An illegitimate tone

Right, Hamid Dabashi and his rebuke of Azar Nafisi. Good stuff, is it? Readable? Persuasive? Eloquent? Reasoned? Thoughtful? Fair? Dispassionate?


Let’s sample it.

This body of literature, perhaps best represented by Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), ordinarily points to legitimate concerns about the plight of Muslim women in the Islamic world and yet put that predicament squarely at the service of the US ideological psy-op, militarily stipulated in the US global warmongering…”Islam” in this particular reading is vile, violent, and above all abusive of women–and thus fighting against Islamic terrorism, ipso facto, is also to save Muslim women from the evil of their men. “White men saving brown women from brown men,” as the distinguished postcolonial feminist Gayatri Spivak puts it in her seminal essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”

The distinguished postcolonial feminist, mark, in her seminal essay. Already (this is only page 2 of 11 in the printed version) we are in deadly familiar territory, where the in-crowd is always awarded nice little heaps of flattering adjectives like ‘distinguished’ and ‘seminal’ (those are both favourites – it’s remarkable how predictable Theory-heads allow themselves to be) while the out-crowd is scrupulously forbidden such wanton luxury. Already, only on page 2, we begin to feel the familiar queasy disgust at the mix of abuse and sycophancy. And we read on, and the mix gets more so and then more so – until we feel so sick we can’t read any longer. And it’s only page 4.

…one can now clearly see and suggest that this book is partially responsible for cultivating the US (and by extension the global) public opinion against Iran, having already done a great deal by being a key propaganda tool at the disposal of the Bush administration during its prolonged wars in such Muslim countries as Afghanistan…Meanwhile, by seeking to recycle a kaffeeklatsch version of English literature as the ideological foregrounding of American empire, Reading Lolita in Tehran is reminiscent of the most pestiferous colonial projects of the British in India…through the instrumentality of English literature, recycled and articulated by an “Oriental” woman who deliberately casts herself as a contemporary Scheherazade, it seeks to provoke the darkest corners of the Euro-American Oriental fantasies…Rarely has an Oriental servant of a white-identified, imperial design managed to pack so many services to imperial hubris abroad and racist elitism at home–all in one act.

And so bloody on. Veering from spit-flecked abuse to vulgar testosteroneish sneering but never losing the overwrought inquisitorial tone – as long as he is talking about Nafisi; but when the Good People enter the picture, of course that’s another story. (Dabashi fumes about Bush and the axis of evil but is apparently too stupid or too excited to realize that he thinks in exactly the same terms himself.)

In his study of the cultural foregrounding of imperialism, Culture and Imperialism (1993), Edward Said examined the overlapping territories, as he called them, between the literary and the political, the cultural and the imperial, in the Euro-American imperial imaginary. This, as he was never tired of repeating, was not to reduce European literature to the political proclivities of any given period, but in fact conversely to posit the political fact, in his proverbial contrapuntal hermeneutics, as the principal interlocutor of the literary event–of the European literature of the period in particular. In her similarly groundbreaking work on the relationship between domestic and foreign policies of an empire and their cultural manifestations, The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of US Culture (2002), Amy Kaplan has demonstrated the link between domestic and foreign affairs in the manufacturing of such an imperial project. In this extraordinary work of literary investigation, Amy Kaplan demonstrates how at least since the middle of the nineteenth century etc etc…From the other side of the same argument, in her pioneering investigative scholarship, Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India, Gauri Viswanathan has traced etc etc…The study of English literature, as Viswanathan has ably demonstrated etc etc…

Why is this combination of spraying thuggery on the one hand and groveling ass-kissing on the other so repulsive? Because (I guess) it’s a combination of spraying thuggery and groveling ass-kissing. The two just do make a nasty, repellent, stomach-turning pair. Vituperation and accusation immediately followed by beaming smirking licking are a sign of something horribly amiss, of someone with too much bullying rage and too much slavish bootlicking unpleasantly yoked together in one person. And the combination is, of course, especially repellent in an academic. In a corporate executive or an advertising genius or a marketing guru or an entertainment boffin it wouldn’t be attractive, but it wouldn’t be all that astonishing or out of place, either. But academics really aren’t supposed to be that out of control. The writing in that article is just intellectually out of control. It’s swamp thing.

And the guy teaches at Columbia. I don’t want to go all Horowitzy on everyone’s ass, but I find that…disconcerting.

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