Edward Said: A Complex Phenomenon

Edward Said: A Complex Phenomenon

An intellectual enigma who drenched his thought in contemporary philology yet held own his own premises

September, this year, we marked the 10th anniversary of a complex phenomenon called Edward Said, who not only spoke truth to power, but to all, with the unfortunate consequences. He has received scathing criticism not only in the West but all along in Europe, Arab World and Indian Sub-continent. Edward Said was Palestinian American academic, political activist, and literary critic born in dispute ridden town Jerusalem, died after prolonged battle with leukaemia in September 2003. He did his Masters and PhD (on Joseph Conrad) from Harvard, taught for decades as Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the Columbia University, was a visiting Professor at Harvard, John Hopkins and Yale. Said was conversant with various archaeologies of Knowledge for he spoke French and English fluently, was very good with his mother tongue colloquial Arabic and was also literate in Spanish, Italian, German and Latin (from his memoir, Out of Place). He was a pubic intellectual and strong supporter of Palestine cause and denounced Bush and Blair-led invasion of Iraq.

 Edward Said who departed from this world in September 2003 at the age of 67 was a notably staunch defender of the rights of Palestine people for a homeland and was most effective intellectual in the creation of the state of Palestine. Going by the wide spread and diverse reception of his book Orientalism it is now generally accepted in academic circles that Said is a complex phenomenon – an intellectual enigma who drenched his thought in contemporary philology yet held own his own premises. He does not fit in with any pre-conceived mould or thought and became the most convincing voice of the Palestinian Muslims internationally.

To some a polemical figure, to many a paradoxical entity, Said has persisted as a voice that has redefined a role of intellectual, and the breath-taking range of his endeavour makes it difficult to believe all of it is one man: An author, a literary theorist, a compelling cultural critic, an anthropologist, a radical activist, an irrepressible dissident intellectual, political commentator, prolific writer, skilled concert pianist and music critic. Some called him transformational thinker of 20th century – a super star among intellectuals – whereas some remain highly sceptical of such claims. If Aram Veeser has titled his book as The Charisma of Criticism, Edward Alexander maligns him as “Professor of Terror” in Pro-Israeli Journal Commentary.

Edward said catapulted into international fame with his seminal work Orientalism in 1978 – a study of the “seductive degradation of Knowledge”; a persuasive deconstruction of the Western Construct of Eastern Cultures. The conceptualization of the Orient by the coloniser was highly politicised, romanticised discriminatory, racial, stereotypical and therefore suspect. Said unveiled it as a tool of imperialistic domination, a political strategy for colonial expansion. According to Said the relation between Orientalism and Western domination has altered over a time. Initially, the knowledge produced by the Orientalism was extremely useful for governments, generals and the like, but it was not produced specifically for their benefit. More recently and particular in the twentieth century there has occurred what Said identifies as ‘the major shift in orientalism….form an academic to an instrumental attitude (Orientalism Page 246). According to Said, Orientalism symbolises a cover-up for hegemonic political intentions of imperialistic forces anywhere any time in the world and thinkers in every era must remain vigilant to the manufacturing of falsehood used as the cultural tools of tyranny and abuse. Said alerted that Zionist slogan “A people without land (Jews) for a land without people (Palestinians)” is a lucid example of the modern guises of Orientalism. Upholding truth Said mentioning that there is no denial of genocide of Jewish people –historical experience of the holocaust is under no circumstances to be forgotten but it should not be used to deny the Palestinians their homeland by sending them into exile.

Intellectuals were among the central concerns of Said. He mostly mentions of intellectuals in his writing and their societal role. His representation of Intellectuals based on the 1993 Reith Lectures deals with the intellectuals and comes to know that Said was averse to fan following and stood in favour of originality and amateurishness in academics. There are more intellectuals in society today, in terms of highly educated individuals working with data, ideas, information and so on, but have hardly any impact on society at large which Said says is due “ways of Intellectual formation”. They are currently formed: both in education and in their careers and subject to ever greater professionalization in shape of specialisation and the cult of ‘expertise’ which encourages both narrowness of vision and adherence to an institutionalised ways of seeing. All these tendencies get in the way of what Said regards as the proper performance of the role of the intellectual which he characterises as ‘amateurism’ to emphasise the extent to which intellectuals should not be ‘in the pay’- literally or metaphorically – of institutions, corporations or political parties. Said urges that intellectuals have duty to speak truth whatsoever by the consequences.

‘Speaking truth to power is no Panglossian idealism; it is carefully weighing the alternatives, picking the right one and then intelligently representing it” wrote Edward Said in his Representations of the Intellectual and amply exemplified it. He not only spoke “truth to power”, he spoke truth to all, with unfortunate consequences. He further says “At bottom, the intellectual in my sense of the word is neither a pacifier nor a consensus builder, but someone whose whole being is at stake on critical sense, a sense of being unwilling to accept easy formulas or readymade clichés or the smooth ever so-accommodating information of what powerful or conventional, have to say, or what they do” (Representation of Intellectuals) P17.

Edward Said being an upright and honest intellectual had predicted surroundings of a real intellectual and his responses. The realistic and honest attitude evidently puts an intellectual into a minority or even marginalized position and Said’s favourite figures for them are outsiders or above all exiles-estranged or banished from the comfort of their societies. Said had an impressive message for such real intellectuals. He says that the marginalisation, exile or estrangement develops a ‘critical consciousness’ among such intellectuals rather enjoying the cosiness under colonial patronage. According to Said intellectuals should always be with oppressed, marginalised, weak unrepresented rather colonial elements.

Edward Said is recognised as a key figure in the contemporary intellectual scene and has tremendous impact on world of scholasticism in present era. Going through his life and works one finds no anomaly between his life and his texts – if his work heavily drew upon his life, his life religiously lived out his beliefs – he has exemplified the significance of the engagement of ideas into reality and strove to harness non-coercive knowledge to power so that it operates with a secular humanitarian thrust for freedom and equality. Said’s legacy urges every writer and intellectual to rise above glorification in academic specialisation and excellence, to locate marginalised, weak, unrepresented/victimised, and to step out of the ivory tower to work towards a world which is just and fair for all. The legacy of Edward Said in essence will remain with mankind forever.

Author is secretary Philosophical Foundation Kashmir and Literary Forum Bandipora