Farewell Edward Said:
November 1 1935 – September 25 2003
University of Newcastle upon Tyne
1. Edward Said lived much of his remarkable life at the very centre of the political and intellectual events that have significantly shaped the last quarter of a century. His independence of thought and erudition were at once the qualities that distinguished Said and earned him the enmity of critics. The Edward Said I know best is the Said whose Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism shaped my research and thinking in the most direct ways, making me part of his diaspora as Christopher Hitchens recently described his wide circle of admirers. Not having a specialist’s understanding of the politics of the Middle East and even less of classical music, there exist aspects to Said’s work and personal interests that are little known to me. Nonetheless, at the Hay on Wye Writers’ Festival in May 2003 an apparently robust Said spoke with great belief of his collaboration with Daniel Barenboim in establishing The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra made up of young Palestinians and Israelis, with erudition on Wagner’s music and with passion on the political problems plaguing Israeli-Palestinian relations. The breadth, warmth and connectedness of Edward Said’s thought and personality were evident to the several hundred in attendance and he effortlessly moved people to spontaneous applause. Yet here was a man who declared he had no sense of cumulative achievement and claimed an inability to grasp the pleasures of leisure. Said could also be thin-skinned and self-pitying, observations made by his friend Christopher Hitchens and also evident in Said’s memoir Out of Place, a strangely unsatisfying book.
2. It is not a great time to lose Edward Said and it seems somehow unjust that he should have faced his death in times so unfriendly to the principal ideas that distinguished his political activism and his scholarly works. In the US of the war on terror Arab and other Muslim resident nationals must register with public authorities and Said himself endured accusations of being an agent of hate by right-wing commentators and academics because of his critical commentary on US foreign policy and for his strong criticisms of Israeli government policies towards Palestinians. On the Campus Watch web site established to encourage students and others to report ‘biased’ (supposedly anti-US, anti-Israel) teaching at universities, one recent ‘interview’ introduced Said in the following terms:
Let’s talk about this professor who’s been caught on filming [sic] throwing rocks at settlements and over into Israel and he allegedly attempted to hit Israelis on the other side. Is this guy a hate monger? Is this the type of guy we want our students to be learning from in America?
3. Daniel Pipes, a Director of Campus Watch and the Middle East Forum responded to this Dorothy Dixer by describing Said as a radical, leftist, fringe figure who disliked the US and considered himself too superior to have any patriotism (see http://www.campus-watch.org/article/id/687). The bitter irony here is that for Said it was the US that nourished his research in an environment free from the cloying orthodoxies of the intellectual atmosphere that he believed pervaded elite Arab educational institutions. Moreover, Said’s work coincides with and contributes to the making of national and international public domains in which explicitly racist utterances are actionable in some Western nations and in which lazy ethnic and racial stereotyping became less acceptable.
4. Responses to his political activities among Said’s critics are I think best understood as a form of ressentiment because Said’s utterances of ‘othered’ dissidence and dissonance are regarded as inappropriate, even unpatriotic, given the obvious material comforts and successes of his life. Upon publication of Out of Place Said was criticized for being hazy on details of his origins and early years yet much of his life has been more openly public and transparent than George W. Bush’s. Recently and especially since the advent of the war on terror, the US military attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, critics of Said (and other ‘dissidents’) have argued that he blurred the distinction between the right to dissent and the support of terror and so was effectively committed to narrowing ‘free speech’.
5. This seems to me an absurd allegation and a bizarre reaction to so-called political correctness but illustrates that fear is not only the animating force of democratic politics in the West at the moment but modish and academically credible in theses like the clash of civilizations. A key theme in the neo-racialised politics of Australia, Britain and the United States is the linking of multiculturalism and cultural degradation. Said’s argument that the West constructed its (Oriental) other as dangerous, perverse, threatening and unstable has been turned back upon itself by politicians like Australia’s John Howard who persistently links difference and danger. People scattered across oceans in slowly sinking boats have become the unwilling manifestation of dark obsessions combining loathing of difference and the return of the deserving/undeserving poor in entitlement discourses. However, Australia’s Howard also proved that demonising otherness remains a potent electoral force.
6. Edward Said’s scholarly work brought change not by the budgetary decree of contemporary university administrators but the compelling nature of his argument. This seems a world away at a time when his carefully constructed thought on identity and difference is parlayed for dubious political gain in places where people, as used to be said about a range of activities, should know better. Said taught (he never seemed to shy from didacticism) the will to imperial power was integral to Western culture and legitimised by the knowledge of the academy. In broadly poststructuralist argument, Said exposed the Gordian knot between Orient and Occident; the West’s self-aggrandisement is an effect of its denigration of cultures beyond its golden circle. It is the West’s hegemony in the social sciences, humanities, arts and now electronic media that authorises its claims to superiority. Orientalism posed in a unique way problems for the ‘speaking truth to power’ thesis that implicitly underwrites the authority of Western scientific and social scientific discourse and deeply disturbs the place of positivism in post-WW11 social science research. For Said, power is integral to the identity/difference problematic and it is the ubiquity of power that undermines even the possibility of objectivity and impartiality in research. Orientalism’s scything influence extended from course reading lists in the humanities, arts and social sciences through to fundamental reform of faculty structures in universities throughout the English speaking West. This speaks volumes for the critical force of Said’s thinking on power/knowledge with respect to imperialism and colonialism.
7. Arguably, in embracing a Foucauldian vision of power as productive of domains of reality, of truth about the other, Said offers a plausible means by which the West could confront its uneasy but aggressively articulated relationships with the, especially, Muslim, Orient. If identity and difference are contingent then there is no necessary predetermination in relations between Occident and Orient. Accepting that what things are called and how debate is framed affect politics in the most direct ways suggests both an opportunity and a responsibility on the part of individuals and institutions of all kinds to acknowledge that each utterance that gives form to difference contributes to the library of images of the other. There is no such thing as an innocent representation.
8. Edward Said has made an inestimable contribution to scholarship in the social sciences and humanities, significantly reorienting the ways in which the cultures of the Arab and Asian worlds are studied. So intellectually rich is his work that it is one of the key foundations of postcolonial studies and scholars have paid Said the high compliment of using his ideas to continuously expand the horizons of postcolonial studies. Critics of Orientalism, perhaps none more trenchant than Aijaz Ahmad (1992), regard it as a deeply flawed book that stakes out irreconcilable tensions between Said’s humanist aspirations for tolerance, justice and peace and Foucault’s anti-humanist discourse theory. Yet Ahmad also acknowledges that the pleasure of Orientalism lay in its transgression of disciplinary boundaries and the methodological novelty of arguing that Orientalist discourse is constitutive of the West. Ahmad ranked Frederic Jameson and Edward Said as the most influential cultural critics writing in English, high praise from a scholar in sharp disagreement with Said. Also inestimable is the loss of Edward Said’s input into the search for justice and peace between Palestinians and Israelis. His creativity and independence of thought will be greatly missed, leaving the world a poorer place for his absence.
© borderlands ejournal 2003