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With the untimely death of Edward W. Said in 2003, various academic and public intellectuals worldwide have begun to reassess the writings of this powerful oppositional intellectual. Figures on the neoconservative right have already begun to discredit Said’s work as that of a subversive intent on slandering America’s benign global image and undermining its global authority. On the left, a significant number of oppositional intellectuals are eager to counter this neoconservative vilification, proffering a Said who, in marked opposition to the “anti-humanism” of the great poststructuralist thinkers who were his contemporaries—Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, and Michel Foucault—reaffirms humanism and thus rejects poststructuralist theory.
In this provocative assessment of Edward Said’s lifework, William V. Spanos argues that Said’s lifelong anti-imperialist project is actually a fulfillment of the revolutionary possibilities of poststructuralist theory. Spanos examines Said, his legacy, and the various texts he wrote—including Orientalism, Culture and Imperialism, and Humanism and Democratic Criticism—that are now being considered for their lasting political impact.
In setting up a world and setting forth the earth, the work [of art] is an instigating of this strife. This does not happen so that the work should at the same time settle and put an end to the strife in an insipid agreement, but so the strife may remain a strife. Setting up a world and setting forth the earth, the work accomplishes this strife. The work-being of the work consists in the instigation of strife between world and earth. It is because the strife arrives at its high point in the simplicity of intimacy that the unity of the work comes about in the instigation of strife. The latter is the continually self-overreaching gathering of the work's agitation. The repose of the work that rests in itself thus has its essence in the intimacy of strife. —Martin Heidegger, "The Origin of the Work of Art"
Opposition is true friendship. —William Blake, "Proverbs of Hell"
With the untimely death of Edward W. Said in 2003 various constituencies of the academic and public intellectual community, both in the United States and abroad, have begun to reassess the writings of this powerful contemporary oppositional intellectual, seeking to determine the nature of his legacy. On the right, the Straussian neoconservatives, who have exerted inordinate influence over the policies of the George W. Bush administration, have already inaugurated a campaign that goes beyond simply discrediting Said's work as that of a subversive intent on slandering America's benign global image and undermining its global authority. This initiative, for example, is epitomized by the crude testimony that the anthropologist Stanley Kurtz of the Hoover Institution gave before the House Subcommittee on Select Education (June 19, 2003). Kurtz claimed that Said's groundbreaking and extraordinarily influential critique of the ideological bias of Western scholarly and media representations of the Orient, which he first presented in Orientalism, had become dogma in Middle East area studies funded by the federal government under Title VI of the Higher Education Act and, in thus encouraging this kind of "extremist" and "anti-American" scholarship, had contributed massively to the undermining of the Bush administration's "war on terror," if not, as his pedagogic rhetoric insinuates, to terrorism itself:
The ruling intellectual paradigm in academic area studies (especially Middle Eastern studies) is called "post-colonial theory." Post-colonial theory was founded by Columbia University professor of comparative literature, Edward Said. Said gained fame in 1978, with the publication of his book, Orientalism. In that book, Said equated professors who support American foreign policy with 19th century intellectuals who propped up racist colonial empires. The core premise of postcolonial theory is that it is immoral for a scholar to put his knowledge of foreign languages and cultures at the service of American power.
In his regular columns for the Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram, Said has made his views about America crystal clear. Said has condemned the United States, which he calls "a stupid bully," as a nation with a "history of reducing whole peoples, countries, and even continents to ruin by nothing short of holocaust." Said has actively urged his Egyptian readers to replace their naïve belief in America as the defender of liberty and democracy with his supposedly more accurate picture of America as an habitual perpetrator of genocide.
On the left, a significant number of oppositional intellectuals, claiming to be his heirs and eager to proffer an image of Said's oeuvre that would radically counter this vulgar neoconservative vilification, seem to have read his posthumously published last book, Humanism and Democratic Criticism, as his apologia pro vita sua, the culmination of the narrative history of his thought. To be specific, they seek, following his directives, to offer us a Said who, in marked opposition to the "antihumanism" of the great poststructuralist thinkers who were his contemporaries—Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, and not least, Michel Foucault—finally and overtly identified his more or less lifelong anti-imperialist project with the Western humanist legacy these poststructuralists were committed to delegitimizing. One of the most recent—and counterproductively uncompromising—versions of this binarist left-oriented claim comes from Timothy Brennan, a former student of Said, who writes:
With some guardedness, it is in the essays of The World, the Text, and the Critic that he sets out to portray a mental landscape of imperial resurgence at the dawn of Reaganism as well as a situation in which critics were cramping the scope of intellectual life.... Although few understood his words this way, his target in these essays was poststructuralist "science" seen as substitute religion with its own codes of enlistment, conversion, and mystification. In this way he revisited Orientalism's analysis of that thoroughly European problematic, the sublation of religion and technics, a problematic continually shadowed by the triumph of reason implicit in Europe's tireless war on a conveniently ageless and resilient Islam.
Another, more palatable version of this oppositional leftist perspective that perceives Humanism and Democratic Criticism as Said's Summum and his humanism as the urgent antidote to the antihumanism of both the right and the (poststructuralist) left comes from my boundary 2 colleague Paul Bové. It is a persuasive version, one not to be taken lightly, because of its recognition that the logic of the Straussians' dehumanizing contempt for history could fulfill its imperatives in the extinction of the human species. Nevertheless, it is also one that, in overdetermining the antihumanism of these Straussian humanists without referring to the quite different antihumanism of the poststructuralists (i.e., those who, in disclosing the Logos—the principle of identity, of self-presence—informing its understanding of the Self, delegitimize the tradition's interpretation of humanism and the humanities), implicitly suggests the latter's complicity with the former. Bové starkly but quite accurately asserts that neoconservative state intellectuals, indifferent to Said's Vichian historicism, "never treat history, for the simple reason that in their philosophy, history is of no matter, especially when force is available." He then writes:
In short, the last remaining superpower is a threat to American democracy. With its end-of-history crazes and its mad impositions of "democracy" by force, it expresses its profound hatred and fear of participatory democratic possibility and has committed itself, on the foundation of capitalist commodification, to the extinction of the species as capable of thinking and living historically. It has committed itself to make the species over into something other than the human that stands at the center of high philological humanism. For if the human becomes merely the creature that consumes under the illusion that ready-made certainties and corporate totalities define reality, truth, and the limits of desire, then the very idea that the human is mind capable of understanding itself, in its own forms and those of others—the very species that lives and thinks and creates culture in that way—will no longer exist.
But Said was nothing if not committed to the power of resistance and optimism that human struggles for freedom can be achieved.
I am, of course, profoundly sympathetic to Bové's characterization of Said's humanity, to his Vichian historicist idea of the human, and to his devastating critique of the Straussian neoconservative state intellectuals who have hijacked whatever democracy still exists in the United States. From my recalcitrant poststructuralist perspective, however, I find it ironic that in identifying Said's humanism with philological historicity, that is, the perspective that understands humanity as radically historical—the very historicity for which the neoconservatives have nothing but utter contempt—Bové, like Said (at times), fails to realize that his optimistic identification of the historical struggle for freedom and democracy with the abstraction "humanity" (as in his phrase "the human struggle for freedom") seems to be indifferent to the historically specific character of these human struggles. It would be nice to think with Bové and Said that humanity at large has throughout history been committed to the struggle for freedom and democracy. As poststructuralists from Nietzsche and Heidegger to Derrida and Foucault have decisively shown, however, the overwhelming witness of history demonstrates that, on the contrary, humans have, precisely in the name of humanity, insistently wreaked havoc on the planet and the humanity that inhabits it. In other words, though I am in profound solidarity with Bové's and Said's expressions of the urgent need to attend to their Vichian historicism in the face of the neoconservative intellectual deputies' antihumanism, the kind of optimistic generalization of humanity's struggle to be free shared by Bové and Said is, as I will argue in this book, simply not historical enough.
In my view, the assumption that Said's posthumously published Humanism and Democratic Criticism was his last will and testament—the final statement of his critical legacy—is a questionable one with significant implications for the present post-9/11 occasion. I make this contention in part because such an assumption runs counter to the open-ended and collaborative essence of his thought and particularly to the tenor of his late lectures on the "the late styles" of figures including composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, and Richard Strauss; essayists such as Theodor Adorno; writers such as Lampedusa and Jean Genet; and filmmakers such as Visconti. In opposition to this assumption's unwarranted narrative orientation toward biography, Said posits these individuals' adamant refusal of narrative closure:
Each of us can readily supply evidence of how it is that late works crown a lifetime of aesthetic endeavor, Rembrandt and Matisse, Bach and Wagner. But what of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution but as intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction? What if age and ill health don't produce the serenity of "ripeness is all"? ...
It is this second type of lateness as a factor of style I find deeply interesting. I'd like to explore the experience of late style that involves a nonharmonious, nonserene tension, and above all, a sort of deliberately unproductive productiveness going against....
Moreover, the assumption that Humanism and Democratic Criticism is Said's last will and testament is especially problematic because, in the process of recuperating the hegemony of humanism, Said nowhere theorizes the history of the term's usage; that is, he never attempts to specify what he means by it. Such an assumption about Said's legacy therefore permits traditional liberal humanists to dissociate themselves from the "bad" (i.e., identitarian, Eurocentric, or elitist) humanism of the "classical" humanists he excoriates as "abusers" of an authentic humanism—most notably Matthew Arnold, Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, T. S. Eliot, and more recently but not least, Allan Bloom—and to identify themselves with a "good" (accommodational, i.e., tolerant) humanism that in fact smuggles a transcendental Origin, an essentialism, into its secular orbit. Whatever he says about humanism in this posthumously published book, Said was, at least in practice, an antihumanist humanist or at any rate was engaged in thinking a humanism that was in its errancy more truly humanist than the traditional humanism (Roman, not Greek) that became hegemonic in the West in the wake of the apotheosis of Man—the anthropo-logos—in the Renaissance and especially after the Enlightenment. Indeed, he was, despite an increasing negativity toward poststructuralism, thinking a humanism that was consistent with the posthumanism (i.e., the "antihumanist humanism") that was the unsaid assumption of the so-called poststructuralists from Heidegger, through Derrida, Lyotard, Lacan, and the French feminists, to Althusser and Foucault—specifically, those postmodern thinkers whose principal project was to demonstrate the paradoxical oppressiveness of (i.e., the difficulty of achieving agency within) the hegemonic "truth discourse" of (Western) modernity. By referring to this truth discourse, I mean the discourse of "Man," whose origins lay in a totalizing metaphysical interpretation of being that spatialized, structuralized, or more precisely, territorialized temporality (the difference it always already disseminates) in the name of the transcendental principle of identity—an order tethered to an absolute Origin, the anthropologos.
The struggle over the legacy of Edward Said is not simply another debate internal to the academy; it has global consequences for oppositional thought and politics. The significance of this struggle arises not simply because, in the course of his academic career—and through his activism on behalf of the Palestinian people's right to self-determination—his thought, unlike that of most academics, especially American, achieved global visibility and influence. It also has to do with the history of humanist studies since the disintegration of the Western university, especially the American university, during the 1960s under the hammers of the civil rights, feminist, homosexual, and anti–Vietnam War movements and the rise of "theory"—a revolutionary momentum of thought that, however imperfectly, was committed to the de-struction or de-construction of the (binarist) truth discourse endemic to the West, which Heidegger called the "onto-theo-logical tradition"; Derrida, the "logocentric tradition"; and Foucault, "post-Enlightenment modernity." As the proliferation of cultural and postcolonial studies testifies, Said's work emerged to global prominence as that of the poststructuralists began to wane in influence. Given this tentative outcome of the debates over critical theory, the question that needs to be newly rethought is this: What is the relationship between poststructuralist theory and what Said calls his "historicist philology" or, alternatively, "secular criticism"? Did the latter achieve prominence as the victor of a struggle with the former? Or is it possible that Said's worldly criticism constitutes the (near) fulfillment of the unfulfilled logic of the earlier poststructuralist critique of Western metaphysical thinking, especially in its latest, "anthropological" or "humanistic" phase?
After Orientalism (1978), Said, as Timothy Brennan notes, insistently though not systematically represented poststructuralist theory pejoratively, as "unworldly" and even as a secular form of otherworldly "religion." This judgment has become increasingly prominent in recent years, though those Saidians who now voice it seem to claim themselves as a saving remnant. Invoking Said's legacy in a special issue of boundary 2 entitled "Critical Secularism" and published after his death, Amir Mufti, for example, one of Said's most astute commentators, writes:
Said's work came to the fore at a time when the world of humanistic knowledge was coming to be shaken to its core, its basic assumptions about the possibilities of knowledge seemingly washed away. In the vernacular, these complex developments in the world of thought and culture have long been collectively dubbed "postmodernism," often in the form of an epithet. Said himself of course was deeply influenced by the European thinkers—Adorno, Foucault, Derrida, and Auerbach, above all—whose work is an important element in this milieu, and he is sometimes seen as belonging fully to it. How little it is still understood that his work was utterly at odds with this contemporary milieu and how differently he read those formative thinkers.
In a similar vein—though far more problematic in the reductiveness of his competitive possessiveness—Brennan, following Said's rather tentative identification of poststructuralist theory with Renan's "natural supernaturalism," wants to "save" Said's unique worldly political criticism from the unworldly and indeed "religious" poststructuralist (and postcolonialist) usurpers of Said's legacy after "the Heideggerian turn":
By targeting poststructuralism, he did no more here than recall his own earlier arguments against the "science" of high humanism. He was frankly returning to the problem described in those passages of Orientalism that examined the fatal methodological borrowing by the philologist Ernest Renan from the naturalist Georges Cuvier. Those passages prepare one to understand many of his emphases in The World, the Text, and the Critic. As described in Orientalism, the result of Renan's affection for Cuvier had been what Renan tellingly, and damningly for Said, called "la science exacte des choses de l'esprit ("an exact science of all matters of the spirit [of cultural facts]")." In ways that the American theoretical community was unprepared to fathom, Said was saying something rather subtle and unexpected: despite its assault on humanist mustiness with its arrogant Enlightenment grandeur, theory had assumed an uncomfortable resemblance to Renan. What Said in the collection repeatedly dubs the slavish attitude of American critics to their French sources had given way already (in his words) to a "secular priesthood" in the "era of scientific intelligence."
Excerpted from The Legacy of Edward W. Said by WILLIAM V. SPANOS Copyright © 2009 by William V. Spanos. Excerpted by permission of University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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1 Edward W. Said and the Poststructuralists: An Introduction 1
2 Heidegger, Foucault, and the "Empire of the Gaze": Thinking the Territorialization of Knowledge 26
3 Orientalism: Foucault, Genealogy, History 70
4 Culture and Imperialism: The Specter of Empire 111
5 Edward Said's Humanism and American Exceptionalism after 9/11/01: An Interrogation 151
6 Edward Said's Mount Hermon and Mine: A Forwarding Remembrance and a Coda 197