The late Edward Said is the individual single most responsible for the utter impossibility of discussing Islam and jihad honestly on most university campuses today.
In Middle East Quarterly, A. J. Caschetta reviews Daniel Varisco’s Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid:
Edward Said’s reputation as a serious scholar has taken heavy blows in recent years, and those with a vested interest in Saidism have been busy attempting to repair the damage. Varisco’s Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid is one such attempt. If the Said apologists are finding it increasingly difficult to overlook the rhetoric of Said’s Orientalism in the wake of an ever-growing number of works that have exposed its faults–culminating with Ibn Warraq’s A Defense of the West, they show no signs of going gentle into the inevitable good night, and the book by Varisco, a professor of anthropology at Hofstra University, attempts mightily to buoy up Said’s sinking reputation as the sage of post-colonialism.
The main problem Said’s apologists face is Orientalism‘s being little more than a straw man argument; the biased, ethnically supremacist, cultural imperative that Said sketches is exaggerated at best and fabricated at worst. Unlike most Saidists, however, who ignore the misstatements, exaggerations, and fabrications, Varisco duly acknowledges them, making his approach unique. He claims to regret Said’s methodology while supporting his task and his politics. The result is a very peculiar read, both for its remarkably self-conscious narrative and the certainty that it is addressing a sympathetic audience. Varisco seems convinced that he has written a very important book.
This review could end here were it not for an ambiguous claim made several times in the book. The back cover trumpets Varisco’s “devastating critique of Said’s methodology and conclusions” and asserts that it “employs ‘critical satire’ to parody the exaggerated and pedantic aspects of post-colonial discourse.” On the strength of these remarks, I expected something quite different.
Beginning with a 6-page, pre-introductory preface titled “To the Reader,” Varisco announces: “You have before you two books about one book.” The one book of course is Orientalism and the two books are first, “a narrative that provides a critique of Said’s Orientalism thesis,” and second, the “endnotes and bibliography, where all the references are mercifully archived.” As an admirer of endnotes, I was looking forward to the second book, but Varisco quickly threw cold water on my enthusiasm by warning that these notes contain “the asides and gratuitous rhetorical overkill that even the author finds too profligate for the narrative.” Indeed.
So what kind of book is Reading Orientalism? What makes that seemingly simple question so difficult to answer is Varisco’s ambiguous term “satirical criticism,” a term he never defines. Naturally all satire is critical, but not all criticism is satirical. And the problem with satire is that it can go over the heads of its audience, through the shortcomings either of the audience or of the satirist.
In the post-Menippean context, Roman poetics conceived of satire as a combination of three requisite elements: the satirical text, the world, and the recognition that a satirical text comments on some aspect of the world. Without this recognition, a satirical text misses its mark, which usually renders it a complete failure; but sometimes it enjoys an inadvertent success as when the reading public accepts the text at face value, and it takes on a life of its own. (Think Gulliver’s Travels read as children’s literature rather than as the often bitter and scathing satire Jonathan Swift wrote on the society of his day.) Without the third element, satire does not work.
As someone immersed in the world of Saidism and its discontents, I find myself unable to locate the satirical connection between Reading Orientalism and the academic debate over Orientalism. Is Varisco parodying Said’s unquestioning followers, those who would ignore inconvenient facts, make up others, and strong-arm history? Or is he parodying Said’s tormentors, those who point out the errors of Orientalism and defend the West?
This failure to determine the butt of Reading Orientalism‘s satire led me to another, larger question: Is it still possible to parody academic discourse, particularly discourse in the humanities? Or have we closed that window of opportunity? When academics have become obsessed with queer theory and fecal studies, in which direction does parody lie?…
I myself think present-day academic discourse on Islam and the Middle East is so absurd as to be beyond parody, but in this I expect Hugh would differ — although his parody of such discourse here a few years back read so much like the real thing that many people didn’t realize it was a parody at all. Anyway, read it all.