Key Theories of Edward Said

Edward-SaidAmerican literary critic, postcolonial theorist and political commentator who was born in the Middle East. In 1963  Edward Said (1935- 2003) was made Parr Professor of English and Comparative Literature, at Columbia University, New York, where he has remained to this day. Said’s interests span the realms of cultural and critical theory and literary criticism. He has also actively engaged in contemporary political and cultural debates (for example, he has written about the historical roots of the dilemma of the Palestinian population — see The Question of Palestine, 1979).

In his book Beginnings: Intention and Method (1975), Said sought to draw a distinction between the mythical or divine attribution associated with the notion of ‘origin’ in classical thought (which carries with it implications of order, chronology and hierarchy) and the  human and secular realm of’beginning’ (a word which has associations with modernity, and implies an overturning of classical hierarchy, and its replacement with heterogeneous and disparate forms). Beginnings arise out of existing traditions and transform them through an immanent process. They are exemplified by, for example, the novel form which, in its postmodern guise, can allow for the formulation of modes of language which transgress accepted conventions and hierarchies of meaning. In turn, Said formulates a view of meaning that emphasises the political and cultural dimensions of its production, drawing on the work of thinkers such as Foucault in order to outline his position. However, although he engages with their work in a positive manner, Said does not endorse uncritically attitudes common among exponents of poststructuralism, e.g. a tendency to view individual agency as a product of impersonal forces. Rather, for Said, the activity of interpretation should be regarded as a particularised and individual activity that takes the form of an engagement with traditional forms in order to question them in a communal context.

Equally, Said has criticised the attitudes of much post-structuralist inspired critical theory for abandoning its radical beginnings in the 1960s in favour of a view which emphasises ‘undecidability’ above all else, and reduces questions of the formulation of meaning to mere matters of the free play of ‘textuality’ (see The World, the Text, and the Critic, 1991). This reflects his commitment to a view of texts as being ensconced within concrete social and ideological constraints, the production of which is thus an engagement with these constraints. Texts are, in turn, not to be regarded as semantic structures open to interpretation solely in the light of the purported suspension of determinate meaning implicit in the view put forward by thinkers such as Derrida, but rather as systematically related to one another through their implication in a hierarchy of power relations. In turn, these power relations are also culturally located. From this it is clear that, for Said, textuality is a cultural matter, and questions of culture are also questions with a hierarchical dimension. Again drawing on Foucault, Said advocates a conception of culture which involves paying attention to the tendency of dominant forms to appropriate to themselves or pacify and thereby control other forms which lie outside them. This thesis is further developed in Orientalism (1978a), in which Said provides a critical analysis of the Western construction of’oriental’ culture in the guise of academic study. Said’s thesis is that the conceptualisation of alien culture embodied by Orientalism is in fact a means of defining and thereby exercising control over it. Above all, Said, argues, although Orientalism ostensibly involves the description and definition of an alien culture, it in fact embodies a discourse through which European culture defined itself through providing a definition of the ‘oriental’ as exhibiting radically opposite tendencies (‘irrational’ as opposed to ‘rational’, etc.). This argument is further elaborated in Said’s more recent work (see Culture and Imperialism, 1993), where he argues that the construction of African or Indian identity in, for example, the novelistic works of Jane Austen or Joseph Conrad, can be read as being implicated in the domination of colonial forms of power.

Source: Cultural Theory The Key Thinkers by Andrew Edgar and Peter Sedgwick, Routledge


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