Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 February - 1 March 2006
Issue No. 783
Books Supplement
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

'Crusty, eloquent, fantastically courageous and angry...'

al-Muthaqaf wa al-solta (the intellectual and power), Edward Said, trans. Mohamed Enani, Cairo: Ro'ya for publication, 2006. pp199; Representations of the Intellectual, Edward Said, New York: Vintage, 1994. pp129

The recent publication of Edward Said's essay on intellectuals, Representations of the Intellectual, in Arabic translation has drawn attention to this valuable book in which Said asks many pertinent questions regarding an intellectual's place and function in society. What is the role of the intellectual? How close can an intellectual come to "power" while still remaining an intellectual? How can an intellectual become actively engaged in political and social transformation without abandoning all autonomy? For Edward Said, the answer is simple: an intellectual is always critical of power; an intellectual never justifies power.

This is how he articulated his view of the "role of the intellectual" in a fiery lecture delivered at the American University in Cairo on the eve of the US invasion of Iraq. This was also his last recorded answer to the question that first confronted him, quite unexpectedly, one gloomy morning during the 1967 War and remained something of an obsession throughout his adult life, a question most thoroughly addressed in his 1993 Reith Lectures for the BBC, published under the title Representations of the Intellectual, and now appearing in Arabic.

The book reflects Said's disenchantment, or impatience, with Arab and Western intellectuals engrossed in a ceaseless quest for new gods to serve, whether nationalism, Marxism, Islamism, neo-conservatism, or other constructed bastions of power. It is his strongest denunciation of the intellectuals' hidden desire for patronage or to walk in the shadow of power.

In his books Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism, Said exposed Western representations of colonised cultures. In Representations of the Intellectual, he upholds intellectuals' right to represent truth the way they perceive it, and their obligation to defend that right. He goads intellectuals to remain critical of power, any type of power: the power of dogma, tradition, history, and the status quo ; the power of large corporations, and hierarchical institutions; but, above all, the power of the state.

Defining an intellectual is no easier than designating his or her role. "Are intellectuals a very large or an extremely small and highly selective group of people?"

These are the opening lines of Representations of the Intellectual. Refusing the Marxist representation of intellectuals as a distinct class of faceless professionals charged with organising the masses and consolidating interests, Said rejects the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci's functionalist definition out of hand. A more appealing definition, he suggests, is that provided by Julien Benda in his celebrated Treason of the Intellectuals. Benda's blistering condemnation of intellectuals who abandon their duty as the upholders of eternal values is grounded in an elitist view of "real intellectuals" as a "tiny band of super-gifted and morally endowed philosopher-kings who constitute the conscience of mankind."

Intellectuals are rare creatures indeed, who, unlike ordinary human beings, have no interest in material gain or personal advancement. They are "symbolic personages marked by their unyielding distance from practical concerns."

Yet Said's endorsement of this definition is half-hearted and intended essentially to pave the way for his own explanation of what an intellectual is and does. In his view, an intellectual is someone who represents, embodies, and articulates a message to and for the public. The intellectual is thus a representation, a living embodiment of his or her philosophy. And this role has an edge to it. It cannot be played without a sense of "being someone whose place it is to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d'être is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug."

For Said, being an intellectual is, above all, "a state of almost permanent opposition to the status quo." An intellectual is a "crusty, eloquent, fantastically courageous and angry individual for whom no worldly power is too big and imposing to be criticized and pointedly taken to task."

But what is to be expected of this heroic figure? Said, a postmodernist in some respects, attacks the postmodern tendency to ridicule grand narratives and universal values. He accuses postmodernists of laziness and indifference, claiming that such values as freedom and enlightenment have not yet lost their currency as long as "governments still manifestly oppress people, grave miscarriages of justice still occur, the co-option and inclusion of intellectuals by power can still effectively quieten their voice, and the deviation of intellectuals from their vocation is still very often the case."

The purpose of the intellectual's activity, then, is to dispute official narratives and justifications, to expose false prophets and sacred cows, to disturb monumental traditions, to provide alternatives. The intellectual is neither a pacifier nor a consensus-builder, "but someone whose whole being is stacked on a critical sense, a sense of being unwilling to accept easy formulas, or ready-made clichés, or the smooth, ever-so-accommodating confirmations of what the powerful or conventional have to say, and what they do." An intellectual is a confrontational being, not fit for domestication.

In short, the intellectual tries, to the best of his or her ability, to tell the truth. "Speaking the truth to power" is simply a matter of "weighing alternatives, picking the right one, and then intelligently representing it where it can do the most good." Said is not calling for a religious denunciation of everyone and everything as evil. Neither is he inviting intellectuals to become wholly unpleasant. "Total quiescence or total rebelliousness" are not the only alternatives. Whet he expects of intellectuals is that they should project a better state of affairs, defend consistency and fairness, resist authority and avoid subservience. "The goal of speaking the truth try to induce a change in the moral climate."

One of the dilemmas facing modern intellectuals is how far they can afford to remain from power, or, in other words, how far they can effect change without getting caught up in the wheels and cogs of authority. Should they join political parties, or offer their services to governments or large corporations? If there is no getting around power, exactly how are intellectuals to confront it?

On this point, Said is firm. Asserting the inherent weakness of individuals in relation to power structures, whether governments or corporations, he concludes that "there is no question in my mind that the intellectual belongs on the same side with the weak and unrepresented." He rules out the possibility of combining service to power with the continuous exercise of critical judgement. In such situations, "the temptations to turn off one's moral sense ... or to curtail scepticism in favor of conformity are far too great to be trusted." Once they yield to power, or even allow themselves to receive rewards and recognition from power-wielding institutions, intellectuals lose their credibility. People can no longer be sure that what they hear or read is the intellectual's independent view, or merely a jargon-ridden representation of official policy.

Power, Said believes, transforms intellectuals into a chorus echoing the prevailing views. At their hands, political discourse becomes "background music in a supermarket," washing over consciousness and seducing the listener into passive acceptance. Consolidators of government policy become addicted to whole systems of Orwellian Newspeak designed to "spew out propaganda against official enemies ... to disguise the truth ... to preserve the status quo, and to make certain that things go smoothly, unchanged, and unchallenged."

This runs contrary to Said's beliefs concerning intellectuals' duty towards their audience. Is the audience there to be satisfied -- "a client to be kept happy"? Or is it there to be challenged? For Said, the question is obviously rhetorical. He criticises media-dependent intellectuals who simply aim to please, or whose life's work has become dependent on the viewers' acclaim, and he asserts that "least of all should an intellectual be there to make his or her audiences feel good: the whole point is to be embarrassing, contrary, even unpleasant."

Nothing, in that perspective, is more reprehensible than those intellectuals who turn away from principled positions in the hope of being "asked back to consult, to be on a board or prestigious committee ... to get an honorary degree, a big prize, perhaps even an ambassadorship." For Said, this is intellectual corruption par excellence. In time, power-seeking intellectuals tend to become narcissists, an expected result of the inevitable drift towards the requirements and prerogatives of power. They start thinking of themselves and their views as all-important, and gradually they begin to lose touch with the people: the poor, the disadvantaged, the voiceless, the unrepresented, and the powerless.

Equally repulsive for Said is the notion of the "totally disengaged, other-worldly, ivory-tower thinkers." Real intellectuals, in his view, are never more themselves than when they denounce corruption, defend the weak, and defy oppressive authority, even at the risk of being burned at the stake. In Said's analysis, intellectuals are an integral part of any meaningful historical transformation. "There has been no major revolution in modern history without intellectuals; conversely there has been no major counterrevolutionary movement without intellectuals."

He thus echoes the American writer Russell Jacoby's disillusionment with cloistered professors who have no interest in dealing with the world outside the classroom, the "buttoned-up, impossible to understand classroom technicians ... anxious to please various patrons and agencies." Refusing to "rock the boat" by challenging existing paradigms, becoming obsessed with how to make oneself marketable as an expert in one's narrow discipline: these are nothing more than betrayal in different guises. "Politics is everywhere," Said declares. There is no escape. Likewise, there can be no such thing as a private intellectual. The moment an intellectual sets down words on a piece of paper, he or she has entered the public world.

"Every intellectual who represents specific views, ideas, ideologies, logically aspires to making them work in a society. The intellectual who claims to write only for him or herself, or for the sake of pure learning, or abstract science, is not to be, and must not be, believed."

Edward Said himself was perhaps the best example of this depiction of the intellectuals' role and vocation. Despite his unrelenting engagement in public affairs, he steadily refused to become a paid consultant for the government -- any government -- or a think-tank, or even a television network. As he explains in this book, he was never a "joiner or party member by nature." He felt most comfortable outside the circle of power, or, as he noted in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, "perhaps because I had no talent for a position inside that charmed circle, I rationalized the virtues of outsider-hood."

But although Said never sought alliances with power, he nevertheless managed to provoke some powerful enemies. Going so far in his call for intellectual integrity as to question whether loyalty to a particular nation or group should drown the intellectual's critical sense, Said violated many taboos. Those who thrive on awkward formulations that force the intellectual to choose the lesser of two evils were enraged by his passionate defense of resolutely free choice. Why must an intellectual choose between imperialism and fascism, when it is "quite possible and indeed desirable" to reject both? Similarly, why must one choose between universal humanism and cultural authenticity when both can be embraced?

Again, Said's positions illustrate this principle. He remained vocally opposed to both American and Iraqi policy in the 1990s, and he found no contradiction in condemning Israeli occupation and Arab corruption simultaneously. He remained equally critical of all that warrants criticism, not because he aimed to be "thoroughly unpleasant," but because he believed that no one and nothing is immune to criticism. Predictably, he was not always popular, even among members of his own community, who often associated him with the "wrong" side.

Nonetheless, Edward Said never relinquished his belief that "uncompromising freedom of opinion and expression is the intellectual's main bastion," and that "to abandon its defence or to tolerate tamperings with any of its foundations is in effect to betray the intellectual's calling." He managed to find his own path, constantly reminding himself that the intellectual must always choose between actively representing the truth to the best of his ability and passively accepting direction from a patron. An intellectual must always create space to grow, change, discover new things, or re-discover what has been discarded.

In fact, Said upheld James Joyce's affirmation of intellectual freedom, as that is famously expressed in his novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man : "I will try to express myself ... as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use -- silence, exile, and cunning." Yet, he also knew only too well that "exile is one of the saddest fates."

al-Muthaqaf wa al-solta (the intellectual and power), Edward Said, trans. Mohamed Enani, Cairo: Ro'ya for publication, 2006. pp199; Representations of the Intellectual, Edward Said, New York: Vintage, 1994. pp129

By Hazem Kandil

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