Edward Said and Twelve Disciples at Post-Orientalist Passover

Today, Columbia University marks twenty-five years to the publication of Edward Said’s book Orientalism, with a day of lectures at the Casa Italiana. Twelve panelists and discussants will consider the book and its author, who will offer his own concluding remarks this evening.

Don’t expect a critical appreciation of Orientalism and its influence. These are Said’s academic admirers and acolytes, who have come to adore him. It’s a familiar ritual. The Daily Star in Beirut (March 27) reported his most recent appearance at the American University with a sense for atmosphere. “The wired crowd, the dough-faced groupies, the misunderstood artist, the ritual riffs of emotion, moments of clarity—it was all there, and in stereo.” During Said’s speech, “the young and the not-so-young nodded hypnotically to his five-syllable words.” He carried himself “like the star who keeps a seductive, almost annoyed distance from the devotions of his congregants.” I’ve seen this performance in person on a couple of occasions, and the description rings true. No doubt there will be more of the same this evening.

Five years ago, the Middle East Studies Association held a plenary session in honor of the book, and Said said one interesting thing about it. He conceded that at the end of the day, he was also a philologist, and that Orientalism, like orientalism, was a philological exercise in textual exegesis. Orientalism is usually regarded as a revolution against the preeminence of philology—an abandonment of dry texts and a reengagement with the living Middle East. The problem is, the book is focused rather narrowly on the interpretation of texts, most of them works of Western literary imagination without documentary pretensions.

It is this preoccupation with how we see them—one that now pervades fields like Middle Eastern studies—that has opened a chasm between the East as it is studied, and the East as it is lived. Middle Eastern studies have become self-obsessed and self-reflective to the point of distraction. And at that point, they no longer have anything to say to anyone outside Western academe. Said excepted, the post-Orientalists have a negligible presence in the American public arena.

Nor do they have much stature over there. Whatever one might think of the old orientalists, Arabs and Muslims could and did read them. By contrast, the published translation of Orientalism into Arabic is so obtuse that even Said has felt the need to apologize for it. Post-orientalism feeds many mouths in Western academe, for which the participants in today’s meeting are suitably grateful. Whether it has done anything for enhanced understanding between East and West over the last quarter-century is a question.

So philology replaces philology, bias replaces bias, professors replace professors, and the wheel turns. After twenty-five years, the Saidians are the greying establishment in a range of fields. I predict that within ten years, they will be turned out of my field, Middle Eastern studies, by a new generation for whom Orientalism already reads like a cuneiform inscription. The gap between its third-worldist premises and verifiable reality has become so wide that another approach is bound to unseat it.

In honor of the “Silver Jubilee” of Orientalism I offer my on-line readers, for the first time, the full text of “Said’s Splash,” which is chapter two of my book Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America. It’s devoted to the influence of Orientalism upon Middle Eastern studies. Click, read, ‘n weep.

ASIDE: One of the things I did learn from Orientalism was that the most effective way to damn someone is to quote him. Said, in his walk through the valley of orientalist texts, left no quote unturned. I recently deployed this technique in dealing with one of today’s discussants, Columbia’s Joseph Massad, who wrote an anti-Israel article in the Ahram Weekly full of self-incriminating hyperbole. All I had to do was quote him.

Now Massad has replied, also in the Ahram Weekly, in an article loaded with sweeping assertions. According to Massad, I am “keen to defend Israel’s prerogative to kill and bomb anyone who stands in its way.” I seek to “extend Israeli violence to the U.S. academic arena.” I have “not yet eliminated anyone physically,” but I and my “young dupes” have the “express aim of imploding freedom.” I am guilty of “virulent anti-Arab racism.” And so on.

What disappoints me about this rambling text of 2,300 words is that Massad does not quote me even once. Of course, nowhere have I written that Israel has the “prerogative to kill and bomb anyone,” but surely I must have written something worth quoting, even out of context, which would damn me. Massad, alas, has failed to master the ingenious technique of Orientalism, despite reading and rereading it. (He’s also failed to learn from Said that you lie low until you have tenure, but that’s another matter.)

It’s just another reminder that the unique and irreplaceable Edward Said will have no successors. The Daily Star likened Said’s recent Beirut lecture to “an American rock concert for the learned and the not-so.” An apt comparison—and when Said is gone, we’ll be left with the Edward impersonators.