Dangerous Knowledge

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents by Robert Irwin.

Robert Irwin Dangerous Knowledge

In Dangerous Knowledge Robert Irwin provides a very full history of an intellectual discipline: the study of Arabic and Islam in Western scholarship, which has customarily gone under the name of “Orientalism.” In some measure, Irwin’s book is a response and rebuttal to Edward Said’s Orientalism, which indicts the entire Orientalist effort as having been an instrument of imperialist ambitions to degrade and dominate the Muslim East. Working largely through a host of thumbnail biographies of individual scholars, Irwin shows the motives and affections of the researchers to have been very diverse, and while geopolitical ambitions may have resulted in a (particularly 20th-century) relative surge of funding for Orientalist research, the researchers and the funders do not seem to have had any reliable overlap in sentiment. Amidst this diversity, Irwin observes the various chains of scholarly transmission, comparing them appropriately to the Sufi concept of silsila.

While Irwin (far from the first to do so) criticizes Said’s Orientalism for lacking or contradicting the actual facts about Orientalist academics and their work, Dangerous Knowledge suffers in some respects from a complementary difficulty. It is decidedly more trees than forest, and by emphasizing the many and admittedly interestingly various individuals and details, it leaves the reader groping somewhat for a “big picture.” The effect is somewhat paradoxical: Irwin is obviously opinionated, and clearly loyal to what he sees as the valuable elements of the Orientalist tradition, but the stress on objective, heterogeneous fact almost conveys a sense of dispassion. The prose style is accessible, and not encumbered with academicisms; anyone with an interest in the subject matter should find the book accessible and worthwhile. [via]