Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Scholarship and punditry

Ever since the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1978 a crisis of conscience has haunted the western students of eastern affairs, especially of Arabic or Middle Eastern/North African affairs. This crisis of conscience calls into question the validity of the efforts, spearheaded by many individual scholars and schools of thought that flourished in many countries and languages over the last five hundred years and produced the questions and approaches, linguistic and methodological tools, editions, translations, and studies on which “we” depend in our feeble attempts to study, understand, and appreciate eastern civilizations and see them for what they “are.” Said’s critique of the field focuses on western (particularly French and British) approaches to the study of the Middle East, Arabic language and literature, and Islam, and insinuates that western academics and the products of their scholarship are not just inherently biased (they study another culture from an “etic” or outside point of view) but implicated in the modern imperialist project of domination, which uses intimate knowledge of a civilization as a means of its control. In this reading, scholarly objectivity turns into a kind of pathology and the work of the most well-meaning and empathetic scholars of Islam and Arab civilization is inevitably politicized in one direction or another. Western scholarship of Middle Eastern and Muslim civilizations veers either toward polemics or toward apologetics; tertium non datur.

In For Lust of Knowing (2006), a spirited defense of the disparaged discipline and the men and more recently also the women who pursued it, the novellist and Bernard-Lewis-student Robert Irwin attacks Said on scholarly and ideological grounds. Irwin points to Said’s narrow definition of the field in question, i.e., his focus on Arabists and scholars of Islam, but admits that this definition suits his own purpose well, which is to retell the same story from a less polemical point of view and in more comprehensive a scope. Irwin argues that Said’s purview is too limited even when one allows for the narrowing of the field to the antecedents of modern Middle Eastern studies. According to Irwin, Said egregiously ignores entire centuries of antecedent work and many individuals and schools of thought (especially from the rich German philolological tradition) that contributed to the study of “oriental” civilizations. In Irwin’s view, the field began to develop in the age of European Humanism and was pursued by a range of specialists, amateurs, memoirists, and polemicists who produced the lexicons of the Arabic language, editions and translations of texts, travelogs, and studies on which rests every serious attempt to “understand” the array of Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and other “oriental” civilizations, and especially on which every serious attempt of non-Muslims and Muslims alike depends a more than superficial appreciation of these civilizations in their linguistic and cultural particularity. Irwin revels in scurrilous details and cherishes the idiosyncrasies of the personages that produced mountains of acribic research and he does not hide ideological bias or polemic agendas that attached to the work of some of the most accomplished scholars and their schools. Yet he argues that Said’s attack on this entire tradition of work for its implicit or explicit biases has significantly damaged the field and contributed to its demise by “discrediting and demoralizing an entire tradition of scholarship.” (p. 276) Of course, it was not Said alone who single-handedly accomplished this. Some of it is credited to the general decline of funding for the study of languages, the displacement of acdaemic specializations by interdisciplinary “area studies,” and the odious “publish-or-perish” that makes it virtually impossible for scholars to produce the kinds of learned tomes on which our fields used to be based.

One must wonder how a single individual or a single and in many ways deficient book can have such a thoroughgoing effect on a field now ploughed by thousands of graduate students and established scholars across the globe. Said’s book was certainly a harbinger of modern anthropological studies of academics as members of tribes. Academic scholarship does not occur in a vacuum. Individuals choose their careers on the basis of their personal commitments and predelections that sustain them in the long and arduous path of scholarship. Individuals, schools, programs, journals, and scholarly associations all have their cultural contexts that can be described and that most scholars are in fact acutely aware of, as they need to situate themselves successfully in these contexts in order to have a career. Irwin acknowledges that progress in the western study of Middle Eastern languages and civilizations was not just hard-one but usually accomplished by stark scholarly polemic, mutual recrimination, and expressions of contempt against which pales Said’s elegant prose. What has changed is that, after Said and the postmodernist turn to social theory, the inevitable personal bias has been politicized. It is now an object of study in its own right, and it raises doubts about what remains of the claim to the production of knowledge in the humanities.

All of this gives me pause as I am engaged in an oriental study of my own, namely, the writing of a brief history of Jerusalem. No one can be a specialist on such a general topic. What, then, are my options? How do I avoid the most egregious errors of fact or dangerously reductive interpretations? I can do so, or at least try, only by relying on the best available scholarship on many relevant and specialized subjects, including the recent scholarly discoveries and debates in each of these many fields. In light of Said I must realize that not just I but the sources on which I rely are inherently biased, that the traditions of scholarship and the many scholars that have produced it and continue to produce, are inherently biased and fail to deliver the goods. Humanistic scholarship as such – not only in this particular area – seems to constitute more of a kind of soliloquy than a dialogue between subjects and objects, mind and matter, observer and observed, and the like. This is the “demoralizing” effect of Said’s broadside, as observed by Irwin. The self-knowledge it triggered seems futile, unproductive, dispiriting. What do we do if we are not anthropologists who thrive on the possibilities released by turning scholarly clans into objects of investigation and description, or sociologists interested in academic communities and their interactions with political and economic elites? Where do we turn if we remain interested in a particular phenomenon in human affairs? We turn to description of what we see (through whatever lens), admitting that we make no claim on what these phenomena “are” unto themselves. We share with others what we see as eloquently as we can, trying to persuade them of our viewpoint and knowing full well that the best result we can hope for is a thoughtful response that attests that our observations made someone else think harder or see better, which in turn makes us question our own observations, and so on. While this may not seem like much, especially when measured by the concreteness of progress in science and technoloy, we must break a lance for our way of producing knowledge or else we must perish. Who will fund the future dialogues of scholarship devoted to nuance and articulation? More acutely, can western Oriental studies thrive when western commitments and obligations implied in the unravelling of the very order imposed by western “orientalist” imperial forces vitiate against all pretenses of scholarly objectivity? To name an example that is relevant for me as someone writing about Jerusalem, as a German- and American-educated scholar invested in the future of Jewish life on this earth, how objective can I be in handling questions of Palestinian history and Muslim attachment to Jerusalem? If I foreground this history and its implications for Palestinian and Muslim rights to Jerusalem and its holy places, will I not automatically lose the trust of Jewish and Christian readers?  Will I fall under Irwin’s verdict on John Esposito whose work on Islam he calls “pollyannish?” If I show Jewish commitments to Jerusalem long before the rise of modern Zionism and describe the latter as anything other than an imperialist colonial settler movement, will I not be branded as a pro-Israel propagandist? On the other hand, if I show that extremist Jewish attachments to Jerusalem’s Muslim holy places has been a pawn in the hand of right-wing national religious parties and are cynically exploited by the current government to stir unrest, shame the Palestinians, distract from the ongoing settlement activities, and curry favor with an increasingly divided electorate, will I not be called a Nestbeschmutzer, a disloyal self-hating Jew?

Said teaches me that scholarly objectivity is not possible, but that does not mean fairness isn’t. No one in the west will doubt that the study of the languages, literatures, and histories of the people of the Middle East and North Africa, including Israel and the Jews, is useful and even urgently necessary in an age that continues to depend on fossil fuel and that confronts the unravelling of the political order established in the wake of Christian imperialist deconstruction of the Ottoman Empire. Scholarly objectivity may not be possible but it remains a cherished ideal. It is true: as a scholar of religion I cannot be neutral when I see people exploit every opportunity to gain an advantage on their competitors and where I see religion implicated in such struggles. While I cannot be neutral I can try to be fair and describe what I see as accurately as I can, without needless polemics, and remaining open to being corrected where I am wrong. I don’t need to adjudicate what is not my own struggle. I am sympathetic toward those on either side who are trying to find a peaceful, just, speedy, and lasting resolution to the conflict. Much of what goes on in the Middle East plays out not just locally but globally, through mass media of information and persuasion. Scholars have an important role to play here. Our responsibility is not to fuel the conflict but help those on the inside and on the outside imagine how it could be resolved.

In this sense I accept the charge that scholarship on contemporary issues and even on cultural history in general inevitably veers toward persuasive speech. This is particularly obvious when we try to articulate an insight into the causes of a modern conflict. The line between contemporary history and political punditry is very thin, but there is still a line. The historian answers first and foremost to his own conscience: the primary question is whether what you say is true. Where truth eludes you, at least you are aiming for accuracy. For the pundit, the pressure is to have something to say that sounds like an explanation. You need to sound competent and persuasive, and you need to make an argument and stick to your guns. The historian tries to get it right and hopes to be proved wrong.

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