EDWARD SAID, 2/91
X: Social thought. Conversations with the original personalities who are rethinking the way our society and institutions work. With your host, Michael Phillips.
What is the role of the intellectual in public and political life today?
Michael Phillips (MP): Our guest today is Edward Said. He's Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the humanities at Columbia University here in New York. He is author of After the Last ?Sky, The World, the Text, and the Critic, and many other distinguished works.. I'm your host, Michael Phillips. Welcome to Social Thought, Professor Said. How does the intellectual world begin to create itself?
EDWARD SAID: Well, I think the two poles of the intellectual world are, on the one hand, the intellectual, an individual, and, on the other, the social world, the world of institutions in which the intellectual is always to be found. And between them there are all kinds of relationships, relationships based upon sort of enablement, what makes it possible for the intellectual to speak, the platform, the publishing, the sustained work, the career, the vocation, and so and so forth. And, I would say in the social world a whole set of institutions organized around two things: one, sustained presence and continuity, the maintainers of the institution, the fact that they go on from day to day, year to year, schools, institutes, libraries, universities, and so forth, and the last and perhaps in many ways the most important, power, because every intellectual exists not in the ivory tower, but in a situation which has been formed and shot through with all sorts of political and social and economic power. And for me the interesting relationship between the intellectual and the world is the relationship with power. And my own work has concentrated on that relationship not as a relationship of complementarity, but a relationship of opposition. It seemed to me that in a society and in a modernist or postmodernist society in which we live, one of the most dangerous things, in my opinion, especially since it is a society based upon information and knowledge, one of the most important things, therefore, is what role the intellectual brings to this situation and what conception of his role, rather, the intellectual brings to this situation. And, since the society is so managed around consent and consensus and majority opinion and manipulation of opinion, it would then seem to me that one of the most important roles played therefore by the intellectual is that of oppositional, critical of power. So that that which cannot be heard, those who cannot be represented, those who are oppressed, and indeed even on a more abstract level, the issues that don't get aired because ours is a society, a mass society based upon the manipulation of vast amounts of information into rather simple formulas, like, ya know, My Country Right or Wrong, any of those things. And therefore the role of the intellectual is to constantly keep troubling that consensus, to introduce a kind of critical and political reflection that is too often lost.
MP: Can you pick any one broad range, whether it's a language or concept, whether it's a concept of race, of other, of Oriental, of Eastern, and show or discuss the structure from the professor down to the words?
EDWARD SAID: Well, I mean I wrote a book which came out in 1978 called Orientalism, which exactly tried to deal with that. Because it seemed to me one of the most extraordinary things as somebody who came from a part of the world that was called the Orient was the extent to which the Orient had a history in the West that had very little to do with Orientals, and that it was a history, and what I call a discourse, a whole system of ideas about the Orient that was created out of a need in this society to portray and depict another part of the world, the other half of the world, what I call an imaginative geography, this being the Occident, that being the Orient, that would function as a kind of permanent Other. Of course, in the early part of the book I tried to show, if you go back to the Greeks, the Others were the Persians, or the barbarians. And every society needs an Other. And generally speaking, the growth in the notion of The West, I mean there isn't one West, but let's say that insofar as there became one West, let's say in the modern period say from about the end of the eighteenth century on, when Europe and the United States expanded into the global environment, or took it over. From that moment on, the Other was frequently the Oriental, which would include the Chinese, the Japanese, the Indian, the Muslim, the North African. And I was very interested in the extent to which this Other was a creation, partly popular and partly learnÈd, of the West, that needed an established body of knowledge in its dealings with this other world, and I focused only upon the Islamic aspect of the Oriental, though a lot of what I said applied equally to Indians and Filipinos and Japanese and so and so forth. Not so much only to understand. You see, I think understanding plays a very important role in the creation of the Other, but also to control. And my argument is quite simple, that the growth of imperialism parallels, is paralleled by the growth of Orientalism, and that there is a particular aspect of knowledge which is coercive, manipulative, and designed not only for pure knowledge, I mean there is a certain amount of that, of course, but also for the control of populations that were being acquired, or were being traded with, but were above all secondary to the Westerner let's say in India or Egypt or the Sudan, who needed to know about these populations in order to rule them. And, one of the things that most people are not aware of, that even, for example, in the study of language, one of the great advances made in the Orient, in Orientalism, in the nineteenth century was the study of all these enormously complicated languages, from Sanskrit and Zend and so on, to Arabic and Hebrew in western Asia and the western part of the Orient. And what I studied was the work of very, very find and brilliant linguists who were looking only at language and now I find that even within the study of language there's a kind of ideological pattern, that distinctions have to be made. For example, ?Schlegel, in the early nineteenth century, a great German, writer, scholar, poet, and essayist, makes the distinction between Indo-European, let us say, he tries to connect the ancient languages of the Indians with Europe, the ancient languages of Europe, on the one hand, and he contrasts that with the Semitic languages, the Semitic languages being Arabic and Hebrew principally, in which he says the Indo-European languages have the liveliness, the organic quality, the creative and inventive and original spirit that we Europeans possess. Whereas the Semites, their languages, and he brings it down to the very level of a trilateral, I mean the actual root of every Semitic word which is made up of three letters. And he says if you look at that, the language there functions in a very additive and mechanical way, and this suggests, of course, the limitations of a Semitic mind, that it's incapable of great flashes of poetry or tragedy or insight of the sort that we associate with the Greeks and the Europeans, and I suppose the ancient Indians. And that becomes an entire theory, you see, of the Oriental personality, the Arab mind, the Islamic spirit, and so on. And what is most persuasive about all of this is that it gradually, Orientalism as a theory gradually comes to include everything, so that what we would normally talk about as the particulars of human experience are always herded under the general rubric of Oriental, so that the Oriental character becomes a kind of fictional creation, a kind of an ideological and fictional creation that has a life of its own, and is totally untroubled by what we might call in naÔve way "facts." So that any evidence in the Oriental world is marshalled to prove Oriental despotism, Oriental sensuality, Oriental depravity, Oriental luxury, Oriental degeneration, and so on. So Oriental becomes an adjective quite free floating, quite without reference to actual Orientals. And in the end, these representations of the Orient begin to play a role not only in the control of the Orient, but in the war against the Orient, as in various parts of the Third World in the twentieth century, there is a resistance to European imperialism. And one of the first things that happened, you see, is the attempt to destroy these old clichÈs, and for people to write their own history for the first time, instead of their history and their actuality being written, as it were, by European scholars. It's now written by Orientals themselves who, for the first time, destroy these large labels and start talking about individuals, about nations, about peoples, about traditions, which it's important for them to do. So, one of the things about Orientalism, therefore, is that it's a mode of control and situating in the West, you see. The truth about the Orient, leaving it for only the Westerner to legislate what is best and so on. And it continues even to this very day. I mean if you turn up the pages of your daily newspaper, or listen on the radio, you will see that a large number, actually not a large number, a small number of clichÈs is deployed in a large number of ways. So that frequently you'll have references to the Arab mind, as if the Arab mind was different from other kinds of minds, that it had different values. And the irony of all of this, by the way, is that it's frequently the experts on the Middle East, that was why my book was so, it stirred up such a discussion is because it's not the ignorant sort of man or woman in the street, the person who trades in racial clichÈs, "all blacks have a natural sense of rhythm" or "they like to eat watermelon," that, I'm not talking about that level, I'm really talking about the scholars, you see, that the whole field is built out of this degraded material. And they are the ones who will volunteer on the radio or the television or in the newspaper clichÈs about Arab life, such as "all roads in the Arab city lead to the bazaar," in other words, everything is up for trading. I mean forgetting of course that such clichÈs could equally be applied to New York, which has the New York Stock Exchange, everything, I mean capitalism, one could talk about that. But there's a sense in which talking about the Other distances and, above all, from my point of view, dehumanizes. Removes from the Oriental any trace perhaps of history or development, that there's an idea that, well, no matter, they may acquire cars, they may look like us, they may even use the same forks and knives that we do, but in reality they're really Oriental. There's a kind of ontological difference between us and them. And the us/them polarity, which is the one that I'm most interested in, turns into a very powerful instrument of politics, and we can see now how is it that we can bomb places like Iraq. Iraq is represented essentially as a desert. It's inhabitants are sheiks or terrorists or fundamentalists, or one madman, Saddam Hussein, forgetting that there's a whole society there. Most people don't know that Iraq, for example, is a very powerful force in Arab civilization, that Iraq was probably the central, one of the two central countries in the whole history of the Arab peoples, and that Baghdad is the leading in the Arab world. Saddam is a dictator. But that, instead of being seen as a political, historical reality which can be dealt with, it's turned into a conflict between us, as good, and that, as evil. And evil is more easily understood as evil because it's Muslim, Other, Arab, and so and so forth, or, in the end, Oriental. So, there's a tremendous range to this, to this issue, and I, to conclude, I saw myself as one of these people who in fact comes from that part of the world, trained and educated in this one, and in a certain sense living in both, and therefore more able to understand the clichÈs and the stereotypes, which is what Orientalist images are, of this world as they're deployed in my world, the world from which I come, the Arab world, but also able to see in the Arab world the clichÈs and the myths about, not only ourselves, but about the Westerner, which are equally malicious and equally useless in understanding the politics and the detail of everyday life.
MP: This is Social Thought, I'm Michael Phillips, and our guest today is Professor Edward Said. He's Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the humanities at Columbia University here in New York, author of most recently the After the Last Sky. One of the most famous works is The World ................. and the Critic. And so far we've been talking about the construction of metaphors and concepts, actually an ideology, and we focused on Orientalism as a construct. We started out with the intellectual. Are you not creating a contemporary ideology, along with many other people, of the intellectual who plays, who is inside a power structure and who is creating the ideology of the next century?
EDWARD SAID: Well, I think intellectuals have a great stake in doing that, exactly. I think, ?Gramshee, for example, speaks about two kinds of intellectuals. He talks about he calls organic intellectuals and he talks about traditional intellectuals. A traditional intellectual is somebody who sees himself or herself as essentially maintaining the status quo, and the examples that ?Cramshee gives are people like priests or teachers in school who essentially recirculate the same types of let's say orthodoxy, from generation to generation, and the idea being that if you were to enter a church let's say in 1900 and come back to church in 1950, the priest will essentially be doing the same thing. There wouldn't be quite the same variation in doctrine and content as in the other case, which is that of the organic intellectual. Now, the organic intellectual is a more interesting case for ?Cramsee, because the organic intellectual, first of all, thinks of himself or herself as organically connected to some movement, to some class or party or association or group, that has an interest in changing the current social and political scene. So that the intellectual of a sort that I'm talking about, in a university, for example, can see himself or herself in two ways. Either they can be, remain the same, doing the same thing that was done, or, one can see oneself as thinking about the future and producing a different kind of thought that is addressed to a change in thought and society that, perhaps flattering oneself, one believes is advantageous. In my case, for example, I'll tell you about myself, I can't talk about everybody, I can only talk about the things I know something about. As an intellectual, and as a teacher in the university, I see myself not only as empowered, and validated, and mandated, to teach the great works of a past. I mean I teach the humanities, I teach literature, that's very important and I take that very seriously, because there's no way of knowing about ourselves without knowing about the past. But! What I also try to do is to try to show these works not as existing in some abstract sort of utopian place, detached from the world, but as a part of a world, indeed part of the very world in which we live. And for me, the most important aspect of this historical situation of a ?text is also its geographical location, that is to say, try to understand where in a society your ?text comes from and where in a society the ?text is pointed to. And in my particular case, given what I told you earlier about Orientalism and the cultural battle between let's say the Oriental and the Occidental West and Islam in my case, the world from which I come. It's therefore very important for me to always situate these works in precisely that context, that is to say, the context of how such a work has depended upon knowledge. And most of the great works that we read, let's say in nineteenth-century novels, the novels of Dickens and all those of Jane Austen and all those of Flaubert, have a very accurate sense of where they function in the world. For example, a novel by Dickens, which I teach, like Dombey and Son, has a character in it who is a businessman. And Dickens is very clear and very specific in saying that this is a businessman who took the whole world as his marketplace, I mean he sold everywhere. And that sense of the mission suggests really the enterprising bourgeois who's going out to conquer the world. Or take Conrad in Heart of Darkness, which is a book about Africa, and that history precisely is something which I don't think can be simply reduced to the level of text, but has to be shown in its historical context, namely, as the contest between Europe and the rest of world which is being imperialized and conquered. Therefore, what I do as a teacher is to show that this view of the world in Dickens or in Conrad led to the revolt, resistance, opposition, of the natives, of the Africans, for example. And it produced, not only movements of rebellion against imperialism, but in fact nationalist movements that produced new states and new literatures! Therefore, it becomes very important for me as a teacher to show that works like Heart of Darkness produced African novels, are at least were responded to by African novelists, by Africans who wanted to wrote their history, not in terms of Conrad, but as against Conrad. And so you get a really fantastic counterpoint of works answering back, or what you might call writing back. So my job as an intellectual and as a teacher is to change the perception, of students, who think that literature is a thing of the past. I try to put it in the context of a continuing contest over values, perceptions, ideas, that we are involved in even as we speak today.
MP: You also emphasize the structure, the power structure, the academic or the printing structure.
EDWARD SAID: Yes. Because, what's very important is to understand that works of literature which appear, for example, in this room on shelves, books of that sort, are really much more than inert objects. They have a life in what you might call the life of culture, the life of the dissemination of ideas, the discussion of ideas, the perception of ideas. And that is what interests me a great deal more than the actual ideas that they may sit inertly in a book. And that discussion, that context, is really what I study and teach my students, what I call cultural analysis or cultural criticism, that is to say, the discussion of books and ideas in a culture, in which there's a great deal of disparity. I mean, the essence of culture is not only that there is an endless debate going back and forth and ideas discussed, criticized, destroyed, handed on, whatever. But that the disparities are always between people who are uneven. I mean the world is heterogeneous, I'd say. We live in a hybrid world. And that works contribute to the growth of opinion, to the manufacture of consent, or to important changes. And therefore my role, as a scholar, and as an intellectual, who is opposed to conflict, it seems to me that the highest duty of the intellectual, as ?Bender said, is not the organization of collective passions, to permit collective slaughter, but rather to make the truth prevail and to understand the way in which we can live together as human beings. So, we're back now to Orientalism, we're back to the ideas of us versus them, and to show that we really are living in a tiny world in which the principle idea, and this is really where I think my work as an intellectual has led me, the principle idea is the notion of interdependence, that there's no way of having an experience by yourself, that all experiences are shared experiences.
MP: When we look at thinkers fifteen from now, because there's an ideology we're developing here, which is the role of the intellectuals, relationship to power, the function of their analysis, and heterogeneity. That means in another seventy-five years there will be, intellectuals will be teaching this, and there will be students who will say, "Well, let's go to that course on interaction of African, Soviet, and Canadian thinking because we've got, we really have to stimulate our metaphors so we can understand the world."
EDWARD SAID: Yes, I mean, I think most cultures tend to teach about themselves, and if you look carefully you'll notice that no matter whether it's American or French or Moroccan or Indian, schools and professors and teachers and students tend to validate their own culture as the very highest, say that really the number one is, and that is given kind a social authority and prominence. My feeling is that that is terribly pernicious, and it would seem to me that one of the great missions of the intellectual in the current period, where we're mired in this sort of thing, because, after all, these thoughts about how we're terrific and how, by implication how less terrific everyone else is, right? produces such things as a very crude nationalism or jingoism, or it produces racist thought, I mean, historically, the roots of nationalism are very tied to racism, thinking about other people as members of an inferior, less advanced race. If it could be the case that seventy-five years from now we have moved from a perception only of ourselves as the principle and the number one and the best and a perception of the interaction of all peoples with each other, I mean not everybody can do everything, you can't contain all of human history in your head, but some sense that that is in fact going on, that a Canadian is really a mixture or a hybrid of African and North American and South American, which is the reality of everyday life. I mean our products come from different parts of the world, we are subject to the influence of so many things, both environmentally and historically and politically, then I think we'd have made a great advance, because there's nothing more potentially destructive in the sense that we are, whoever the "we" is, the center of some world and that everything around us is a potential threat. I think what we have to learn how to do is to perceive these things working together you might say symphonically rather than in a hostile and ?corrosive and antagonistic way.
MP: Can we speak then in terms of this central way of the role of words? Does there have to be a civil discourse? Does there have to be a nature in people use words in order for the discourse to proceed in a more heterogeneous way?
EDWARD SAID: Well, you know, not only because I myself am a student and critic of literature, and literature is obviously very much at the center of what I do, but I think it's also the case that we are a society that exists by virtue of communication, and the principle mode of communication that we have is language. And language is, of course, made up of different languages, there isn't just, I mean English of course is a world language on one level, everybody uses it. Airline pilots, bankers, and so on and so forth, all over the world. But on another level, English is a national language, it is the language of the United States, of England, of Canada, of Australia, and so and so forth. But even within that, there are many different kinds of language communities, that the use of language by a political scientist is very different from the use of English, let's say, by a sociologist or a mechanical engineer. And one of the things that I therefore see as an extraordinarily useful job is to make people sensitive to the uses of language, not as a kind of arcane classification of languages into let's say the jargon of mechanical engineering versus the jargon of political science, but rather the way in which language carries forward values, does work, right? It does actually work, it performs services of one sort or another, and above all, how language can change perceptions and indeed in the end change the world in which we live. And unless we have a sense of the way in which language can in fact change reality, instead of the other way around, which we always assume, then I think we're committed to a use of language that is dead and passive. And one of the things I feel as a student and as a teacher and as an intellectual, which I'm trying to teach my own students, is a sense of the creative powers of language, no matter in which field it's used. And the best use of language for me is the use of language that is committed to the self-reflectiveness, the self-consciousness, of a student, of a user of language, rather than the student or the person who uses language simply as a passive receptacle. Therefore, for me, my antagonist is the person who passively watches CNN all day long and says that's the world. My ideal is the person who looks at CNN and says, no, that's not the world, that's a version of the world and my duty as a mind in society is to understand what alternative versions there are in order for me to make my choice, and to go out and to change the world.
MP: Thank you for being with us, Professor Said. This is Michael Phillips, the program is Social Thought, our guest was Edward Said, Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the humanities at Columbia University here in New York. He's author of After the Last Sky from Pantheon in 1986, The World, the Text, the Critic, which was Harvard 1983, Blaming the Victims, Verso through Rutledge 1988, Musical Elaborations from Columbia University Press in 1991, and Orientalism, which was 1978, Vintage Books, 1978.