Modernism/modernity 11.4 (2004) 815-818
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Identity and Its Discontents
Even before his death last year, critics had agreed on the defining characteristics of Edward Said's career. He was known as the author of the path-breaking Orientalism (1978), in which he used Michel Foucault's discontinuous, genealogical historiography to show that the West's cultural representations serve the thoroughly imperialistic task of constructing a passive, essential "Oriental" character. He was recognized, on the basis of that book, as a founder of postcolonial theory. And he was acknowledged as a tireless activist for the Palestinians in their struggle for international recognition, a struggle that was, of course, also his own.
But the end of a life, and thus a career, is the beginning of its interpretation. The premise of Abdirahman Hussein's Edward Said: Criticism and Society is that the conceptions I've outlined above, on the basis of Hussein's own characterizations of them, are misconceptions that must be revised and refined if we want an accurate understanding of Said's intellectual legacy.
From this description, the difficulty of separating Hussein's argument from Said's will be clear. This difficulty stems, in part, from the book's status as an extended explication of Said's oeuvre. But it also stems from Hussein's devotion to Said: his infrequent criticisms typically take the form of wishes that Said had been more clear in his methodology, so that he would be less subject to misinterpretation.
It is in regard to methodology that Hussein offers his most significant intervention. He structures his book around the claim that, despite their eclecticism, Said's works are in fact governed by a "methodological consistency" (324) that manifests itself as a "confrontation between agonistic dialectic and archaeology/genealogy"(4). Hussein never defines these terms precisely, preferring, it would seem, to show them at work in Said's corpus. We might nonetheless venture some [End Page 815] provisional definitions. The archaeological/genealogical method excavates "mental, textual, and other cultural archives which have hitherto been considered sacrosanct or otherwise simply taken for granted" (7). The "agonistic dialectic" names nothing less than the intellectual experience of modernity. Said's modernity, says Hussein, is characterized, on the one hand, by technologies of global domination, exerted by one area (Europe, the Occident, the center) over all the rest (non-Europe, the Orient, the periphery), and, on the other, by secularism, enlightenment, and the privileging of individual subjectivity. This experience of modernity is based on a rationality that is fundamentally irrational—in that it is paradoxically premised on geographic and racial domination—and, as such, is necessarily dialectical. Hussein leaves unclear the precise role of agency in Said's modernity. What, for example, is the relation between Orientalism as a discourse that has no immediately identifiable cause, and Orientalism as manifested in a particular cultural representation? Hussein does not ignore such ambiguities—indeed, he says they are constitutive of Said's "agonistic dialectic"—but he concludes that the mere acknowledgement of a dialectical opposition is as far as one can go in diagnosing it, lest one risk unduly "resolving" or synthesizing it. Such resolution would be amenable to a conception of history as teleological and imperial.
Hussein finds the pairing of dialectics and genealogy throughout Said's oeuvre, especially in his early works. His book is organized chronologically: he first reads Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (1966); then lingers over Beginnings: Intention and Method (1975), to which he devotes two chapters, because he finds it the most methodologically revealing of Said's works; then examines The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983); and concludes by offering an overview of everything else, including the texts other critics have tended to privilege—Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism (1993). This structure forces Hussein into a contradiction: he insists that Said is...