Humanism and Democratic Criticism

by Edward W. Said

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2071

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 OrientalismHumanism 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 less with the author than with a world and more specifically (given the focus of the lectures from which this book grew) with the United States and its increasing distance from and opposition to everything that Said's humanism represents. That is why there is something heroic about this little book, something reminiscent of Samuel Beckett's little existential joke: “Try again, fail again. Try harder, fail better.”

America's failings are of a different kind. The fact that the United States is an immigrant nation should make it, Said believed, more inclined toward the multicultural and multi-perspectival worldview that is central to his humanism—and more resistant to the binary simplifications upon which its post-September 11 exercise of neoimperial power rests. It is because he is so passionate about American failings that he argues so strongly for a revival of interest in humanistic study, in part by noting the many ways humanism has been either coopted or supplanted in the United States and, more particularly, in American higher education.

There is, Said points out, too much specialization and too much emphasis on accountability, as narrowly defined by the social sciences, resulting in a form of self-assessment that is the polar opposite of the self-criticism that is central to humanistic study. The cultural Left has dismissed humanism and the humanities out of hand, mistaking retrograde parts (patriarchy, imperialism, and so on) for the progressive, melioristic whole. Meanwhile, religious, political, and cultural conservatives have hijacked humanism, defining it in elitist as well as exclusivist terms, fetishizing the content while eliminating what makes humanism valuable: the expanded tolerance that comes from encountering new cultures and from seeing oneself as other and in relation to others.

Said grounds his humanism in the eighteenth century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico's rejection of René Descartes's notion that ideas can exist apart from the mind that has them and from history. “Because of the indefinite nature of the human mind,” Vico wrote, “wherever it is lost in ignorance man makes himself the measure of things.” As Said explains, “there is always something radically incomplete, insufficient, provisional, disputable, and arguable about humanistic knowledge that Vico never loses sight of and that …gives the whole idea of humanism a tragic flaw that is constitutive to it and cannot be removed. This flaw can be remedied and mitigated by the disciplines of philological learning and philosophic understanding.”

Just as self-critical inquiry is necessary to humanism (and its survival), so is humility, without which criticism of oneself and one's culture and its values is impossible. As a result, it is arrogance that Said repeatedly indicts: the arrogance of Eurocentric cultural conservatives, of academic specialization, of closed, all-explaining systems such as one finds in Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism (1957), and of “a lazy, laissez-faire multiculturalism which prizes singleminded inclusiveness over humanistic understanding.” All of these represent the intellectual equivalent of global warming: a global “dumbing down.”

For if, as I believe, there is now taking place in our society an assault on thought itself, to say nothing of democracy, equality, and the environment, by the dehumanizing forces of globalization, neoliberal values, economic greed (euphemistically called the free market), as well as imperialist ambition, the humanist must offer alternatives now silenced or unavailable through the channels of communication controlled by a tiny number of organizations.

The weakness is not with Said's description of the threat; it is with the specifics of his solution. Philological learning and philosophical understanding take time, and time is money. (Recall the old joke about how much money it took to keep Mohandas Gandhi in poverty.) “Not the least valuable thing about the reflection and thought that take place in a university is that one has the time to do it.” As Jean-François Lyotard pointed out just a few years before Orientalism appeared, the postmodern university prizes “the production of knowledge,” not “the search for truth.” One wishes that more people (in and out of universities) had the time for (and the inclination toward) the reflection that Said advises (and practiced). One wishes that American colleges and universities were more concerned with reflection and less with productivity and that they were less the mirror of the late-capitalist culture of hyperconsumption and Orwellian accountability and more an alternative to them.

Humanism, I strongly believe, must excavate the silences, the world of memory, of itinerant, barely surviving groups, the places of exclusion and invisibility, the kind of testimony that doesn’t make it onto the reports but which more and more is about whether an overexploited environment, sustainable small economies and small nations, and marginalized peoples outside as well as inside the maw of the metropolitan center can survive the grinding down and flattening out and displacement that are such prominent features of globalization.

Said's sort of “humanists of the world, unite” rhetoric is easy to dismiss. His exemplary commitment to the humanist cause, in his academic work and his political activism, is not.

What, then, leads Said to pay homage to Erich Auerbach? As humanist scholar, Auerbach represents much of what Said extols. Indeed, Said's introduction to Mimesis is less important for his close reading of this “unconventional book” which had “lifelong importance to me,” than what it represents: the intersection of the literary and the personal, of erudition of the philological kind and lived history (as well as a life lived in exile: Auerbach wrote his masterwork while living in Turkey, after fleeing Nazi Germany and before taking up residence in the United States). Auerbach is, however, the past—fondly recalled, justly admired, but the past nonetheless.

“The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals” is about the present and the future. Said's optimism—his faith in the continuing viability of humanism and the intellect in the face of extinction, his no less than theirs, comes shining through, albeit feebly. In the wake of the events of September 11, 2001, intellectuals have either been exiled to the few forums still available for reaching a general audience (The Nation, for one) or turned into talking heads on television news and talk shows: fifteen seconds of egghead sound bite in exchange for fifteen minutes of media fame. Said is too sanguine about the opportunities the Internet provides to intellectuals to enlarge their audience and influence. Worse still, his two examples of writers and intellectuals who do play a public role seem sadly diminished figures. In 2004, Ralph Nader no longer seems the “genuine adversarial intellectual” he was in 2000. Post-fatwa, Salman Rushdie is more the celebrity than the champion of writer's rights. (Don DeLillo and Arundhati Roy, on the other hand, do suggest that writers can play a useful public role quite apart from appearing before the public in the vulgar sense.)

The three struggles Said mentions at the end of Humanism and Democratic Criticism are, as he says, “profoundly amenable to intellectual intervention and elaboration”: “to protect against the disappearance of the past,” “to construct fields of coexistence rather than fields of battle as the outcome of intellectual labor,” and to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Who, one wonders, is left to intervene and elaborate in quite the way Said describes in these pages? The problem with Humanism and Democratic Criticism is not—or not only—that it seems at times unrealistic and impractical. Rather, the problem is Said's failing to ask the question posed in one of Robert Frost's poems: “What to make of a diminished thing.” Bluntly put, the problem is that there are no Saids anymore to keep humanism, as he defined it, alive. Terry Eagleton got it right: “Now that American academia has become even more blandly emulsive and conflict-free in the self-censoring aftermath of [September 11], his admirable candor and abrasiveness are already beginning to sound like the remote echo of another world.”

Review Sources

Artforum 11 (Summer, 2004): 18-19.

Library Journal 129, no. 9 (May 15, 2004): 86.

The Nation 278, no. 18 (May 10, 2004): 30-32.

The New York Times Book Review 153 (May 23, 2004): 20.

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