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?
In fact, it has become very difficult to satirize academic discourse, as demonstrated in 1996 when Alan Sokal, professor of physics at New York University, took aim at jargon-infested, post-modern faddism. To do this, he concocted a bogus academic paper entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity." Sokal submitted his spoof to the journal Social Text, which took it seriously and published it.
Sokal's gag suggests that the self-referential, specialized language of literary criticism, especially cultural criticism, is now beyond parody. This is not to say that all academic discourse in the humanities borders on the absurd but rather that there are enough absurdities in the genuine article that some of the most revered guardians of that specialized language could not detect a parody.
So where is the joke, the satire in Varisco's "critical satire?" In truth, I am not sure. It is possible that I am missing something, which would spell satirical failure due to a lack of wit on the part of the audience. The opposite could be true too, however—the fault may lie in the wit of the satirist.
Varisco refers to Orientalism as "a forceful polemic that demands not to be ignored" and urges his readers to "move beyond the polemicized rhetoric of the binary blame game." But his book is exactly what he claims to be interested in moving beyond, for it is itself a binary polemic that demands we move beyond binaries and insists that there are two kinds of criticism: one that believes in binaries and one that does not. Is that a joke?
Varisco counts himself among the "many critics seek[ing] to 'strengthen' rather than 'jettison' what Said has done," but his admiration for Said often gets in the way of his attempts to correct him. In fact, Varisco dismisses most criticism of Said as ethnically-motivated. Consider the following:
It is clear that Said's persuasive support for Palestinian rights led to his being branded unfavorably and unfairly a "professor of terror." I intend to show why I think Said is at times prone to error, but I categorically reject the politically motivated ad hominem diatribe that ridicules Said because of where he was born, how he chooses to align himself politically, and how many pebbles he once tossed unphotogenically at a border fence inside Lebanese territory.
In Varisco's reading, almost anyone who criticizes Said is engaging in ad hominem attacks, yet for an author who claims to detest ad hominem attacks, Varisco takes some cheap shots of his own and repeats other familiar ones. For instance he calls Martin Kramer's Ivory Towers on Sand an "unseemly screed [that] would be laughable were it nor for the favorable reception it received from the neocon clique that engineered the wars against Taliban Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein's Iraq." Varisco recounts Said's attacks on Bernard Lewis, and while he regrets Said's "spirited rhetoric," he impugns Lewis (whom he calls "media-made Bernard Lewis") on many a page. He dredges up one Mustapha Marrouchi to indict Daniel Pipes's allegedly "weak scholarship." While he expresses praise and admiration for Rashid Khalidi and Juan Cole, there is none for Ibn Warraq or Fouad Ajami. He displays nothing but condescension for Samuel Huntington.
The predictable "speaking truth to power" cliché comes first on p. xiii of "To the Reader," after which it peppers the narrative as an ideology-affirming nod to Varisco's perceived audience.
At some key points the book relies heavily on unreadable phrases such as: "To argue that the East-West divide is endemic in 'Western' civilization is to collapse historical evolution into the methodological anarchy of ahistorical synecdochism" or "ontology decapitates philosophy." Many readers will be vexed by the annoying puns and neologisms—a sampling: "navi-negating"; "20/20th century vision"; "Hellas-bent metaphor"; "Saido-masochism"; "pulp[it] fiction whims of religious dogmatists and demagogues"; and of course the book's subtitle "Said and the Unsaid."
So while Varisco is honest enough occasionally to acknowledge Said's distortions, he is also enough of a Saidist to want to rescue his mentor from embarrassment. The truth is that Varisco has written a defense of Saidism that he pretends (or perhaps even believes) is a critique. But then again, as he writes at the close of his address to the reader: "Truth with a capital T does not exist for anyone."
A.J. Caschetta is a lecturer in the English department at the Rochester Institute of Technology where he teaches literature, linguistics, and a class, "Writing Terror," about the rhetoric of terrorism.
 New York: Vintage, 1978.
 Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2007. See review, A.J. Caschetta, "Deconstructing Edward Said," Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2009, pp. 77-9.
 Social Text, Spring/Summer 1996, pp. 217-52.
 Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America (Washington, D.C.: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001).
Related Topics: Academia, Middle East studies | A.J. Caschetta | Winter 2010 MEQ
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