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SAID AND THE SAIDIANS - A very fine scholar, but not a great one

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By Politics and Play / Ramachandra Guha
  • Published 14.05.05

The United States of America is not only the leading economic and military power in the world, but also the leading intellectual power. A vast majority of the Nobel laureates in the sciences teach in American universities. Till about 1980, the Europeans held their own in the humanities, in disciplines where history and lineage mattered as much as money and equipment. But here too the US has successfully challenged their preeminence. Most of the best historians, anthropologists and literary critics in the world now teach in American universities. Some of these scholars are of authentically American origin; others have migrated from Europe; yet others come from Asia, Africa or Latin America.

Because of its size, its financial base, and its massive density of individual talent, the American university system dominates the intellectual landscape of the modern world. The scholars, books and fashions which reign in America come also to reign in countries far distant from it. Consider thus the staggering worldwide influence of the Arab-American scholar, Edward Said, of his book Orientalism, and of the intellectual fashion that he inaugurated, known as ?postcolonial theory?. The man, his work, and their influence are the subject of a wide-ranging symposium in the latest issue of the prestigious Chicago-based journal, Critical Inquiry. Reading this symposium, one is forced to reach the conclusion that as a scholar, Said was greater than his book, Orientalism, and that the book itself was more worthwhile than the theoretical school it gave rise to.

Said was born and grew up in the Middle East, but completed his schooling in the US. His higher education and working life was all Ivy League: first Princeton, where he studied, and then Columbia, where he taught from the mid-Sixties until his death from cancer in 2003. His early training and orientation were deeply Western, as well as deeply elitist. His mind and work were shaped by European cultural theorists such as Auerbach and Adorno. His greatest passion was European classical music; indeed, he was a pianist of near-concert quality himself.

Said?s first books were literary and philological explorations of writings by Western authors about Western matters. A deracinated scholar, detached from the world of his forefathers, he was given a wake-up call by the Israeli-Arab War of 1967. The war and its aftermath alerted him to the horrific act of injustice by which Israel was created and the Palestinians expropriated. His scholarship was henceforth to become more engaged. The Western writers he now wrote of were those who had focused on the non-European world. Said also became increasingly involved with the Palestinian struggle, writing books and columns whose primary purpose was political rather than intellectual, namely, the redressal of the injustices suffered by his people at the hands of Israel and its Western backers. Said?s powers of scholarship were formidable indeed. Though his evidence came always from the printed word ? he did no archival research or fieldwork himself ? he was more philosophically inclined than most literary scholars, as well as more widely read in history and anthropology.

Literary critics are notorious for the obscurity of their prose, but Said wrote fluently, and at times evocatively. His scholarship and style were given further ballast by his personality. He was a very handsome man, who dressed well, and was at ease on a public stage, from which he spoke with both eloquence and power.

All Said?s work was influential, but the most influential, by a long distance, was his 1978 book, Orientalism. This presented a swingeing critique of European writing on the Arab world. Most of the works discussed were written in the 19th century. Their authors presented them as objective, detached, even sympathetic accounts of a cultural world not their own. Said however argued that these works, in effect, served only to aid European expansion. For they presented ?Orientals? as an infantile, emotional and sub-rational people, incapable of self-understanding and hence of ruling themselves. In Said?s view, while the Orientalist scholars themselves disavowed politics, their work both legitimated and helped consolidate European imperialism in Asia and Africa.

Orientalism is probably the most influential work of humanistic scholarship of the last half-century. I do not think posterity will necessarily judge it to be Said?s best work; that distinction will probably be reserved for his early essays on Western aesthetics. (There is also Culture and Imperialism, which came after Orientalism and runs over the same themes, but with a greater subtlety of treatment.) But it is Orientalism which inspired a legion of imitators, with hundreds of lesser works scrutinizing the writings of dead white males for their complicity with imperialist projects of racial, cultural and class domination.

Orientalism has had its detractors as well. In an early (but unfortunately little noticed) critique, the Syrian philosopher, Sadiq-al-Azm, termed Said?s method ?Occidentalism, or Orientalism-in-reverse?. Just as some colonialist scholars created a homogenizing stereotype of the ?Orient?, glossing over the enormous differences of culture within, Said had lumped many differently-oriented writers under a single label. This argument has been elaborated, in the Indian context, by the historian, Thomas Trautmann, whose book, Aryans and British India, demonstrates that, contra Said, there were many ?Orientalists? who displayed an uncommon empathy with the people they were studying.

One consequence of Said?s work was to encourage a certain demonization of the West. But there was a methodological price too. Anxious to emulate the master and ?prove? his thesis in their own neck of the woods, a whole generation of historians abandoned serious archival research in favour of textual criticism. Rather than study the lived experience of people in different parts of the world ? the ways they worked, thought, felt and struggled ? these ?Saidians? have sought merely to chastise writers long forgotten now and often obscure even in their own time. The Saidian critic typically adopts a superior, sneering tone; in the name of speaking ?truth to power?, he seeks to judge dead writers by the canons of political correctness as they operate in the American academy today.

This brings me to a third aspect of Said?s influence ? the encouragement it has given to tendentious claims of political activism by intellectuals who claim to speak on behalf of the oppressed while being ensconced in the American university, surely the most cosy corner of the most protected country in the world. There is plenty of posturing on display in this special issue of Critical Inquiry, as in a characteristically self-regarding contribution by Gayatri Spivak, which complains that her dear friend, Edward, did not sufficiently respect ?my deep and little-advertised concern for social justice in India?. (Well, it is better advertised now.)

Put together by friends and admirers, the Critical Inquiry symposium suggests that, like more ordinary mortals, Said was not immune to flattery. He liked being a guru and having disciples, even when they distorted and degraded his work. Karl Marx famously remarked, ?I am not a Marxist.? A pity that Said could not bring himself to say, ?I am not a Saidian.?

It is always hard to anticipate the verdict of posterity. Still, it seems clear that Edward Said was fortunate in working where and when he did, in being a powerful professor in the American academy when that academy was becoming more multicultural and multinational than ever before. I think that time will show that his reputation at its peak was probably undeserved. Said was a very fine scholar, but not a great one. Orientalism was a useful polemic, not an enduring work of scholarship. And postcolonial theory is an intellectual dead-end.