[ilds] Said and Marx

Bruce Redwine bredwine1968 at earthlink.net
Mon Oct 26 12:51:08 PDT 2015


Edward W. Said acknowledges his debt to Michel Foucault (power, discourses, epistemes, etc.), but I think his basic instincts are Marxian.  Foucault buttresses his biases.  By that I mean, Said interprets or misinterprets or misrepresents Western/capitalist behavior as having ulterior motives, ones that are always exploitive and hegemonic, if you will.

Take for example Said’s rhetoric in the first section of Orientalism:  “Knowing the Oriental.”  Said describes a 1910 debate in the UK Parliament between A. J. Balfour (Tory leader) and J. M. Robertson (Liberal MP).  Robertson challenges Balfour to justify the government’s rule in Egypt (its “tone of superiority”).  Balfour answers that the “British statesman” (i.e., HMG) “knows” Egypt and, in Said’s interpretation, knows what is best for Egypt.  Said equates knowing Egypt as power over Egypt.  He then concludes that Balfour’s use of “we” means that the Tory speaks for the “English” and leaves the impression that Balfour also speaks “for the civilized world, the West, and the relatively small corps of colonial officials in Egypt” (p. 34).  Said, however, has downplayed the fact that Robertson and others object to the “hypocrisy” of HMG.  Those strenuous objections were the subject of Robertson’s long speeches in Commons (unreported by Said).  So, Balfour does not speak for all “the English,” although Said suggests he does.  Why?  Because that suits Said’s argument, which seeks to paint the British and the West as behaving, deliberately and categorically, in an overbearing, dominant, and racist way.

Said’s method is typically Marxist.  In Empire (2002), Niall Ferguson, the British historian, describes this aspect of Marxism as follows:  “The central nationalist/Marxist assumption is, of course, that imperialism was economically exploitative:  every facet of colonial rule, including even the apparently sincere efforts of Europeans to study and understand indigenous cultures, was at root designed to maximize the surplus value that could be extracted from the subject peoples” (p. xvii; my italics).  In Marxism, colonialists can do no good, and that is certainly the tenor of Said’s argument.  As discussed previously, he’s tendentious, ignores opposing views, and has little historical perspective.  He sees what he wants to see.

Despite my criticism of his method, Edward Said was a major critical voice in the twentieth century.  Unfortunately, his faults have been replicated and compounded by some of his followers, namely, Shaden M. Tageldin in Disarming Words (2011) and Hala Halim in Alexandrian Cosmopolitanism (2013).


> On Oct 25, 2015, at 12:03 PM, James Gifford <james.d.gifford at gmail.com <mailto:james.d.gifford at gmail.com>> wrote:
> Hello all,
> I have several students from Bangladesh as well as Syria, Libya, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and so forth -- they have their eyes open to the larger complexities of the interests of varying state actors, which is partly why they study where they do.  They see that everyone has an angle even if the scope is wildly inequitable.  There's no corner shop near me anymore, but lots of people hold plenty of contradictory opinions for plenty of reasons just as they hold to plenty of forms of different faiths (or not).
> There's very little in Durrell about left/right: surprisingly little given his time and milieu, and what there is is often ironical or sarcastic.  In any case, to be concerned with the legacies of imperialism, especially in the 1950s during the rapid decolonization of Africa and the heat of the Cold War, is hardly surprising -- for Said to shift attention away from the Marxist paradigm of (largely Africa-centred) decolonization literatures of those 50s & 60s to a Foucauldian attention to institutions in the late 1970s and the Middle East is also hardly surprising.  But it reminds us that Orientalism was a scholarly discipline in academic institutions that disciplined a body of knowledge as a "way of knowing" and that Said's leverage grew out from an existing set  of often race-based decolonization movements that were used to thinking in terms of class rather than through institutions.  That "way of knowing" has largely gone underground now into area studies or the retitling of departments, but it's operation continues apace.  The commonplace today of regarding universities as a factory producing trained labour reflects the same kind of processes as the service of the university to national(ist) culture, though maybe now to global capital as well.  Let's not grow too starry-eyed over the free exchange of ideas such that we overlook the /production/ of knowledge...  As Said's critique takes on the aura of having accomplished its goals with the dissipation of schools of Orientialist Studies, we have to stay attentive to the persistence of service by their successor departments to the same and new interests.
> Said was one-eyed in the sense of being polemical, but it was a polemic very much needed in 1978.  To ask the same book to sort out our changed situations in 2015 isn't likely to work out well, although there's much to be said of reading it in tandem with his later /Culture and Imperialism/.  I critique Said often for the specific things I work on, but he's one of the defining critical voices of the latter part of the 20th century.
> I still think the signal word in "Bitter Lemons," to me at least as a reader, is "unsaid" and how it catches to the other negation, "unshed."
> All best,
> James
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