Edward Said

When I was an undergraduate, my Professor – David Dixon, who is the academic who is responsible for my going into political science – read from Edward Said:

“ʻOrientalism [was] a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient’ – one sentence like that can get you tenure at Columbia – it’s great!” But the back cover of the book says it most succinctly: “all [Orientalists] have a certain representation or idea of ʻthe Orient’ defined as being other than the ʻOccident’ [the West], mysterious, unchanging and ultimately inferior” (Hourani, 1978).

Foucault’s and Gramsci’s ideas of discourse and hegemony converge in the thought of Edward Said. Said finds it “useful to employ Foucault’s notion of a discourse” (Said, 1978, 3) – the dynamic exchange of ideas, statements, assertions which constitute for Foucault a form of power exchange he calls power/knowledge

Said’s metaphor of a cultural landscape (not insignificantly one that is global with few or no empty spaces) borrows from Gramsci’s application of Marxist thought to cultural space. Said thus relies on Gramsci’s translation and of Marx to make it adhere to an Italian context, i.e., to make it a realistic cultural representation. Said views, utilizing Gramsci, the replacement of “direct political control” with a kind of domination described as “cultural hegemony, ” consisting of “directive” or ruling ideas. (Said, 1993, 249)

Edward Said (1935-2003) was a Palestinian American from a Christian family, who was also a concert-level pianist and music critic. He was one of the founders of Postcolonial studies and professor of English (comparative literature) at Columbia University.

Said acknowledges his debt to Gramsci by explaining his use of an approach to scholarship forwarded in the Prison Notebooks. For Gramsci, History deposits in people traces – through heredity, family or other experiences – which accumulate to constitute a book, but this book contains no inventory. The scholar’s task is to compile this inventory, which is a task of interpretation. The reason for this task is to understand one’s own history in terms of “others’” history. It is a pluralistic project that illustrates Said’s commitment to secular, democratic and inclusive theoretical and political solutions. The goal then is effectively to become someone else, to forge a new identity that includes the inventory of the “other.”

Yet if Said prefers to locate the struggle on this idealistic landscape, it is a battlefield on which the “other” is at a disadvantage. While Said asserts that there is no “Archimedean point beyond the question from which to answer it … no vantage outside the actuality of relationships among cultures,” he engages in confrontation with the “West” from its own nucleus, and using its own language – that of literature. Said further acknowledges and describes a geographicity and a cultural dimension of Gramsci’s take on Marx. And it is in the realm of culture that Said makes his mark.

Despite Foucault’s interest in anti-colonial struggles, Said notes that he (as well as the theorists of the Frankfurt school) do not engage theoretically with imperialism, and retain a focus on Europe. As Said puts it, Foucault’s work is “drawn from what are considered exclusively Western sources … a theoretical oversight that is the norm in Western cultural and scientific disciplines.” (Said, 1993, 41.)

Said hints that what might be called the genealogy of theory is on the side of the oppressed. Using Lyotard’s definition of postmodernism – the “loss of the legitimizing power of Western emancipation and enlightenment,” Said suggests that the power of the Western literary narrative is on the wane, and that any renewed effort in this direction is merely reactionary (Said, 1993, 57)

Said acknowledges his debt to “a certain generation of French writers,” and “of them all … Foucault” whose method he describes in the words of R.P. Blackmur as “a technique of trouble.” (Said, 1975, 283) Said shares and admires Foucault’s view of history as “a succession of functional conditions that give rise to the existence not only of knowledge, but of man himself.” (Said, 1975, 238) Prefiguring his own notion of intertextuality, Said notes Foucault’s “hampered” attempts to “[get] to the bottom” of his Archeology of Knowledge, which “yields only the … assertion that man is a temporary interruption, a figure of thought, of what is already begun.” (Said, 1975) Man is always/already the product of and the creator of his/her narrative/existence. Said here reveals his own departure from Foucault’s hermeneutic (or perhaps post-hermeneutic) approach, to his own genealogical approach, which may owe a debt to Foucault’s later work – Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality. Even the notion of “otherness” is ascribed to Foucault.(Said, 1975, 284) which became the theoretical centerpiece of Said’s most noted work.

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