Edward Said and the Oppositional Canon

Gary Kamiya’s article over at Salon entitled “How Edward Said Took Intellectuals For A Ride”:http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2006/12/06/orientalism/ has a nice write up of Robert Irwin’s new book “Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism And Its Discontents”:http://www.amazon.com/Dangerous-Knowledge-Orientalism-Its-Discontents/dp/158567835X/sr=8-1/qid=1165774790/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/103-0032906-7355009?ie=UTF8&s=books. As is well known, Irwin’s book has been the focus of an enormous amount of attention after he was stung to death by a sting ray while filming his latest ‘Crocodile Hunter’ special. No just kidding that was Steve Irwin. Robert Irwin’s book caused a stir because it is — or so I’m told — a good book which criticizes Said.

Said, like Derrida and to a lesser extent Foucault, is one of these thinkers that has a lot of lousy critics who seem to be upset more by the way their work challenges their comfortable subject positions than by anything Said said. Irwin shares Said’s substantive politics but takes issue with his analysis. It sounds like an interesting book.

The idea that struck me in Salon was the idea that Said was a keystone of the ‘oppositional canon’. We all know that for every lousy critic of Said there is a uncritical admirer for whom Said is an exemplar of what a non-Haole, leftist, decolonizing academic can and should be. But I’ve never seen a syllabus entitled “The Oppositional Canon: Theoretical Genealogies”.

What else should be on there? What are the classics of the oppositional canon? What are the key articles that people focus on? Fanon? Spivak? Fabian? Do we read Mbembe or Cesaire or both? And which of them? I have a good sense of this for the Pacific (or at least Hawai’i) but not in general. I suppose this is because, subject-position wise, I’m the guy that people are opposing (I checked out “Exemplars”:http://www.amazon.com/Exemplars-Rodney-Needham/dp/0520052005/sr=1-1/qid=1165776136/ref=sr_1_1/103-0032906-7355009?ie=UTF8&s=books from the library to read over the winter break – MWoRN ftw!!!). But as someone who is going to be teaching an “Empire Strikes Backs” section of a grad-level theory course, what do you think I should be teaching?


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

16 thoughts on “Edward Said and the Oppositional Canon

  1. At the risk of stating the obvious, have them read both the Said and the Irving. Grad students should really be able to sink their teeth in there. One of the main problem with much of the postmodern-postcolonial theoretical literature (at least from my perspective in sociology, specializing in queer cultures) is that it’s beautiful philosophicaly and satisfying politically, but virtually useless methodologically and empirically. Real people act in ways far more complex, and their desires and experiences of power relationships are likewise far more complex than Foucault, Spivak, Fanon allow. It’s one of the great ironies, in my opinion, that theories that claim to describe the complexities of power end up describing a fantasy world of disconnected discourse that collapses into easy flows or power; and that claims to rail against determinism but ends up being its own kind of (even more insidious?) determinism.

    how’s that for a Sunday-morning-before-coffee gestural attack on cultural theory 1975-1990? lol

  2. Said has always been criticized for painting too broad a picture, and overlooking the differences in various different strands of orientalism (ie. Germans), so it certainly does not come as a surprise. Yes, the orientalists really did love the orient, but the claim that this book disproves the existence of any general knowledge formation in which they wrote their individual works seems to be missing the forest for the trees. I’d be interested if Irwin thinks it is intellectually honest to make any generalizations from history? It is a legitimate position to take, for sure, but then we aren’t just talking about Said, but just about anyone else who moves away from the empirical details of individual lives to see history in a broader perspective. Whether or not Said got the details right, one would need to show that the hundreds (thousands?) of scholars who have followed in his footsteps were all equally loose with the facts. (That’s the implication, though, isn’t it?)

    Having just spent a fair amount of time actually reading colonial era documents producing knowledge about a specific group of people (criminal tribes in India) I can safely say that
    the British were orientalists and that much of the data they produced was made up to fit their own orientalist fantasies, even though I’m sure some of these colonial officers/scholars genuinely loved their subjects.

    There are important debates within the post-colonial tradition, many of which have already taken most of the steam out of Said’s founding work. For instance, he overlooks the important differences between various colonial traditions. There is also too much of an emphasis on the colonizer/colonized and too little on the internal divisions within the colony. (The same can also be said of the economic debates in post-colonial studies.) But I really think any evaluation of his legacy is best made by looking at the genuinely productive traditions he sparked rather than just his own scholarship.

    BTW: The British are really going all out to re-write the rewriting of empire, aren’t they. What’s up with that? Not that I mean to imply that Irwin doesn’t love his subjects …

  3. I can never read this kind of discussion without recalling the opening paragraphs of Clifford Geertz’ “Thick Description: Toward and Interpretive Theory of Culture.”

    In her book, Philosophy in a New Key, Susanne Langer remarks that certain ideas burst upon the intellectual landscape with a tremendous force. They resolve so many fundamental problems at once that they seem also to promise that they will resolve all fundamental problems, clarify all obscure issues. Everyone snaps them up as the open sesame to some new positive science, the conceptual center-point around which a comprehensive system of analysis can be built. The sudden vogue of such a grande idée, crowding out almost everything else for a while, is due, she says, “to the fact that all sensitive and active minds turn at once to exploiting it. We try it in every connection, for every purpose, experiment with possible stretches of its strict meaning, with generalizations and derivatives.”

    After we have become familiar with the new idea, howeever, after it has become part of our general stock of theoretical concepts, our expectations are brought more into balance with its actual uses, and its excessive popularity is ended. A few zealots persist in the old key-to-the-universe view of it; but less driven thinkers settle down after a while to the problems the idea has really generated. They try to apply it and extend it where it applies and where it is capable of extension; and they desist where it does not apply or cannot be extended. It becomes, it it was, in truth, a seminal idea in the first place, a permanent and enduring part of our intellectual armory. But it no longer has the grandiose, all-promising scope, the infinite versatility of apparent application, it once had.

    The question, then, is whether Said’s Orientalism turns out to be the sort of idea that Geertz is talking about, the second law of thermodynamics or unconscious motivation, or, instead, something more like phlogiston or the humoral theory of disease. For the moment, I lean toward the former alternative. Still, however, I read books like Arthur Smith’s marvelous Village Life in China, enjoying Smith’s powers of observation while taking care to also note the 19th century Protestant missionary’s perspective that shapes his judgments and conclusions. This habit is one I believe essential to sound scholarship.

  4. You know someone — I think it was Shils — once opined that we are all going to be dead and we are all going to be wrong, and the sign of success in academics is when the latter happens before the former. I think a lot of the disatisfaction with Orientalism is that it is the starting point of an incredibly rich literature that is now 30 years old. Of course it’s going to seem problematic to those who have spent so much time working on similar issues.

    But that said John raises an interesting point by introducing Geertz into the equation — my impression is that Geertz left us un-discipled, while Said’s death lead to a resurgence of interest in his work, including memorializations, anthologies, and so forth. Can you even imagine someone writing an entire book on Why Geertz Sucked? It’s interesting to compare the two.

  5. Oh also Irwin can be a bit slippery to locate on the Internet because of how common his name is and because he is not in an academic position complete w/homepage etc. Luckily Jboc’s Oriental Rugs pages has a nice digest:


    I’ve had a few run-ins with the JOR guy at Wikipedia and while I can’t vouch for some of his…eccentricities… he’s nothing if not thorough.

  6. I read (most of) Orientalism after one of my profs related Said’s argument to something we were studying in class. As an undergrad (2nd year), it was one of the first introductions to ‘post-colonial theory,’ and I nodded my head in disgusted agreement with a lot of what he said, but I also felt like he was being kinda mean.

    Orientalism, although insightful in theoretical argument, is a bit bullying in tone. Reading Orientalism, I thought, “Yeah, ok, this is pretty much all true, and I feel bad about it, but . . . is it really fair to blame and generalize to this extent?” Since I haven’t read Irwin’s book, I can only assume from Kamiya’s article that the answer is “No.” There, I said it, I was afraid to say it before, but now I said it, Said is a meanie!

  7. Kerim says “the British were orientalists and that much of the data they produced was made up to fit their own orientalist fantasies, even though I’m sure some of these colonial officers/scholars genuinely loved their subjects.”

    I think this statement is important because it exposes something about all cultures/groups of people – there has always been a tendency throughout history for people to say ‘the people on the other side of the fence are lovable, but not as good as us. perhaps they are not quite as human as us.’ If this is a slightly fair generalisation, what is so special about Orientalism, other than the fact the Europe had hegemonic power at the time? What aboutother hegemons, like China, and their treatment of barbarians? Can we ever get over this mindset? If it is applied at a local level doesn’t it preserve local traditions, rather than keeping up with the Jones’?

    I read some Said in a course this year on post-colonial literature. One of the really interesting things to come out of that was the problematic nature of post-colonial literary responses to Orientalist literature. Many people in the class were shocked by the anger and violence in the books, and the extreme contempt directed by some authors towards the West. And because it was it was literature course, we were supposed to choose aesthetics over politics, so an angry book detracted from its own aesthetic value (in Western eyes). The lesson we were supposed to learn is that engagement with the Other is better than turning away, which some extreme authors promoting decolonisation and independence implied.

    So I think perhaps the determinism which come out of Said, with reference to what Todd O. said, is something like the incommensurability thesis: How dare we have a take on someone else’s culture, someone else’s story?

  8. Rex writes,

    Can you even imagine someone writing an entire book on Why Geertz Sucked? It’s interesting to compare the two.

    I can imagine someone writing a book on Geertz. The problem would be that Geertz was never a man with one big idea. The closest thing in the Geertz corpus is, to me at least, thick description. But thick description is, at the end of the day, a scholarly idea and not a dramatically political one in the way that Orientalism is. It concerns the scholarly question of what the aims of research should be; but that is not a question that most people care about. Orientalism is another way of expressing the rage in “Who you calling nigger?” Thick description is a way of neutralizing anger by examining a question from so many angles that dispassionate understanding dissipates the feelings that moved those involved in the events being described. That’s a hard sell.

  9. One problem I’ve had with Said’s Orientalism and similar works is that it posits some West as the aggressor and takes this West at face value as a cultural entity. It may be a geo-political entity, but not a coherent cultural entity. I’ve got some recent posts at The Valve on this and similar topics:

    1. Is Western Culture an Illusion?:

    Sometime between ten and twenty years ago I was casually chatting with David Hays, friend, colleague, and mentor, and asked, “in what sense is American culture a kind of Western culture? What are the general features that mark a culture as Western and what special features distinguish American culture from other varieties of Western culture, say Canadian, or Italian, or Finnish?” He thought the questions rather peculiar, as did I. That’s why I asked them.

    2. Fables of Identity, European and American:

    Judging by a remark in the final paragraph, I wrote “Beyond Oppositional Trickeration” sometime during the O. J. Simpson trial and published it in Gravity within a month or two before “Fore Play: A Lesson in Jivometric Drummology.” The tone is conversational, a bit hip, but without the Lord Buckley embroidery of “Fore Play.” As I recall “whiteness” was being discovered at the time and, though I never read any of the books resultant upon that discovery, I certainly read articles and interviews. Could hardly miss them, they were thicker than snow at the North Pole. The influence of those ideas is obvious.

    Were I to develop these ideas more formally, I would devote considerable effort to delivering on this informal observation, which I make early on: we must orient ourselves to that whole range of experience we have access to beyond our immediate family and neighborhood. What I had and have in mind is that, to the extent that we are aware of human history, we must situate ourselves within it in some role that gives us some place in history. By identifying with some ethnic, religious, or national group, we make contact with history through the role that group has played in history.

    3. American Wildlife & Culture:

    I have previously argued that the notion of “Western culture” is unintelligible when considered as a term of cultural description and analysis. The term is ideological and finds its meaning in geopolitical struggles, not the study of culture. I feel much the same way about the phrase “American culture.” Such phrases, when employed to talk a general way about politics, society, and history, tend to designate some undifferentiated metaphysic substance. In one case that substance is associated with the West, but not Africa or the Orient. In the other case the substance is associated with the United States of America, but no other nation.

    I want to do a bit of thinking aloud and explore this matter by contrast that usage with a phrase such as “American wildlife.” That phrase simply designates the wildlife living in America. Given that America includes Alaska and Hawaii and some miscellaneous territories, the term’s geographical range is ambiguous, but that is easily enough clarified in any given context. 

    I think, in general, that, we’re still got a ways to go to figure out just what we’re talking about when we talk about “culture.”

  10. One problem I’ve had with Said’s Orientalism and similar works is that it posits some West as the aggressor and takes this West at face value as a cultural entity.

    Well, I think the flip side of his argument that Orientalism as a discourse produces the Orient in Western eyes, is that it also requires an Occident and an equivalent discourse about what comprises the West. Orientalist discourse was a commentary on the West as much as it was about the Orient.

    For more of which, see James Carrier’s edited volume “Occidentalism: images of the West”

  11. Thats a very interesting obituary Jeff, which provides much food for thought.

    The debate about anthropology enjoining or eschewing the biological sciences is a big one, and affects the scientific and political standing of anthropology. It seems to be an endless debate, because anthropology is ambivalent towards (or critical of) almost anything. Just as there may be much knowledge to be gained by synthesising biological knowledge with anthropological knowledge, if it assimiliates too much then there is much to be lost. While discourse may be able to colonize and permeate others, they may also dilute or be washed over. Perhaps there is a limit to how much a discourse can say, and knowledge must strategically choose a path. Maintaining a critical distance from biology preserves anthropology from becoming subordinated.

    The point about Geertz’s emphasis on literary qualities in ‘thick description’ plays along these same lines. I feel like some detractors of Geertz may have been jealous of his ability to write. But it does build an ivory tower. Less able readers and writers will be put off by a ‘high culture’ literary style. Maybe we need to see some airport non-fiction anthropology. Perhaps another point on the use of literary style is that it exerts a certain type of power over readers and writers. For literary devices to work readers have to be perhaps only semi-conscious of their existence, and are thus wooed by the ‘magic’ of the text. This could also give the effect of ‘fuzziness.’

    On the flip-side, my English lecturer in post-colonial narratives pined for an ‘innocent’ pursuit of knowledge through literature. In this sense, if the writer is writing about ‘culture’ to provide and to get their own enjoyment, (hopefully without causing cultural offense), they are not targeting the knowledge for some less innocent purpose. the same could not be said of ruthlessly efficient empirical data designed to be churned through computers and utilized by myriad other scientists and knowledge workers, for policy, for development, etc. So the ivory tower has a rosy hedge around it.

    Leading on from this, there seems to be an incessant right-wing attack on left-wing intellectuals and politicians for being ‘politically correct.’ This seems bizarre when the prevailing orthodoxy of politics is not congruent with these views. It seems the right-wing is trying to proclaim itself as ‘radical’ (it has been described as such, at times), and confronting the hegemony of the left. If left-wing ‘politically correct’ thought was so powerful, shouldn’t we all be at least socialist? The only sense I can make of ‘politically correct’ is being polite, non-offensive to all parties. Neutral, objective perhaps. Which is perhaps more a scientific position than a literary one. Confusing?

    I have no doubt that Geertz used cronyism as a policy for appointing colleagues at the institute. Anthropology, like any other institution, is rife with nepotism and cronyism, despite a universal appeal in Western liberal democracy for a meritocracy and neutral, objective assessment of the best candidate for the job. Obviously, if someone is going to support your political position, you will apoint them. And, i have seen a concerted ‘politically correct’ and conservative push at a conference to say no to engaging with the natural sciences. But weeding the politics form the merit of arguments is very difficult.

  12. It’s interesting that the detractors of Said or Geertz go out of their way to posit them as Academic Despots of the first order. I think it’s safe to say that “Orientalism” and “thick description” are part of what Every Young Anthropologist Must Know but in a very loose way — no contemporary scholar at the doctoral level applies these as cutting-edge analytic frameworks. That either one of them would be taken as historical signposts of “when we got into this handbasket” is comical; it betrays a silly, snobbish credulity that behind every genuine social-intellectual transition there must be an Ivy League perfesser, preferably a lanky male elegantly-dressed one.

    Said, of course, comes in for special varieties of unfair nastiness that have nothing to do with his scholarship and everything to do with his politics; the same can’t be said for Geertz. But the sort of exaggerated denunciation of either as master-puppeteers of Contemporary Pointy-Headedness and Why Me No Like Eet is soft-headed on multiple levels.

  13. Rex suggested that “a lot of the disatisfaction with Orientalism is that it is the starting point of an incredibly rich literature that is now 30 years old.”

    While this is true in a clear and very important way (tons of books respond to Said), in another important but less obvious way it’s not: the rest of the world (including representatives within the West) began looking and writing back a good while before Said, and it’s valuable to keep re-placing the conversation around Said back into this larger trajectory. For one thing, it helps prevent the discourse from turning into a replay of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

    One of the reasons James Clifford’s 1980 History and Theory review of Orientalism is so valuable is that he placed it in a trajectory moving from the poet Aimé Césaire’s 1939 announcement of Négritude through the anthropologist Michael Leiris’ 1950 “L’Ethnographe devant le colonialisme,” the first explicit self-critique of western knowledge production as colonial project. Said’s Orientalism, Clifford wrote, was part of a global phenomenon in which the rest of the world begins to return the western gaze. Part of Clifford’s criticism of Said was precisely that his critique was too narrow, misrecognizing a global predicament as a specifically Middle Eastern one.

    All of this by way of re-emphasizing that the discourse both preceding and following Said’s book can be far more interesting than the clashing of two polarized camps.

  14. One of the things I find interesting about this general topic is that the whole range of issues in play in Orientalism and in response to it are also in play entirely within the compass of American culture. It certainly must be there with respect to Native Americans, though I don’t know that literature at all. And it is certainly there with respect to African America and, in particular, discussions of African-American music. That last is something I know a good deal about.

    The essentializing about jazz and blues and so forth goes back to the early 20th century (and no doubt has its roots in earlier commentaries, which I don’t know so well); and this essentializing is still very much with us. Try telling a dedicated fan of The Authentic Black Blues that Muddy Waters had more Gene Autry than blues in his repertoire when he arrived in Chicago or that (Saint) Robert Johnson had a large repertoire of Broadway show tunes — as Charlie Keil recently told me. A number of episodes of Scorsese’s often superb blues series were thick with this essentialism, from Scorsese himself and from Wim Wenders. See my reviews of this series, here and here.

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