‘Edward Said is sorely missed in this chaotic century’

What is Edward Said’s legacy, 20 years after his death? To what extent can his heterogeneous work, beyond the turning point marked by Orientalism, serve as a compass to today's generation? L’OLJ speaks with two of his companions: Lebanese writer Dominique Eddé, who wrote “Edward Said: His Thought as a Novel,” and Professor Karim Emile Bitar.

‘Edward Said is sorely missed in this chaotic century’

Edward W. Said,1997. (Credit: Gérard D. Khoury)

Less than a year after his death, US-British historian Tony Judt wrote, “at the time of his death, Edward Said was probably the most famous intellectual in the world.” How can we measure the turning point represented by the publication of Orientalism, and beyond that, the whole of such a heterogeneous work?

KB: Orientalism has indeed had an absolutely considerable influence on academic and literary circles around the world. Not only because it has been translated into dozens of languages, but also because it has revolutionized a wide range of disciplines, from literature to history, philosophy, religious studies, sociology, political science, anthropology and so on. By deconstructing the Western system of representation of a stiff and essentialized East, this book has helped to break down the “Mind Forged Manacles" that characterized relations between these two worlds. Quite apart from the debate about its strengths and weaknesses, the reason why this book, though difficult to access, was such a landmark and continues to be so relevant is that it was, in a way, a manifesto of “anti-essentialism,” more indispensable than ever at a time when, as Danièle Sallenave wrote, “Identitarianism is the disease of the 21st century.”

The relationship that Tony Judt had with Said is also symbolically significant and illustrates Edward Said’s ability to open up and engage in dialogue with individuals who were initially quite distant from him. Judt was a New York-based Jewish social-liberal intellectual, but in 1967, he had interrupted his studies at Oxford and at the École Normale Supérieure to serve as a translator in the Israeli army due to his fervent Zionism. However, by a strange twist of history, it was on the very day of Said’s death that the New York Review of Books published an article titled “Israel: The alternative,” in which Judt advocated for the idea of a binational state, aligning himself with the position of someone who had become close. In a certain way, this illustrated Said’s ability to persuade others without getting locked into pre-established ideologies or systems of thought while also never deviating from his main principles.

DE: I greatly appreciate the notion of openness that Karim Bitar just mentioned. It’s one of the reasons why Edward Said’s thinking is so difficult for his detractors to reduce or even “pin down,” as well as challenging for many of his disciples to follow in its nuanced spectrum. He occupied a space where intransigence was never synonymous with confinement. On the contrary, he stood firm to make progress. He didn't resort to dogmatism or sentimentality. His refusals were not outright rejections; they were positions based on the simultaneous consideration of realities and principles. It was the combination of his academic prowess and immense personal courage that allowed his thinking to challenge the mode of representation of the Orient based on the fantasies — or desires for domination — of the West. One can understand that when dealing with such a substantial issue, shaking so many received ideas, he may have initially done so with a certain degree of aggressiveness, without necessarily incorporating all the nuances that would be found in his later works.

When, in Culture and Imperialism (1993), he embraces the quote from Walter Benjamin, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” he sets the tone and modus operandi for his entire thinking, which is one of constant counterpoint. This means never thinking of one thing without its opposite, much like in music, in a Bach fugue. This is how Said should be understood, and perhaps this is why, in my opinion, there are no “Saidians” in the same way there are “Derrideans”” or “Bourdieusians”. He emphasized the movement and plasticity of critical thinking more than any specific concept. This movement is reflected in his praise of impurity and hybridity on one hand, and the principle of equality among races, individuals and cultures on the other. He often said, “I am not a militant; I am a man of commitment.” This was his way of keeping doors open which would allow for new variations and discoveries, much like in music.

You said that he has often been “misunderstood,” both by his detractors and by his supporters. Would the man who is considered the founder of “post-colonial studies” recognize and endorse the “identity politics” currents that are shaking up the American academic world and are now exported elsewhere?

KB: Not at all, he himself rejected this label and all exclusionary identitarianism. The shockwave represented by Orientalism was so powerful that we quickly witnessed a form of radicalization and a (comprehensible) reclamation by those who had long been rendered invisible. They sometimes developed a tendency to reject Western authors even before reading them. Edward Said was a universalist, a secular humanist, committed to the teaching of the literary canon while incorporating texts from authors from other backgrounds. Some figures in the postcolonial movement, such as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, have however developed the concept of “strategic essentialism,” in which being identified in this way implies claiming an essentialized belonging in response. Said categorically rejected this concept, upon which some “indigenous” movements have relied, considering it mirrors the shortcomings he had denounced. Similarly, he never thought in terms of “competitive victimhood” but rather sought to study in parallel the sufferings of different groups. I believe that Edward Said would have been fundamentally opposed to the most glaring excesses of what some now call “wokeness” and “cancel culture.” He believed that if one needed to deconstruct a work and criticize certain authors, even harshly, one must first appropriate them, understand them and recognize their qualities. As he himself stated, he spent his life teaching the works of the “dead white males,” and, as Dominique Eddé pointed out, he offered “contrapuntal readings”because appeasement would only come when all voices could be heard simultaneously and engage in dialogue.

DE: Exactly. On the Palestinian issue, for instance, he stated in a text titled “Intellectuals and the Crisis" (in 1996): “We need a discourse that is intellectually honest and complex enough to address both the Palestinian and Jewish experiences, recognizing where one’s claims end and the other’s begin. Here again, it’s the counterpoint, never thinking of one perspective without enriching it with another. This flexibility did not prevent him from having a very firm stance. His work consistently promotes secularism and replacing communitarianism with citizenship, which is valid not only in the Israeli-Palestinian context but also on a regional level. When we look at the situation in our region today, 20 years after his passing, his vision is still crucial: we know that salvation can only come through a secular solution based on citizenship. It may be slow to arrive, it may still seem impossible, but in the long run, it’s the only viable option for peace, especially given the increasing diversity of populations worldwide.

The commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the Oslo Accords seems to have been characterized both by an awareness of the Palestinian reality in the West — through the notion of Apartheid, for example — and by an all-consuming disillusionment as to the possibility of peace and a future for Palestinian citizens. Has history proved the critic of the “Versailles of the Palestinians” right?

KB: It’s interesting to note that at the time when the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] was rejecting the two-state solution, Edward Said was in favor of it. It was only when he saw that the entanglement of the two populations on the ground had become so irreversible — today, there are 700,000 settlers compared to 200,000 at the time of Oslo — that he began advocating for a binational state, drawing on ideas that had been developed as early as the 1930s by figures like Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt. As highlighted in a recent article published by Foreign Affairs, it’s no longer a matter of a “one-state solution” but rather a “one-state reality” — considering that the “two-state solution," which was presented as the realistic approach, has become utopian in the meantime.

Precisely because he had read and studied the text of the agreements, he saw the amateurism of the Palestinian negotiators who had allowed themselves to be drawn into a fool’s bargain, in which the five essential obstacles to peace had been postponed indefinitely: the occupation; the settlements; the refugees; water and Jerusalem. [Israeli Former Foreign Minister and writer] Shlomo Ben Ami ended up recognizing that Said was right. Said also thought Arafat had been weakened by his support for Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Gulf War — a position that he had denounced as a tragic moral error, which led to his books being banned in the Palestinian territories, shockingly ironic!

In 1993, therefore, the PLO accepted far greater concessions than those it had previously refused — in particular those that Said had been asked to convey to it by the US Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance. We cannot therefore introduce Said, as some radical pro-Israelis do, as “the one who refused peace.” All the more so as he had begun a dialogue very early on with civil and intellectual society in Israel, which he helped to understand the Palestinian point of view. However, even when he advocated a binational state, he insisted on the need to be vigilant in guaranteeing the rights of the Jews, whose tragic history he never ceased to remind us of.

Another paradox, if we think from a Gramscian perspective (which greatly influenced Said): by the time of his death in 2003, his theses had become largely dominant in US academic circles. But at the same time, his staunch opponents, such as Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami, were among the advisers pushing George W. Bush to invade Iraq. So winning the battle of ideas had not translated at the political level. But this is beginning to change: for example, we now see a majority of Democratic Party supporters supporting the Palestinians, and major figures in the American Jewish establishment, such as Peter Beinart, openly criticizing Zionism and Israeli hubris.

DE: I completely agree with that and would just like to add that what is happening today in Israel is very significant: we are seeing a society that is realizing the limits of its cohesion as a strictly Jewish state, and that is quite something in terms of consequences.

You mentioned his strained relations with the Palestinian leadership, and one can not but imagine his reaction to Mahmoud Abbas' recent comments about Hitler and the Holocaust.

DE: Abbas is a repeat offender and Said had already unequivocally condemned similar remarks. We can therefore safely bet that he would have shown no mercy with this utterly stupid statement!

Beyond the historical and moral truth, doesn't this outspoken anti-Semitism give grist to the mill of those who, in France in particular, are following in the footsteps of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) and trying to broaden its scope by amalgamating it with anti-Zionism?

DE: This confusion is a sign of ignorance and/or ill-considered opportunism: to think that we can advance the issue on the basis of such a false equation is to have understood neither the motivations nor the historical issues. Recognizing Israel and its existence, as Said did very early on, and seeking to build a state with equal citizens on the basis of that recognition, is what was needed and what must be done. But pitting opponents of Zionism against anti-Semites — some of whom being blind and unconditional supporters of Israel — is preventing thought from circulating and peace from emerging.

KB: The IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism is indeed open to instrumentalization, and this is one of the reasons why many academics have signed the Jerusalem Declaration, which proposes another definition that is clearer and less problematic. But the debate today is no longer so much between Zionists and anti-Zionists, but between the Neo-Zionism of the current government, tinged with ethnic and religious nationalism, and the post-Zionism of the new historians and all those who wantIsrael to be the state of all its citizens. The most loyal allies of this Neo-Zionist movement and of Benjamin Netanyahu include well-known anti-Semites such as the evangelical pastor John Hagee (who presents Hitler as the armed arm of God), Viktor Orban and countless others.

Will the fight against incomprehension, prejudice and even hatred of others also involve a proliferation of initiatives similar to the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which Said created with Israeli pianist Daniel Barenboim?

DE: Over and above the value of the exceptional friendship that bound Said and Barenboim together, this project is a marvelous example of what can be done, starting from a situation of conflict, in the direction of peace and acceptance of the other. It is only by making room for the memory of others that things can change. Said has worked to establish this movement of recognition while fighting relentlessly against the brutality and impunity of Israeli policy. And there's no doubt that this orchestra has been much more than a symbol: its impact comes from the fact that it has struck a chord in people's imaginations. It has also inspired numerous initiatives, including the Silk Road Ensemble founded by Yo-Yo Ma, who was in Weimar when the Divan Orchestra was launched in 1999, and the orchestra created in 2010 by Cem Mansur and Nvart Andreasyan, which brought together Armenian and Turkish musicians to contribute to peace and respect for mutual memories.

KB: In the interview he gave me shortly before his death, I was surprised to hear him say that this orchestra was perhaps the most important thing he had done in his entire life. This is another of Said’s many paradoxes: in his posthumous book On Late Style (2006), he wrote: “At the end of your life, you either mellow out or become even more radical.” In his case, it was both! The orchestra he founded with Barenboim did not lead him to soften his radical criticism of Israel (any more than he went easy on Arab regimes).

In the interview you mention, you return to the figure and special role of the intellectual in the city. What was left of the intellectual that Said understood?

KB: What remains of Said is perhaps also one of his most important books, Representations of the Intellectual(1994), in which he develops a conception of the intellectual that eludes the classical typologies, in particular, that established by Raymond Aron: he was neither an “adviser to the prince” like Machiavelli, nor a “confidant of providence” like Marx. He saw the intellectual as an oppositional figure who “speaks truth to power,” whatever the cost, while seeking to build bridges between audiences who should be fighting common battles.

DE: Personally, I think it's the writings from the end of his life that are the most subtle. The intellectual as Said saw it is in crisis today, with the arrival of artificial intelligence and the increasing invasion of disinformation. They threaten both this conception of the figure of the solitary, oppositional intellectual — which he shared with Julien Benda — and that of the amateur intellectual. Said was highly critical of today's triumphant culture of the expert. A voice like his is much harder to make heard in the age of the machine and the almost fused encounter between the overwhelming powers of money and technology.

He also stressed the importance of exile in the development of his thought. In what way could this provide weapons for confronting the migration challenge that is shaking the planet (including for those who, as a result, now feel like “strangers in their own country”)?

DE: He was really ahead of his time on this issue. What could be a “weapon” in Edward Said's writing is to think about the advantages and disadvantages of exile at the same time. He was aware of how an eccentric or peripheral position in relation to an identity could enrich one's thinking. He was an anti-nationalist who liked to quote Adorno: “It is part of morality not to feel at home in one's home.” Admittedly, this phrase is not always easy to grasp straight away — unless you are Palestinian or Lebanese — but in my opinion, the entirety of humanity is going to have to come up with a new sense of “home,” one that is not framed by borders on which we plant a flag.

A secular intellectual opposed to all forms of fundamentalism, who fervently supported Salman Rushdie at the time of Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa, he might have nonetheless, as you write in "Edward Said: His Thought as a Novel," underestimated the scale of the Islamist threat.

DE: For example, at the time of Sept. 11, 2001, he thought that it was just a "handful" of madmen. On this point, history has proved him wrong. He was horrified to think that such a deadly phenomenon could have spread within such a varied and rich culture that was thousands of years old. Here again, Benjamin's quote is perfectly apt. The elements of barbarism and civilization coexist.

KB: Said never succumbed to the romantic and erroneous vision of Foucault, for example, who thought that emancipation could come from religious movements. But his extreme rationalism and Cartesianism may have led him to underestimate the persistence of religious feeling and its power to mobilize. He rightly refused to allow 1.5 billion Muslims to be assimilated with terrorists.

DE: In any case, it seems certain to me that Said would have been at the forefront of what we have witnessed over the last 20 years. He was a man who didn't back down in the face of difficulty; I would even say that difficulty was his subject. If he is still with us today, it is because this chaotic century sorely lacks his coherence, his freedom and his courage.

This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. 

Less than a year after his death, US-British historian Tony Judt wrote, “at the time of his death, Edward Said was probably the most famous intellectual in the world.” How can we measure the turning point represented by the publication of Orientalism, and beyond that, the whole of such a heterogeneous work?KB: Orientalism has indeed had an absolutely considerable influence on academic and...