January 29, 2007

Modern-Day Orientalism

As best I can tell, modern-day commentators on the Middle East mostly disregard Edward Said's views on "Orientalism"—that is, his argument that Western scholarship on the region has been shaped by imperialistic attitudes and riddled with prejudice. (Okay, the argument's a tad more complex than that—among other things, he suggested that imperial Europe in the 19th century partly defined itself in opposition to its idea of "the Orient".) His thesis was fairly influential in academic circles, but it doesn't get much mention in the outside world, except when it gets blamed by conservatives for debasing Middle Eastern studies.

Robert Irwin's recent book, Dangerous Knowledge, sort of follows that line of attack, arguing that Said "libeled generations of scholars" who were mostly writing in "good faith". The book does take a fascinating jaunt through Middle Eastern studies, but I'm not exactly qualified to assess his larger argument. I did, however, like Lawrence Rosen's take on all this--he seems to think that Said was too savage, but identifies a bunch of biases in current scholarship on the Middle East, including this one:
No self-respecting contemporary Orientalist comments on a text or a word without showing its "original" meaning, commonly implying that, whatever accretions may have attached themselves over the centuries, the word’s true meaning is its first meaning. This is the attitude, for example, of Bernard Lewis in The Political Language of Islam and almost every entry in The Encyclopedia of Islam.

Rather than seeing language in its living—to say nothing of psychological—context, it is thought all but sufficient to access its earliest meaning to grasp its timeless essence. This focus on has allowed the philological enterprise to be carried along—without the need for interdisciplinary insight—into the ongoing appraisal of texts. This approach does not necessitate, as Said would have it, a biased view of the mentalités of modern Arabic speakers, but it can certainly perpetuate the assumption that the scholar knows better than the speaker the true meaning of his or her expression.
I can't think of any good examples off the top of my head, but this habit does seem to crop up in various essays and papers on the Middle East or the Arab world, and the point's well-taken.
-- Brad Plumer 12:46 PM || ||