Thursday, July 03, 2003

Martin Kramer, one of the leading right-wing critics of Middle East Studies, has a certain fixation with Edward Said. In the late 1970's, Said wrote a book called Orientalism which argued that Western knowledge of the Orient was part of a discourse linked to colonialism, and that this had led to various stereotypes about Arabs, Muslims, and the Middle East in general. The book made a serious impact, starting a debate about the history and practices of the field which I'm not sure was ever really resolved. The book's lasting importance within academics was as the founding text for post-colonial studies, a theoretical approach to area studies which seeks to evaluate the impact of colonialism on perceptions of colonized societies, including those societies' perceptions of themselves. As a historian, to me it usually means reading texts to see what concepts they use in talking about non-Westerners and the origin of those concepts, which partly ties in to the notion that Western categories of thought and action are often imperfect in describing the non-Western world.

Kramer and figures like Stanley Kurtz often tout Edward Said as an example of Middle East Sudies's anti-Americanism. Said strongly opposes American foreign policy in the Middle East, and they twist scholars' interest in his academic work into support for all his foreign policy statements. This, of course, requires them to show that Orientalism remains a great unassailable text which everyone lives by. However, having reached the level of Ph.D. Candidate in Middle Eastern history, that just isn't the case.

As an undergrad, I took two classes that customarily fall under the rubric of Middle Eastern Studies, and did two independent research papers, one for an honors course and the my senior seminar, in the field. Edward Said and Orientalism never came up. I was able to complete my coursework to reach this point of my graduate career without being assigned Orientalism once, though it came up in discussion during a History and Theory seminar which included post-colonialism. Before taking my prelims - the big exams necessary to advance to candidacy - I was expected to know the thesis of the book, and was also directed to an essay written by Albert Hourani criticizing it, as well as some stuff on Edward Said's Arab critics. My advisor, who directed my prelims, said I had to know it for what he compared to the "citizenship exam" as opposed to the "professional exam," the former dealing with the debates that have shaped the field, the latter stuff important to my own future research. One of my other professors mentioned Orientalism in an undergrad lecture, saying that it was a book "filled with a number of good points carried to such exaggeration that it is possible to completely miss them."

I did use Orientalism in writing my master's thesis. I was writing an essentially Coptological thesis, and began with a historiographical introduction to which Said was most definitely relevant. My master's committee found my invocation of Pierre Bourdieu's The Logic of Practice far more interesting. (I was in that stage of grad school where you get obsessed with theory.) Last spring I had occasion to send my thesis for comment to a leading scholar in the field, who suggested I drop Said altogether because, "No one cares about him anymore."

In short, Said is important, but that importance is clearly diminishing. He had an effect on the field, but I can't find much in Orientalism that would really affect my stand on contemporary issues of foreign policy. People today read him because he made such a splash, but a splash is not the same as convincing everyone you're right. A student of current American politics would be required to know about the Democratic Leadership Council even if you were a Republican or Kucinich supporter. And I think that's pretty much where we are with Edward Said.


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