Remembering Edward Said:
An Extraordinary Citizen of the World
from the Revolutionary Worker, voice of the Revolutionary Communist
Party, USA, No. 1215, 12 October 2003, posted at www.rwor.org
in English and Spanish.
Said - outstanding public intellectual, eloquent exponent of the
Palestinian people, and erudite theoretician - died on 24 September
at age 67. Even representatives of the powers that be in the world
today, who had attacked or sought to undermine him in life, were
forced to mark his passing with prominent obituaries. On the other
side, voices from oppressed nations, particularly Palestinians
and other Arab peoples, responded to his death with accounts of
how much he had meant to them.
Said was born in Jerusalem to a well-to-do Palestinian family
that was forced into permanent exile, along with hundreds of thousands
of other Palestinians, by al-Nakbah - "the catastrophe" of aggression,
terror and dispossession that surrounded the founding of the Israeli
state in 1948. Coming to the United States as a student in the
early 1950s, Said remained in this country, like many from the
Third World, for most of the rest of his life. With a PhD from
Harvard and appointment as a professor of comparative literature
at Columbia University, he had a secure and prestigious niche
in academic life - a security he was willing to risk again and
again as he came to see the necessity of standing up against lies
and oppression, against the depredations of imperialism and Zionism
and the discourse that seeks to justify and rationalise it.
the famous "stone-throwing incident" of three years ago, for example.
On a trip to southern Lebanon, Said had thrown "stones of celebration"
across the border with Israel, and toward an Israeli guardhouse.
This was the border that had only recently been re-established,
after Israel had been forced to withdraw from its occupation of
southern Lebanon. It was a highly fitting gesture of solidarity
in defiance of Israeli armed might - and thus bound to set off
reactionaries in this country, who demanded that this distinguished
scholar and teacher be fired from his post at Columbia (and during
his career Said received numerous death threats). The attempts
to remove Said from his academic position were defeated and he
continued teaching up to the time of his death.
the whole incident - tipping his hat to the stone-throwing youth
of Palestine - was the kind of surprising gesture that revealed
Said's deep connection to the new generations. Known for his scholarship
and literary criticism of such authors as Jane Austen, Joseph
Conrad and Albert Camus, Said's passions ranged in many directions,
such as a recent introduction for Joe Sacco's graphic novel Palestine
- where Said discussed the subversive value of comics that defy
"the ordinary processes of thought".
Said was a public intellectual. He was an engaged and committed
intellectual. And his life is an example of some of the best that
intellectuals are capable of, as thinkers who range themselves
against the established powers and on the side of the people of
the world. This is the sort of person, and role, that the proletariat
values and honors.
his most famous and innovating book, Orientalism, Said traces
out the ways in which notions of the Orient or "the East" came
to be formed in the West, and how the profession of "orientalist",
or intellectual who "knows" the area and its peoples, from Middle
East to Far East, came to be. He shows how these concepts were
constructed as part of European imperialism's conquests in the
modern era, beginning with Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798
(in which his 3,400 troops were accompanied by a thousand civilian
administrators, surveyors, economists, biologists - even artists
imperialists had to study the lands and peoples in order to control
them. But the knowledge they gained was infected by their aims
of domination. The people and institutions there became a vast
Other, seen as passive, sensual and ignorant, in contrast to the
active, cerebral and knowledgeable West. In short, the image of
the "lazy, ignorant native" is constructed, who must be ruled
and guided, and whose "exotic" customs and superstitions are to
be studied and classified by the superior and scientific West.
representation of the peoples of "The East" is a kind of false
knowledge. But it serves a purpose - not only (and not mainly)
to make the imperialist feel superior, but to build a whole discourse
of domination, so that what counts as knowledge is interwoven
with the structures of power. As Said puts it, "The hold these
instruments have on the mind is increased by the institutions
built around them. For every Orientalist, quite literally, there
is a support system of staggering power, [which] culminates into
the very institutions of the state. To write about the Arab Oriental
world, therefore, is to write with the authority of a nation,
and not with the affirmation of a strident ideology but with the
unquestioning certainty of absolute truth backed by absolute force."
From the late 1960s onward, it was this sort of interrelation
of knowledge and power that claimed Said's attention as a literary
and cultural theorist. This coincided with a turn toward greater
involvement in the political struggle of the Palestinian people
and in the political leadership of the Palestinian movement. The
event that brought Said into political life was Israel's aggressive
attack and conquest of the West Bank in 1967 (the "Six Day War").
His next book was The Question of Palestine, and in the 1970s
he became a member of the Palestine National Council, the "parliament
in exile", as it was often called. Over the next 30 years, he
came forward as one of the most articulate and visible public
exponents of the Palestinian struggle in the US, writing and speaking
on the subject on innumerable occasions. He also wrote a column
for the Egyptian weekly Al Ahram, which circulated throughout
the Arab world.
Palestinian struggle has gone through several stages, and one
of the most important was inaugurated with the beginnings of the
First Intifada in 1988 - mass struggle, under the guns of the
Israeli army, against occupation, domination and dispossession.
It brought joy to the hearts of the oppressed everywhere, and
great consternation to Israel and the rulers of the US, who opened
up negotiations with Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation
Organisation (PLO), something which they had previously refused
to do. As negotiations proceeded, Edward Said saw that Arafat
was capitulating to the US, and in 1991 he resigned from the Palestine
an agreement was signed two years later, which gave token power
to a Palestinian Authority in constricted areas of the West Bank
and Gaza (the "Oslo Accord"), he rightfully denounced it as "an
instrument of Palestinian surrender", which had turned "a national
liberation movement into a small-town government". While continuing
to voice his principled critique, Said continued his advocacy
of the Palestinian struggle for national self-determination.
Said's writings are notable, not just for the positions that he
advocated, but for a kind of characteristic combination of political
commentary and literary-cultural criticism, couched in a direct
and personal style. His was the world of the humanistic scholar
and intellectual, to whom, in the old saying, nothing human can
be alien, and for whom the human mind becomes a finely tuned instrument
for understanding and precise assessment. This is at the opposite
pole from those intellectuals, inside the universities and out,
who have sold their brains to the highest bidder, retreated into
a narrow sphere, or put their minds in the service of power and
described himself as a humanist, and he had a particular interpretation
of this broad philosophical outlook. "By humanism", he says, "I
mean first of all attempting to dissolve [poet William] Blake's
mind-forg'd manacles so as to be able to use one's mind historically
and rationally for the purposes of reflective understanding. Moreover
humanism is sustained by a sense of community with other interpreters
and other societies and periods.... This is to say that every
domain is linked to every other one, and that nothing that goes
on in our world has ever been isolated.... We need to speak about
issues of injustice and suffering within a context that is amply
situated in history, culture, and socio-economic reality."
Said deployed his humanism against religious orthodoxy. He was
a strong advocate of secularism. He opposed theocratic, or religious-based,
movements, societies, and states: whether they were Zionist, Islamic
or Christian. He opposed what he considered to be any dogma that
squelched open communication and criticism. At the same time,
Said's humanism and his belief that critical thought and science
could lead to a deeper understanding of the world, and that the
role of the intellectual was to help advance human freedom and
knowledge, placed him in opposition to various "postmodernist"
philosophies - those that say that truth and freedom and moral
judgement are purely localised and relative concepts that do not
have the sort of universal meaning and value that Said saw 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."
noble concerns, and a burning rage against injustice, marked Said
all through his life, including the final 12 years as he struggled
against cancer. In the past two years, as the rulers of this country
began their moves toward a war on the world and police state at
home, a group of activists, intellectuals and artists prepared
a response, the Not In Our Name Statement of Conscience, declaring,
"Let it not be said that people in the United States did nothing
when their government declared a war without limit and instituted
stark new measures of repression." Edward Said was an early and
enthusiastic signatory of the statement, and he urged others to
sign it as well.
man of broad culture and interests, one of Edward Said's great
loves was opera and classical music. An accomplished pianist,
he also wrote musicology and music criticism. This shared passion
brought him together with Daniel Barenboim, the prominent pianist
and conductor, and together they founded the West-East Divan,
a forum for Arab and Israeli musicians, and one of Said's final
publications was a book on music co-authored by the two of them.
In a tribute after his death Barenboim remarks on the way in which
Said "was not only at home in music, literature, philosophy, or
the understanding of politics, but also he was one of those rare
people who saw the connections and the parallels between different
disciplines.... He saw in music not just a combination of sounds,
but he understood the fact that every musical masterpiece is,
as it were, a conception of the world."
also celebrate this breadth and deep perception of interconnections
in a vision of the world.
outstandingly self-conscious public intellectual who combined
a rich understanding and investigation of theory and culture with
actions and words that supported and championed the people, all
carried out with consistently critical intelligence: the proletariat
honours Edward Said.