Humanism and Democratic Criticism Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The deaths, just a year apart, of Edward W. Said and Jacques Derrida, two of the people most responsible for revolutionizing the humanities in the late twentieth century, will undoubtedly occasion a reevaluation of the changes that they helped bring. Dedicated to teasing out the hidden forces of signification within a text, philosopher Derrida championed deconstruction well suited to an earlier, antiauthoritarian, hyper- (and healthily) relativistic age. Even as he revolutionized the humanities within the academy, Derrida, along with Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan, marginalized it without. His rarefied theorizing and opaque prose baffled most readers and made theory an easy target during the culture wars. As a lover of books in one of Lorrie Moore's stories says of her graduate studies in English, “I read Derrida. I read Lacan. I read Reading Lacan. I read ’Reading Reading Lacan’—and that's when I applied to library school.”

Said's work is different: more accessible, more connected to and passionate about situating the literary work within its historical context. Said is also more overtly political than Derrida and therefore closer to Foucault's analyses of power. First published in 1978, Said's Orientalismstimulated enormous interest in the then-nascent field of postcolonial studies by demonstrating how, in Western discourse on “the Orient,” the power to define others, including (and especially) in the arts, is inextricably linked to and complicit with the power to control others politically. Said's own power in this and many of his other writings derives from his own hybrid background and exilic situation, which he felt made him psychologically, culturally, and politically the outsider. (Said was born in Jerusalem during the British control of Palestine; his parents were wealthy Christian Palestinians, one Episcopalian, the other Baptist; he was an Arab educated in the United States; and a postcolonialist who greatly admired Western art, albeit not uncritically.)

Compared with Orientalism, Humanism and Democratic Criticism is slight but useful, both for clearly articulating the assumptions underlying Said's earlier work and for raising questions about the continuing viability of his humanistic project. This little book began as a series of lectures on American culture first delivered in January, 2000, at Columbia University, where Said had taught since 1963. These he subsequently revised and expanded in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and fleshed out with two previously published essays: an introduction to the fiftieth anniversary edition of the English translation of Erich Auerbach's seminal and exemplary study Mimesis, originally published in 1946, and “The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals,” first published in the November, 2001, issue of The Nation.

It is the nature of a world greatly altered by “the events of September 11, 2001,” as much as Said's imminent death from leukemia, which gives the book its tone of understated urgency. As he explains in the preface:

A changed political atmosphere has overtaken the United States and, to varying degrees, the rest of the world. The war against terrorism, the campaign in Afghanistan, the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq: all these have given rise to a world of heightened animosities, a much more aggressive American attitude towards the world, and—considering my own bicultural background—a much more exacerbated conflict between what have been called “the West” and “Islam,” labels I have long found both misleading and more suitable for the mobilization of collective passions than for lucid understanding unless they are deconstructed analytically and critically. Far more than they fight, cultures coexist and interact fruitfully with each other. It is to this idea of humanistic culture as coexistence and sharing that these pages are meant to contribute, and whether they succeed or not, I at least have the satisfaction of having tried.

Everything essential to Said's method and purpose is in this passage and in this book: the hopefulness, the faith in a humanistic culture of shared understanding, the role criticism must play in using that understanding to bring about fruitful interaction, the distrust of undeconstructed terms, of collective passions, of acrimony and aggression—of all, that is, which hinders or thwarts the advance of humane societies. Given his tireless efforts to help resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict—efforts that led to his being dubbed “professor of terror” by neoconservative Commentary magazine and to his work being banned by Yassar Arafat—it is unlikely that Said would have found satisfaction, had he lived, in merely “having tried.” (A collection of Said's last articles on the Middle East, From Oslo to Iraq and the Road Map, mainly written for two Arab-language publications, also appeared in 2004.)

If “having tried” is the best one can say about Humanism and Democratic Criticism, then the fault lies...

(The entire section is 2071 words.)