The World, the Text, and the Critic

by Edward W. Said

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The World, the Text, and the Critic

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2533

For those engaged in questions of critical theory, an interdisciplinary cultural activity whose dominant feature has been the assimilation and adaptation of advanced Continental (especially French) methods such as semiology, discourse analysis, deconstruction, new psychoanalytic theory, the problematics of écriture féminine, and the aesthetics of reception, the 1980’s have, so far, been a time for taking stock in order to determine future directions. Books such as Catherine Belsey’s Critical Practice (1980), Michael Ryan’s Marxism and Deconstruction: A Critical Articulation (1982), and Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983) have, in varying degrees, championed a kind of synthesis of advanced critical positions both for the purpose of producing new criticism and in order to reinvigorate undergraduate education in the humanities. These authors and others avoid the trap of total allegiance to any one critical method, mindful perhaps of the perception common to many literary academic traditionalists that each new theoretical perspective offers itself as an all-encompassing, total approach. The best theorists themselves have likewise been suspicious of theoretical claims to self-sufficiency. Leading examples in this country of critical theorists who are nevertheless “critical” of the excessive claims of theory or of its partisans are Fredric Jameson, Edward Said, and Frank Lentricchia. Most of their recent writings, of which Jameson’s The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981) and Lentricchia’s After the New Criticism (1980) are outstanding examples, range widely over changing theoretical landscapes without taking up permanent residence at any one site. Throughout the journey, the serious limitations of each method of interpretation are sketched out, even while the advantages are acknowledged.

To these examples, one must now add the present book by Said. Let the word “book” be allowed, for this transcends the status of collection or anthology in some important ways. Said has reworked some of the essays substantially, and unity of tone and theme is established throughout. What separates The World, the Text, and the Critic from the examples noted above is Said’s move beyond a critical examination of specific theoretical positions toward an interrogation of “theory” itself and of the needlessly hermetic, mystifying function it can perform. This is not to say that Said joins the chorus of humanist traditionalists who condemn theory as an exotic aberration alien to the conserving cultural enterprise of the academy. Rather, Said demonstrates, in essay after essay, the tendency of theory to lure the critic (and for purposes of this book’s readership, which deserves to be broad, “reader” will be an equivalent term for “critic”) away from the world, where texts, after all, are produced, and into the ethereal realms of “textuality,” or what earlier generations of critics and aesthetes would call “Literature” or even “Art.”

The word “text” in Said’s title is of course the one that triggers predictable responses of recognition in today’s academic climate, and its prominence on the book’s cover might lead one to expect essays bristling with poststructuralist jargon. Said, however, is one of those rare critics who, while clearly in command of the most advanced theoretical systems and styles, nevertheless possesses the enviable ability to pose arguments of critical import without lapsing into an obscurantist style. This is not merely the result of Said’s fierce independence or iconoclasm, for, even though he reveals profound sympathy for aspects of Marxist criticism, as developed by Walter Benjamin, Georg Lukács, Lucien Goldmann, Raymond Williams, and Pierre Macherey, he shuns the role of disciple. In “Traveling Theory,” one of the book’s most concentrated, careful essays, he summarizes the positions taken by Lukács in his lengthy essay “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” the heart of the groundbreaking Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein (1923; History and Class Consciousness, 1971), bringing fresh insights to Lukács, who has more often been discussed in the light of his later work on realism and the novel. Said is able to do justice to his subject in language very much his own and insists on calling the reader’s attention to the crucial importance for Lukács’ early work of its having been produced in postwar Budapest. Again, the inscription of texts unfolds in the world, or in a world.

Thus, the word “world” is the key word in Said’s title, and he will insist repeatedly on the obligation of the critic to acknowledge the historical, political, and social contingencies that form the matrix within which the text is situated at the moment of its production. This is as true of the classics of the world’s established canons as it is of minor works, a point of view in marked contrast with the new critical opinion that the “great” works are those that lift themselves up beyond the conditions of their creation (never “production”) and are catapulted into a timeless category called “Literature.” This same conviction makes possible the new readings which Said is able to bring to such canonical figures as Jonathan Swift and Joseph Conrad, where the political tendencies of these authors are limned carefully enough not to preclude taking into consideration the differing political uses to which their texts are capable of being submitted. For example, Said is able to argue that “Tory anarchy” is a better label for Swift’s politics than mere Toryism and misanthropy.

None of this is to say that Said, in considering specific authors and texts, necessarily sidetracks or abandons theory in order to savor the contextual stuff of literary history. Instead, he calls for the effort to maintain a delicate balance, arguing that literature needs “to be studied in a more situated, circumstantial, but no less theoretically self-conscious way.” This approach Said seems himself to realize less in treating Swift or Conrad than in situating the work of other critics and theorists: Lukács in Budapest, Goldmann in Paris, or the exile of Erich Auerbach in Istanbul. The final two essays, “Raymond Schwab and the Romance of Ideas” and “Islam, Philology, and French Culture: Renan and Massignon,” do this in a way that complements Said’s ongoing effort (in such books as Orientalism, 1978; The Question of Palestine, 1979; and Covering Islam, 1981) to describe the formation and the effects of Western discourse on the Orient, perceived always as exotic, as alien, ultimately as inferior, and finally as “the other.” In considering the contextual sites for the work of European Orientalist scholars or for Auerbach’s brilliant study of mimesis in Western literature, achieved without access to libraries and in an unfamiliar setting, Said is able to elaborate upon his twin themes, important for most of these essays, of “filiation” and “affiliation.”

“Filiation” would stand for the reader’s automatic or “natural” membership in or allegiances to certain groups, for example, family, gender, class, language, or occupation, at least in the typical academic sense of involvement within a relatively homogeneous professional group or discipline. “Affiliation,” then, suggests identification with groups, styles, or ideas that is far from automatic. One must work, through conscious choice, toward one’s affiliations, which will obviously depend on education, sympathy, and taste. For example, the decision to become an academically based literary critic is an act of affiliation. If one were, however, to contrast an academic critic willing to defend the claims of a department of English to intellectual autonomy and self-sufficiency with a critical theorist predisposed toward interdisciplinary critical practices, one would interpret the former choice as a filiative one, in the face of which the latter represents an act of affiliation. None of this, including the affiliations of European Orientalists such as Schwab with Islamic culture, can be unrelated to Said’s own unique case: He is a Palestinian in exile, committed to defending his people’s culture from the undervaluations and the grotesque caricatures assigned to it in the West. At the same time, he is Parr Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University; thoroughly well versed in these fields and in the related fields of Western philosophy, history, and linguistics into which the theoretical paths he has traveled have led him, Said is one of America’s most distinguished critics.

In part, this distinction is based upon the very prominence of literary theory. Identifying oneself as a “literary theorist” would almost certainly be an act of affiliation. Said’s work is an important topic of discussion in theoretical circles, however much he may wish in the present book to distance himself critically from “theory” in its new categorical sense. Not surprisingly, then, the reader is most engaged by those essays in which Said addresses the concerns and the limitations of theory and by Said’s careful critique of the work of the two most celebrated figures of the poststructuralist world: Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. Inspired by Derrida’s project of deconstruction, by Foucault’s historical investigations of “discourse,” and by the possible roles such critical approaches might play in articulation with other theoretical approaches, some have been inclined to see literary theory as a potent new critical force in culture and in the revision of educational curricula.

Said suspects, rather, that literary theory has already begun instead to settle into the role of merely the latest and most refined critical method or set of methods, in such a way that the basic institutional settings and structures that make possible the teaching and transmission of a literary canon are left unchallenged. Looking back over his own career, Said classifies his essays according to four critical forms, each of which is still practiced, even while the fourth mentioned has been most recently introduced. The first category is that of “practical criticism,” which includes reviewing books, perhaps for a Sunday-newspaper supplement. The second is “academic literary history,” which has descended from nineteenth century philology, among other sources. Next is literary “appreciation and interpretation,” activities readers typically learn in college classrooms, but which are not confined to institutional settings. Finally, there is “literary theory,” occasioned especially by the importation of “difficult” European ideas and styles. Many American critics, having taken the time to learn the exotic languages of theory, have now made this fourth category their professional home, or perhaps one should even refer to literary theory as a “cult” of which some critics have made themselves members. Said would have his critics be much more nomadic, and he would have them shun “religious” criticism—that is, criticism that serves conservative ends through a hermetic process of mystification. Both Foucault and Derrida, complains Said, have allowed themselves to become cult figures, thereby abandoning the radical potential suggested by their own theoretical contributions.

Here, one may argue that Said actually takes Foucault and Derrida more seriously even than their own self-appointed disciples, and furthermore that this is a consequence precisely of his refusal to join any one theoretical club. By remaining outside, or, to borrow the title of the book’s richest, most substantial essay, by remaining “between culture and system,” he retains a keen sense of the contribution their announced projects could make toward a truly secular criticism, in which the political nature of interpretation would be evident as texts would always be located in the world, in history, rather than in the worldless limbo of textuality. By ignoring or failing to take this crucial step, however, literary theorists lose themselves in fancy footwork and simply reinforce the deeply entrenched notion that literary study is an other-worldly pursuit.

This constitutes for Said a latter-day version of Julien Benda’s trahison des clercs, in which literary humanists advertise themselves as intellectuals who offer no real threat to other domains, especially the realm of politics. Literary intellectuals have consistently encouraged the mental habit of assuming that the political world and the world of literature are light-years apart. To drive home this point, and to denounce mental habits of compartmentalization, early in the essay “Secular Criticism,” Said cites an anecdote deriving from the height of American military involvement in Vietnam. A friend who worked in the Defense Department spoke to Said approvingly of the Secretary, who ordered B-52 attacks over Vietnam but who also had on his desk Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. This evidence of highbrow literary taste was taken as information that might soften the image of a high-level bureaucrat considered by antiwar activists to be a butcher. What especially fascinates Said about the report is the implicit acceptance of the rigid separation of the two worlds: the world of high-level strategy, where massive bombing raids were calculated with cold-blooded precision, and the aesthetic realm, in which refinement of taste was by no means ruled out as a result of brutal actions carried out in the “real” world. Said opposes equally the assumption of a total demarcation between the two spheres, an assumption fostered in large measure by literary professionals, and the assumption that sophisticated literary taste somehow relieves the individual from the burden of his questionable political actions.

Later, embroidering upon this theme, Said charges that it is no accident that literary theory has come into its own in the Reagan era. No one should be surprised at the coexistence of complicated, demanding academic critical theory and callous, mean-spirited politics, inasmuch as intellectuals marginalize themselves most effectively and in no way pose a threat to the existing social order. This theme is developed more fully in his essay, published in Critical Inquiry (1981), “Opponents, Audiences, Constituencies, and Communities.” As far as Said is concerned, intellectuals on the Left, including literary intellectuals, are partly to blame for this. In “Reflections on American ’Left’ Literary Criticism,” Said challenges the perception that much of anything has actually been threatened by Marxist or other Itist criticism. Criticism could take up overtly political questions, and intellectuals or leftist critics could certainly expose the real relationships between the activities of intellectuals and forms of state power, but, in varying degrees, only Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, and Nicos Poulantzas have done this. To this list, Said is willing to add the name of but one American critic, Richard Ohmann.

While not wishing to dismiss the rich and sophisticated body of learning and critical practices that constitute twentieth century formalism, Said nevertheless notes the tendency of critics to lose themselves in formalist pursuits. The work of Paul de Man is cited in “Reflections on American ’Left’ Literary Criticism” as perhaps the most noteworthy example of such tendencies, even though Said qualifies this with the observation that de Man’s work and talents are “too extraordinary for merely representative status.” Still on the subject of de Man, Said writes, “to paraphrase a famous remark by Mallarmé, underlying [twentieth century formalism] is the notion that, if the world exists at all, it must have ended up in or as a book, and once in a book then the world is left behind forever.” The intricacies of texts may well tempt critics to leave the world behind, but the price exacted for this is the unacceptable toll of political quietism and intellectual impotence. As Said shows in his essay “Roads Taken and Not Taken in Contemporary Criticism,” there is another way: to read texts from a position fully informed by all the theories of textuality without forgetting for a moment that texts, like readers and writers, do not exist in isolation from the world.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 50

Choice. XX, June, 1983, p. 1449.

Hudson Review. XXXVI, Autumn, 1983, p. 542.

Library Journal. CVIII, February 15, 1983, p. 398.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 27, 1983, p. 10.

The New Republic. CLXXXVIII, April 18, 1983, p. 30.

The New York Review of Books. XXX, January 19, 1984, p. 37.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, February 27, 1983, p. 11.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXII, December 24, 1982, p. 57.

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