The Cambridge Introduction to Edward Said.
KARNI PAL BHATI
Conor McCarthy presents a lucid and highly readable overview of the oeuvre of one of the major intellectuals of our time. For readers who think of Edward Said primarily as a postcolonial critic whose chief work was Orientalism, this introduction should prove to be a compelling corrective that shows the eclectic trajectory not only of Said himself, but also of the field of postcolonial theory. Chapter one provides a helpful overview of Said's life and work that goes on to explore their imbrication, while chapter two offers an excellent account of intellectual influences on Said. Chapter three discusses five of Said's key works: Beginnings: Intention and Method (1975); Orientalism (1978); The Question of Palestine (1979); The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983); and Culture and Imperialism (1993). Finally, chapter four sketches out the "crucial and representative reactions" to Said's work (123).
The opening chapters seek to explain why Said was not just "the most widely known intellectual in the world" (I) at the time of his death, but also one whose "reputation and work polarized and polarizes opinion" (3). Within the academy, McCarthy notes, Said "was controversial because his work crossed disciplinary boundaries," and outside it, "because (he} was active in the cause of Palestine" (3). The study lists phenomenology (represented chiefly by the critics of consciousness, or the Geneva School), philology (Giambattista Vico and Eric Auerbach), Marxism (Georg Lukacs, Antonio Gramsci, Theodor Adorno, Frantz Fanon, and Raymond Williams), and poststructuralism (chiefly Michel Foucault) among the "various intellectual currents and traditions" that contributed to the catholicity of Said's oeuvre (13). McCarthy argues that what some of his detractors saw as Said's "interfering ... in areas outside ... his professional expertise" was in fact a "kind of methodological principle" (3). By pursuing the project of "bringing disparate knowledges and epistemologies into unexpected conjunction," Said's writing was "concerned ... not only with the production of knowledge, but with the conditions of possibility of the production of knowledge" (3, 13, emphasis original).
In discussing these diverse strands of thought, McCarthy provides a succinct overview of the key ideas in each field as applicable to an understanding of the development of Said's own work. So, we learn that Said's early interest in phenomenology is carried further not only in his second book, Beginnings, with its sustained meditation on intention, but also in The World, the Text, and the Critic, with its insistence, for instance, on the "worldly self-situating" act of T.S. Eliot's well-known essay on "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (20). While the influence of philology could be seen as an indirect one, emerging out of Said's training in comparative literature and intersecting with the influence of phenomenology and other abiding themes in his work, Said learned from Auerbach, a German Jewish intellectual exiled in Turkey, about the "relationship between distance, exile, and alienation, on the one hand, and profound knowledge, on the other" (22). This insight becomes axiomatic in later work as the form of an exemplary relationship of distance necessary to criticism. "The dialectic between distance and closeness, home and exile, rootedness and alienation," the subject of recurrent rumination by Said, is rearticulated, McCarthy reminds us, in Culture and Imperialism: "exile is not a matter of utter disconnection from a home or culture; rather it is a matter of proximity to a native place of which one is fully aware but to which one may not return" (23).
Said learned much from several Marxist thinkers without ever being a fully committed Marxist. He assimilated many of Lukacs's insights about the novel form--"as the genre of alienation, disillusionment, and 'transcendental home-lessness'"--to his own idea of criticism: as an "anti-dynastic," "non-linear [and) decentred process" that is "modern and modernist" in its being "homeless in the world of language and writing, restless, perpetually reinventing itself,... perpetually re-examining and reinstating its own conditions of possibility" (30). More broadly pertinent to Said's humanistic ideal of criticism as a form of agency and social responsibility was Lukacs's theory of reification, which suggests that under conditions of "monopoly capitalism" we come to see both ideas and social relationships as 'things.' But for both Lukacs and for Said, that is not to say that subjectivity cannot escape this condition, even if partially or sporadically. "At certain crucial moments," as McCarthy explicates, even "the reified mind has the opportunity to see behind the apparently ineluctable portrait of society as a mere array of economic factors and inert objects ... [and to understand) the process by which it came to be that way." This can lead the mind to "understand its own objectified nature ... [and) by so doing, it can ... think past it, into a possible future." For Said, McCarthy explains, this conception of the doubleness of reification became "a perfect example of radical intellectual beginnings" (30, even as he remained alert to the fact that "putatively radical ideas can become domesticated and institutionalized" (32). As McCarthy recounts, this latter concern motivates Said's interest in Adorno, whose "search for a zone of absolute resistance to reification and the alienation of consciousness under industrial capitalism" led him to imagine "the aesthetic as the space where resistance may be found" (33-34).
At the same time, the work of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci was also crucial for Said's understanding of the relationship of individuals to structures of power and authority. McCarthy adeptly rehearses the key ideas elaborated by Gramsci: traditional and organic intellectuals, hegemony and counter-hegemony, the "separation of civil society and political society," and "the materiality of culture and ideas" (36). Gramscian ideas led Said to assert, as he did in Orientalism, that all forms of knowledge serve the interests of the state or political society regardless of their academic distinctions between genres and/or disciplines. Hence, his influential claim that his analysis was not merely a study of the genealogy of "a basic geographical distinction" between the Occident and the Orient, but of the varying interests that aimed to perpetuate this distinction and the disciplinary knowledges deployed in their service (37). This study observes that Orientalism, among all of Said's works, "has drawn the greatest attention" and erroneously, one could argue, "been taken as his most definitive statement on the Middle East, on cultural theory, on the academy, on literature." Nonetheless, it notes that the book "brings together and dramatizes many of the most important concerns in Said's work: the canon of high European literature and its links with imperialism; the meanings of humanism and historical interpretation; the production and accumulation of cultural authority; the degradation of knowledge through its relationships with power and institutions; and representations of the Middle East" (123).
Among poststructuralist influences, McCarthy focuses mainly on Said's "heterodox ... absorption of Foucault's ideas," including such notions as the construction of objects of knowledge through discursive and non-discursive practices, the non-teleological "series of epistemes" that constitute "the overall system of discourse in a given historical period," and the view that knowledge is both "enabled and constrained by an underlying master-code" (48). But notwithstanding these areas of alignment, McCarthy points out that "Foucault's abandonment of the human subject as the agent of history separates [him from Vico}, and lies behind Said's later severe critique of Foucault" (54). The primary agon of Said's work, as McCarthy helps us understand it, seems to have been generated by a realization of the multifarious ways in which human agency is restricted--deriving from an understanding of the work of Gramsci and Foucault, especially in the latter's formulation of "vast trans-subjective structures such as epistemes and discourses" (54)--and his early, and arguably inevitable, internalization of the importance of consciousness and intentionality (through phenomenology) which drove his interventionary output as an academic intellectual and a political activist in an apparently seam less manner.
In the book as a whole, but especially in the chapter on the reception of Said's work, McCarthy's main concern seems to be to help the reader understand Said on his own terms, rather than to elaborate the contradictions or gaps in his project. McCarthy pulls this off very well indeed by "try[ing] to retain an historical sense of the overall trajectory of [Said's] writing life" even as he summarizes many of the criticisms "on grounds of method and theory" (123). McCarthy provides insightful summaries of very complex debates throughout the final chapter, signaling broad agreement with most of the critiques by James Clifford, Paul Bove, and Robert Young among others--although he does point out that Young completely overlooks Said's "critique of Foucault's ethnocentrism" (132). On the whole, McCarthy juxtaposes the claims and counter-claims of these scholars, letting the reader do the judging, or better still prompting the reader to turn to the works of Said and his critics. In this respect McCarthy's maieutic approach throughout the book proves to be an excellent introduction to the complex and influential work of an important thinker of our time.
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|Author:||Bhati, Karni Pal|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2012|
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