Remembering Edward Said: An Extraordinary Citizen of the World

by J.S.

Revolutionary Worker #1215, October 12, 2003, posted at

Edward Said--outstanding public intellectual, eloquent exponent of the Palestinian people, and erudite theoretician--died on September 24 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.

Edward 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 which 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 which seeks to justify and rationalize it.

Take 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 which had only recently been reestablished, 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.

But 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 which defy "the ordinary processes of thought."


Edward 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.

In 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 im- perialism'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 and poets).

The 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.

This 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 which 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 which 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 Palestinian 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 U.S., 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.

The 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 U.S., who opened up negotiations with Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), something which they had previously refused to do. As negotiations proceeded, Edward Said saw that Arafat was capitulating to the U.S., and in 1991 he resigned from the Palestine National Council.

When 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.

Edward Said's writings are notable, not just for the positions which 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 reaction.


Said 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."

Edward 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 judgment are purely localized and relative concepts that do not have the sort of universal meaning and value that Said saw in them.

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."


Such 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.

A 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."

We also celebrate this breadth and deep perception of interconnections in a vision of the world.

An outstandingly self-conscious public intellectual who combined a rich understanding and investigation of theory and culture with actions and words which supported and championed the people, all carried out with consistently critical intelligence: the proletariat honors Edward Said.