Key thinker: Edward Said (1935–2003)
Edward Said (1935–2003)
Edward Said was born in Jerusalem (then part of the British mandate of Palestine) into a wealthy Christian Palestinian family. Because his father had served in the US army, Said was a US citizen by birth (see 16.1. Introduction). In 1947, Said’s father moved the family to Cairo to avoid the Arab-Israeli wars that broke out following the United Nations partition of Palestine (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Edward-Said). Said attended several English-language schools in Cairo, including the European-style Victoria College, before transferring to Mount Hermon School, an elite boarding school in Massachusetts, United States (https://newleftreview.org/issues/ii24/articles/tariq-ali-remembering-edward-said). He didn’t look back fondly on his early education, arguing that Victoria College replicated unjust colonial structures; at Mount Hermon, he recalled an overwhelming feeling of social alienation (Said, 2002). But this sense of being an outsider, which Said developed through constant movement between cultures and identities, gave him a ‘double vision’ that enabled him to read Western literature through the dominant discourse of the West and the discourses that challenged its hegemony (see Key Concept: Contrapuntal Reading).
After graduating from Mount Hermon Said enrolled at Princeton, where he received his BA in 1957. In the following years, he would go on to earn an MA and PhD in English literature from Harvard. In 1963, Said was hired as a lecturer in English literature at Columbia university and was quickly promoted to assistant professor. At Columbia, he published his first book, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography, and earned his reputation as one of the founders of postcolonial studies (see 16.1. Introduction). While other critics from the global south, like the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, argued that Conrad’s racism made his work unreadable for Africans, Said believed that such prejudices did not diminish his artistic value or cultural influence (https://www.theguardian.com/news/2003/sep/26/guardianobituaries.highereducation). Following his promotion to full professor in 1969, Said published his most famous work, Orientalism (1978), which argued that early Western scholarship on the ‘Orient’ (the Arab Islamic world) reproduced stereotypes of ‘otherness’ that justified colonial domination (see 16.2.1. ‘We’ are this, ‘they’ are that: Orientalism and the politics of knowledge).
American media coverage of the Six-Day War in 1967 pushed Said towards radical politics (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/04/26/the-reorientations-of-edward-said). He became a vocal spokesperson for Palestinian self-determination, and an intermediary between the Yasser Arafat’s PLO and the United States government (see 16.4.1. Narrating Palestine). Said would remain a critic of Israel, Zionism, and its Western supporters, and a champion of Palestinian liberation for the rest of his life. But the final decade of Said’s life was marked by his struggle with leukemia and, as his health declined, he decided to withdraw from public debate and focus on music (https://www.theguardian.com/news/2003/sep/26/guardianobituaries.highereducation). Said, who was a gifted pianist, was for many years the music critic for The Nation and published four books about music. In 1999, Said and the Jewish pianist Daniel Barenboim co-founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra which brought together young Israeli, Palestinian, and Arab musicians as an alternative way of addressing the Israel-Palestine conflict (https://west-eastern-divan.org/founders). Edward Said succumbed to his illness in New York City in 2003. He was 67 years old.
Said’s Orientalism (1978) is considered a founding text of postcolonial theory and one of the most influential academic books of the late twentieth century (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/04/26/the-reorientations-of-edward-said). In the book Said explores how knowledge and power structure the relationship between the West and its Other (i.e., what is today called the global south). Said’s analysis builds on the Foucauldian idea of discourse (see Chapter 32 on Michel Foucault) to shed light on the important role that culture plays in enabling the imperialist exploitation of labour and resources (see 16.1. Introduction). For Said, ‘orientalism’ is a style of thought that produces and reproduces ontological and epistemological distinctions between the West and the East, with the former as the preserve of rationality and enlightenment, while the latter is assumed to be governed by barbarism, despotism, or sensuality (see 16.2.1. ‘We’ are this, ‘they’ are that: Orientalism and the politics of knowledge).
Said argues that Western writers across a range of disciplines and periods—from Homer, Dante, or Marx to nineteenth-century anthropologists or travel writers—have been guilty of incorporating orientalist assumptions into their work. These orientalist projections were then employed to suggest that people in the global south were incapable of self-government and should therefore be subjected to colonial rule (https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v43/n09/adam-shatz/palestinianism). But Said also suggests that anyone who reproduces such biases in their ‘area studies’ work today—in the think tanks, media, or universities of the global north—would become an unwitting collaborator in the United States’ imperial project (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/04/26/the-reorientations-of-edward-said).
Orientalism gained Said a loyal academic following, but he didn’t agree with popular interpretations of his work (https://www.theguardian.com/news/2003/sep/26/guardianobituaries.highereducation). Said never made a secret of his love for Western ‘high’ culture, and felt that his readers had misinterpreted him, claiming he had dismissed the entire canon of Western literature. Orientalism was also subject to criticism by Sadiq Jalal al-‘Azm and Aijaz Ahmad (see 16.2.2. Critiques of Orientalism). Said’s Marxist critics accused him of enshrining differences between the West and the East as insurmountable; his critique of Orientalism was, in short, ‘Orientalism in reverse’. Said, they argued, had also failed to engage with any knowledge produced outside of Europe and America to make his argument, and reduced his list of citations to a narrow list of Western thinkers (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/04/26/the-reorientations-of-edward-said).
Both writers disagreed with Said’s characterization of Marx as Eurocentric; instead, they argued that his dismissal of Marxist categories of analysis lent itself to the very imperialist and anti-communist politics he had sought to foreclose, and that his denunciation of Marxism as a Western ideology mirrored the arguments made by right-wing Islamists who sought to ban the teaching of science rule (https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v43/n09/adam-shatz/palestinianism). The most scathing argument, however, was Ahmad’s claim that Said’s had focused on race instead of class or gender to support his own upward mobility in US academia (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/04/26/the-reorientations-of-edward-said).
Said addresses some of these criticisms in Culture and Imperialism (1993), a book which provoked impassioned centrist and right-wing responses (https://newleftreview.org/issues/ii24/articles/tariq-ali-remembering-edward-said). Published the same year as Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic (1993), Said’s book pushed back against the liberal triumphalism of Francis Fukuyama that characterized the ‘end of history’ period in liberal thought, and Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis. Said argues that the imperial encounter is not characterized by a zero-sum clash between two essentially unchanging entities (i.e., the West and the East) as Huntington suggested; rather, it produced what Said called ‘overlapping territories’ and ‘intertwined histories’ (see 16.3.1. ‘Overlapping Territories, Intertwined Histories).
Said develops the method of contrapuntal reading (see Key Concept: Contrapuntal Reading). In classical music, counterpoint is a form in which a polyphonic order arises out of various themes that play off one another, even though no particular one is privileged and there is no formal principle governing the work. When applied to literary texts, counterpoint allows us to read the text through the dominant narrative of the metropolis, while simultaneously paying attention to the histories it acts alongside or erases. In his reading of C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins (1938), for example, Said argued that the French and Haitian revolutions were part of the same history (see Chapter 16 on C.L.R. James); they worked together to form a polyphonic whole. Core and periphery, Said suggested, were part of the very same world system, and culture had the power to both sustain and challenge it. Politics and narrative, then, were inseparable.
In his writing, he never shied away from conflicts between his intellectual and political affiliations (see 16.4.1. Narrating Palestine). Said was a spokesperson for Palestinian independence, but remained a fierce critic of Arafat and his party (https://newleftreview.org/issues/ii24/articles/tariq-ali-remembering-edward-said). And while he championed Palestinian nationalism, he believed that it also had a dark side; it was a vehicle for liberation which contained the seeds of authoritarianism and supremacism. Said’s first book on Palestine, The Question of Palestine (1979), turned him into one of New York’s leading, but most controversial, public intellectuals (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/04/26/the-reorientations-of-edward-said). Said believed that intellectuals had a special responsibility to the marginalized, because they stand at a metaphorical distance from society, they are better able to identify with the people and speak up for them. They are, in short, those who speak truth to power (see 16.5. The Intellectual Vocation).
Until his death, Said continued to champion the Palestinian cause. But despite his advocacy for Palestinian independence, he remained a celebrity intellectual and not a freedom fighter (Arafat, for example, saw him as a useful ally in diplomatic matters, but did not fully trust him as one of their own) (https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v43/n09/adam-shatz/palestinianism). Yet Said was a spokesperson for the oppressed whose role in drawing attention to the struggles of Palestinians cannot be understated. His thought offers a model for how to use the privileged position of the academic to challenge the structural injustices that affect marginalized people in the global south (see 16.6. Conclusion).
Brennan, Timothy, Places of mind: a life of Edward Said, New York: Picador, 2022.
Pankaj Mishra, “The Reorientations of Edward Said”, The New Yorker, 19 April 2021.
Adam Shatz, “Palestinianism”, London Review of Books, 6 May 2021.
Said, Edward, Between Worlds: Reflections on Exile, and Other Essays, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.