Resistance and the Coming Community: Retrieving Edward W. Said’s Culture and Imperialism
History has forced the status of outlaws upon both, [conscious] pariahs and
parvenus alike. The latter have not accepted the great wisdom of Balzac’s “On ne
parvient deux fois”; thus they don’t understand the wild dreams of the former and
feel humiliated in sharing their fate. Those few refugees who insist on telling the
truth, even to the point of “indecency,” get in exchange for their unpopularity one
priceless advantage: history is no longer closed book to them and politics is no
longer the privilege of Gentiles. . . . Refugees driven from country to country
represent the vanguard of their people—they keep their identity.
---Hannah Arendt, “We Refugees,” in The Jew as Conscious Pariah
Edward W. Said’s Culture and Imperialism was published in 1993 in the immediate wake of the implosion of the Soviet Union and the euphoric representation in the United States of that disclosive occasion, most notably by the neoconservative ideologue Francis Fukuyama as an epochal event that announced “the end of History.” By this spectacular locution—the title of his inordinately popular book, published in 1993, the same year as Said’s—Fukuyama, harnessing Friedrich Hegel’s dialectical theory of history to the American exceptionalist ethos, meant not only the terminal point of the essential dialectical logic of historical temporality, but also the end of the Cold War and the decisive and finalizing global triumph of American capitalist democracy over the threatening menace of Soviet Communism.
The passage of Culture and Imperialism to which I am referring, as it brings Said’s suggestive errant narrative of the perennial “benign” Western imperial project to its disclosive liminal point in reversing the traditional Base/superstructure model that privileges empire over culture, begins starkly but with acute precision by way, not incidentally, of references to the theorization of the liberating potential of the nomadic post-modern condition by poststructualist thinkers, especially Paul Virilio and Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari:
Precision, concreteness, continuity, form—all these the attributes of a nomadic practice whose power, Virilio says, is not aggressive but transgressive. We can perceive this truth on the political map of the contemporary [post-World War II] world. For surely it is one of the unhappiest characteristics of the age to have produced more refugees, migrants, displaced persons, and exiles than ever before in history, most of them as an accompaniment to and, ironically enough, as afterthoughts of great post-colonial and imperial conflicts. As the struggle for independence produced new states and new boundaries, it also produced homeless wanderers, nomads, and vagrants, unassimilated to the emerging structures for institutional power, rejected by the established order for their intransigence and obdurate rebelliousness. And insofar as these people exist between the old and the new, between the old empire and the new state, their condition articulates the tensions, irresolutions, and contradictions in the overlapping territories shown on the cultural map of imperialism. (332)
At this inaugural stage of the passage, Said, as his precise rhetoric makes starkly clear, is emphasizing the immediate consequence of the self-de-struction of the Western imperial enterprise: the precipitation of a global demographics in which the coerced unity of the nation-state begins to disintegrate, thus disclosing and making visible the hitherto invisible--strategically obliterated--figure of the migrant or refugee as the very visible and spectral global norm. It is a diagnosis, not incidentally, that Hannah Arendt prefigured in her great book, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) by way of identifying the "stateless person" produced by the catastrophe of World War II as the new paradigm of the global human condition. This precipitation of the nomad as the representative figure of the post-war world constitutes the most obvious consequence of the fulfillment of the logic of belonging of the Western nation-state / imperial project. It is, indeed, as Said will not let us forget, "one of the unhappiest characteristics of the age." But, paradoxically-- and precisely because of the painful precarity of this exilic/nomadic condition-- it is also fraught with positive potential. In short, at this liminal point of the historical itinerary of that binary imperialist logic, the world, in Said's suggestive recurrent language, becomes an "in-between" world, or, to put it in terms that clarify the worldly consequences of this precarious condition, an interregnum in which the old world--imperialism and the nation-state system that sponsors it--is dying (though not dead) and a new world which is struggling to be born.
There is a great difference, however, between the optimistic mobility, the intellectual liveliness, and the "logic of daring" described by the various theoreticians on whose work I have drawn, and the massive dislocations, waste, misery, and horrors endured in our century's migrations and mutilated lives. Yet it is no exaggeration to say that liberation as an intellectual mission, born in the resistance and opposition to the confinements and ravages of imperialism, has now shifted from the settled, established, and domesticated dynamics of culture to its unhoused, decentered, and exilic energies, energies whose incarnation today is the migrant, and whose consciousness is that of the intellectual and artist in exile, the political figure between domains, between forms, between homes, and between languages. From this perspective then all things are indeed counter, original, spare, strange. From this perspective also one can see "the complete consort dancing together" contrapuntally. And while it would be rankest Panglossian dishonesty to say the bravura performances of the intellectual exile and the miseries of the displaced person or refugee are the same, it is possible, I think, to regard the intellectual as distilling then articulating the predicament that disfigure modernity--mass deportation, imprisonment, population transfer, collective dispossession, and forced immigration. (332; my emphasis)
Said concludes this paragraph on the alienated and estranged perception--"counter, original, spare, strange"-- of the nomad enigmatically by adding: "From this perspective also, one can see 'the complete consort dancing together' contrapuntally," a paradoxical locution that yokes by violence a phrase from T. S. Eliot's "Christian" poem, Four Quartets, and a counter term derived from the post-modern atonal initiative in music, into a discordia concors. I will return later to Said's enigmatic and seemingly gratuitous addition that this liminal in-between perspective also enabled the perception of the “complete "'consort danc[ing] together' contrapuntally." At this juncture, it is necessary to amplify the implications for the alternative mode of resistance against power Said intuits as inhering in the exilic condition.
The past life of emigrés is, as we know, annulled, says Adorno in Minima Moralia, subtitled Reflections from a Damaged Life (Reflexionen aus dem beschadigten Leben). Why? "Because anything that is not reified, cannot be measured, ceases to exist or, as he says later, is consigned to mere "background." Although the disabling aspects of this fate are manifest, the virtues or possibilities are worth exploring. Thus the emigré consciousness--a mind of winter, in Wallace Stevens's phrase -- discovers in its marginality that "a gaze averted from the beaten track, a hatred of brutality, a search for fresh concepts not yet encompassed by the general pattern, is the last hope for thought." Adorno's general pattern is what in another place he calls the "administered world" or, insofar as the irresistible dominants in culture are concerned, "the consciousness industry. (333)
In thus disclosing contrapuntally the hitherto invisible reality that authorized the administered society's binarist truth discourse, Adorno, Said adds, goes on to say that the estranged marginalized condition of the emigré--this "mind of winter"-- not only provides a place of refuge for the nomadic refugee; this ec-centric place of refuge --this de-centered zero zone, as it were--also provides this deracinated figure with a viable because unreified and unadministered (errant) language of resistance:
There is then not just the negative advantage of refuge in the emigré's eccentricity; there is also the positive benefit of challenging the system, describing it in language unavailable to t hose it has already subdued: "In an intellectual hierarchy which constantly makes everyone answerable, unanswerability alone can call the hierarchy by its name. The circulation sphere, whose stigmata are borne by intellectual outsiders, opens a last refuge to the mind that it barters away, at the very moment when refuge no longer exists. He who offers for sale something unique that no one wants to buy, represents, even against his will, freedom from exchange.” (333; my emphasis)
Said acknowledges that Adorno's articulation of the potential for an alternative mode of resistance in this passage from Minima Moralia is "minimal." But, returning to the pervasive question of language, he adds that a few pages later Adorno expands the possibility of freedom inhering in the estranged errant words of the refugee “by prescribing a form of expression whose opacity, obscurity, and deviousness--the absence of ‘the full transparency of its logical genesis’--move away from the dominant [structuring metaphysical] system, enacting in its 'inadequacy' a measure of liberation: ‘This inadequacy resembles that of life, which describes a wavering, deviating line, disappointing by comparison with its premises, and yet which only in this actual course, always less than it should be, is able, under given conditions of existence, to represent an unregimented one’” (ibid).
[T]hese mass protests have all challenged something very basic to every art and theory, the principle of confinement. Tone governed people must be counted, taxed, educated, and, of course, ruled unregulated places (house, school, hospital, work site), as Foucault argued. . . . The unresolved plight of the Palestinians speaks directly of an undomesticated cause and a rebellious people paying A very heavy price for their resistance. And there are other examples: refugees and "boat people," those unresting and vulnerable itinerants; the starving populations if the Southern Hemisphere; the destitute but insistent homeless who like so many Bartlebys, shadow the Christmas shoppers in Western cities; the undocumented immigrants and exploited "guest workers" who provide cheap and usually seasonal labor. Between the extremes of discontented, challenging urban mobs and the flood of semi-forgotten, uncared-for people the world's secular authorities have sought new, or renewed, modes of governance. (327)
In thus invoking the figure of Bartleby shortly before his extended Adornian analysis of the emigré, Said suggests that the erratic scrivener is a spectral presence in his wide ranging mind whenever he speaks the “deviating” (errant) truth to power. This is no minor matter when the historical realities of the sustained history of America's sordid and devastating exceptionalist interventions in the Third World during and after the Cold War are recalled. I am referring above all to the American juggernaut's invasion of Vietnam in the late 1950s to oppose the effort of the Vietnamese to gain their independence from foreign Western colonial powers and to its spectacular destabilizing unending "war on terror," in the wake of al Qaeda's bombing of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11/01.
But the articulation of an effective unregimented mode of resistance against domination is not the only potential Said finds to be intrinsic to the exilic in-between time precipitated by the waning of the nation-state and its imperial project. The other paradoxical possibility of the interregnum, that however tentatively he intuits, is, as the term itself makes manifest, the coming of a new, revolutionary polis, one that is "grounded" in the very figure of the de-identified refugee produced by the self-de-struction of the nation-state.
"All things counter, original, spare, strange": Gerard Manley Hopkins in "Pied Beauty." The question is, Where? And where too, we might ask, is there a place for that astonishing harmonious vision of time intersecting with the timeless that occurs at the end of "Little Gidding," a moment Eliot saw as words in
An easy commerce of the old and new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
AThe complete consort dancing together.
Virilio's notion is counter-habitation: to live as migrants in habitually uninhabited but nevertheless public spaces. A similar notion occurs in Milles Plateau . . . by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. (331; emphasis in orginal)
Despite its brevity, then, this enigmatic sentence relating an apparently harmonious theological image of the polis to a radically dissonant secular one in a discordia concors that Said appends as a seeming afterthought to his analysis of the new unregimented mode of resistance against domination is fraught with revolutionary political meaning. For in thus yoking these uneven binary opposites by violence, this discordia concors renders the traditional political meaning of each term ("Us and them," in Said's usual language) inoperative (Jean-Luc Nancy: "désoeuvrée;" Giorgio Agamben: "inoperosita"). In this new onto-political dispensation, in other words, both agonistic terms of the identitarian binarist (Friend / foe) logic of belonging of the old nation-state remain, but the binary no longer works in the hierarchical violent and predatory way it worked in the past. As Said's deliberate addition of his musical metaphor of the play of counterpoint to Eliot's "complete consort" strikingly suggests, in this polis struggling to be born in the interregnum, rather, these perennially uneven antagonists (produced primarily by the imperial depredations of the West) are now stripped of the uneven power conferred by the old identitarian logic of the nation-state. And, as in the case of the West and the Orient and, more specifically, the Zionists and the Palestinians, whom Said invariably has in mind, they enter into an unending loving strife (Auseinandersetzung), which always already enriches instead of diminishes their human potential.
It is in the foregoing plural way--his persuasive articulation of an incipient unregimented--active passive--mode of resistance of the invisible and silent weak against the visible and vocal strong and of a consequent coming polis of identity-less identities in the final pages of Culture and Imperialism that persuades me a quarter of a century later to conclude that Said's untimely meditations on the uneven power relations in the waning years of the twentieth century are in fact more pertinent to the present global occasion than they were then at the time he was writing Culture and Imperialism. I mean by this present occasion, specifically, the ominous paranoid liminal effort of the recently elected president of the United States, Donald Trump, who, in the face of the destabilizing millions of Syrian migrants seeking refuge in the West, including the United States, from a land torn by a civil war that had its origins in a predatory Western imperial initiative culminating in the United States' exceptionalist invasion of Iraq, would re-impose by spectacular military might the ideological borders and practical walls intrinsic to the logic of belonging of the dying nation-state. It is this profoundly proleptic existential contrapuntal insight into the potential for effective resistance and for the coming polis, symptomatically disclosed by the waning, if not the complete disintegration, of the nation-state and its imperial project at this liminal conjuncture in the "development" of its binarist logic, that Edward W. Said decisively discloses in the concluding pages of Culture and Imperialism. It is also, I suggest, this proleptic disclosure that constitutes his essential, which is to say, abiding, legacy to humanity in the last ditch reactionary age of Donald Trump that would "Make America Great Again."
CI, 326-336. Subsequent references will be made in-text.