This blog is written as a response to the piece Said and Done by Faisal Devji. Devji’s piece is a review of a biography of Said by Timothy Brennan. Devji’s piece consists of three different layers of argument: first, a critique of Brennan’s biography, secondly a criticism of Said’s Orientalism especially in terms of its use of the Foucauldian notion of discourse, and finally the argument that anti-imperialism has been appropriated by reactionary sections of society, which constitutes its contemporary failure even if it were relevant earlier.
Image source: https://www.hurstpublishers.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/Edward_Said_Crop.jpeg
Devji charts what he calls the sociology of Said’s fame by locating his knowledge production in a specific historical time and context. It is here I wish to raise an issue that seems mundane but still needs to be said as it seems to be forgotten – namely, that a variety of factors go into making a moment, person or idea historically significant. Different biographers will narratively construct different aspects as significant with some arguments emerging as stronger than others. What Devji offers as an explanation of Said’s popularity may contextualise a great deal of it, but he also writes that these factors are not mentioned in Brennan’s book, thereby making ‘Said’s emergence as an anti-colonial celebrity… inexplicable.’ It appears from this formulation that it is only if Brennan had taken into consideration the factors offered by Devji, could one understand why Said became the ‘celebrity’ he did and not otherwise. This renders Said’s scholarship invisible, an action mirrored by the use of the term celebrity in this context. I do not claim to offer a truer or more correct picture of Said, I would not even know one; suffice to say that it is one thing to say that a set of factors can contextualise a scholar and quite another to say that in the absence of these factors nothing can explain it.
Further in the review, Devji talks of Said’s need for validation from intellectuals such as Sartre, Foucault and Derrida, his insecurity and obsession with ‘appearance, advertising and public relations.’ It is interesting that the term intellectual is used unquestioningly for Sartre, Foucault and Derrida, the three white men, while Said, who figures in many a syllabus alongside these three, whose work has been used or argued against to a comparable degree, and who is likewise revered or reviled by college students, does not figure as an intellectual at the same level. Of course lists of significant intellectuals will always vary, with arguments for and against inclusion, but why is it that some are more naturally intellectuals than others? Perhaps writing in French must have something to do with it.
Similarly, conversations about the insecurities and failings of writers and thinkers are often the driving forces behind not just literary biographies but also reviews of literary biographies. After all, there is something deliciously reassuring about discovering pettiness and insecurity in those who are routinely imagined to be above it. At the same time, academic insecurity offers the possibility of serious examination of the nature of the self in academia, and its relationship with imposter syndrome. Said looking for his own books in Foucault’s bookshelves makes him seem more human to me, while Devji’s claim that one cannot imagine the latter ever doing that makes me wonder again why some intellectuals are seen as above such insecurities while others are not. Or perhaps we are at fault in imagining that such insecurities could happen to anyone and everyone instead of a select few. Why is it that some are intellectuals while some get characterised, as Said does, as Forrest Gumps, viewing history but unable to contribute to it ‘in any meaningful way’?
This brings us then to the role played by this Forrest Gump in the scholarship of anti-imperialism. Devji argues that Said’s role was to ‘domesticate radical ideas and make them palatable in America’ and he offers post-structuralism and Palestinian self-determination as examples of ideas that Said made palatable. He offers two specific criticisms of Said’s Orientalism: one, that Said’s supporters in the ex-colonial world were mainly ultra-nationalists or religious supremacists, and two, that it is based on a misreading of Foucault. It is to these two arguments that we shall now turn, starting with the latter as Devji does.
Devji asserts that Said misread Foucault’s use of discourse in a variety of ways: by replacing its anti-humanism with an emphasis on human agency; by shifting agency, ‘a shibboleth of the time, from women, slaves and colonised people’ to the powerful, and making them morally responsible (presumably for the excesses of imperialism); by detaching it from history so that it could be attributed to the West in an ‘almost racial’ way; by leaving it open to reversal as it fails to constitute its subjects or objects institutionally; and lastly, by enabling easy moral judgements because it cannot see the fragmented role of orientalism itself in contemporary scholarship. Finally, Said himself reverted to generalisations such as ‘the Arab mind’, a contradiction that Devji takes as illustrating his argument about Orientalism’s shift between identity and difference and thereby its failure.
Some of these criticisms of Said have been made earlier. His use of the term discourse was inconsistent, at times seeing it as constitutive of a particular world order and sometimes as only indicative of it. While insisting on the structural nature of Orientalism, he spent a lot of time explicating the role of individual actors, so the charge that he lays undue emphasis on human agency can be easily argued for. At the same time, the overwhelming influence of Said’s work has been a focus on the systemic nature of imperial oppression; postcolonial and decolonial theorists influenced by his work have gone on to extensively document the ways in which the epistemological construction of the Orient went hand in hand with colonial dominance. That Devji sees the application of the ‘shibboleth’ agency to the powerful as a drawback of the work is troubling, especially since the Foucauldian concept of power applies to both the powerful and those seen as powerless, and Said’s study was explicitly on the ways in which the powerful constructed a version of the powerless.
If Said were detached from history, Orientalism could not have been attached to the West ‘in an almost racial way’; instead it would have been a free-floating critique of the different ways in which civilisations construct others as different and/or inferior. It is because it is rooted in the specific history of the Western invasion of the Orient and its accompanying epistemological constructions that it becomes possible to demarcate an emergent racial hierarchy between a superior West and an inferior Orient. Furthermore, the claim that Orientalism fails to ‘constitute its subjects or objects in any institutional sense’ needs further clarification. At the risk of sounding like a comic sketch, Orientalism, i.e. the representation and study of the Orient, across a wide variety of disciplinary frameworks, including history, philology, geography, anthropology and literature, especially poetry, is the subject and object of analysis in the text Orientalism. In later texts Said looked at the construction of the Orient through greater attention to media reportage or novels, but the focus of Orientalism the text is Orientalism the epistemology. Devji too seems aware of this given that he later avows that one sign of Said’s success was to turn the term Orientalism into an insult, which implies some knowledge of what the text sets out to do.
That Said contradicted his own argument at certain points or fell into essentialisms should not detract us from those parts of his arguments that we find useful in constructing other arguments and taking further our scholarship around race, coloniality, and what it means to be decolonial. Devji fears the easy moral judgement that Orientalism apparently facilitates, though I would argue that it is reductive to dismiss scholarly critiques of colonialism, whether coming from Said or other theorists, as easy moral judgements. To me the saddest line of the piece is Devji’s statement that Nietzsche might have called Said’s shift of agency to the powerful ‘ressentiment’. In this damning analysis, the erstwhile colonial subject can accuse the coloniser only from a position of resentment or suppressed hostility, or from the projection of one’s sense of inferiority onto an external superior. It is supremely ironic that a colonised subject cannot call out the coloniser without being diagnosed with slave morality.
In the final section of his piece, Devji turns to the relationship between articulations of anti-imperialism and reactionary forces. He argues that ‘By criticising free expression, seen as an excuse for hate speech, progressives have encouraged the creation of thought and language crimes appropriate to Said’s notion of imperialism as a form of knowledge. … Often supported by or doing the bidding of authoritarian governments.’ A reference to wokeness and cancel culture does not seem to be far off. Firstly does the idea of imperialism as a form of knowledge or epistemological domination lead us directly to criticism of free expression? This connection is fiercely argued for from a variety of locations, academic and outside. But the scholarship around the relationship between imperialism and knowledge is vast and varied, and far more complex than such a formulation would allow us to believe. Not only that, activists who work on anti-racism and decoloniality also work from a variety of standpoints, some supporting authoritarian governments and some in direct conflict with them, some supporting direct boycott of the ideas and scholars that they disagree with while some debating these arguments in very conventionally academic ways i.e. through scholarship and building counter-arguments. Not all those who work on anti-racism call for ‘bans and removals’. It is important to also remember at this point that this generalisation elides the power difference between those who are being de-platformed and those who are asking for the de-platforming.
Secondly, this brings us to a an even more important question: if anti-imperialism has been appropriated by reactionary forces, is it to be then abandoned? The term ‘decolonial’ is in a state of flux at this moment in world history: it is not only that it is used to mean different things by different people, but also that it is often attached to ideologically opposed positions, and people come to conclusions that they term decolonial through potentially contradictory pathways. That should push us towards greater nuance, better definitions and better arguments. Perhaps expanding the vocabulary around decolonial ideas would help; perhaps making a definitive break between tradition and decoloniality as concepts would help too. While conceptually ‘tradition’ is seen as being in opposition to modernity, it arguably works as a foil to modernity, providing a safe other that can be easily incorporated by the latter. Thus, for example, neither tradition nor modernity challenge the globalisation of the exploitation of labour or the deification of technology. It is perfectly possible to view deities of Hindu temples on platforms such as YouTube or Facebook and make online donations to them. Such manifestations are sometimes theorised as hybrid modernity, but actually point to the fact that such tradition does not really provide a decolonial alternative to modernity. Instead, we have to decouple authoritarian assertions of tradition, made in the name of anti-imperialism, from a clearly-defined and strongly-argued understanding of what it means to be decolonial. In the same vein, the scholarship around ‘ends and means’ could help us develop arguments around decolonial means and decolonial ends. Scholars cannot control the appropriations and afterlives of the concepts that they develop or work with; in fact, the very idea of such control seems contrary to the notion of scholarship. Instead, it may be time for us to engage in arguments with those who would use decolonial in ways that we do not see as anti-imperialist at all. It is in developing an understanding of the decolonial and its potential that one would be taking the lessons of Orientalism forward. After all, it is not all said and done yet.