On the Journeys of Said’s Ideas
Adania Shibli is a writer and scholar who has twice been awarded with the Qattan Young Writer’s Award–Palestine, in 2001 and 2003. Her scholarly work engages with the history of vision especially in the Arabic culture; her published works span from fiction to narrative essays with critical input on visual art, cinema, and political and social realities.
In 2001, two years prior to his death, Edward W. Said wrote, commenting on online publishing, “All of us should operate today with some notion of very probably reaching much larger audiences than any we could have conceived of a decade ago. […] This is not simply a matter of optimism of the will; it is in the very nature of writing today.” In the spirit of such a comment, the multimedia online-publication A Journey of Ideas Across: In Dialog with Edward Said, with its e-book companion, makes some of the ideas developed by Said in the course of his life available to audiences worldwide. Indeed, many of Said’s ideas continue to inspire new links—between actors from different fields with varying concerns, political, social, and economic, as well as new modes of intellectual and artistic interventions—signaling the immense significance of his work. Most notably, references to his writings and the discussions around the concepts he reintroduced and examined continue to hold an important place in academia, where they have caused paradigm shifts in the humanities and the social sciences. Nevertheless, ideas journey across; what had often been discussed inside universities found its way outside them. Revolutionaries—seeking in their way to understand things so as to change them and make them theirs—turned Said’s words into their slogans that appeared as graffiti on the walls of Tunisian streets-in-revolt in 2011. In so doing, those revolutionaries not only thwarted a regime but also the possibility that Said’s thought would be treated as a “status quo”; the frozen understanding and institutionalized interpretations, through which Said became associated with a specific, fixed set of concepts, as enacted by the authority of academia and certain intellectual discussions. To trespass, to go beyond boundaries set by others, and to seek change, this online publication, similarly, takes on a venture that is both risky and fragile, but equally liberating from the confines of oft-repeated interpretations of Said’s thought—to seek in Said’s concerns, our own.
The idea and development of this publication follows the interdisciplinary symposium of the same title (October 31–November 2, 2013, at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin), and its aim is to make the inspiring contributions of the symposium, along with some other new contributions, available to a wide-reaching public.
The publication, like the symposium, not only extends the venture of interpreting Said’s ideas—moving away from the most common modes of engagement, in this case the academic and discursive—but in doing so it has involved actors from a variety of fields and disciplines, all of whom are engaged in diverse practices, ranging from the academic, literary, musical, cinematic, and theatrical along with many others. Such endeavor, in its turn, would effectively foresee a seeping, from the academic to the artistic; from theory to practice; from past to present, and not least in this case, from Said to his present-day readers.
To better imagine and understand the nature of seepage, we propose al-muthanna, a term borrowed from the grammatical structure of Arabic. As Palestinian mathematician and educator Munir Fasheh (2007) explains:
Al-muthanna refers to a relation between two people that […] is neither a couple nor dual—although the latter is usually used to refer to it. […] It rather often develops in a free and natural way between the two. […] Al-muthanna does not perceive the other as non-I or as a person that is a copy of I, and it is not a higher synthesis/unity of the two. Each person remains who s/he is but a relation starts developing between the two, a relation that becomes so important in both persons’ lives that neither can live any longer as if it is not there.
Though Fasheh focuses on al-muthanna relations that unfold between two persons, Arabic speakers rely on this grammatical order in any such situation where a relation is imagined or said to exist between two parties, even from different categories, be they well-defined (e.g., a stone, a comic book, or a bridge) or abstract (time, music, or an abyss). However, what is particular about al-muthanna relations, in this case, is their extension beyond the structuralist logic of the binary, oppositional relations in language systems, which have come to dominate the understanding and analysis of social relations and interactions. Its simplest order is of an I/us, as opposed to “Other,” which Said repeatedly problematized and criticized, just as this publication does.
One can identify many al-muthanna-like relations in Said’s mode of thinking and thought. At the opening of Out of Place (1999), Said cites a meeting after many years with the family butler, a meeting which triggers in him a memory of their relationship and which becomes one of the main reasons for writing his memoir:
While in Cairo during my November 1998 trip, I went to pay a call on our old neighbors Nadia and Huda, and their mother Mrs. Gindy. […] Later Nadia and Huda said that before we had lunch, there was somebody waiting for me in the kitchen. Would I like to see him? A small wiry man […] came into the room. When told by the two women that this was the Edward he had patiently been waiting to see, he shook his head […] ‘No this isn’t Edward’. I had quickly recognized Ahmad Hamed, our suffragi (butler) for almost three decades. […] I then tried to persuade him that it was indeed me, changed by illness and age, after thirty-eight years of absence. Suddenly we fell into each other’s arms, sobbing with the tears of happy reunion and mourned, irrevocable time. […] And then, as the past poured out of him, […] I knew again how fragile, precious, and fleeting were the history and circumstances not only gone forever, but basically unrecalled and unrecorded. […] This chance encounter made me feel even more strongly that this book […] had some validity. (pp. xii–xiii)
Out of Place continues to reveal equally fascinating al-muthanna-like relations in Said’s life. Most notable amongst these is his being between two languages—Arabic and English—both acting as his mother tongue and both informing his own language, in such a way that, as he writes, he was never able to grasp, or to separate the two. In a similar fashion, contributors to this publication set off from a muthanna-like relation with Said, to tackle their inquiries.
Topics of enquiry
Imperialism, Orientalism, colonialism, resistance, culture, history, politics, place, travel, and lateness: these are a selection of the concepts on which Said reflected, commented, criticized, or considered, explicitly and implicitly, throughout his life’s work. These concepts continue to be equally relevant, if not central to many of today’s concerns, and in this sense they form the thematic fields the present publication hopes to explore within its six different chapters.
The publication sets off with contributions seeking to experience the out of Said’s place in our world today. They accordingly extend the engagement with his work to the current realities, and the political and economic challenges, we have been witnessing over the last few years, if not decades. In these instances, Said’s critical mode of thinking emerges as inspirational—especially in questioning the histories and futures of contemporary political upheavals and uprisings in different parts of the world.
To many, Said’s work was, among other things, a kind of ground-clearing for modes of knowledge held by previously colonized people in order to shed the distorted perceptions and representations of the self shaped by the colonizer. These modes of knowledge could be seen as forms of resistance and responses to imperialism, which often also joined, as Said (1994) notes, the oppositional work of European and American intellectuals and scholars who couldn’t be considered part of the structure of knowledge formed by the ex-colonizer. Can such knowledge challenge the present free-market, or capitalist model and help us think about alternatives to it? Can these modes of knowledge form a new globalization that could counter the globalization generated by the West/North?
Nevertheless, the West/North now have large non-Western immigrant communities in their midst, for some, for the first time in history. Thus, according to Said (1998), definitions of cultures and societies have become highly volatile, extremely contentious matters. How can these definitions be modified by knowledge, not only of previously colonized people, but also of what Said calls “counter-cultures”: an ensemble of practices associated with various kinds of outsiders—the poor, immigrants, artistic bohemians, workers, rebels, artists? How would these new definitions affect our perception of self and its place as part and relations within the world?
These questions recall Said’s argument in Culture and Imperialism (1994), that the era of classical imperialism has continued to exert considerable cultural influence in the present. As a result, the split in the self as the repercussions of exclusion, which he identifies in Out of Place, is very plausible especially among members of immigrant communities in the North/West, and also in the South/East. In one instance, Said discloses concealing his command of Arabic as a pupil at the American School in Cairo. Eventually, he ends up not feeling fully at home in the Arabic language, despite that Arabic is his mother tongue, as he reveals in one of his late articles (2004). What sorts of knowledge are we destined to hide and repress as part of our alien, insecure, and highly provisional identities? How does hiding these types of knowledge play a role in the maintenance of a uniform identity and the setting of representations that are tolerable within the current order of globalization? On the other hand, knowing that Said examined and criticized knowledge generated by the West, what position was it that enabled him to do so?
The importance of place, no less than time, or history, in Said’s view, results from the fact that “territory is the place that you do it,” i.e., where one does things (2007/1993, p. 195). For him, an uncompromised mode of thinking, especially when political, keeps one an itinerant, a traveler. Travelers suspend the claim of customary routines in order to experience new rhythms and rituals. The traveler—unlike the Sultan who must guard one place and defend its frontiers—traverses territory and thus abandons fixed positions all of the time. Hence, according to Said (1999), deviating from already known and assigned paths is an act of liberation. It results in “fugitive moments of freedom” (1999, p. 24). How are places mapped through the movement of travelers? What “spatial histories” can we trace in and out of them, whereby we can also challenge the uniform narratives of the Sultans? Who, in the end, can lay claim to representing and defining a place?
Parallel to the maps opening places to the movement of specific types of (“legal”) travelers, there are other, essentially less-known maps that open places to the movements of migrant workers from the South/East trying to cross over to the West/North “illegally.” In this way, in both types of maps, the very same place is experienced as entirely different; each map delineating a certain spatial history of the place, as lived through the movement of the traveler who traversed it.
The multilayered nature of places, being situated out of a place or inside it, not having a right to it or the opposite, is what Said specifically experienced in relation to Palestine, noting “the unreconciled duality I feel about the place […] exempliﬁed in so many distorted lives, including mine […] its status as an admirable country for them (but of course not for us)” (1999 p. 142).
In the case of Palestine/Israel, the place even opens up to different landscapes concurrently, which are defined by temporal elements, and not only spatial ones. These landscapes are also effectively traceable in maps. While the relatively new Israeli settlements may be the only cartographic point indicating habitation to an Israeli reader or a non-Palestinian traveler, many of the Palestinian villages and towns that Zionist militias destroyed in 1948 are still traceable to a Palestinian traveler, in reality as well as in maps, much more so than the newly built Israeli settlements. How do the directions of traveling change with time, and what can this tell us about changes occurring in place? How much does traveling itself change places and affect historical shifts?
In Out of Place, Said describes his family’s, especially his father’s reaction to the loss of Palestine, a place the family knew it would be impossible to return to after its occupation in 1948 and its re-designation as the State of Israel. This loss was a continuation of the family’s experience of World War II. Following their escape from Cairo to Ramallah as the German forces advanced into Egyptian territories, Said’s father, after experiencing some sort of nervous breakdown, resorted to silence, and then gradually, with the fall of Palestine, to playing cards. Recalling sitting beside his father, a sort of punishment for misbehaving, Said identifies his father’s card-playing as a dispiriting blankness; an act signifying minimal emotional investment; a way to subliminate anxieties; an escape from a confrontation with reality, all requiring the least words: Silence. Said thus concludes that all of this signifies nothing but mental and moral subordination, increasing the sense of another’s authority over oneself. As he watched his father play cards, Said dissociated himself from the situation by imagining. Imagination, for him, works as a release from the authority of others in reality.
So true power-structures exist with great destructive effects, of which Said himself had been subjected to several. Yet, he also sees opportunities and possibilities to counter and modify them. To Said, while a relationship of domination persists, the opportunities for liberation are open and exist as well. Such opportunities can be traced in Said’s case even in the least seeming places, behaviors, or emotions. Fragility, pain, fear, and loneliness, are all recurring feelings in his childhood and youth—but later also surface when physical, and sometimes emotional weakness, characterized certain periods of his life. Facing critique through disembodiment, lagging behind, loitering, fidgeting, or nail-biting, all surface as means of resistance against the powerful, be it his father or the educational institutions he attended. The very techniques associated with weakness, such as “failing” and “misbehaving,” could indeed help foster what Said describes on a different occasion as a spirit, not of conformity, but of resistance; of individual agency rather than collective determinism, precisely in situations of excessive authority and domination where one finds oneself lacking the physical power to fight back. How can we incorporate a recurring sense of weakness into an active system of resistance? In what way does weakness inform and delineate the limits of power? What type of agency would all this eventually contribute to shaping?
Said (1999) recalls throwing stones, which he engaged in as a child as a strange form of entertainment that still felt to him to encompass a liberating moment. Fifty or more years later, in Sato Makoto’s film Out of Place based on Said’s memoir of the same name, Said appears, throwing a stone at the Lebanese–Israeli border. The liberating element in stone-throwing from decades ago still echoes here. Yet, as time lapsed, the liberating element in this act shifted from its association with entertainment to political engagement. During these years, the act of throwing stones became the political act in which many Palestinians engaged in their resistance against the appropriation of Palestine, first by Zionism, then by the State of Israel. Said’s engagement by means of throwing stones may be seen as the liberating moment from his family’s—especially his father’s—disengagement from the question of Palestine. As such, it is an engagement that is associated more with social consciousness than merely with national consciousness, the former being what Said, via Frantz Fanon (1963/ 1961), effectively called for in place of the latter. To him, national consciousness is the reactive, atavistic assertion of a separate colonial or native identity. This urge to seek social consciousness over national consciousness is evident in his call for a one-state solution to the question of Palestine/Israel, as well as in a modified definition of universalism, dissociating it from imperialism.
An additional comparable consideration to this can be found in what Said writes concerning music “as being able to move someone so specifically and wordlessly” (1999, p. 103), yet, we should add, universally. And it is a sort of musical movement, the contrapuntal motion, i.e. the wordless, to which Said returns in order to describe how the liberationist, anti-imperialist mode of thought resisted a specific understanding of the concept of universalism, through its connection with Western imperial powers. As he argues in Culture and Imperialism they tried to do so:
First, by a new integrative or contrapuntal orientation in history that sees Western and non-Western experiences as belonging together because they are connected by imperialism. Second, by an imaginative, even Utopian vision which reconceives emancipatory (as opposed to confining) theory and performance. Third, by an investment neither in new authorities, doctrines, and encoded orthodoxies, nor in established institutions and causes, but in a particular sort of nomadic, migratory, and anti-narrative energy. (1994, p. 279; italics added)
Nevertheless, allowing new forms and experiences of universalism can only be meaningful here by means of engagement. What is the nature of such aspiration for a new form of universalism, and what moves us to engage in it? How does one resist notions of “other” or “outside,” so rather to perceive this as a continuation of an inside to which the self is related via al-muthanna? What shape does universalism take in neoliberal contexts? How could both universalism and engagement affect our perception of the world and our thinking of social, cultural, and economic alternatives today?
To risk stating a cliché, one could say that universalism and social consciousness in this case would require the ability to “think the bridge,” rather than remain passive to what is being presented to us as the “abyss,” of identitarianism and mere national consciousness. Describing Leonardo da Vinci’s power of mind, French poet Paul Valéry writes in an essay, which Said (1998) states, haunted him for many years, that the Italian artist could not but think of a bridge whenever he thought of an abyss. Said thus writes:
Metaphorically speaking, an abyss is the equivalent of what is presented to us as immutable, definitive, impossible to go beyond. No matter how deep and problematic the scene that presented itself to him, Leonardo always had the capacity to think of some alternative to it, some way of solving the problem, some gift for not passively accepting what was given to him, as if the scene that Leonardo imagined could always be envisioned in a different, and perhaps more hopeful, way.
To Said, one is forced to accept that beyond what is being presented as an abyss, about which we can do nothing, there is an apparatus for putting the potentially critical mind to sleep. However, to risk everything in order to engage in finding a way, building a bridge, imaginatively and critically, is that which would call a halt to passivity, to the sense of defeat, and to hopelessness. To embark on such an endeavor, contributors from different disciplines and practices and places, including cultural theorists, intellectuals and artists, step in, each initiating his or her own relation with Said’s body of work. Throughout, contributors to the current work on Said address questions—some of which have been articulated in this Introduction—which Said himself did not explicitly pursue to the same extent as he did others, but towards which he still paved the way.
A note on the non-linear structure of the publication
The publication comprises six chapters with themes that extend from contemplating Said’s legacy in the present, to shifts in some of the main concepts he took (e.g. imperialism and Orientalism); the ways in which dichotomies could be undermined; possible forms of resistance to external as well as internal colonialisms; the significance of Said’s concepts outside academia, and the anti-narrative vigor epitomized by “late style.” Throughout these six chapters the reader should abandon the idea of following a traditional or classical narrative structure; instead she should be ready to undertake the risky task of bringing Said’s work closer to its “late style.” In its overall structure, the publication actually follows the sort of “associations” Said took on as a method, and which mark his entire body of work from Orientalism (1978) to On Late Style (Posthumously, 2006). In his writings, he moved fluently between academic disciplines and social and artistic practices; from news media, to music, literature, history, art and visual representations; integrating personal experiences with theoretical ideas in a manner that opened the dominant to the repressed, reminiscent of the ways in which James Joyce opened the conscious to the unconscious in his writings. In so doing—embarking on various paths of inquiry and practice that inform one another—Said was able to observe and comment on topics from among the different positions he was situated and the various roles he took up.
Moreover, this publication makes full use of the opportunities offered by the Internet. Its various themes are explored through different means of articulation, such as essays, plays, short stories, audio interventions, music, video performances, and films. At the same time, by means of its medium—the Internet—the publication actively subverts spatial divides (e.g. Orient/Occident, or East/West). In place of these, it permits cultural crossings and bridges distances and gaps through critical thinking and knowledge, imagination, compassion, and generosity. Not least, the uncharted modes of engagement with and interpretation of Said’s works presented here—which patently include non-discursive, artistic, visual, and musical elements, alongside academic and non-academic discursive ones—are all reminiscent of “late style.” The non-conventional energy of “late style,” which Said himself sought later, toward the end of his life, and which manifests a departure from linear and classical modes of thinking and production, is brought here to its full.
Books and articles
Fanon, F. (1963) The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press (originally published in French, 1961).
Fasheh, M. (2007) The Words al-muthanna and yuhsen in Arabic as Examples of Cultural Diversity and of Clarifying the Meaning of Intercultural Dialogue. Presented at the UNESCO conference, “Towards Mainstreaming Principles of Cultural Diversity and Intercultural Dialogue in Policies for Sustainable Development,” Paris, May 21–23, 2007.
Said, E. W. (1994) Culture and Imperialism. London: Vintage Books.
Said, E. W. (1998) Bridge Across the Abyss. Al-Ahram Weekly, September 10.
Said, E. W. (1999) Out of Place: A Memoir. London: Granta Books.
Said, E. W. (2001) The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals. The Nation, September 17.
Said, E. W. (2004) Living in Arabic. Al-Ahram Weekly, February 12.
Said, E. W. (2006) On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain. London: Bloomsbury.
Said, E. W. (2007) Culture and Imperialism. In: Power Politics and Culture. London: Vintage Books (first published in: The Boundary 2, Spring 1993).