Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A Weblog Post

My total absence in the blogosphere leads me to a tepid reentry via a piece that I had written, though not developed, for a class of mine. With little further ado, here's a bit of my Defense of Edward Said against all the haters at ALDaily. I've been trying to avoid posting some blah blah theory stuff, but I think that the recent defense of our fine education by AT-5k has emboldened me; I would hope professor Balot might have enjoyed this.

A good deal of the criticism of Said’s Orientalism as address the work’s seeming ahistoricisms and tendency to assign importance to only certain works and events while ignoring others. At times, this seems fair, and Said often displays a large degree of ambivalence to Marxism and similar (historical) materialist strategies. However, it would seem that Said’s major concern was not to renounce the applicability of Marxism, but merely to avoid certain strands of reductionism or orthodoxy sometimes found in Marxist analysis. Instead he sought—as, I believe, Foucault did also—to situate a materialist critique alongside a critique of the ideology of Orientalism. As such, his focus on literary texts, colonial documents, and other representations of the East was not intended to replace the historical and material factors involved in the interrelation between the ‘Orient’ and the ‘West.’ He did not seek to, as Sadiq al-‘Azm implies in one critique (in an article otherwise in agreement with Said entitled “Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse”), to imply that because all discourse is filtered through representation then the west is innocently acting in the only way it can. That the apprehension of a culture proceeds through the creation of representations does not entail resignation. Instead, as Said’s (rhetorical) questions at the end of his book imply, the fundamental problem is with the very questions asked and with the attempts to take an entire “culture” as a unit of analysis (325-326).

Said’s focus on the micro-politics of the Orientalist discourse, the small and seemingly insignificant sites of its operation, is not merely an type of eclecticism or corralling data to support his point. By focusing on the details that he does, Said exposes the conditions of the Occidental relationship with the Orient in a way that cuts through both Orientalist discourse but also historicist and even materialist analyses. Genealogy gives a means to analyze the history of truth, so to speak; it attempts to expose the conditions under which interpretations and analyses can be made. When thinking about the way Said writes the genealogy of Orientalism and his critics, I am reminded Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History”:

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’ (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger. The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it….

Benjamin attempts throughout the same essay to differentiate between the ‘empty’ time of the historicist and the historical materialist’s “time of the now.” Said’s work I see as embodying the process of the latter; the history of Orientalism is not homogenous, and it is only by detailing the small fragments of the past that the importance of Orientalism in the present can be felt. In fact, the full connection between Orientalism and Imperialism, which many leftist scholars accuse Said of treating too lightly, can only be grasped in the present, not as they have been part of a long causal chain but as a myriad of fragments that are now condensed. Thus the ultimate goal is not to attempt to create a new causality or history that somehow distances itself from Orientalism, or seek to form new representations for the future. The militant or provocative kernel of Said’s work instead provokes us to dismantle or implode this historicism; materialism, seemingly absent in Said’s work, returns in the final instance, as it is only in the present that the full stakes of the struggle can be felt. The struggle is imminently a materialist one because it is only a materialist perspective that can allow the historian or thinker to analyze each individual situation as such, as a distinct set of conditions that does not seek recourse in the inconsistencies of Orientalism.

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