Haus der Kulturen der Welt

Edward Said’s Universalism
The Perspective of the Margins

Bernd M. Scherer is director of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW). He holds a doctoral degree in Philosophy from the Universität des Saarlandes. He headed the Department of Humanities and Culture of the HKW from 1994 to 1999 and at the same time served as a deputy director. From 1999 to 2004, he served as a director of the Goethe-Institute in Mexico and subsequently of the Arts Department for the Goethe-Institute Head Office in Munich, before returning to HKW in 2006.

Bernd M. Scherer

It is hard to imagine a more striking contradiction: celebrating and honoring Edward Said—an intellectual who is revered as one of the greatest critics of Western strategies of representation—at a building that was designed expressly as a celebration of certain values the “West” propagated: the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW).

However, Said would probably have enjoyed this contradiction. It was, after all, his conviction that the underlying structures of our reality and thinking are made tangible and comprehensible through contradictions.

To start with, the building that now houses HKW was a “gift” from the United States government to the West German government, in particular to the city of Berlin, in 1957. Located just meters from the border with the German Democratic Republic, and later the Wall that separated the western and eastern parts of the city, the Congress Hall was built as a symbol of Western values. The transparency and openness of its architecture was meant to convey to the visitor the experience of freedom.

The unhindered flow of movement, expressed through the broad expanses of the foyer and the roof terrace, invited one to stroll as well as to encounter a democratic society that was in the process of opening up. From the outset, the values this architecture embodied were regarded as universal values. The building was designed to open in all four cardinal directions. All of its larger spaces, like the auditorium, were provided with interpreters’ booths. People gathered here to talk with, and about, the world.

It is this universalism of the West that became a chief object of attack by many postcolonial thinkers. They castigated Western arrogance, and usually countered it with cultural-relativistic approaches which held that there is no single truth or universal value(s), arguing that these arise from context, dependent on the respective historical situation of a particular society. Although Edward Said is counted among these postcolonial thinkers, he surprises us, upon closer reading, with a universalistic stance. He demands universal standards, as these provide the only basis for the indictment of injustice in the world, and for the restoration of rights to the disenfranchised (i.e., see Representations of the Intellectual (1994)). In Said’s view, the absence of a universal standard opens the door for the legitimization of many local injustices.

Accordingly, when Said attacks the West for casting itself as the representative of universal values, this attack is aimed not at universalism itself, but rather, at the way in which the West deals with it. Said follows three lines of argumentation in breaking the spell of the Western position:

a) The West uses universalism to distance itself from other—for example, Muslim—societies. According to the Western position, it represents universal reason, whereas in these other societies, chaos and irrationalism reign. In other words, universalism, here, is abused as part of a culturalistic strategy of exclusion.

b) The universalistic position plays a role in power strategies that are designed to advance specific interests. For example, where addressing human rights violations coincides with other interests of the West, the latter intervene. Where it does not, it turns a blind eye to the injustice.

c) The first two points reveal that the mere reference to a universalistic position cannot in itself legitimize concrete action, as the universal statement is an “all” statement—one that is valid for all cases. Since it is never possible to take all cases into account, however, such statements are, in fact, only selectively applied. This in turn opens the door to political, social, and other interests that eventually must be expressed through concrete action. Therefore, the generality of the universalistic position cannot be justified in itself, alone, but only in connection with concrete action. For Said, this concrete action means advocating for the weakest members of society; those who are outcast and marginalized. Only when the weak are given a voice, only when the oppressed are listened to, is the universalistic claim redeemed. And only then does it become experienceable in the minds of those affected.

Said grounds universalism. He reconnects it with its material basis, so as to wrest it from the power interests to which general reason sees itself subjected. This is also why he favors space over time and why he is more interested in the geographical than the historical. It is in space that the concrete struggle is waged, the struggle that demands that we take a stand. Time, though, allows reflection. In time, concrete action is translated into the generality of thinking.

The debate around Said’s interpretation of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (Said 1994) is of interest in this context. According to Said, Austen, as a sensitive analyst of her time, cannot avoid portraying the colonial situation in the West Indies as one of the bases of England’s wealth, and thereby depicting human oppression and marginalization. These are inherent features of the geography of nineteenth-century England. Later writings on literary history have treated them as marginal phenomena. Said challenges this. He argues that only when we broaden our view to take in this seemingly peripheral situation—the oppression and exploitation of the nameless—do we come to understand the logic and structure of society. And this is not unique to the specific circumstances of colonialism in the West Indies in the nineteenth century. It is also true of, for example, the situation of Palestinians today. We owe this “new accounting of the world” to Edward Said. He draws our attention to the blind spots generated by our categorical apparatus.

Said’s sociopolitical experience and commitment, in turn, must be attributed to the situation of the Palestinians, especially after 1967, when Israel occupied what remained of the Palestinian territories: Gaza and the West Bank.

The strength of books such as Orientalism (1978) and Culture and Imperialism (1993) lay in the fact that they, despite their breadth of analysis, are founded on this specific historical experience, that they have this as a soundboard. That said, these books, and the thinking out of which they grew, confront Western positions and the Western canon. But the author is entirely consistent here as well. Said, who grew up in the Western educational system, is in a position to open up Western thinking precisely because of personal experience at the periphery. Working his way through his own experience in the Middle East, he revolutionizes both our view of the West and our self-conception.

The aim of Said’s project is to take seriously the humanism and universalism that have been preached by the West, and to point out their significance for our understanding of the world. This is an attempt to open up the West in order to establish its ability to talk with Palestinians, Arabs, and other groups.

As mentioned earlier, the strength of Said’s thinking consists in the fact that it has been nourished by concrete historical experience, while at the same time, guiding and teaching us to pay attention to injustice, asymmetries of power, and their attendant representational strategies generally. Said is interested in present conflicts and how they articulate themselves in space. Yet they cannot be comprehended without the historical dimensions inscribed in them. Indeed, Said is not interested in historical constructions that are isolated from contemporary human experiences.

Said revealed the Orient–Occident dualism to be a Western historical construct and thereby helped us to reorder the geographies of our world. Today, this, in effect, helps us to recognize that the dividing line between the poor and the rich, between the powerful and the marginalized, is not the Mediterranean, but that it runs through societies both north and south of the Mediterranean. True, large parts of the Arab population have been forcibly excluded from public political participation in their respective countries, but the de-democratization process in societies north of the Mediterranean is alarming as well. Driven by the logic of the financial markets, which have been removed from democratic control, new asymmetries have emerged between northern and southern Europe, but also within all European societies.

A chief question that Said’s work poses in this situation is: how can a voice be given to those who are pushed to the margins in these processes? Our exhibition “After Year Zero” (2013) can serve as a further historical reference point for this challenge. The project went back to the image of the “zero hour”—which had stood for German history’s new

beginning after 1945—but shifted the perspective to the South. It looked at attempts by liberation movements and emergent independent states to shape a new worldview that would take their interests into account. These developments crystallized in the Bandung conference of 1955, which was attended by 500 delegates from twenty-nine countries and liberation movements. The exhibition traced the repressive mechanisms of colonial conquest and their strategies of representation, such as the language of independence. At the center of our exhibition stood John Akomfrah’s great filmic work The Unfinished Conversation (2012), which reflects the many realities that make up the life of Stuart Hall. A native of Jamaica, Hall not only became an important thinker of the British left, but, from the start, brought his own voice to the mainstream discourse of this nation, which he has spent his life trying to open up by battling its racism.

Play Video

Collapsing Structures / Talking Buildings (2012), excerpt.

Other HKW exhibitions of the last several years have presented stories in which the many voices, positions, and ways of life at the so-called margins of a Western-defined world history, which reaches from the colonial period to the present, are heard. The exhibitions tell not only the story but allow all the voices of that narrative to be heard also, calling on us to reconsider our own position. For instance, the exhibition “Between Walls and Windows: Architecture and Ideology” (2012) brought into focus both the architecture of the HKW itself and its ideological implications, taking it from the context of Berlin in the Cold War to the frame of global modernist utopian approaches, and pointing to the colonial connections as well. One interesting example from the exhibition is the work Collapsing Structures / Talking Buildings (2012) by artist Ângela Ferreira, which parallels and thus connects the demolition of Hotel 4 Estações in Maputo in 2007—a reminder of the end of Portuguese colonial rule in Mozambique—with the collapse and reconstruction of the curved roof of the HKW (the former Congress Hall), in 1980, in both form and content.

The project “In the Desert of Modernity” (2008) also dealt with twentieth-century architecture, yet focused in on the transition from the colonial to the postcolonial context. It decentered the modernist discourse in which, as noted before, the HKW building itself has played a significant role. The departure point of the project was North Africa during the first half of the twentieth century. It showed how cities under colonial regimes, such as Casablanca, became a laboratory for the development of Western modernist architecture and how this in its turn drew on local building practices and practitioners. As the project revealed, the architectural and urban strategies developed in North Africa were then transposed to Europe, where they were put to use in postwar public housing projects. And it was, above all, these newly developed urban areas that were inhabited by immigrants from North Africa during the postcolonial phase.

“The Potosí Principle” (2010/2011) brought attention to Bolivia of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, where Potosí, seemingly at the edge of the world, had developed into one of the richest cities on earth on the basis of the silver discovered there. The exhibition presented images that, on the one hand, borrowed from motifs used in European Counter-Reformation image production, while, on the other, portrayed local living conditions and production practices seen through the eyes of local painters. Thus, the hellish depictions were a way of pointing out the working conditions of the native miners. The suffering of the people portrayed in these images formed the basis both for the economic wealth and image-production of a world in the process of globalization. Indeed, this was a natural historical setting onto which one can superimpose the situation of today’s migrant laborers in the Persian Gulf States and China. In the case of the latter, representatives from migrant workers’ groups installed their own museum showing their living conditions.
Play Video

Di/Visions: Mona Abaza (2007), excerpt.

Finally, in 2009, the HKW project “Di/Visions,” drew attention to different voices in the Arab world. The project offered a platform to artists and other actors in the cultural field, as well as to representatives of civil rights movements, who made clear even before the Arab revolutions started in 2011, that there was a multitude of political voices and discourses in several Arab countries which, for a long time, were neither seen nor acknowledged by the West due to its fixation on Islam.

These projects are mere examples of how, in its concrete work, HKW is signing on as an heir to the Said legacy by taking his understanding of universalism as a standard. Thus, commenting on and interpreting the work of a theorist and intellectual like him—who embodies the spirit of this institution, the HKW, like no other thinker—is a matter very close to our heart. Moreover, it fills us with pride and gratitude to have been able to bring together such an exceptional constellation of thinkers and artists in honor of Edward Said.

Translated from the German by Michael Dills.


Books and articles

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

Said, E. (1994) Jane Austen and Empire. In: Culture and Imperialism. London: Vintage Books, 95–116.


After Year Zero

Akomfrah, J., The Unfinished Conversation (2012), video installation, exhibition “After Year Zero. Geographies of Collaboration since 1945” (2013), HKW. All photographs © Jakob Hoff.

Authors of Travelling Communiqué, Travelling Communiqué Reading a Photo Archive (1948–80) Presidential Press Service Yugoslavia, photography mounted on wall, exhibition “After Year Zero. Geographies of Collaboration since 1945” (2013), HKW. Courtesy of Travelling Communiqué. Photograph © Thomas Eugster.

Between Walls and Windows

Ferreira, Â. Collapsing Structures / Talking Buildings (2012). “Between Walls and Windows. Architecture and Ideology” (2012), HKW. Courtesy of the artist. All photographs © Thomas Eugster.

In the Desert of Modernity

“In the Desert of Modernity. Colonial Planning and After” (2008) HKW. All photographs © Elsa de Seynes.

The Kongresshalle (Haus der Kulturen der Welt)

Ehlers, L., Kongresshalle, Berlin: collapse of a part of the suspended roof-structure (1980), b/w photograph. © Landesarchiv Berlin F Rep. 290 Nr. 0225492 / Ludwig Ehlers.

Israelson, F., Kongresshalle, Berlin, during renovation (1986) b/w photograph. © Landesarchiv Berlin F Rep. 290 Nr. 0278903 / Filipp Israelson.

Schütz, G., Visit by the US Foreign Minister Christian Herter to the Kongresshalle, Berlin; speech of Federal Chancellor Willy Brandt (1959), b/w photograph. © Landesarchiv Berlin F Rep. 290 Nr. 0065954 / Gert Schütz.

The Potosí Principle

Bäumler, Q., after Maestro de Caquiaviri, Infierno (1739/2010), drawing, exhibition “The Potosí Principle: How Can We Sing the Song of the Lord in an Alien Land?” (2010/2011) HKW. All photographs © Sebastian Bolesch.

Culture and Arts Museum of Migrant Workers / Picun Village , Chaoyang District, Beijing (2010), exhibition “The Potosí Principle: How Can We Sing the Song of the Lord in an Alien Land?” (2010/2011) HKW. All photographs © Sebastian Bolesch.

Maestro de Caquiaviri, Infierno (1739), oil on canvas, Iglesia de Caquiaviri / La Paz. Photograph © Andreas Unterladstaetter.

Films and videos

Collapsing Structures / Talking Buildings (2012) Dir.: Â. Ferreira, 7.20 min, exhibition “Between Walls and Windows. Architecture and Ideology” (2012) HKW. Courtesy of the artist.

Di/Visions: Mona Abaza (2007), DVD-insert. In: C. David, G. Khalil, B. M. Scherer (eds.) (2009) Di/Visions: Kultur und Politik des Nahen Ostens (exhibition catalog), Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag. Courtesy of Catherine David.