[ilds] Said and Marx

Bruce Redwine bredwine1968 at earthlink.net
Fri Oct 30 16:13:23 PDT 2015


I would say that Edward Said deviates in Orientalism (1978) from standard Marxist practice in that he sees colonial intentions as originating independently of economic and political conditions (the usual way of acquiring knowledge in “historical materialism”).  Those “intentions” include knowledge of the Orient, which predates by centuries (back to the Middle Ages) European colonialism (pp. 61ff).  It might be better to call this kind of knowledge a form of “discourse,” Said’s preferred term, which he borrows from Foucault.  In Said’s framework, colonial intentions are deliberately exploitive in the same way that Niall Ferguson defines Marxist assumptions in his book Empire.  Of course, I could be wrong.  Said is not always clear in what he is doing.  Nevertheless, when you read the opening section to Orientalism (“Knowing the Orient”), you see how he constructs his argument.  He emphasizes British presumptuousness of knowing Egypt (Balfour’s speech) and deemphasizes British concerns about maintaining order in the country and preparing it for self-government (Robertson’s and other’s speeches).

It’s instructive to read the entire debate in the British Parliament on 13 June 1910, which I assume Said read in full.  The debate is long, about thirty pages of single-spaced text.  In 1910 the Liberals under H. H. Asquith won the election but without a majority of seats.  It was a “hung parliament.”  The Conservatives were led by A. J. Balfour.  The long debate concerned unrest in Egypt, for which the British were “trustees,” i.e., de facto rulers.  As trustees, the Brits, under the authority of Eldon Gorst, HM’s Consul-General in Egypt, were preparing the Egyptians for self-rule.  (The previous British CG was E. B. Cromer, who opposed Egyptian nationalism.)  Earlier in 1910, the Egyptian PM Butros Ghali (a Copt) had been assassinated, calling into question the Liberal policy of granting the Egyptians greater self-government.  All the while, Egyptian Nationalists were agitating and creating problems for the British.

In brief, the Tories criticized HMG for being too lax and permissive, whereas the Liberals denied those charges and argued for Egyptian self-government or, in Robertson’s words, “that you [the British] should in Egypt fulfill your promises of fitting the people gradually to govern themselves … in accordance with the whole decencies of British policy.”

Said makes no mention of “the whole decencies of British policy.”  Instead, he narrowly focuses on Balfour, the Tory leader, and his comparatively short and obviously presumptuous speech:  “We know the civilisation of Egypt better than we know the civilisation of any other country.”  Said takes Balfour’s declaration (along with E. B. Cromer’s management of Egypt) as representative of a “general theory” or Western attitude about “Oriental civilization”:  “There are Westerners, and there are Orientals.  The former dominate; the latter must be dominated” (p. 36).

Said’s method strikes me as tendentious.  He lacks historical perspective.  It’s like looking at the American war in Vietnam, ignoring the massive protest movement in the late 60s, and then saying President Johnson and his generals had the only view on that war.  I doubt there were massive protests in the UK in 1910, but the Liberals had another take on the British occupation of Egypt, which was clearly stated in the official record.


> On Oct 29, 2015, at 1:51 PM, James Gifford <james.d.gifford at gmail.com> wrote:
> Hi Bruce,
> Perhaps I should say that by "materialist" or "Marxist," I don't mean there's a necessary contradiction with Foucault.  I'd have to disagree with Ferguson's characterization, but it looks like he has a fairly specific context in mind that I'm likely missing and that could change my thoughts -- a materialist sense of history thrives on contradictions such as that between Balfour and Robertson that you point to, or more specifically the contradictions between classes.  To posit exploitative outcomes from colonialism as "intentions" is also the contrary to a materialist understanding -- the forms of social consciousness that are produced are themselves the outcome of the economic and materials conditions, not the other way round.  In that sense, there are not ulterior hegemonic motivations -- hegemony and the forms of thinking are products of the contradictions in capitalist imperialism. (I'm not advocating this, just pointing to how 50s and 60s decolonization studies /tend/ to posit a social consciousness like racism as the product of material conditions, not exploitation as the result of racism).
> Where Said does something really interesting is the extension to a Foucauldian sense of institutions, such as their conferring identity through forms of analogy.  This means looking to colonialism not only through a economic determinism but also through the institutional forms of analogy and institutional consciousness they generate.  A university's Orientalist Studies department isn't obviously participating in the economic and material circumstances in the colony (though it would contribute it's own educated "products" to that enterprise), but the "university" in the general sense is in service to nationalist culture rather than its previous ecclesiastical and legal orientation -- someone like Bill Readings would argue that service to national culture shifted again not long after Said's book.
> I think the innovation in Said's Orientalism stands out a bit more strongly if you set it beside Fanon or in a brief excerpt, chapter 26 of Rosa Luxemburg's /Accumulation of Capital/.  Also, while Said is certainly polemical, I don't think the intention of the book is to paint the West categorically even though presenting the nuances of the West's various forms of resistance isn't the job of that project either.
> All best,
> James
> On 2015-10-26 12:51 PM, Bruce Redwine wrote:
>> James,
>> 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).
>> Bruce
>>> On Oct 25, 2015, at 12:03 PM, James Gifford <james.d.gifford at gmail.com
>>> <mailto: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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