Said, Edward W.

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SAID, EDWARD W. (19352003) is best known as the author of the influential and widely read Orientalism (1978), a study of the modes of thought and writing which have created a Manichean and essentialist divide between "the Orient" and "the Occident" since the eighteenth century. In his introduction to the book Said argues that one must grasp the remarkable consistency of thought and method which underpins Western representations of the Arab Muslim world across the centuries if one is to understand properly "the enormously systematic discipline by which European [and later American] culture was able to manageand even producethe Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period" (p. 3). No other single work has had a greater formative influence than Orientalism on debates about the representation of non-Western cultures within the discourses of the West, on the historical and theoretical understanding of the dynamics of culture and power between center and periphery in colonial and postcolonial contexts, or, more specifically, on the ways in which knowledge of Islam and the Arab Muslim world has been shaped or misshaped in Europe and America.

But Said's writing career was a long and productive one and his intellectual interests were marked by a rare and impressive range. He wrote with authority and passion on literature, politics, and Western classical music; and he worked with equal ease and effectiveness in academia as well as in the world of the popular media. Diverse as the books, collections of essays, newspaper articles, reviews, and interviews are, a number of common threads tie them together. Said was concerned throughout his career with the nature and function of secular criticism (and so also with its religious opposite), with the relationship of knowledge to power, of culture to imperial histories, with the experience of exile and diaspora within modernity, and above all with the role of the intellectual in the contemporary world. His forceful defense of secular humanism and of the public role of the intellectual, as much as his trenchant critiques of Orientalism and his unwavering advocacy of the Palestinian cause, made Said one of the most internationally influential cultural commentators writing out of the United States in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Said was born into an extremely well-to-do Christian family in Jerusalem in 1935. His father, Wadie, a Protestant, had immigrated to the United States before the First World War and had returned to the Middle East with American citizenship after volunteering for service in France. Upon his return he had married the daughter of a Baptist minister. Out of Place (1999), a memoir of Said's years of childhood in Palestine, Cairo, and Lebanon, describes his sense of distance from his disciplinarian father and his lonely retreat into the world of novels and classical music. The Cairo School for American Children and Victoria College were among the schools Said attended as a boy. When he was expelled from Victoria College in 1951, his parents decided to send him to Mount Hermon, a preparatory school in the United States.

Said was an accomplished student and pianist and spoke several languages. He went on to graduate from Princeton, to gain a Ph.D. from Harvard, and, in 1963, to join the faculty at Columbia University in New York, where later he became a professor of English and comparative literature. Though he seemed confidently embarked on what promised to be a successful career as a literary scholar, Said was jolted by the Arab-Israeli war in 1967, the Arab defeat, and what he saw as the almost universal pro-Israeli stance in the United States, into a newly politicized sense of his own Palestinian and exilic identity and of Palestinian and Arab history. However, as important as 1967 proved to be, one should not forget that the focus of Said's Ph.D. is Joseph Conrad (18571924), himself an exile and among the most incisive analysts of the imperial project in modern literatureand a touchstone for Said throughout his career.

Said's first book was Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (1966), and his second major work was Beginnings (1975), an ambitious attempt to examine the notion of the point of departure in literature. Later works on literature developed more political and historical perspectives. Culture and Imperialism (1993), a sequel of sorts to Orientalism, examines the constitutive role of empire in major works of Western literature and music. The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983), which outlines some key theoretical foundations of Said's work, insists on the worldliness of the text, and argues for the necessity of a properly "secular criticism"which is to say a criticism free from the priestly specializations of academic discourse and the dangers of ideological certainties. As William D. Hart has pointed out in his important Edward Said and the Religious Effects of Culture (2000), Said's defense of secular criticism is necessarily haunted by the specter of the religious, understood in both the literal and the figurative senses. Quoting Said himself, Hart notes that "the object of Said's critique, and what he holds to be distinctive of religious discourse, is the appeal to 'the extrahuman, the vague abstraction, the divine, the esoteric and the secret'" (p. 10). Just as some critics have rightly argued that Orientalism has a tendency to create a monolithic version of Western discourse lacking an adequate sense of historical and individual variation, so Hart is also right to suggest that Said has a tendency to slip into antireligious cliché and that he does not fully acknowledge the ways in which religious practices can become "a site of hegemonic struggle by subaltern classes (the ruled) against the ruling class" (p. 37).

If the idea of the religious was a constitutive deep structure in Said's thought, the actual religion of Islam, the culture that it has produced, and the reception of that culture in the West also preoccupied Said. Of central importance here is the trilogy of books which perhaps more than any others define the key concerns and methods of Said's post-1967 career: Orientalism, The Question of Palestine (1979), and Covering Islam (1981; revised 1997). Where Orientalism provides a sweeping literary and cultural survey, The Question of Palestine is concerned with the immediacy of contemporary politics and attempts to offer an account of the emergence of Palestinian nationhood in its confrontation with Zionism and Israel. Covering Islam offers yet another perspective on the relationship of the Arab Muslim world and the West by providing a scorching account of the representation of Islam and the Muslim world in the Western media. It is the argument of Covering Islam that the indiscriminate use of the label "Islam" to explain almost everything that happens in the Arab world is a violent but persistent simplification. This label of "Islam," writes Said in the revised edition, "defines a relatively small proportion of what actually takes place in the Islamic world, which numbers a billion people, and includes dozens of countries, societies, traditions, languages, and, of course, an infinite number of different experiences" (p. xvi). For Said, the label also obscures the fact that it is "secularism, rather than fundamentalism" which has "held Arab Muslim societies together" (p. xxvi). It was Said's aim to use "the skills of a good critical reader to disentangle sense from nonsense" and to ask "the right questions": "At that point humanistic knowledge begins and communal responsibility for that knowledge begins to be shouldered" (p. lix). Few intellectuals have done more to advance this project.

Edward Said died at the age of sixty-seven on September 25, 2003.

See Also



Selected works by Said

Beginnings: Intention and Method. New York, 1975.

Orientalism. New York, 1978.

The Question of Palestine. New York, 1979.

Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World. New York, 1981; revised 1997.

The World, the Text, and the Critic. Cambridge, Mass., 1983.

Musical Elaborations. New York, 1991.

Culture and Imperialism. New York, 1993.

The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination, 19691994. London, 1994.

Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures. London, 1994.

Peace and Its Discontents: Essays on Palestine in the Middle East Peace Process. New York, 1996.

Out of Place: A Memoir. New York, 1999.

The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After. New York, 2000.

Reflections on Exile and Other Literary and Cultural Essays. London, 2000.

Power, Politics, and Culture: Interviews with Edward W. Said. New York, 2001. An important collection of interviews.

Humanism and Democratic Criticism. New York, 2004.

Selected works on Said

Ansell-Pearson, Keith, Benita Parry, and Judith Squires, eds. Cultural Readings of Imperialism: Edward Said and the Gravity of History. New York, 1997.

Aruri, Naseer, and Muhammad A. Shuraydi, eds. Revising Culture, Reinventing Peace: The Influence of Edward W. Said. New York, 2001.

Ashcroft, Bill, and Hussein Kadhim, eds. Edward Said and the Post-Colonial. Huntington, N.Y., 2001.

Ashcroft, Bill, and Pal Ahluwalia. Edward Said: The Paradox of Identity. London, 1999; revised 2001. A useful short introduction to Said's career.

Barsamian, David. Culture and Resistance: Conversations with Edward W. Said. London, 2003.

Bové, Paul A., ed. Edward Said and the Work of the Critic: Speaking Truth to Power. Durham, N.C., 2000.

Hart, William D. Edward Said and the Religious Effects of Culture. Cambridge, U.K., 2000. A serious and sustained examination of the place of the religious in Said's thought; wide-ranging and balanced in its contextualization of Said.

Hussein, Abdirahman A. Edward Said: Criticism and Society. London, 2002. A full-length biography arguing for an intellectual unity in Said's diverse body of work.

Kennedy, Valerie. Edward Said: A Critical Introduction. London, 2000.

Marrouchi, Mustapha. Edward Said at the Limits. Albany, N.Y., 2004.

Sprinker, Michael. Edward Said: A Critical Reader. Oxford, 1992.

Walia, Shelley. Edward Said and the Writing of History. Cambridge, U.K., 2001.

Shamoon Zamir (2005)