What Edward Said
A reflection on the Palestinian theorist's strivings, insights and shortcomings.
Palestinian academic and activist Edward Said died on 25 September from leukaemia.
Said’s status as a leading cultural theorist and professor at Columbia University, coupled with his tireless advocacy did much to humanise the Palestinian cause in the eyes of Western liberal opinion. After 1993 Said recognised the trap that the diplomatic road led to, and denounced the Oslo Accords, and the phoney peace process that followed. He criticised the repressive measures chairman Yasser Arafat adopted to secure the deal – risking the censorship of his works on the West Bank.
Struggling against illness for many years, Said nonetheless became the pre-eminent critic of the processed peace in the Middle East. On one visit to London he made the pointed comparison between Arafat and the Irish nationalist leader Michael Collins, whose compromise with Britain over partition of Ireland led to his assassination. Arafat, argued Said, had come away from the negotiating table with a lot less than Collins.
But wisdom came late to Said – he had been an advocate of compromise with Israel, even to the extent of helping draft the resolution to the Palestine National Congress advocating a ‘two-state solution’ (1). This policy was a marked departure from the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s original demand for a democratic and secular state in Palestine, where Arabs and Jews would have equal rights. The appeal of the original policy was that it aspired to transcend racial differences. But the later policy of ‘two states’ was an attempt to accommodate Palestinian national sentiment with the racial divide.
In his 1985 essay ‘An ideology of difference’ Said hoped that ‘“difference” does not entail “domination”’ – that Israelis and Palestinians could recognise each other’s differences (2). But the pursuit of a ‘two-state solution’ proved to be an institutionalisation of difference, and, indeed, of domination. Later Said recognised the limitations of the ‘two-state solution’ as its practical consequences became clear. He criticised today’s Palestinian leadership from the standpoint they had abandoned – equal citizenship in a ‘one-state solution’. ‘The politics of separation can’t work in the Middle East’, he said: ‘The land’s too small. Our history’s so mixed.’ (3)
But Said is probably even better remembered as a cultural theorist than a Palestinian nationalist. The publication of Orientalism: Western Concepts of the Orient in 1978 wrought a sea change in cultural scholarship. Orientalism was celebrated for its explanation of the way that Western scholarship had created an imaginary ‘orient’ that masked the real Middle East, loaded with stereotypes of indolence and lasciviousness, that said more about the holders of such views. Said’s authoritative command of his material made it impossible to write seriously about relations between the West and the rest of the world without taking account of the ideology masquerading as academic enquiry.
But in 1996 Kenan Malik took issue with the intellectual framework of Orientalism in his book, The Meaning of Race (4). Malik explained that Said had conflated the thinking of the Enlightenment, which took universal humanity as its starting point, with that of the Romantic reaction against Enlightenment, which emphasised racial differences. Said’s citing of French thinkers like Ernest Renan, whose scientific pretensions seemed to situate them in the Enlightenment tradition, only clouded the issue. Renan was a part of the conservative backlash to Enlightenment universalism that retreated from the premise of equality. Compelling as Said’s Orientalism was, it helped to form the postmodernist prejudice that all rational thinking was implicitly racist.
Furthermore, Said’s concept of the Other, that underlay his analysis of ‘orientalism’, was derived from the reaction against reason, specifically in the works of the existentialist philosophers Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre (5). As in the sphere of practical politics, Said later turned against the project he helped to initiate, this time denouncing the celebration of cultural difference in postmodernism: ‘tub-thumping about the glories of “our” culture or “our” history is not worthy of the intellectual’s energy.’ (6)
Few could hope to live a life as full, honourable and creative as Edward Said’s, but he was not always right, even if he got there in the end.
James Heartfield is the author of The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained, Perpetuity Press, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)); and Great Expectations: The Creative Industries in the New Economy, Design Agenda, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)). He is also coauthor of Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age, Wiley-Academy, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). See his website
(1) Obituary, Malise Ruthven, Guardian, 26 September 2003
(2) The Politics of Dispossession, Edward Said, p100
(3) Profile, Maya Jaggi, Guardian, 11 September 1999
(4) The Meaning of Race: Race History and Culture in Western Society, Kenan Malik, London, Macmillan, 1996
(5) See James Heartfield, Hegel Dispirited: the reification of the Other in Kojève, DeBeauvoir and Sartre
(6) Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures, Edward Said, p69
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