The last book
Humanism and Democratic Criticism, Edward W Said, New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. pp154
Humanism and Democratic Criticism is the last book Edward Said wrote; it was published posthumously in May 2004 in a series entitled "Themes in Philosophy". The book is introduced by the editor of the series, Akeel Bilgrami, professor of philosophy at Columbia University. The first three chapters of this small and precious book appear in published form for the first time. The fourth chapter is on Erich Auerbach and was printed as the introduction to Auerbach's magistral work, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, when the classic was reprinted in 2003, 50 years after its translation to English in 1953. The fifth chapter, "The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals", appeared as an article in The Nation in 2001. The first three chapters present an argument on behalf of a humanistic worldview and how to incorporate it in the Academy. The fourth presents a humanistic scholarly endeavor as exemplified in Auerbach's works. The fifth addresses the urgent task of the intellectual in the age of electronic media and multinational corporations.
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"If one can only read one of Said's 20 books, then I would recommend this one. In it, Said pulls together threads and metaphors from his different works -- literary, political, academic, activist, musical -- to weave a humanist landscape in a style that is between that of an academic speaking to peers and that of an activist addressing an audience. It combines passion with rigour -- the hallmark of Edward Said."
Written at a critical historical moment, fraught with the clash of fundamentalisms, with violence and counter violence, with terrorism of states and that of underground organisations, the book argues for re-inventing the spirit of humanitas. Said embeds this quest in a search for alternatives that would not be trapped by the present binaries. He sees the importance of the humanities and bets on knowledge -- even though the humanities are receding at present. They are being deserted for the more lucrative professions; furthermore, the humanistic curriculum is under attack, on American campuses and elsewhere, for its white, male, Eurocentric biases. Said's project is not to re- instate the Western elitist and exclusive canon in the different branches of the humanities, but to radically re-formulate the humanities so that they cover truly world literature and thought, works by men and women, and cultural products of people of different backgrounds. For Said, a humanistic education is precisely stepping out of one's limited and partial culture to encounter and understand another.
Though the first three chapters were originally lectures sponsored by Columbia University Press on American culture, the argument is relevant wherever education is an issue. In a nutshell, Said's innovation on the commonly known humanistic agenda is to enlarge its scope so it is not only made up of the so-called Western thought, but includes traditions and seminal works of non-Western peoples, coupled when taught with collective Self-analysis and Self-criticism. Said's use of "Democratic Criticism", in the title of his book, signifies both the demotic and inclusive nature of his project and its critical component.
Privileged texts that constitute the canon in educational institutions are usually the works that construct a collective selfhood and glorify its accomplishments, often to the neglect, if not disparagement, of those of different cultures or other marginalised and counter trends. Said strives to break down the barriers, to undo the intellectual ghettoes we live in, by both introducing self-criticism and by exposing one's own ways to other ways and modes. Simply put, Said calls for cross-cultural fertilisation, for a humanism that is truly humanistic and humanising. But Said never says it so simply, not because he opts for a difficult language, but because such an endeavour requires a level of sophistication and interpretation that shuns the facile. Said's predilection for inclusiveness does not mean populism; rather he strives for a certain level of awareness where one can look at one's culture critically rather than arrogantly. The imperial Self needs to develop critical self-consciousness, and for Said, this can be achieved by will and labour, not by a leap of faith or by divine grace.
How are we to get out of our cultural mindsets and criticise our national egos? According to Said, it is through exposing ourselves to alternative modes, to different traditions, to other cultures. As Akeel Bilgarmi, summing up Said's book, says in his foreword, "The 'Other', therefore, is the source and resource for a better, more critical understanding of the 'Self'." In this project, Said is raising Comparative Studies to the level of a critical strategy where other traditions, other canons, other ways of doing things can reveal our self-complacency and question our dogmatic convictions. In his book Orientalism, Said showed how the learned discourse about the Other served wittingly or unwittingly the colonial project. Orientalist knowledge and pseudo-knowledge collaborated with power to undermine the humanity of the Other, so as domination and outright dispossession became acceptable and even commendable. What Said is arguing for, in his last book, is a different kind of knowledge of the Other, more of a dialogical nature than a hegemonic one. In such a vision, all cultures are seen as occupying juxtaposed realms connected horizontally and are not placed vertically in a hierarchical order.
The problem which Said does not address, or rather he feels it can be overcome, is how can we have such humanising humanism -- more than humanism as an empty slogan -- when in fact our institutions, academic or otherwise, are embedded in socio-political contexts within a world of sharply unequal relations of power?
What Edward Said struggled for in his life -- and achieved in a spectacular way -- is the creation of a space in the Academy and on the intellectual horizon where reason is far more compelling than power, and where truth challenges authority. Part of the appeal of Edward Said has always been his ability to confront power, to resist dominant views, and to question canonical authors. Said brilliantly showed, in his earlier works, how Albert Camus and Jane Austen -- in their esteemed novels -- have dismissed, marginalised, or silenced the Other, thus reinforcing French and British colonial practice of the day. He pointed, in his sophisticated analysis, to how aesthetic considerations can play a dangerous role in manipulating the lens so that the focus is on the European master and not on the non-European underdogs. Said, of course, is grounded in English and European literatures and culture, to the point where such works as L'Étranger of Camus and Mansfield Park of Austen are part of his intimate reading and professional identity. But this did not stop him from showing the glaring absences in them, the imbalance at the centre of these works between the Self and the Other. Literary criticism has for decades not paid attention to such deflections and their significant implications. Yet, despite the deep affiliation Said feels for these writers, he nevertheless can be critical of how they contribute to distortions.
For Said the world is always a mixture of Self and Other, a hybrid so to speak, never a matter of us-versus-them equation. His world is that of encounters and intertwining. Just as hegemony is a fact of life, so is resistance, Said teaches us. Said's project is not that of obliterating or recovering as much as that of articulating and re- forming. For Said resisting and revising is a realistic project. Since man has made his own history -- following Vico's line of argument -- man can examine, correct, and remake his very own history. It is this belief in humankind that is so remarkable; his conviction that tragedies are reversible is what is so moving and tantalising. This is not to say that he does not realise the impediments and the difficulties. While the project of change towards a more egalitarian society where every one has a place and chance remains vague in his mind, the urgent task of searching for alternatives remains vivid in his discourse, as if he were saying 'we have to try again and again'. He ends his last book with what one may call his testament:
"I conclude with the thought that the intellectual's provisional home is the domain of an exigent, resistant, intransigent art into which, alas, one can neither retreat nor search for solutions. But only in that precarious exilic realm can one first truly grasp the difficulty of what cannot be grasped and then go forth to try anyway."
Said's approach to humanism is neither historical nor philosophical, but practical. He strongly believes that people are in fact moved by "the humanistic ideals of liberty and learning". The humanism he espouses has room for the great masters of the past, Giambattista Vico, Leo Spitzer, and Erich Auerbach as well as "the emergent voices and currents of the present, many of them exilic". Said sees no contradiction, in fact only poetic justice, in being "critical of humanism in the name of humanism". In other trendy writings, Said's project would be called post-humanism, in the way that post-structuralism, post- feminism, and post-Marxism are in fact not ruptures with their isms, but a modification and a critique of the blind spots of these isms. It is noteworthy that Said has been dubious about all isms, except for human- ism, mainly I think because it embraces rather than excludes, as in the words of Seneca: "Nothing human is alien to me."
Said sees the crisis of the humanities as having become dry, jargon-ridden, and divorced from lived experience; they have lost their "worldliness" to use his term. His critique of the humanities as taught in American universities is not meant to deconstruct and leave things in a state of free floating disorder, but to reconstruct them. He insists that "attacking the abuses of something is not the same thing as dismissing or entirely destroying the thing". What Said strives for is re-animation of the classics and the canonical texts so that they resonate with present concerns, as well as familiarising oneself with those great works of other cultures.
Having sketched out the sphere of humanism, Said moves to the bases of humanistic study and practice. He admits, in the case of oppressed and colonised people, the importance of asserting their own suppressed culture and honouring their cultural legacy. But he warns that such tendencies can go unchecked if they are not linked to a "critical sense of inquiry". Said also points out that such established patterns of thinking about literature, such as its unquestionable relation to the nation, putting all the emphasis on national literatures and insisting on the stability of forms and genres, are now being undermined -- a sign of the end of compartmentalisation. We can see for ourselves literature written in English by Africans, Asians, Caribbeans, and others, which is in a sense transnational. We can also attest from our own reading to the fluidity of literary genres: documentary components are found in fiction and the borders between autobiography and a novel, poetry and prose, are no longer clear-cut.
Humanism, Said asserts, is partly a "resistance to idées reçues, and it offers opposition to every kind of cliché and unthinking language". Said's humanism, then, is different from the humanism of the Renaissance which was interested in the "human", but did not oppose slavery for example. Equally, in the US, the celebration of American national figures rarely questions their attitudes to Native Americans, African Americans, and women. Said sees and welcomes a new consciousness among humanist scholars of the "non-European, genderized, decolonized, and decentered energies and currents of our time". Said goes on to point out that it is not vague multiculturalism or tokenism that is the answer, but a rigourous involvement in other traditions and cultures. The dangers to cultural pluralism in the US, according to Said, are: chauvinistic nationalism, religious fanaticism, and identitarian thought that is clubby and exclusive.
Edward Said sees the task of humanities, not in finding solutions to our present ills -- as perhaps the social sciences attempt to -- but in striving to "understand humanistic practice" and be part of a world humanistically viewed. He points out that humanistic scholarship ought, also, to take into consideration Islamic contribution of Muslim Spain, Muslim Sicily, and the mediaeval Arab world where cultural pluralism thrived, and the ideal of humanism was initiated.
In defence of humanistic practice, Said calls strangely enough on the antiquated discipline of philology. Literally speaking, philology means love of words, but Said's interest in it comes from Vico and Nietzsche as well as from the respect it is given in the Islamic tradition. Words are, then, not simply signifiers but embody human intellectual history. In decoding their meaning and their metaphoric references, hidden reality is revealed. Words tell us about humanity's past though in condensed and coded ways. Furthermore, words, language, and texts imply a collective endeavour. Language is what we share; it is an expression of our humanism. Said sees an assault on the quality of life when reading of literature is dismissed or curtailed, as when education is reduced to producing technocrats. On the other hand, he points to the importance of finding a way of communication by humanists that avoids the deadpan neutrality of technical language, but without falling into an idiolect that can only be deciphered by insiders. Said says:
"Humanism is about reading, it is about perspective, and, in our work as humanists, it is about transitions from one realm, one area of human experience to another . . . . The development of an alternative identity is what we do when we read and when we connect parts of the text to other parts and when we go on to expand the area of attention to include widening circles of pertinence."
Reading then becomes a metaphor of humanist practice as well as an integral part of it -- its operational mode.
Why does Edward Said exemplify the humanistic practice with the German critic Erich Auerbach, among all people and among all scholars? Said sees a link between the exilic condition and the humanistic search. If we felt perfectly at home, instead of out of place, then we would not seek what overcomes our liminal position, our uncomfortable state, and we would not seek what heals the rift. Auerbach wrote his extraordinary book about Western literature when he was not in the West, but in Istanbul. The book, as Auerbach says, would not have been possible without the distance. The sweeping overview combined with close reading of Western masterpieces was made possible ironically when the author was out of place. Furthermore, Auerbach's analytical approach and attention to the fabric of words were meant to uncover the relation to reality, thus the project is worldly concerned with the text and with the world in which the text is integrated. Auerbach himself was a European Jew; his focus was on culture (European) rather than religion (Judaism). Auerbach could see the cultural homogeneity of Europe through Christianity, which demolished "the classical balance between high and low styles", and used hermeneutics and figurative language to bring together the Old and New Testaments and make them cohere. The Judeo-Christian tradition is, thus, seen in cultural terms. Said resembles Auerbach in so many ways: Both exiles, both interested in the relation of literature to reality, both have humanistic aspirations and a fascination by Vico, for both cultural affiliation is more important than confessional adherence, and both favour dialogue over clashes. The idea of figures, of metaphoric language that can negotiate differences and reconcile them is basic to Auerbach and provides an embodiment of Said's humanistic vision. However, Auerbach remained a citizen of Europe, Said became a citizen of the world.
Finally, in Said's fifth chapter on the public role of intellectuals, the stress is on the role of the "organic intellectual" -- to use the expression of Gramsci -- in the age of electronic media, when the writer's constituency is more varied and anonymous. Said proposes no master plans, no grand theory, no magic formula, but he counsels search and learning from the past and from others, profiting from the breadth and depth of human culture. Edward Said points to possibilities of change latently invested in situations even those that seem overwhelmingly stable. Every situation according to Said contains the seeds of change, "contains a contest between a powerful system of interests, on the one hand, and, on the other, less powerful interests threatened with frustration, silence, incorporation, or extinction by the powerful".
In other words, the public intellectual has to figure out how to go against the grain, against mainstream media, against institutional orthodoxy. Said gives the example of Pierre Bourdieu, who drew attention in his writing to misery in French society, thus questioning symbolic domination and its feigned optimism. The intellectual then must have courage on one hand and creativity on the other. Said, however, shuns the term "creativity", as it has the romantic aura of creating from nothing; he prefers the Latin term "inventio" (invention) which signifies "reassembling from past performance". This is vintage Said: invention plus history plus philology.
Electronic media (Web sites and e-mail) open up possibilities of a wider audience and global addressees, constituting an "imagined community" -- to borrow the expression of Benedict Anderson. This offers an opportunity, but also requires rethinking the address and its style. Writers and intellectuals can no longer assume writing for an audience who shares with them the same frame of reference and allusions. Thus writing, when addressing anonymous multitudes, has to avoid thick prose and specialised idiom. On the other hand, the writer should avoid falling into a neutral, flat language. And here is where invention, in Said's sense, is pertinent. Globalisation allowed a few giant multinational corporations to "control most of the world's supply of images and news", yet there are -- thanks to alternative and itinerant forums -- "the independent intellectuals who actually form an incipient community, physically separated from each other but connected variously to a great number of activist communities shunned by the main media". An active and activist network of such intelligentsia is obviously the answer to global hegemony.
In my appraisal of this book, I would say every university student in the world should be reading it and reflecting on it. If one can only read one of Said's 20 books, then I would recommend this one. In it, Said pulls together threads and metaphors from his different works -- literary, political, academic, activist, musical -- to weave a humanist landscape in a style that is between that of an academic speaking to peers and that of an activist addressing an audience. It combines passion with rigour -- the hallmark of Edward Said.