Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents

From The Atlantic Monthly:

Book_17 This was the quasi-articulate attack recently leveled, by a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, on Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi’s account of private seminars on Nabokov for young women in Iran. The professor described Nafisi’s work as resembling “the most pestiferous colonial projects of the British in India,” and its author as the moral equivalent of a sadistic torturer at Abu Ghraib. “To me there is no difference between Lynndie England and Azar Nafisi,” Hamid Dabashi, who is himself of Iranian origin and believes that Nafisi’s book is a conscious part of the softening-up for an American bombing campaign in Iran, has said.

I cannot imagine my late friend Edward Said, who was a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia, either saying or believing anything so vulgar. And I know from experience that he was often dismayed by the views of people claiming to be his acolytes. But if there is a faction in the academy that now regards the acquisition of knowledge about “the East” as an essentially imperialist project, amounting to an “appropriation” and “subordination” of another culture, then it must be conceded that Said’s 1978 book, Orientalism, was highly influential in forming this cast of mind.

Robert Irwin’s new history of the field of Oriental studies is explicitly designed as a refutation of Said’s thesis, and has an entire chapter devoted to a direct assault upon it. The author insists that he has no animus against Said personally or politically, that he tends to share his view of the injustice done to the people of Palestine, and that he regarded him as a man of taste and discernment. Irwin makes this disclaimer, perhaps, very slightly too fulsomely — at one point also recycling the discredited allegation that Said was not “really” a Palestinian from Jerusalem at all. But he is more lucid and reliable when he sets out to demonstrate the complexity and diversity of Orientalism, to defend his profession from the charge of being a conscious or unconscious accomplice of empire, and to decry the damage done by those whose reading even of Orientalism was probably superficial.

I still think that Said’s book was useful if only in forcing people in “the West” to examine the assumptions that underlay their cosmology.

More here.