Tuesday, February 21, 2012

An Interview with Edward Said

     Throughout the late 1990's cultural studies scholar, Sut Jhally was involved in the production of  a series of videos engaging with significant figures in the field, most notably Edward Said and Stuart Hall.  I don't know much about Jhally's own work, but his attempt to make some of the most significant ideas in the field of cultural studies available to a broad swath of the public, at least those who would take an introductory women's studies or critical theory course is extraordinarily valuable.  I think I will always associate Jhally with the short introduction to these videos, which manage to capture compex theoretical engagements in a matter of minutes, giving new audiences a valuable road-map to the complexities that would follow.  It's a skill that is often taken for granted, but one that is central to any critical pedagogy.  

      However, it would be a mistake to give Jhally exclusive credit for the thoughtful accessibility.  Edward Said himself shows why he played such a central role in understanding the question of Palestine through his political and theoretical work.  He easily translates the complex questions of representation and power contained in discourses of Orientalism into a language that is both personal and links to the culture and politics of the politics.  We can simultaneously see the kind of self-reflexivity contained in Said's memoir, Out of Place, and his ability to speak to a broad popular audience.  I don't think that we can measure the profound loss that the solidarity struggles against the occupation of Palestine suffered with the loss of Said.  His powerful political interventions from the 1970's until his death in 2003 significantly contributed to the shift from what Norman Finkelstein calls the 'Exodus narrative' of the rise of the Israeli state to one that understands its rise as a form of settler colonialism, drawing on and expanding his analysis of Orientalism.  At the same time, Said's critical lens continually refuses any easy nationalist narrative, moving from his call for a two state solution in the 1970's to his increasing suspicion of the actually existing so-called peace talks of the 1990's.  Said brought together the ethical call for action and the critical lens that continually called into question the 'common sense' categories of the present, taking on the role of the popular or organic intellectual par excellence.  I remember going to the bookstore weekly to buy the U.S. edition of Al-Ahram for his occasional columns (those are now on line here.)

     At this point, I'm beginning to bore myself with my own official memorial to the man, but before I finish these brief thoughts and turn you to the video, I'd like to recognize Said's influence on myself.  I first became acquainted with Said's work as I was trying to understand what was exactly going on in the occupied territories.  I found myself in Mayday Books, a local Minneapolis radical bookstore, looking in the Middle East section, and I came to the conclusion that this Edward Said guy seemed to have written a lot about the subject.  On that somewhat dubious conclusion, I picked up a collection of his essays, The Politics of Dispossession: The Politics of Palestinian Self-Determination: 1969-1994.  That book was a transformative experience for me, causing me to reflect on the violence and domination of colonialism for the first time.  Years later, I found myself in a class with subaltern studies scholar Ajay Skaria, a class that introduced me to Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and the notion of critical theory itself, on the strength of Edward Said's name alone.  In a strange sense, my intellectual trajectory as an anti-humanist post-structural marxist scholar was launched through my engagement with Said.  Despite the fact that Said would probably find most of my theoretical positions distasteful, I still feel a deep political and theoretical allegiance with his work.  Here's the interview. 

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