[Benjamin Graves's multipart web-essay on Edward Said was adapted for Postcolonial Literature and Culture, which began as a sister site to the Victorian Web, from a paper written for Neil Lazarus' 1997 Brown University seminar “Postcolonial Studies: CLR James and Edward W. Said.” It moved to the Victorian Web in April 2014 to accompany discussions of nineteenth-century British orientalism. — George P. Landow.]
ne recurrent limitation of Said's imperative of non-alignment (whether in terms of nation or class) is that it doesn't explain what countervailing authority supports the liminal intellectual who "speaks truth to power" -- or whether the only source of authority is the "power" to which the intellectual defines himself by opposition. As Bruce Robbins suggests, the critic may well "speak truth to power," but Said's secular ideal "pays no explicit attention to the decisive question -- the same question in another form -- of why power would listen, what might make it listen, what makes anyone listen. That is, it has nothing explicit to say about the source of counterauthority that intellectuals must be assumed to counterpose to 'power'" (29). Said, too, seems aware of the critic's dubious access to a source of counterauthority. "In effect," he argues, "I am asking the basic question for the intellectual: how does one speak the truth? What truth? For whom and where?" (Representations 88). As Robbins describes, since the only "power" visible to the critic is that of the social formation he challenges, the critic in fact needs that social formation in order to legitimate his position of resistance. As Robbins puts it, "the authority of the intellectual is a faithful inversion of the authority of power itself, and is thus dependent upon it" (29). Another way of posing the problem is that there seems to be no locus of power within the secular world itself. The passage below from Representations of the Intellectual portrays the secular world as a dubious space of competing interests:
However much intellectuals pretend that their representations are of higher things or ultimate values, morality begins with their activity in this secular world of ours -- where it takes place, whose interests it serves, how it jibes with a consistent and universalist ethic, how it discriminates between power and justice, what it reveals of one's choices and priorities. (120)
My question is, where does this secular world "take place"? And aren't the prerogatives of "power and justice" exactly the quasi-religious (and non-secular) factors that underwrite constituencies such as nationalist movements, political organizations and class solidarities? Again Said encounters the problem of periodization or historical specificity. Exactly how the secular world "jibes with a consistent and universalist ethic" is unclear -- but it points again to the problem of historically situating Said's exilic, liminal space.
The sections of this web essay
- Edward W. Said's "Politics of Secular Interpretation"--an introduction
- Erich Auerbach: the Critic in Exile
- Said's "Liminal Intellectual"
- Bruce Robbins on Said's "Voyage In"
- Problematizing Said's Exilic Category
- Problematizing the Exilic: Temporality and Historical Specificity
- Problematizing the Exilic: Eurocentrism and Elitism
- The Ambiguity of Counter-Authority in the Liminal Intellectual's Struggle for Decolonization
- Said on "Contrapuntalism" and Exile
Last modified 23 October 2007