Editor’s Note: Edward Said (1935-2003) died 12 years ago last week. The following piece commemorates his life as an intellectual.
Edward Said was a Palestinian American, public intellectual and literary theorist who helped found the field of critical theory. Said contended that the important role of critical theory was to seek to liberate human beings from the political, economic and religious circumstances that imprisoned them. Essentially, it is ideology-which is the principal obstacle to human liberation.
Critical theory, as a school of thought, was originally established by grand theorists such as Herbert Marcuse, Theodore Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Eric From, Antonio Gramsci, and others. However, unlike the aforementioned theorists, Said eschewed Marx’s scientific constructs, of social base and superstructure, a recurring theme in Marx’s philosophical concepts in contemporary critical theory.
Said’s uneasy relationship with Marxism remains one that has attracted much controversy. His critics argue that his book (Orientalism), which appeared in the mid 1970’s, is quite “strongly anti-Marxist.” Despite his expressed admiration for many post-colonialist Marxist writers, he had nothing to say about organized mass movements for political struggle and the practice of revolutionary transformation.
Despite his stress on worldliness and anti-imperialism, it is surprising that he used select Marxist concepts and paradigms while at the same time impugning Marxism “as a coherent if not unproblematic unified system of anti-capitalism.” He finally confessed that the “transnational capitalism of global finance is relatively irrational and very difficult to comprehend.”
Said closely engaged with a specifically western Marxism in Perry Anderson’s sense of a western intellectual tradition (Considerations on Western Marxism) that focused mainly on philosophical and aesthetic questions, thus making available a treasure trove of contemporary discourse on humanistic values.
One of Said’s most important tenets as a social critic was the idea that criticism is an important constituent of the life of the intellectual, who must “speak truth to power.” Albeit, the life of the intellectual should be “that of a migrant and exile leaving the conventions and accepted truths of one’s community, engaging in instant criticism of these truths.”
Indeed when it comes to the life of an intellectual, an instant or immediate position needs to be taken on all political religions. In Said’s monumental critiques, he mocked the rites and rituals of worshipers of all political deities–the West, U.S. Imperialism, Zionism, communism, and nationalisms of all varieties, he insisted, were proof of “moral bankruptcy.”
Said’s opus, Orientalism, lends itself to increasing controversy centered on misrepresentation and misinterpretation. Histories and political discourse on the Middle East, the Arabs, and Islam continue to fuel enormous controversy, economic change and struggle. His overarching idea in Orientalism is to use humanistic critique to “open up the fields of struggle, and to introduce a longer sequence of thought and analysis.” He argues that “I have called what I try to do ‘humanism’ a word I continue to use…despite the scornful dismissal of the term by sophisticated post-modern critics.”
Humanism for Said is sustained by a sense of “community” in conjunction with other people and societies and periods. There was no such thing as an “isolated humanist.” For him, we should best dispel reductive and polarizing rhetoric like Islam vs. the West.
It is a well-known fact that in Orientalism, and other writings, Said has paid particular attention to the cultural and political effects of representation and narratives linked to liberation, and his demand for recognition on the part of the oppressed. For example, in “Humanism & Democratic Criticism,” a posthumous collection of lectures given between 2000 and 2002, he juxtaposes his political activism as a critic within a democratic society, and various cultural practices he defines as humanism.
“Humanism is about reading, it’s about perspective, and in our work as humanists, it is about transition from one realm, one area of human experience to another,” Said said. “It is also about the practice of identities other than those identified by patriotic symbols.” In Orientalism, he maintained that extensive literary discovery, secular criticism, and worldliness were the very conditions that possibly would engender a “new humanism” and would encourage and lead future intellectuals and historians in mutating intransigent ethnic and religious conflicts within a world full of lost causes.
How does one begin to assess Said’s irrevocable commitment to humanism and the affirmation of the power of human beings to give shape to the world through sheer will and effort instead of mindlessly capitulating to nationalistic pieties and blind patriotism? In the face of so many cultures that seek to impede and deny the power of human agency (praxis) and individual effort, what is to be done?
By challenging, he argued, status quo categories such as “the Arab mind and canons purporting The Clash of Civilizations,” and instead push for a more Democratic form of humanism, whose theoretical objective is to incorporate, emancipate and enlighten that such possibilities still remain in the world.