Few contemporary thinkers have been more revered and reviled than the late Palestinian-American professor Edward Said. But even his most ardent critics can hardly deny that Said was one of the most significant public intellectuals of our time. And while he is probably best remembered for his political activism, it was as a major literary theorist that he produced his most important work.
Said was widely misread and misunderstood by friend and foe alike, and while reams of articles, journal papers and books have been published about his work since his untimely death in 2003, little of it has added to any deep understanding of his intellectual legacy. But a new book by a leading critical theorist, R. Radhakrishnan, A Said Dictionary (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), illuminates much of what is most important, and also problematic, about Said’s work.
Radhakrishnan’s book is called a “dictionary,” but in fact it’s a series of short essays built on key terms Said relied on in his writings. Radhakrishnan explicates and engages with these difficult, often elusive concepts as Said deployed them, such as his notions of “democratic criticism,” “secular criticism,” “Traveling Theory,” “worldliness,” and “professionalism.” But Radhakrishnan’s book is not merely a guide, a hagiography or a tribute. It involves a robust and often contentious engagement with Said’s most provocative and, at times, problematic ideas. Most specifically, Radhakrishnan dwells on “Said’s way of being worldly.”
Said was a prolific and profound thinker, but not a particularly methodical or philosophically rigorous one, engaging in what Radhakrishnan aptly describes as “freewheeling relationships and affinities with a number of theories, theorists and schools of thought.” For example, in his best-known book, Orientalism(1978), Said attempted to forge an uneasy methodological marriage between Michel Foucault’s poststructuralist and anti-humanist systems of genealogy with his own deep-seated high humanist orientation. The book was a sensation, for many reasons, but this combination simply couldn’t be sustained, and Said quickly fell back on his humanist commitments.
Said engaged in numerous noteworthy debates and exchanges with both allies and antagonists, perhaps most notably another redoubtable champion of Enlightenment rationality, Ernest Gellner. But while Gellner sought to pit critical rationalism against critical theory, Said engaged theory and contributed heavily to it, but often by critiquing its excesses.
Early on in his book, Radhakrishnan confesses to often finding Said to “not be a philosophic enough figure as he addresses the crises and problems of humanism and essentialism.” For Radhakrishnan, Said sometimes ducks or simply dismisses some of the more difficult philosophical questions raised by his own work.
For example, he finds in Said’s crucial notion of “contrapuntal criticism,” an ethical imperative in which “no one history… can be thought of in isolation from other histories.” Summing up Said’s position perfectly, Radhakrishnan writes, “To be truly secular is to forfeit the privileges of essentialism and/or nativism, as well as the false premise of doing one’s own history within one’s own protected enclave.” But, he notes, this ethic raises important dilemmas that Said never fully grappled with. “Can the counterpoint degenerate into a posture of easy accommodation?” Radhakrishnan asks, noting, “Said could be faulted for aestheticizing the political a little too felicitously.”
Radhakrishnan’s own work has increasingly turned away from the normative structural and post-structural methodologies in critical theory towards a re-embrace of phenomenology. His new book suggests that he finds in Said an analogous spirit: “[I]n Said’s case it is the political and historical that validate theory and epistemology, and not the other way around.” In his phenomenological turn, Radhakrishnan writes, Said poses a “direct and candid question to Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, and the rest… What are you for, and what are you against?”
No concept was more central to Said’s thought than that of agency and intentionality. In championing secularism as an ethical model for intellectual activity, Said was emphasizing agency and the essential question of intention and affiliation. Intellectuals must not be detached “professionals,” hiding behind academic method and intellectual rigor to avoid responsibility and decline solidarity with constituencies that shape the world in which we live.
As Radhakrishnan notes, “Said’s retrieval of individual consciousness also heralds a phenomenological return to ‘perspectivism’… The critic becomes an actor again: he is no longer a correct functionary whose function is no more than professional maintenance and repetition of a dogma.” But Radhakrishnan teases out numerous unanswered questions raised by these and other aspects of Said’s thought and asks, rhetorically, “Whether it is possible to exorcise the philosophical dimension of reality by just not thinking about it…” Radhakrishnan clearly doesn’t think it is.
Anyone remotely interested in Said’s thought needs to read Radhakrishnan’s book. He has managed to make difficult and sometimes abstruse ideas and arguments accessible to a general audience and simultaneously engaging to specialists. It is without question the most important contribution to understanding Said’s complex legacy yet written.