Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Edward W. Said (1 November 1935 – 25 September 2003)

Edward Said “was one of the leading literary critics of the last quarter of the 20th century. As professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, New York, he was widely regarded as the outstanding representative of the post-structuralist left in America. Above all, he was the most articulate and visible advocate of the Palestinian cause in the United States, where it earned him many enemies.

The broadness of Said’s approach to literature and his other great love, classical music, eludes easy categorisation. His most influential book, Orientalism (1978), is credited with helping to change the direction of several disciplines by exposing an unholy alliance between the enlightenment and colonialism.” — Malise Ruthven

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Edward (Wadie) Said (1 November 1935 25 September 2003) was a professor of literature at Columbia University, a public intellectual, and a founder of the academic field of postcolonial studies. A Palestinian American born in Mandatory Palestine, he was a citizen of the United States by way of his father, a U.S. Army veteran.

Educated in the Western canon, at British and American schools, Said applied his education and bi-cultural perspective to illuminating the gaps of cultural and political understanding between the Western world and the Eastern world, especially about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict in the Middle East; his principal influences were Antonio Gramsci, Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Michel Foucault, and Theodor Adorno.

As a cultural critic, Said is known for the book Orientalism (1978), a critique of the cultural representations that are the bases of Orientalism—how the Western world perceives the Orient. Said’s model of textual analysis transformed the academic discourse of researchers in literary theory, literary criticism, and Middle-Eastern studies—how academics examine, describe, and define the cultures being studied. As a foundational text, Orientalism was controversial among scholars of Oriental Studies, philosophy, and literature.

As a public intellectual, Said was a controversial member of the Palestinian National Council, because he publicly criticized Israel and the Arab countries, especially the political and cultural policies of Muslim régimes who acted against the national interests of their peoples. Said advocated the establishment of a Palestinian state to ensure equal political and human rights for the Palestinians in Israel, including the right of return to the homeland. He defined his oppositional relation with the status quo as the remit of the public intellectual who has ‘to sift, to judge, to criticize, to choose, so that choice and agency return to the individual man and woman.’

In 1999, with his friend Daniel Barenboim, Said co-founded the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra, based in Seville, which comprises young Israeli, Palestinian, and Arab musicians. Besides being an academic, Said was also an accomplished pianist, and, with Barenboim, co-authored the book Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society (2002), a compilation of their conversations about music. Said died of leukemia on 25 September 2003.”

An Edward Said bibliography is here.

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Re-thinking the Orientalism thesis: a few comments

I suspect insinuations or charges of “Orientalism” (in a pejorative sense, as something ‘essentialist, racialist, patronizing and ideologically motivated’) today come too easily for most of us (yes, there are times when it’s perfectly appropriate, i.e., hits the target). And the late (and great) Edward Said’s seminal and widely venerated book (1978) on same is in large measure responsible for this state of affairs, the remaining portion of responsibility lying in the hands of his readers. I’m inclined to believe that several early, highly critical (some would say ‘hostile’) reviews of Said’s book, as well as Robert Irwin’s later study, Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents (Overlook Press, 2006; outside the U.S. the book was titled, For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies), are more or less on the mark (Irwin focuses on Said’s book in one chapter: ‘An Enquiry into the Nature of a Certain Twentieth-Century Polemic’). Saying this should not at all detract from the well-deserved respect for—if not admiration of—Said’s considerable virtues as a literary critic, an intellectual keenly sensitive to issues of intellectual obligation and responsibility, and a “tireless campaigner for Palestinian rights” (Irwin). Please don’t infer from these comments sympathetic to critics of Said’s “Orientalism thesis” that I align myself with the views, say, of a Martin Kramer or (the Zionist ideologue) Bernard Lewis. In addition to Irwin, please see Daniel Martin Varisco’s indispensable if not exhaustive analysis, Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid (University of Washington Press, 2007).

More recently (last year) I read a critique (in ‘solidarity’*) of Said’s Orientalism that should be must reading for anyone convinced of the book’s brilliance (there’s brilliance there, but it’s rather episodic), namely, the chapter, “Orientalism and After: Ambivalence and Metropolitan Location in the Work of Edward Said,” by Aijaz Ahmad from his Marxist-inspired In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (Verso, 1992). I had previously read other parts of the book (the introductory material and the respective chapters on Jameson and Rushdie), so while I’m not surprised by the quality of the analysis, it is far better than I imagined it would—or even could—be! There is any number of compelling reasons to read Ahmad’s book in toto, but should you be understandably enchanted by Said’s Orientalism, I suggest you find the time to read Ahmad.

Finally, I’d like to give notice to one of my favorite Orientalists, Maxime Rodinson (1915-2004). Rodinson—like the late Samir Amin—has been correctly lauded as an “independent Marxist,” as well as a (pre-Saidian) “French Orientalist.” In the words of Gilbert Achcar,

“Maxime Rodinson was the last survivor of an exceptional group of French Orientalists—in the pre-Saidian non-pejorative meaning of this term, i.e. scholars of Islam and the Arab world—who lived through most of the twentieth century and rose to fame in the 1960s, a decade that saw the emergence of an impressive contingent of French thinkers whose names loom large in the social sciences of our time. The group of brilliant Orientalists to which Rodinson belonged, and which included other luminaries such as Jacque Berque and Claude Cahen, reclaimed the field of Arab and Islamic studies with impeccable erudition, scientific rigour, and a critical solidarity with the peoples they studies that made their writings largely free from the deficiencies of the colonial ‘Orientalism’ of yesteryear and their own time.” 

* “Suppression of criticism,” writes Ahmad, “is not the best way of expressing solidarity,” and yet one should make plain the motivation for such solidarity,

“For Edward Said is not only a cultural critic, he is also a Palestinian. Much that is splendid in his work is connected with the fact that he has tried to do honour to that origin; and he has done so against all odds, to the full extent of his capacity, by stepping outside the boundaries of his academic discipline and original intellectual formation, under no compulsion of profession or fame, in pursuit of personal gain—in fact, a frightening risk to himself. … [I]t is worth remarking that his eloquent and irrepressible partisanship with his national cause has earned him assassination threats, from quarters which are known to have assassinated a great many other patriotic Palestinians. Said has decided to live with such risks, and much honour—a very rare kind of honour—attaches to that decision.”

Hence Ahmad’s heartfelt expression of solidarity in conjunction with his “many disagreements” with Said “on substantive issues.”
References & Further Reading:
  • Ahmad, Aijaz. In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (London: Verso, 1992).
  • Anderson, Kevin B. Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2nd ed., 2016).
  • Bilgrami, Akeel. “Reflections on Edward Said,” the final three chapters from Bilgrami’s book, Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).
  • Chibber, Vivek. Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (London: Verso, 2013).
  • Irwin, Robert. Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents (Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 2006).
  • Macfie, Alexander Lyon, ed. Orientalism: A Reader (Washington Square, NY: New York University Press, 2000).
  • Rodinson, Maxime. The Arabs (London: Croom Helm, 1981).
  • Rodinson, Maxime. Cult, Ghetto, and State: The Persistence of the Jewish Question (London: Saqi Books, 1991).
  • Rodinson, Maxime. Europe and the Mystique of Islam (London: I.B. Tauris & Co., 1988).
  • Rodinson, Maxime. Islam and Capitalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1973).
  • Rodinson, Maxime. Israel and the Arabs (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, revised ed., 1982).
  • Rodinson, Maxime. Israel: A Colonial-Settler State? (New York: Anchor Foundation/Pathfinder, 1973).
  • Rodinson, Maxime. Marxism and the Muslim World (London: Zed Books, 2015) (1979).
  • Rodinson, Maxime. Muhammad (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980). [I realize this biography is controversial for obvious reasons, nonetheless, it remains a sympathetic portrait from an avowed Marxist.]
  • Said, Edward W. Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978).
  • Varisco, Daniel Martin. Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2007).


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