Orientalism and Its Enemies

In the LRB, Maya Jasanoff reviews Robert Irwin’s response to Edward Said’s classic Orientalism, entitled For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies.

As Said presents it, Orientalism is a Western discourse that essentialises the Arab world in derogatory terms (as effeminate, decadent, timeless and so on), and is intimately bound up with the imposition of imperial power. Few if any academic books published since have invited so much reaction across so many different fields. Most of these responses have developed or refined Said’s framework in some way. Not so Robert Irwin’s For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies. Irwin’s central point is that before there was Orientalism, there was Orientalism: the scholarly study of languages and texts pertaining to the Orient. The book operates on two levels. In the main, For Lust of Knowing offers a sort of catalogue raisonné of Western Orientalist scholarship from the Middle Ages to the present. Its argumentative thrust, however, emanates from a second goal, which is to unmask Said’s Orientalism as a perverted muddle of ‘malignant charlatanry’.