Come on, don’t procrastinate! Remembering Edward Said

September 27, 2011
Sarah Benton

Missing Edward Said

By Anthony Alessandrini, Jadaliyya

Today marks the eighth anniversary of the passing of Edward Said. It is an anniversary that continues to fill me with a deep sense of melancholy, one shared, I know, by so many admirers of his work and his example.

The ways in which we miss Said today, and have found ourselves missing him over the course of this bloody decade, are innumerable. Some comfort can be found in the fine work inspired by Said’s legacy in the intervening years, including the excellent and inclusive new volume Edward Said: A Legacy of Emancipation and Representation. But as Noam Chomsky notes in his contribution to that volume: “His death was a loss for international intellectual life, for the suffering and oppressed all over the world, and for universal principles of justice and freedom.” Part of the work of carrying on this legacy is, precisely, the work of carrying on, but this does not leave out the need for mourning.

I never had the chance to meet Edward Said in person, which leaves me with the memory of two missed opportunities, both of which I think speak to some important strands of his legacy. The first occurred during my brief moment (one year, actually) as a graduate student at Columbia. I was frankly too intimidated to take the graduate seminar that Said was offering that year. But I nearly had my chance one chilly autumn afternoon, as I stood at a table in the campus walk, helping to pass out literature in support of severely underpaid Columbia staff who were considering a strike. I saw Said striding purposefully towards the table; at the same moment, an elderly bearded gentleman was approaching from the opposite direction. The latter arrived first, and I turned my attention to him, realizing almost immediately that he was a speaker in search of an audience rather than someone hungry for information about labor negotiations. Said waited patiently for a minute, and then, with a look at his watch, strode away with the same purposeful gait.

The second missed opportunity was entirely my own fault. It came some years later, after a plenary session at the Modern Language Association Convention, a panel discussion where Said had been one of the speakers. I had just written a chapter for a forthcoming postcolonial studies anthology dealing with Said and Frantz Fanon, and wanted to give him a copy of the piece—not because I expected him to read it, but more out of a sense of respect (although secretly I hoped that he would read and like it, of course). I waited towards the back of a huge crush of people who had come forward to speak to Said, which gave me the opportunity to watch him interact: embracing and shaking hands with some, listening carefully, laughing, occasionally disagreeing and arguing, but engaging with each one. Then my turn came, I stepped up—and I choked. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but I know that I stood there, clutching the envelope with my manuscript, and muttered something about how much I admired his work. He looked at me, nodded wryly but not unkindly, and turned his attention to his next interlocutor while I made my escape through a side door.

I hope the anecdotal nature of this all will be forgiven, since what I want to raise are a few aspects of Said’s legacy that can, I think, be read out of these two stories of my missed opportunities. The first is his legacy of unstinting solidarity: one of the reasons why Said stopped at the table that day was that he was one of a handful of Columbia faculty who publicly supported the striking workers. Given his institutional position and visibility, this support was highly meaningful. Said’s legacy is one that insists on the necessity of solidarity, and of linking up various forms of struggle. But it is also one that deepens our understanding of solidarity by noting that solidarity and criticism, sometimes taken to be opposites, are in fact closely linked; as he wrote in his essay “Secular Criticism”: “The history of thought, to say nothing of political movements, is extravagantly illustrative of how the dictum ‘solidarity before criticism’ means the end of criticism. I take criticism so seriously as to believe that, even in the very midst of battle in which one is unmistakably on one side against another, there should be criticism, because there must be critical consciousness if there are to be issues, problems, values, even lives to be fought for.”

The second aspect of his legacy to be taken from my missed opportunities is his insistence upon the role of the intellectual as a public one. “Edward Said was the great public intellectual in the late twentieth century United States of America,” Cornell West has recently declared, and few (except for Said’s most churlish and ignorant opponents) would seriously contest this suggestion. Said’s willingness to engage seriously with all comers, rather than simply escaping from the crush after giving his lecture, is indicative of his model of the intellectual (spelled out in a fine and appreciative essay by Joseph Massad, one of those who has worked hard to advance Said’s legacy of public engagement—and like Said, facing considerable personal costs for this engagement). Said abhorred the model of intellectual work “as something you do for a living, between the hours of nine to five, with one eye on the clock, and another cocked at what is considered to be proper, professional behavior—not rocking the boat, not straying outside the accepted paradigms or limits, making yourself marketable and above all presentable, hence uncontroversial and unpolitical and ‘objective.’” By contrast, Said’s model of public intellectual work envisioned the intellectual as “someone who considers that to be a thinking and concerned member of a society one is entitled to raise moral issues at the heart of even the most technical and professionalized activity as it involves one’s country, its power, its mode of interacting with its citizens as well as with other societies.”

But I don’t want to lose the third aspect of Said’s legacy that I think can be found in both my anecdotes: what I want to call the legacy of Saidian impatience. In both cases, there is a fine dialectic between the impetus towards solidarity and public intellectual work, on the one hand, and, on the other, a strong sense of impatience—the glance at the watch, the brief nod—that must be brought to them both. Some of this seems deeply rooted in Said’s character, as in his moving admission in his memoir Out of Place that since he was a child he would feel haunted, at a point sometime in the late morning or early afternoon, by the feeling that he had already wasted the day. Equally moving is the way this aspect of Said’s personality was portrayed in Mahmoud Darwish’s elegy to Said, “Tibaq” [“Counterpoint”]:

New York. Edward wakes to a sluggish
dawn. Plays a Mozart piece. Runs around
in the university tennis court. Thinks
of the migration of birds over borders and checkpoints.
Reads The New York Times. Writes his tense
commentary. Damns an orientalist who guides a general
to the weakness in the heart of a woman from the East.
Showers. Chooses his suit with a rooster’s elegance.
Drinks his coffee with cream. Screams
at the dawn: Come on, don’t procrastinate!

This impatience played a deep role in both the impetus towards solidarity and that towards public intellectual work: after all, if one is going to try to follow the model of engaged intellectual work championed by Said, there is little time to waste. Such urgency makes for a necessary sort of impatience. But it was also part of his embrace of the role of the critic, which tempered and determined the forms of solidarity that would prove to be most useful. Such a role means not suffering fools gladly: Said did not shy away from describing his political and intellectual opponents as “stupid,” just as Theodor Adorno, who was to have such a strong influence on Said’s late work, was never afraid to inveigh against “musical stupidity.”

There is something of Adorno’s irascibility (one might simply say crankiness) that runs throughout Said’s work. In addition to expressing the Saidian impatience that we need a bit more of today, it meant that Said bequeathed to us a model of criticism that, while it insists upon rigor and careful analysis, also encourages us to be intemperate, even extravagant, in our argumentation. Said’s own intemperance (I use the word as a compliment) was of course well known, and can be found in some of his best-known lines, such as in his late interview with Ha’aretz, where he explicitly invokes (and claims) Adorno: “I’m the last Jewish intellectual. You don’t know anyone else. All your other Jewish intellectuals are now suburban squires. From Amos Oz to all these people here in America. So I’m the last one. The only true follower of Adorno. Let me put it this way: I’m a Jewish-Palestinian.”

Such intemperance and impatience kept his work from falling into the sorts of easy pieties and forms of sentimentality that can so often bedevil progressive intellectual work. This is what made him so invaluable as a defender of unfashionable and besieged intellectual keywords, such as humanism (a word that he applied in a usefully eccentric form, informed by his deep knowledge of and close engagement with poststructuralism), criticism (as compared to the institutionalized monstrosity known as “critical thinking”), and multiculturalism. Indeed, as Akeel Bilgrami suggests in his preface to Said’s posthumously published book Humanism and Democratic Criticism, it is precisely because Said refused the glib celebrations of “diversity” and “plurality” found in institutionalized multiculturalism, in favor of a more rigorous and intellectually worked-through concept of such virtues, that “Multiculturalism has not had a more learned and lofty defense than is offered in this book.”

This intemperance also allowed Said to sometimes hold and express seemingly contradictory views, in a way that opened his topics up beyond what had previously been seen as the only possible positions to be taken. For example, as Bruce Robbins has convincingly suggested, in a piece like his influential essay“Traveling Theory,” Said was able to simultaneously diagnose and condemn the ways in which radical theories, which emerge from the midst of direct political struggles, are all too easily transformed into dry and abstract academic topics once they enter the university, and at the same time insist that the university itself can nevertheless be a place of political contestation, and not simply the holding pen where radical ideas come to die, only to be resurrected in the form of dissertations and academic monographs. The academy, for the Saidian intellectual, is both a place of danger and one of opportunity, which is why Said’s legacy is one that calls us insistently towards contestation. Ideas cannot be reliably labeled as either liberatory or regressive, which is why, as R. Radhakrishnan has recently written, “The origins of a theory never really mattered to Said.” Indeed, Radhakrishnan insists, Said’s political and intellectual model is one “that fights in the name of a certain principle whose legitimacy is not absolute but immanent with the terrain of contestation….Precisely because as a critic-intellectual he embraced the worldly task of living and making choices in a symptomatic world of contradiction, he commands our admiration and emulation.”

It seems that my tribute to Edward Said on the anniversary of his death has turned away from tribute and towards analysis. That’s exactly my intention. For, while it is hardly my right to tell anyone the proper way to mourn, I would maintain, with what I hope is a touch of Saidian intemperance, that there are in fact ways of missing Edward Said that miss his point. One such way would be to offer up sentimental remembrances of the man while allowing his work to be forgotten. This is always a danger with intellectual and political figures whose careers, and lives, are interrupted by early deaths, leaving us with the sense that they have been stopped mid-sentence. All too easily, they are transformed from intellectual and political interlocutors into statues: Saint Fanon, Saint Foucault, Saint Malcolm, Saint Martin. We need to resist simply offering pieties upon the altar of Saint Edward and then proceeding as though the difficult questions raised by his work no longer exist.

A renewed form of Saidian impatience and intemperance is badly needed today, especially given the current state of the left, particularly the intellectual left, and particularly in the United States. It sometimes seems as though the main work being done is the pointing out of contradictions and hypocrisies, as though this was a form of political work in and of itself. Much (though by no means all) of the discourse around the Arab Spring among the US left has taken such a form. It is hypocritical, we are told, that the US claims to be supporting democratic movements in the region, while taking an active role in the brutal suppression of popular democratic movements in Bahrain and Yemen. It is hypocritical for the UN Security Council to authorize air strikes in order to protect civilian populations in Libya, when it would not (and will not) take the same steps to protect civilians in Gaza. It is hypocritical for President Obama to claim to support Palestinian statehood and then oppose the bid for Palestinian statehood at the UN.

To which the only possible responses are: yes, and yes, and yes. But a bit of Saidian intemperance would lead us to follow this with: And so? What follows from this identification of such moments of contradiction and hypocrisy? That’s yet to be determined; but what is certain is that it will involve a long process of contestation and struggle requiring both the virtues of solidarity and those of criticism, both the patient analysis required by public intellectual work and the impatience born of urgency. All these are sorely needed.

I think if Said were to point us towards a first step, it would have to do with the importance of doing what we can to change the framework of existing analyses, and to recast the terms of existing debates. This is especially true of current conversations around the Palestinian statehood bid at the UN. I’ve recently writtenabout the poverty of the mainstream analysis in the US. Here is yet another venue where we miss Said badly. But we have his work, which is full of surprises. Here, for example, is a passage that I just came across in an interview conducted with Said in 1989, and published in the volume Edward Said: A Critical Reader. I hope that I can be forgiven for quoting at rather great length, since I was struck at how more than twenty years ago, Said succeeded so brilliantly at laying out what continue to be the major issues of the moment, as well as connecting up seemingly disparate historical and political situations:

in the decolonized world, and even in the world that is proceeding in its efforts towards liberation, there remains what I call the dialectic of independence and liberation. That is to say the dynamic of nationalism unfulfilled by real liberation, a dynamic whose clear goal is national independence in the form of a conventional or semi-conventional state….But as against that, I think the project that continues is that which appears in hints in Fanon, and is figured here and there but not systematically in the works of Cabral, or James….What Fanon calls the conversion, the transformation, of national consciousness into political and social consciousness, hasn’t yet taken place. It’s an unfinished project, and that’s where I think my work has begun.

For me, the most urgent locus for this problematic is the Palestinian question. During the history of my own direct political involvement, we went from the goal of one secular democratic state, to the immense transformation that in November 1988 took place in Algiers,* in which I participated. We turned ourselves from a liberation movement into an independence movement. We talked about two states, an Israeli state and a Palestinian state. Now the principal political struggle concerns the price of having willingly committed ourselves to national independence. It’s the tragedy, the irony, the paradox of all anti-imperialist or decolonizing struggles that independence is the stage through which you must try to pass: for us independence is the only alternative to the continued horrors of the Israeli occupation, whose goal is the extermination of a Palestinian national identity. Therefore, the question for me is: how much of a price are we going to pay for this independence—if we can get it at all—and how many of the goals of liberation will we abandon? I don’t at all mean “liberating” Israel, or the whole of Palestine; I’m talking about ourselves as a movement, as a people. How much of a price are we going to pay in deferred liberation? This involves very concrete problems. What are you going to do about, for example, the three million Palestinians who are not from the West Bank in the diaspora? What formula do we have for that? What is the price we’re going to pay in political compromises with our neighbors, Jordan, Israel, Syria, Egypt, etc.? And with the super-partner of them all, the United States? This, after all, is a moment which is dominated by the United States.

What is striking about this analysis is not simply its accuracy, or its ability to foresee a set of problems that continue to define the question of Palestinian liberation (I should note that I am certainly not trying to grant Said the sort of “prophet” status that has sometimes been accorded to Fanon thanks to his predictions regarding the future of post-colonial African nation-states—although it is striking, and sobering, that both Fanon and Said are at their most “prophetic,” that is to say their most accurate in their predictions, when they are delivering bad news about the future to come). It is the way that Said redefines the question of Palestine as the question of decolonization, and accordingly, not just of independence, but of liberation. This is, on the one hand, politically a radically simplifying move, since it forces one to take a position: for or against colonialism, for or against decolonization? On the other hand, it is not thereby a simplistic move, since it opens out onto a whole series of vexed and complicated questions, questions that have yet to be addressed satisfactorily.

As with so much of his work, Said here provides us with the opportunity to change the terms of the conversation: in this case, to recast the discourse about Israel-Palestine into one that is first and foremost one of colonization and decolonization. But in order to actually carry out this work, we need to move beyond accepted frameworks, and towards new forms of analysis and action. So on the anniversary of Said’s death, amidst a whole variety of new forms and venues of contestation, from Cairo to Ramallah to Wall Street (all of which Said would have somehow found the time to write about), consider this a call to reinvigorate the Saidian virtues: solidarity and criticism, patient analysis and impatience with stupidity, public intellectual engagement and intemperate outbursts. We need them all. There’s no time for any more missed opportunities.

Ed: *When Yasser Arafat, Chairman of the PLO, declared the establishment of the state of Palestine – The Palestine Declaration of Independence
Anthony Alessandrini is the editor of Frantz Fanon: Critical Perspectives; recent articles have appeared in Foucault Studies, Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy, and Reconstruction.

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