On Defiance and Taking Positions
Edward W. Said
Thank you very much. I had assumed and was correct in my assumption that my predecessors on the platform would really say all that there was necessary to say about this complicated subject; so what I am left with is a series of glancing observations of the kind that are designed to provoke further discussion and perhaps to elaborate on some of the main points that were made.
I shall begin by saying, first of all, that compared, say, to most African, Asian and Middle Eastern universities, the American university constitutes a relatively utopian space, where we can actually talk about the boundaries of the academy. In other universities in other parts of the world, of course, the academy is part of the political system, and academic appointments are necessarily, very often the case, outright political appointments. This isnt to say, nevertheless, about the American academy that the connections between our world as members of the academy, and the outside world, are not there; they obviously are. The university depends for funding on governments, corporations, foundations, and individuals, and its ties to the larger society, so well outlined in the previous essays, are there for us to see and note.
Nevertheless, the first point I want to make is that it seems to me that the role of the member of the academy, the teacher, the scholar, the professor, is principally to his or her own field. That is to say, I think that theres no getting away from the fact that, speaking now as a teacher, my principal constituency is made up by my students; and therefore, there is no substitute, no amount of good work on the outside, no amount of involvement, that is a substitute for commitment not to only ones students, but also the rigors of the discipline in which one finds oneself. Nevertheless, one thing that needs to be observed about this is that theres always the danger of specialization, and of what has come to be called professionalization. That is to say, I think that the tendency in the academy to focus upon membership in a guild tends, therefore, to constrict and limit the critical awareness of the scholar. And this kind of restriction is manifest in a number of things. For example, the use of jargon, specialized language that nobody else can understand. One of my early works well, perhaps not that early; but it was written, or published seventeen or eighteen years ago was a book called Orientalism, which took its main subject from the way in which a field, as all fields are, is constituted by its language; but that the language itself becomes further and further removed from the experiences and the realities of the subject, in this case the orient, about which the language was supposed to turn. So the tendency to exclusivist, professionalized and above all uncritical acceptance of the principal doctrines of ones field are, it seems to me, great dangers within the academy for the professional, for the teacher, for the scholar. And I think, therefore, its somehow important to balance and maintain a kind of coexistence between the necessities of the field and the discipline of the classroom, on the one hand, and of the special interest that one has in it, on the other, with ones own concerns as a human being, as a citizen in the larger society. For example, Ive written a lot about the Middle East, but never in the thirty-three years that Ive taught, have I ever taught the Middle East. Ive always taught Western literature and culture. But necessarily, I think ones work as a scholar is always inflected with ones background, with ones nonacademic concern. In my case, for example, its always been with experiences like exile, like imperialism and the problems of empire, which indeed touch many of the concerns of modern Western literature.
A second point, it seems to me then, is to move from the academy to the larger world, and to remind oneself that what we try to at least what I try to impart to my students isnt so much reverence for authority, or above all for what I say as a teacher, (this is of course, one of the pleasures, prerogatives, if you like, of somebody who teaches in the humanities or lets say the historical sciences, as opposed to the natural sciences), but there is I think a terribly important thing that one can teach at the same time that one teaches a field or a subject or a discipline and that is some sense of critical awareness, some sense of skepticism, that you dont take whats given to you, even to your own students. You try not to give them the material with the sense that its unquestioned and somehow authoritative, but rather to cultivate at the same time, what seems to be paradoxically at odds with it, namely a kind of healthy skepticism for what authorities say. And here it seems to me that clear language and irony are centrally important, not to take refuge this is something one can teach in the classroom not to take refuge in woolly generalization or jargon or anything that one can hide behind as a way of avoiding a decision and taking a position.
And, lastly, connected to this, it seems to me given the general climate of religious enthusiasm, not to call it fundamentalism for obvious reasons, but religious enthusiasm of one sort or another, there is an extraordinary importance, it seems to me, in the humanities and the historical sciences to focus on the importance of secularism. Vicos great observation that human heings make their own history, which is central to all the historicizing disciplines is something that must never be lost sight of.
The third point, then, which has guided me is that as one ventures further outside the academy, I think it is extraordinarily important to develop a sense not so much of professional vocation, but rather what I would call intellectual vocation. (And one thing I should say parenthetically is that there are no clear rules for all these things; I mean, there is no manual that tells you how you should behave. There is, of course, history itself, and ones own sense of commitment and principle.) Because the intellectual is not simply a professor, not simply a professional, wrapped in the mantle of authority and special language and special training which are, of course, terribly important; Im not trying to put them down. But I think, once you get out of the academy into the larger world, then I think the intellectual plays a particular role, and this role is essentially it is perhaps easiest to define it in terms of negatives is that the intellectual, as opposed to the professional, is someone who is, by the very virtue of this vocation, an opponent of consensus and orthodoxy, particularly at a moment in our society when the authorities of consensus and orthodoxy are so powerful; and the role of the individual, the voice of the individual, the small voice if you like, of the individual tends to be not heard. So the role of the intellectual is not to consolidate authority, but to understand, interpret, and question it; this is another version of what Bob Pollack was talking about in the notion, of course, of speaking the truth to power, a point I make in my book, Representations of the Intellectual. I think it is very difficult, once you venture outside of the academy, not to be affected by what seems to me the main issue for the intellectual today, which is the panorama with all the dislocations and displacements and distortions of our society, not to be affected by human suffering. And I think, therefore, the intellectual vocation essentially is somehow to alleviate human suffering and not to celebrate what in effect does not need celebrating, whether thats the state or the patria or any of these basically triumphalist agents in our society.
To enter into the public sphere means, therefore, not to be afraid of controversy or taking positions. Theres nothing more maddening, it seems to me, in our own time than people who say, Oh no, no, thats controversial; I dont want to do it; or the habitual trimming refrain, No, no, I cant sign that because I mean, you know, I may disturb matters and people may think the wrong thing about me. But it seems to me that the entrance into the public sphere means, as the French writer Genet said, the moment you write something, you are necessarily in the public sphere; you cant pretend that youre writing for yourself anymore. And so were back, therefore, to issues having to do with the media that Arnita Jones was talking about earlier, public discussion, publication; but principally, I think not in the language of the profession, and the guild language, but always pushing the accepted boundaries as far as they will go.
Fourth, and Im just taking very limited examples, but it seems to me (I find myself coming back to this very often in my own work) that one of the major roles today for the intellectual in the public sphere is to function as a kind of public memory; to recall what is forgotten or ignored; to connect and contextualize and to generalize from what appear to be the fixed truths, lets say in the newspapers or on television, the sound byte, the isolated story, and connect them to the larger processes which might have produced the situation that were talking about whether it is the plight of the poor, the current status of U.S. foreign policy, etc. And you understand what Im saying is true of intellectuals on the Left or on the Right. Its not a matter of political affiliation, but its a general, as I say public memory, which in the generally disconnected and fragmentary public sphere, it falls to the intellectual to make the connections that are otherwise hidden; to provide alternatives for mistaken policies; and to remind an audience, which increasingly thinks in terms of instrumentalization and of what is effective (I mean the great watch word in political language today is pragmatism, real politik, all of those kinds of things) to remind the audience of principle, to remind the audience of the moral questions that may be hidden in the clamor and din of the public debate. And, finally, as part of this aspect of public memory, to deflate the claims of triumphalism, to remember, as Benjamin says, that history is often written from the point of view of the victor, and that the great procession of victory trails in its wake the forgotten bodies of the vanquished. I think its important that these kinds of things be part of the role of the intellectual as a public memory in society.
Fifth, I think its terribly important since all of us, whether we like it or not, are affiliated with things: were members of the ACLS, of one or another professional organizations; we win awards, which make me deeply suspicious, even the ones that Ive won because I think that the most important thing for the intellectual in the public sphere, beyond the bounds of the academy, is some sort of sense of independence, that youre speaking really with your own voice and from your own sense of conviction, and that you try your best somehow not to collaborate with the centralizing powers of our society. Im speaking really about this particular moment, where its very, very easy, given debates on social policy or foreign policy that are necessarily shaped, to a certain degree, by the government. It strikes me as difficult but necessary to try to be somewhat marginal, rather than to be right in the middle of some office-making policy. Its obviously easy to be a kibitzer and just endlessly make criticisms, but I would say its almost easier to be in the center of things and to be there passing out judgment. And I think a more challenging role for the intellectual, although the intellectual obviously has to be in both places, the more challenging role for the intellectual as I understand him or her, is to be slightly to the side of the authorizing and centralizing powers in our society.
And lastly, the sixth point I want to make, is it seems to me that beyond the boundaries of the academy, there seems to be an absolute necessity to connect oneself, to affiliate oneself, to align oneself with an ongoing process or contest of some sort the debates over the question of Columbus, the celebrations of Columbus Day or not, the questions raised by Arthur Schlesinger in his book on the disuniting of America, the question of the national history standards. All of these issues, it seems to me, require in the end, not just a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and while I can see, of course, the importance of trying to adjudicate between extreme claims, it doesnt seem to me to be sufficient for the intellectual just to do that and to keep the discourse simply going, but rather to take positions. And I think there is, in the end, no better example than ones own example. And so the sense of being part of a process, whether a process of developing a voice, trying to talk about the unheard, trying to improve the lot of the unfortunate and the oppressed whatever. There is a sense in being and being also answerable to it, that it isnt just a matter of saying whatever you want without any sense of responsibility or the need to accept criticism and to engage in a debate or a dialogue with this constituency. And of course this also raises the question of what is the constituency. I think, just to speak from my own experience for just a moment, Ive always been in this country somebody who is both American and who comes from the Arab world; and Ive always felt, especially in recent years, that the sense of really belonging to two cultures or three cultures or different constituencies constantly raises issues that are terribly interesting in and of themselves. I mean, they give one almost an aesthetic pleasure if one wasnt also victimized by them, and that is, how do you address these constituencies? What does it mean actually to say something? An example was, seven or eight years ago at the time of the Salman Rushdie issue, the Satanic Verses, where in New York it was important, I felt, for a writer from the Islamic world such as myself, to take a position clearly on the side of freedom of expression. But then a few months later I happened to be in the Arab world, I went to Egypt, and there the public position was that the book was banned and was deemed blasphemous. And then I was asked a question about Rushdie at a public gathering, and I was imediately faced with what to do. I mean, do you say a different thing to an audience thats bound to be unsympathetic to your views? Or do you try somehow to maintain the same position but address it, obviously in a different language, to a different constituency. And of course, I think the choice was forced on me to take the same position but to try and put it in the language of the place. And that way, I think one of the most exciting things is that you try, then, to create a new constituency. I mean, if an opinion is unpopular, or if something isnt said, then you can try by saying it to create an audience for it where an audience perhaps hadnt existed before.
I conclude by saying that if one tries to follow some of these things outside the academy, unprotected in a sense by the academy, I think its likely, particularly if you take seriously the need to stress what is forgotten and what is perhaps unpopular, popularity and success become moot issues. I dont think you can make a lot of friends that way. And so the whole issue is raised anew as one gets older in life, begins to think about comfortable retirement, and just sort of fading gently into the twilight. But thats very much against my own spirit. I think the proper attitude of the intellectual outside the academy is some sort of defiance. Its very hard to maintain, but I find that it is a source of vitality, and I think, if I may be allowed this final, totally irreverent comment, much more important than getting one more award or one more prize.