Monday, September 17, 2018

Polluters of the Brain

Bernard Lewis, Edward Said, and why “Orientalism” is Bulls—t.
Part 3: Orientalism and Postmodernism.
By Michael Isenberg.

In Part 2 of this series, I gave credit where credit is due to the things that Edward Said got right in his influential book Orientalism, in which he attacks Western scholars of the Middle East as racist lackeys of imperialist oppressors.

It will take two more posts for me to cover all the things he got wrong.

Let me start by addressing something that I don’t hold against him. Professor Said’s critics have made a great deal out of an infamous gaffe in Orientalism: “After Mohammed’s death in 632, the military and later the cultural and religious hegemony of Islam grew enormously. First Persia, Syria, and Egypt, then Turkey, then North Africa fell to Muslim armies.” Said got the sequence wrong—Turkey fell to Islam centuries after North Africa. But having written a couple books myself, I know just how hard it is to eliminate every last error and typo. I’m willing to give Said a pass on this one. If you consider the book as whole, it’s clear that he knows his history (Albeit I’m surprised the error wasn’t corrected in the book’s 25th Anniversary edition).

Of far more concern than a probably unintentional error of chronology is that Orientalism is based on a fundamentally flawed philosophy.

That philosophy is postmodernism.

Postmodernism is an approach to art and literary criticism that hit its stride on college campuses in the 1960s, just as Said was doing his graduate work. But its roots extend to older philosophies of the “we know that we know nothing” variety, such as the positivism of August Comte and the skepticism of David Hume. It’s closely associated with “poststructuralism,” “social constructionism,” “deconstructionism,” and the “French Theory” (or just “Theory”) of Derrida, Lacan, and Foucault. Despite the nuanced theoretical distinctions that academics draw between these terms, as far as I can tell, in practice they’re used interchangeably.

The basic idea is that reality is ultimately unknowable by human beings. We can only know “narratives” and “representations,” which are inevitably warped by race, culture, language, socioeconomic group, and the interests of the powerful—especially the last. Foucault’s “big squishy pink-marshmallow word is ‘power,’” writes Said admirer and postmodernism critic Camille Paglia, “which neither he nor his followers fully understand.”

Needless to say, in a world where there is no truth, only “social constructs,” the effort to find Grand Themes running through history is pure folly (which is a problem for me personally, since my novel The Thread of Reason is the first installment in a series about one of those Grand Themes).

In Professor Said’s words, “The real issue is whether indeed there can be a true representation of anything, or whether any and all representations, because they are representations, are embedded first in the language and then in the culture, institutions, and political ambience of the representer.”

Applying that philosophy to western scholarship of the Middle East, he says, “My whole point about this system is not that it is a misrepresentation of some Oriental essence—in which I do not for a moment believe—but that it operates as representations usually do, for a purpose, according to a tendency, in a specific historical, intellectual, and even economic setting.” Note that he’s inconsistent on whether a thing called the Orient actually exists apart from its representations. Here he says he does “not for a moment believe” in the existence of an “Oriental essence,” but in another passage, which I cited in Part 2, he says that “human reality seems to be genuinely divided, into clearly different cultures.” In any case, the inconsistency makes little difference in the postmodernist world view. We fallible humans can only grasp the representations anyway.

In her 1970 essay, “The Comprachicos,” Ayn Rand identifies the problem with this kind of philosophy, and the implications of teaching it to students. She was talking about “Progressive” ideas in general, but her critique certainly applies to postmodernism in particular.

They are being taught, by implication, that there is no such thing as a firm, objective reality, which man’s mind must learn to perceive correctly; that reality is an indeterminate flux and can be anything the pack wants it to be; that truth or falsehood is determined by majority vote. And more: that knowledge is unnecessary and irrelevant, since the teacher’s views have no greater validity than the oratory of the dullest and most ignorant student—and therefore, that reason, thinking, intelligence and education are of no importance or value.”

One has to wonder, if knowledge bears such little relationship to any sort of reality, what benefit there is in funding universities, or paying the comfortable salaries of postmodernist academics.

Camille Paglia has expressed similar reservations:

The fashionable French posturing—‘there are no facts’—has got to stop. There are no certainties, but there are well-supported facts which we can learn and build on, always with the flexible scholarly skepticism that allows us to discard prior assumptions in the face of new evidence. If there are no facts, surgeons couldn’t operate, buildings would collapse, and airplanes wouldn’t get off the ground.

Professor Paglia does not always employ such scholarly and measured tones when discussing postmodernism: “Empty word play,” she calls it. “Pedantic jargon, clumsy convolutions, and prissy abstractions.” “Positively idiotic.” “Abject philistinism masquerading as advanced thought.” And my favorite: “Polluters of the brain commit crimes against humanity. Dante’s Inferno has a special reserved foxhole for the followers of Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault, who will boil for eternity in their own verbal sludge.”

Remarkably, Ms. Paglia does not include Mr. Said among those she would boil for eternity. She writes, “Said’s thinking has been influenced by Michel Foucault and Frantz Fanon, but he uses their ideas sparingly and judiciously.” I find Professor Paglia's opinion mystifying in view of the implicit postmodernism that pollutes every page of Orientalism, not to mention Mr. Said’s own numerous explicit acknowledgments of his debt to Foucault. In all fairness, when she wrote this she was reviewing a different Said book, Culture and Imperialism. She may also have gone easy on him in view of their common ground on the New Historicism, yet another academic movement, this one popular in the 1990s. Said and Paglia both found it lacking in rigor.

It is now generally accepted that postmodernism has run its course. “Gone out of fashion,” say Jose Lopez and Garry Potter, editors of After Postmodernism. “Moribund,” says Paglia. Alas, reports of postmodernism’s near death are greatly exaggerated. Its noxious influence lives on in the persistent belief that there is no truth, only narrative. The main thing that's changed is now there’s less of a focus on text as a source of narrative, and more of a focus on race and gender, a trend to which Orientalism contributed in no small way.

And yet, getting into bed with postmodernism isn’t the only thing Orientalism gets wrong, as I shall discuss in Part 4, “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on

Photo Credit(s): Judy Horacek

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