Adversarial saints

Robert Irwin says some amusing things in this interview with Scott McLemee about Irwin’s book on Said’s Orientalism. Scott asked what made a criticism of Orientalism seem worthwhile or necessary enough for a book.

I got irritated by the way some people in Eng Lit departments seemed to regard themselves as adversarial saints, robed in white and “speaking truth to power” because they read Conrad, Austen and Flaubert in strange ways. Whereas academics who read Masudi, Tabari and Ibn Khaldun were necessarily robed in black.

Yep. The adversarial sainthood thing is a big – a huge – part of why descriptions of postmodernism by fans of postmodernism tend to be so irritating. The reek of self-imputed adversarial sainthood is all over them. The very ‘notion that no one view, theory or understanding should be privileged over another (or that no discourse should be silenced)’ is a classic adversarial sainthood notion. The very notion that the word ‘privilege’ is relevant in an epistemic context is puglistic sainthood, as is the notion that saying a theory is wrong is ‘silencing’. That substitution of political attitudes for analysis and evaluation is pure sainthood stuff. Sympathy for the poor downtrodden abused rejected Wrong Bad Stupid ideas. Never mind the boring old proles, who cares if their unions are busted and their wages slashed and their jobs sent to the Mariana Islands, the pomo saints are still valiantly defending Wrong Bad Stupid ideas. Yay.

The annoying thing about Said was that he wanted a debate based on false factual premises. Of course, there are vested interests in scholarship, but, for God’s sake, if one is looking at vested interests in in Arabic and Islamic studies, most of the ‘vesting’ comes from Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Brunei with the establishments of chairs and lectureships which are implicitly circumscribed in what kinds of research they can initiate and publish. Above all, it is a great waste of time attacking British, French, American US and Israeli scholars of Arab and Islamic culture. The people who should be attacked are Senators, MPs, Israeli generals, arms merchants, media hacks, etc. The academic dog fight is a fantastic diversion from the real horrors of what is happening in the Gaza Strip, the Left Bank and Lebanon. If one is serious about politics, the Orientalism debate is an intellectual substitute for engaging with real, non-academic issues.

Well…yeah, but how else are academics going to get to feel like adversarial saints? Have a heart, Professor Irwin.

The earliest reviewers were mostly people who knew a lot about the actual state of the field. The enthusiasts who came later did not know the field and were mostly too lazy to check Said’s assertions. The book, by “speaking truth to power,” appeals to the adversarial mentality so common among students and radical lecturers. Bashing Orientalism has seemed to be a natural intellectual accessory to opposing Israeli policies on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, American imperialism and British racism. It is much easier deliver patronizing lectures or essays about old-fashioned Orientalists than it is to actually do anything useful for Palestine…As to whom my book may be useful to, Bishop Joseph Butler in the 18th century made the following observation: “Things and their actions are what they are and the consequences of them will be what they will be: why then should we wish to be deceived?”

Because that’s how we get to feel like adversarial saints.

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