Said famously argued in 'Orientalism' that the West developed, at the peak of colonial expansion, a body of knowledge that imperialists could use to gain power. Walia investigates the need for alternative 'subaltern' histories and the influences - Foucault, Gramsci - that inspire them.
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Shelley Walia teaches Postcolonial Theory at the Department of English, Panjab University, Chandigarh. He is the author of Evelyn Waugh: Witness to Decline and Between History and Truth.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The intellectual journeys of Edward W. Said, a leading literary critic and a forthright spokesman of human rights, have taken him around the world and across many disciplines, contributing substantially to the shaping of contemporary debates on Orientalism, discourse analysis, dissident politics and postcolonialism. Examining powerful establishments of the world, Said has rendered explicit some of the key issues concerning imperialism, under-development and culture. Taking the entire world as his home, he looks at adversial cultures and the role of the intellectual in liberating human scholarship and validating cultural forms through the reinterpretation of history. Said’s critical rethinking of history is of immense significance, coming as it does in the wake of a powerful and diverse body of responses to a period of global restructuring in which insidious imperialist forces continue to influence world politics and culture.
Born in Palestine, a refugee in Egypt after the loss of Palestine in 1947, and then a migrant to the United States, Said has spent most of his life as an exile from his homeland, having a deep sense of belonging to a dispossessed culture. Living under a deluge of racist outrage in the US, with right-wing conservative Americans burning down his office, Said has learnt to cope with opposition and write on the prevailing atmosphere of injustice. In a recent memoir, Out of Place, Edward Said traces his ambivalent and contradictory location with an increasing sense of being an outsider – a Palestinian Christian, with an English name attached to an Arabic surname, residing in America.
It was during his growing years as a student in the United States that Said gradually began to feel alienated with the pro-Israeli American culture. With the defeat of the Arabs in the 1967 war, the rest of Palestine was also lost and this spurred Said to think and write extensively on the Palestinian problem. In 1977, he joined the Palestine National Council, which was the parliament in exile. Ever since, he has ‘tried in a certain sense, to combine [his] own literary, philosophical and cultural interests with contemporary political interests’. Said’s work is an endeavour to bridge the gap between the private and the public. His literary criticism is always in consonance with his personal political experience and his deeply radical and oppositional stance that ‘tries to speak the truth to power’.
The story of Said’s life is a record of an essentially lost or forgotten world. It is narrated against the background of the Second World War and Middle East politics right up until the Oslo Accord of 1993 which witnessed the compromise of Palestine. But more than these historic events, it is the story of ‘the displaced form of departures, arrivals, farewells, exile, nostalgia, homesickness, belonging, and travel itself’. ‘The overall sensation’, Said writes, ‘was of always being out of place’. This explains Said’s ‘hybridity’ or the ‘in-between space’ that he occupies as an exile, living at the borders of inter-cultural identity. Said sees this position as one of advantage from where he can speak and write subversively, because for him the intellectual is always an ‘exile or marginal’.
Said feels a deep affinity with Joseph Conrad, whose homelessness finds a parallel with his own experience of being in the ‘third space’, almost outside/in the establishment. Like Conrad, he uses his writing as a means of preventing personal disintegration – the consciousness of being an exile becomes the inspiration behind his continuing exploration of literature and politics. The end result is the exile at war with the ‘real’ world, the migrant sensibility struggling to find accommodation and alterations. Said’s project becomes one of liberation from the official versions of history and ‘truth’ by building an awareness of the ‘subterranean histories’ which contain the real truth that is often suppressed.
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