Edward Said was one of the last century’s most distinguished scholars, literary critics and political campaigners. His commanding presence in his lifetime has so far been matched by an equally enduring legacy in death. Today – exactly ten years since his passing – his shadow looms larger than ever as a new generation of students approaches his work and adopts his critical eye.
A forceful academic, Said’s seminal work Orientalism (1978) catapulted him into the limelight, immediately overturning many of the common assumptions held in fields as diverse as cultural studies, anthropology, politics and literature. It was a pioneering work that initiated the whole school of postcolonial theory and fundamentally altered the way we conceive of notions of the ‘other’.
Yet while orientalism is recognised as Said’s exposition of the creation of the Orient, what is often overlooked is the ways in which carving the identity of the Orient was a process of simultaneously ascribing an identity to the Occident. Orientalism is as much about Western identity as Eastern identity; the West was itself defined against the notion of an inferior, more savage other. Viewing Orientalism through this lens, we can see how it laid the groundwork for later works, particularly Culture & Imperialism, where Said traces Western culture and its role in paving the way for and managing European colonial efforts.
It is in this landmark text that Said crafted what he called the ‘contrapuntal’ reading methodology, the process of ‘reading back’ from an alternative perspective or bringing into conjunction contrasting voices – Western and Eastern, for example, or coloniser and colonised. The aim, Said leaves the reader in no doubt, is not to underplay or elide whatever tensions texts may imply, but to bring them to the fore. In Said’s own words, to read a text contrapuntally is to consider it with an “awareness both of the metropolitan history that is narrated and of those other histories against which (and together with which) the dominating discourse acts”. By doing this, we see how peoples’ histories are indelibly entangled with one another – a theme that runs through the heart of Comparative Literature, the discipline Said taught at Columbia University until his death in 2003.
And by delineating, with characteristic delicacy, the difference between colonialism and imperialism, Said not only embeds the Western culture he examines in its proper historical context, he also allows us to see the ways in which the process of imperialism has outlived the empires of old and accordingly dedicates the last section of Culture to American imperialism in the last half of the twentieth century.
America’s unconditional support for Israeli colonial ambitions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories drew Said’s ire more passionately than any other topic. In an essay for the London Review of Books, he raged against the imbalanced discourse of the Middle East conflict, supported by a ‘disciplinary communications apparatus’ that has the purpose of ‘overlooking most of the basic things that might present Israel in a bad light...[and] punishing those who try to tell the truth’.
While he himself has often been described as Palestine’s most eloquent spokesman, Said never revelled in his position under the spotlight, but lamented the absence of the Palestinians’ right to narrate their own story. Yet in spite of this, when the Palestinian narrative was repeatedly blocked from the media mainstream, Edward Said took on the task of telling it.
Despite his considerable contributions to the political landscape – or perhaps because of them – and incontestable scholarly worth, Said was seldom at home in the American mainstream political or academic establishment. His memoir, Out Of Place, charts his attempt to find a metaphorical space in lieu of that, and builds on themes from The Reith Lectures he delivered on representations of the intellectual. He concluded his memoir by stating that “I occasionally experience myself as a cluster of flowing currents”, adding that this was preferable to “the idea of a solid self”. This is in keeping with his view of identity on a macro scale as unstable and in a process of continual re-creation.
Rather than fall victim to his intellectual exile, Said asked how exile could be “converted from a challenge or a risk, or even from an active impingement on selfhood, into a positive mission, whose success would be a cultural act of great importance?”
He shared in this tradition with many of his intellectual influences: Erich Auerbach, to whom Said is referring in the above quote; Frantz Fanon, whose tour de force, The Wretched of The Earth, was inspired by his role in the Algerian War of Independence; as well as CLR James and Theodor Adorno.
Noam Chomsky, a friend of Said’s, described Culture in the blurb as a study in ‘who we are and what we must do if we aspire to be moral agents, not servants of power’.
Tragically – for the world and, on a personal level, for Said – not everyone eschewed this structural servitude and Said spoke movingly in his last interview of his sadness that friends in whom he once recognised a political allegiance had turned into ‘mouthpieces for the status quo’.
It was these moments that weighed heavily on Said and in his later years, after contracting an incurable leukaemia, he become ever more isolated, particularly after the death of two of his closest friends, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod and Iqbal Ahmad, within two years of each other.
All of those who knew him closely spoke of a kind and giving – if demanding – Edward: a man who was an aesthete, a friend, an intellectual father, a meticulously dressed cosmopolitan with an indomitable spirit – so much so, in fact, that he battled through the pain and torment of cancer for a decade. Tariq Ali recalls his chance meeting with Said’s doctor wherein the doctor told him that “there was no medical explanation for Edward’s survival”.
It is this fighting spirit that encapsulates Said’s life and pushed him from battle to battle, even at great personal cost. He wanted to fight to the last. This ceaselessness was – in a typically understated manner – summed up in his last interview: “The idea of relaxation and resting...I just completely refuse.”
As Said rests in his final exile, his legacy goes on and the challenge is for those who have read his work and been inspired by his example to take up the task of fighting for the ideas he so clearly enunciated. This comes at a cost, but prescient as ever Said knew this and has some final words to leave us with:
“Remember the solidarity shown to Palestine here and everywhere... and remember also that there is a cause to which many people have committed themselves, difficulties and terrible obstacles notwithstanding. Why? Because it is a just cause, a noble ideal, a moral quest for equality and human rights.”
 The process of constituting a body of knowledge about the Orient
 Cf Michael Murrin’s review of Culture and Imperialism, and: Edward Said: A Critical Reader