Editing and Knowledge
On the subject of Silvestre de Sacy’s three volume Chrestomathie arabe, a selection of writings from Middle Eastern and Northern African cultures, Edward Said has this (and much more) to say:
Sacy’s anthologies were used very widely in Europe for several generations. Although what they contain was claimed as typical, they submerge and cover the censorship of the Orient exercised by the Orientalist. Moreover, the internal order of their contents, the arrangement of their parts, the choice of fragments, never reveal their secret; one has the impression that if fragments were not chosen for their importance, or for their chronological development, or for their aesthetic beauty (as Sacy’s were not), they must nevertheless embody a certain Oriental naturalness, or typical inevitability. (Edward Said, Orentalism, p.129)
Much of what I am finding fascinating about Orientalism is that it is not just about the characterization and domination of the Orient by European intellectuals, but that it is about knowing. It is a different take on the production and dissemination of knowledge, one more informed by continental authors which I did not really acquaint myself with in the last few years. Said’s most frequent philosophical acknowledgements seem to go to Foucault, and then Marx, but as a philologist he also has interesting commentary on Schlegel and Nietzsche.
This excerpt grabbed my attention in particular because it is about editorship and the politics of pedagogical compilation. Most of the professors I have had in the last few years preferred not to use textbooks. A frequent complaint they voiced was that textbooks consist of information predigested by some panel of experts elsewhere. It also takes a long time for information to be so digested, so textbooks are frequently far behind the work being published in books and journals. The result was that most of what I have read for class in the last few years has been collections of excerpts from books and journal articles, selected by professors.
While it is good to know the editor directly, and be able to engage them in their editorial choices in discussion, I have a new feeling of unease brought about by this passage of Said’s. I would not say that I am suspicious of the sources that have been suggested to me by professors, but I am even more worried about my own range of texts. At the moment, I am my own editor with somewhat limited resources. I have a great deal of time, but not much in the way of money (at least not money I could spend on journal subscriptions). I need excerpts, anyway—I wouldn’t want to read every article in every issue of even one journal, unless it was a special issue on a particular topic of my interest. How can I make the most, though, of the sources available to me? I don’t want to read, and because of my limited memory, time, attention, or money, end up feeling as if I know things only with a certain philosophical naturalness or inevitability.
And maybe that is the real source of my unease: not the issue of editorial motives, but of attitudes towards knowledge. I feel this chiefly, selfishly, about my own attitude towards knowledge. I am worried because that feeling of naturalness or inevitability definitely crept over me while I worked on my senior thesis. Of course science was like this or that, of course religion has this or that attitude towards experience. I don’t think I spent enough time asking, “says who?”