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Edward Said's conception of the public intellectual as an "outsider"

Mon, 10/15/2012 - 22:09 -- razinadmin

By: Ramin Jahanbegloo

When Thomas Mann left Europe in 1938 to escape the Nazi terror and to settle in the United States, he responded to a journalist upon his arrival in New York by saying: "Wo ich bin die ist deutsche Kultur" (wherever I am , there is German culture). If there is anyone, in Thomas Mann's footsteps, has earned the right to say: "Wherever I am, there is human culture", it is Edward Said. And if he was alive today and made this statement, it would be, once again not as an expression of arrogance, but as a sense of humanism and critical responsibility.

When Edward Said died in September 2003, after a decade long battle against leukemia, he was probably the best well-known public intellectual in the world. As the author of books such as Orientalism, Culture and Imperialism and Covering Islam, but also as an “uncompromising fighter on behalf of human dignity”, as Hanan Ashrawi described him, Said generated irritation, veneration and imitation. He became the idolized hero of a generation of relativists, for whom “Orientalism” meant a denunciation of Western culture. However, notions such as “radical anti-foundationalism”, “post-modernism” and “cultural relativism” struck Said as shallow and facile concepts which have been accepted without a rigorous scrutiny. Said sought to build a world of what Theodor Adorno, his intellectual hero, once called “non-dominative difference”. And that role he fulfilled, by raising in our minds the universality of so much of the human experience. In consequence, as Said wrote in 1993, “I have no patience with the position that “we” should only or mainly be concerned with what is “ours”. This was the authentic voice of an independent critic, speaking truth to power.  Edward Said was a free thinker with a vast encyclopedic knowledge and a great intellectual power. He was a truly cosmopolitan and worldly soul, who transformed his own sense of physical exile into an eloquent perspective of exile as a philosophical and political position. Said was not afraid of challenging authorities from where they came and by doing that he made politicians and intellectuals uncomfortable. Said was among the last great intellectuals of our time who lived what he preached and who preached what he lived and because of this he had the courage to live as an “outsider”. As he entitled his memoirs, Edward Said felt “out of place” much of his life, but he created a grammar of intellectual resistance which became his new place. This new place became a veritable space that brought together all those who were struggling against all forms of injustice and authority. I think, by doing this, Said left many heirs to his legacy as a global public intellectual. Indeed many will continue to be inspired by his spirit and many will continue his journey by sharing his commitments. But there is no doubt that his death leaves a visible gap in public and intellectual life across the world.

Perhaps Edward Said’s most important achievement as a public intellectual was his championing of secularism as a critical, political and philosophical orientation. He defined himself as an “unashamed and unreconstructed secularist” and taught several generations of literary critics a form of “secular criticism,” by which he meant, in effect, cultivating the ability to read texts with a full appreciation of how other cultural and historical narratives inform, inflect and intersect with one’s own. Said's ongoing reflections on the two concepts of "secular humanism" and  “intellectual responsibility" has been accompanied for the past 30 years with a virtue of “outsiderhood” and a permanent effort to rethink the role of the public contemporary intellectual. By doing so, Said had provided us with a new philosophical framework that could illuminate the intellectual condition in today’s world and provide a fresh perspective on our human community.

Although some of Said’s works now belong to the classics of literary criticism and cultural studies, his mode of intellectual thinking cannot be characterized in terms of the traditional categories of liberalism, socialism or Right and Left. Nor can his thinking be assimilated to the postmodern or communitarian thoughts. Said’s conception of intellectual thinking cannot, in this sense, be identified either with the liberal tradition or with the claims advanced by a number of radicals. In this sense, the trope of “outsiderhood” is a prominent one in Said’s life and works. His childhood sense of being always “out of place” as a Palestinian exile, was never entirely lost, but was rather transformed into a powerful intellectual spirit of criticism. In our globalized world, where most intellectuals are compelled to be specialists and professionals affiliated with public institutions, be it the academic world or the multinational business centers, it takes a considerable intellectual conviction and critical responsibility to envisage a thinker like Said who can stand outside the constraints of ideological and financial dependency. Said’s practical idealism and his faith in the critical capacity of the intellectual as a crucial agent of change is related to his sense of “outsiderhood” and his determination to occupy nothing less than the moral high ground. An acute awareness of “a series of displacements and expatriations which cannot be recuperated” has turned Said’s attention to “a sense of being between cultures and in and out of things and never really of anything for long”. The idea of cultural border-crossing that Said refers to should be considered not as a paradox of identity, but as an indicative of the complex post-colonial and exilic consciousness. The intensity of this exilic consciousness is exemplified in his book on Palestine, After the last Sky, when he underlines: “Identity, who we are, where we come from, what we are- is difficult to maintain in exile…. We are the “other. Said’s intellectual project is profoundly guided by this sense of “otherness” or “outsiderhood”. Most of Said’s own works greatest strengths and insights, results from this position of marginality where he reflects on the intellectual advantages of being an outsider. For Said having an exilic consciousness and a problematic relationship to a lost home helps to shape the entire critical disposition of an outsider. Yet he points to the dangers of this position. “You could be an outsider”, remarks Said, “and become more of an outsider, and cultivate your own garden, feel paranoia, all the rest of it”. Of course, for Said, exile is mainly a condition of profound creative empowerment. But there is also a more interesting dimension to the idea of never feeling fully at home and experiencing oneself and one’s life as an unstable” cluster of flowing currents”. Rather than a fixed solid entity. Such an attitude not only makes possible marginality of being, but also introduces us to a plurality of vision. “Because”, says Said, “ the exile sees things both in terms of what has been left behind and what is actual here and now, there is a double perspective that never sees things in isolation”. Consequently, according to Said, the intellectual needs to be in exile in order to develop his critical capacities for and free from the poisonous effects of dogmatic partisanship. Much of the philosophical nature of Said’s view of the interrelation of outsiderhood, intellectualism and culture can perhaps be explained by the fact that for him exile is both the paradigm for secular criticism and anti-identitarian sense of being of being an intellectual in the world. As Said affirms clearly in his book Representations of the Intellectual: “ The pattern that sets the course for the intellectual as outsider is best exemplified by the condition of exile, the state of never being fully adjusted, always feeling outside the chatty, familiar world inhabited by natives…Exile for the intellectual in this metaphysical sense is restlessness, movement, constantly being unsettled, and unsettling others. You cannot go back to some earlier and perhaps more stable condition of being at home; and alas you can never fully arrive, be at once in your new home or situation”.

Said detects a particularly revealing relationship between a deep-seated commitment to the secular principles of humanism and outsiderhood as the ideal position for the intellectual. Humanism, in Said’s terms, is a non-identitarian conception of human community which can be broadly characterized by the plurality of cultures, A careful, comprehensive examination of Said’s writings reveals that, he is very much inspired on this issue by the Vichian tradition and more specifically by Vico’s seminal idea of a profane history. From this close relationship between Vico and Said, it is possible to reach the following conclusion: for Said as for Vico, human civilization was born out of an interaction between mind, language and the historical circumstances. As Said develops it clearly in his book Humanism and Democratic Criticism: “ The core of humanism is the secular notion that the historical world is made by men and women, and not by God, and that it can be understood rationally according to the principle formulated by Vico in New Science, that we can really know only what we make or, to put it differently, we can know things according to the way they were made”. Said reminds us once again in his book The World, the Text and the Critic of Vico's affirmation that" human history is made up by human beings". Therefore, a return to human history is a way for Said to acknowledge the ontological status of the critic in the world. This really gets to the heart of what Said means by "worldliness" of the critic, for he takes criticism so seriously as to believe that it "is reducible neither to a doctrine or a political position on a particular question, and it is to be in the world and self-aware simultaneously". As we see it clearly, "worldliness' for Said is more than an ontic throw ness of human beings into the world. Therefore, rather than functioning in an existential mode, worldliness in Said’s work is primarily related to intellectual concerns in civil and political culture. In this sense, Said’s approach is formulated by a deep conviction of the locatedness of the intellectual activity of the critic. The critic, like the texts, is constantly shaped by the complexity of his or her own being in the world. It is this worldliness which gives intellectual work its sense of belonging to humanity and its sense of responsibility in regard to the public sphere.

Therefore, as Said’s dismissal of the “extra wordly, private and ethereal context” suggests, the critical intellectual’s function is enhanced by his or her capacity to be “in the world”. In other words, criticism locates the intellectual in the world, for the ultimate function of an intellectual is to “speak truth to power”. “Speaking the truth to power” says Said” is no panglossian idealism. It is carefully weighing the alternatives, picking the right one, and then intelligently representing it where it can do the most good and cause the right change”. It is by speaking truth to power that the worldiness of the critical intellectual can be fully realized. This does not mean for Said as the quasi- religious quietism of “specialized theologians” and the theoretical thought of the “priestly caste of acolytes”, but as a refusal to be tied down to a specialty, by caring for ideas and values. It is in such a public attitude as “amateur” that the Saidian intellectual goes beyond the cult of professional expertise in his work as a critic. The amateur is one who believes that by being a responsible and responsive member of the society one can raise moral questions about the nature of the political. By doing so, the amateur intellectual remains once again outside the political parties and far from the powerful financial institutions and therefore maintains his or her critical voice which the professional intellectual frequently cedes to these powerful social structures. In other words, intellectual outsiderhood is for Said an ambivalent position. On the one hand, it indicates a critical distanciation from the institutions of power: on the other hand, it proposes an organic relationship with the communities of resistance in the society. Said’s model of a secular and humanist intellectual is marked by the coupling of Gramsci’s committed intellectual with Julien Benda’s learned scholar in search of disinterested principles of justice and truth. As it stands, Said’s model of the intellectual as an outsider, a thinker unfettered and uncompromised by materiality is directly related to the   epistemological conversation between Gramsci and Benda which Said facilitates as both a reception of universal truths and a resistance to these truths. Said considers this tension between “reception” and “resistance” as one of the hallmarks of modernity. This is to say that for Said “the intellectual’s role is to present alternative narratives and other perspectives on history” by “situating critique at the very heart of humanism, critique as a form of democratic freedom and as a continuous practice of questioning and accumulating knowledge that is open to the constituent historical realities of the post- Cold war world”.

The emphasis in this passage falls primarily on a democratic and secular criticism that as a form of knowledge configures at various historical-cultural conjectures and which can enable us to distinguish “ideological” and “theological” illusions from a critical mode of thinking. Said’s belief in the capacity of the intellectual as a person who can break out of the “disciplinary ghetto” and as a n agent of change is guided a by a permanent metaphysical homelessness. In this, Said approximates Eric Auerbach when he underlines that “ in writing Mimesis  Auerbach was not merely practicing his profession despite adversity”, but rather “performing an act of cultural, even civilizational , survival of the highest order”. Elsewhere, in his last post-forward to his book Orientalism, Said reflects on the philological humanism of Eric Auerbach , by situating his intellectual attitude in the line of Goethian and Auerbachian concept of “Weltliteratur”.

When Goethe coined the term “Weltliteratur” in 1827, he was envisioning a future state of literature rather than deploying a category to explain the spirit of his time. For Goethe, the future of humanity was to marked by an open dialogue between nations which would end up in a fusion of all national literatures and the creation of a universal cultural community. Therefore, world literature was for Goethe an opportunity to express the universality of the human experience through an increased cross-cultural understanding, ultimately fostering harmony and reducing conflict among nations. Said describes Goethe’s concept of the “Weltliteratur” as “the study of all the literatures of the world as a symphonic whole which could be apprehended theoretically as having preserved the individuality of each work without losing sight of the whole”. Therefore, by using Goethe’s paradigm, Said is trying to help us navigate between standardization and homogenization on the one hand and exoticism on the other, learning both what cultures share and what distinguishes them. By applying the Goethian paradigm of “Weltliteratur” to philology, Edward Said tries to elaborate an adequate method for grasping and understanding works that are alien and distant. His creative making of a place for texts written in different cultures and different times involves an attitude of “empathy” (Einfuhlung).

By reactivating Goethe’s paradigm of “Weltliteratur”, Said proposes a return to philology and a more expansive literary canon as strategies for the revival of the humanities. By considering the emerging social responsibilities of writers and intellectuals in an ever more interdependent world and exploring the enduring influence of Eric Auerbach's critical masterpiece, Mimesis, Said not only makes a persuasive case for humanistic education but provides his own captivating and deeply personal perspective on our shared intellectual heritage. Auerbach exerted a powerful hold on Said, as did Mimesis. The circumstances of its completion are especially poignant. A German Jew who fled the Nazis in 1936, he took refuge in Istanbul. Despite having few primary or secondary materials at hand, Auerbach, in one of the most remarkable feats in the annals of literary scholarship, managed to recapitulate the entire Western tradition, from Homer through Dante up to modernism, entirely from memory. His exile, his distance from his homeland paradoxically allowed him to take the full measure of his subject. For Auerbach, the canon was a living thing, animating his every thought, not a collection of lifeless monuments.

According to Said “The main requirement for the kind of philological understanding Auerbach and his predecessors were talking about and tried to practice was one that sympathetically and subjectively entered into the life of a written text as seen from the perspective of its time and its author. Rather than alienation and hostility to another time and a different culture, philology as applied to Weltliteratur involved a profound humanistic spirit deployed with generosity, and if I may use the word, hospitality. Thus the interpreter’s mind actively makes a place in it for a foreign Other. And this creative making of a place for works that are otherwise alien and distant is the most important facet of the interpreter’s mission”. This is to say, that according to Said, the secular intellectual has to be rooted firmly within worldliness- albeit a world that is shifting globally, by articulating a philosophical view that envisages the “Other” not as an object of subordination, but as an object of empathy (Einfuhlung).

In short, Said invites us to resist all forms of “opaque, otherworldly and conservative” authority which uses enormous violence on our world. In other words, Said’s critical effort of mapping democratic humanism constitutes an intellectual engagement which involves both a humanistic acknowledgement of rationality and a critical dethroning of conventionalized forms of rationality. Said’s  debate with the history of rationality, begins by searching for possible sites of resistance to the authoritarian modernity. Conceptualized as a public form of resistance, “reason” can be described in Said’s work as a heightened form of awareness and maturity. This means that for Said, critical reasoning is a process of intense reflection on both the enablement and the constraints exercised by reason in human history. Therefore, the Saidian strategy of resisting the rational evil is the ability to write back to rationality through the empowerment of an exilic rationality. In this sense, Said’s entire intellectual epistemology could be considered as an optimistic initiative whose ultimate aim is to enable human agency to achieve a movement away from and around reality. This is another way of characterizing the human capacity of resistance to evil.

A perceptive critic once remarked of Said that he had "a very conservative mind, essentially Tory in its structure." Indeed, Said's passions were unabashedly traditional— he was a devotee of the opera, a noted critic of classical music, and a talented pianist. He did not much care for popular culture. Yet this formulation only gets it half right. Said was a cultural conservative who detested cultural conservatism. This is a crucial tension running through much of his critical work, and it explains why he found himself simultaneously denounced as an anti-Western heretic (by those to the right) and too rooted in a Eurocentric tradition (by those on the left).  This is maybe the reason why Said is deeply skeptical about the implications of postmodern thought, to which he resisted. His devotion to the ideals of human freedom, a component of humanism in its broadest sense, inoculated him against "a certain facile type of radical antifoundationalism." Against Derrida and Foucault, he declares that the "actuality of reading is, fundamentally, an act of perhaps modest human emancipation and enlightenment that changes and enhances one's knowledge for purposes other than reductiveness, cynicism, or fruitless standing aside." In Said's view, the genuine humanist is someone who heeds tradition while at the same time subjecting it to merciless scrutiny. Therefore, humanism for Said is burdened with an enormous responsibility. The idea of responsibility is at the center of Said’s conception of the intellectual. In his book Representations of the Intellectual , Edward Said elaborated on the social, political, and moral responsibility of the intellectual, and on his concept of the intellectual as an oppositional figure. He offered this challenge to the intellectual: "No one can speak up all the time on all the issues. But, I believe, there is a special duty to address the constituted and authorized powers of one's own society, which are accountable to its citizenry, particularly when those powers are exercised in a manifestly disproportionate and immoral war, or in a deliberate program of discrimination, repression, and collective cruelty." One can say that a burning rage against injustice marked Said all through his life, including the final 12 years as he struggled against cancer. As a self-conscious public intellectual, Said combined a rich understanding of theory and culture with his moral action in support of justice and truth.  He was valiant intellectual genius who will continue to inspire countless others to seek truth and justice. His life’s work will continue to touch future generations and his legacy will loom large driving us to better understand and critically think about the world we live in.



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