This conversation and critique has not left my mind the past several days. I posted an initial engagement with Yasser, to which both he and Jeff thoughtfully responded (their full comments follow my original posting).
I am in new territory. I do not consider myself to have ‘the right view’ (whatever that might be); rather, I believe that engaging in such a conversation publicly is a way for me (and hopefully others as well) to learn more, perhaps even to grow and change in our own selves. I go so far, sometimes, as to envision change in the world situation based upon discourses we create and spread.
Perhaps over time, or via specific invitation, it will make sense for me to pull particular quotes from our writings to illustrate (mis)understanding and/or deconstruct meanings, but for now I want to reply more broadly to the tone or quality of both responses. If I over-infer or blatantly misinterpret I hope no one will let it slide. This conversation is much too important to let even the small annoyances go (indeed, perhaps it is in addressing the seemingly small that we can build to the larger and more obviously pressing?)
First, both seemed to feel the need to protect me. I read this as a signal that I am ‘out-of-step’ with this particular intellectual community, or at least at risk of being perceived in this way, of suddenly being counted as among the enemy. I appreciate the engagement and am grateful for &emdash; and relieved by &emdash; the gestures of inclusion. Thanks. 🙂
Second, there is a concern, in both Jeff and Yasser’s responses, that I learn or otherwise come to know certain facts (of history, of media representation, of politics, of language, of precedent…) I agree that this kind of knowledge is important (and I hope various folks will continue to contribute such facts as they seem relevant to the conversation), but I’m not convinced of their utility in generating an actual change in conditions. This is what I mean by pressing against a dialectical framing of the situation: the repetition of the same arguments serves to keep the argument alive. I do not see how this can lead to resolution.
This is slippery, however, because I understand (as Yasser explained) that the framing of this as an argument with sides is a problem, and also that if it is conceived in this way, only one side has been widely ‘heard’ in the West (especially in the US). So there is a place for repetition, but I am raising the question of which place, as well as when. The timing matters as much as the content.
The next level of complication is the sheer urgency of the situation for the people who are in it. It is horrifying to imagine the literal suffering in its physical, emotional, and spiritual dimensions. Such pain inspires polemics. So now &emdash; today &emdash; I have just read the introduction to a small new book by Tariq Ali, Conversations with Edward Said (2006). I read during lunch at the café of Istanbul Modern art museum, where, as I entered the grounds, my eye was immediately drawn to what I thought were angels. My interpretation didn’t change, even as I got closer, although I started to think they didn’t look very happy. Then I saw the title, “Europeans.”
Here is what I have learned from Ali and Said that seems relevant to this discussion:
Said critiqued the West for orientalism and the Palestinian leadership for lack of strategic vision. Called to politics by the 1967 war, many of Said’s heroes were Zionists in what he describes as a fanatical sense: “Not just pro-Israeli: they said the most awful things about the Arabs, in print” (7). [I note this to mark that I am not alone in recognizing at least two kinds of Zionism.] The combination of admirable and hateful qualities in men (?) Said personally admired was one of the crucial contradictions he critiqued and brought to intellectual/public conscience.
Ali bemoans the fact that Foucault’s notion of discourse “was, alas, an important influence” (8). I am not sure what Ali means, here. Is he saying Foucault was an unfortunate influence upon Said? Or that Foucault himself contributed to orientalist discourse? As a matter for critical discourse analysis, it may be proper that a polemic be brought against the “portray[al of] imperialist suppositions as a universal truth” (8), because a polemic gathers and concentrates a forceful voice in a claim for a discursive space of (self) representation. But to be great, according to Ali, a polemic “eschews balance” (8). Of course there is a point of pride to be held in any offensive which reveals an enemy’s flaws and weakness, but at some point one must recognize and act on the potential to change the discourse if one wants to change the constitutive conditions on the ground. Otherwise a dialectical monologic persists.
That Said apparently took it as necessary to maintain pure hatred (indicated by his refusal to engage a reconciliation with Ernest Gellner) concerns me. Ali states it this way: “hatred must be pure to be effective” (11). I do not know the details of what Ali describes as “a celebrated exchange” between Gellner and Said (10), but the characterization that “Said was unforgiving” makes me wonder about his own sense of comfort (identity?) in the polemic zone (11). Please don’t read me wrong! I am not trying to argue that Said “ought” to have done anything differently. I am trying to argue that just because Said’s polemics were effective and necessary at the time doesn’t automatically prove that such polemics remain the best way.
Oy, I feel myself sinking into a mire! I don’t think Yasser, myself, or Jeff have written in an polemic way, rather, that our perspectives have been shaped, to varying degrees, by our exposure to certain polemics. It is true that I have been more exposed to Jewish accounts of 6000 years of attempted genocide than I am to the ways in which “The Palestinians had become the indirect victims of the European Judeocide of the Second World War” (11). I am not convinced that there is a moral equation of “worse” or “better,” “acceptable” or “unforgivable” when comparing the militaristic actions of the Israeli state with, for instance, Said’s characterization of Hamas: “I see them as creatures of the moment, for whom Islam is an opportunity to protest against the current stalemate, the mediocrity and bankruptcy of the ruling [Palestinian] party” (14, all quotes are from interviews in June, 1994).
Learning the details of a particular set of injustices does not negate the details of any other set of injustices. Hierarchies of the oppressed only serve to protect the genuine elites &emdash; of which there are Arabs as well as Jews, along with Christians (keeping a restricted focus on the West and Near East). I do wonder what happened to Moustapha Barghuti? Said had high hopes of him as the leader of the National Political Initiative.
My hope in Said is restored (after the disappointment of his embrace of hatred), or perhaps I should say balanced, by the critiques he leveled at certain post-modern critics “for their stress on identity on hostility to narrative” (9). If we agree (Said and me, grin) that narrative matters more than identity, then how far a leap is it from narrative (the telling of a story &emdash; a dialectic?) to dialogical discourse: the talking of a story into being?
[FYI – in seeking links I came across a blog entry which links to an audiorecording of an interview with Said in April, 2000.]