Daniel Martin Varisco


On his book Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid

Cover Interview of April 03, 2009

The wide angle

Said’s Orientalism, reviewed in over forty journals at the time of its publication, has left a wide range of criticism in its wake.  Positioning himself as a literary David slinging barbs at the Goliath of academic dons and Middle East policy makers, Edward Said became almost impossible to separate from his text.  He courageously brought attention to the bias and misrepresentation of Islam and Arabs in much previous Western writing.  But in the process he made Orientalist discourse into as much an imaginary as the East/West binary clash he ridiculed.

I began writing this book just as the Twin Towers were destroyed by terrorists in 2001.  There was at the time no overall critique of the faults in Orientalism, despite the extensive commentary the book had engendered across disciplines.  Rather than debating the merits of Said’s thesis, most of the discussion revolved around personalities.  Did you agree with Said that Western writers were biased by an Aeschylus-to-Kissinger discursive nature?  Or with historian Bernard Lewis that all was well within the Ivory Tower?  As I discovered the numerous errors in fact and rhetorical sleight of pen in Said’s text, I wondered how this book could have survived unrevised with such acclaim.  What combination of factors led to the canonization of this single text as one of the most significant critical studies of the late twentieth century?

A major goal of my book is to unravel the mystique surrounding Said’s text, one that was cited almost everywhere, while its erudite prose was rarely read through cover to cover.  There was so much passion surrounding Orientalism that I decided a more light-hearted approach was needed—if only for the sake of novelty.  Reading Orientalism is a conscious parody of Said’s own book, in outline and style.  The Introduction surveys the reception of Orientalism both by those who praised it and by those who panned it.  The first chapter lays out the context of the text, with a brief tour down Orientalist memory land, a detailed criticism of Said’s definition of Orientalism as discourse, and a retelling of the early history of Oriental Studies from its Christian apologetic roots through to its academic establishment.  The raw meat of the critique is hung out in anything but dry prose in chapter two, which provides a comprehensive review of the noted flaws in the text.  These include Said’s emphasis on straw texts, such as Raphael Patai’s outdated The Arab Mind, historical errors, translation mistakes, blindness to gender in the texts he read, and anti-Marxist inattention to class and economics.  Inspiring as readers found the text to be as a polemic, Orientalism lacked the rigor to be appreciated as sound intellectual history.

Perhaps the major problem with Said’s argument is the assumption that real Orientals could not represent themselves.  By ignoring the rhetorical tit for colonialist tat of Arab and Muslim intellectuals, the real-world power of Orientalist discourse was overdrawn.  Nor did Said look to critiques of bias within the tradition he calls Orientalism.  He ignores such popular social satires as Montesquieu’s Persian Letters and Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad.  One of my main points is that Said’s textual attitude creates a novel argument out of blurred genres.  The French intellectual Ernest Renan is privileged as a founding father of academic Orientalism, despite the fact that Renan’s texts had no continuing relevance and were criticized by other major scholars, including Ignaz Goldziher, who is conspicuously absent from Said’s book.  Embarrassing misreadings of literary texts, including a poem by Goethe and a diary entry by Flaubert, further compromise Said’s argument.  Even the novel Tancred by Benjamin Disraeli is forced into an Orientalist mode, ignoring the social satire and disapproval of anti-Semitism that permeate the Victorian text.  Said reads Orientalist texts as though their contexts did not matter and he often reads only for damnable quotes.

The third and final chapter analyzes Said’s Orientalism thesis as an essentialism, a kind of Orientalism in perverse, by laying bare his application of Michel Foucault’s notion of discourse and Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony.  Here I address the theory and method of the work, including Said’s views on the role of the intellectual as an amateur and his humanist twittering on the meaning of “truth.”  The point is not to bludgeon Said as a worldly critic, whose passions at times dictated what and how he wrote.  Rather, I want to salvage what is important in his critique of biased representation of Islam and Arab cultures.  The proper response to the faults of Orientalism is not an equally egregious Occidentalism, but a call for better scholarship.  The challenge at hand in today’s tumultuous political climate is to contribute to a nuanced, not paternalistically fixed, understanding of Muslims, Arabs and “Orientals” as others.