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The work of beginning

Following the publication of Orientalism, many in the field of Middle East studies sought to take Said’s critiques seriously, generating a field of “post-Orientalist” scholarship that has struggled to grapple with the past and present of culture and religion in the Middle East without falling into the arguments and tropes that long characterized Orientalist scholarship. Take, for example, post-Orientalist writings on Islam. Concerned specifically with the problem of essentialism, of writing about Islam as a monolithic and ahistorical phenomenon—a critique that Said leveled quite forcefully in Orientalism (and also in Covering Islam [1997], a book written for a popular audience)—much of that post-Orientalist scholarship on Islam has grappled with how best to analytically engage contemporary Islamist movements. In so doing, some scholars have relied explicitly or implicitly on a notion of invented tradition. In short, they tell a story about the misrepresentation of (Islamic) history: that Islamists claim ancient roots for beliefs and practices that are, in reality, definitively modern or new.72 In so doing, they criticize a fundamental Orientalist stereotype: that Islam is inherently antimodern, that it has been unable to adapt to the modern world, and that Islamists are a throwback to premodern times. Nevertheless, such approaches simplify a far more complex and dynamic relationship between historical traditions and novel cultural forms in contemporary religious movements. In so doing, they ultimately fail to adequately account for or understand the actual practices and arguments through which contemporary Islamists engage Muslim histories and Islamic traditions.

Readings of contemporary Islamist movements that emphasize their invocation of false origins, a reading that in many ways Said shared, are consistent with Said’s political commitments and the terms through which he understood and criticized contemporary religious movements (be they Islamist, Christian, or Jewish “fundamentalist”): his commitment to secular politics; to “worldliness” over invocations of “origins” or the divine; and his privileging of “exile” over “belonging”—topics to which I turn below. Nevertheless, Orientalism's methodological and epistemological commitments can be used to consider and treat practices of piety with which Said’s own secular imagination had difficulty in ways that give those who undertake them an analytic respect generally not accorded to them in Orientalist and, often, in post-Orientalist scholarship. In other words, drawing on Said’s historical and conceptual analysis of Orientalism as a (scholarly) tradition, or as an internally structured archive, one might be able to produce a more complex reading of contemporary Islamist movements than those displayed in much contemporary scholarly work on the topic, a reading that entails a nuanced understanding of the relationship between continuity and change (or novelty).

In sum, Orientalism is a tradition in the classic sense of, say, a literary tradi- tion,73 rather than of that which opposes the modern or that which opposes change. Orientalist discourse is an archive of systematic statements and bodies of knowledge, continuously drawn on and reformulated, that converges with broader prevailing philosophical tendencies at different moments in time (e.g., race theory in the nineteenth century), all the while retaining a powerful trace of itself as Europe reexperiences the Orient but never as something wholly new or alien. Orientalism, after all, recounts the history of a discourse of a very long historical duree, albeit one that shifts as it develops within and encounters a changing world. Said is attentive to the grammar that structures this (series of) Western encounter(s) with the Orient while simultaneously tracking its reconfigurations—institutional, material, and imaginative—over time. To draw on his argument in Beginnings, in reading Orientalist discourse, Said is delineating “the new in the customary”.74 As Said writes of the shifts in Orientalist discourse generated by the secularizing effects of the Enlightenment in eighteenth-century Europe, for example, “This is not to say that the old religious patterns of human history and destiny and ‘the existential paradigms’ were simply removed [from Orientalist discourse]. Far from it: they were reconstituted, redeployed, redistributed in ... secular frameworks.”75

Reconstituted, redeployed, and redistributed—those are the dynamics that Said seeks to understand. The strength of the Orientalist tradition lies not in its absolute sameness but in and through its transfigurations, which, nevertheless, maintain continuities with past intellectual figures and forms and from which it derives (textual and institutional) authority and, quite crucially, cultural resonance. This is an argument neither of absolute novelty (of “invention”, as classically understood) nor of false origins. Rather, this is perhaps better read as an argument for a tradition as the (discursive) context within which both arguments and innovations occur.76

Although in a different language, many of the more hostile criticisms and reviews of Orientalism involve an invented tradition-type argument. Critics have argued that Said was highly selective, that he ignored those writers, national traditions, and histories that did not fit into the account that he set out to produce. In short, they argue that Said invented an Orientalist tradition—a distorted version and vision of Orientalism—that served his political perspective. (Bernard Lewis,77 e.g., has argued that Said ignored the German and Russian Orientalists, that he focused on some individual scholars at the expense of others, and that he focused only on the Arab Middle East at the expense of other regions. Therefore, for Lewis, there is no actual, historical Orientalist tradition that corresponds with the one Said produces in Orientalism7) But, as Said makes clear in his introduction to Orientalism, the question or problem of where to begin haunts all writing.

In Said’s words, “There is no such thing as a merely given, or simply available, starting point: beginnings have to be made for each project in such a way as to enable what follows from them,” a difficulty he “consciously lived” in his study of Orientalism.79 Beginning involves an “act of delineation”—a decision to cut some things off from “a great mass of material”.80 It involves a decision about what kind of an intellectual order one seeks to delineate and describe.81 That is the task that he undertook in writing Orientalism, and it involved a set of decisions that led Said to focus on the British, French, and U.S. fields of Orientalist scholarship and to choose some authors and some texts within that now more narrowly defined tradition over others. And his decision of what to focus on was guided by his interest in understanding the history of Orientalism (which, for a very long time, focused on Islam) and its entanglement with the central empires of the modern world: Britain and France “were the pioneer nations in the Orient and in Oriental studies”,82 a legacy that the United States has inherited in the post-World War II era. In sum, in choosing to focus on some Orientalist traditions, some Orientalist writers and texts and not others, Said did not invent history or a tradition. He consciously engaged the act of writing, an effort of creative intervention—of authorship—which always entails decisions about where to begin and what kinds of connections (or affiliations) one sees among texts and between texts and the world.

Beginnings (1985) was Said’s first and perhaps most sustained engagement with the question of intellectual production and the sensibilities and responsibilities of the (modern) intellectual. It is a book about authorship, about the intentional act of intellectual will, a work in which one can perhaps see Said’s own struggle to understand and forge his role as an intellectual within the space of modern society and politics. Drawing on Giambattista Vico’s understanding of history as willed human work, Said83 seeks to understand beginning as a productive activity and writing as an act of displacement, an effort to fashion something new. “In short, beginning is making or producing difference, but ... difference which is the result of combining the already familiar with the fertile novelty of human work in language”;84 it is “the first step in the intentional production of meaning”.85 And this act of will, as it defines the intellectual vocation for Said, requires a certain “homelessness”, or exile, actual or metaphorical.86 Once again, for Said, it was Auerbach who best exemplified the point: the importance of exile to the creative work of criticism. Auerbach wrote Mimesis, which Said so admired, while he was in exile in Istanbul during World War II. And by embracing that estrangement—from the libraries and traditions of European literature and culture of which he was a part and about which he wrote— Auerbach composed his most important work. The “contemporary critic,” Said writes, is a “wanderer, a man essentially between homes”87—as evidenced by modern(ist) writers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, and Thomas Mann, to name a few—who seeks to make connections “by adjacency, not sequentially or dynastically”.88 He explains,

The net result is to understand language as an intentional structure specifying a series of displacements. ... The series being replaced is the set of relationships linked together by familial analogy: father and son, the image, the process of genesis, a story. In their place stands: the brother, discontinuous concepts, paragenesis, construction. The first of these series is dynastic, bound to sources and origins, mimetic. The relationship holding in the second series are complementarity and adjacency; instead of a source we have the intentional beginning, instead of a story a construction. I take this shift to be of great importance in twentieth-century writing. ... The progressive advance of knowledge to which this shift belongs, displaces the burden of responsibility from origin to beginning.89

In juxtaposing “beginnings” to “origins,” construction to mimesis, willed human work to the divine, Said defines the modern intellectual (predicament). And in his account of that modern vocation, the distinction between intellectual work, identifications, and responsibilities that rely on “dynastic” relationships versus those that rely on “affiliative” ones, the former subservient to forms of authority and the latter critical of them, is crucial. Said read modern Islamist movements, in particular, and radical religious movements, more generally, as squarely situated in a dynastic sensibility. Nevertheless, if one once again extends Said’s intellectual insights—in particular, his analysis of the relationship between continuity and novelty, between the customary and the work of imagination—beyond his own decidedly secular political horizon, contemporary Islamist movements complicate his image of modern intellectual (and political) life in fundamental ways.

Many Islamist movements—movements that are, obviously, decidedly not secular, that do invoke the divine—rely precisely on the formation of communities of affiliation and not of filiation. Joining movements such as the piety movements in Cairo often involves challenging forms of authority and filiation within one’s own family to embrace a different set of practices and to join a different, an affiliative, community. Moreover, the relationship of Muslim practitioners to the founding texts of Islam, the question of who reads and interprets them, in what contexts, and with what forms of authority are novel in such piety movements, effectively challenging various forms of authority and hierarchy that mark other modes of contemporary as well as historical Muslim practices. Thus, the overriding distinction between an invocation of origins (as divine) and beginning (as willed human work) cannot capture the complexity of questions of agency and creativity, individual subject and community, and the worldly and the divine that characterize such movements in the contemporary world.90 In fundamental ways, contemporary religious movements require the work of beginning as much as does the work of any “modern” (read, secular) writer or critic.

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