Friday, May 9, 2008


The Times Literary Supplement of May 7, 2008, carries a review by Robert Irwin of two books critical of Edward Said, the late author of Orientalism. One of the books under review, Defending the West by the pseudonymous Ibn Warraq, discusses "The Imaginary Orient," a paper by Said ally Linda Nochlin that appeared in Art in America in 1983. Nochlin disapproves of Jean-Léon Gérôme's painting The Snake Charmer (c. 1883). Irwin's review tells us that

according to a note in Nochlin's article, "Edward Said has pointed out to me in conversation that most of the so-called writing on the back wall of the 'Snake Charmer' is in fact unreadable". To which Ibn Warraq responds that the wall bears a clearly legible quotation from the Koran's Sura of the Cow in thuluth script. (Hence, perhaps, doubts about Said's Arabic.)

Since Nochlin's article appeared in a scholarly journal, it's worthwhile for those of us in the scholarly editing racket to pay attention. The claim that some "so-called in fact unreadable" is an argument from ignorance. An argument from ignorance takes the general form "I don't know that this is true. Therefore, it is untrue." Or vice versa. The case of Said, Nochlin, and the sura isn't just an argument from ignorance--it's an ignorant argument from ignorance. In the standard argument from ignorance, the arguer at least knows that he or she doesn't know. A bit of Rumsfeldspeak might help us here. When most of us see a supposed language that's unfamiliar to us, it's a known unknown--we don't know it, but we know that we don't know. Said thinks it's a known--it's bogus and he knows it. But it isn't a known. What's a known unknown to the rest of us is an unknown unknown to Said--he doesn't know that he doesn't know. This all casts doubt onto much more than Said's knowledge of Arabic.

The scholarly Edward Said says it isn't real since he can't read it, the scholarly Linda Nochlin accepts this, and the scholarly Art in America publishes Nochlin's comment. We who edit scholarly materials need to watch out for stuff like this. We need to query authors on whether they can actually know such statements to be true. Some will plant hedges around the wording; since this blog has no opinions, it will let you draw your own conclusions on those who leave it as it is.

Should we criticize Nochlin for making an argument from authority? Yes and no. If she had reason to think Said was familiar with Arabic and all of its calligraphic styles, it was appropriate for her to take his word for it and to cite him as an authority to the extent that he was claiming that it wasn't legible Arabic. Asserting Said's authority for the claim that it wasn't legible at all does seem to be an inappropriate appeal to authority. Or maybe not. This is not just a known unknown, it's a known unknowable. There is no appropriate authority to appeal to for such a statement.

Let the record show that I'm accepting Ibn Warraq's authority on the writing and therefore am vulnerable to a charge of using an argument from authority. Let it also show that Ibn Warraq's claim is at least verifiable (although I haven't verified it). And how would I verify it? By checking with an authority, of course. There's no getting away from it, and it's often appropriate. Most bibliographies are one big appeal to authority, and you lose credibility if you don't have them.

All statements about Nochlin and her article, Ibn Warraq, and Gérôme and his painting (with the exception of Gérôme's first name) are based on Irwin's review, which I found at the invaluable Arts & Letters Daily.

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