Edward Wadie Said (November 1, 1935 – September 25, 2003) (Arabic: إدوارد سعيد) was a well-known Palestinian-American literary theorist, critic, and activist. He was a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where he influenced a significant number of major critics and theorists of the present-day. He is regarded as a founding figure in post-colonial theory. Academically speaking, Said was a follower of Post-structuralist theory, and in particular his own thought derives critically from the works of the seminal philosopher and theorist Michel Foucault. Said's primary contribution to literary criticism came with the 1978 publication of his watershed book, Orientalism, which launched a vituperative critique of the Western academic system and its ability to capably handle the literature and history of non-Western (particularly, Middle-Eastern) cultures.
Said's main contention which he put forward in Orientalism, and would continue to reiterate throughout his career, was that the Western perception of "the East" was fundamentally discriminatory, and that even the most seemingly objective study of Eastern culture or history was biased by the most basic assumptions of Western reasoning. Said argued that even the most compassionate and objective of Western scholars are—by their mere status as Westerners—biased in favor of the West, and that, therefore, all Western scholarship of the East is fundamentally flawed. Interestingly, despite his theoretical views, in his later years he collaborated with a Jewish conductor, Daniel Barenboim, to create an highly controversial musical project to bridge the gap between Israel and Palestine.
Although Said's views were highly polemic and have caused much contention even among Said's most loyal followers, his work nonetheless highlighted fundamental insufficiencies to address cultural differences that pervade Western scholarship. In so doing, Said has drawn critical attention to a number of highly important questions regarding multicultural relations that would otherwise have gone ignored, and his influence on contemporary criticism and academics is enormous.
Said was born in Jerusalem. His father was a wealthy Christian Palestinian businessman and an American citizen, while his mother was born in Nazareth of Christian Lebanese and Palestinian descent. According to Said's autobiographical memoir, Out of Place, Said lived "between worlds" in Cairo and Jerusalem until the age of 12. In 1947, he attended the Anglican St. George's Academy when he was in Jerusalem, but his extended family became refugees in 1948, during the Arab-Israeli War because his family home was in an affluent quarter of Jerusalem that was annexed by Israel.
In early September 1951, when he was fifteen years old, his parents (who immediately returned to the Middle East) deposited him in the Mount Hermon School, a private preparatory high school, in Massachusetts, which Said recalled as a "miserable year" feeling all the while out of place.
Said earned a B.A. from Princeton University and an M.A. and a Ph.D. from Harvard. He joined the faculty of Columbia University in 1963, serving as a professor of English and Comparative Literature for several decades. Although Said would teach occasionally at a handful of other prestigious institutions, it was at Columbia where Said would do most of his groundbreaking work in literary theory and cultural studies.
Edward Said died at the age of 67 in the early morning of September 25, 2003, in New York City, after a decade-long battle with chronic myelogenous leukemia.
Said is best known for describing and critiquing Orientalism, the traditional academic discipline devoted to the study of Eastern and Middle-Eastern cultures dating to the nineteenth century, which he perceived as based on a constellation of false assumptions underlying Western attitudes toward the East. In his landmark book, Orientalism (1978), Said described the "subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture." Said's central argument in Orientalism, which would become a fundamental tenet of postcolonial criticism, is that a long tradition of false and romanticized images of Asia and the Middle East in Western culture have served as an implicit justification for Europe's and America's colonial and imperial ambitions.
In 1980, Said criticized what he regarded as poor understanding of the Arab culture in the West:
So far as the United States seems to be concerned, it is only a slight overstatement to say that Moslems and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Moslem life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. What we have instead is a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression.
Orientalism has had a significant impact on the fields of literary theory and cultural studies, and to a lesser extent on the academic disciplines of history and international studies. Taking his cue from the work of the preeminent post-structuralist critics Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, as well as from earlier critics of Orientalism, such as A.L. Tibawi, Anouar Malek-Abdel, Maxime Rodinson, and Richard William Southern Said argued that all Western writings on the Orient, and the perceptions of the East purveyed in them, are suspect, and cannot be taken at face value. According to Said, the history of European colonial rule and political domination over the East distorts the writings of even the most knowledgeable, well-meaning, and sympathetic Western Orientalists. He argues that their claims to objective knowledge of the Orient are simply claims to power:
I doubt if it is controversial, for example, to say that an Englishman in India or Egypt in the later nineteenth century took an interest in those countries which was never far from their status in his mind as British colonies. To say this may seem quite different from saying that all academic knowledge about India and Egypt is somehow tinged and impressed with, violated by, the gross political fact—and yet that is what I am saying in this study of Orientalism (Said, Orientalism 11).
Said’s contention was that Europe had dominated Asia politically so completely for so long that in Orientalist writings a very considerable bias exists in even the most outwardly objective of texts, a bias which most Western scholars would not even be able to recognize, because it is part of their cultural make-up. His contention was that the West has not only conquered the East politically, but that Western scholars have appropriated the exploration and interpretation of the Orient’s languages, history, and culture for themselves. They have written Asia’s past and constructed its myriad modern identities from a perspective which takes Europe as the norm and from which the "exotic," "inscrutable" Orient deviates. Said concludes that Western writings about the Orient invariably depict it as an irrational, weak, feminized "Other," contrasted with the rational, strong, masculine West. Western writings are about creating "difference" between West and East, a difference which is attributed to the existence of certain immutable "essences" in the Oriental make-up.
Said’s book attracted both adulation and criticism from the very outset. Historians and anthropologists such as Ernest Gellner, argued that Said's contention that the West had dominated the East for over 2,000 years (since the composition of Aeschylus’s The Persians) was simply untenable. Historically speaking, until the late seventeenth century, the Ottoman Empire had posed a serious threat to Europe. Furthermore, Said had chosen to concentrate largely on the Middle-East, Palestine, and Egypt, where his own roots lay, and these were areas that came under European control only for a relatively short period in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Said devoted much less attention to the British Raj in India, by far the lengthiest and most successful example of European hegemony in the Orient, and entirely ignored Russia’s dominions in Asia. Some critics have argued this bias exists in Said's work because Said was more interested in making polemical points about the Middle East than in conducting a truly comprehensive study of East-West colonial relations. Others pointed out that even at the height of the Imperial Era, European power in the East was never absolute, and remained heavily dependent on local collaborators and local forms of knowledge, which were frequently subversive of Imperial aims.
Finally, Said's critics argue that by making ethnicity and cultural background the test of authority and objectivity in studying the Orient, Said drew attention to the question of his own identity as a Palestinian and "subaltern." Ironically, given Said's largely Anglophone upbringing and education at an elite school in Cairo, the fact that he spent most of his adult life in the United States, and his prominent position in American academia, it has been pointed out that his own arguments could be said to disenfranchise him from writing about the Orient himself. Thus, these critics claim that the excessive relativism of Said and his followers trap them in a "web of solipsism," unable to talk of anything but representations, and denying the existence of any objective or usable truth.
Said’s supporters argue that such criticisms, even if correct, do not invalidate his basic thesis, which still holds true for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and in particular for general representations of the Orient in Western media, literature, and film. In addition to his continuing importance in the fields of literary criticism and cultural studies, his work has also particularly influenced various scholars studying India, such as Gyan Prakash, Nicholas Dirks, and Ronald Inden, and major literary theorists such as Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Spivak.
Both supporters of Edward Said and his critics acknowledge the profound, transformative influence which his book Orientalism has had across the spectrum of the Humanities; while critical debate over the validity of Said's claims continue to rage well after his death, the overall impact Said has had on Western academia re-evaluating its most basic assumptions of objectivity has led to a tremendous shift in the discourse of literary and historical studies.
In 1999, Said and Israeli conductor/pianist Daniel Barenboim embarked on a cultural project that would become a defining enterprise in the pursuit of peace and understanding in the Middle East.
The Weimar-Seville Workshop would bring together young musicians from Israel, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan to form an international orchestra in order to exemplify the ideals of mutual respect and cooperation. This initiative garnered international praise as a bold initiative towards attaining peace in the region. It was the hope of Said and Barenboim that the experience would give young artists, and all those associated with the project, the opportunity to engage in the process of understanding more about “the other” and in so doing provide an atmosphere conducive to the amelioration of historic antagonisms.
The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra would serve as a training ensemble where some of the world’s most talented musicians, including members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (of which Mr. Barenboim served as music director from 1991 to 2006) would coach the young musicians in the art of symphonic, instrumental performance. Weimar, Germany, was chosen as initial site for project but would take up its eventual residence in Seville, Spain, in 2002.
The orchestra’s historic journey to the West Bank in Israel, where the ensemble would perform in Ramallah in August 2005, was the realization of Said’s and Barenboim’s vision, serving as a moving legacy for the aspirations of the Weimar-Seville initiative.
In a lecture given in London, prior to his death in 2003, Said offered the following perspective on the West-eastern Divan Orchestra and its potential as a vehicle for cooperation:
Despite the incredibly polarized, antagonistic and discordant world in which we live, there is always the possibility another alternative type of social model. But in our work and commitment to our friendship, and to music-making and the ongoing work of the Weimar-Seville project, there has been an amazing crossing of borders and a disruption of the rigid lines that have circumscribed and organized our public as well as our private lives. Presiding over our efforts, students and teachers alike, has been the spirit of music, which I would want to insist, is neither a sentimental panacea nor a facile solution for every problem, but rather a practical utopia whose presence and practice in our driven world is sorely needed, and in all sorts of ways, intensely instructive. At least, therefore, another world emerges as a result against the backdrop of Andalusia, itself an alternative model for co-existence between the three monotheisms, and if it isn’t immediately available on the world stage it can at least signal the arrival of a new attitude whose example might soon provide us with many others, many salutary changes, many profound new interpretations of what is now only an appallingly polarized, completely inhumane conflict.
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