Knowledge—within schools, within intellectual movements, within academia, and within society—knowledge exists predominantly—some scholars would say “exclusively”—within hierarchical environments. As much as those of us whose remit it is to impart knowledge for a living would wish to avoid this existential paradox, the act of disseminating knowledge retains within it a powerful and indeed an unavoidable dilemma that includes the inhabitation and manipulation of power even within dialectic processes that retain as their end, the overthrow, or the mitigation of rigid, traditional hierarchies whether social, cultural, political, or intellectual. As such, the potential for the dynamic, egalitarian momentum of knowledge, its acquisition, and/or its diffusion stands, in many ways, in direct opposition to the feats performed by traditional structures of the American, European, and the preponderance of the global institutional academy. Nor can the solution to this dilemma be obtained through the complete destruction of the educational infrastructure promoting the student-citizen to operate independently on the road to the discovery of new paths of access to structures of knowledge unburdened by the fetters of hierarchy. We know this to be an illusory hope because it was this precise promise that echoed off of the halls of the academy throughout the decade of the 1990s during the dawn of the digital age of university education. Years later, we see that microprocessors have not, as was promised, utterly and completely leveled the playing fields of knowledge acquisition and dissemination remaking the world into an egalitarian haven free of dispute, rancor, or evidentiary disagreement. What has come to the fore instead of this knowledge-rich, conflict-free paradise is a cacophony of ill-informed acrimony, a society rent messily into two halves each braying nosily and meaninglessly at the othe. What has come to the fore instead is the unabashed certainty of declarations based upon “alternative facts” which have no relationship whatsoever to quantifiable, observable phenomena occurring the world over.
And so an educational and intellectual infrastructure remains in place, such as it is, replete with the imposition of hierarchy at all, or at the very least, at virtually all levels of instruction. In my field, that of Middle Eastern Studies, the nature of that hierarchy—both in relations between master and pupil, and, perhaps more important for our purposes here today, in the transmission of information from location of inquiry to location of punditry—progressed in a substantially unexamined manner for the majority of the history of the discipline. It was not until the publication of the by-now legendary work of intellectual criticism from a Palestinian-American scholar that our entire tradition of scholarly investigation came under intensive scrutiny. And it was through that magnum opus—Edward Said’s Orientalism--that our own reliance upon tradition, hierarchy, and power in study of the Middle East, North Africa, and the Indian Sub-Continent was laid bare.
From this uncritical past there arose a compromised and problematic intellectual future, one in which the pronouncements of established, sage experts were received with a dangerous lack of investigative scrutiny. In speech, in act, but particularly via text according to Said, conventional, expert knowledge was disseminated by means of direct, practically hereditary transmission: an unbroken line of inheritance funneling subjective, orientalist tropes from source material to new generations of enthusiastic scholars searching for firm footing in unsteady academic environs. In many cases, the texts in question, and the problematic assumptions that rested at the core of their analyses retained an unnaturally long life because of a lack of willingness or ability on the part of recipient parties to redress the established canon (they too, perhaps, compelled into quietude via various institutional and relational power structures). Through this process, text itself—ostensibly ideologically neutral historical, sociological, and cultural study—was remade into an agent of power, transmitting ostensibly value-free information about the East, the Orient, the dialectical Other but made all the more insidious according to Said’s critical approach precisely because of the attribution of the aforementioned ideological neutrality to these scholarly works, and to their oft-lauded creators.
And as Foucault, Anderson, Herman, Chomsky, Jensen, and others would inform, the linkages between text and knowledge, between print and understanding could not be more profound, nor more influential upon the intellectual environment. Indeed, in Said’s own view, texts and their authors retain such import within approaches to criticism precisely because of their ability to mold reality, to create knowledge, and to structure the boundaries of the rational, and the real:
“A text purporting to contain knowledge about something actual … is not easily dismissed. Expertise is attributed to it. The authority of academics, institutions, and governments can accrue to it, surrounding it with still greater prestige than its practical successes warrant. Most important, such texts can create not only knowledge but also the very reality they appear to describe. In time such knowledge and reality produce a tradition, or what Michel Foucault calls a discourse, whose material presence or weight, not the originality of a given author, is really responsible for the texts produced out of it.” –Edward Said, Orientalism (emphasis in original)
Nearly forty years on from Said’s articulation of the profoundly deleterious consequences resulting from the rote acceptance of hierarchy and tradition within academia, the subtleties of knowledge creation, discourse construction, and the assumptions inherent to the manipulation and distribution of texts as fact remain at the forefront of political debate. Plainly, though, the form of that debate has been aggressively cast down from the Ivory Tower and is as likely today to be the subject of a “Click Bait” link advertised on the margins of our social media profiles as it is to be the subject of a scholarly article grappling with the integrity of a particular academic approach, or the validity of a given scholarly argument. The widespread and irretrievably diffuse nature of this ongoing debate has to be seen, then, as existing in the service of the egalitarian mission inherent in the examination of the linkages between Power and Knowledge. That is to say, if anyone with access to an internet connection and a functional computer can open up their laptop this morning and begin questioning the hierarchical nature, traditionalist structure, and ideological orientation of the news, or a television script, or popular song lyrics, then surely, on some level, Said and the whole of the field of Criticism has won some terrific victory at some point along the way. But—and perhaps this contradiction arises as a reflex embedded within my academic training, or simply demonstrates my own idiosyncratic reliance upon the very hierarchical structures and power relations that I mean to attack—but I, for one, do not view the ongoing populist chaos and fact-less ideological fury as any type of vindication for revolutionary academic critics or their supporters. More often than not, in fact, on those occasions when I do find myself absently clicking through social media posts or reader commentary on online news articles, I silently rail against the tenets of academic criticism wondering quietly at what point the anarchy of populist critique will be forced to surrender its lawlessness to arguments based upon demonstrable evidence and fact-based assertion. Because, after all—“[Textual Criticism] can also prove that an elephant can hang off a cliff with its tail tied to a daisy! But use your eyes, your ears, your common sense.”
Shifting the focus away from text and onto curated display and the role of the museum in discourse creation and knowledge construction, all of the above considerations beg several fundamental questions about the curated diorama that we have all come to examine or re-examine today, Jules Verreaux’s The Arab Courier. In the first instance, is the piece in question appropriately titled? Does this construction truly depict an everyday, ordinary Arab Courier from the mid-nineteenth century in the regular course of his duties? Or would it be more appropriate to reinvent the piece as a taxidermy display of a Richard Attenborough-styled Lion Attacking a Dromedary? Clearly the first appellation carries with it tremendous oriental baggage suggesting the portrayal of a classic, common, or even a banal pose of the nomadic Arab messenger. In so doing, audiences to the display in the era of its creation, and possibly even audiences coming upon the construction now, would be encouraged to ingest a wide-ranging set up assumptions about Arab dress, Middle Eastern infrastructure, North African economy and a great deal more encapsulated in one fixed and essentially unchanging display.
But if we prefer the name Lion Attacking a Dromedary, do we not instantaneously remove the centrality of the only human being in the artistic rendering? In that event, we have given agency to the two species of animal in the display and have reinvented the human figure as part of the natural background, staging and scenery to an unfolding nature-scape of conflict between lions and camel. Such a title is a deterministic gloss suggesting an intellectual process by which the vitality, the capacity, indeed, even the humanity of the figure depicted is all but totally erased, or perhaps more problematic still, is devolved, cast down, and rendered of no more intellectual or cultural important than the instincts of a desert predator and its hapless prey. Returning to the question of location of inquiry versus location of punditry, it would be very difficult to imagine a similarly static, essentialized display of figures representing human members of communities of the Global North posed in some form of engagement with the animal kingdom and on display in a museum setting in a Middle Eastern, African, or Asian capital. But if such a piece were to exist, is there any possibility that it would be titled “American Cat,” or “English Dog” with human ownership and agency removed from a scene of human activity altogether?
“My hope is to illustrate the formidable structure of cultural domination and, specifically for formerly colonized peoples, the dangers and temptation of employing this structure upon themselves or upon others.” –Edward Said, Orientalism
And so at the end of the day, does Verreaux not explicitly engage in a process of structural, cultural domination as described here by Said? And if so, as observers or commentators, what can be said about our role in this process? Even here and even today?
Said described power relations in orientalism as dependent upon the kind of cultural, economic, and geographic advantages inherent in the ability to access, measure, investigate, determine, and judge: one society, one culture, one polity to another:
“In quite a constant way, Orientalism depends for its strategy on this flexible positional superiority, which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand.” –Edward Said, Orientalism (emphasis in original)
Positional superiority. Hierarchy. Power. Privilege.
We see, then, through Said’s institutional criticism that processes creating the possibility of access and advantage determine the true nature of a power relationship between investigator and subject. If so, perhaps what remains to be levied within this uneven operational dynamic is no more than the simple intention—openly declared or otherwise—of those traveling, studying, collecting, measuring, and most importantly, evaluating, given that:
"There is, after all, a profound difference between the will to understand for purposes of coexistence and humanistic enlargement of horizons, and the will to dominate for the purposes of control and external dominion." –Edward Said, Orientalism
And so, in sum, as we in the academic communities of North America, Europe, and throughout the politically, economically, and historically privileged communities of the Global North continue to press into the distant and disparate global communities in a ceaseless quest for innovative research in the humanities, there remains a need for vigilance in our manner, in our action, and in our intention as we gather, evaluate, and even as we name the volumes of our research conducted in recipient, subject, and formerly colonized spaces. Because although we have overcome the overt racism of the British Imperial Administration who was quick to point out that:
“The European is a close reasoner; his statements of fact are devoid of any ambiguity; he is a natural logician [while] Accuracy is abhorrent to the Oriental mind.” –Evelyn Baring, First Lord of Cranmer, 1908
We have nevertheless not come so far so as to be free from the imposition of power in the construction and dissemination of knowledge; we have not come so far so as to be free from the imposition of hierarchy upon the student-citizen, upon the museum-goer, or upon the broader discipline of Middle Eastern Studies as a whole; we have not come so far so as to render earnest considerations of culture, knowledge, history and society, of the kind taking place here today, unimportant or even unnecessary.
So in the end, it is the art of criticism, done carefully, done formally, and done with as much honest intention and fact-based support as possible that must win out over the available intellectual alternative: passive, uncritical acceptance of traditional canon, even if this process means unwittingly giving fuel to ever more Click Bait options on the margins of all of our social media platforms.