuable editions sponsored by the governments of Kuwait and Egypt, among others? In particular, those of us whose specialty is the Medieval period come in daily contact with primary sources and reference works edited by Arabs in the Arab world. Names of international renown such as A. S. Harun or Ihsan cAbbas only need be supplemented by a superficial glance at any catalogue.

Linked to this is Said’s second misapprehension, that “there is no major journal of Arab studies published in the Arab world today.” Again, and it is hoped that the reader will forgive the repetition, it is imperative that the Arab academies with their respective journals be mentioned. One can single out in this context the Review of the Arab Academy of Damascus (R. A. A. D.), a most important journal encompassing articles in Arabic written not only by Arab scholars but by “Orientalists” as well. The journal of the Arab Manuscript Institute in Cairo must also be mentioned. Here again, however, there is no need to duplicate catalogue entries. What is significant is that the alleged dearth of intellectual and cultural productivity which we are presented with only serves to reinforce the inferior, passive segments of the binarism. Mr. Said’s entire concluding discussion reeks of a sense of Arab impotence. Two further examples would be that Arabs do not enjoy major academic positions in the United States (they dol), and that criticisms of the Orientalists are no more than an occasional article devoid of significance (see the International Journal of Middle East Studies). The Orientalists are turned into invincible demigods with an unshakable hold on the field. Said, who sought to expose and combat the myths of ineradicable Oriental inferiority, has unwittingly perpetuated them.

This is important for another reason. And that is that just because an essay like Said’s misses the mark, does not mean that the target is non-existent. Orientalism as an international intellectual movement is not a phantom of our author’s imagination. The term can be used to describe a set of ideas and practices which dominated the study of the Middle East in the 19th and much of the 20th centuries. It is widely admitted today that despite its undeniable achievements, the movement too often reflected the misunderstandings and prejudices of its age. At the same time, like other academic disciplines, it often became ingrown and conservative, needlessly perpetuating its own procedures. If the medical metaphor be excused here, Orientalism has been a long time in the process of generating its own antibodies. In a sense, these have come from within and without. Like other branches of European thought, the discipline produced its own self-criticism. By an even more interesting development, European imperialism has created an entire class of Arab scholars, fully cognizant of Western techniques and holding positions in Europe, America, and the Near East. Thus scholars, Easterners and Westerners alike, are in the process of correcting the negative tendencies of the discipline. Armed with the standard Orientalist tools, such as philology and an eye for detail, they approach the field with fresh perspectives and methodologically innovative techniques.

In this way, the academic study of the Middle East can, one hopes, be made into a sound and healthy organism. To achieve this goal, what is needed, in addition to the scholarly equipment, is what the Arabs for centuries have called hilm, a quality embodying integrity, calm, and deliberation.


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