Edward Said and the World that We Live In
In his essay, “Truth and Power,” Michel Foucault points out by way of clarifying his central concept that power is a more complicated exercise of multiple forces and factors than a simple idea of physical force or even something that a person in high position exerts over those under his jurisdiction. According to Foucault, the concept of power “needs to be considered as a productive network which runs through the whole social body, much more than as a negative instance whose function is repression” (119). Foucault’s discussion of power as a complex play of repression and production will help us understand two things. First, it is helpful to understand Edward Said’s central proposition of contrapuntal approach to knowledge. Second, it helps suggest some critical reflections about how we understand such occurrences as hate, racism, violence, and stereotypes, and a host of accompanying situations that they engender. These occurrences, much like power, are pervasive and cannot be totally eradicated as long as we hold some form of identifying predicates. Said’s illuminations, however, become critical in understanding public intellectuals’ roles to nudge people against any fixed idea of identity when it comes to one’s race, class, gender, and nationality.
I invoke Foucault’s unconventional discussion of power in the beginning in order to set a framework of analysis for Said’s two central concepts, dominance and resistance, as well as for grasping his idea of the public intellectual’s role. As such this essay focuses on a critical analysis of these two terms in what follows, while also locating the genealogy of Said’s thoughts in earlier postcolonial thinkers including Frantz Fanon. This is not to say that these two terms incorporate the vast scope of Said’s ideas; nor does the essay claim that other writers and thinkers such as T. S. Eliot, Joseph Conrad, and Foucault were less influential in forming Said’s thoughts in such works as Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism. Instead, I am interested in examining how Said perceived the roles of public intellectuals, given that he was a life-long advocate and critic of intellectuals’ roles in thinking about the future of our conflicted and complex world. Some of the questions that immediately come to mind are: Who constitute Said’s public intellectuals? What are their immediate and long-term obligations to their communities? How do they both use and abuse knowledge and history? Last but not least, why does it even matter that a community has public intellectuals in an age of information consumerism and technology? In fact, one wonders if Said was overly optimistic and consequently overlooked the resurgence of identitarian thoughts when envisioning an inclusive—as opposed to exclusionary—post-humanist humanitarian world.
Who can be considered a public intellectual is a highly contested topic. Invoking such thinkers as Edward Said, Judith Butler, and Ranajit Guha in his essay “Theory, Democracy, and the Public Intellectual,” R. Radhakrishnan poses a series of rhetorical questions as to what roles intellectuals need to play between “representation and post-representation” (791). Radhakrishnan takes issue with Said’s argument that intellectuals need to avoid technical jargons for a language that caters to the people. Said’s argument follows his belief in a symbiotic relationship between public intellectuals and democratic humanism, in which he envisions intellectuals resisting nationalist and identitarian thoughts that necessarily create an environment of inclusion and exclusion. Any limit that tends to exclude a democratic participation of the people, as per Said, needs to be broken, and this includes dense and verbose use of language. I will try to demonstrate how Said’s call for intellectuals to speak up against social injustices is both necessary and idealistic.
The main question that puts Radhakrishnan in counterpoint with Said concerns the relation between the people and the public intellectuals, including literary critics. While Said advocates accessible language in literary criticism as opposed to specialized terms and vocabularies, Radhakrishnan argues that simplicity does not necessarily lead to a just, democratic society, since the self-reflexivity that literary critics as public intellectuals inject into democracy is vital for democracy’s survival. Radhakrishnan contends: “Whether it is Edward Said’s criticism of system and culture in the name of secular worldliness, or Ranajit Guha’s poignant disillusionment with the discipline known as history and its betrayal of life and lived moments, the thing to note is that the most effective way intellectuals can express their affirmation of life and their solicitude for existence is in terms of their critical disaffection with their own disciplinary practices” (791). One could further add that the “critical disaffection” can also be applied to life and existence as well, which interestingly puts Radhakrishnan in line with Said and T.S. Eliot, not the other way around. In the last page of Culture and Imperialism, Said makes it his final point that one achieves “independence and detachment by working through attachments, not by rejecting them,” an idea that clearly resonates with Eliot’s examination of the relation between the past and the present in his essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (336, emphasis in original).
Having established a complex relationship between reality and the self-reflexive nature of theory, Radhakrishnan argues that one can do away with neither one nor the other, but rather must examine them as complimentary to each other:
Intellectuals trying to go public cannot bypass the painful and often divisive politics of representation in a world structured in dominance; nor can they wear their modal hat in the benign hope that it will be transparent. Similarly the humanist intellectual cannot take the alibi of ontological thinking in the name of a we and glibly misrecognize and elide the reality of unequal histories structured in dominance. (793)
Radhakrishnan sounds to me a lot like Said in pointing out not only how dominance of any kind has defined human histories, but implicitly how it is up to the intellectual to counter “structured” histories by means of resistance, whether through (mis)representation of alternative histories or through demystifying the masquerades of the dominant culture such as its claims to universality. Whether it is in exposing shortfalls of Said’s unintentional distinction between literature and theory, or in critically examining Judith Butler’s emphasis on the shared experiences of people all around the world, Radhakrishnan follows Said’s methodology of contrapuntal reading. In fact, both Said and Radhakrishnan seem to concur that the contrapuntal approach to history and literature is what characterizes an authentic practice for public intellectuals. I use the word authentic advisedly to indicate Said’s uneasiness about the complicity of culture—largely controlled, defined, and maintained by a line of artists, writers, and intellectuals—with imperialism.
Radhakrishnan is not the first (and most certainly not the only) critic who follows the Saidian method of contrapuntal inquiry while also pushing back against it. William V. Spanos, Timothy Brenan, Paul Bové, and Neil Lazarus have all offered their own contrapuntal critique of Said’s ground-breaking works such as Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism. For example, in “Representations of the Intellectual in Representations of the Intellectual,” Lazarus provides a revisionary reading of Said’s Orientalism and Representations of the Intellectual. In putting public intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy in a contrapuntal conversation with Said, Lazarus shows that the question regarding who speaks for whom is a contentious issue. Lazarus’s critical reflections focus more specific issues arising from real challenges that intellectuals face to speak truth to power, rather than nullifying the overall validity of Said’s argument itself. He concedes this when commenting on Said’s position on the role of public intellectuals:
Particularly brilliant in Said’s representation of the intellectual, in my view, is his clear-sighted awareness of what might be specific to intellectual work, that is, his grasp of what it is that intellectuals do that might be both socially valuable and also not within the remit of any other group of social agents—not because intellectuals are cleverer than other people, still less because they [are] morally better than other people, but because they have been socially endowed with the resources, the status, the symbolic and social capital, to do this particular kind of work. (Lazarus 117)
Later in his essay, Lazarus points out how real difficulties that emerging intellectuals face when presented with existing power relations complicate Said’s call for public intellectuals to take an oppositional stance to their governments’ imperialist policy. As Lazarus implies throughout his essay, however, difficulties in the process do not invalidate the veracity of an idea, namely the role that intellectuals must play to fight a “world structured in dominance,” to use Radhakrishnan’s phrase.
In what follows, I discuss the scope, limit and limitation of what Said envisioned to be public intellectuals’ role in order to develop my own argument that Said was a public intellectual whose emphasis on a contrapuntal method of intellectual inquiry enables us to speak truth to power. In the third chapter of Culture and Imperialism, entitled “Resistance and Opposition,” Said articulates the contrapuntal critical method as follows:
To rejoin experience and culture is of course to read texts from the metropolitan center and from the peripheries contrapuntally, according neither the privilege of “objectivity” to “our side” nor the encumbrance of “subjectivity” to “theirs.” The question is a matter of knowing how to read, as the deconstructors say, and not detaching this from the issue of knowing what to read. […] Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park is about England and about Antigua, and the connection is made explicitly by Austen; it is therefore about order at home and slavery abroad, and can—indeed ought—to be read that way, with Eric Williams and C.L.R. James alongside the book. Similarly [Albert] Camus and [André] Gide write about precisely the same Algeria written about by Fanon and Kateb Yacine. (259, emphasis in the original)
Put differently, a contrapuntal critical method looks at both sides of the debate before making any inferences regarding a text or an event. This might seem like a no-brainer to some. That, however, is not the case considering everyday critical and cultural practices. As William Spanos puts it in his book, The Legacy of Edward W. Said, the dominant intellectual trend in the West has been metaphysical since at least the time of Ancient Roman Empire: “The imperial Romans, for example, called the people living beyond the periphery of metropolitan Rome, whether the Scythians in the East or the Hibernians in the West, silvestres (from silva, ‘woods’), a word that to them meant simultaneously ‘forest dweller’ and ‘savage’” (145). What Spanos means is that Western culture necessarily marginalizes the rest of the world, not because the West is inherently superior, but because it perceives itself as such and ipso facto views the rest of the world as lacking anything worthy of respect. Said’s oeuvre challenges this attitude by offering contrapuntal readings of major cultural and intellectual works in Culture and Imperialism. To quote Spanos again, Said’s book provides the reader with “an antistructural structure, a gradual but inexorable antinarrative or contrapuntal process that dis-integrates the traditional Western novel and discursive treatise, their binarist logic, and the imperial interpretive presuppositions to which these gave rise” (136). In other words, by demonstrating an alternative and (I would argue) a more balanced approach to understanding history, literature, and culture, Said attempts to speak truth to existing power relations.
One of Said’s central premises in Culture and Imperialism is that culture, including literature and literary criticism, is not comprised of innocent and independent entities, but is inextricably connected to politics and ideology. Spanos, by way of examining connections between the thought of Martin Heidegger, Foucault, and Said, remarks that in Western discursive practices, “the circle of truth/beauty/perfection is also the circle of domination” (40). In other words, art and literature that are normally considered as benign and purely aesthetic practices are never outside the “circle of domination.” It comes as no surprise then that the unraveling of this circle of domination occupies center stage in Said’s oeuvre, in which he offers ways of resistance for public intellectuals. While effectively de-structuring the metaphysical order of colonial discursive practices that subsequently objectify differential temporalities, Said also proposes a more valid method of literary and cultural inquiry, namely exilic consciousness or double-consciousness, or, as I have been talking about throughout the essay, a contrapuntal critical process. What this method entails is the idea that since no single perspective or historical account has access to the whole truth, it becomes necessary for intellectuals to be both a part of and apart from that which they analyze. He was, for example, both an admirer and critic of such revered literary figures as T.S. Eliot and Joseph Conrad, among many others. Conrad especially seems to be a constant presence in the back of Said’s mind throughout his intellectual career. Said’s discussion of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness early in Culture and Imperialism speaks to my suggestion. To first-time readers, Heart of Darkness, a novella that intrigued people ranging from T.S. Eliot to film director Francis Ford Coppola, appears like a trenchant critique of the way Europeans mistreated Africans during the colonial period. My undergraduate students often argue how Marlow is sympathetic towards his African brethren throughout the story, an observation that has textual evidence to back it up because Marlow in fact sympathizes with native laborers who are forced to work under unacceptable working conditions. A closer look reveals another facet of Marlow’s attitude toward Africans. He sees them as not humans worthy of respect from a European; they instead appear to him as mere “black shapes” (292).
Said goes even further in his analysis of Marlow and Conrad. Said shows that Marlow could not have thought of any alternative lens than that which he carried into Africa, namely Europe’s burden to civilize its uncivilized brethren around the world. He writes, “True, Conrad scrupulously recorded the difference between the disgraces of Belgian and British colonial attitudes, but he could only imagine the world carved up into one or another Western sphere of dominion” (24). Even though the novella sufficiently proves Said’s point in the way Marlow treats his native crew members, as well as the way he exoticizes Kurtz’s native mistress while anointing his European “Intended,” many readers would still think it would be unfair to not notice how Marlow, and Conrad by extension, does come down upon the Europeans as well. In fact, Said applies his contrapuntal method in the way he unpacks the conflicted thought and imagination that went into the making of Heart of Darkness:
[But because Conrad also had an extraordinarily persistent residual sense of his own exilic marginality, he quite carefully (some would say maddeningly) qualified Marlow’s narrative with the provisionality that came from standing at the very juncture of this world with another, unspecified but different. (24)
It seems to me that Said has used the conjunctive “but” with care to balance out his harsh comment on Conrad’s portrayal of the Africans with a more nuanced observation of the sense of double-consciousness that both Marlow and Conrad display in their narratives.
Conrad is not Said’s example of literati who advance nationalist agendas. If anything, Conrad’s intention is good, even though he couldn’t escape his historical and socio-psychological situations, which prevented him from viewing Africa in any way other than how he does in Heart of Darkness. The true abusers of history and knowledge are, as per Said, those who see only clashes and divisions among cultures and civilizations, rather than overlaps, border-crossings, hybridization, dialogism, and other similar instances that clearly demonstrate links between two apparently different entities. It is for this reason mainly that Said invokes the idea of oppositional public intellectuals. Their primary role for themselves and their peoples involves a clear demonstration of cultural and intellectual overlaps, but also complicity between institutions, peoples, and ideas. One thing that Said warns us about again and again, perhaps following Fanon’s lead, is how easy it is to fall back on jingo nationalism, supporting our government’s actions in the international front. In one of the most telling moments of Culture and Imperialism, Said articulates his displeasure about the complicity between the United States as a new imperialist power and the liberal intellectuals who often support their government’s actions:
There is always the appeal to power and national interest in running the affairs of lesser peoples; there is the same destructive zeal when the going gets a little rough, or when natives rise up and reject a compliant and unpopular ruler who was ensnared and kept in place by the international power; there is the horrifically predictable disclaimer that “we” are exceptional, not imperial, not about to repeat the mistake of earlier power, a disclaimer that has been routinely followed by making the mistake, as witness the Vietnam and Gulf wars. Worse yet has been the amazing, if often passive, collaboration with these practices on the part of intellectuals, artists, journalists whose positions at home are progressive and full of admirable sentiments, but the opposite when it comes to what is done abroad in their name. (xxiii)
Said’s caveat that an intellectual could easily give in to a nationalist agenda is clearly reminiscent of Fanon’s warning that postcolonial intellectuals could easily resort to an idea of a pristine indigenous past, which is as elusive as the idea that new forces of domination are more responsible than their predecessors. As I will point out towards the end of this essay, identitarian thoughts, however, are part of what constitute human identity. It does not follow from this thought that intellectuals in various professions should be complacent toward the injustices that happen because “they” are not like “us.”
“When the colonized intellectual writing for his people uses the past,” Fanon reminds us, “he must do so with the intention of opening up the future, of spurring them into action and fostering hope” (Wretched of the Earth, 167). Fanon urges the post-colonial intellectuals to move beyond the narrow nationalist phase, which was essential for literature at a certain point, but is not enough to make the nation actually free only by overemphasizing a fixed idea of national identity that, as the argument goes, somehow got diluted during colonialism. A nation can be free only when the people who fought for political liberation are also liberated from economic and cultural dependence. Needless to say, the second form of liberation, namely cultural and economic liberation, is harder to achieve, not only because the former colonizers still continue to exert their influence in shaping the future of the new nation, but also because the leaders of the new nation are likely to replicate colonial power relations in their nativist disguise. Said uses a similar argument, but with the U.S.’s posture in the world stage in mind. For Said, as an exilic intellectual par excellence, speaking to both sides of the border is crucial. On top of that, he seems to be both speaking and working for the dominant side, with an intention to awaken the dominant side to realize and correct their mistakes.
Said’s position in terms of a public intellectual reminds readers of Salman Rushdie’s Haroun in Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Rushdie’s allegory presents Haroun as one working to revive the storytelling art of his father, Rashid Khalifa. However, he needs to go through a convoluted world of grown-ups in order to understand better how the borders between opposites such as light and darkness, peace and violence, and good and bad are mostly imagined constructs rather than natural structures. The dominant Guppies are equally responsible, Haroun finds out, as the Chupwala, whom the Guppies dehumanize before starting a war. Even when he is fighting with the Guppies, Haroun ponders the possibility of peace and harmony if only the two warring sides would see each other not in terms of clash of cultures and civilizations, but in terms of complementarity. Of course, in Haroun’s fantasy world, his wish has come to pass as a peace has been finally established between the Gup and the Chupwala. Additionally, his mother, who had left for one Mr. Sengupta, has come back to live with them, and Rashid has regained his storytelling art.
My original question, of whether the world is ready for a peace based on post-humanist humanism or for a contrapuntal approach to history, puts Said and Haroun on the same line of comparison. However, while Haroun has an alibi of being an adolescent boy, who naively thinks that he can right the wrongs of the world by means of his wish, Said’s position is complicated since what he has envisioned for the world, what he experienced during his lifetime, and what we are experiencing in ours are vastly different, as evidenced by the recent resurgence of nationalist rhetoric not only in the United States—with the election of Donald Trump as President—but all over the world. I am referring to Said’s longstanding belief in harmonious relations among various cultures, peoples, and thoughts based on a contrapuntal awareness. To put it differently, Said believed in an ultimate goodness in humans that is realizable if only we are able to correct the wrong turns of history. If only the new empires would realize that they are repeating the same mistakes as the old empires, Said suggests, the indigenous populations would get the respect that they deserve. Similarly, if only the intellectuals would continue to resist their government’s imperial policy and the accompanying destructive actions, the uneven distribution of wealth and power around the world would take care of itself. This sounds to me a lot like a Haroun-like wish, not least because power relations are overdetermined by many tangible and intangible factors that are often beyond any particular generation’s, let alone any individual’s, total control.
One such factor is perception. How one perceives one’s environment is determined mostly unconsciously, and reinforced by multiple factors. Similarly, how one group perceives another group also determines how an individual belonging in one group perceives another individual who hails from a different group, and vice versa. Moreover, perception is formed by both longstanding values as well as mundane everyday circumstances, such as the way one dresses or the type of food that one eats. All in all, indentitarian factors such as race, gender, class, and nationality play much more dominant roles in shaping human relations than Said seems to acknowledge in Culture and Imperialism. Even though Said is correct in implying that any given situation of human relations must be looked at from the vantage point of an intersection of these and other factors, he overemphasizes unity and bond, and naturally overlooks the real world as it is. It is one thing—and good thing at that—to wish that one group view the other as its complementary part, but quite another, more realistic thing to understand that occurrences such as hate, violence, stereotypes, and racism that happen between different groups and individuals are part of being human in the world. As I have maintained in my essays, “Thinking Postcolonial Temporalities with William Spanos” and “An Administered Life in ‘Paradise,’” it is only a pipedream to think that the world can ever be completely free of clashes and wars. That should not, however, deter us from continuing to believe in the possibility for a better, more humane world. It seems to me that Said is at his best in urging people, a la Fanon, to continue to believe in the future of a more just and less exclusionary worldliness of the world. We must quickly add, however, that one has to be at the same time mindful of the reality that uses binaries such as inclusion and exclusion as everyday modus operandi.
Conrad, Joseph. “Heart of Darkness.” The Portal Conrad. Ed. Michael Gorra. New York: Penguin Books, 2007: 277-363.
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press, 2004.
Foucault, Michel. “Truth and Power.” Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. Ed. Colin Gordon. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980: 109-133.
Katawal, Ubaraj. “An Administered Life in ‘Paradise.’” South Central Review 34.1 (2017): 32-52.
Lazarus, Neil. “Representations of the Intellectual in ‘Representations of the Intellectual.” Research in African Literatures 36.3 (Autumn, 2005): 112-123.
Radhakrishnan, R. “Theory, Democracy, and the Public Intellectual.” PMLA 125.3 (May 2010): 785-794.
Rushdie, Salman. Haroun and the Sea of Stories: A Novel. London: Granta Books, 1990.
Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.
Spanos, William V.. The Legacy of Edward W. Said. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009.