From the forthcoming issue of Critical Muslim 40: Biography, edited by Ziauddin Sardar, we preview this review by Hurst author Professor Faisal Devji of the recent biography of Edward Said (Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said, Timothy Brennan, Bloomsbury, 2021).
There is a parallel between Timothy Brennan’s biography of Edward Said and the latter’s most famous book. Like Orientalism in 1978, Places of Mind appears at a time when colonialism and race have once again become subjects of public debate in North America and Western Europe. Reviewers have linked the reception of Said’s book and the politics it enunciated to that facing the supporters of movements like Black Lives Matter or Rhodes Must Fall. And it was to find out how we might understand such a trajectory that I was eager to read the biography. Said was one of the earliest non-European immigrants to achieve fame in the American academy, and I wanted to know how he managed to spark the first new debate on imperialism there since its formal dissolution.
That this debate was about imperialism as a form of knowledge, rather than of economic motives or political control, might be due to its posthumous character. For Said argued that orientalist ways of thinking both preceded and outlived colonialism, which made the struggle for freedom an epistemological one perfectly suited to the university and intellectual life in the West. And the context of this struggle was provided by the 1970s, a decade of immigration from the global south to the north. This movement was no longer defined by the need for labour in post-war reconstruction but the democratic failures of post-colonial states. It created the educated, middle class, and elite diasporas in which Said belonged and whose entry into the professions constituted the sociology of his fame.
As a Palestinian, of course, Said was not fully part of this post-colonial diaspora, dedicated as he was to the achievement of a national liberation whose consequences its other members had fled. His work on orientalism, colonialism, and Palestinian liberation, then, brought together two very different historical trajectories, in which the continuing struggles against Israeli occupation, like Apartheid, held the possibility of getting nationalism right. Orientalism named a history of race and empire that remained to be fought, even as many of Said’s post-colonial peers were moving towards a critique of the nation-state. Zionism was understood as a colonial more than a national project and seen as a throwback to the past not a vision of the future, thus allowing Said to begin the history of liberation anew.
The post-colonial state was marked by a fundamental ambiguity, liberating the nation from imperialism while inheriting its role. After independence anti-colonialism was used domestically either to displace conflicts between new national majorities and minorities, by attributing them to imperialism, or turn such minorities into traitors who had been empowered by it. This was true of Christians and Jews in the Middle East, Indians in East Africa, Muslims in India, and Chinese in South-East Asia. Sometimes, as in India, the anti-colonial narrative was expanded to include the imperial past of minority groups in a way that minimised European dominance. From a national minority himself, Said idealised the unifying force of anti-imperialism and sought to purify its increasingly reactionary narrative.
Anxiety of influence
None of these factors finds mention in Brennan’s book, which makes Said’s emergence as an anti-colonial celebrity in the aftermath of decolonization inexplicable. There is some attempt to turn him into a solitary genius in the style of the nineteenth century, as the only representative of his people, whether Palestinian, Arab, or non-Western, but this doesn’t succeed since Places of Mind is neither a personal nor an intellectual biography. What we get on the one hand is a bit of pop psychology in which he is shaped by the desire to escape a domineering father and an adoring mother. And on the other an account of his writing that does not take the views of its critics seriously. Not the orientalists only capable of disputing some of Said’s facts rather than his argument, but Marxists like Sadiq Jalal al-Azm or Aijaz Ahmad writing from the Middle East and South Asia.
As the historian Hussein Omar suggests in an incisive review, Brennan writes out Said’s African and Asian predecessors, contemporaries, and even successors, leaving him their only spokesman in a world whose intellectual life is confined to a dozen Manhattan blocks and one or two Paris arrondissements. Beyond them exists a horizon constituted by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, with Brennan keen to identify every Jew who Said befriended in a strange echo of anti-Semitic naming practices. But his place in the scholarship from and about Asia and Africa has little to do with New York or Jerusalem. It does not occur to Brennan, for example, that Orientalism might owe some of its popularity to the Iranian Revolution, which by 1979 had made Islam a challenge to the West in a way the Palestinian cause never did.
Like other events in the non-European world, the Iranian Revolution also drew upon a critique of imperialism as a form of knowledge that went back to the nineteenth century. Said’s success, then, might have been due not to his originality so much as an historical conjuncture. I suspect his career represents the liberal and even conservative appropriation of radical ideas and politics in the US. Brennan seems aware of this when he tells us how Said repeatedly solicited the acknowledgement of famous intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, only to repudiate them eventually. But while he attributes this disavowal to Said’s more serious political and philosophical positions as compared to post-structuralism, post-modernism, or post-colonialism, I think the opposite is probably true.
Much of what Brennan tells us about Said’s criticism of academic radicalism is reminiscent of the political right in America. He was against its “jargon” and considered its theories impractical and “just hot air”. While such ideas may well have deserved criticism, Said focussed on their lack of easy communicability as well as easy translation into what he considered political action. In Brennan’s telling, he was more concerned with their instrumentality than intellectual rigor, an attitude brought out by Said’s obsession with appearance, advertising, and public relations. These Madison Avenue concerns were not only evident in the attention he paid his own clothes and image, but to politics as image making, which entailed counselling Yasser Arafat to shave and wear a suit as part of a charm offensive in the US.
Brennan implies that Arafat stopped consulting Said once the State Department signalled its preference for the well-dressed and well-spoken professor as its Palestinian interlocutor. This would make another American professor placed in similar circumstances, the Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, Said’s true successor as the US-designated saviour of his people. Said sought Arafat’s recognition as he did that of celebrities like Sartre, Foucault, or Derrida. In his memoir Said even describes searching for his own books on Foucault’s shelves, something one cannot imagine the latter doing. As a result, though much to his surprise, Said was mistaken for a radical and pilloried for sins he never committed. These included not just accusations of terrorism but of relativism and the denial of objective knowledge.
The secret agent
Edward Said appears to have been an intellectual as much as political version of Forrest Gump, a character present at some of the great moments of history without ever being part of them in any meaningful way. This allowed him both to claim a certain historical influence while at the same time denying its consequences. After assiduously advocating for the PLO to engage with the US, for instance, Said pronounced himself against the Oslo Accords that predictably resulted from such an engagement. Shuttling between left and right while lending a radical glamour to quite conventional positions, he comes across in Places of Mind as a split or contradictory subject. And because he cannot explain the phenomenon that Said became, Brennan does little more than rehearse this contradiction.
Said is portrayed as a hugely successful public intellectual and yet at the same time a victim of racial and political discrimination. Some of Brennan’s descriptions of Said’s influence read like they come from a society column, complete with lists of famous people at the parties he attended to demonstrate it. Said himself seemed to revel in such name-dropping, even lying to his future wife about having dated Candice Bergen when courting her. Brennan notes that he was never confident about his own fame, writing that “well-wishers found his insecurity odd, knowing him well enough to figure out that as he moved about the room, he was quietly torturing himself with the question ‘What would these people want with little me?’” Perhaps it was the glamour he, too, sought from others.
Brennan does little to illustrate Said’s brilliance either as a scholar or a political analyst, and we must turn to his own books for evidence of this. What Places of Mind offers, instead, are banal reports of Said’s ideas and concerns. In accounts of his conversation, for instance, we are told “A student would complain that a philosopher made no sense. He would chide, ‘This is not scholarship…not critical thinking to say something like that.’” Or “One young colleague wrung her hands, looking for commiseration when she wondered whether she was good enough for a fellowship. He responded, ‘Get good.’” We are led to expect epigrams and delivered homilies. The cleverest thing attributed to him is the transcript of a phone message Said left Jean Stein in 1994, which gives us some idea of his wit.
I have suggested that Said’s historical role was to domesticate radical or controversial ideas, from post-structuralism to Palestinian self-determination and make them palatable in America. He did so by importing and translating these ideas into the scholarship on imperialism, helping transform it well beyond his own field of literary criticism. While important thinkers like Mohammad Iqbal in India and Jalal al-Ahmad in Iran had written about imperialism as a form of knowledge much earlier, they had neither taken it as their subject nor addressed themselves to the West. Said turned the debate on orientalism into a morality play which then became part of a culture war. But outside Said’s own concerns, his work also inspired a rich new scholarship on colonial sociologies of knowledge.
Critics like al-Azm and Ahmad understood the scholarship on orientalism arising from the demand of an immigrant diaspora for recognition. They thought it opportunistic and sentimental rather than radical in character, noting that its claim to represent the ex-colonial world was belied by the fact that Said’s supporters there tended to be ultra-nationalists or religious supremacists. They also pointed out how Said misread Foucault, his source in conceptualising orientalism as a discourse, by replacing its radical anti-humanism with an emphasis on human agency. But agency, a shibboleth of the time describing the role of women, slaves, and the colonised in history, meant for Said the moral responsibility of the powerful not the politics of the powerless. Nietzsche might have called it ressentiment.
A muddle in the middle
Using the term discourse to describe the simultaneous development of orientalist themes in many fields, from art and literature to scholarship and diplomacy, Said was able to define orientalism as a collective project without attributing it to the plan or intentionality of any class or country. As with Foucault, in other words, the consequences of orientalism were structural more than they were instrumental. Unlike Foucault, however, Said did not emphasize the modernity and so historicity of this discourse by attaching it to any process of collective regulation or individual discipline. This meant orientalism was famously detached from history and so could be attributed to the West in an almost racial way, while at the same time being blamed on all the individuals deploying it in a travesty of the term agency.
Said claimed that orientalism, never itself a modern discipline, forms part of many Foucauldian regimes of order in fields of scholarship, though without dominating any one of them. It thus remained curiously non-modern or undisciplined, bringing together philosophical speculation, moral reflection, and amateur ethnography in an almost eighteenth-century fashion, which might be why it proves so useful in equally amateurish practices like diplomacy and policymaking. In this way orientalism represents not the disciplinary invention of the Middle East, as Said would have it, but works rather to interrupt and even prevent the emergence of such regimes of knowledge and power. But this also means it is of minor importance in the analysis of power, whose modern forms can do without its othering.
Orientalism’s power resides instead in its speculative and fantastical character, one capable both of interrupting and supplementing institutional forms of discipline and regulation. With neither a methodology nor ontology of its own, orientalism may allow for the suspension if not breakdown of disciplinary forms in the modern university. And it is in this sense resolutely non-Foucauldian. If it is neither an art nor a science, orientalism is incapable of constituting its subjects or objects in any institutional sense, with its themes always available for reversal in the way they had been in Montesquieu’s Persian Letters. But this entails more than seeing Persia as a version of France, or, in the historicist language of the nineteenth century, the contemporary Middle East as a version of Europe’s past.
The possibility of reversal means that the alterity which Said describes as being fundamental to the orientalist project, remains something transient and forever threatens to lapse into the identification he wrote about, from Kipling’s Kim to Lawrence of Arabia. This probably accounts for the orient’s celebrated fascination and dreamlike character, something which should not be reduced merely to a form of instrumentality or divided into good and bad versions as Said does. Rather than departing from Foucault, in other words, Said’s mistake in Orientalism was to stick too closely to his conception of discourse and make it impossible to see the fragmentary and undisciplined role orientalism plays in contemporary scholarship. But such a recognition would disable it from becoming an object of easy moral judgement.
Given his views about orientalism, it is astonishing to see Said engaging in it so fulsomely, with Brennan’s biography revealing his liberal use of essentialist terms like the Arab mind. Only a few years before the publication of Orientalism, he could claim that “the characteristic movement of the Arab is circular…Repetition is therefore mistaken for novelty, especially since there is no sense of recognition.” Or that “the Arabs since Avicenna and Ibn Khaldun (who borrowed from Aristotle) have never produced a theory of mind.” Brennan tells us that he was fond of many of the orientalist texts he criticized. Perhaps Said’s contradictions illustrate my argument about orientalism’s shift between identity and difference, and thus its inability to constitute either a subject or object of discourse.
By criticising free expression, seen as an excuse for hate speech, progressives have encouraged the creation of thought and language crimes appropriate to Said’s notion of imperialism as a form of knowledge. These are then weaponised by far-right states and movements, having been pioneered by Jewish and Muslim groups only to be deployed by Hindu and other activists in Asia and Africa as well as Europe and North America. Often supported by or doing the bidding of authoritarian governments, these activists work to silence criticism in the name of anti-racism and decoloniality. Schools and universities comprise the frontlines of this battle, in which offenses against identity are replacing discriminatory treatment as causes of complaint.
That the far-right now operates through the language and procedures of liberal recognition, by claiming protection for its historical identity, should alert us that such battles are all being fought within liberalism rather than between it and some illiberal alternative. When progressives mobilise in such liberal ways for causes ranging from anti-racism to anti-colonialism, in other words, they do so at some risk of enabling their own enemies through the legal and disciplinary procedures they demand. And this is in the nature of liberalism as a self-professedly neutral or non-ideological form. The result is often a culture war in which the number of twitter followers and propaganda on social media win battles that diminish the autonomy of academic and cultural institutions in dangerously populist ways.
Historical ressentiment and its vocabulary of interdiction offers no ground for progressive politics if it augments the repressive functions of any institution by calling for bans and removals. Such a politics should enable new freedoms instead. When hearing the debates about imperialism that roil campus life on both sides of the Atlantic, I think of the Indian government imprisoning civil rights activists involved in the bicentenary celebration of the battle of Bhima Koregaon, during which low castes fought alongside the British against a high caste dynasty. The far-right violence at this commemoration of imperialism in 2018 led to the arrest of leftist activists like a handicapped academic and Jesuit priest in his eighties. Campus politics in the West simply cannot grasp the complex reality of empire in such events.
What remains of Said’s work apart from its success in turning orientalism into an insult? He was among the American literary critics responsible for making their field into a pacesetting one across the humanities and social sciences. Dependent on translating and introducing continental European scholarship to the US, that moment has now ended, with Orientalism stranded on university reading lists by the receding wave of literary criticism that reached its high-water mark in the 1990s. His other books are not read. The public as much as academic argument over race and empire has achieved a new lease on life since then. Perhaps its activists can learn from Said’s career how their progressive claims may be turned into reactionary ones in the end.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, A Palestinian Cultural Mural Honouring Dr Edward Said
Faisal Devji is Professor of Indian History at the University of Oxford. He is the author of, inter alia, Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea and The Impossible Indian: Gandhi and the Temptations of Violence.