an excerpt from edward saids blog

Edward Said wrote in his blog:

The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals

...All intellectuals carry around some working understanding or sketch of the global system (in large measure thanks to world and regional historians like Immanuel Wallerstein, Anouar Abdel-Malek, J.M. Blaut, Janet Abu-Lughod, Peter Gran, Ali Mazrui, William McNeill); but it is during the direct encounters with it in one or another specific geography or configuration that the contests are waged (as in Seattle and Genoa) and perhaps even winnable. There is an admirable chronicle of the kind of thing I mean in the various essays of Bruce Robbins's Feeling Global: Internationalism in Distress (1999), Timothy Brennan's At Home in the World: Cosmopolitanism Now (1997) and Neil Lazarus's Nationalism and Cultural Practice in the Postcolonial World (1999), books whose self-consciously territorial and highly interwoven textures are in fact an adumbration of the critical (and combative) intellectual's sense of the world we live in today, taken as episodes or even fragments of a broader picture, which their work and that of others is in the process of compiling. What they suggest is a map of experiences that would have been indiscernible, perhaps invisible, two decades ago, but that in the aftermath of the classical empires, the end of the cold war, the crumbling of the socialist and nonaligned blocs, the emergent dialectics between North and South in the era of globalization, cannot be excluded either from cultural study or from the somewhat ethereal precincts of the humanistic disciplines.

I've mentioned a few names not just to indicate how significant I think their contributions have been but also to use them in order to leapfrog directly into some concrete areas of collective concern, where, to quote Bourdieu for the last time, there is the possibility of "collective invention." He observes that

the whole edifice of critical thought is thus in need of reconstruction. This work of reconstruction cannot be done, as some thought in the past, by a single great intellectual, a master-thinker endowed only with the resources of his singular thought, or by the authorized spokesperson for a group or an institution presumed to speak in the name of those without voice, union, party, and so on. This is where the collective intellectual [Bourdieu's name for individuals the sum of whose research and participation on common subjects constitutes a sort of ad hoc collective] can play its irreplaceable role, by helping to create the social conditions for the collective production of realist utopias.

My reading of this is to stress the absence of any master plan or blueprint or grand theory for what intellectuals can do, and the absence now of any utopian teleology toward which human history can be described as moving. Therefore, one invents--in the literal use of the Latin word inventio, employed by rhetoricians to stress finding again or reassembling from past performances, as opposed to the romantic use of invention as something you create from scratch--goals abductively, that is, hypothesizes a better situation from the known historical and social facts.

So in effect this enables intellectual performances on many fronts, in many places, many styles, that keep in play both the sense of opposition and the sense of engaged participation. Hence, film, photography and even music, along with all the arts of writing, can be aspects of this activity. Part of what we do as intellectuals is not only to define the situation but also to discern the possibilities for active intervention, whether we then perform them ourselves or acknowledge them in others who have either gone before or are already at work, the intellectual as lookout. Provincialism of the old kind--e.g., I am a literary specialist whose field is early-seventeenth-century England--rules itself out and, quite frankly, seems uninteresting and needlessly neutered. The assumption has to be that even though one can't do or know everything, it must always be possible to discern the elements of a struggle or tension or problem near at hand that can be elucidated dialectically, and also to sense that other people have a similar stake and work in a common project.

I have found a brilliantly inspiring parallel for what I mean in Adam Phillips's recent book Darwin's Worms, in which Darwin's lifelong attention to the lowly earthworm revealed its capacity for expressing nature's variability and design without necessarily seeing the whole of either one or the other, thereby in his work on earthworms replacing "a creation myth with a secular maintenance myth." Is there some nontrivial way of generalizing about where and in what form such struggles are taking place now? I shall limit myself to saying a little about only three, each of which is profoundly amenable to intellectual intervention and elaboration.

The first is to protect against and forestall the disappearance of the past, which in the rapidity of change, the reformulation of tradition and the construction of simplified bowdlerizations of history is at the very heart of the contest described by Benjamin Barber (though rather too sweepingly) as "Jihad versus McWorld." The intellectual's role is first to present alternative narratives and other perspectives on history than those provided by the combatants on behalf of official memory and national identity--who tend to work in terms of falsified unities, the manipulation of demonized or distorted representations of undesirable and/or excluded populations, and the propagation of heroic anthems sung in order to sweep all before them. At least since Nietzsche, the writing of history and the accumulations of memory have been regarded in many ways as one of the essential foundations of power, guiding its strategies and charting its progress. Look, for example, at the appalling exploitation of past suffering described in their accounts of the uses of the Holocaust by Tom Segev, Peter Novick and Norman Finkelstein or, just to stay within the area of historical restitution and reparation, the invidious disfiguring, dismembering and disremembering of significant historical experiences that do not have powerful enough lobbies in the present and therefore merit dismissal or belittlement. The need now is for deintoxicated, sober histories that make evident the multiplicity and complexity of history without allowing one to conclude that it moves forward impersonally according only to laws determined either by the divine or by the powerful.

Second is to construct fields of coexistence rather than fields of battle as the outcome of intellectual labor. There are great lessons to be learned from decolonization; first, that, noble as its liberatory aims were, it did not often enough prevent the emergence of repressive nationalist replacements for colonial regimes; second, that the process itself was almost immediately captured by the cold war, despite the nonaligned movement's rhetorical efforts; and thirdly, that it has been miniaturized and even trivialized by a small academic industry that has simply turned it into an ambiguous contest among ambivalent opponents.

Third, in the various contests over justice and human rights that so many of us feel we have joined, there needs to be a component to our engagement that stresses the need for the redistribution of resources and that advocates the theoretical imperative against the huge accumulations of power and capital that so distort human life. Peace cannot exist without equality: This is an intellectual value desperately in need of reiteration, demonstration and reinforcement. The seduction of the word itself--peace--is that it is surrounded by, indeed drenched in, the blandishments of approval, uncontroversial eulogizing, sentimental endorsement. The international media (as has been the case recently with the sanctioned wars in Iraq and Kosovo) uncritically amplify, ornament, unquestioningly transmit all this to vast audiences for whom peace and war are spectacles for delectation and immediate consumption. It takes a good deal more courage, work and knowledge to dissolve words like "war" and "peace" into their elements, recovering what has been left out of peace processes that have been determined by the powerful, and then placing that missing actuality back in the center of things, than it does to write prescriptive articles for "liberals," à la Michael Ignatieff, that urge more destruction and death for distant civilians. The intellectual can be perhaps a kind of countermemory, putting forth its own counterdiscourse that will not allow conscience to look away or fall asleep. The best corrective is, as Dr. Johnson said, to imagine the person whom you are discussing--in this case the person on whom the bombs will fall--reading you in your presence.

Still, just as history is never over or complete, it is also the case that some dialectical oppositions are not reconcilable, not transcendable, not really capable of being folded into a sort of higher, undoubtedly more noble, synthesis. The example closest to home for me is the struggle over Palestine, which, I have always believed, cannot really be simply resolved by a technical and ultimately janitorial rearrangement of geography allowing dispossessed Palestinians the right (such as it is) to live in about 20 percent of their land, which would be encircled by and totally dependent on Israel. Nor, on the other hand, would it be morally acceptable to demand that Israelis should retreat from the whole of former Palestine, now Israel, becoming refugees like Palestinians all over again. No matter how I have searched for a resolution to this impasse, I cannot find one, for this is not a facile case of right versus right. It cannot be right ever to deprive an entire people of their land and heritage or to stifle and slaughter them, as Israel has been doing for the thirty-four years of its occupation. But the Jews too are what I have called a community of suffering, and brought with them a heritage of great tragedy. Yet unlike Zeev Sternhell, I cannot agree that the conquest of Palestine was a necessary conquest--the notion offends the sense of real Palestinian pain, in its own way also tragic.

Overlapping yet irreconcilable experiences demand from the intellectual the courage to say what is before us, in almost exactly the way Adorno, throughout his work on music, insisted that modern music can never be reconciled with the society that produced it; but in its intensely and often despairingly crafted form and content, music can act as a silent witness to the inhumanity all around. Any assimilation of individual musical work to its social setting is, says Adorno, false. I conclude with the thought that the intellectual's provisional home is the domain of an exigent, resistant, intransigent art into which, alas, one can neither retreat nor search for solutions. But only in that precarious exilic realm can one first truly grasp the difficulty of what cannot be grasped, and then go forth to try anyway.
9:00 PM


Edward Said is the well-acclaimed author who wrote, "Out of Place"



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