Engaged on every front

Humanism and Democratic Criticism - Power, Politics, and Culture
July 9, 2004

John Higgins praises Edward Said's talent for finding common ground.

Of course, I'm the last Jewish intellectual... the only true follower of Adorno." The words would be unremarkable save that they came from the man whom the Jewish Defence League liked to call the Professor of Terror - scholar and Palestinian activist Edward Said. Said died from leukaemia in September last year, just before his 67th birthday. Throughout his life, he combined a deep commitment to political activism with a scholarly yet enthusiastic devotion to the landmarks of high culture. He will be remembered inside and outside the academy for his many engaged and engaging works.

Within the academy, works such as Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism are widely recognised for helping to create the sub-discipline of post-colonial studies. Outside it, Said is remembered for the passion and precision he brought to the analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in studies such as The Question of Palestine and The End of the Peace Process . The two sides of his thinking, academic and activist, came together in the advocacy of engaged intellectual life. This formed the topic of the Reith lectures he gave in 1994, Representations of the Intellectual , and this same advocacy provides the central theme for his final work, Humanism and Democratic Criticism .

Said's words were a response to an Israeli interviewer's slightly stunned characterisation of him as sounding "very Jewish". This admission on Ari Shavit's part, who began his interview by describing Said as "cunning", more or less enacts the shock of finding common ground with someone you imagined would be your absolute antagonist.

It is a shock that many of Said's interlocutors must have experienced, as the stereotype of the wild-eyed Palestinian activist was countered by a meeting with the urbane and cultured professor of comparative literature at Columbia University. Said had an uncommon talent for finding common ground.

While this was undoubtedly a matter of charm and personality, it is also important to recognise the intellectual effort that goes into this at the deepest level. Identifying and occupying such common ground are not easy tasks because they are activities that can involve a questioning rather than a fortifying of the self, and usually mean giving up the sense of security that comes with the absolute denigration of your opponent. Finding common ground became, for Said, the expression of a fundamental moral and political principle, one everywhere apparent in the interviews that make up Power, Politics and Culture as well as in the final lectures that constitute Humanism and Democratic Criticism .

Power, Politics and Culture provides an invigorating introduction to the totality of Said's work. The interviews range from in-depth discussions of major literary critical works such as Beginnings: Intention and Method (1975) - which helped to introduce the new French theory of Derrida, Foucault and Barthes to North American students - to what are at times highly charged exchanges around the politics of the Middle East. As such, they record Said's reactions, and formative contributions to, the changing shape of literary and cultural studies, and document his growing frustration with the ever-growing gap between the global reach of US imperial power and the parochialism of its institutions of public opinion.

There are interesting variations in the texture and density of the interviews, as Said responds differently to different interlocutors. Confronted with the political hostility of one interviewer ("Why don't you, once and for all, renounce terror?"), Said answers with admirable calm that both state and individual terrorism are to be abhorred, while he takes obvious delight in the chance to talk about music with the editorial collective of the Performing Arts Journal .

In discussions inter pares (such as those with Paul Bové of boundary 2 or Bruce Robbins of Social Text ), the interview becomes a genuine exchange of ideas. Here the discussion enjoys a depth of sophistication and common reference that brings the verbal exchange close to the density and coherence of written prose. But there is also the pleasure of reading unbuttoned, off-the-cuff opinions delivered with a refreshingly unacademic directness. The literary canon? "(P)olemics on both sides in this stupid debate... are so basically ill-informed." Academic jargon? "It is much more important to me that people write to be understood rather than write to be misunderstood." The reception of his own work in the Arab world? "'Occidentosis': all the evils of the world come from the West. It's a well-known genre that I find on the whole extremely tiresome and boring."

Most of the exchanges follow the unspoken rules of the interview form where a range of prepared questions allows interviewees to improvise on themes in their work and encourages interviewer and reader to connect these to the specifics of a life. The tactic works well with Said, whose critical stance is deeply and interestingly rooted in the early contrasting experiences of privilege, exile and alienation of someone brought up as an Anglican Palestinian, who was born in Jerusalem but grew up in Egypt, and then was educated and worked in the US. A story about being chased off the grounds of a Cairo golf club ("Boy, you are not allowed here. You are an Arab boy. Get out.") nourishes and gives experiential depth to Said's mature insistence that humanism should not be "thought of as something very restricted and difficult, like a rather austere club with rules that keep most people out".

Keeping people out was never Said's idea of how literary and cultural studies should advance, as Humanism and Democratic Criticism argues. Here Said challenges the too-comfortable opposition that nourishes damaging debates about the canon and undermines the project in the eyes of the larger world. He describes the central aim of this book as seeking to escape the "impoverishing dichotomy" presented to students in literature and the humanities: to make a choice to become a slave to system, to offer yourself in the market of ideas under the brand name of a particular approach (such as technocratic deconstructionism or discourse analysis), or to retreat, in the manner of Blooms both Harold and Alan, "into a nostalgic celebration of some past state of glory associated with what is sentimentally evoked as humanism".

Rejecting these "either-or" options, Said underlines the need to find the common ground of "some intellectual, as opposed to merely technical, component to humanist practice". In a general cultural and political context largely inimical to the humanities, only a sustained effort to connect the concerns of the academy with the wider world might restore humanism "to a place of relevance in our time". For Said, the central task of "humanist reflection" must be to shuttle between word and world, and to seek to "break the hold on us of the short, headline soundbite format and try to induce instead a longer, more deliberate process of reflection, research and enquiring argument".

At a moment when The New York Times has publicly apologised for its biased and unsubstantiated reporting on Iraq, Said's call for a common grounding of the literary humanities in the philological activity of critique is timely. Such "Nietzschean philology", with its relentless "resistance to idées reçues " and its "opposition to every kind of cliche and unthinking language", may well offer a way forwards for a practical redefinition of literary studies in the new century.

In the end, a slight rephrasing of Marx's Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach may well serve as the summary slogan for Said's intellectual legacy. "Literary criticism has only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it." Said never saw himself as a Marxist of any kind. He was temperamentally disinclined, as well as in principle opposed, to subordinate independent critical inquiry of the demands of any system of thought or political affiliation. But the rephrase does capture the particular urgency and seriousness with which he treated literary criticism. No one argued more passionately than he the public case for the wider social force and relevance of literary and cultural studies; no one's work exemplified that case with more authority. His combination of the formal skills of literary and theoretical analysis with political commitment was what made Said one of the outstanding public intellectuals of his time. The corpus of his work showed the ways in which the possibilities of changing the world meant paying more attention than is often given to the dynamics of representing and interpreting it. The British publication of Power, Politics and Culture (first issued in the US in 2001) and Said's final lectures give a welcome opportunity for the reader to reconsider some of the key aspects of this notable attempt to make literature matter.

John Higgins is visiting professor, Columbia University, New York, US, and fellow of the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

Humanism and Democratic Criticism

Author - Edward W. Said
Publisher - Columbia University Press
Pages - 144
Price - $19.95
ISBN - 0 231 12264 0

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