Sunday, October 17, 2010

Edward Said – Life, Works and Critical Reception


A Palestinian refugee in his youth and a respected though controversial professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, Said (pronounced sah-EED) is an influential and often polemical cultural critic.
Said is a public intellectual who frequently writes about the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East and actively supports the cause for Palestinian national rights. His most celebrated and contentious work, Orientalism (1978), which examines Western representations of Middle Eastern societies and cultures, established his reputation for innovative and provocative explorations of the interrelationships between texts—literary and otherwise—and the political, economic, and social contexts from which they emerged. In his writings Said adopts a Continental, interdisciplinary approach to literary criticism and uses the principles of phenomenology, existentialism, and French structuralism to make connections between literature and politics. Although his theories and methods have exerted a profound influence on the American academy, especially on literary theory and cultural studies, Said often is the target of phone threats and hate letters, principally for his unwavering advocacy of Palestinian political and cultural rights in the Middle East. "Said occupies a unique place in contemporary literary criticism," wrote John Kucich. "He is a much-needed link among humanistic values and traditions, theories of textuality, and cultural politics. His work is … a careful integration from these various positions and an original prescription for the renovation of literary and cultural study."

Biographical Information

Said was born November 1, 1935, in Jerusalem in what was then Palestine. The only son of Wadie and Hilda Musa Said, prominent members of the Christian Palestinian community, he was baptized as an Anglican and attended St. George's, his father's alma mater. In December, 1947, his family fled to Cairo, Egypt, to avoid the turmoil surrounding the establishment of Israel as a nation. In Cairo, Said studied at the American School and Victoria College, the so-called "Eton of the Middle East," before he completed his secondary education at a preparatory school in Massachusetts. Said became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1953. After graduating from Princeton University in 1957, he undertook graduate studies in comparative literature at Harvard University, where he earned his M.A. in 1960 and his Ph.D. in 1964. His dissertation on the psychological relationship between Joseph Conrad's short fiction and his correspondence became his first published book, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (1966). Hired as an instructor in English at Columbia University in 1963, Said became a full professor by 1970; his distinguished teaching career at Columbia included two endowed chairmanships in the 1980s and 1990s. Said enhanced his growing reputation for literary scholarship with Beginnings (1975), which won Columbia's Lionel Trilling Award in 1976. During the 1970s Said actively involved himself in the Palestinian cause by writing numerous essays for scholarly journals and independent publications. From 1977 to 1991 he belonged to the Palestinian National Council, the Palestinians' parliament in exile, meeting Yasir Arafat many times and helping to draft the Palestinian declaration of statehood in 1988. Said pursued his work following the groundbreaking Orientalism, which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, with the publication of two "sequels," The Question of Palestine (1979) and Covering Islam (1981); the essay collection, The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983); and a meditative essay on Palestinian identity featuring the photographs of Jean Mohr, After the Last Sky (1986). During the 1980s and 1990s, Said was named to several visiting professorships and lectured extensively on both literary and political themes. In 1991 he published Musical Elaborations, a volume of original music criticism that grew out his lifelong fondness for playing the piano. Said was diagnosed with leukemia in 1993. His subsequent works—Culture and Imperialism (1993), The Politics of Disspossession (1994), Representations of the Intellectual (1994), and Peace and Its Discontents (1995)—continue to provoke controversy.

Major Works

Said's writings cover diverse topics, but at their center lies a concern for the multiple relationships between the act of writing and cultural politics, language and power. Beginnings theorizes about the reasons several writers begin their works the way they do, demonstrating that prevailing cultural ideas of the beginning act change and limit a writer's choice to begin. Orientalism reveals how Western journalists, fiction writers, and scholars helped to create a prevalent and hostile image of Eastern cultures as inferior, stagnant, and degenerate, showing the extent to which these representations permeate Western culture and have been exploited to justify imperialist policies in the Middle East. Orientalism provides much of the theoretical and thematic groundwork for many of Said's subsequent works, and it contains the dictum of orientalism: "They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented." The Question of Palestine outlines the history of the Palestinians and the Arab-Israeli conflict, describing the opposition between an Israeli world informed by Western ideas and the "oriental" realities of a Palestinian culture. Covering Islam, elucidating the themes of Said's previous books in more practical terms, investigates the influence of orientalist discourse on the Western media's representation of Islamic culture. Written between 1968 and 1983 on wide-ranging literary and political topics, the twelve essays comprising The World, the Text, and the Critic offer an assessment of contemporary criticism and scholarship in the humanities, highlighting Said's notions of "antithetical knowledge" and the synthesis of literary and political writing. Culture and Imperialism examines how imperialism, the "culture of resistance," and postcolonialism helped to shape the French and English novel, exemplified by close, provocative readings of Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, Albert Camus, W. B. Yeats, and Jane Austen. The essays in The Politics of Dispossession critique the Islamic revival, Arab culture, Palestinian nationalism, and American policy in the Middle East, revealing a moderating stance toward Israel and a distancing from the Palestinian Liberation Organization (P.L.O.). Representations of the Intellectual is a case study of the intellectual persona.
Said is best known for describing and critiquing "Orientalism", which he perceived as a constellation of false assumptions underlying Western attitudes toward the East. In Orientalism (1978), Said described the "subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture."[14] He argued that a long tradition of false and romanticized images of Asia and the Middle East in Western culture had served as an implicit justification for Europe and America's colonial and imperial ambitions. Just as fiercely, he denounced the practice of Arab elites who internalized the American and British orientalists' ideas of Arabic culture.
In 1980 Said criticized what he regarded as poor understanding of the Arab culture in the West:
So far as the United States seems to be concerned, it is only a slight overstatement to say that Moslems and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Moslem life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. What we have instead is a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression.
Orientalism has had a significant impact on the fields of literary theory, cultural studies and human geography, and to a lesser extent on those of history and oriental studies. Taking his cue from the work of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, and from earlier critics of western Orientalism such as A. L. Tibawi,[16] Anouar Malek-Abdel,[17] Maxime Rodinson,[18] and Richard William Southern,[19] Said argued that Western writings on the Orient, and the perceptions of the East purveyed in them, are suspect, and cannot be taken at face value. According to Said, the history of European colonial rule and political domination over the East distorts the writings of even the most knowledgeable, well-meaning and sympathetic Western ‘Orientalists’ (a term that he transformed into a pejorative):
I doubt if it is controversial, for example, to say that an Englishman in India or Egypt in the later nineteenth century took an interest in those countries which was never far from their status in his mind as British colonies. To say this may seem quite different from saying that all academic knowledge about India and Egypt is somehow tinged and impressed with, violated by, the gross political fact – and yet that is what I am saying in this study of Orientalism. (Said, Orientalism 11)
Said contended that Europe had dominated Asia politically so completely for so long that even the most outwardly objective Western texts on the East were permeated with a bias that even most Western scholars could not recognise. His contention was not only that the West has conquered the East politically but also that Western scholars have appropriated the exploration and interpretation of the Orient’s languages, history and culture for themselves. They have written Asia’s past and constructed its modern identities from a perspective that takes Europe as the norm, from which the "exotic", "inscrutable" Orient deviates.
Said concludes that Western writings about the Orient depict it as an irrational, weak, feminised "Other", contrasted with the rational, strong, masculine West, a contrast he suggests derives from the need to create "difference" between West and East that can be attributed to immutable "essences" in the Oriental make-up. In 1978, when the book was first published, with memories of the Yom Kippur war and the OPEC crisis still fresh, Said argued that these attitudes still permeated the Western media and academia. After stating the central thesis, Orientalism consists mainly of supporting examples from Western texts.

Critical Reception

Owing partly to the nature of his thought and partly to his allegiance to the Palestinian cause, Said has generated controversy upon publication of nearly every book. Despite his persistent denials, he has been questioned about terrorism throughout the course of his career. Robert Hughes has reported that "none of Said's political foes have been able to cite a single utterance by him that could be construed as anti-Semitic or as condoning either tyranny or terrorism." Most scholars, however, have recognized the extent to which his oppositional criticism has influenced debate beyond literary issues and cultural politics, especially Orientalism, which has been cited as often as criticized by literary theorists, historians, anthropologists, and political scientists—the book even has spawned a new subdiscipline, the cultural study of colonialism. "The Orient was a product of the imagination," opined Albert Hourani of that book, "and Mr. Said's delicate and subtle methods of analysis are good tools for laying bare the structure of the literary imagination." Dinitia Smith remarked that Orientalism "has changed the face of scholarship on the Arab world and the Third World in general." Although many critics have praised the study, some have focused on imperfections in the argument of Orientalism, accusing Said of perpetuating the same Eastern stereotypes for which he had faulted the Western imperialist. Some critics have noted that although many of Said's writings have been translated into many different languages, his books on Palestinian affairs had not been published in Arabic by 1994. Robert Hughes has described Said as "a scholar and humanist,… the controversial voice of Palestine in America and an eloquent mediator between the Middle East and the West."

Supporters of Said and his  influence

Said’s supporters argue that such criticisms, even if correct, do not invalidate his basic thesis, which they say still holds true for the 19th and 20th centuries and in particular for general representations of the Orient in Western media, literature and film. His supporters point out that Said himself acknowledges limitations of his study's failing to address German scholarship (Orientalism 18-19) and that, in the "Afterword" to the 1995 edition of Orientalism, he, in their view, convincingly refutes his critics, such as Lewis (329-54).
Said's continuing importance in the fields of literary criticism and cultural studies is represented by his influence on scholars studying India, such as Gyan Prakash, Nicholas Dirks, and Ronald Inden, and literary theorists such as Hamid Dabashi, Homi K. Bhabha[34] and Gayatri Spivak.
Both supporters of Edward Said and his critics acknowledge the profound, transformative influence that his book Orientalism has had across the spectrum of the humanities; but whereas his critics regret his influence as limiting, his supporters praise his influence as liberating.

Criticism of US Foreign Policy

In a 1997 revised edition of his book Covering Islam, Said discussed instances of what he said was biased reporting in the Western press: “speculations about the latest conspiracy to blow up buildings, sabotage commercial airliners, and poison water supplies.”  Said opposed many US foreign policy endeavors in the Middle East. During an April 2003 interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Said argued that the Iraq war was ill-conceived:
My strong opinion, though I don't have any proof in the classical sense of the word, is that they want to change the entire Middle East and the Arab world, perhaps terminate some countries, destroy the so-called terrorist groups they dislike and install regimes friendly to the United States. I think this is a dream that has very little basis in reality. The knowledge they have of the Middle East, to judge from the people who advise them, is to say the least out of date and widely speculative....
I don't think the planning for the post- Saddam, post-war period in Iraq is very sophisticated, and there's very little of it. [US Undersecretary of State Marc] Grossman and [US Undersecretary of Defense Douglas] Feith testified in Congress about a month ago and seemed to have no figures and no ideas what structures they were going to deploy; they had no idea about the use of institutions that exist, although they want to de-Ba'thise the higher echelons and keep the rest.
The same is true about their views of the army. They certainly have no use for the Iraqi opposition that they've been spending many millions of dollars on. And to the best of my ability to judge, they are going to improvise.

Pro-Palestinian activism

As a pro-Palestinian activist, Said campaigned for a creation of an independent Palestinian state. From 1977 until 1991, Said was an independent member of the Palestinian National Council who tended to stay out of factional struggles. He supported the two-state solution and voted for it in Algiers in 1988. In 1991, he quit the PNC in protest over the process leading up to the signing of the Oslo Accords, feeling that the Oslo terms were unacceptable and had been rejected by the Madrid round negotiators. He felt that Oslo would not lead to a truly independent state and was inferior to a plan Arafat had rejected when Said himself presented it to Arafat on behalf of the US government in the late 1970s. In particular, he wrote that Arafat had sold short the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in pre-1967 Israel and ignored the growing presence of Israeli settlements. Said's relationship with the Palestinian Authority was once so bad that PA leaders banned the sale of his books in August 1995, but improved when he hailed Arafat for rejecting Barak's offers at the Camp David 2000 Summit. Ultimately, Said came to prefer and to support a state that would afford Palestinians a home with equal human rights in place of the 'Jewish' state of modern-day Israel.
In June 2002, Said, along with Hadrr Abdel-Shafi, Ibrahim Dakak, and Mustafa Barghouti, helped establish the Palestinian National Initiative, or Al-Mubadara, an attempt to build a third force in Palestinian politics, a democratic, reformist alternative to both the established Fatah and Islamist militant groups, such as Hamas.
In Al-Ahram Weekly, in April 2002, Said observes:
Above all we must, as Mandela never tired of saying about his struggle, be aware that Palestine is one of the great moral causes of our time. Therefore, we need to treat it as such. It's not a matter of trade, or bartering negotiations, or making a career. It is a just cause which should allow Palestinians to capture the high moral ground and keep it.
In August 2003, in an article published online in Counterpunch, Said summarizes his position on the contemporary rights of Palestinians vis-à-vis the historical experience of the Jewish people:
I have spent a great deal of my life during the past 35 years advocating the rights of the Palestinian people to national self-determination, but I have always tried to do that with full attention paid to the reality of the Jewish people and what they suffered by way of persecution and genocide. The paramount thing is that the struggle for equality in Palestine/Israel should be directed toward a humane goal, that is, co-existence, and not further suppression and denial.
It is important to note that while Said was seen - and indeed, often appropriated by various Islamic groups - as a global intellectual defender of Islam, Said himself denied this claim several times, most notably in republications of Orientalism. Said's primary objectives were humanistic and not Islamic; his vision for Palestine and Israel's peaceful co-existence necessarily took Islam into consideration, but emphasized the needs of Palestinians and Israelis as two ethnic groups whose basic needs, such as food, water, shelter and protection, were to be valued above all else.
Said notes that "in all my works I remained fundamentally critical of a gloating and uncritical nationalism.... My view of Palestine ... remains the same today: I expressed all sorts of reservations about the insouciant nativism and militant militarism of the nationalist consensus; I suggested instead a critical look at the Arab environment, Palestinian history, and the Israeli realities, with the explicit conclusion that only a negotiated settlement between the two communities of suffering, Arab and Jewish, would provide respite from the unending war." He notes that every Arabic publisher who was interested in his book on Palestine "wanted me to change or delete those sections that were openly critical of one or another Arab regime (including the PLO), a request that I have always refused to comply with."
Furthermore, he was one of few Palestinian activists who at the same time acknowledged Israel and Israel's founding intellectual theory, Zionism. Said was one of the first proponents of a two-state solution, and in an important academic article entitled "Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims," Said argued that both the Zionist claim to a land - and, more importantly, the Zionist claim that the Jewish people needed a land - and Palestinian rights of self-determination held legitimacy and authenticity. In this way Said stood out among the crowd of Palestinian activists as one who could simultaneously stand at the center of Palestinian nationalism on the one hand and intellectual, meta-nationalistic humanism on the other. This uncanny self-assurance in both base political and elite intellectual spheres helped raise his status in the intelligent public’s eye.
Said's books on the issue of Israel and Palestine include The Question of Palestine (1979), The Politics of Dispossession (1994) and The End of the Peace Process (2000).

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