Said: World, Text and Critic

October 4, 2003

Source: Unknown

This obituary for Edward Said appeared in an edited form as “A Man of Many Worlds” in The Straits Times (4 October 2003).

Every non-white literary critic fights two wars, one in his professional sphere and the other internally first, in the way his sense of self and his profession disrupt each other. The more he finds himself enmeshed in Western culture, the more integrity drives him to see and hear his own disappearing body. The more he penetrates, the more he feels himself outside.

So it had been the experience of Edward Wadie Said, who died last Thursday after a long-drawn-out struggle with leukaemia, at the age of 67. This year itself is the silver jubilee of Orientalism, his most famous work sometimes praised for dealing the death-blow to Western colonial rhetoric. It for sure signalled the arrival of that hard-fought global transformation of imperialism into an enlightened dirty word.

But Said’s academic reputation had not always been built on a clear attempt to identify and dismantle structures of hegemonic discourse. His first book, published in 1966, was a study of British writer Joseph Conrad, and his second, emerging a decade later, observed how private experiences were turned into starting points for writers of fiction.

Yet, in Beginnings: Intention and Method was already that version of a crucial link between identity and narrative, self-fashioning and story-making. The formula would thereafter assume a more confident political shape that saw him reading not just creative individuals but distinct nations as reliant on narration. He would also come to recognise as proof of culture’s complicity in politics precisely these powers “to narrate” and “to block other narratives from forming and emerging.”

It all began for real in Orientalism when Said systematically exposed a key construct in the West’s manner of generating imperial signifiers. Nineteenth-century Westerners were shown to have cunningly created “The Orient,” really no more than a random collection of foreign cultures unfamiliar to them.

But by manufacturing the concept and then designating Orientals as lazy, corrupt, immoral, superstitious and oppressive, whole cultures could be posited as needing civilisation and thus deserving of both colonial rule and a chance to save themselves from themselves. In the light of this, it became self-evident that, historically, the colonial master’s pen was mightier than his sword after all.

Said’s thesis, when it emerged, proved highly controversial to its Western audience but, even among readers from newly independent societies, it was never without critics. Some faulted the way he casually regarded the West’s approach as well-coordinated and unilateral when the history of most places had been more complex. More damning than that was how his “Orient” referred mostly to the Middle East and a bit of India, missing all of South-East Asia and the Far East and so performing the very sort of exclusion it attacked.

To be fair, Said did try to fill in the gaps of his original argument, as seen most clearly in its sequel 15 years in the making, Culture and Imperialism. And if we will go on to forgive a little more, then we must admit too that every major project should at least be allowed to begin somewhere.

Post-colonial studies in the West chose to begin with this stylish enigmatic figure — a Jerusalem-born Palestinian, an Arab American, a Christian sympathiser of Islam, with privileged upbringing.

Like his notion of Orientalism, Said’s life-long championing of the Palestinian cause had been admired widely but warily. From The Question of Palestine onwards, he was damned to stress repeatedly the danger of Israel’s attitude towards regional peace, one he described as defined by a “politics of dispossession.”

Yet, although he was well-liked enough to sit on the Palestine National Council until a decade ago, his insistence on a two-state compromise and regular criticism of Yasser Arafat ruffled some Palestinians. Many in the opposing camp meanwhile fumed over his dogged focus on Israel’s human rights record and criticism of American Middle East policies.

In The World, the Text, and the Critic — his anticipated return to his first love, literature, in 1983 — he discussed candidly what he considered the role and inverse treachery of those involved in cultural criticism.

Because culture for him by then was always politically coloured, its scholars must do their work without concealing those historical conditions through which texts were produced and foregrounded. The argument placed him on a collision course with the kind of postmodernism that ignored “worldliness” and, in effect, celebrated powerlessness by celebrating the value of art over facts.

If Said’s critics had their way, Said himself would have been found guilty of celebrating too much art too. But the example of his life negates that option completely; insofar as conviction is concerned, Said had been least guilty of proposing a kind of theory he could never put into practice.

Gwee Li Sui

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