Born in Jerusalem in 1935, the literary critic, campaigner, and postcolonial scholar, Edward Said, spent his early childhood in Jerusalem and Cairo, before studying in the United States at Princeton and Harvard universities. In 1963, he took up a professorship in comparative literature at Columbia University. From his father, a Protestant Palestinian with US citizenship, and his mother, who had been born in Nazareth, Said inherited a lasting attachment to the Middle East and he remained a committed campaigner for Palestinian rights throughout his life. For Said, the childhood experiences of displacement and deracination cultivated an adult sensitivity to cultural and political acts of exclusion and awakened in him the possibility of a resistant, exilic form of identity. These experiences informed Said's thinking and surface repeatedly in his work, most visibly in Out of Place, his memoir of an Arab childhood and an American education, which was awarded the New Yorker Book Award for Non-Fiction in 1999. This biographical outing offered variations on the themes of exile and marginalization that run through Said's many works. A foundational thinker for postcolonial studies, Said became an internationally recognizable public intellectual.
A prolific essayist, his work ranged across the fields of literature, politics, and music. His literary criticism considered the works of canonical writers such as Swift, Austen, and Conrad, as well as contemporary writers such as Soueif and Naipaul, while his musical criticism included meditations on Wagner, Verdi, and Gould. Said's writing reflects the broad span of his influences, which extend to the early Marxist criticism of Antonio Gramsci and Theodor Adorno, and the later poststructuralist theory of Michel Foucault. In 1999 he co-founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra with Israeli musician Daniel Barenboim. He was president of the Modern Languages Association, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Said's damning critique of the Western disfiguration of the “Orient,” his insistence on understanding aesthetic works in social and political contexts, and his conception of contrapuntal reading made a lasting contribution to modern literary theory. He died in 2003.
In his early work, Beginnings (1985), Said interrogates the idea of “origins” that claim to be divine, mythic, and privileged, and poses instead the idea of “beginnings” that are secular, human, and continually recalibrated. Said takes the example of literary beginnings in order to theorize the idea of many beginnings, capable of contesting a single narrative of “origins.” Beginnings, as Said envisages them, fracture the authority of orthodox and dominant systems of thought, presenting a necessary point of departure for intellectual and creative thinking. Beginnings also assert the continuity of a secular history in which human beings are “always-already” immersed and whose narrative they may contest, alter, and revise. In this respect, Beginnings initiates Said's critical scholarship as a thinker committed to contesting, altering, and revising narratives of a singular human history.
Published in 1978, Said's Orientalism is a touchstone of twentieth-century literary criticism. Its radical exposé of Eurocentric universalism laid the foundations for postcolonial theory. Said argues that Europe colonized the East not only economically, but also discursively and cognitively. Just as the raw materials of the East were appropriated for Western use, so also the detail and texture of Eastern life were absorbed into stereotypical categories that served a useful function in the West's concept of itself. Rather than be a world known for itself, the East became the West's “other,” a comparative entity that confirmed Western assumptions of superiority. If the West was industrious, rational, and modern, the East was lazy, emotional, and traditional. Drawing on Foucault's description of discourse, Said paid special attention to the way Western scholarship created a discursive Orient, a body of knowledge that categorized the worlds of the East and subsumed their myriad differences into one totalizing and highly stereotypical picture.
The insights yielded by Orientalism inspired a postcolonial criticism committed to illuminating the diversity of other literatures and which continues to implicate the symbolic and territorial violence of colonial power. Yet Said's account also elicited broad criticism. For some, his analysis perversely misread the sympathetic accounts of the East presented by Orientalist scholarship; for others Said's critique of British imperial power fails to attend similarly to Ottoman and Persian empires. Ironically, critics leveled at Said his own charges of prejudiced and partial representation, accusing his “Orient” of being limited to Palestine and Egypt, and his account guilty of stereotyping Europe in turn. The legacy of Said's critique, though, is a continuing vigilance over the prevailing representations of cultures, and a recognition of the imperial and ideological operations of scholarship, knowledge, and imagination.
In Covering Islam (1981), Said channels the insights of Orientalism to examine the representations of Islam and Islamic countries by Western media, governments, corporations, and scholarship.
He observes that all sites of cultural and ideological production are complicit in the limited register of Western representations of Islam, which render it synonymous with terrorism, fundamentalism, and religious extremism. The deployment of the terms “terrorism” and “fundamentalism” in the analysis of political conflicts warrants special caution for Said, who identifies them as fearful terms that lack content but assert the moral power and approval of those who yield them. His analysis also extends to examine Islam's representations of itself to itself, observing the ways in which Islamic countries deploy an idea of “Islam” to justify unrepresentative and often repressive regimes. If Orientalism exposed the coextension of knowledge and power, Covering Islam investigates the representations of Islam (both by others and to itself) as a biased discursive expression, posing the question of whether knowledge and power can be more justly engaged in relation to each other.
In Culture and Imperialism (1993) Said investigates the reach of Western imperialism through its cultural productions, arguing that works as diverse as Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, and Verdi's Aida, knowingly and unknowingly, assert the authority of imperial domination. The essays develop the thesis of Orientalism by investigating the intricate relationship between cultural forms and the identities they produce, authorize, and deny. Said traces how European cultural forms not only affirm a right to rule, but also authorize oppression as moral obligation. He defines “culture” as acts of description, communication, and representation (often aesthetic) that are autonomous from economic, social, and political realms, but which can be engaged in the service of political and ideological causes. Imperialism, which refers to the forceful appropriation of land, is a process that is reflected, contested, and decided in the cultural narratives that surround and spring from it. For Said, the implication of this relationship is that the cruelty of colonialism is inseparable from the poetry, music, and philosophy that it also produces. Strikingly, his analysis prescribes only closer and yet more respectful engagement with such texts, rather than rejection, and in this regard his work retains a lingering admiration for the attentive modes of the old “New Criticism” tradition. His reading of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, for example, offers a sophisticated alternative to the blanket accusation of racism issued in Chinua Achebe's essay on the same text. Said observes the duality of Conrad's narrative, which demonstrates how imperial excursions are underwritten by an idea of a right to forcefully possess other lands, but also exposes the immorality of a practice that is obscured by the justifications of a self-aggrandizing, self-originating authority. Said recognizes the aesthetic merit of a novel that could be capable both of narrating the practices of imperialism, while exposing the self-deceptions it requires in order to continue do so. The narratives of colonialism, for Said, require this attentive kind of “contrapuntal” reading, where one reads punctus contra punctum - “point against point” - for the differing, dependent, and syncopated parts of a melody. This practice of reading attends to what may have been forcibly or implicitly silenced or excluded, and extends to texts that may not immediately appear colonial or postcolonial. Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, for instance, a resolutely English novel, Said reads contrapuntally, noting the quiet inquiries Fanny Price makes to her uncle regarding his business interests in the Antiguan slave trade, and the silence with which they are received. Said argues through Mansfield Park that the narratives of imperialism stretch back before the nineteenth-century “scramble for Africa,” and that earlier cultural forms might be implicated in the relationship of culture and imperialism. Culture itself is indicted, by Said, as a place of exclusive canonical selection, and he notes that colonialism also elicits narratives of resistance and opposition from sources as diverse as Frantz Fanon, C. L. R. James, and W. B. Yeats. Said argues that the culture of resistance is as powerful as the culture of imperialism, asserting the capacity to reclaim, rename, and reinhabit occupied lands with new assertions and identifications.
In the conclusion to Culture and Imperialism Said observes that the practices of critical resistance require safeguarding from institutional and disciplinary cultures of professionalization. While Marxism, structuralism, feminism, and Third World studies emerge in English departments with interrogative rigor, they are also increasingly pacified formations of knowledge, identifiable as academic subspecialties. For Said, if culture is a site of ideological affirmation, then criticism must be vigilantly guarded as an inappropriable and radical interpretative force. Said examines the increasing institutionalization of critical consciousness more closely in the essay collection, The World, the Text, the Critic, analyzing the complacencies of structuralist and poststructuralist traditions. He argues that if modern literary theory seeks to transform the strict disciplinarity and orthodoxies of the traditional university, then its increasing institutionalization threatens to blunt its edge. He critiques too the reflexivity of theories that displace history with arguments of labyrinthine textuality. Instead, he insistently recalls the worldliness of texts, that record or form part of the human lives, social existence, and historical moments in which they are located and interpreted.
Consequently, Said offers a conception of “humanist criticism” which reaffirms these connections while advocating a critical consciousness that remains reflective, alert to its own failings, and skeptical of hermetic systems, even those that might be called “postcolonial.” In this respect, Said, following Adorno, acknowledges the singularity of art as a model of resistance to systematic appropriations. The works of Swift, Hopkins, Conrad, and Fanon offer such resistance; Said proposes that their exemplary attention to the singularity of existence is inappropriable to any organization of power or interpretation. Swift, whose prose style is often anarchic, eccentric, and agitational, resists even the appropriations of modern critical theory, eluding readings that could be reducible to doctrine or political position. Said retrieves from his reading of Swift the possibility of alternatives to dominant formations of social organization and the creative capacity for alternative acts of interpretation. In his essay “Traveling theory” (1982; see Bayoumi and Rubin 2000: 195-217), he cautions against the pacification of critical consciousness and the assimilation of theory to dogma, promoting, instead, an idea of mobility where theoretical frameworks are never completed nor ideas exhausted by the models or mantras produced by theory. For Said, the history of imperialism discloses the consequences of the effort by one culture to comprehend, dominate, or capture another, and he exalts instead the dynamism of a ceaseless critical thinking that eludes this impulse for containment.
For Said, the relation of knowledge and power defines the field of criticism, literary and political, and this is most apparent in his critical writing regarding Palestine. In the issue of Palestinian statehood, Said's literary, musical, and political analysis converge. In 1977, he was elected to the Palestine national council as an independent intellectual, and his diplomatic role included assisting with Arab-English translations of the draft treaty leading to the Oslo Peace Process. Although Said withdrew from this process, rejecting the Oslo Accords as unfairly weighted toward Israeli interest, he was an advocate of the two-state solution, implicitly recognizing Israel's right to exist. For him, the question of Palestine epitomized the necessity of a complex and sensitive contrapuntal thinking which could acknowledge but dissociate the legacy and trauma of the Holocaust from the Palestinian question. The Question of Palestine (1992) remains one of Said's most provocative works, demonstrating the rigor of his historical scholarship, critical analysis, and contrapuntal thinking. In it, he explores the collisions of Palestinian and Israeli claims for statehood and tracks their continuing repercussions, considering the complex relationship of occupier and occupied, and examining the role of the West in the Middle East. The study offers a history of the Palestinian people through its literature, and traces the inception of Zionist ideologies through the writings of figures such as Theodor Herzl and Menachem Begin, as well as employing demographic and sociological analyses. For Said, understanding the question of Palestine requires this multitextual and interdisciplinary analysis; comprehending the modern formations of Israel/Palestine and the violence it inspires requires the resources of history and philology.
The publication of The Question of Palestine ratified the explicit political bent of the critical function as Said understood it, and it reaffirmed the original insights of Orientalism in its understanding of the discursive formation of Palestinian and Israeli identities and the residual colonial logic at work in the claims for nationhood. In his later collaborative project with photographer Jean Mohr, After the Last Sky (1998), Said contests the limited register of media representations of Palestinians as murderous terrorists or pitiful refugees, by punctuating Mohr's photographs of daily life with his own commentary and the interleaved poetry of Mahmoud Darwish. Charting the effects of successive dispossessions, Said sought to present a Palestinian identity not limited to exilic status, but fortified by it. His last collaboration with Daniel Barenboim demonstrated again his willingness to experiment with interdisciplinarity and multimedia, but also acknowledged the musical origin of contrapuntal criticism. The conversations between Barenboim and Said, recorded in Parallels and Paradoxes (2002), reveal the fluency of Said's own “traveling theory,” moving between music, literature, and politics. Rearticulating the Adornian insight that the bristling complexity of music might serve as indictment of reductive systematizations, Said recognizes in art the critique of intractably rigid national allegiance. Music, he insists, is unrepeatable, but also a language for experiences of unique and complex identifications and dislocation. The opening phrases of Beethoven's Fourth Symphony he reads as an articulation of belonging and strangeness; the long sustained notes followed by silence impress upon the listener a harmonic “feeling at home,” a feeling of being in no man's land and then finding a way home once more, necessary for the affirmation of an identity forged by its willingness to encounter difference without violence.
In his last work, Humanism and Democratic Criticism, published posthumously in 2004, Said proposes that questioning, challenging, and defending a canon is the work both of a properly humanistic education and the responsibility of a democratic criticism. The philological component of this criticism that requires the critic to penetrate language in order to disclose what might be hidden binds democracy to literature in a special way. Art remains for Said the domain for what might be yet ungrasped, waiting in readiness for articulation but free from imposition. For Said, criticism is a political and humanist practice insofar as it excavates silence and illuminates places of exclusion and invisibility, restoring the testimony of barely surviving itinerant groups that have survived the displacements of colonization in old imperial and new capitalist forms. Said's legacy is his invocation of the intellectual responsibility to further the formulations and expectations of those who might seek social justice and economic equality, where critical consciousness challenges the imposed silences of normalized power, not only identifying situations of crisis but discerning the possibilities for intervention.
SEE ALSO: Adorno, Theodor; Althusser, Louis; Foucault, Michel; Marx, Karl; Orientalism; Rose, Jacqueline
Said was born in Palestine but emigrated to the United States where he was educated at Princeton and Yale before becoming a Professor at...
Edward Said (November 1, 1935–September 24, 2003) is perhaps best known in the journalism and mass communication field for two books that...
(1935-2003) Palestinian literary and social theorist and political activist in the cause of an independent Palestinian state, who from the late...