Edward Said: A Legacy of Emancipation and Representation

Edward Said: A Legacy of Emancipation and Representation

by Adel Iskandar

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Edward W. Said (1935–2003) ranks as one of the most preeminent public intellectuals of our time. Through his literary criticism, his advocacy for the Palestinian cause, and his groundbreaking book Orientalism, Said elegantly enriched public discourse by unsettling the status quo. This indispensable volume, the most comprehensive and wide-ranging…  See more details below


Edward W. Said (1935–2003) ranks as one of the most preeminent public intellectuals of our time. Through his literary criticism, his advocacy for the Palestinian cause, and his groundbreaking book Orientalism, Said elegantly enriched public discourse by unsettling the status quo. This indispensable volume, the most comprehensive and wide-ranging resource on Edward Said’s life and work, spans his broad legacy both within and beyond the academy. The book brings together contributions from thirty-one luminaries—leading scholars, critics, writers, and activists—to engage Said’s provocative ideas. Their essays and interviews explore the key themes of emancipation and representation through the prisms of postcolonial theory, literature, music, philosophy, and cultural studies.

Contributors: Bill Ashcroft, Ben Conisbee Baer, Daniel Barenboim, Timothy Brennan, Noam Chomsky, Denise DeCaires-Narain, Nicholas Dirks, Marc H. Ellis, Rokus de Groot, Sabry Hafez, Abdirahman A. Hussein, Ardi Imseis, Adel Iskandar, Ghada Karmi, Katherine Callen King, Joseph Massad, W. J. T. Mitchell, Laura Nader, Ilan Pappe, Benita Parry, Rajagopalan Radhakrishnan, Jahan Ramazani, Jacqueline Rose, Lecia Rosenthal, Hakem Rustom, Avi Shlaim, Ella Habiba Shohat, Robert Spencer, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Anastasia Valassopoulos, Asha Varadharajan, Michael Wood

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Editorial Reviews

Arab Studies Journal

“Iskandar, Rustom, and their contributors have produced a rich, ambitious, and complex collection that will surely become one of the authoritative texts for those interested in Said’s legacy.”
Jrnl Of Palestine Studies - Neville Hoad

“Recapitulates something of Said’s own restlessness, critical energy, and deeply self-reflexive political engagements.”
From the Publisher
"Iskandar, Rustom, and their contributors have produced a rich, ambitious, and complex collection that will surely become one of the authoritative texts for those interested in Said's legacy."--Arab Studies Journal

"Recapitulates something of Said's own restlessness, critical energy, and deeply self-reflexive political engagements."--Jrnl of Palestine Studies

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University of California Press
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Edward Said

A Legacy of Emancipation and Representation

By Adel Iskandar, Hakem Rustom


Copyright © 2010 Adel Iskandar and Hakem Rustom
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94540-1


Affiliating with Edward Said

Joseph Massad

Perhaps one of the more important principles that Edward Said abided by in his life and career was the centrality of his role as secular critic. He saw criticism as constitutive of the life of the intellectual, who must "speak truth to power" Indeed, it was his commitment to persistent criticism as a basis for thinking that made him so controversial, whether in the United States, Europe, or the Arab world. Said insisted on affiliative forms of intellectual belonging and community in the expansive sense of the term, forsaking filiative forms as too limiting. The intellectuals and political figures with whom he affiliated and the ideas to which he sought to belong guided his intellectual project of reading and interpreting not only the modern experience of colonizing and colonized subjects but also the way in which both informed his own intellectual constitution and production.

Said believed that the life of an intellectual should be that of a migrant and an exile. He used the term exile in a metaphorical sense, referring not to leaving one's physical home but rather to leaving the conventions and accepted truths of one's community, insistently criticizing these truths, and not shrinking from addressing the failures of one's audience, no matter how powerful. In his view, intellectuals must be outsiders "so far as privileges, powers and honors, are concerned"1 While respectful of religion as a personal relationship to the metaphysical, Said was a committed secularist in his intellectual life. He insisted on being politically godless in an age dominated by the worship of political deities—the "West," Soviet Communism, U.S. imperialism, nationalisms of all varieties, to name the most prominent. His political atheism, however, was not equivalent to neutrality; rather it was an insistent critical stance toward all political religions. He mocked the rites and rituals staged by worshippers of such gods and insisted that these were proof of moral bankruptcy.

Said used the ideas and philosophies associated with these gods but refused to accede to their terms of worship and conversion. This stance was to become his hallmark. Commitment to secular criticism for him was consistent with his conviction that these gods always fail to deliver on their promises and that intellectual life must be lived according to the understanding that "situations are contingent, not ... inevitable ... the result of a series of historical choices made by men and women, ... facts of society made by human beings, and not ... natural or God-given, therefore unchangeable, permanent, irreversible."

In this sense, Said resisted being enclosed by any type of society, including—and especially—nationality: "Does the fact of nationality commit the individual intellectual ... to the public mood for reasons of solidarity, primordial loyalty, or national patriotism? Or can a better case be made for the intellectual as a dissenter from the corporate ensemble?" He expected such dissent from Palestinian as well as American intellectuals. "The history of thought, to say nothing of political movements, is extravagantly illustrative of how the dictum 'solidarity before criticism,' means the end of criticism. I take criticism so seriously as to believe that, even in the very midst of battle in which one is unmistakably on one side against another, there should be criticism, because there must be critical consciousness if there are to be issues, problems, values, even lives to be fought for."

Said took this dictum to heart in addressing the politics of Palestinian liberation, posing autocritique as central to its success. In this vein, he launched his attack against the Oslo capitulation. His commitment to the rights of the Palestinian people mobilized his hostility to what he rightly predicted would be the Bantustan solution signed in Oslo and celebrated on the White House lawn. The subsequent metamorphosis of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) into the Palestinian Authority (PA), from a liberation movement into a police authority subcontracted to the Israeli occupation, confirmed his predictions. Moreover, Oslo marked another transformation—with a number of well-known Palestinian intellectuals switching allegiance from national liberation to what came to be known as political pragmatism. They suspended their critical faculties in the name of pragmatism and national unity and were paid handsomely by the PAs new funders. Some quit academic jobs to become full-time advisors to Arafat and his ministers in the PA. This was the fate that Said had feared would befall intellectuals whose vocation was not based on secular criticism.

Said insisted that the intellectual be an amateur, not a professional. He objected to the professional intellectual who views her or his work "as something you do for a living, between the hours of nine and five, with one eye on the clock, and another cocked at what is considered to be proper, professional behavior—not rocking the boat, not straying outside the accepted paradigms or limits, making yourself marketable and above all presentable, hence uncontroversial and unpolitical and 'objective.'" The intellectual amateur, for Said, was "someone who considers that to be a thinking and concerned member of a society one is entitled to raise moral issues at the heart of even the most technical and professionalized activity as it involves one's country, its power, its mode of interacting with its citizens as well as with other societies." The intellectual as amateur, he insisted, should be able to go beyond the professional routine of doing what she or he is supposed to do by asking "why one does it, who benefits from it, how can it reconnect with a personal project and original thoughts."


For Said, these ideas about intellectual life were not merely musings but a way of life. Perhaps the best exemplar of his desire to unsettle rather than to accommodate his audience is Orientalism. When thebook came out thirtyyears ago, few books unraveled the archeology of Western identity the way Orientalism did. Said's book ingeniously exposed the connections, relationships, modulations, and displacements in Orientalism's production of an Orient that was a ruse for the production of the Occident. If, as Frantz Fanon argued, "Europe is literally the creation of the Third World," Said elaborated on that brilliant summation. Thus, for him, Orientalism was never about the Orient and its identity and culture but about the production of the West and its identity and culture—in short, "a kind of Western projection"; the West could not exist if the East were not invented as its antithesis, its opposite, its other.

Edward Said's Orientalism excavated a Western epistemological mode of production that projected an Oriental other from its own interiority, externalizing and banishing this other outside the European self as it sought to define itself. The book also tracked the travels of the discipline of Orientalism from Europe to America, where it was "degraded"—a fate that Said predicted would be the fate of much traveling theory. In a much-celebrated essay on this idea, Said wrote that degradation does not have a "moral implication, but rather ... conveys the lowering of color, the greater degree of distance, the loss of immediate force." If Orientalism (the discipline) in Europe exemplified a type of erudite and sophisticated imperial knowledge, in America, it was degraded to charlatanism.

Said's role as anthropologist of Europe—its cultures, arts, and literatures—catapulted him to the forefront of knowledge production in the Western academy. His book also enraged his detractors, who were appalled by his presumed insolence in subjecting white Europeans to an Oriental gaze. In undertaking his study of Europe, Said, true to his method and contrary to traditional European scholarship on non-Europeans, did not objectify the European but held himself accountable to the very people and cultures he studied and wrote about. This approach is the exact opposite of what Orientalists (and most Western anthropologists) do when they study non-Europeans. As Said wrote, "The Orientalist can imitate the Orient without the opposite being true. What he says about the Orient is therefore to be understood as description obtained in a one-way exchange: as they spoke and behaved, he observed and wrote down. His power was to have existed amongst them as a native speaker, as it were, and also as a secret writer. And what he wrote was intended as useful knowledge, not for them, but for Europe and its various disseminative institutions." Said's refusal to objectify what he sought to know was precisely why so many Americans and Europeans engaged with and responded to his ideas.

In his partial reversal of European ontological authority, wherein Said, the Oriental, acted as a subject studying Europe and Europeans, Said was careful not to fall into the trap of "Occidentalism," which critics like Sadiq Jalal al-'Azm incorrectly attributed to him. Indeed, even were Said to have objectified the Occident, Occidentalism could not have been the result, given the global racial arrangement of hegemony, control, and power. Orientalism is the discourse of the powerful; the weak lack the power to formulate dominating objectifying discourses, whether of the Occidentalist or any other variety.

The critics most discomfited by Orientalism were those who maintained that Said never spoke of the "real Orient." In enacting his critique, Said indeed refused to play the role of native informant, which many critics wanted him to assume. They saw this refusal as arrogance, the willfulness of a subject daring to focus his piercing, albeit nonobjectifying, gaze on Europeans and their systems of thought. Orientalism therefore aroused hostility not only because of its method or political critique but also because of the ontological anxiety it induced in Euro-American critics, as much today as when it first appeared in 1978. Moreover, Said well understood that the "Orient" was a category invented by Orientalism, and he saw any attempt to describe a "real" Orient as destined to reinscribe itself within Orientalist discourse. His solution was simple: critical intellectuals must throw the category of "Orient" into the dustbin of history, rather than try to "represent" it "truthfully."

Shattering the European monopoly on dictating subject-object positions, Orientalism traveled across disciplines, geographies, and histories. I address each briefly in the paragraphs below.

In traveling through academe, Orientalism's method and epistemological critique were taken up by a number of disciplines, ranging from feminism and gender studies to anthropology, comparative literature, and cultural and postcolonial studies (the latter owes its existence to Said's contributions). In Said's method, the gaze of the other turned around to investigate not only how the other was produced but also how the European self (itself based on many local elisions) was engineered as the universal self. The vigor of Said's method and its ontological boldness were appropriated readily and radicalized, allowing for the study not of blackness but of whiteness, not of femininity but of masculinity, not of homosexuality but of hetero sexuality. If Frantz Fanon radicalized George Lukács, as Said observed in "Traveling Theory Reconsidered" Said's own traveling Orientalism has been generative of similar radicalization.

In Middle East studies, Orientalism's legacy has been its political critique, not its method. Thus, scores of books on the Middle East have paid homage to Said's work even as they have proceeded with business as usual, Orientalist epistemology and all. For the most part, Orientalism remains poorly understood, if not misunderstood altogether, within Middle East studies. Fred Halliday, for example, one of the better-known European Middle East scholars, believes that Said's book simply "identified" the "contestable" claim that there exists "a widespread and pervasive single error at the core of a range of literature" In fact, the concept of error is foreign to Said's approach; for him, Orientalism was neither a positive nor a positivist project. This fact has apparently eluded many in the field.

Orientalism has also traveled outside America to Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It has traveled in translation and as a method. Upon its publication in the Arab world in 1981, it became an event, just as it had in America and Europe. Indeed, Orientalism and Said's subsequent translated books became part of ongoing Arab intellectual debates not only about Western representations but also about Arab literary production itself. In contrast, some of Said's Western and neoliberal Arab critics suggested that because the book had attracted nativists of all shapes and colors, it was "Occidentalist" and "Khumeiniyist." Said's hostility to nativist appropriations notwithstanding, such critics refused to acknowledge the novelty of Orientalism in its new cultural context. Since the nineteenth century, most Arab travelers to Europe had been writing about Europeans in Arabic for an Arab audience. These writers included the nineteenth-century educator Rifa'ah al-Tahtawi and the literary genius Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq. Both accepted Europe as the new locus of civilization and believed that its identity and that of the Arab East were of a different order. Their books were judged by normative Arab values of the period. Said's Orientalism exploded the notion of Orient and Occident; addressed the subjects of its study, Europeans, in one of their own languages; and evaluated them by their own normative evaluative criteria. The book's major achievements in the Arab world were to uncover the production of the European self to an Arab audience that had largely been exposed to European adulatory views of Europeans and to reveal Europeans' production, not merely their representation, of the Oriental.

Orientalism also traveled across time. Thirty years and myriad editions later, it remains in demand. In light of such peregrinations, it is instructive to subject the book to Said's own remarks about "traveling theory." Has Orientalism, which is admittedly both theory and criticism, in traveling across time, left its conditions of production and the normative values of its immediate environment to another time, with its own power relations and normative values? It seems to me that this would indeed be the case were it not for a crucial difference—namely, that the conditions and normative values that governed the writing and publication of Orientalism in 1978 have changed very little, except in certain corridors of the academy. Orientalism was written a decade after the June 1967 war pushed Orientalist discourse to the forefront in America and Europe. If, on the morrow of that war, the Daily Telegraph could declare Israel's conquest of the remainder of Palestine and parts of Syria and Egypt as the "triumph of the civilized" the ongoing battles in which America is engaged today can still be seen as part of the "civilized world's" continuous crusades against the uncivilized. Although the academic value of Orientalism and recognition of Said have appreciated considerably since 1978, so has the Orientalism to which Said applied his analytical gaze.

We are today in a battle for domination by a superpower that insists on seeing the Orient Orientalistically while itself reflecting all that it finds offensive about this fantastical Orient. If the Oriental bin Laden's logic was that the sacrifice of innocent civilians was justifiable in the service of defeating tyranny, George W. Bush and his cohorts used the same logic in sacrificing many more innocent civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq. If bin Laden is condemned for his religious obscurantism and his belief that God is on his side against the infidels, Bush and his cabal of officials and pundits professed that God was on their side against the evil of the uncivilized. If the Oriental Saddam was feared because of his potential use of (nowhere-to-be-found) weapons of mass destruction against the civilized, Bush was willing to use such weapons against civilians to rid the civilized of the Oriental despot. In this sense, as Arundhati Roy has argued, Bush and bin Laden are each other's doppelgängers. Thus, if Orientalism holds the Arab and Muslim worlds to be static, unchanging, frozen in time, it remains blind to the fact that its own categories and epistemology stand frozen in a time warp.


Excerpted from Edward Said by Adel Iskandar, Hakem Rustom. Copyright © 2010 Adel Iskandar and Hakem Rustom. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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"Iskandar, Rustom, and their contributors have produced a rich, ambitious, and complex collection that will surely become one of the authoritative texts for those interested in Said's legacy."—Arab Studies Journal

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