Tuesday, April 15, 2008

UnSaid


Speaking of West versus the rest, Decentiya (or is that 'Descentiya'?) have got an on-going series devoted to pissing on the grave of Edward Said, the latest of which is a review of two critical books by Ibn Warraq and Daniel Martin Varisco. All too predictable is the touting of the superiority of a historically curtailed and asomatous 'West', via Warraq. Predictable also is the representation of actual or alleged flaws in Said's approach as if they exhausted his output. And entirely unsurprising is the casual misrepresentation, about which more in a second. What surprised me was this:

"Varisco also lambastes Said for ignoring Europe's persecution of the Jews and argues that this omission is due to Said's wholesale opposition to Zionism and Israeli policies."

The context makes it clear that the author agrees with Varisco, (although I sense that Varisco may be the subject of some misrepresentation himself here). Edward Said 'ignored' European antisemitism? He 'ignored' the persection of the Jews? I just mention that the reviewer is presumably someone who has read Orientalism, and has probably encountered his interviews and various articles in collected form. He certainly quotes from Orientalism quite a lot, although that is no proof of having read it. Nevertheless, if he has, he will know that the heart of Said's argument is that anti-Semitism and Orientalism are conjoined at the hip and that they share a similar origin. Anti-Semitic and Orientalist statements and actions are authorised by the same discourse. So, for example, when he discusses Schlegel on the Orient, he discusses the anti-Semitic thesis of a philological divide between a superior Indo-European (Aryan) race and an inferior Oriental (Semitic) race. When he discusses Ernest Renan, as he does at some length, he describes his invention of the 'Semite' as an inferior non-European species. Excoriating Edward William Lane on the same theme, he writes: "The Jews and Muslims, as objects of Orientalist study, were readily understandable in view of their primitive origins: this was (and to a certain extent still is) the cornerstone of modern Orientalism ... No Semite advanced in time beyond the development of a 'classical' period; no Semite could ever shake loose the pastoral, desert environment of his tent and tribe." (Edward Said, Orientalism, Penguin Books, 2003: 234). Here are a couple more relevant quotations:

"The study of the Semitic was Renan's first full-length Orientalist and scientific study (finished in 1847, published first in 1855), and was as much a part of his late major works on the origins of Christianity and the history of the Jews as it was a propadeutic for them ... Whenever Renan wished to make a statement about either the Jews or the Muslims, for example, it was always with remarkably harsh (and unfounded, except according to the science he was practising) strictures on the Semites in mind." (Said, 2003, op cit: 140-1)

"One of the things that disappointed me about the reviews of Orientalism was that a lot of the reviews published by Jewish or Zionist journals missed the point that I was trying to make: the roots of European anti-Semitism and Orientalism were really the same. Ernest Renan, for example [some of whose writing are republished with enthusiastic endorsement in Ibn Warraq's The Quest for the Historical Muhammad] was a tremendous anti-Semite and anti-Muslim, and his view of both was essentially the same: that the Semites, whether Muslim or Jew, were not Christians and not Europeans, and therefore had to be excoriated and confined." (Gauri Viswanathan, ed, Power, Politics and Culture: Interviews with Edward Said, Bloomsbury, 2001: 48)

When Said writes about Palestine, he is often at pains to emphasise the persecution of the Jews. Thus, speaking of comparisons between apartheid and Zionism, he writes: "The conflict between Zionism and the Palestinians is admittedly more complex than the battle against apartheid ... [because] the Jews are a people with a tragic history of persecution and genocide." (Edward Said, 'The Only Alternative', Al Hayat, 2 March 2001). Speaking of the powerlessness of the Palestinians, he reminds readers that "Sixty years ago the Jews of Europe were at the lowest point of their collective existence. Herded like cattle into trains, they were transported from the rest of Europe by Nazi soldiers into death camps, where they were systematically exterminated in gas ovens." (Edward Said, 'Low Point of Powerlessness', Al Hayat, 30 September 2002). Far from Said's anti-Zionism conspiring to silence him on the persecution of the Jews, it has made him rather vocal about it, because he regards Orientalism as a particular variety of anti-Semitism.

One could go on, and indeed there would be much more to cite and quote if the facts of the matter were not already obvious. Those facts being that: 1) Edward Said did not ignore the persecution of the Jews; and 2) that to claim that he did is both a ludicrous misrepresentation of his entire project, actually to miss the whole point, and a disgusting political smear. Any critique of Said that doesn't grasp the fact that he was a powerful humanist critic of anti-Semitism and racism in general, that this was in fact his life's work, is poorly placed to grasp much else about his work. I should say that as far as original critique of Said goes, there isn't much to be had in the linked article, and as far as original and coherent critique goes, there is none. Aijaz Ahmad dealt with significant problems in Said's use of Foucauldian concept of 'discourse', pointed to the inconsistent way in which Said deals with the Hellenic connection (which is not exhausted by Said's treatment of Aeschylus, contrary to the linked article's claim), the methodological flitting between high humanism and anti-humanism, the abberant uses of 'representation' and 'misrepresentation' - all this more than fifteen years ago, and without the supererogatory hostility and misrepresentations (although I think some of Ahmad's criticisms are overdone). Before that, Robert Young had pointed to internal inconsistencies in Orientalism, in his 1990 book White Mythologies, again without managing to reduce Said's work to an elaborate set of schoolboy howlers. Even the reactionary carping about 'intellectual terrorism' that Warraq nurtures has been a theme of conservative criticism for years, since he was dubbed the 'professor of terror' by Edward Alexander in 1989. Once again, it would be possible to go on for some time on this theme. The urgency with which the 'decent left' seek, alongside the neoconservative right, to disinter Said and put him on trial on outdated, spent or wholly contrived charges, without any defense lawyer or witnesses if at all possible, is really an artefact of insecurity about the 'West' and its supremacy. For, after all, we live in a time in which pro-war intellectuals - let us be absolutely honest and say pro-empire intellectuals - of different shades are increasingly concerned about the question of Western ascendancy. The demand that we assert the superiority of something called 'Western values' (curiously, including secularism and human rights, but excluding racism, imperialism and Christian fundamentalism) is more forcefully uttered the more dubious that superiority seems. As armies purportedly acting as agents of those values despoil nations, terrorise civilians, rape women and torture prisoners, while using comprador Islamist parties to provide the human base for death squads, some people might be inclined to recall that this sort of thing happens rather a lot. It happens so often that it is hard to recall a time when someone, purportedly a leader of this 'West', was not invading somewhere outside the 'West', not finding some use for death squads, not bombing something somewhere. And when it does happen, it seems to come with a spiel about values that we all share, and wish to extend.