Edward Said's Critical Outlook


Mr. Habib teaches in the Department of English, Rutgers University.

Edward W. Said (1935-2003) was a literary and cultural theorist. Born in Jerusalem, Palestine, he attended schools in Jerusalem, Cairo and Massachusetts. He received his B.A. from Princeton in 1960 and his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1964. Since 1963 he was Parr Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He also was a visiting professor at Harvard, Stanford, Johns Hopkins and Yale. His books, translated into several languages, received numerous awards.

Since Said's first and least-known book, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (1966), his thinking embraced three broad imperatives: His first goal was to articulate the cultural position and task of the intellectual and literary critic. Said's formulations in this area, influenced by Foucault, provided a crucial impetus to the so-called New Historicism in the 1980s, which was in part a reaction against the tendency of American adherents of structuralism, poststructuralism and deconstruction either to isolate literature from its various contexts or to reduce those contexts to an indiscriminate"textuality." Said's second concern was to examine, on a daunting scale, Western discourses about the Orient in general and Islam in particular. Said's own origin (or"beginning" as he would prefer) defined a third, more immediately political commitment: an attempt to bring to light and clarify the Palestinian struggle to regain a homeland. Some continue to regard him as a model of the politically engaged scholar while others have viewed his enterprise as incoherent.Edward Said

Beginnings (1975) was Said's first influential book. Focusing on the question "What is a beginning?" Said traces the ramifications and diverse understandings of this concept in history. Adapting insights from the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico's New Science (1744), Said distinguishes between "origin," which is divine, mythical and privileged, and "beginning," which is secular and humanly produced. An "origin," as in classical and neo-classical thought, is endowed with linear, dynastic and chronological eminence, centrally dominating what derives from it. A beginning, in contrast, especially as embodied in much modern thought, encourages orders of dispersion, adjacency and complementarity (1985, xii, 373).

Said defines beginning as its own method, as a first step in the intentional production of meaning, and as the production of difference from pre-existing traditions. If beginning comprises such an activity of subversion, it must be informed by an inaugural logic which authorizes subsequent texts; it both enables them and limits what is acceptable (32-4). Drawing on insights of Vico, Valery, Nietzsche, Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Husserl and Foucault, Said argues that the novel represents the major attempt in Western literary culture to give beginnings an authorizing function in experience, art and knowledge.

In postmodernist literature, beginning embodies an effort to achieve knowledge and art through a "violently transgressive" language. The problematics of language lie at the heart of "beginnings." With Derrida, Foucault and Deleuze, Said rejects Levi-Strauss's notion that language has a "centre": rather, meaning is produced within a political and cultural power structure. Scholarship, Said suggests, should see itself as a beginning, uniting practical exigencies with theoretical method. The task for the intellectual or critic is to combat institutional specialization, ideological professionalism and a hierarchical system of values which rewards traditional literary and cultural explanations and discourages those "beginning" critiques which undermine the central and artificial distinction between "original" and "critical" works as well as Platonic views of text and author which isolate texts from their environments. Criticism should be a constant re-experiencing of beginning, promoting not authority but non-coercive and communal activity (379-80).

Said sees contemporary criticism as an institution for publicly affirming the values of culture as understood in a Eurocentric, dominative and elitist sense.

In Orientalism (1978), Said examines the vast tradition of Western "constructions" of the Orient. This tradition of Orientalism has been a "corporate institution" for coming to terms with the Orient, for authorizing views about it and ruling over it. Central to Said's analysis is that the Orient is actually a production of Western discourse, a means of self-definition of Western culture as well as of justifying imperial domination of oriental peoples (3). Said concentrates on the modern history of British, French and American engagement with primarily the Islamic world. Given his crucial treatment of Orientalism as a discourse, his aim is not to show that this politically motivated edifice of language somehow distorts a "real" Orient, but rather to show that is indeed a language, with an internal consistency, motivation and capacity for representation resting on a relationship of power and hegemony over the Orient.

The book is also an attempt to display Orientalism as but one complex example of the politically and ideologically rooted nature of all discourse, even those forms which have been veiled under the mantle of innocence. Thus, "liberal cultural heroes" such as Mill, Arnold and Carlyle all had views, usually overlooked, on race and imperialism (14). Using a vast range of examples, from Aeschylus's play The Persians through Macaulay, Renan and Marx, to Gustave von Grunbaum and the Cambridge History of Islam, Said attempts to examine the stereotypes and distortions through which Islam and the East have been consumed.

These stereotypes include: Islam as an heretical imitation of Christianity (65-6), the exotic sexuality of the Oriental woman (187), Islam as a uniquely unitary phenomenon and as a culture incapable of innovation (296-98). Said's analyses stress the situational peculiarities of individual writers who, in contrast to Foucault, he regards as having a "determining imprint" (23) as well as the historical refinement of techniques for constructing the Orient. Also considering America's twentieth-century relations with the Arab world, Said suggests that the electronic postmodern world reinforces dehumanized portrayals of the Arabs, a tendency both aggravated by the Arab-Israeli conflict and intensely felt by Said himself as a Palestinian.

In The Question of Palestine (1979) Said, himself a member of the Palestine National Council, attempts to place before the American reader an historical account of the Palestinian experience and plight. Covering Islam (1981) aims to reveal how media representations "produce" Islam, and, in reducing its adherents to anti-American fanatics and threatening fundamentalists, continue the centuries' old function of Western self-definition. Said's latest book Culture and Imperialism (1993) is effectively a continuation of the themes raised in Orientalism in that it examines in a more focused manner the power relations between Occident and Orient hinted at in the earlier work.

Said's uniqueness as a cultural critic lies in the range of his interests which allowed him to explore the nexus of connections between literature, politics and religion in a global rather than national or Eurocentric context.

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David - 10/21/2003

Obviously his passing will go unnoticed.

Suetonius - 10/15/2003

I agree with Mr. Moner that it is best not to speak ill of the recently passed. I would like to offer the observation that I found Mr. Said's views interesting but his prose dense and frequently impenetrable.

Gus Moner - 10/13/2003

No one wants to comment or criticise a man who has recently died. However, I recall that whether I agreed or not with his views, his analysis and grasp of the facts were often brilliant.