Our philological home is the earth.

AuthorBayoumi, Moustafa
PositionEdward Said

MORE THAN ANY OTHER INTELLECTUAL of our generation, Edward Said changed the very landscape of our thought. His extraordinary influence, both singular and profound, continues to reach not only across the humanities and social sciences but also beyond the academy. One need only consider the large number of obituaries written after notice of his death to observe how these words of deep loss were coming from both academic departments and activist movements around the world. Edward Said, in short, was not only a globally recognized scholar of literature and culture but was also arguably the most significant public intellectual of our time.

What made his success in addressing a global public even more remarkable is that in an age when the public sphere itself has been slowly eroding from its inability to entertain real dialogue across divergent views, an age of well-paid pundits and degraded political language, Said's energies were always directed toward an oppositional stance, and he built a huge following out of it. Nowhere was this more true than in his advocacy for Palestine, today's "touchstone case for human rights." (1) He was a ferocious critic of power, particularly in its imperial cast, and he won a worldwide audience (and a UNESCO prize (2)) for his ideas, which he tirelessly expressed through his principled and animated prose, his moral integrity, and his political and literary imagination.

But he was also more than the most eloquent spokesman for the Palestinian cause. By calling nowhere home and challenging the politics of location and identity, he transformed exile into a condition to which we should all aspire. And while exile undoubtedly exists as a painful political reality, it can also be, as he explains, a "metaphorical condition" where exile means "restlessness, movement, constantly being unsettled and constantly unsettling others." (3) These notions of the inexhaustibility of spirit and of being the confrontational and indefatigable critic of the status quo became the prescriptions Said carried for intellectual life.

Edward Said was also rightly famous for his mastery of literature and classical music, further imbuing him with an air of sophisticated urbanity. But these pursuits were never retreats from the world of politics for Said, just as politics could never substitute for the pleasures and complexities of cultural production. Both culture and politics were unified in the same vision in his thought. In other words, scratch the surface of Said's polished refinement, and you discover a man constantly seeking to understand the "worldliness" of cultural practices, the ways in which cultural products exist in the world and are of the world and should not be separated from all the messiness of the world. Said believed passionately that culture is made richer by reading it in its full human and political context, just as the political drama of our collective life is made fuller by understanding the complex relationship of culture to politics. It was precisely by giving literature and music this "worldly" cast that Said was, more than any other contemporary thinker, our preeminent philosopher of the relationship between culture and politics.

One need only consider the language I have just used in the previous four paragraphs introducing this essay to understand just how transformative Said's ideas have been, and how fully his conceptual interventions have entered our own frames of reference. Intellectual, oppositional, Palestine, imperialism, exile, and worldliness are all words and terms that have been changed and charged through their specific inflections in the Saidian lexicon. All these terms have entered the common parlance of intellectual life in the world today, owing in large part to Said's broad influence. In fact, it is no overstatement to declare that Edward Said not only altered our landscape of thought but also changed our very language of intellectual communication. Prior to the publication of Orientalism, for example, to be called an Orientalist was to be recognized as one who engages in the study of the Orient. After Orientalism, such a designation became impossible. One can simply no longer employ the terms Orientalist or Orientalism innocently, as these words are now understood (or contested at the very least) as shorthand for a "style" of thought that aims at "dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient." (4) Call someone an Orientalist today, and you are begging for a fight.

Said's interventions have succeeded in other ways as well, notably in his determination to place geography into a central role for literary study and historical analysis. "Most cultural historians, and certainly all literary scholars," he explains, "have failed to remark the geographical notation, the theoretical mapping and charting of territory that underlies Western fictions, historical writing, and philosophical discourse of [the age of Empire]." (5) In fact, an expressed aim of Culture and Imperialism is precisely to highlight the connections between geography and the mechanisms of empire. "Imperialism and the culture associated with it," he wrote, "affirm both the primacy of geography and an ideology about control of territory." (6) Few intellectuals of any era have been able to link the depth and breadth of their mind with such historical and geographical acumen.

All this is relatively familiar ground, owing to the influence of Said, the degree to which his ideas have been assimilated into our intellectual milieu, and the sub-industry of books about him and his work. Yet, of all the critical concepts developed over a life's work by Edward Said, the relationship between filiation and affiliation, a concept elaborated mostly in The World, the Text, and the Critic, is the least known. This absence is regrettable, since Said's discussion of filiation and affiliation offers us some of the most stimulating and challenging perspectives on how cultures and systems produce and claim authority. Affiliation, as Said defines it, also confronts the limits of identity politics and accords new opportunities for resistance based on larger definitions not only of community but also of our common human enterprise. To understand what Said means by filiation and affiliation, however, it will be useful for us first to consider how Said defines criticism and to locate more precisely the major emphases of Said's prodigious energies.


It is, I think, a generally under-appreciated fact that the bulk of Said's work, whether it be in the realm of politics, literature, culture, or music, is not to have an East speak back to a West, or to seek out bridges of common ground between different areas of the world (as Christopher Hitchens erroneously understands Said). (7) The first would only replace one cultural authority with another, while the second would ignore the realities of cultural and political domination. Rather, the overwhelming majority of Said's oeuvre is fundamentally concerned with challenging authority, all authority, in its various guises and configurations. His extraordinarily influential work Orientalism is precisely an archeology of cultural authority. In that book, Said shows how Western representations of the East were composed out of "a will ... not only to understand what [was] non-European but also to control and manipulate what was manifestly different," (8) and he continues over the span of the book to argue assiduously and encyclopedically how representation is inseparable not only from control and manipulation, but, in sum, from assertions and exertions of authority itself. The consolidation of authority was so successful under Orientalism, he argues, that it authorized itself not only to speak about but also to speak for the Orient, which is to say that as a system and as a guild, Orientalism was interested in "turning the Orient into something overtly meaningful, making the Orient say things, tell things about itself that no region, much less a people of a religion could signify in so schematic and cut-and-dried way." (9)

Thus, we would be remiss to consider Orientalism as a book that is primarily about that most postmodern of concerns, namely representation and its indeterminacy. Orientalism, by contrast, is fundamentally an examination of how representation requires a system of authority to authorize their claim to truth. Similarly, Culture and Imperialism is not only a book seeking to describe "the general relationship of culture to empire," (10) but it also exists to dispute the very authority of the Western canon of literature, where the canon excludes more than it includes. Culture and Imperialism offers...

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