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Edward Said’s Untidiness

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  • mer_e_jo
    Whilst preparing for a vigorous discussion with Louise and Trinidad, re: Muslim Existentialism, I discovered Edward Said. Such a passionate man, devoted to
    Message 1 of 2 , Dec 30 7:36 AM
      Whilst preparing for a vigorous discussion with Louise and Trinidad,
      re: Muslim Existentialism, I discovered Edward Said. Such a
      passionate man, devoted to discovering a meaningful dialectic between
      Palestinians and Israelis, between East and West. What I find so
      interesting is Said's untidy approach to dialectic. In his very
      insightful essay, Victor Li answers some critics of Said's thoughts,
      like James Clifford, who sees significant contradiction, but where Li
      finds none:

      Said opposes the complexity of human experience to what he sees as
      the simplifications of system. "It seems a common human failing,"
      Said writes, "to prefer the schematic authority of a text to the
      disorientations of direct encounters with the human" (Orientalism).
      But, according to Clifford, Said's recourse to the "human" results
      in "humanist fables of suppressed authenticity". The trouble with
      Said's humanism, Clifford explains, is that it posits an authentic
      human reality that is universal and unmediated by local cultural
      codes. Seeking to uphold human reality, Said ends up instead with a
      simplified, abstract universalism unconnected to any actual human
      culture. Clifford writes:

      Said characterizes the human realities thus elided [in Orientalist
      accounts] with quotations from Yeats — "`the uncontrollable mystery
      on the bestial floor,' in which all humans live" ... It is still an
      open question, of course, whether an African pastoralist shares the
      same existential "bestial floor" with an Irish poet and his readers.

      Clifford sees in Said's use of the Yeats quotation Said's confident
      belief in a universal humanity. But in concentrating his critical
      gaze on Said's appeal to the universality of the "bestial floor" in
      which we all live, Clifford ignores Said's inclusion of
      the "*uncontrollable* mystery" (my emphasis) which exceeds and
      disrupts all theoretical attempts at understanding or defining a
      universal humanity. In other words, while Clifford sees the Yeats
      quotation as reflecting Said's untroubled faith in a universal
      humanity, I think Said discerns in the Yeats quotation a recognition
      of how human reality escapes the grasp of totalizing discursive or
      theoretical systems like Orientalism. For Said, our humanity is not
      based on an abstract common denominator, on the "bestial floor" as
      existential universal that Clifford rightly suspects is not shared by
      African pastoralist and Irish poet; our humanity lies rather in
      its "uncontrollable mystery," its unassimilability and resistance to
      all universalizing systems of knowledge. Clifford sees
      Said's "humanism" as acultural and essentialist, an untroubled fable
      of universal humanity. Said, I believe on the contrary, sees
      his "humanism" not as a declaration of certainty about some human
      essence but as the critical knowledge that human reality finally
      escapes the determinations of system and theory, and that this escape
      enables us to understand humanity not as fixed essence but as open-
      ended possibility. In his Presidential Address to the MLA in 1999, a
      talk entitled "Humanism and Heroism," Said cites favourably Adorno's
      argument for the inexhaustibility of human thought:

      Thinking is not the intellectual reproduction of what already exists
      anyway. As long as it doesn't break off, thinking has a secure hold
      on possibility. Its insatiable aspect, its aversion to being quickly
      and easily satisfied, refuses the foolish wisdom of resignation. ...
      Open thinking points beyond itself.

      Victor Li, Dalhousie University, Canada
      To view the entire essay with references please visit:

    • Exist List Moderator
      Edward Said, like Chomsky or Pinter, simplifies (simplified in Said s case) the world and especially the Middle East. I read Said s essays in college and
      Message 2 of 2 , Jan 2, 2006
        Edward Said, like Chomsky or Pinter, simplifies (simplified in Said's
        case) the world and especially the Middle East. I read Said's essays in
        college and thought he was brilliant. Then, I had some work related to
        the Middle East. This was shortly after I compared Israeli treatment of
        Palestinians to all the worst deeds of mankind.

        Within a few years, I came to see that there was no "reasoning" with
        the radical Shiite movements in Lebanon, or their Sunni rivals. The
        attacks on Israel were not to reclaim lands or secure "equality" but to
        destroy all things Jewish. My work, which involved reading a great deal
        of information from the region, changed my views a lot.

        First, I admit that my anti-orthodox / fundamentalist bias was
        reinforced. While my more "liberal" friends suggested I was losing my
        appreciation for the plight of orthodox Muslims, I countered that any
        faith-based system was inherently anti-liberal, anti-freedom, and
        anti-thought. It does not matter if the people are Hindu, Catholic,
        Jewish, or Muslim. Orthodoxy is always dangerous.

        Said argued that most Arabs, especially the Palestinians and Lebanese,
        were not orthodox nor even likely to become orthodox. Sure, and most
        European converts to Islam are not orthodox, but enough are that the
        French are now quite concerned. All it takes is one "cell" of nuts to
        ruin everything.

        Existentialism or even my own generalized appreciate for Continental
        philosophy would not allow me to live according to a single text or
        tradition. I'm a natural rebel. A recent International Herald Tribune
        article said the very appeal of Islam was its strict adherence to
        rules. European converts are finding Islam an antidote to their "all
        cultures are equal" post-modernist views. Turns out, people are more
        comfortable with rules and that's what all orthodoxy offers.

        I think the great success of Fascism, Communism, and National Socialism
        was that these appealed to the desire for order following the initial
        stages of the Industrial Revolution. Now, Islam is offering order in a
        world of chaos. I think people rush to New Age beliefs, mega-churches,
        and psychologists for the same need.

        Personally, I'd rather fight to have chaos and disorder. I want to be
        free to create my own rules. Religions tend to oppose such a notion of
        freedom. Worse, they each tend to see the other faiths as violating
        "natural law" or whatever you want to call it.

        Said was dangerously naive at times.

        - CSW
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