More Revisionism: No Orientalism?

I guess it had to be expected: a few years after Edward Said’s death, the attacks on the historical concept that made him a target even in his life-time, namely Orientalism, which the ever helpful wikipedia glosses with two quotes by Said as:

“My contention is that Orientalism is fundamentally a political doctrine willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the West, which elided the Orient’s difference with its weakness. . . . As a cultural apparatus Orientalism is all aggression, activity, judgment, will-to-truth, and knowledge” (Orientalism, p. 204).

Making a point that many have missed, Said wrote:

“My whole point about this system is not that it is a misrepresentation of some Oriental essence — in which I do not for a moment believe — but that it operates as representations usually do, for a purpose, according to a tendency, in a specific historical, intellectual, and even economic setting” (p. 273).
The current issue of the London Review of Books carries a review by Maya Jasanoff of Robert Irwin’s For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies. The revisionist goal of Irwin’s book is clearly stated by Jasanoff:

Irwin’s central point is that before there was Orientalism, there was Orientalism: the scholarly study of languages and texts pertaining to the Orient. The book operates on two levels. In the main, For Lust of Knowing offers a sort of catalogue raisonné of Western Orientalist scholarship from the Middle Ages to the present. Its argumentative thrust, however, emanates from a second goal, which is to unmask Said’s Orientalism as a perverted muddle of ‘malignant charlatanry’.

Irwin’s core claim against Said’s Orientalism could be said to be his belief that Lust of Knowing is a disinterested lust for knowledge that is pure intellectual inquiry devoid of political or ideological concerns. A most antiquated stance to take in this day and age, after some two generations of scholars who have shown in any number of fields that the very idea of detached, objective, disinterested scholarship is itself an ideologically laden construct. And Jasanoff makes short thirft of that argument:

Irwin’s main response to the Said view that Orientalism and imperial power are intertwined is to uphold a faith in the detachment of pure scholarship from real-world problems. Yet plenty of his characters, as he makes plain, were bound up in the political preoccupations of their time. This was patently the case for contemporaries of the Crusades, such as Lull, who ‘maintained that a knowledge of Arabic would be just as necessary for the Crusader as it was for the missionary’; even Postel’s admiration for Islam, three centuries later, was ‘essentially driven by fear’ of Islamic conquest. And it was still the case in 1889 for the Dutch Orientalist Christian Snouck Hurgronje, who went off to Java to serve the Ministry of the Colonies, applying his scholarly knowledge of Islam to colonial policy. Irwin insists that Hurgronje’s ‘practical involvement . . . with imperial projects was unusual’ – but Massignon helped to draft the Sykes-Picot agreement on the post-World War One partition of Arabia and the Near East, and worked in Morocco for his friend Marshal Lyautey. (Massignon became a late-life opponent of empire.) Irwin makes no secret of these Orientalists’ imperial activities, but he sees them as aberrations in what was generally a pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Perhaps most Orientalists see their activities in such terms. Nevertheless, their exposure to the subjects they studied, their ability to engage with them, and often their interpretations of evidence, are framed and enabled by larger political, cultural and economic systems. For example, the Enlightenment scholar William Jones made his famous discovery that Sanskrit, Greek and Latin shared a common parent (proto-Indo-European) thanks to dedicated philological study. But he was able to learn Sanskrit in the first place only by going to Calcutta as a judge in British-administered Bengal.

I haven’t read the Irwin book as yet, but will most certainly do so this summer. There is no doubt that Irwin — & the reviewer lauds him for it — writes well about those extremely fascinating, not to say wierd, characters that were the early European Orientalists (from Lull to Massignon). But I am also sure that Irwin will not sway me from my understanding of Saidian Orientalism, acquired not only through reading Edward Said’s books, but also by long practice of the field, the libraries and the actual places. Said’s analysis is definitely not a “perverted muddle of ‘malignant charlatanry,’” no matter how hard revisionist historians like Irwin may try to return us to a pre-post-colonial vision of the world.

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