The Snake Charmer, Etienne Dinet, 1889


Last November I published Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid with the University of Washington Press. The issues surrounding “Orientalism” and the legacy of Edward Said’s corpus are ongoing, but much of the debate still centers on personalities rather than pragmatic assessment of the complex intertwining of ethnocentrism, racism and sexism that extends far beyond anything imagined as an “Orient” or a “West.” Here is part of the introductory note to my book.

To the Reader

As an intellectual, I feel challenged by the theoretical incoherence; I feel driven to strive for an answer that, if it has not yet attained universal validity, will at least have transcended the evident limitations of the dichotomized past. Wilfred Cantwell Smith

And is it not further tribute to his triumph to see more clearly what he was battling? Maria Rosa Menocal

You have before you two books about one book.

The one book is Edward Said’s Orientalism, a copy of which should preferably be read before and after you tackle my critical engagement with this powerful text and the ongoing debate over it. More than a quarter century after its first publication, Orientalism remains a milestone in critical theory. Yet, as the years go by, it survives more as an essential source to cite rather than a polemical text in need of thorough and open-minded reading. I offer a commentary, not a new sacred text.

The first book here is the narrative that provides a critique of Said’s Orientalism thesis. Many of the details of my argument have been made before by a wide range of scholars, although not in one textual bundle. I add my own focus on Said’s rhetoric as a persuasive device, despite the manifest flaws in content and the important material left out of his work. My book can be read the way you would read Said’s original narrative with one major caveat: Orientalism is a forceful polemic that demands not to be ignored, while Reading Orientalism is judicious satirical criticism that suggests we move beyond the polemicized rhetoric of the binary blame game.

More than any other individual scholar in recent history, Edward Said laid bare the discursive ideological undertones that have infested public and academic representation of an idealized “Orient.” No one reading his Orientalism can fail to appreciate that much of the previous writing and lecturing about Muslims, Arabs, and stylized “Orientals” reveals more about those doing the writing than real people in a geographical space east of Europe. The “Orient” as framed in Orientalism is indeed an imaginary; but so is the very Occidental (and certainly not accidental) frame that Said reduces to Orientalist discourse. Said’s book stimulated a necessary and valuable debate among scholars who study the Middle East, Islam and colonial history. After a quarter century, I suggest it is time to move beyond more Ph.D. cataloguing of what the West did to the East and self-unfulfilling political punditry about what real individuals in the East say they want to do to the West. Edward Said brought us a long way in this process, but the politics of polemics can only go so far, as he himself acknowledged in his later years. I prefer to reproach ongoing injustice across the colonial divide at the expense of verbose post-colonial indignation.

The second book is in the endnotes, where all the references are mercifully archived. Here you will also find the asides and gratuitous rhetorical overkill that even the author finds too profligate for the narrative. By simply ignoring the superscripted numbers you may read the narrative for entertainment, freed of the need to verify the critical exegesis. The anal citational flow of endnotes in itself illustrates the vast number of books and articles that in one way or another draw on Orientalism as a text. The sheer bulk of references for a seminal book available in multiple translations is staggering. While I could no more sample all texts on Orientalism any more than Said could examine the thousands of “Orientalist” texts published, I have tried to err on the side of redundancy.

Both of my books are intended as a reading against Orientalism but certainly not a justification for past Orientalism, nor as a politicized dismissal of Edward Said, an impassioned advocate of human rights for all victims of past imperialism and present neo-colonial co-option. Said, the relentless critic, defined his intellectual role through worldly engagement with ideas that affect, and often disaffect, real people. No established theory was sacred, no argument innocent in a reality-checked world where Palestinians had their homes bulldozed, cluster bombs were dropped on Beirut suburbs and Muslims were indiscriminately targeted as terrorists long before the fatal crash into the Twin Towers. Among his many critics, some attacked the man and what he stood for rather than embracing the need for dialogue on critical issues that are usually in danger of being monologued to death. Those who mourn the passing of Edward Said feel diminished by the silencing of his unique voice, especially at a time when so many of the untruths he fought to expose still fuel media pundits and political operatives.

The mantra that defines the author of Orientalism is speaking truth to power. It would be absurd today to deny the pervasiveness of discursive power and ideology, particularly in Western representations of an assumed Orient. The problem, as I will argue, is that Edward Said often saw this process as unidirectional. His numerous writings and interviews strongly suggest that he has the needed truth or at least the right kind of truth. In Orientalism Said clothes his critical activity with the appealing moralism of a victim. He is not just an academic writing about abstract discourse, he is actively writing back against the tail of empire that “wogged” him. Caustic critique was wielded by Said to perfection, but generally with imperfection by those who attacked him. How then, in my own writing, can I avoid the time-dishonored homiletic of ad hominizing? Is it the case, as W. J. T. Mitchell reflects, that any “guise of critical neutrality or objectivity” must drop away when dealing with Edward Said? How can I, or anyone else in general agreement with the thrust of Said’s overall argument, point out the flaws and fallacies in a specific text like Orientalism without unintended repercussions for the acceptance of those very parts agreed with?

For a review of my book by Robert Irwin in the TLS (May 7, 2008), click here.