Academic journal article New Formations

Edward Said and the War in Iraq

Academic journal article New Formations

Edward Said and the War in Iraq

Article excerpt

   Theoretical closure, like social convention or cultural dogma,
   is anathema to critical consciousness, which loses its profession
   when it loses its sense of an open world in which its faculties
   must be exercised'
                              Edward W. Said, 'Traveling Theory' (1)

In the wake of the onslaught against Iraq and the cack-handed overhaul of that country, it is high time for us to admit that jittery compunctions about intellectual work will not advance what ought to be the calling of the postcolonial critic: to help humankind prevail over the manifestly undiminished consequences of imperialism. The war in Iraq has made starkly visible an imperialist project that has not, as our field's moniker suggests, been drawing to a close but has on the contrary been expanding American hegemony, extending corporate power and hijacking international institutions of governance. Therefore, in addition to exposing those destructive dealings that are the result of cupidity and misapprehension, postcolonial criticism needs methods and principles that will allow it to elaborate positive visions of genuine fellowship and equality to set against the parochial, self-serving universalism of the United States. It requires a critical vocabulary that fulminates against Iraqis' plight and arraigns their assailants in the name of universal principles and a vision of social transformation.

Many postcolonial thinkers have, alas, been persuaded against performing these tasks by their reluctance (often brought about by what I think is a misreading of Edward Said's Orientalism) to acknowledge that thinkers can write about, for and in the name of a broad international constituency. The fallacious doctrines that underpin imperialism are too often put down to an irremediable entanglement of knowledge with power. But this scepticism about the possibility of knowledge then leads to an equally unavailing political philosophy; incomprehension is put down to the fact that the culture of the perceived and that of the percipient belong to terminally discrepant realms, discrete spheres without values or aspirations in common, a belief that in my view is as far from reality as it is from providing an appealing alternative to the fractured, inequitable world brought into being by imperialism.

Not many will need reminding that the postcolonial field's governing idea is that much, indeed most, of what has been written in colonising societies about, for instance, the Arab world, though it pretends to be scholarly in intention and edifying in effect, is actually bound up with the misapprehension of such regions and the ill-treatment of their peoples. Orientalism traces a host of misrepresentations that portray 'Orientals' not as individuals and groups that merit considerate analysis but as an easily digestible mass reducible to stereotypical figures. The term 'Orientalism' names the purportedly faithful and dispassionate but actually erroneous and self-serving set of ideas that has come to stand in for an obscured region and its inhabitants. Orientalists peddle distortions that evoke images of a dependent and powerless place, an ageless canvas for the realisation of the west's economic objectives, strategic plans and cultural fantasies. In the mainstream media, in orthodox political discussion and, alas, in much scholarly work there is a flattening out of the intricacy and unevenness of the Arab world's histories, cultures and societies (and even of the initiative and humanity of its inhabitants) into lifeless figures of civilisational decline, religious zeal and despotic torpor. Orientalism gives rise not to knowledge but to pretexts for the exercise of power. (2)

The popularity of Said's theory has not, I suspect, been unrelated to the postmodern distrust of intellectual work with which it has often been associated. This association has persisted despite the call in Orientalism's final chapter for readers to interrogate established doctrines about the Orient and to contrive encounters with its inhabitants, texts and circumstantial realities that are as far as possible unobstructed by preconceptions and considerations of power. …

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