Hussein: Edward Said: Criticism and Society

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VOL. 33


No. 2
P. 111
Recent Books
Hussein: Edward Said: Criticism and Society

No twentieth-century intellectual was the subject of such a large body of criticism in a wide array of disciplines over the past several years as Edward Said. In addition to the numerous essays, many, though certainly not all of them, arising out of debates and discussions of his undoubtedly most internationally influential work Orientalism, a collection of books and monographs devoted to his vast and fertilely productively oeuvre emerged over the past five years. Yet, despite all of these notable attempts to define and identify an overarching methodology that can be traced throughout Said’s some twenty-five books, with perhaps the exception of Abdirahman Hussein’s Edward Said: Criticism and Society, few critics successfully or at the very least convincingly identified an overall method that endures from his earliest work, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography, to his more recent works such as Culture and Imperialism and Reflections on Exile. That such an Olympian thinker, who was credited with the invention of fields like postcolonial studies, and who made a decidedly transforming contribution to the reinvention of humanism in general, elaborated such a seemingly elusive overall method partly stemmed from the fact that until the publication of Edward Said: Criticism and Society, no single work examined Said’s books together as a whole. Although Hussein devotes little attention to Said’s writings on Palestine such as After the Last Sky, he nevertheless has provided one of the most compellingly theoretical and more or less complete accounts of Said’s oeuvre.


Hussein focuses largely, though not exclusively, on Said’s second book, Beginnings, in which he identifies an overall method that is sustained throughout works such as Orientalism, The Question of Palestine, The World, the Text, and the Critic, and Culture and Imperialism. He argues that Beginnings, which was published in 1975 (three years prior to Orientalism) provides the fullest expression of Said’s theoretical model. Characterizing Said’s method as a “technique of trouble” (a phrase borrowed from the critic R. P. Blackmur), Hussein argues that Said’s method involved a “confrontation” between an “agnostic dialectic” on the one hand and an impulse toward the recovery of genealogical and archeological knowledge on the other. All of this is to say that Said’s model (if in fact it can be called such a thing) was marked by a dialectical drive, most of which he appropriated from the western Marxist tradition of Theodor Adorno, Georg Lukács, and Raymond Williams in his own particular and often eccentric way. Hussein locates this dialectic style of criticism, which refuses easy solutions and resolutions, in a number of Said’s critical concepts, such as “secular criticism,” “contrapuntal reading,” and “worldliness,” among many of the other theoretical contributions that he made to the critical study of culture and imperialism.


For Hussein, this dialectical method is not simply a philosophical approach that proceeds through the elucidation of series of contradictions, but rather is informed by and attentive to certain epistemological, historical, ethical, and political concerns. All these preoccupations, Hussein argues, help to define the enormous and worldly scope of Said’s activity as a critic who aimed to disclose the coercive and dominative forms of knowledge that have historically and repeatedly excluded and silenced others in the vast and fastidiously invented idea of Western literature, culture, and politics. Yet, as Hussein observes, this method was not simply about activating the silences and lapses—whether it be the predicament of Palestinian subjects of dispossession, or the inattention of some literary critics to the interrelated and overlapping relations between, for example, the Islamic Renaissance in al-Andalus in the eleventh and twelfth centuries and the Italian and northern European Renaissance, the latter which, it should be stressed, was entirely dependent on the archives of Islam and the interpretive strategies of studia abadiya for Europe’s so-called discovery of the philosophical writings of Aristotle and others.


Hussein also convincingly suggests that this not only entailed for Said a dialectically reflexive relationship to his own earlier work, which anyone who has managed to keep up with the extraordinary mass of his contributions will see at work an active process of constant revision and rethinking of his earlier claims––from “Traveling Theory” to “Traveling Theory Reconsidered,” from Orientalism to “Orientalism Reconsidered,” and so on––but also an intellectual dexterity that constantly worked through the internal tensions, irreconcilabilities, and discontinuities of the subjects he examined. All these kinds of subjects pose problems at their very outset, and critics must address them not so much with the intention of providing an overarching solution or resolution to them, but by raising even more questions to be addressed, interrogated critically and skeptically, not according to some model or method, but as part of a willful human and humane endeavor. This commitment can be expressed in terms of an embattled contradiction between Said’s own particular human exertions and the universalizing tendencies to negate those human ideals, against which the specific and historically situated activity of the critic manages, almost by a sheer force of will, to stand and contest.


As Hussein shows, what made Said’s technique such a powerful and eloquent contribution to the rethinking of culture, humanism, and politics is that it was in many respects more than an identifiable or easily objectified method that can be repeated and rehearsed over and over again, like some sort of chorus. Indeed, Said presented us with a general critical attitude and critical consciousness that enables us to imagine that someday—sooner rather than later I hope—we shall be free from the coercive and dominative forms of knowledge and power that have been exercised at an extraordinary cost to the experience and lived realities of human beings.


Andrew N. Rubin, an assistant professor of English literature at Georgetown University, is the coeditor of The Edward Said Reader (New York: Vintage, 2000).