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Edward Said Now Irrelevant: Official

February 28, 2011

Edward Said

Addressing a largely Muslim gathering three years ago in the auditorium of State Parliament House, I praised the Medieval Islamic culture of southern Spain. It had been a culture that respected Jews and Christians. I drew on Maria Rosa Menocal’s, The Ornament of the World (Back Bay Books 2002) and used it to support the proposition of King Abdullah of Jordan, that we should move towards “an overlap of civilisations” not a clash of civilisations.

In my naïveté I thought that praising a multicultural, Islamic civilization – this Islamic civilisation of Spain – might be seen by everyone as relevant and interesting.

One academic, however, accused me of “Orientalism”. I immediately recognised this jargon as coming from the song sheet of the American literary critic, Edward Said, exalted in universities as a quasi-divinity.

Very welcome, therefore, to see David Burchell in today’s Australian perform a deft piece of revisionism on Said’s vastly over-inflated reputation.

He writes Said presented a political perspective of “almost child-like simplicity”. In Said’s view, all the problems of the Arab world are due to America and Israel. Any Arabs who seek reform, said Said in 2003, are just repeating “tired American formulas” about democracy and freedom.

Burchell makes a point (that I don’t think has been made in Britain or America) that Said had nothing to say in support of democracy or womens’ rights in Arab countries. Instead, he remained wedded to a romantic view of the Arab world, a “shimmering ideal about which he knew so little and spoke so much”. Said wanted the Arab world “pre-modern, atavistic, romantic – a figure of his own fervid imaginings”, according to Burchell.

The brave young demonstrators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and elsewhere have simply passed Said by. He didn’t inspire them, had not called for them, had not predicted them. Worse, as Burchell reminds us, he wrote for a state-sponsored newspaper in Egypt and never once criticised those sponsors or the repressive dictatorship of Gaddafi.

Edward Said is irrelevant.

Except in Western universities where he will be invoked and quoted and analysed favourably for another 20 years until the academics basing careers on his writings get retired or die off.

  1. Vanessa permalink
    February 28, 2011 4:49 pm

    Wasn’t aware of the article in the Australian but follow you on twitter so thanks for referencing it there!

  2. stephen crittenden permalink
    February 28, 2011 8:24 pm

    Although I would rather eat one of my own eyeballs rather than agree with Robert about anything, for once he’s spot on.

  3. Khaldoun Hajaj permalink
    March 1, 2011 6:13 pm

    Dear Bob

    Greetings from Abu Dhabi.

    I am intrigued how an acadamic would accuse you or Orientalism by the mere quotation of a work on Islam and Judaism? Was this person really a scholar?

    I have read all of Said’d work many times. Your article indicates to me that you have not read a single work of his. Perhaps a reading of Peace and its Discontents may plus some of the holes which you claim to be missing frm Said’s oeuvre.

    As for Burchill??? So What. He is a Columnist at the Australian. Greg Sheridan had a similar attack in Said last week too. Do you see a pattern.

    When did you read Orientalism? How did your reading of it deduce that your rendition of another work would deem you an Orientalist? By this you would assume that Said also thinks that Arnold Toynbee to be an Orientalist. No he does not.

    Simplistic readings of nuanced texts lend themselves to excitable politics.

    Abu Dhabi

    • Bob Carr permalink
      March 1, 2011 9:07 pm

      Khaldoun ( and good to hear from you ) please help me . When and where did he ever mount an attack on Arab dictatorships ? If there are examples, they would dispel the criticism. What about writing for state- sponsored papers in Egypt – and never speaking up for the victims of the dictatorship ? Did he ever criticize Gaddafi ? Again, that would answer the criticism. Or demand womens’ rights in the Arab world ? Is there any relationship between his writing and the protests ? If not, what is his relevance ?

      As for the charge of “Orientalism”, it was made in response to me invoking the tolerant, multi-cultural Islamic culture of Andalusia. Does that dismissive “Orientalism” come from a reading – maybe a misreading- of Said ? Sounds like it.

      I think they are the questions that warrant a response.

  4. Khaldoun Hajaj permalink
    March 2, 2011 2:49 pm

    Many thanks Bob. I value this input.

    You will find that Said has consistently spoken out against Arab dictators and the Arab Malaise. For example you may want to visit his excellent set of essays called Peace and its Discontent. His Brilliant Reith Lectures titled “Representations of an Intellectual” re-stress the essential points that the task of the intellectual is to speak Truth to Power (as originally opined by Julian Bender in the 1920s) to this end he makes another argument that the Gods Always Fail and this is a reference to academics holding a position akin to the Clarisy. This is why I think attacks on Said are somewhat unusual. So what that he has not spoken out against Gaddafi? I know that many in the ALP (including our current PM)have been supporters of successive brutal Israeli military juntas.

    You may want to youtube Edward Said and see some of the numerous interviews and presentations he conducts where he dissects the Arab problem. Though the chimera of the discussion of Gadafi is quickly punctured when one looks at the cabal of Western politicians knocking down his door for benefit. I take it you think that Tony Blair, Hillary Clinton, Berlusconi and numerous other Western politicians are persona non grata now for befriending Gadafi. Is it really Said’s task to speak out against all evil. Can any one person do that? Was he a self appointed spokesperson for Arab masses…NO is the resounding answer. In this instance we could perhaps make an assessment of Western intellectuals and their respective positions on their respective regimes. Lets see in what way did the brilliant Martha Nussbaum oppose the Bush regime? Did she speak out? What did Jacques Derrida have to say about French occupation of Algeria or the struggles for Independence in New Caledonia? Perhaps Foucault!

    He did write for the Al Aharm English Edition. There is nothing wrong with this. The ABC is Government owned…does this mean that its illegitimate to speak on it. You will find that Said was trying to access a larger and indeed highly nuanced Arab audience. His articles which are available online are very critical of Arab politics and regimes. Somehow it troubles me that Western intellectuals such your self have defined a Manichean world whereby the struggle for values and ideas now revolves around purity. Al Ahram is one of the oldest news paper in the World…its not complerely illegitimate. Certainly no more or less than the SMH which publishes the likes of Paul Sheahan and the Australian with the likes of Sheridan.

    On Gender. Said is again extremely progressive. His works on Orientalism have launched an entire field on post colonial gender studies. The great Indian feminist Spivak has praised his work. Indeed so have countless Arab feminist including the great Nawal El Saadawi, Rana Qabbani and Leila Ahmad. What would have a mere word from Edward Said contributed to the debate around gender? If this is the standard then one ought to wake up every Sunday morning and prepare lists of matters that righteous persons ought to have a position on. What is your stated position on the people of the Polisario? Perhaps Canadian Indigenous land rights? Democratic movements in Oman or access to clean water in India? I don’t expect a response!

    Though we need to be reminded that Said is a literary critic. His work has focussed in the English literary tradition. He defined a new way of reading literature. Look at his analysis of such great works as Kim or Heart of Darkness or Mansfield Park. The way we read Shakespeare has been challenged by his contribution.

    Your friend and my intellectual hero Gore Vidal has consistently spoken of Said as the finest critic of his generation.

    Though there is a phrase in Orientalism which is much confused about the pernicious nature of scholarship, however, if you read Massignon, Flaubert or indulge the paintings of Gerome, Delacoix, Renoire or even Matisse you will quickly understand what Said is saying…ofcourse you need to see things from the purview of the subaltern…though I am not sure if the subaltern does talk!

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