Edward Said, humanism, and secular criticism.
It is difficult to overstate Edward Said's influence on cultural and social thought in the last twenty-five years. Said's work, especially Orientalism, radically transformed the intellectual landscape of the humanities and the social sciences. (1) For his students from the post-colonial world such as myself, it gave us a new lens through which to understand our own cultures and our relationship to the West. For scholars in the Western academy, it pointed to the complicity between supposedly disinterested scholarly pursuits and the edifice of Western imperialism. For its many lay readers, it articulated in an accessible way the inter-connections between political power and knowledge. In Orientalism, Said drew on the theoretical work of scholars such as Foucault and Gramsci, to interpret literary texts in the light of imperial geopolitics, single-handedly breaking the ground for the field of postcolonial literary studies. Committed to criticism as an oppositional practice, Said became increasingly wary, at the same time, of the solipsism and opacity of the "nouvelle critique." In 1995, he taught a graduate seminar at Columbia University entitled "Last Works, Late Style" that exemplified this shift from what we would now call "post-colonial criticism" to humanistic interpretation. When he died, Said was working on a manuscript on this topic, a brief preview of which appeared posthumously in article form in the August 2004 edition of the London Review of Books. (2) In his presidential address to the MLA, entitled "Humanism and Heroism," Said delivered a paeon to the labors of the pen, again in a pointedly humanistic register. (3) Just before his death, he completed a book entitled Humanism and Democratic Criticism, in which he assessed the nature of, and need for, humanistic studies in the present moment. In the following pages, I first briefly sketch his politicizing influence on literary and cultural analysis. I then attempt to make sense of his late engagement with humanistic scholarship, the imprint of which had always marked his work, and his attitude to humanism more broadly.
From Orientalism to Culture and Imperialism
In Orientalism, Said argued that Western cultural representations of the Orient contributed directly to legitimating European rule over imperial territories. Far from being an abstract body of ideas, such representations were a means of exercising cultural leadership or hegemony. Orientalist writers, from different periods and places, employed a relatively set repertoire of tropes that "put the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand." (4) These Orientalist structures of reference and attitude were, what is more, largely self-referential; Said noticed that writers would frequently echo each other. In fact, Orientalist writers often had very little first-hand experience of people and places in the East. According to Said, the discourse of Orientalism--that is, the repeated use and circulation of statements about the Orient--took on the status of "truths" declaimed with authority by Europeans. Orientalists produced this knowledge about the Orient because they enjoyed the unilateral power of representation. This Orientalist production of knowledge was not merely a conceptual exercise; it had far-reaching and profound material effects because it became the basis for imperial policy.
Said's examination of the operation of Orientalism, as a discourse, directly led to the emergence of a whole field of colonial discourse analysis in literary studies. (5) Following Said's example, a number of literary scholars focused on the workings of colonial discourse in texts of the nineteenth century, the period of greatest imperial expansion and the consolidation of European power. (6) Scholars also turned their attention to the relationship between imperialism and literature in other periods. (7) Edward Said's influence quickly extended to other fields in the humanities and social sciences--film studies, art history, music studies, area studies, anthropology, and the like; some of the other essays in this volume map that influence. Broadly speaking, what these studies share is an interest in
how the processes of imperialism occurred beyond the level of economic laws and political decisions, and--by predisposition, by the authority of recognizable cultural formations, but continuing consolidation within education, literature, and the visual and musical arts--were manifested at another very significant level, that of the national culture, which we have tended to sanitize as a realm of unchanging intellectual monuments, free of worldly affiliations. (8)
In a variety of academic fields and disciplines, scholars have undertaken the work of elaborating in detail the complex relationships between the domain of culture and the project of imperialism.
While in Orientalism Said argues for the significance of colonial discourse and sketches its contours, in Culture and Imperialism he also proffers rich and extended readings of writers such as Austen, Conrad, Kipling, Camus, and Gide, showing how significant the experience of Empire was for writers of the European literary canon. To examine this significance, Said formulates a theory of what he calls "contrapuntal reading":
As we look back at the cultural archive, we begin to read it not univocally but contrapuntally, with a simultaneous awareness both of the metropolitan history that is narrated and of those other histories against which (and together with which) the dominating discourse acts. In the counterpoint of Western classical music, various themes play off one another, with only a provisional privilege being given to any particular one; yet in the resulting polyphony there is concert and order, an organized interplay that derives from the themes, not from a rigorous melodic or formal principle outside the work. In the same way, I believe, we can read and interpret English novels, for example, whose engagement (usually suppressed for the most part) with the West Indies or India, say, is shaped and perhaps even determined by the specific history of colonization, resistance, and finally native nationalism. (9)
Said draws on an analogy from music to explain the principle of contrapuntal reading: an attention to the suppressed traces of colonization and of responses to it in literary texts. It is important to note that, in elaborating his model for reading, Said refers to a type of composition that is not driven by any "rigorous melodic or formal principle outside the work"--or what one might call "theory." Said repeatedly voices reservations about the dominance of theory in literary interpretation, a point that I will come back to later. He also emphasizes that, in literary texts as in counterpoint, different themes coexist; the critic can reveal the full complexity of imperial culture by exploring the interplay of metropolitan experience and the experience of the "Other" that can be discerned in the interstices of texts of the colonial era. Said's notion of contrapuntal reading is similar to Bakhtin's view of dialogic interpretation--both believe that it is the task of the critic to foreground the interaction of different voices. (10) Said elaborates on his view of contrapuntal reading using a number of examples, including that of Kipling's novel Kim:
The point is that contrapuntal reading must take account of both processes, that of imperialism and that of resistance to it, which can be done by extending our reading of the texts to include what was once forcibly excluded.... Kipling's India, in Kim, has a quality of permanence and inevitability that belongs not just to that wonderful novel, but to British India, its history, administrators, and apologists and, no less important, to the India fought for by Indian nationalists as their country to be won back. By giving an account of this series of pressures and counter-pressures in Kipling's India, we understand the process of imperialism itself as the great work of art engages them, and of later anti-imperialist resistance. In reading a text, one must open it out both to what went into it and to what its author excluded. (11)
According to Said, Kim draws on the rhetoric of sport to cast imperial rule in India as part of the "Great Game," itself a direct reference to the geopolitical rivalry at the time between Great Britain and Russia. Also, it portrays a vision of the permanence and native acceptance of British role, precisely at a time when Indians were mobilizing for national independence. To extend Said's contrapuntal reading, one might add that the novel traces Kim's transformation from a boyish adventurer to a cog in the wheel of colonial information-gathering and administration, in a belated acknowledgement of a shift in Britain's imperial focus from conquest to administration. A fully contextual reading of Kim, with due attention to elisions and revisions, reveals the complex negotiations between Englishmen and Indians of what "India" was, who was to rule it, and how.
Said's Ambivalent Humanism
In both Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism, and at regular intervals throughout his scholarly career, Said critiques certain aspects of humanism, yet identifies himself as a humanist. As W. J. T. Mitchell puts it,
Humanism for Said was always a dialectical concept, generating oppositions it could neither absorb nor avoid. The very word used to cause in him mixed feelings of reverence and revulsion: an admiration for the great monuments of civilization that constitute the archive of humanism and a disgust at humanism's underside of suffering and oppression that, as Benjamin insisted, made them monuments to barbarism as well. (12)
Before elaborating upon Said's deep and extended engagement with humanism, for which he has been criticized on a variety of fronts, it is helpful to distinguish between different meanings of humanism. Leela Gandhi, in her discussion of the relationship between postcolonial scholarship and humanism, identifies two streams of humanism that overlap in some ways, yet are historically and philosophically distinct. (13) Sixteenth-century Renaissance humanism, associated with scholars such as Petrarch, Erasmus, Montaigne, More, and Bacon, denotes an emergent program of belletristic learning that spawned what today we call "the humanities." Enlightenment humanism, by contrast, refers to the loosely linked eighteenth-century European philosophical movement whose proponents--among them Voltaire, Diderot, d'Alembert, Turgot, Condorcet, Hume, Rousseau, and Kant--championed the power of human reason to triumph over superstition and ignorance, and to better the lot of humankind.
Said's relationship to humanism, in the first sense, is equivocal. On the one hand, as we have seen, he identifies in the "great works of art," that are at the center of humanistic scholarship, Orientalist structures of representation that, more or less, explicitly denigrate Europe's "Others." On the other hand, he applauds the value of these great works. While he mounts a critique of Orientalist patterns of representation, he by no means rejects the study of "dead white men," as more hostile detractors of the European literary canon might. Indeed, he seems little interested in the domains of popular culture and everyday life, where imperial ideology arguably has its fullest elaboration and impact. As for the second connotation of humanism, Said whole-heartedly subscribes to the core legacy of Enlightenment: the belief that the rational, secular, critical pursuit of knowledge can lead to human emancipation and progress. In this respect, Said differs from post-structuralist critics such as Lyotard and Derrida, who have identified in the very structures of Enlightenment rationality a logic of domination, and have fed into one stream of postcolonial criticism that exhibits an "inherited deconstructive bias against Enlightenment humanism." (14) At the same time, he briefly gestures towards the need for other ways of knowing the Other, and asks the question of how to study other peoples and cultures from a nonrepressive and nonmanipulative perspective. Here, he imagines the possibility of a kind of knowledge that traverses cultural difference and serves the end of liberation without being falsely universalist.
In Orientalism, Said, for the most part, follows Foucault's lead in dissecting the operation of Orientalist discourse and showing its collusion in imperial domination. Said's own critical practice has a distinctly humanist flavor, with his invocation of the universal value of great works and the genius of individual writers and composers. James Clifford's trenchant, yet sympathetic critique of Orientalism teases out the contradictory stance Said takes towards Foucauldian discourse analysis. As Clifford points out, Said draws on the theoretical insights of Foucault with respect to the relationship between power and knowledge, and the operation of an archive, yet insists, in distinctly un-poststructuralist fashion, that the individual imprint of the author matters:
What is important theoretically is not that Foucault's author counts for very little but rather that a "discursive formation"--as opposed to ideas, citations, influences, references, conventions, and the like--is not produced by authorial subjects or even by a group of authors arranged as a "tradition." (15)
Said, unlike Foucault, is interested in the ways authors commonly participate in the production and perpetuation of an idea of "the Orient," an idea that has a specific political implication: the validation of imperial rule.
Said's commitment to humanist scholarly analysis is evident, not only in the way he characterizes the so-called discourse of Orientalism, but also in the contrapuntal methodology he proposes for reading. In using the musical metaphor of counterpoint, he emphasizes a compositional form that involves "the combination of two or more independent melodies into a single harmonic texture in which each retains its linear character." (16) Said favors a mode of interpretation that is attuned to the interplay of different voices, in what is a harmonious whole. In this, he expresses a humanist vision of what texts are and how they should be read. This endorsement of humanism is also evident in his account of the literary achievements of non-Western, anti-colonial writers. One of the sharper critiques that have been made of Orientalism is that Said neglects to acknowledge the cultural production of people who endured European rule. In fact, Said suggested in Orientalism that European writers were able to represent the Orient "with very little resistance on the Orient's part." (17) In Culture and Imperialism, Said complements his readings of European texts with discussions of writers who did in fact "write back" to Empire: Fanon, Cesaire, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, C. L. R. James, George Antonious, and many others. He describes the literary efforts of these writers as "the voyage in," which he characterizes as "an especially interesting variety of hybrid cultural work." (18) He argues that:
The ideological and cultural war against imperialism occurs in the form of resistance in the colonies, and later, as resistance spills over into Europe and the United States, in the form of opposition or dissent in the metropolis. The first phase of this dynamic produces nationalist independence movements, the second, later, and more acute phase produces liberation struggles. The basic premise of this analysis is that although the imperial divide in fact separates metropolis from peripheries, and although each cultural discourse unfolds according to different agendas, rhetorics, and images, they are in fact connected, if not always in perfect correspondence.... The connection is made on the cultural level since, I have been saying, like all cultural practices the imperialist experience is an intertwined and overlapping one.... (19)
Said emphasizes the dialogic relationship between the cultural discourse of the colonized and that of the metropole. He observes that those who wrote from the vantage point of colonized subjects neither reproduced metropolitan discourse uncritically nor were completely detached from it; rather, writers from the periphery had a complex, angular relationship to metropolitan culture. In describing "the voyage in," Said thinks again along humanist lines of an interactive and mutually transformative cultural engagement. To illustrate his claim, Said discusses the work of two pairs of writers, C. L. R. James and George Antonious, and Ranajit Guha and S. H. Alatas, the first pair writing in 1938, and the second well after decolonization. Said argues that the historical differences between these moments influence the work of the two sets of writers. C. L. R. James and Antonious take the European discourse of Enlightenment on its own terms. C. L. R. James, in The Black Jacobins, shows how the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L'Ouverture applied the principles that underpinned the French Revolution to French colonial territories to lead a liberation struggle. George Antonious, a Syrian who was closely connected to elite circles of the British colonial government, decried the failure of the British to keep faith with their promise of freedom to Arab peoples after their service to the Allies in the First World War. Said distinguishes these thinkers from a later generation of postcolonial scholars, such as Guha and Alatas, who provide detailed critiques of imperial discourse and practice in A Rule of Property, for Bengal and The Myth of" the Lazy Native, respectively. Edward Said himself ranks among these thinkers in that he interprets metropolitan texts and theorists, not with the aim of telling an "Other" story, but of being a critical interlocutor of imperial culture.
Said gives particular thought to those writers who made "the voyage in" and turned their pens to anti-imperialist struggle: Gandhi, Nehru, Fanon, and Cabral, among others. He distinguishes thinkers who articulated their anti-imperialism in nationalist terms from those anti-imperialists who framed their agenda in terms of liberation. Anti-imperialists such as Nehru and Gandhi ultimately tell back on a political form that reproduced and perpetuated many of the depredations of colonialism: the postcolonial nation-state. Fanon, by contrast, also took a sharply anti-imperialist stance, but mounted a thorough-going appraisal of the pitfalls of nationalism in his liberationist manifesto The Wretched of the Earth. Said notes:
Fanon was the first major theorist of anti-imperialism to realize that orthodox nationalism followed along the same track hewn out by imperialism, which while it appeared to be conceding authority to the nationalist bourgeoisie was really extending its hegemony. To tell a simple story therefore is to repeat, extend, and also to engender new forms of imperialism. (20)
Said indicts nationalism for its simplifying narratives, and applauds Fanon for his vision of national liberation as a dynamic process without a clear teleology. Said also lauds Fanon for his critique of a Eurocentric universalism, and his gestures towards a new humanism, a point that I will return to.
Humanism and Secular Criticism
If Edward Said's influence on literary scholarship was to underscore--in a humanist vein--the political stakes involved, his own work shifted during the last years of his life to a more traditional form of humanistic scholarship. Said had always argued for a secular criticism that eschewed jargon and engaged with the world at large, and was not the domain of specialists. In The World, the Text, and the Critic, as early statement of his methodological principles, Said insisted:
In its suspicion of totalizing concepts, in its discontent with reified objects, in its impatience with guilds, special interests, imperialized fiefdoms, and orthodox habits of mind, criticism is most itself and, if the paradox can be tolerated, most unlike itself at the moment it starts turning into organized dogma.... For in the main--and here I shall be explicit--criticism must think of itself as life-enhancing and constitutively opposed to every form of tyranny, domination, and abuse; its social goals are noncoercive knowledge produced in the interests of human freedom. (21)
For Said, criticism must, if it is to maintain its commitment to non-coercive knowledge and freedom, guard against its own consecration. Aamir Mufti's essay on the significance of Auerbach for Said's thought traces what precisely Said means by "secular" in his criticism. (22) Mufti argues that Said articulates his notion of secularism from a minority position. For Said,
secular criticism insists upon the possibility of emancipation even as it expresses profound skepticism about the transparency of all such claims. Secular criticism does not imply the rejection of universalism per se. It implies a scrupulous recognition that all claims of a universal nature are particular claims. Furthermore, and most importantly, it means rescuing the marginalized perspective of the minority as one from which to rethink and remake universalist (ethical, political, cultural) claims, thus displacing its assignation as the site of the local. (23)
That is, for the secular critic, the minority bears a supplementary relationship to universalist constructs, showing them to be incomplete and destabilizing them in a mutually productive way. For Said, secular criticism is of the world and in the world; it also shows the world to be a place of productive and mutually destabilizing oppositions and tensions. It is this understanding of humanist scholarship that Said advanced, rather than a celebration of humanist values per se.
Before I turn to the pieces on humanism and heroism and on late style, I want to map in a schematic way his shifting view of theory, and, specifically, of Foucault's work. This view, I believe, is homologous to his attitude to humanism and to humanistic scholarship. In his introduction to Orientalism, Edward Said acknowledges his debt to Michel Foucault for his notion of discourse, adding,
My contention is that without examining Orientalism as a discourse one cannot possibly understand the enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage--and even produce--the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period. (24)
At this point in his scholarly career, Said is primarily interested in how--in the concrete medium of discourse--cultural forces acted in a systematic and disciplined way, not merely to buttress imperial rule, but to "produce" the very objects of European control. He values Foucault's work for its detailed attention to the generative relationship between power and knowledge, and his shrewd analysis of the operation of discourse. In a commemorative essay published on Foucault's death in 1984, Said commented on the hybrid and iconoclastic quality of Foucault's scholarship, "ironic, skeptical, savage in its radicalism, comic and amoral in its overturning of orthodoxies, idols, and myths." (25) In this piece, Said notes Foucault's preoccupation with otherness: "For Foucault, otherness is both a force and a feeling in itself, something whose seemingly endless metamorphoses his work reflects and shapes." (26) This scholarly interest in otherness is of course one that Said shares. At the same time, Said criticizes Foucault for his failure to pay any attention at all to Europe's Others: "His Eurocentrism was almost total, as if history itself took place only among a group of German and French thinkers." (27) Said notes that Foucault fails to avoid the pitfalls of a false universalism, making broad generalizations on the basis of French evidence; and he criticizes Foucault even more trenchantly for his lack of "interest in the relationships his work had with feminist or postcolonial writers facing problems of exclusion, confinement and domination." (28) In another brief essay on Foucault, that appeared two years later, Said is even more pointed in his criticism, arguing that Foucault's prison-house view of power is politically disabling:
I wouldn't go as far as saying that Foucault rationalized power, or that he legitimized its dominion and its ravages by declaring them inevitable, but I would say his interest in domination was critical but not finally as contestatory, or as oppositional as on the surface it seems to be. This translates into the paradox that Foucault's imagination of power was by his analysis of power to reveal its injustice and cruelty, but by his theorization to let it go on more or less unchecked. (29)
According to Said, Foucault's vision of a pervasive, microcapillary power, and his failure to imagine--or lack of interest in imagining--any counter-force to the operation of power fosters a certain quiessence. Said contrasts this attitude with that of oppositional intellectuals, such as Fanon, Alatas, Ngugi, Rushdie, and others who "show, in Fanon's words, the violence done to psychically and politically repressed inferiors in the name of an advanced culture, and then afterwards to begin the difficult, if not always tragically flawed, project of formulating the discourse of liberation." (30) These intellectuals not only do the work of critiquing institutional structures and discourses of oppression, they seek to overcome or subvert this oppression. Said is even more explicit in his criticism of Foucault in Culture and Imperialism, where he compares Foucault unfavorably to Fanon:
Fanon represents the interests of a double consitutuency, native and Western, moving from confinement to liberation; ignoring the imperial context of his own theories, Foucault seems actually to represent an irresistable colonizing movement that paradoxically fortifies the prestige of both the lonely individual scholar and the system that contains him. (31)
Said's criticism is twofold: on the one hand, he faults Foucault for neglecting to follow through upon the ramifications of his analysis of power for postcolonial subjects; on the other hand, he objects to the fact that Eoucault's analysis of power actually has the effect of inhibiting the theorizing of resistance. In fact, it is difficult to see where resistance would come from if power is dispersed, discursive, and capillary, as Foucault so powerfully argues. Famously, Foucault's own response to this commonplace objection was to maintain in an essay entitled "The Subject and Power" that where there is power, there is resistance. (32) However, this gesture towards the omnipresence of resistance is a long way away from, and possibly precludes, any concrete theory of liberation, as Said rightly objects. For Said, the aim of an analysis of power is not only to lay bare the pernicious implications of imperialist knowledge practices, but to imagine or, at least, gesture to the possibility of alternative discourses and practices.
Perhaps more than Foucault, Said admires the work of Gramsci and Williams, both of whom attempted to understand how political domination was exercised, with a view to challenging and overcoming it. Most of all, it is in Fanon's writing that Said finds an explicit attempt to conceive of a relationship that is liberatory in this sense, and that arises specifically out of the historical experience of Empire:
... Fanon reads Western humanism by transporting the large hectoring bolus of "the Greco-Latin pedestal" bodily to the colonial wasteland, where "'this artificial sentinel is turned into dust." It cannot survive juxtaposition with its quotidian debasement by European settlers.... National consciousness, he says, "must now be enriched and deepened by a very rapid transformation into a consciousness of social and political needs, in other words, into [real] humanism." ... How odd the word "humanism" sounds in this context, where it is free from the narcissistic individualism, divisiveness, and colonialist egoism of the imperialism that justified the white man's rule. (33)
According to Said, Fanon points to the hollowness of humanist principles when they are transposed to an imperial context. At the same time, Fanon sees the possibility of a real humanism emerging from the struggle for liberation. In an essay on Fanon's imagining of a "new humanism," Robert Bemasconi argues that Fanon did not merely critique the old humanism for the Eurocentric assumption that European values were universally valid; nor did he simply point to the failure of Europeans to adhere to those values when dealing with native people. (34) Rather, he proposed that out of anti-imperialist nationalism would grow a truly liberatory consciousness, a new kind of humanism. Bernasconi argues that in Fanon's view, it is the violence of the colonized that would dialectically produce this new humanism. Edward Said makes a similar case: "For Fanon violence, as I said earlier, is the synthesis that overcomes the reification of white man as subject, Black man as object." (35) In Edward Said's reading of Fanon, one can see his interest precisely in the possibility of a humanism emerging that is truly universal:
Liberation is consciousness of self, "not the closing of a door to communication" but a never-ending process of "discovery and encouragement" leading to true national self-liberation and to universalism ... in the obscurity and difficulty of Fanon's prose, there are enough poetic and visionary suggestions to make the case for liberation as a process and not as a goal contained automatically by the newly independent nations. Throughout The Wretched off the Earth ... Fanon wants somehow to bind the European as well as the native together in a new non-adversarial community of awareness and anti-imperialism. (36)
Said's own interest in a new humanism that bridges difference and is liberatory speaks through this discussion of Fanon. As Anthony Allessandrini has argued, Said shares with Fanon a critical stance towards humanism, as well as a belief that it can be refashioned for truly liberatory ends. (37)
Humanism in Said's Late Work
Humanism, then, is a positive term that runs through Edward Said's career. However, as I have suggested, it takes on a greater importance, and also a different significance, in his late work. On the face of it, the kind of humanism that Said advocates in his last years looks very much like traditional humanism. Given that Said had himself pointed to the shortcomings of a Eurocentric humanism, it would seem oddly regressive for him to embrace an unreconstructed humanism himself. Certainly, critics who believe that he did precisely this might argue that, late in life, Said returned to the strongly humanist roots of his own intellectual formation at Princeton and at Harvard, roots that in his focus on European canonical texts he had never entirely repudiated. Or, and this is born out by his own statements, one might conjecture that Said was disenchanted with the extreme opaqueness and solipsism of contemporary literary criticism in general and postcolonial studies in particular, and reasserted the value of scholarship that was secular in the sense of being worldly in its concerns and widely accessible in its idiom. While these explanations are in part persuasive, I want to suggest that Said turns to humanism so keenly because he believes it provides a critical edge against the alienating effects of modernization and modernity, broadly speaking.
In his MLA presidential address, Said imputes a heroic quality to the activity of humanist scholarship. He speaks to "the gradual loss over the past few decades, but also the prospects for recovery, of a critical model for humanism with a heroic ideal at its core." (38) For Said, the handwritten text serves as an expression of this heroic ideal. Said is speaking quite literally: He emphasizes that the fruits of the pen are the solid material product of intellectual labor. He distinguishes writing done laboriously by hand from the products of the wordprocessor, which enables one to
save, modify, adapt, and incorporate huge numbers of words seemingly without labour or sweat.... The result is a standardization of tone that has more or less done away with the quirkiness and carefully nurtured gestation of and written writing that one associates symbolically as well as actually, not only with Freud, but with great literary figures contemporary with him such as Proust, Mann, Woolf, Pound, Joyce, and most of the other modernist giants. (39)
Here, as in much of his criticism, Said expresses high praise for the "giants" of the English literary canon, but what is interesting is that he sees these writers as part of a literary confraternity that is at risk of dying out because of the mechanizing and leveling tendencies of modern technology. Said appears to embrace a non-Marxist, even patrician, materialism, literally seeing in the ontology of labor the possibility of a transcendence of the homogenizing and depersonalizing effects of modern conveniences. Said also characterizes the writer with pen in hand as a figure for the humanist enterprise. He sees the quagmire of contemporary literary scholarship, with its "vast disagreements," "ill-formed" inter-disciplinary arrangements, and "new jargons" as possibly
traceable to the loss of an enabling image of an individual human being pressing on with her or his work, pen in hand, manuscript or book on the table, rescuing some sense for the page from out of the confusion and disorganization that surround us in everyday life. (40)
In a consummately modernist vein, he views the wielder of the pen as a bulwark against the tide of non-sense and un-reason. The role of the humanist scholar is, in these conditions, to engage in rational critique:
Humanism is disclosure; it is agency; it is immersing oneself in the element of history; it is recovering what Vico calls the topics of mind from the turbulent actualities of human life, "the uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor," and then submitting them painstakingly to the rational process of judgment and criticism.... For what is crucial to humanistic thought, even in the very act of sympathetically trying to understand the past, is that it is a gesture of resistance and critique. (41)
Said attributes to humanism a dynamic, secular, and critical quality that, he fears, is being eroded in the sphere of learning, and in the world at large. He extols the humanist scholar as a historically attuned critic who is not so much interested in preserving a European tradition, as Said's invocation of "great" European scholars might suggest on a superficial reading, but is, rather, committed to the pursuit of human freedom in a truly expansive sense that is based on an "[expanded] ... understanding of human history to include all those Others constructed as dehumanized, demonized opponents by imperial knowledge and a will to rule." (42) In singling out the figure of Freud as representative here, Said is following a logic that Mufti traces so well in relation to Auerbach: the figure of the exiled German Jew who faces world catastrophe and who--as Said notes--comments: "But the struggle is not over yet." (43)
Reflecting in 2003 on Orientalism, twentry-five years after its publication, Said again identifies himself as a humanist:
My idea in Orientalism is to use humanistic critique to open up the fields of struggle, to introduce a longer sequence of thought and analysis to replace the short bursts of polemical thought-stopping fury that so imprison us. I have called what I try to do "humanism," a word I continue to use stubbornly despite the scornful dismissal of the term by sophisticated post-modern critics. By humanism I mean first of all attempting to dissolve Blake's mind-forg'd manacles so as to be able to use one's mind historically and rationally for the purpose of reflective understanding. Moreover humanism is sustained by a sense of community with other interpreters and other societies and periods: strictly speaking therefore, there is no such thing as an isolated humanist. (44)
Said speaks with a sense of tremendous urgency of the need to revivify humanism as a rational, secular, historically-minded communitarian enterprise that may stand as a shield against the "fragmented knowledge available on the internet and in the mass media" which
nationalist and religious orthodoxies often disseminated by the mass media as they focus ahistorically and sensationally on the distant electronic wars that give viewers the sense of surgical precision, but in fact obscure the terrible suffering and destruction produced by modern warfare. (45)
Said directly connects the decline of humanistic studies with the depredations of Western and especially US foreign policy. In the same essay, Said writes: "... [H]umanism is the only and I would go so far as saying the final resistance we have against the inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history" (n. pag.).
Edward Said engages explicitly with the question of humanism once more in a collection of essays entitled Humanism and Democratic Criticism, completed just before his death. In the first of these essays, "Humanism's Sphere," Said reflects on the historical and cultural circumstances that demand what he calls a critical humanism: the perennial "crisis" of the humanities (the question of their relevance), the influence of French theory on the American academy, the emergence of resistance movements to racism and imperialism, and the corporatization of universities. In this context, Said argues, it is vital to conceive of humanism as a dynamic critical practice:
Humanism is the exertion of one's faculties in language in order to understand, reinterpret, and grapple with the products of language in history, other languages and other histories. In my understanding of its relevance today, humanism is not a way of consolidating and affirming what "we" have always known and felt, but rather a means of questioning, upsetting, and reformulating so much of what is presented to us as commodified, packaged, uncontroversial, and uncritically codified certainties, including those contained in the masterpieces herded under the rubric of "the classics." (46)
Said emphasizes that humanism, properly understood, has an unsettling rather than a stabilizing effect. He rejects the dominant model of humanism advanced by conservative intellectuals such as Allan Bloom, one that aims to protect a traditional European canon and so-called "European values." The latter is in a continuum with an earlier American strand of "New Humanism," the exponents of which make "a surreptitious equation between popular and multicultural, multilingual democracy, on the one hand, and a horrendous decline in humanistic and aesthetic, not to say also ethical standards, on the other." (47) Said reproves the elitism and close-mindedness of these trumpeters of cultural doom. At the same time, he once again distances himself from the views of postmodern critics, such as Foucault and Lyotard, whose arguments, according to Said, in their anti-essentialism and rejection of grand narratives, are antithetical to possibilities of resistance to political oppression and willed human liberation movements.
In a second essay in the book, "The Changing Bases of Humanistic Study and Practice," Said rehearses the cultural and political changes that require a radical rethinking of humanism, and highlights the work of "the new generation of humanist scholars [that] is more attuned than any before it to the non-European, genderized, decolonized, and decentered energies and currents of our time." (48) In this essay, Edward Said emphasizes the multicultural basis of contemporary American culture, and characterizes humanism as a mode of scholarship that repudiates Eurocentrism and is committed to exploring and harnessing the critical and transformative potential of cultural differences.
Said's last work, of which we have only the briefest of sketches in published form, puts him squarely in the tradition of humanist scholarship. In his essay "Thoughts on Late Style," he discusses canonical European writers and artists, and turns to proverbially timeless and universal themes: art and death. Again, I would suggest that Said's project is not primarily to affirm the greatness of canonical European art; rather, he is specifically interested in certain artists and writers who, at the end of their lives, are at odds with the world and express this variance in their late works. These writers depart from the commonly held notion that the dusk of one's life is a period of mellowness and reconciliation. Rather, they convey a sense of detached alienation in their last years. Their late work has an intransigent quality, "an increasing sense of apartness and exile and anachronism." (49) Said sees the late work of Beethoven, Lampedusa's sole novel The Leopard, and Cavafy's late poetry as exemplary of this kind of late style. He turns to Adorno's essay "Late Style in Beethoven" to expand on the fragmentariness of Beethoven's late work with its characteristic repetitiveness, carelessness, and distraction:
Adorno's thesis is that all this is predicated on two considerations: first, that when he was young, Beethoven's work had been vigorous and organically whole, but became more wayward and eccentric: and second, that as an older man facing death, Beethoven realized that his work proclaims that "no synthesis is conceivable": it is in effect "the remains of a synthesis, the vestige of an individual human subject sorely aware of the wholeness, and consequently the survival, that has eluded it for ever." ... Beethoven's late works remain unco-opted by a higher synthesis: they do not fit any scheme, and they cannot be reconciled or resolved, since their irresolution and fragmentariness are constitutive, neither ornamental nor symbolic of something else. The late works are about "lost totality," and it is in this sense that they are catastrophic. (50)
Whereas in his reading of Fanon, Said identifies a dialectic that is projected into the future, a process of liberation the end point of which is not known, in his account of Beethoven's late style, Said sees (as does Adorno) a refusal of synthesis, an eschewing of dialectical resolution. Beethoven's late compositions stand apart and confound incorporation. In the same vein, he interprets Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's The Leopard as the work of an organic intellectual of a dying southern Italian aristocracy, and its protagonist, the Prince Don Fabrizio, as a personification of this decline. Unlike Gramsci, who in "The Southern Question" envisioned the possibility of a revolutionary synthesis of the rural southern peasantry and the northern industrial proletariat, "the Prince stands for a pessimism of the intelligence and a pessimism of the will." (51) At the same time, the Prince does not compromise his dignity or his style; he has no desire to change, but, rather, stands apart, an anachronism. Said views the Alexandrian poet C. P. Cavafy as a third exemplar of late style: "His poems enact a form of minimal survival between the past and the present, and his aesthetic of non-production, expressed in a non-metaphorical, almost prosaic unrhymed verse, enforces the sense of exile which is at the core of his work." (52) Said observes in Cavafy's poetry an equable expression of contrary emotions without any attempt to forcibly resolve the tension between them. He attributes to all of these artists a degree of mature detachment and absence of egotism that enables them to forego any strained resolution of antipathetic forces.
Edward Said's comments on late style shed light on his own last works. In his early and middle career, Edward Said eschews the false universalism of Eurocentric thought and gestures, towards a new humanism that is truly inclusive; at the same time, he maintains a commitment to humanism over and against the objections of its postmodern and poststructuralist critics because he believes it to be politically enabling. He understands humanism as a philosophical stance that transcends and breaks down boundaries and affords a model of agency. Said extols the humanist scholar for being committed to rational critique in the face of growing economic inequalities, hostile political conditions, confusing experiential landscapes, and a self-regarding and obscurantist tendency in scholarly discourse. In his late work, Said embraces the style of the artists he admires for their "deliberately unproductive productiveness, a going against." Like that of these artists, Said's work manifests "an increasing sense of apartness and exile and anachronism." (53) In his work, the tensions between humanism and the nouvelle critique are not resolved. More appalled than ever by the aggressive intensification of American imperialism, disheartened by the continued and unremitting inhumanity with which Palestinians are treated, and disenchanted with the direction scholarly discourse has taken, Said distances himself from postmodern theory and turns towards an "anti-humanist humanism" that, though it is not able to achieve cultural and political transformation in the conditions of postcolonial modernity, nonetheless refuses to compromise.
If in his work on late style Said embraces a form of negative dialectics, this is not to say that he retreats altogether from a transformative vision. One of his last projects, the setting up of the East-West Diwan Orchestra with Daniel Barenboim, is a living testament to his belief that, despite their differences, people--in this instance Arabs and Israelis--can come together in contrapuntal fashion to form a harmonic whole. Said and Barenboim describe the first meeting of the Orchestra in Weimar in 1999 in Parallels and Paradoxes, a collection culled from their conversations together. (54) Said writes of this experiment:
It was remarkable to witness the group, despite the tension of the first week or ten days, turn themselves into a real orchestra. In my opinion, what you saw happen had no political overtones at all. One set of identities was superseded by another set. There was an Israeli group, and a Russian group, and a Syrian group, a Lebanese group, a Palestinian group, and a group of Palestinian Israelis. All of them suddenly became cellists and violinists playing the same piece in the same orchestra under the same conductor. (55)
Said suggests that the musicians spontaneously moved beyond political differences by identifying not along ethnic lines, but as musical performers playing in concert with each other. He implies that, in the right circumstances and with the right leadership, people can set aside their divisive political identities and assume new forms of identification that allow for collaboration and unity. Discussing the East-West Diwan project and other musical interests in a joint interview with Barenboim broadcast on National Public Radio in December 2002, Said describes the transcendent power of music:
Beethoven in the first place really transcends the time and place of which he was a part. He was an Austro-Germanic composer who speaks to anyone who likes music no matter whether that person is African or Middle Eastern or American or European. And that extraordinary accomplishment is entirely due to this music of striving and development and of somehow expressing the highest human ideals, ideals of brotherhood, of community, of yearning, also, perhaps in many instances, unfulfilled yearning.... Music making and listening at the same time present a kind of fascinating dialectic between the individual and the collective, and that back and forth is very precious and gets over a lot of ground that is not commonly traversed in everyday life. (56)
Said imputes to the work of the great composer the ability to appeal to universal human ideals, across the differences of nationality and location. An anti-humanist humanist to the last, Said sees in the process of collaborative music-making the possibility of moving beyond the prison-house of political differences and creating new forms of identity and community.
(1) Edward Said, Orientalism (NY: Vintage, 1978).
(2) Edward Said, "Thoughts on Late Style," London Review of Books 26.15 (August 5, 2004): 3-7.
(3) Edward Said, "Presidential Address 1999: Humanism and Heroism," PMLA 115.3 (2000): 285-91.
(4) Said, Orientalism, 7.
(5) Edward Said was not by any means the first scholar to study writers from the former European colonies. In fact, the study of so-called "commonwealth literature" had long been a staple of university curricula, in Britain and in its former colonies. The Commonwealth of Nations, formerly the British Commonwealth, a voluntary association of the former colonies of Great Britain, saw as its mandate the promotion of cultural ties between members, and in 1987 the Commonwealth Foundation established a writers' prize "to encourage and reward the upsurge of new Commonwealth fiction and ensure that works of merit reach a wider audience outside their country of origin" (from the Website of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize: <http://www.commonwealthwriters. com>). However, Commonwealth Literature had, by and large, been approached with a view to its appreciation and transmission. Edward Said definitively shifted this focus in an overtly political direction, to the study of the relationship between literature, colonialism, nationalism, and decolonization. Following his lead, scholars took up the challenge of reading such literature in the light of political struggle and transformation. In general, postcolonial critics and theorists have focused on the operation of discourse, ideology, and representation in postcolonial writing. They have coined and adopted terms such as 'national allegory,' 'diaspora,' 'ambivalence,' 'mimicry,' 'hybridity,' 'creolite,' 'negritude,' 'syncretism,' 'globalization,' 'modernity,' 'hegemony,' and 'subaltern' to interpret colonial and postcolonial experience.
(6) Some of the important studies in this vein are: Abdul R. JanMohamed's Manichean Aesthetics: The Politics of Literature in Colonial Africa (Amherst, MA: U of Massachussetts P. 1983), Patrick Brantlinger's Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism. 1830-1914 (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1988), Gauri Viswanathan's Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India (NY: Columbia UP, 1989), Anne McClintock's Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Conquest (NY, London: Routledge, 1995), and Christopher Miller's Blank Darkness: Africanist Discourse in French (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985).
(7) For example, Kim Hall's Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1995) addressed the discourse of alterity in relation to Renaissance literature; Laura Brown's Ends of Empire: Women and Ideology in Early Eighteenth-Century English Literature (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993) focused on texts such as Aphra Behn's Oroonoko from the eighteenth century; Nigel Leask's British Romantic Writers and the East: Anxieties of Empire (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1993) explored Orientalist representation in writing of the Romantic period; and Howard J. Booth and Nigel Rigby, eds. Modernism and Empire: Writing and British Coloniality 1890-1940 (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2000) demonstrated the significance of Empire in a number of texts of literary modernism.
(8) Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (NY: Vintage, 1994), 12-13.
(9) Said, Culture and Imperialism, 51.
(10) Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist (Austin: U of Texas P, 1983).
(11) Said, Culture and Imperialism, 66-67.
(12) W. J. T. Mitchell, "Secular Divination: Edward Said's Humanism," Critical Inquiry 31.2 (Winter 2005): 462.
(13) Leela Gandhi, Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1998).
(14) Gandhi, 42. There is another strand of postcolonial criticism that is Marxist and humanist in its orientation--for example, the work of Fanon, Stuart Hall, Neil Lazarus, the early Subaltern Studies work--that Gandhi does not adequately recognize.
(15) James Clifford, "On Orientalism," The Predicament of Culture (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1998), 269.
(16) Entry for "counterpoint" in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online, <http://m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary?book=Dictionary&va=counterpoint &x=16&y=9>.
(17) Said, Orientalism, 7.
(18) Said, Culture and Imperialism, 244.
(19) Said, Culture and Imperialism, 276.
(20) Said, Culture and Imperialism, 273.
(21) Edward Said, The World, The Text and the Critic, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1983), 29.
(22) Aamir Mufti, "Auerbach in Istanbul: Edward Said, Secular Criticism, and the Question of Minority Culture," Critical Inquiry 25 (Autumn 1998): 95-125.
(23) Mufti, 112.
(24) Said, Orientalism, 3.
(25) Edward Said, "Michel Foucault, 1926-1984," After Foucault: Humanistic Knowledge, Postmodern Challenges, ed. Jonathan Arac (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1988), 5.
(26) Said, "Michel Foucault, 1926-1984," 5.
(27) Said, "Michel Foucault, 1926-1984," 9-10.
(28) Said, "Michel Foucault, 1926-1984," 9.
(29) Edward Said, "Foucault and the Imagination of Power," Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2000), 242.
(30) Said, "Foucault and the Imagination of Power," 243-44.
(31) Said, Culture and Imperialism, 278.
(32) Michel Foucault, "Afterword: The Subject and Power," Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, eds. Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982), 208-26.
(33) Said, Culture and Imperialism, 268-69.
(34) Robert Bernasconi, "Casting the Slough: Fanon's New Humanism for a New Humanity," Fanon: A Critical Reader, eds. Lewis R. Gordon, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, and Renee T. White (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1996), 113-21.
(35) Said, Culture and Imperialism, 270.
(36) Said, Culture and Imperialism, 274.
(37) Anthony Alessandrini, "Humanism in Question: Fanon and Said," A Companion to Postcolonial Studies, eds. Henry Schwartz and Sangeeta Ray (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000,) 431-50.
(38) Said, "Humanism and Heroism," 286.
(39) Said, "Humanism and Heroism," 288.
(40) Said, "Humanism and Heroism," 288.
(41) Said, "Humanism and Heroism," 290.
(42) Said, "Humanism and Heroism," 291.
(43) Said, "Humanism and Heroism," 286.
(44) Edward Said, "Orientalism 25 Years Later: Worldly Humanism v. the Empire-builders," August 4, 2003, <http://www.counterpunch.org/said 08052003.html>.
(45) Said, "Orientalism 25 Years Later," n. pag.
(46) Edward Said, "Humanism's Sphere," Humanism and Democratic Criticism (NY: Columbia UP, 2004), 28.
(47) Said, "Humanism's Sphere," 19-20.
(48) Said, "The Changing Basis of Humanistic Study and Practice," Humanism and Democratic Criticism, 47.
(49) Said, "Thoughts on Late Style," 4.
(50) Said, "Thoughts on Late Style," 2-3.
(51) Said, "Thoughts on Late Style," 5.
(52) Said, "Thoughts on Late Style," 8.
(53) Said, "Thoughts on Late Style," 4.
(54) Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said, Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society (NY: Vintage, 2004).
(55) Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said. Parallels and Paradoxes, 9-10.
(56) Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said, "Interview on NPR," December 28, 2002, <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=892575>.
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|Publication:||Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2005|
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