Edward Said's seminal text on Orientalism laid the foundations for analysing the modern world and its relationship with power structures. But does it go far enough?

Since the publication of Edward Said’s celebrated work, Orientalism has been singled out for critique as a biased and even racist discourse. 

Debates over the complicity of knowledge and power and the collaboration of Orientalism in the larger project of colonialism have been conducted in many academic circles. 

In my work, I interrogate the focus on Orientalism as a discipline that has come to stand in for all of the sins of European modernity, at the cost of neglecting the complicity of the rest of the academic fields.

I see two problems with Said’s work, which, it must be emphasised, still reigns supreme in its core critique. It is, to put it bluntly, lacking in both depth and range. 

As for range, Said’s work possessed an extraordinarily wide compass, but one that was entirely misguided, if not utterly confused. For him Orientalism went as far back as ancient Greece and the Latin West, this suggesting a fuzzy view of this discourse that was deemed not as distinctly modern but rather as a trans-historical phenomenon. Said is a reluctant critic of modernity, unable to see what was going on around him and deep under his feet.

The problem with range must be seen as connected with that of depth. Said neither appreciated nor could he correctly identify the historical roots of Orientalism because he did not understand its trenchant and deep roots in the sub-structures of the modern project. That is why he singled it out as worthy of special critique, and that is why he attacked individual Orientalists as culprits, as if by sending them to the hangman the academic field as a body of knowledge would be purified. 

In short, Said understood that there was a major problem (and for this, he must be credited), but he did not diagnose it correctly, neither as a pervasive phenomenon nor as a genealogy.

In this work, I take Orientalism as a point of departure for rethinking the foundations of the modern project, specifically the modern knowledge that our academia produces and continues to fabricate. 

Refusing to isolate or scapegoat Orientalism, Restating Orientalism extends the critique to other fields, from law, business, and economics, to philosophy, anthropology, and scientific inquiry. Grounding my critique in a theory of paradigms that I have developed in the Impossible State (2013), I reach the conclusion that quite a few academic fields could be exonerated, the visual arts and music being two major examples.

Otherwise, I trace the involvement of the rest of academia in colonialism, mass annihilation, and systematic and ruthless destruction of the natural world, interrogating and historicizing the set of causes that permitted modernity to wed knowledge to power. 

By introducing the Islamic premodern experience as a comparative case-study, I deploy an ethical critique of the modern collusion between knowledge and power. 

By offering a reinterpretation of the theory of the author, the concept of sovereignty, and the place of the Western self in the modern project, Restating Orientalism reopens the problem of power and knowledge to a foundational critique, but not without theorizing an exit from modernity’s predicaments. 

The book has been described by my publisher’s editor – accurately I think – as “a remarkably ambitious attempt to overturn the foundations of a number of academic disciplines while also drawing on the best they have to offer...Restating Orientalism exposes the depth of academia’s lethal complicity in modern forms of capitalism, colonialism, and hegemonic power.”

The book also discloses the dangerous quality of core ideas of academic thought, whether it is sourced in sovereignty or in the self. 

This is why “Orientalism” can be said to pervade nearly all academic fields, making such disciplines as philosophy and engineering no different, in their knowledge structure, from Orientalism itself, as conventionally understood.

In modernity, Orientalism, like power, is everywhere. This is also why the critique should not focus on individual scholars within specific fields, but rather on the modern subject as a structure of thought. This therefore becomes a special focus of critique and reform in this work.

Selected extracts from "Restating Orientalism: A Critique of Modern Knowledge"

384 pp. Columbia University Press

Publish date: 3 July 2018

Restating Orientalism: A Critique of Modern Knowledge, Wael B. Hallaq, Columbia University Press
Restating Orientalism: A Critique of Modern Knowledge, Wael B. Hallaq, Columbia University Press (TRTWorld)

On Liberalism:

"Said does not recognise, much less hint at, any element of this inner/outer formation of the [liberal] subject, a formation without which no sociology of knowledge can ever be possible, nor any credible evaluation of what constitutes the Orientalists as socio-epistemically conditioned beings. Said’s secular humanism and liberalism, two qualities that presuppose in every important way an Enlightenment conception of materialism, could not allow for any variety of positive liberty nor for any form of ethical formation of the self. A Berlinian by any indication, Said would have militated against himself, against his own education, and thus against the very ideas and values he cherished and on which he based his critique of Orientalism, had he ventured to critique as much as the outer edge of negative liberty.”

Power structures:

“Instrumentalism ... is a structure of thought that always requires an object on whom instrumentalism is exercised. Instrumentalism, unlike prudence, caution, cowardliness, and much else of the like, is transitive and inherently transgressive, thereby presupposing an object of transgression. And because it is a structure of thought, instrumentalism not only uses people and things as instruments, but it also devises the necessary instruments to exercise its transgression on the object. 

An instrument in the very basic and primitive sense of a tool is therefore not a merely fortuitous physical object but, because of its architectural and epistemological composition, becomes itself a structure of thought and action. To coin an adage, tell me what you invented and I will tell you what you are. The creation of a tool, instrument or method therefore is never neutral, and never just a matter of need (as in the old adage “need is the mother of invention”) but “a revealing” of a structure of thought that establishes an epistemological continuum between subject and predicate, between the instrument and its maker. 

A gas chamber, a machine gun, an excavation machine, a drilling rig, a fighter plane, or a nuclear head embody within them structures of thought that establish an epistemological continuum with the minds of their makers. 

To explain genocides and holocausts as a result of the availability of modern technology, modern science, or bureaucratic efficiency is to misunderstand the very nature of instrumentalism as a structure of thought. 

The invention of nuclear weapons or of sophisticated military technology that wiped out of the face of earth millions of innocent victims in the colonies, in Japan, and in Europe itself is not a neutral act of science or the result of neutral technological competence. Nor is there any neutrality in the use of otherwise “innocent” instruments to destructive effects. 

A carpenter’s hammer used to smash the head of another human or a pet loses this epistemological continuum, rendering it anything but a carpenter’s hammer as originally and conventionally conceived. The hammer is epistemologically reinvented at the very moment it is used for murder. It is therefore not the instrument and its availability that makes for a rationally justifiable analytical explicans, but it is rather the mind behind its invention and use that must phenomenologically constitute the explicans.”

Israel and colonisation:

“The Israeli case … manifests one of the widest ranges and greatest depths of settler colonialism, and one that brings to the fore the role of academic knowledge, including Orientalism, in the project of direct colonisation. To the extent that the various modes of colonialism constitute a phenomenon analogical to the normative modes of politico-legal existence, Israel is a normative case of extraordinarity.”

Revising Orientalism:

“This, therefore, is a [book] on foundational moral principles and ethical structures that stand in a complex set of relationships with modernity, mostly as a matrix of denials and negations, but also as the loci of regenerative critique. 

In an epistemological system whose very existence has been grounded in an ab initio exclusion of certain views and modes of thought, it might seem that any such advocacy would be doomed from the start. 

Yet, as this book will argue energetically, performativity, discursive formations, knowledge, and structures of power are dynamic things that always leave – by virtue of their very dynamism – openings, cracks, fissures, and fractures antithetical to the paradigmatic structures

The modern project is replete with such fissures, precisely because it denies them, and to believe that they cannot provide for what I call regenerative critique is not only a paradoxical proposition, but one that merely perpetuates the metaphorical deadness of Foucault’s dead author. To think through openings and fissures, to give exclusions and silences an active presence, to resuscitate what the central domains have rendered marginal and irrelevant – these are ultimately the only true meanings of critique.”

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