THE POLITICS OF POSTCOLONIAL CRITICISM:
An Essay on Edward Said’s Affiliations
Edward Said is generally recognized as one of the founding “fathers” of academic postcolonial studies based on his 1978 book Orientalism. But in a recent collection of essays entitled Postcolonial Studies and Beyond, Professors Ania Loomba and her colleagues confirm that Said’s influence is now taken for granted or surpassed. His deconstructive politics of representation has now been transcended by a free-wheeling empiricist area-studies freed from the “binarized intellectual genealogy” fused in its twin “historical materialist” and “poststructuralist” dimensions (Loomba et al, 2005, 31-32). Thus, departing from Said’s reifying concern with the “discursive violence transported in representations of the Other,” postcolonial scholars now intend to be eclectic, pluralist, middle-of-the-road pragmatists. Belying charges of intellectual bankruptcy, our Establishment experts announce their new political raison d’etre: Postcolonial Studies vows to be expansive, ecumenical, innovative and self-proliferating, negotiating the seduction of empiricism with theory and discourse, avoiding the systematic or normative, in tune with fashionable trends in the pursuit of globalization. Difference and Eurocentrism, among others, are still addressed, but Said’s almost obsessive engagement with the global power of imperialism or corporate finance capital (both European and U.S.), with the tension between secular and religious ideologies, with varying nationalisms, and so on, no longer preoccupy postcolonialists. Hence, in spite of the urgency of Washington’s “war on terrorism,” that is, war on Islamic fundamentalists and other anti-“free market” rogues, there is—to cite symptomatic omissions—Loomba’s collection which contains no sustained inquiry into the current conflict in the Middle East (elaborated in Said’s Culture and Imperialism), nor into the urgent themes of the anti-globalization movement, e.g, Western militarism, the social-cultural effects of WTO/IMF/World Bank policies on whole societies and peoples, particularly on communities in the South.
In marked contradistinction to the empiricist-nominalist politics of Establishment Postcolonial Studies, Said before his death celebrated in somewhat extravagant terms the “heroic” ideal in humanism. It may be that he is reacting to the institutionalized anti-humanism of the Nietzschean/Heideggerian school: Derrida, De Man, Foucault, etc. In his 1999 Presidential Address to the Modern Language Association of America, Said privileged commitment, human agency, resistance, critique, nonconformism, quoting Adorno on “the uncompromisingly critical thinker” who does not simply reproduce “what already exists,” opting for “open thinking [that] points beyond itself” (2000b, 290). Said also mentioned the Marxist Isaac Deutscher who ascribed “sentiments of defiance and intellectual daring…to a secular intellectual tradition [which included Spinoza, Marx and Heine] that sees in unafraid and unapologetic critique the path to human freedom.” Said’s brand of humanism defies parochial cosmpolitanism because it draws from a reservoir of overlapping traditions from incommensurable civilizations, from East to West, North to South, capable of reflecting on its limits and excesses.
Said’s reaffirmation of reflexive humanistic ideals (inaugurated in Enlightenment rationalism but enriched by democratic popular modernism), in particular its valorization of the heroic thinker, may be surprising, given his concern with structures of discourse, ontologies of power, macro institutions, and large geopolitical, ideological questions. But not really, since it can be traced back to his interest in Giambattista Vico (see the conclusion to Beginnings: Intention and Method). This stress on homo faber, human wills in action, that he discerns in Vico, Marx and Engels, Lukacs, Fanon, Chomsky, Kolko, Bertrand Russell, Wiliams—all openly anti-imperialist activists—explains the invocation of Adorno, Freud, and Deutscher. To be sure, Said is not resurrecting a self-centered romantic subjectivity that merely fosters ethnocentric, exclusive nationalism. His secular humanism seeks to counter religious obscurantism, scientism, and all mystifying, hierarchical modes of thought and behavior. He clarifies this humanism as equivalent to disclosure, agency, “immersing oneself in the element of history”; “it is recovering rationality from the turbulent actualities of human life, and then submitting them painstakingly to the rational processes of judgment and criticism” (2000c).
Said’s concern with agency, free will, can be affiliated with Machiavelli’s emphasis on the versatile exercise of the human faculties, on virtu as the creative agency of the Republican commune. From Machiavelli’s civic humanism, it is only a step to Antonio Gramsci’s interest in how the energies of organic intellectuals (anyone with directive skills and craft) can be mobilized to construct hegemony, the leadership of a collective body, for social improvement and human liberation (Fontana 1993). Agency in the struggle for hegemony translates into rationally planned revolutionary projects. Ultimately, Said’s practical engagement with knowledge, critique and freedom diverges from postcolonial scholasticism in its opposition, for sample, to the concept of a neoliberal globalized market economy responsible for inequality, exploitation and oppression (2000c). While Said derived tremendous inspiration from Gramsci, just as he did from the legacy of classical humanism sedimented in Vico, Freud, and Adorno, Said inflected this appropriation to suit his wide-ranging critical sensibility and his participation in the Palestinian struggle for freedom. Said’s engagement with Gramscian politics and its normative systematic critique follows the direction charted by the conceptual divide he posits between filiation and affiliation.
One of the salient contributions of Said to our late-modern organon of knowledge is the distinction between filiation and affiliation in his magisterial work, The World, the Text, and the Critic. “Filiation,” as its etymology implies, denotes natural tie, belonging, conformity to received traditions; by contrast, “affiliation” signifies distance, a worldly self-situating response to the dominant culture, in short, critical consciousness. While there is cooperation and conflict between the two processes of filiation and affiliation involving artists, scholars, and intellectuals, Said stresses the goal of re-establishing provisional authority and a semblance of normative order that would harmonize the old and new, the organic culture and the constructed method or system. In this instance, Said affirmed his vocation of oppositional, ironic critic, whose other identity is that of a secular humanist. He sums up his credo thus: “[C]riticism must think of itself as life-enhancing and constitutively opposed to every form of tyranny, domination, and abuse; its social goals are noncoercive knowledge produced in the interests of human freedom” (1983, 29).
“Critical,” for Said, means adversarial to orthodoxy, dogma, sacred canons, authoritarianism. While acknowledging the influence of selected Marxists, not by Marxism, Said disavows “Marxism” as “principally an academic, not a political, commitment” in American cultural history, and therefore marginal or uninteresting. He is anxious to demonstrate his “suspicion of totalizing concepts” and asserts that “the moment anything acquires the status of a cultural idol or commodity, it ceases to be interesting” (1983, 30). What is ironic is that Said himself is in danger of becoming a cultural idol, an icon in the “star system” (Shumway 2002) of American mass consumerism, if he has not already become one when he became president of the highly authoritative Modern Language Association of America in 1999. Proof of this is the cult of Said’s personality emergent in the writings of Said’s Columbia University graduates and in such collections as Edward Said: Continuing the Conversation (2005) edited by Homi Bhabha and W.Mitchell. Practically all the significant U.S. academic journals have published laudatory memorials to Said. Taking into account the lack so far of any inventory of Said’s affiliation with Marxism, I want to explore in what follows the correlation, disparities, and resonance of Gramsci and the Marxist analyses of the political economy of symbolic practices in Said’s thinking. This is designed to be notes for a draft program for any future systematic appraisal of Said’s politics implied in his criticism. Our purpose is that of attempting to enhance the critical elaboration of a democratically engaged radical humanism friendly to the needs and aspirations of billions of disadvantaged peoples resisting contemporary corporate globalization.
Re-mapping Ruptures and Linkages
One of the fundamental discoveries of Marxist historiography is that capitalism as a world system has developed unevenly, with the operations of the “free market” being determined by the unplanned but (after analysis) “lawful” tendencies of the accumulation of surplus value. With the rise of merchant capitalism, diverse modes of production with varying temporalities and “superstructural” effects have since then reconfigured the planet. In a new cartography, we find metropolitan centers subordinating peripheral territories and peoples. Colonialism and later finance-capitalism (imperialism) compressed time and space, sharply juxtaposing a variety of cultures linked to discrepant economies and polities, with the colonizing center dictating the measure of modernity. After World War II, the accelerated migration of former colonial subjects into the metropoles together with the refinement of technologies of communication and foreign investment heightened the spectacle of heterogeneous languages and mixed practices coexisting with the homogenizing scenarios of everyday life in both center and margin. I consider postcolonialism—more exactly, postcolonial discourse, ideas and practices—as the cultural logic of this mixture and multilayering of forms taken as a distinguishing ethos of late modernity, a logic distanced from its grounding in the unsynchronized interaction between colonial powers and colonized subalterns.
The prototypical authority of postcolonialism, Homi Bhabha, among others, has given ontological priority to the phenomenon of cultural difference between colonized and colonizer. The articulation of such difference in “in-between” spaces produces hybridization of identities: “It is in the emergence of the interstices—the overlap and displacement of domains of difference—that the intersubjective and collective experiences of nationness, community interest, or cultural value are negotiated” (Bhabha 1994, 1-2). Since (following Wallerstein 1991) capital ethnicizes peoples to promote labor segmentation, hybridity and other differential phenomena result. But for Bhabha, ambivalence arises from the poststructuralist “differance of writing” that informs any cultural performance. Such performances are found in certain privileged positionalities and experiences: “the history of postcolonial migration, the narratives of cultural and political diaspora, the major social displacements of peasants and aboriginal communities, the poetics of exile, the grim prose of political and economic refugees” (5). Callinicos calls Bhabha’s approach “an idealist reduction of the social to the semiotic” (1995, 111). Indeterminacy, interruption of the signifying chain, aporia, endless displacements, translations, and negotiations characterize postcolonial literary theory and practice. Aijaz Ahmad (1996) points to the ambiguity of historical references in postcolonial discourse. In the discursive realm of floating signifiers and the language metaphor, the objective asymmetry of power and resources between hegemonic blocs and subaltern groups (racialized minorities in the metropoles and in the “third world”), as well as the attendant conflicts, disappears.
Clearly this fixation on the manifestations of “unevenness” has undergone fetishization, divorced from its concrete social determinations. What postcolonial theory (Bhabha’s practice is replicated in Gayatri Spivak, Arjun Appadurai, and others) seems to carry out in the name of individualist resistance is the valorization of reified immediacies—the symptomatic effects of colonization in various forms of “orientalisms” and strategies of adaptations and cooptations—unconnected with the institutions and instrumentalities that subtend them. Viewed from the perspective of late-capitalist political economy, the figures of difference, fragmentation, liminality, and diaspora which Lawrence Grossberg (1996) considers the principles of identity for postmodern cultural studies (of which postcolonialism is a subspecies) are modes of regulating the social relations of production, in particular the division of global social labor and its reproduction. But postcolonial critics not only remove them from their circumstantial ground, from their historical contexts; they also treat them as autonomous phenomena separate from the structures of cultural production and political legitimation in late modern societies. For example, “nation” is often regarded in postcolonial studies as a totalizing narrative, whereas historical materialists conceive of national formations as stages in the historical development of “concrete universalities” that incorporate dialectically the richness of the particular (Lowy 1998). For Henri Lefebvre (1968, 167), the error of postcolonialist hypostatization inheres in its nominalist metaphysics: “Each of these ‘moments’ of the real [i.e., hybridity, fragmentation, etc.], once isolated and hypostatized, becomes the negator of the other moments and then the negator of itself. Limited and transposed into a form, the content becomes oppressive and destructive of its own reality.”
Postcolonialist orthodoxy may be deemed guilty of what it claims to repudiate: mystification and moralism. What Postcolonial Studies ultimately strive to do is to reify certain transitory practices, styles, modalities of thought and expression that arise as attempts to resolve specific historical contradictions in the ongoing crisis of late, transnational capitalism. Postmodernist ethnographies of non-Western communities invariably attest to this practice. Cultural difference is the single ambivalent result of colonialism that can be articulated in plural ways. Unevenness is no longer an abstract categorizing term but an empirical one-sided description that affords the subaltern’s newly-discovered agency some space for the display of libertarian astuteness. What the Marxist theoretician Georg Lukacs (1971) calls “ethical utopianism,” the lapse into subjectivism, afflicts postcolonial theory because it denies the internally complex determinants that are its condition of possibility. This mediation of the hybrid, interstitial and borderline experience with the concrete totality of the social formation is rejected as “essentialism” or “totalization” (San Juan 1998).
Instead of inquiring further into the poststructuralist mystification of what David Harvey (1996) calls the contemporary “geography of difference” configured by a complex dialectic of flows and permanences, I would like to comment briefly on Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism (1994), in particular the refusal of the historical-materialist framework and its subsequent lapse into “ethical utopianism.” Given his influential work Orientalism (1978), Said deserves to be called the originator and inspiring patron-saint of postcolonial theory and discourse. References to him abound in the writings of Spivak, Bhabha, Mohanty, and others. The anti-Marxism of postcolonial theory may be attributed partly to Said’s eclecticism, his belief that American left criticism is marginal, and his biased if not wholly false understanding of Marxism based on doctrinaire anticommunism and the model of “actually existing socialism” during the Cold War.
Said has frankly attacked doctrinaire Marxists while invoking the examples of Gramsci, C.L.R. James, and Raymond Williams. It is somewhat surprising that the British scholar Francis Mulhern would include in a recent anthology Said’s essay on Jane Austen as an example of Marxist literary criticism, even though its inferred “moral geography” supposedly “reinserts the humane traditions of English culture in their ambiguous role in the unfolding of Britain’s colonial history” (1992: 97). This is not to say that Said has not contributed to the salutary revisions of the vulgar or dogmatic Marxism that Fredric Jameson, Alan Wald, Terry Eagleton, and others have criticized. But Said was certainly not revitalizing historical materialism for revolutionary socialist goals.
Many other critics, especially Aijaz Ahmad, have pointed out the weaknesses and lacunae in Said’s interpretation and rather opportunistic use of classical Marxism. I think this opportunistic quoting, excerpting and tokenizing of Marxist thinkers by postcolonial orthodoxy may explain its reputed radicalism; this putative solidarity, according to fellow-travellers, gives it a sanction to condemn its systemic excesses, reductionism, and so on (usually, of course, attributed to ex-Soviet Union dogmatism) under the guise of sympathy and knowledgeability about it. I am reminded of a former white Anglo colleague who, in the sixties, always warned me (a southeast Asian neocolonized person of color) to beware of Marxists because he was a former Trotskyite in the forties.
The sociologist Bryan Turner also reminds us of Said’s adoption of a deconstructive strategy derived from Michel Foucault and Martin Heidegger whose anti-Marxism needs no elaboration. Not only romantic anarchism but a hermeneutic subjectivism whose textualism confuses “the materiality of social relations with an alleged materiality of the context” has generated in Said’s early work a “vicious solipsism” (Turner 1994: 7). Alluding to comments of Maxime Rodinson and Sadek Jalal el-Azm, Samir Amin (1989) has also remarked on Said’s provincialism and its inability to explain the historical causality of Eurocentric prejudice.
In Culture and Imperialism, Said uses Gramsci and C.L.R. James, among others in the Marxist tradition, to give an aura of leftism to his text. Gramsci is referred to in connection with an intellectual vocation, with Yeats’s poetry, with the Indian Subaltern Studies. But it is in the way Said appropriates and refunctions Gramsci’s notion of hegemony that is symptomatic of a syncretizing, cooptative project. Said first demarcates Gramsci from Lukacs; the latter belongs to the Hegelian tradition, Gramsci to the “Vichian, Crocean departure from it” (49) so that Lukacs attends more to temporality, while Gramsci to social history and actuality grasped in geographical terms. This is evidenced by Gramsci’s use of such words as “terrain,” “territory, “ blocks,” and “region,” in his essay Some Aspects of the Southern Question. But obviously Gramsci’s concept of space is precisely historicized to those places in Southern Italy left out of the main capitalist trend of industrialization because of the stranglehold of the landlord class and its traditional intellectuals like Croce. In my view, Gramsci’s conceptualization of topography is historical, not just temporal; the meridional environment is backward and impoverished because of the political subordination of the agrarian economy to the financial power of the Italian bourgeoisie in the North, not because of mere cultural backwardness.
Gramsci’s chief concern is political economy, not geography. The problem Gramsci is grappling with in that text is the workerist sectarianism of the Italian socialist party; he is proposing a united-front policy in which the proletariat will demonstrate its hegemonic capacity by incorporating the demands and needs of the peasantry into its national-popular program of action. The prerequisite for this is the recognition of the historically uneven development of the Italian social formation. In short, profoundly conscious of uneven capitalist development, Gramsci posits the task of Marxist intellectuals as a systematic attempt to propagate the philosophy of praxis, Marxism, on the terrain where cosmopolitan bourgeois ideas supported by the Catholic Church are dominant. The organic intellectual of the proletariat would assume this pedagogical and agitational role, helping to integrate the Italian South with the national-popular agenda of the leading class, the proletariat. Analogies to dependency theory or to Wallerstein’s world-system paradigm of center-periphery may not be quite appropriate from a strictly historical-materialist perspective.
Instead of historicizing the problematic of geopolitical discordance, Said hypostatizes it and, contrary to his initial proposition, focuses on the temporal (in effect, existential) dimension of cultural progress. But what is revealing is Said’s enlargement of the intellectual’s role which, in retrospect, anticipates that reserved for the postcolonial mediator:
Gramsci also understands that in the extended time span during which the coral-like formation of a culture occurs, one needs “breaks of an organic kind.” Gobetti represents one such break, a fissure that opened up within the cultural structures that supported and occluded the north-south discrepancy for so long in Italian history (1993: 50).
What distinguishes Gramsci’s intellectuals from Said is that the former are class-rooted and universalizing in their motivation, whereas the postcolonial intellectual resembles more the floating, declassed petit-bourgeois intellectual of the metropolitan literary salons. In effect, Said conceives of the intellectual outside of the hegemonic struggles of the major social classes, aggrandizing its function in a way that is completely idealist and antithetical to Gramsci’s vision. The “Gobetti factor,” that is, the intellectual who (in Said’s words) “furnishes the link between disparate, apparently autonomous regions of human history,” is the model of the postcolonial, diasporic intellectual who will link comparative literature and imperial geography in a superficial fashion, harmonizing alterities and flattening out contradictions.
The truth is that Gramsci’s concept of the intellectual is completely original. It departs from the Enlightenment version of intellectuals as bearers of humanist knowledge capable of unifying subject and object which survives in Lukacs’ notion of the “possible consciousness” of totality assumed by the philosopher-subject. It also departs from the Marcusean and Sartrean view in which consciousness, authentic philosophical Reason, overthrows reification, instrumentalism, and detotalized history. Gramsci’s intellectual refers to “the whole social mass that performs functions of organization in the broad sense: whether in the realm of production, culture or public administration” (quoted in Buci-Glucksmann 1980, 28). Unlike Foucault’s “specific” intellectuals or Said’s secular contestatory intellectuals who operate in the realm of ideology, consciousness, or discursive formations of power/knowledge, Gramsci’s intellectuals are defined by their position in the social relations of production, their social function in the division of labor (the distinct types of economic, cultural or state apparatuses in which they are located), and their historical trajectories. This analytic distinction has already been clarified by, among others, Christine Buci-Glucksmann’s Gramsci and the State (1980), Anne Showstack Sassoon’s Gramsci’s Politics (1980), and Benedetto Fontana’s Hegemony and Power (1993).
What has happened in Culture and Imperialism is typical of Said’s methodology. The vocation of the postcolonial intellectual as middleman-facilitator of colonized subalterns and Western imperial power is thus legitimized by the illicit subsumption, if not perversion, of Gramsci’s idea of how partisan Marxist intellectuals can work to promote the worker-peasant alliance within an all-encompassing program of socialist transformation. Said’s circumstantial and secular intelligence ascribes a “spatial consciousness” to Gramsci’s reading of the “Southern question” in order to “reinterpret the Western cultural archive as if fractured geographically by the activated imperial divide” (50). But instead of calling for a united front of the Western proletariat and the “peasantry” of the “third world,” Said reverts to a purely academic exercise in contrapuntal reading of the Western cultural archive. In short, Gramsci’s insight can rationalize the academic business of interpreting English novels in the context of “the specific history of colonization, resistance, and finally native nationalism,” without questioning the ideological and political framework of the expansive, reformist imperial archive.
Said’s “solidarity” with Marxism consists then in selective deployment of concepts to advance a permanently “para-doxal mode” of argumentation (as he puts it in his last work, Humanism and Democratic Criticism (2004, 83). In Orientalism, for example, he cites Gramsci’s distinction between civil and political society in which culture, located in civil society, is taken as the chief instrument for inducing consent and therefore hegemony. The state disappears since hegemony becomes culturalized; culture divorced from political economy offers then the framework of intelligibility for understanding the social division of labor, property relations and their expression in antagonistic class processes, and the temporal differentiation of the power structure. Injustice and exploitation are thus occluded.
In The World, the Text, and the Critic, Said converts Gramsci into a philosophical idealist. He conceives Gramsci as a pluralist who assigns culture to “some large intellectual endeavor—systems and currents of thought—connected in complex ways to doing things, to accomplishing certain things, to force, to social class and economic production, to diffusing ideas, values, and world pictures” (1983: 170). Gramsci, for Said, privileges intellectual elaboration as “the central cultural activity,” as “the material making a society a society” (171). The strength of Western culture, based on “its variety, its heterogeneous plurality,” accounts for “the strength of the modern Western State” (171). In effect, Said has made Gramsci (who envisioned replicating Engel’s Anti-Duhring in a polemic called “Anti-Croce”) a disciple of Croce and Hegel.
Cultural Studies or Political Economy?
I argue that for Gramsci hegemony cannot simply be reduced to the domain of culture or superstructure that guarantees the reproduction of the social relations, the state, and everything else. All relations of social forces are conditioned by the material contradictions in the social formation. The hegemonic apparatus of state plus civil society in Gramsci should be grasped within a framework of totality, as rendered by the French scholar Christine Buci-Glucksmann:
….the hegemonic apparatus turns out to be a constitutive part of the relations of production as “ideological social” relations, in the distinction made by Lenin. Practical ideologies and modes of living and feeling have their roots in the economic base: the relation between civilta and production is a pivotal point in Gramsci’s whole problematic of capitalism, and of socialism too (1980: 89).
In addition, for Gramsci, civil society cannot be fully grasped as a domain separate from its internal relations with political society since civil society involves the linkage between class relations in the economy and the explicitly political aspect of the primary agent of coercion, the state. The dual perspective of consent/coercion unites political and civil societies in Gramsci’s extended or integral state, “the unified site in which Western bourgeois classes have established their social power as ‘hegemony protected by the armour of coercion’ “ (Rupert 1993: 79). Proletarian counterhegemony then takes place in the integral state construed by Gramsci as “the entire complex of practical and theoretical activities with which the ruling class not only justifies and maintains its dominance, but manages to win the active consent of those over whom it rules” (1971: 244).
Given this misreading of Gramsci, it is no wonder that Said is unable, in Orientalism, to propose alternatives to the hegemonic discourse of Orientalism. Dennis Porter comments: “because [Said] overlooks the potential contradiction between discourse theory and Gramscian hegemony, he fails to historicize adequately the texts he cites and summarizes, finding always the same triumphant discourse where several are frequently in conflict” (1994: 160). This leads us to Said’s postcolonial eclecticism which hardens into an orthodoxy as the Bandung “third worldism” of the sixties and dependency liberalism of the seventies mutates into the neoconservative postmodernism of the eighties and nineties.
Cognizant of the caveats I have rehearsed here, Said replied with to his critics with his usual cunning erudition in the essay “Orientalism reconsidered.” His pluralist instinct allowed him to include the Marxist-inspired texts of Eric Wolf, Perry Anderson, Immanuel Wallerstein, Richard Ohmann, Fredric Jameson, Noam Chomsky, together with deconstructionists like Bhabha, Spivak, etc. However, he still implicates “the old marxist or world-historical rhetoric” with “the old, by now impertinent and genealogically flawed, conceptual models.” He opts for a “decentered consciousness” that is “anti-totalising and anti-systematic,” marginal, secular, libertarian (his signature epithetc) because, “unlike Orientalism, it is not based on the finality and closure of antiquarian or curatorial knowledge, but on investigative open analysis (1985, 14). Timothy Brennan recently attempted to refocus our attention on Said’s affiliation with the Frankfurt Critical Theory’s critique of the administrative state and with Raymond William’s cultural materialism (2005, 100). Indeed, Said’s commitment to Viconian activism/productivism has latitude enough to include anti-statism and Nietzschean nihilism. His final stance invokes Adorno’s negative dialectics, deconstructive, libertarian, utopian.
Negotiating with Fanon and C.L.R. James
Postcolonial orthodoxy focuses on eclectic and polymorphous syncretism. In a critique of mainstream postcolonial theory, Arif Dirlik noted the fetishism of hybridity and the antifoundationalist rejection of history by Bhabha and others. Postcolonialism’s complicity with capitalist reification and commodity-fetishism has also been examined by Callinicos, Parry, and others. Said (1994) implicitly endorses Bhabha’s universalizing conception of the hybridity of all cultures But the celebration of multiplicity, difference, and cultural mixing at the end of Culture and Imperialism still occurs within the field of a pluralist global market which can tolerate Said’s ethical protest. Despite this moralizing, Dirlik argues, Said’s lack of a dialectical method explains why he has failed to take into account the “Oriental’s participation in the unfolding of the discourse of the Orient” (1997: 118; see also Chen Xiaomei 1994), and heed the imperative of historicizing capitalist modernity and its hegemonic reifying of non-Western cultures.
An admirer of Said, Frederick Buell in his book National Culture and the New Global System aptly describes Said’s stance: “…Said tries to bridge both positions [that of Sara Suleri and Benita Parry], advancing, for example, his vision of a vehemently antinationalist, yet ardently anti-imperialist, Fanon for the present era, and eschewing a ‘politics of blame,’ advocating compassion, and seeking to forge ‘new alignments…across borders, types, nations, and essences’ at the same time as he writes an extended indictment of imperial culture” (1994: 237). Fanon is refunctioned or rehabilitated to legitimize an academic regime of compromise and liberal multiculturalism. A perfect description of the middleman negotiator. On the other hand, Mas’ud Zavarzadeh locates Said’s pragmatic neohumanism in the horizon of post-al theory, “a utopian theory of entrepreneurial individuality and agency,…a voluntarism unburdened by history,” a comment which ignores Said’s embattled historicism (1995: 7).
One evidence that points to Said’s limitation as marked by the refusal of a materialist or properly Marxist theorization of history may be discerned in his treatment of C.L. R. James. Suffice it here to note that for Said, James’s achievement in The Black Jacobins is comparable to that of the pettybourgeois nationalist George Antonius, author of The Arab Awakening: both allegedly stood within the fold of the Western cultural tradition, “however much they articulate the adversarial experience of colonial and/or non-Western peoples” (248). In effect, both Antonius and James, like Ranajit Guha, resemble Said; that is, they are mirror-images of Said’s postcolonial persona. James has metamorphosed into a model of the assimilationist immigrant. According to Said, James “saw the central pattern of politics and history in linear terms…and his basic metaphor is that of a voyage taken by ideas and people; those who were slaves and subservient classes could first become the immigrants and then the principal intellectuals of a diverse new society” (253).
But this portrait of James as a linear historian is belied by the highly sophisticated and nuanced achievement of American Civilization (1993) and the now acknowledged classic published in 1953, Mariners Renegades and Castaways (1985). In a magisterial synoptic essay, “Dialectical Materialism and the Fate of Humanity,” James rigorously defined the polarity between Marx and Hegel. Whereas for Hegel, history is the “successive manifestation of a world spirit,” Marx discerned movement in the process of production which evolved in terms of contradictions, contradictions premised on the quest for universality based on ‘the free and full development of all the inherent and acquired characteristics of the individual in productive and intellectual labor” (1992, 173). Dialectical contradictions, not linear evolution, is what, for James, characterizes the voyages, exchanges, migrations of peoples, ideas, cultures that characterize world history.
The reason why postcolonial thinking like Said (and his epigones) cannot go beyond the limits of a liberal, even libertarian, mentality may be traced to the peculiar condition of diasporic intellectuals, the political conjuncture of the United States in the eighties and nineties, and the global power alignment. Peter Gran, Arif Dirlik, Ella Shohat, Ann McClintock, and others have discussed the historical conjunctures—in Said’s case, the Palestinian struggle within the Cold War framework, the poststructuralist trend, and so on—that partly explain the rise of a conservative postcolonial consensus. The general sociohistorical template of “uneven and combined development” has been fully articulated by Samir Amin (1977), Michael Lowy (1981) and Neil Smith (1984), a materialist cognitive mapping theoretically lightyears removed from Nietzschean genealogy, which is Said’s preferred epistemological mode of inquiry (in spite of the uneasy marriage between Foucault’s discourse theory and a version of Gramsci’s hegemony [Porter 1994] ). This problematic eschews a dialectical materialist approach to the fundamental condition of late modernity: unequal division of labor throughout, intensified extraction of surplus value from proletarianized regions and populations, and the resulting commodification of everything (reification or commodity-fetishism arising from the generalization of exchange values mediated through refined techniques of finance-capital accumulation) on a global scale.
The Primacy of Power over Political Economy
Ultimately, Said’s muted or nuanced anti-Marxism is premised on the choice of a libertarian or “liberationist” perspective. Nicos Poulantzas (1978) and Alex Callinicos (1989) have already exposed the antinomies and compromising paradoxes of this anarchist illusion. Power/desire determines the trajectory of societies; any claim to knowledge and truth—truth is, for Said, “a function of learned judgment,” of institutionalized discourses—can only be a form of ideological maneuver, history or any of the “grand metanarratives” derived from the Enlightenment suspected as a totalizing blackmail. While Said’s ambition to liberate Europe’s silent Others from the imperial will-to-knowledge/power, to give them voice or the right of representation and signification, is exceptional vis-a-vis Baudrillard’s cynicism and the general nihilism of postmodernist gurus, this attempt, however, undercuts itself by revindicating a neoliberal (NATO-inspired humanitarianism) brand of humanism on which imperial capital accumulation relies for its aesthetic and ethical legitimation. This middleman position stems from a revolt against the subordination of use-value to exchange value and the failure to grasp the contradictions inherent in the system of commodity production, in the logic of capitalism as such (Haug 1986).
But the key to this retrograde strategy of humanist recuperation lies in the absence in Said’s thinking of the category of a differentiated and dynamic totality that underlies historical development, the principle of a Marxist critique of imperialism. This totality, in Meszaros’s words, is “a structured and historically determined overall complex” (1983: 480) embodied in the manifold mediations and transitions of concrete life. Distinctions can be meaningful only within an integral unity, a complex of internal relations in historical motion. In Marxist thought, Harvey explains, “Difference is given in this scheme of things by the perspective on the totality, not by supposing some clearly defined, isolated entity that is a totality in itself”—an ontological shift that sets the historical-materialist optic apart from poststructuralist textualism and its fetishism of the local and heterogeneous, with its antiessentialist and antifoundationalist retreat into the obscurantism of Lacanian psychology. Totality in its historical methodological usage should not be confused with totalitarianism in its Cold War ideological implementation.
We cannot doubt Said’s sincerity in opposing oppression and exploitation everywhere. His ambivalence is enabling in this regard. The most astute appreciation of Said’s ambivalence, “the simultaneous affirmation and cancellation of an insurgent native subjectivity and a resurgent cultural nationalism,” has been made by Benita Parry: “As a critique which declares its historical location and political interest, Said’s method condenses a tension between recognizing the subject as decentered and culture as hybrid, and acknowledging the political exigencies in the process of liberation, of constructing and affirming collective identity, with its implications of organicism and consensus” (1992, 30). This antinomian, paradoxical position substitutes for the method of dialectical sublation in which negated structures may be salvaged and refunctioned in a new framework. Despite Said’s stress on worldliness and the secular density of experience, what is striking is that he has no dialectical grasp of the structure of a concrete multilayered totality such as finance capital, imperialism in its several stages, and so on. Said aims for “emancipation” and “enlightenment” but he confesses that “the transnational capitalism of global finance” is “relatively irrational and very difficult to comprehend” (1994: 24)–a difficulty that Said mystifies the more by judging it irrational. Finance capital is certainly irrational as a system, but its effects can be rationally assessed and the causes remedied.
It seems to me that Mary Louise Pratt has correctly put a finger on the symptomatic absence in Said of any critique of neocolonialism since this historical phenomenon marks the limits of Establishment postcolonial theory. Pratt argues: “This difference in chronology with respect to colonization and decolonization seems to be one of the main reasons the Americas have remained almost entirely off the map of the colonial discourse movement and colonial studies in general” (1994: 4). U.S. neocolonialism is the “missing link” in Said’s fugal charting of modern imperialism, even though Said vigorously attacks U.S. foreign policy statements and actions especially with reference to Palestine and the Middle East.
Remarkable too, in this context, is the absence of references to the struggles of the “internal colonies” of the United States, in particular, the Puerto Rican dilemma, the Hawaii sovereignty struggle, and raging conflicts over Affirmative Action, “undocumented aliens,” among others. In Humanism and Democratic Criticism, Said has somewhat belatedly taken into account anti-racist struggles in the United States in discussing the “public role of writers and intellectuals.” But Richard Blackmur, Leo Spitzer, and Eric Auerbach, among others, remain the privileged touchstones. I don’t have to dilate on the fact that postcolonial criticism has been unable to comprehend or pay attention to the current crises in Africa, in East Timor, Myanmar, Peru, Nepal, Colombia, the Philippines,and other societies suffering from neocolonial structures. After all, colonialism has already been superseded, expunged, rubbed out.
The inability to comprehend neocolonialism results, I think, from the failure to comprehend uneven and combined development, itself due to an idealist metaphysics that over-valorizes the intervention of the diasporic intellectual or the dissident anarchist in political struggle. This intellectualism or theoreticism, if you like, arrogates all agency to borderland personalities like Bhabha, Appadurai, and others who seek to negotiate the zone between the bourgeoise-comprador nationalism of neocolonized nation-states and the cosmopolitan “high culture” circuit of academic celebrities. Hence, despite the mention of Cabral or Fanon, Said discounts organized mass political struggles (except the Palestinian intifada) as the other pole of a dialectical totality. He has nothing to say about the praxis of revolutionary transformation, about cultural literacy (emphasized by Paulo Freire) and all those “subjective factors” that Michael Lowy believes are necessary to thwart bureaucratic despotism in postcapitalist societies: “the participatory character of the revolutionary process, the democratic outlook of the socialist vanguard, the degree of proletarian self-activity and popular self-organization” (1981: 230). With the focus on contrapuntal flux, hybrid positionalities, and directionless or aleatory ambivalence, Said’s highly finessed, erudite opposition to global capital can be utilized as a therapeutic vehicle, much like messianic religion, for soothing the anguish of the oppressed and promising a utopia of “cultural compassion” and polyglossic conversations with Richard Rorty and his finite simulations. In fairness, however, I would commend Said’s politico-ethical valorization of his “sense of responsibility to [the Palestinian] community” as a safeguard against being thoroughly co-opted by the hegemonic moralists of the Establishment.
Said died on September 25, 2003 at the height of U.S. military aggression in Iraq. Notwithstanding the adversarial comments above, it is still premature to draw a balance-sheet calculating the salutary and disabling impact, the unsettling resonance of the political dissidence embedded in his total oeuvre. To what degree and extent has Said’s work influenced and impacted American academic discourse and practices? Has his singular brand of secular, reasoned, worldly criticism been able to challenge the entrenched authority and legitimacy of American exceptionalism in key institutions of state and civil society? Suffice it for me to suggest the general perspective for such future assessments and appraisals that will counterpoint inadequacies with heuristic strengths.
Since the publication of Orientalism in 1978, Said has been credited with inaugurating a whole slew of disciplinary approaches, among them postcolonial criticism, colonial discourse analysis, and of late, “accidental feminism.” In the time immediately before his death, Said pointedly disclaimed the vacuous postcolonial babble in vogue, dismissed “postcolonial” as a misnomer, and affirmed his interest in analyzing neocolonial structures of dependency imposed by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank on the global South (1998/9). He was of course for women’s liberation in general. Who would not be? Whether he was a humanist or not, in the traditional sense of defending classical European civilization from the barbaric “Others,” is mischievous speculation.
Over against fashionable deconstructive modes of inquiry, Said clearly preferred Gramsci’s historicizing method of inventory to Foucault’s genealogy, adding that he was “always trying to gear [his] writing not towards the theoretical constituency but towards a political constituency” (1998/9, 92). Proof of this is his prodigious and powerful critiques of the Israeli state’s colonial oppression of the Palestinian people and the unconscionable support of the U.S. governing elite to this continuing outrage.
There is something salutary in reminding ourselves that notwithstanding Maxine Hong Kingston’s intervention in 1975 (the publication of Woman Warrior), it was Orientalism that may have effectively “opened the way for a thoroughgoing critique of the discursive production of ‘other’ spaces,” as David Palumbo Liu suggests (1999. 304). Actually, Said did not initiate this genre of debunking, but he was certainly persuasive and strategically influential in the way he performed his task. Said of course learned a lot from Foucault and poststructuralist thought, although he inflected the archaelogical and demystifying mode of interpretation: reading, for Said, engages traditional literary forms in the light of known communal criteria and secular pursuits. He evolved from the textual free play and undecidabilities of Beginnings (1975) to the more determinate critiques of Orientalism whose ideological and political premises are more fully articulated in The World, the Text and the Critic (1991) and, more substantially, in Culture and Imperialism (1993). I think the lessons of Culture and Imperialism as well as of the essays collected in Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (2000) should be the locus of our attention if we want to find out how we can use Said’s optic, particularly his contrapuntal deployment of historical, cultural and ideological motifs, in revitalizing the rather repetitious, banalizing if not opportunist, cliches of current transnationalizing American Studies, and of Cultural Studies in general, that are now sanctified in the orthodoxies of our hoary curricula and formulas enshrined in “politically correct” canonical texts.
The appearance of Humanism and Democratic Criticism underscores the political and not merely belletristic thrust of Said’s achievement. Akeel Bilgrami contends that Said’s humanism resolves the tension between history and individual agency that he encountered in Vico, the primary source for Said’s concept of humanism as self-knowledge and self-critique enabled by concern for the Other. Indeed, Said emphasizes change as human history “made by human action” and humanism as “the achievement of form by human will and agency; it is neither system nor impersonal force like the market or the unconscious, however much one may believe in the workings of both” (2004, 10,15). Said made the same point earlier in “Criticism between Culture and System” (in The World, the Text and the Critic), and in such late essays as “Traveling Theory Reconsidered.” In this latter work, Said returns to Lukacs and repeats his objection to Lukacs’ reconciliatory denouement of totality in proletarian class consciousness. His one-sided and static construal of both Lukacs and Fanon is symptomatic of the source of Said’s limitation. Said believes that Lukacs was concerned with the “primacy of consciousness in history” whereas Lukacs’ central concept of “concrete totality” (equivalent to a determinate socio-historical process) has nothing to do with reified individual consciousness as such, or with the immediacy of personal experience that he discerns in Fanon’s anatomy of violence and the “primacy of geography in history” (2000, 446). Lukacs states that “the materialist-dialectical conception of totality means first of all the concrete unity of interacting contradictions” permeating various levels of any social formation (Meszaros 1972, 63); they cannot be resolved in a mental subject-object synthesis, the putative “class consciousness of the proletariat.”
What is crucially missing in Said’s understanding of totality in its Marxist usage is the mediation of collective labor and revolutionary praxis, hence his conflation of dialectics with antinomy, dualistic metaphysics, and ultimately the “permanent dissonance” and anti-identitarian obsession of Adorno. In tracing the affiliative liaisons between Lukacs and Fanon, Lukacs and Adorno, Said opts for a dualistic ontology forever suspended between the horns of an essentialist unified subjectivity and a skeptical, voluntarist “will” to know and demystify, a dualism distinct from the inclusive contradictions immanent in Lukacs’ totality, or Gramsci’s hegemony. This is particularized as the “precarious exilic realm” that Said describes at the end of his eloquent lecture, “The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals,” “the domain of an exigent, resistant, intransigent art into which, alas, one can neither retreat nor search for solutions” (2004, 144). One feels inescapably the pathos of the affiliated subaltern, the marginalized cosmopolitan, the sacramentalized scapegoat, in this plea for a universalizing mode of communication among equal interlocutors, a concrete totality envisaged by that stigmatized specter in The Communist Manifesto. Neither strategic essentialism nor subaltern duplicity, Said’s humanism of co-existence and sharing refuses the contradictory transformations occurring in actual history, precisely those dialectical mutations of a totality which entail “irredeemable loss and finitude but also genuine novelty and emergence” (Bhaskar 1983, 124). Its tragic intransigence indeed speaks truth to power in the register of prayer and prophetic elegy.
Like most intellectuals in the U.S. academy, Said’s work illustrates a postmodernist eclectic style proud of its complexity, its nuanced cosmopolitanism, and openness to experimentation. The institution of the U.S. university afforded him opportunities for cultivating this style but also self-internalized constraints. Despite Said’s resourceful appropriation of themes and analytic tools from the rich archive of the Marxist tradition, from Lukacs, Gramsci, Fanon, Adorno, and C.L.R. James, and despite his commitment to the revolutionary aspirations of the Palestinian intifada, he was never able fully to situate culture, and its diverse expressive forms, within the complex dynamic of the altering historical modes of production and reproduction in specific social formations. His training was mainly confined to the literary and philological, even though he tried to apply, with suave cosmopolitan sophistication, his knowledge of economic, political, and philosophical theories to the hermeneutics and judgment of cultural forms and practices. But, as I explained in Racism and Cultural Studies, it was not so much a lack of knowledge as a deliberate refusal to historicize power relations in concrete material conditions of production and reproduction (a method deployed by Raymond Williams, whom Said admired) that limited Said’s insightful readings of novels, opera, poetry, etc. One example is his rather moralistic and psychologizing essay, “Yeats and Decolonization,” whose self-serving exchange value is replicated by assorted postcolonials seeking a niche in the Project for a New American Century. This philological preference, which may explain some of his limitations, also accounts for his scholarly depth, accessibility, and universality.
In the era of post-9/11 emergencies, we may ask: what particular use-value relevant to resolving the crisis in the humanities in general (battered by the triumph of neoconservatives in the seizure of the major global ideological apparatuses) can we import from Said? What I am proposing is that we avoid the pedagogical limitations of Said’s pluralistic understanding of power relations and focus instead on his mode of criticizing the doxa of coercive disciplinary regimes. I have in mind specifically the current Manichean discourse of the war on the terrorist “Others” against the civilized “Us.” This critique may be discerned in Said’s numerous books on the Palestinian struggle, in the “imaginative geography” of Culture and Imperialism, and specifically in the engaged passion and catholicity of Humanism and Democratic Criticism.
One can also trace the uncompromising logic of Said’s critique in one of his last essays, “The Clash of Definitions” (2000). On the one hand, Said cogently exposes the invidious rhetoric of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” and its reified concepts that distort the real world, a technocratic program of ideological manipulation. On the other hand, Said rejects the notion that all of reality can be reduced to tropes, constructed figures, metanarratives, invented paradigms, etc. For Said, the world’s dynamic complexity requires a conceptual apparatus and sensibility that can capture its changes, overlaps, mixtures, variations, crossings, migrations, etc. In short, we need to test our theories against the “thick” and muddled reality of the world we live and not settle into the rut of conformism and sectarian formulas. Thus Said, valuing more adequately the insurrectionary example of Fanon, revised his judgment of Lukacs (in his later essay on “Traveling Theory Reconsidered”) in response to the resurgence of anti-capitalist struggles in the nineties. He has replaced the antinomian negative dialectics of Adorno with a politics, not an ethics, of principled realism. In his last book Said found occasion to allude to Pierre Bourdieu’s left-wing anti-globalization research and censure (wrongly, I think) Fredric Jameson and Samir Amin for their “relative neglect of actual political intervention in the existential situations in which as citizens we find ourselves—intervention that isn’t just personal but is a significant part of a broad adversarial or oppositional movement” (2004, 138).
At the outset, I underscored the militant tone of Said’s heroic humanism with its belated attention to labor emblematized, for instance, by Freud’s “sheer unremitting scriptural effort.” Said valued above all the “labor-intensive practice of writing,” humanism’s “mode of rational investigation and concrete, almost bodily inspired interpretation” (2000c). This is part of his attack on formalist aestheticism and myth-making humanities (mediated by an all-purpose Postcolonial Studies) serving State ideological apparatuses. Said’s relevance to contemporary struggles needs no elaborate exposition (Gendzier 2003). Eloquently formulated in essays such as “Opponents, Audiences, Constituencies and Community,” as well as the instructive “On Defiance and Taking Positions,” Said’s lesson for committed scholars—the use-value of his secular “worldliness” in permanently interrogating the established consensus of beliefs and representations, in short, the cultural system—may be summed up in one word: defiance. “Defiance” is one synonym for oppositional agency, critical partisanship, and decisive circumstantial intervention. Here then is Said’s enduring testimony for those interested in critical self-knowledge, justice and liberation: “In my understanding of its relevance today, humanism is not a way of consolidating and affirming what ‘we’ have always known and felt, but rather a means of questioning, upsetting, and reformulating so much of what is presented to us as commodified, packaged, uncontroversial, and uncritically codified certainties, including those contained in the masterpieces herded under the rubric of ‘the classics.’…The intellectual’s role is dialectically, oppositionally to uncover and elucidate the contest I referred to earlier, to challenge and defeat both an imposed silence and the normalized quiet of unseen power wherever and whenever possible” (2004, 28, 135). This recalls us to the permanently timely message of The World, the Text and the Critic, where Said urges a resistance to consensus, the authority of “uncritical religiosity” and the official idols of a “quasi-divine marketplace, and to renew our commitment to “a sense of history and of human production” (1983, 290).
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IN CASE YOU NEED KEYWORDS, ABSTRACT, AND AUTHOR INFORMATION, HERE THEY ARE—IF NOT, PLEASE DISCARD:
postcolonialism; hybridity; uneven development; hegemony; capitalism; neocolonialism; humanism
Postcolonial theory and criticism seizes on the fact of the uneven development of world capitalism as the central cultural theme for its reflections, divorcing it from the totality of social relations in history and the international process of class struggle. Edward Said inspired this “culturalist approach” with his application of deconstructive readings of (among others) Antonio Gramsci’s critique of bourgeois hegemony. Said tried to complicate the thesis of Orientalism with a critique of imperialist history, including U.S. global interventions in Culture and Imperialism and his later writings. He replaced a narrow “postcolonial” anti-Eurocentrism with a politics of secular humanism found in multiple civilizations. Overall, Said, despite a resort to a singular brand of militant humanism, provides a critical perspective on the complicity of academic discourse with predatory neocolonial attacks on people of color everywhere, and on the value of popular-democratic ideals of democratic sovereignty and egalitarian community that can reconcile Europe/the Atlantic world with the revolutionary movements of the “postcolonial” subalterns around the globalized planet. As a democratic, secular humanist concerned with labor and egalitarian communication, Said is a valuable ally of the popular masses against the terror of corporate globalization.–#
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
E. SAN JUAN is director of the Philippine Cultural Studies Center in Connecticut, USA He was recently visiting professor of literature at National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan, and professor of American Studies at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium. Among his recent books are RACISM AND CULTURAL STUDIES (Duke University Press) and WORKING THROUGH THE CONTRADICTIONS (Bucknell University Press). His forthcoming books are IN THE WAKE OF TERROR: Class, Race, Nation and Ethnicity in the Field of Global Capital and IMPERIALISM AND REVOLUTION IN THE PHILIPPINES (in progress).