Haus der Kulturen der Welt

On Said’s Late Style

Fawwaz Traboulsi is associate professor of Political Science and History at the American University of Beirut. His numerous publications deal with history, politics, liberation and social movements, and art in the Arab World. Among others, he has published A History of Modern Lebanon (Pluto Press, 2007) and translated Edward Said’s Out of Place (Al-Adab, 2003) and Humanism and Democratic Criticism (Al-Adab, 2005).

Fawwaz Traboulsi

There is a growing and flagrant paradox about Orientalism (1978/2004). With the years, the book seems to have been endowed with a life of its own, divorced from the rest of its author’s life and intellectual development. More, Edward Said’s masterpiece is too often read and presented in contradistinction to the author’s subsequent intellectual development, reduced to the couple knowledge–power and representation, and hijacked by at least three tendencies: a) dominant trends in post-colonial studies; b) local nativists in several Arab and Islamic countries; c) cultural and social parvenus in the Arab World objecting to the way the Arabs and Muslims are “represented in the West.”

I. Three Moments in Said’s Orientalism

It is necessary to situate Orientalism in relation to the intellectual development of its author and the subsequent corrections he made to his major early work; this is tantamount to placing Said himself in time and place. I propose here three moments in Said’s intellectual development that proceeded “contrapuntally,” as he would have liked to say.

1. Critique of Orientalism constitutes the first moment. The book Orientalism, published more than thirty-five years ago, is a critical history of a discipline which claims monopoly over interpreting and representing things “Eastern,” to “Westerners” and “Easterners” alike, intimately linked to, and contaminated by, the interests, strategies and policies of Euro-American imperialism. Said’s archival documentation engages authors, politicians, and belles-lettrists who have made a large contribution to the Western creation of the essence “East” and thus creating itself also as the essence “West.” Said’s brilliant and trenchant arguments reveal a number of dogmas that dominated Orientalist discourses:
Essentialism: East and West are two fixed and mutually exclusive essences not without hierarchy (the latter is rational, developed, humane, and the former is spiritual, irrational, underdeveloped, and inferior).
Generalization: Each particular part of the Orient tells about the whole Orient and vice versa.
Stereotyping: For instance, Arabs and Muslims are pre-Newtonian; the real world almost completely internal to the Oriental observer, etc.
The Orient is unique and unchanging: There is only one religion, one Islamic society; one Arab mind, one Arab psyche, one Arab-Islamic culture, and so forth.
Culturalism: Orientals are defined and determined by their culture, generally reduced to their Muslim religion (Said 1978/2004, pp. 24–48).

Said concludes with two intriguing warnings, one against the “modern Orient […] participating in its own Orientalizing,” and another suggesting that “the answer to Orientalism is not Occidentalism” (1978/2004, p. 328). To be Orientalized would imply internalizing the dominant Orientalist discourses by Orientals. Occidentalism, on the other hand, has been often brushed aside as it is not in harmony with a certain politically-correct attitude vis-à-vis things Eastern and Islamic by champions of anti-Orientalism. You don’t criticize the victim at least not from the countries where s/he is being victimized. Still the victim has to deal with her/his own version of Orientalism: Occidentalism, which constitutes the dominant view on the West in her/his part of the world (and in which the discourses of Orientalism form a part, but not the whole). Said sees Occidentalism as an insufficient reactive set of notions that accept the basic East–West essentialist divide, while at the same time revaluating the weaker and subservient partner in the persisting and reconstructed imperialist relations of domination and control.

In line with Said’s analysis and critique of Orientalism, Occidentalism, as a mirror-image of the former, is contaminated by power—local and imperial economic, political, and cultural power—and is, therefore, incapable of producing adequate knowledge about itself and its object—the imperialist West. This failure weakens, if not aborts the liberation struggle of colonized peoples and societies, and could deliver them to neo-imperialist domination. The critique of Occidentalism is the intellectual theme of the second moment of the development of Said’s thought to which I will now turn.

2. Culture and Imperialism (1994) opens the second moment in Said’s thought. It corrects and complements Orientalism all the while presenting a critique of Occidentalism, in the form of some of the various ideologies by which the colonized have waged their struggles against colonialism. Said had already taken his distance from Michel Foucault whom he criticized for neglecting “the role of economics, the role of insurgency and rebellion in the societies he discusses” (Said 1983, p. 244). Colonialism, he has asserted, is primarily about control of overseas markets, raw materials, cheap labor, and profitable lands (Said 1994). In addition, Said critiqued Occidentosis—the tendency to blame all ills on the West—and rejected conspiracy theories.

Nuanced in his critique of nationalism, Said joins Frantz Fanon in calling for the transformation of national consciousness—in post-colonial societies—into social consciousness, by achieving the transition from national liberation to social liberation and change. However it is nativism that appears to Said as the more problematic aspect of Occidentalism:

To accept nativism is to accept the consequences of imperialism the racial, religious and political divisions imposed by imperialism itself. To leave the historical world for the metaphysics of essence like negritude, Irishness, Islam or Catholicism is to abandon history for essentializations that have the power to turn human beings against each other. (Said 1994, p. 276)

Said’s call against culturalism and identitarianism can also be interpreted as a warning against the trap Samuel Huntington sets up in his Clash of Civilizations (1996), and where he diverts attention to the “clash” in order to hide “civilization.” The latter is imposed by Huntington as the one and only interpretation of life and history and the ultimate paradigm of the “End of History” as it were. He posits that the economic interpretation has died with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the colonial interpretation has been rendered obsolete by the end of colonialism. In this case, civilizations are not only religiously defined formations (Confucian, Islamic, and Christian) but are also seen from the point of view of North American geostrategic interests and phobias. Huntington is confirming Said’s doubts, as quoted, namely, that imperialism is the exportation of identity.

Since his Beginnings (1975), Said had radically differentiated beginnings from origins. Whereas origins are deemed to be inherited and impose a search for them in the past, beginnings are voluntarily chosen, even created, and are open to the future. Mahmoud Darwish got it right when he attributed to Said these verses in his poem “Counterpoint” (the original title in Arabic is “Tibaq,” 2004): “Identity is the daughter of birth, but in the end she’s what her owner creates, not an inheritance of a past.”

Let me go back to the couple knowledge–power: the reduction of imperialism to the interplay of the knowledge–power couple tends to sanitize imperialism by dropping two of its most constitutive components: military occupation and violence on the one hand and economic exploitation on the other.

As if to leave no room for any misinterpretation of his position, in his posthumously published Humanism and Democratic Critique (2004, pp. 8–9), Said agrees with James Clifford’s critique of his book Orientalism that it: “relapses into the essentializing modes it attacks.” Finally, Said subsumes the coupling East–West, with its domination, hegemony and resistances, in his call for the “discovery of a world not constructed out of warring essences” (1994, p. 277).

3. Secular democratic critique and the humanist outlook mark the third moment of Said’s thought based on the belief that men make their own history and that the real world is the main object of knowledge. Those are the writings of his late years, including Out of Place (1999), Humanism and Democratic Criticism (2003), and most importantly, On Late Style (2006). In On Late Style, Said voices, among other things, his critique of identitarian and culturalist problematics and politics. Commenting on the writings of Jean Genet, who in Said’s view is “a dissolver of identities” (2006, p. 82), comes the following:

Identity is what we impose on ourselves through our lives as social, historical, political and even spiritual beings. The logic of culture and of families doubles the strength of identity, which to someone like Genet who was a victim of the identity forced on him by his delinquency, his isolation, and his transgressive talents and delights—is something to be opposed. Above all, given Genet’s choice of sites like Algeria and Palestine, identity is the process by which the stronger culture, and the more developed society, imposes itself violently upon those who, by the same identity process, are decreed to be of a lesser people. Imperialism is the export of identity. (Said 2006, p. 85)

II. Edward Said’s Late Style

With On Late Style, Said seems to have completed the late stage of his intellectual production and development. In it he has chosen authors, interpreters, and composers in his own image so to speak. To illustrate this point, I quote Gaston Bachelard’s in his discussion of Surrationalism:

Human reason must be restored to its function of turbulent aggression. […] If, in any experience, one does not risk one’s reason, that experience is not worth attempting.
The risk of reason must, moreover, be total. It is its specific character to be total. All or nothing. […] Any real discovery leads to a new system, it must ruin a previous system. In other words in the domain of thought, impudence is a method. […] One must go on as quickly as possible into the regions of intellectual impudence. (1936, pp. 186–9)


I’m not certain whether Said read the piece by Bachelard quoted here, but it tells the reader a lot about him and his own late style: rushing in as fast as he can into the realms of intellectual impudence—this is Said’s late style. This is what Said did throughout his life. Said is primarily a literary critic: whereas in his early work, Said initiated a critical method which read social change and relations of power (colonialism) into literary works, not only novels (e.g. his writing about W. B. Yeats), On Late Style, however, seems to revert the process; it illuminates Said’s readings of literary texts by putting them into social and historical context. There, “late style,” based on Theordor Adorno’s definition of the term, is differentiated from maturity “not as harmony and resolution, but as intransigence, difficulty and unresolved contradiction” (Said 2006, p. 7). On Late Style, furthermore, is about subversion. It is a text that runs “against the grain.” For Said, “lateness is the idea of surviving beyond what is acceptable” (p. 13). Said even relates to Theodor Adorno’s “lateness,” which is defined as “ending [one’s life and work] without illusory hope or manufactured resignation” (p. 24). In fact, all the authors and composers he discusses in relation to “late style” are chosen among those who, like him, are “out of place.”

Lateness and time

Although “late style” is all about time, it still evades and rules out “sentimentality and nostalgia” all the time (2006, p. 107).The late styles of Amadeus Mozart and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa / Luchino Visconti (the former’s novel The Leopard (1958) turned into a film The Leopard / Il gattopardo (1963), by the latter) are set against the background of the crumbling of old regimes of Europe.

The Leopard is an epic novel / film about social disintegration in nineteenth-century Italy. Risorgimento, the failure of revolution, and the misery of the peasants (and where Said resorts to Antonio Gramsci to further illustrate the process of this disintegration). Visconti’s film ends with the aristocracy contracting matrimonial alliance with the new bourgeoisie that will guarantee its survival (Said 2006, p. 112).

We could actually read the discussion of “A Lingering Old Order,” while thinking about the Arab revolutions of the twenty-first century in the background. There, the lingering old order—the remnants of the new state-bourgeoisie of nationalist dictatorships and oil and gas oligarchs—is trying to guarantee its survival, wed as it is to the culturalists and implacably neo-liberal Islamists, crushing the Arab peoples’ aspirations to “bread, freedom, and social justice” in the name of an alliance that is waging an international, permanent “holy” war against terrorism. The war is led by the state armies of Syria, Yemen, and Egypt; supported by the new Cold War warriors represented by the al-muthanna (the duo): US Secretary of State John Kerry–Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and the ailing Saudi King Abdallah, the new, young Qatari Emir Tamim, and a host of officials from Britain, Iran, France, and Germany—you name them.


Johann Sebastian Bach, The Art of Fugue BWV 1080. Contrapunctus 4, Glenn Gould, 1980 (2012), excerpt. Link to Source

Let me go back to literature and music with Glenn Gould: the virtuoso, whose method Said finds in full accord with Giambattista Vico’s notion of invention: “finding a theme and developing it contrapuntally so that all its possibilities are articulated, expressed, and elaborated,” both are endowed with the “ability to see human history as something made by the unfolding capacity of the working human mind” (Said 2006, p. 128). In Constantine Cavafi’s poems, Said discovers as well “the power to render disenchantment and pleasure without resolving the contradictions between them” (Said 2006, p. 148). To Said where there are no more binaries there remain merely unresolved contradictions.

With all this in view, it emerges that Said’s On Late Style has now definitely shifted from “place” (East–West; the main focus in Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism) to “time.” This also marks a shift: from Foucault to Vico and from Vico to Karl Marx and Antonio Gramsci, via Adorno, Raymond Williams, György Lukács, Nicos Poulantzas, etc.

A concluding note

Granted that orientalist knowledge is a misrepresentation of the “Orient,” as discussed here, it remains that its other and more important function was to help colonial powers control, conquer, and exploit; and it still does so in the age of globalized neo-imperialism. It follows that the main question is: how and what should the peoples—on the other side of the neo-colonial knowledge–power equation—produce in terms of knowledge and acquire in terms of power—in order to liberate themselves from colonialism? What is the “against knowledge”? What is the “alter-knowledge”? What is the “empowering knowledge” that should be produced in the countries of the South in order that knowledge becomes a force for liberation? It is surely not a mere deconstruction of orientalist discourses, or the constant nagging about misrepresentation of the East or of the demonization of the Arab and the Muslim in and by the “West.” It is rather a critique and a deconstruction of all fixed knowledges and positions, on which Said elaborated especially in his late life, as revealed in On Late Style.


Books and articles

Bachelard, G. (1936) Surrationalism. In: J. Levy, Surrealism. New York: The Black Sun Press, 1936.

Darwish, M. (2004) Counterpoint: for Edward Said, tr. F. Joudah. In: New American Writing, 27, Mill Valley, CA: OINK! Press.

Huntington, S. P. (1996) The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Lampedusa, di, G. T. (1958/1960) The Leopard, tr. A. Colquhoun. London: Collins/Harvill.

Said, E. W. (1975) Beginnings: Intention and Method. New York: Basic Books.

Said, E. W. (1978/2004) Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.

Said, E. W. (1983) The World, the Text and the Critic. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Said, E. W. (1994) Culture and Imperialism. London: Vintage Books.

Said, E. W. (1999) Out of Place: A Memoir. London: Granta Books.

Said, E. W. (2004) Humanism and Democratic Criticism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Said, E. W. (2006) On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain. London: Bloomsbury.

Films and videos

Bach, J. S., The Art of Fugue BWV 1080. Contrapunctus 4, Glenn Gould, recording directed by B. Monsaingeon, New York 1980, In: Glenn Gould Plays Bach (2012) Dir.: B. Monsaingeon, USA, 172 min. Sony Music Entertainment. Available from: <> [Accessed March 20, 2014].

The Leopard / Il Gattopardo (1963) Dir.: L. Visconti, Italy/France, 187 min.