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Said’s humanism

It is in light of such criticism of theory and intellectual production that one might best read Said’s relationship to Foucault in Orientalism. Although the book is often read as inconsistent or as a book with an irresolvable tension, as Clifford’s insightful engagement with the work suggests, that inconsistency or tension was, perhaps, more deliberate than many readers suspect. As Stuart Hall argued at a conference in memory of Edward Said at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), Orientalism was perhaps Foucauldian in inspiration more than in method.105 In fact, Said makes explicit that, although deeply indebted to Foucault, he nevertheless, “believe[s] in the determining imprint of individual writers upon the otherwise anonymous collective body of texts constituting a discursive formation like Orientalism”.106 Said rejected the “dogma” of theoretical frameworks as much as that of political ideology. (Although it does strike me that Said engages more explicitly with the tensions between Foucault and his own theoretical and methodological commitments in Culture and Imperialism.) Said was consciously synthetic in his approach to theory, something perhaps better understood not as inconsistency but as a sign of his maturity as an intellectual: He drew on different theorists to do very specific intellectual and political work. In short, Said’s theoretical distancing from Foucault was essential to his (vision of) criticism and politics. It was critical to his understanding of the responsibility of the intellectual to politics: to maintaining a critic’s “active situation in the world”,107 his or her “real opposition” to prevailing historical circumstances (as opposed to mere “oppositional debate”) “conducted in political language having a direct connection with actual politics”.108

Although seen by many as the “father” of postcolonial studies, Said was actually quite critical of the field. He distanced himself from what he saw as both its overly Foucauldian commitments as well as its oft ill-disguised identity poli- tics.109 As Timothy Brennan (2000) has argued regarding Said’s relationship to the postcolonial field, the primary analytic category of Orientalism is, perhaps, not discourse but institution. Notably Gramscian in its theoretical and political commitments, Orientalism sought not just to map out a particular discursive formation but, just as crucially, to elaborate on how that discursive formation articulated with state power—its institutions, its economic and military imperial projects. Neither in Orientalism nor in his numerous subsequent writings did Said’s conception of power diverge from its focus on the state and its hegemony: For example, by way of contrast with much of the postcolonial field, it was not to micropolitics, the diffusion of power throughout the social order so central to Foucault, that Said turned his attention.110 Instead, he insisted that

the central reality of power and authority in Western history, at least since the period from the end of feudalism on, is the presence of the State, and I think we would have to say that to understand not only power but authority— which is a more interesting and various idea than power—we must also understand the way in which any authority in modern society is derived to some degree from the presence of the State.111

In sum, Said’s understanding of politics and authority remained committed to “what Jean Francois Lyotard famously called the grand narratives of enlightenment and emancipation”.112 His political vision was distinctly modern(ist). And that commitment distanced Said from much of Foucault’s and other poststructural thinkers’ theoretical armature.

So, too, of course, did his understanding of the intellectual subject. The question of “will” remained fundamental to Said’s vision of the intellectual: Intention cannot be “totally domesticated by system” (which, in Foucault’s formulation, is exhibited in discursive regimes), as intention is the “moving force of life and behavior”.113 Authorship was essential to Said, not in a simplistic sense of the isolated intellectual genius—all intellectuals, for Said,114 are of a particular context, even if they do not, as critics, fully belong (with)in it. Nevertheless, their intention—their will—to engage in criticism is inseparable from his understanding of writing and, more broadly, of intellectual life and of politics and political responsibility. Said’s commitment to that will, to human agency, stood at the heart of his enduring humanist commitments.

In a book published posthumously, Said engaged the question of “humanism and cultural practice”. Specifically, he wanted to understand humanism as “a useable praxis for intellectuals and academics” who want to connect humanist principles to the “world in which they live as citizens”.115 He was critical of what he understood to be humanism’s “abuses”, in particular, of its Eurocentrism and, at particular historical moments (e.g., in the United States following World War II), of its elitism. Nevertheless, for Said, those problems were not fatal for humanism. Instead, they were problems to be addressed and redressed. Humanism remained the ground for Said’s vision of the intellectual and of oppositional politics in the contemporary world. And to extend humanism’s relevance in the context of a postcolonial world and increasingly multicultural societies (especially in the West), Said sought to expand and redefine humanism: to make it more “cosmopolitan”, more accurately reflecting the contemporary world; to recognize other historical traditions—the practices of humanism, for example, that began “in the Muslim madaris, colleges, and universities of Sicily, Tunis, Baghdad and Seville in the 12th and 13th centuries”116—as the source of the development of Western humanist traditions and, thus, to integrate other cultural and intellectual traditions, both historical and contemporary, into what one thinks of as humanism and the humanities as taught in U.S. universities today. Within that now-revised vision, for Said, humanism was an (essential) “antidote” to the phenomenon of increasing specialization that marks the contemporary world: the transformation of knowledge into “expertise”, often at the service of corporate or state interests.117 Real humanism, as best represented for Said by the figure of Auerbach, stood against the cult of expertise that has increasingly, since the postwar period, overtaken intellectual life in the United States.

Importantly, the core of Said’s humanism would always remain “the secular notion that the historical world is made by men and women, not by God, and that it can be known rationally according to the principle formulated by Vico in New Science, that we can really know only what we make or, to put it differently, we can know things according to the way they were made”.118 Following Vico (1970), self-knowledge, or knowledge of history as made by “man”, is distinct from knowledge either of nature or of the supernatural—in particular, because it is more fully knowable. In addition, self-knowledge must entail self-criticism. Humanism, for Said, necessarily situates “critique at [its] ... very heart, critique as a form of democratic freedom and as a continuous practice of questioning and of accumulating knowledge that is open to, rather than in denial of, the constituent historical realities”119 of the world in which people live.

Humanism can be—and has been—trenchantly critiqued on many grounds: for example, its fundamental entanglement with colonialism, its configuration of the (modern, secular) subject as normative, and its definition of “the human” (e.g., Asad 2003; Mehta 1999; Povinelli 2002). Thus, many poststructuralist and postcolonial scholars in the academy see Said’s humanist commitments either as inconsistent in light of his other theoretical and political commitments or simply as a throwback to an earlier epistemological, theoretical, and political tradition too embedded in a history of Eurocentrism and its attendant forms of violence to be resuscitated today in the name of radical politics.

Nevertheless, even if one does not share Said’s humanist commitments (a tradition I remain far more skeptical of than was Said), recognizing the political work that humanism did for Said is important. Said’s humanism, which shaped his understanding of politics, his commitment to universal values, and his vision of the intellectual as an agent, a “maker of meaning” with a distinct public responsibility, enabled him to be the public intellectual that he was, one unparalleled by anyone else in his generation. He engaged tirelessly in public debate—in the United States most often about the struggle for Palestinian rights and, increasingly, in his last decade of life, as a critic of both Arab regimes and U.S. empire as he wrote and spoke for an Arab public throughout the Middle East. His public influence was enormous, his political effectiveness noteworthy in a country in which so many academics (including myself) have retreated into the academy and into a form of politics and political critique limited to that context. And although that role as public intellectual gained him much fame (he had almost rock-star status when he gave public talks in Beirut or in Palestine toward the end of his life, and over 1,000 participants attended the SOAS conference in his honor in London), it also made him the object of often unparalleled hostility.

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