Casa Italiana hosted a day-long silver jubilee symposium on University Professor Edward Said's Orientalism last week.
Organized by Columbia University and Verso Books, the event consisted of a series of three panels with renowned academics from all over the world, ranging from Columbia's Jonathan Arac to Ping-hui Liao of Tsinghua University in Beijing.
Published in 1978, the book was a piercing explication of a style of thought called Orientalism, which European scholars attempted to use as a tool to understand and even control "the Orient" by constructing a distinction between the East and the West. Said's book focuses on the cultural and political implications that resulted from Orientalism.
The panelists from the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures were especially aware of the fact that Said has been criticized in the past for his inflammatory comments. MEALaC Assistant Professor Gil Anidjar, who moderated one of the panels last Wednesday, opened with a light comment about those who regarded Columbia as "Bir Zeit on the Hudson."
The discussion began, however, by focusing on Said's contribution to cultural discourse.
Emily Apter, chair of the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of California-Los Angeles, argued that Said was aiming for the possibility of "cultural coexistence without collision" in his work. She brought out several of his key concerns, such as the inseparability of humanism with politics and the linguistic politics of what she called the "new Anglophone empire."
French writer Pascale Casanova built on that theme with an explication of the subversive nature of Said's thought and his bridging of the gap between literature and politics, dubbing him a "symbolic revolutionary."
As the only non-academic present at the event, Casanova's contributions to the discussion were particularly intriguing during the question and answer session when MEALaC Professor Marc Nichanian asked the panel why Orientalism had taken so long to reach France. In response, Casanova spoke about how literature in France is "fetishized" and kept very distinct from less glamorous disciplines and intellectual currents such as politics or colonialism.
The subsequent speakers dwelled more on the political implications of Said's work. Stathis Gourgouris, a MEALaC lecturer, triggered an interesting dialogue by drawing a parallel between Orientalism and Hellenism. Describing both Orientalists and Hellenists as having a "cadaverous approach to culture," he contrasted this with Said's concerns with "precise geographic definitions of conditions that produced the other."
MEALaC Assistant Professor Joseph Massad elaborated on this idea in his speech by commending Said for identifying the "single Arab" figure at the heart of the Orientalist approach to Middle Eastern studies. He also said that the conditions of the production of Orientalism were unchanged, and lauded Orientalism as a demystification of Euro-American systems of thought.
Said spoke twice during this panel: first during the question and answer session because he declared he could not keep quiet any longer, and then during his closing remarks. He addressed the concerns highlighted by Gourgouris and Massad, defining one of his aims as attempting to explode the idea of the Orient as a homogeneous entity.
"All great civilizations are plural civilizations," Said said. "The terms 'Orient' and 'the West' have no ontological stability. ... There is no real Orient to argue for, only the gifts of people of that region for the struggle to survive."
Said concluded his speech by discussing the internet's potential as a subversion of traditional sites of power. Citing its use in the wave of anti-war protests across the world, he spoke of it as uniting all the "libertarian impulses" in society