Monday, July 6, 2009

For Lust of Knowing

For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies is a splendid, elegant, erudite work of history of scholarship which has the particular value of demonstrating what meretricious crap Edward Said’s Orientalism is.

Irwin starts by taking us through a brief survey of the depiction of Persians in Classical Greek plays and texts—and Said’s depiction of the depiction of Persians in Classical Greek plays and texts. He has witty fun showing how little the former has to do with the latter. The chapter title—The Clash of Ancient Civilisations—strikes just the right note.

Then he moves on to the medieval period, and the beginning of Christian commentary on Islam (An Ancient Heresy or a New Paganism). The great question about Muhammad for early medieval Christian writers was: was he a pagan or a heretic, there really being no other category to put him in (the Jews being somewhat sui generis). A debate carried on in vast ignorance. (An early C14th Church Council decision to found chairs in Arabic studies seems to have been a complete dead letter.) Later medieval writers seemed to sidestep this issue somewhat, with some writers (such as Ramon Llull) stressing how close to Christians Muslims were. But, for centuries, interest in matters Muslim carried with it the suspicion of showing one to be crypto-Muslim yourself.

Irwin moves on to writings on Middle Eastern and Asian cultures by Renaissance writers, then Reformation and Counter-Reformation writers (The Holiness of Oriental Studies) and to Enlightenment writers (Enlightenment of a Sort).

The picture begins of build up of a sputtering stream of scholarship, full of great characters, great cranks and frequent financial hardship. One in which German scholars increasingly came to dominate.
So we move on to the C19th (Oriental Studies in the Age of Steam and Cant) enlivened throughout by witty asides (e.g. the sad lack of acknowledgment of Frankenstein’s monster’s interest in cultural studies).

Many Orientalists, falling in love with the peoples and cultures they studied, were anti-imperialists. (Including, the misrepresented—though undoubtedly racist—crank Gobineau.) Noting that Gobineau was an anti-imperialist, admirer of the Jews (for what he took to be their racial exclusiveness) and believed the human race had well and truly peaked, Irwin also makes some very sensible comments (Pp169ff) on the pervasiveness (including existing in many non-Western cultures) and variety of (“small r”) racism. For example, some thought racial mixing produced hybrid vigour, others degeneracy. Views of the “ranking” of races also varied greatly.

There is simply no straightforward relationship between imperialism and Orientialism. Russia, whose Empire was proportionately most Muslim, did promote Orientalist (specifically Muslim) studies for that reason. Britain, which had by far the largest Asiatic empire (and ruled over the most Muslims), did not. Instead, Classics were the stuff of imperial education. An Orientalist interlude in the rule of India inspired by figures such as Warren Hastings being brought to a halt by 1830 by a coalition of Evangelicals and Utilitarians of whom Macaulay was the most eloquent spokesman. Thereafter Classics reigned supreme. It was those most convinced of the superiority of Western culture and Christianity who opposed Orientalism. The real centre of European Orientalism from the C18th onwards was Germany which, prior to 1878, had no overseas possessions whatsoever (and those it acquired were in Africa and the Pacific).

The most disparagingly imperialist form of Orientalism was, naturally, Soviet Orientalism, product of a radically atheist regime which was the Culmination of History, so radically superior to other cultures. The advent of the most savage of all imperialist regimes—the Nazis—essentially destroyed German Orientalism. British Orientalism flourished as its empire retreated.

Irwin takes us through the complex and conflicted history during the later period of European imperialism (A House Divided Against Itself) and then to its post WWII flourishing (The All Too Brief Heyday of Orientalism) before moving on to Said (An Enquiry into the Nature of a Certain Twentieth-Century Polemic).

Irwin concludes with a discussion of various hostile Muslim and Arab commentaries on Orientialism (Enemies of Orientalism). Many of the questions that interest Orientialists—when were the Hadiths compiled? When was the Qu’ran written down?—are inherently confronting to devout Muslims, even without bitter legacies from colonialism. Irwin notes how critics of Western imperialism rarely troubled themselves over (the far more oppressive) Soviet overlordship in Central Asia. But the colonialism you and yours have directly experienced has somewhat more weight than what some other group, even if they are fellow Muslims, experience.

While Irwin clearly has great sympathy for Muslims generally, and Arabs in particular, including Palestinians (he is clearly no fan of Zionism), scholarship comes first with him. He is happy to defend Bernard Lewis’s scholarship, (noting wickedly Said’s unacknowledged debts to Lewis) or Elie Kedourie's. Nor is he in favour of consoling platitudes:
The refusal of many Orientalists to take Islam at its own valuation as a revelation from the Divine has caused offence to many Muslims. The sheer degree of hatred with which Western culture in general and Orientalism in particular have been regarded in some Muslim circles is not widely understood (p.310).
He notes that:
Another dismal consequence of polemics like Orientalism is that some university departments of Arabic or Middle Eastern history appear to have an unavowed policy of excluding Jews from serious consideration as candidates for jobs in those departments (p.276).
Progressivist tenderness for sensibilities is often somewhat one-sided.

Irwin is fundamentally appalled by the rapturous reception of Said’s dreadful book, particularly after so many errors in it were so quickly exposed:
it is a scandal and damming comment on the quality of intellectual life in Britain in recent decades that Said’s arguments about Orientalism could ever have been taken seriously. Obviously I find it impossible to believe that the book was written in good faith (p.309).
Given that errors Irwin points out include some so egregious that consulting, for example, a Penguin™ edition of various Greek plays and other texts Said cites reveals them, this does not seem to overstate the case. Irwin cannot really explain why Said has such an influence—simply citing aspects he feels folk liked—mainly because he seeks reasons based on Orientalism itself when we are dealing with much wider issues of academic sociology.

But it would be hard to beat his damning concluding summary of Said’s Orientalism:
On the whole, though, the good qualities of Orientalism are those of a good novel. It is exciting, it is packed with lots of sinister villains, as well as an outnumbered band of goodies, and the picture that it presents of the world is richly imagined, but essentially fictional (p.309).
So Irwin captures (even if he knows it not) the central appeal of Said’s Orientalism, as with so much contemporary “scholarship” of similar ilk. It turns the world into a heroic narrative, adherence to said narrative making one a “band of goodies” hero. By supporting various texts peddling such narratives—Michael Pusey’s brilliantly successful pandering to academic prejudice via his very mediocre piece of scholarship, Economic Rationalism in Canberra is a local case in point—folk fit in within their own milieu while preening over what grand and powerful evils they oppose. Such safe, effortless “heroism” is clearly irresistible to many.

As Irwin notes, Said regularly treats narratives he disagrees with about events as being much more morally pernicious than the events themselves. Which, of course, makes those who contest such narratives that much more morally important—indeed heroic. Who wouldn’t want to play under such rules?

Someone who thinks genuine scholarship is not an exercise in moral preening. Which Irwin does not, and demonstrates it is not by wit and example in this splendid book.

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