Sunday, March 21, 2010

Edward Said and the dissolution of the West

On pages 44 and 45 of Humanism and Democratic Criticism, Edward Said wrote, “For scholars and teachers of my generation who were educated in what was an essentially Eurocentric mode, the landscape and topography of humanistic study have therefore been altered dramatically and, I think irreversibly.  Whereas T. S. Eliot, Lukacs, Blackmur, Frye, Williams, Leavis, Kenneth Burke, Cleanth Brooks, I. A. Richards, and Rene Wellek – to cite a few authoritative and familiar names almost at random, names that are in fact often far apart politically and personally – all inhabit a mental and aesthetic universe that was linguistically, formally, and epistemologically grounded in the European and North Atlantic (E. P. Thompson called it the Natopolitan) world of the classics, the church, and empire, in their traditions, languages, and masterworks, along with a whole ideological apparatus of canonicity, synthesis, centrality and consciousness.  All this has now been replaced by a much more varied and complex world with many contradictory, even antinomian and antithetical currents running within it. . . .”
COMMENT: In his Orientalism, Said argued over and over that there was something wrong with European scholars being the ones to study the orient.  Orientals ought to be doing it, and to a large extent Said got his way in American studies.  Said’s ideas so influenced MESA that it used actual Middle Easterners as the American Scholars who under Title VI were supposed to keep American Governmental officials apprised of the political situations in the Middle-Eastern nations.  As it happened, these Middle Eastern scholars, while accepting American money to study the Middle-East, mistrusted the American government to such an extent that the information they provided, if they were willing to provide any at all, was worthless.  And worse than worthless in that these Title IV area scholars did not provide any warning prior to 9-11 that there was anything in the Middle-Eastern political mix that America need worry about.
Knowing this, from Orientalism, as Said’s view on the Middle East, why does he take a different view when he looks at the West.  He doesn’t want the Middle East to be adulterated by the West, but he wants the West to be adulterated by the “more varied and complex world” that he clearly approves of. 
Earlier, Said says that he doesn’t believe in determinism, but is this an example of his escape from Marxism?  I don’t think so.  Why does he think this dilution if not disillusion of the West is a good thing?  Because he sees it in the class terms of Marxism.  Notice the term “empire” (singular) in the above.  What does he mean by that?  Is he referring to the Holy Roman Empire, the French Empire, and the British Empire?  I don’t think so.  I think he is willing to attribute “empire” to the ascendency of the West who in his estimation has Lorded it over the rest of the world for far too long.  He seems to believe that like the German Reich after world War Two, it needs to be broken up and kept weak else it will rise up and wreck havoc on the world once again.
Some might think I’m being unfair to Said.  When he wrote Humanism and Democratic Criticism he was already suffering from the disease that was to kill him in 2003 – the year before this book was published.  Perhaps he like Ulysses S. Grant was attempting through the writing of books to provide for his family after his death.  But even if that were so, and I don’t know whether it was, Said has been consistent, much as Noam Chomsky has, in his opposition to America and the West.  In Chomsky’s case he sounded like a Marxist in much of his early writings, but morphed at some point into something few people ever heard of, an Anarcho-Syndicalist.  Argue against that if you can.
But what was Said?  Said like so many refugees from Marxism is clearer when he writes about what he is against than about what he is for.  He isn’t as crude as Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn who just wanted “revolution” with no coherent plan for where their revolution was to end up.  My impression is that they wanted a Communist revolution, but later when Stalinism failed they wanted a Communist Revolution without the mistakes that the Russians made – a “better revolution” as Dohrn said.  Did Said want that? 
But let’s move away from what Said and the other anti-Americans might be for and consider the prospect of the dissolution of the West.  Would that be a good thing?   Having so recently spent time with Heidegger’s ideas, I wonder first where one would go, if the West ceased to exist, for one’s authentication.  Said of course would say that seeking such authentication is merely a return to a reactionary past, but some of us in the West are uncomfortable seeing our nations tending more and more toward the standardless multiculturalism that belongs to the world at large, we view the idea that there is for each nation, each culture in the West an “area of authenticity,” where whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, where anything excellent and praiseworthy may be sought out and returned to (to paraphrase Phil 4:8) may be found.  Do I need to specify in greater detail where and in what these areas of “authenticity” consist?  If I do, then why don’t the anti-Westerners need to specify where they want to end up? 
Fortunately we can say a lot about our Western areas of authenticity.  They to some extent reside in the very “canon” that Said would like to see dissolved, the Great Books that he would like to see replaced by the writings of minorities, gender studies, labor treatises, and by the multiplicity of cultures that are non-Western.  Why not let the non-Westerners draw comfort in their own “areas of authenticity”?  Why can’t they find fulfillment in something that doesn’t demand the disillusion of ours?
Said is right in seeing the dissolution of the West as being in progress.  He foresaw a time when the West ceased to be what it has been and becomes what all the other cultures are – all at once.  Our masochistic desire to whip ourselves with the past sins of colonialism and slavery preclude our ability to see that while colonialism and slavery are indeed “back there” all that is good about the West is back there as well.  Have we lost the ability to discern good from evil?  Perhaps we have.

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