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Paul B. Armstrong - Being "Out of Place": Edward W. Said and the Contradictions of Cultural Differences - MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 64:1 MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 64.1 (2003) 97-121

Being "Out of Place":
Edward W. Said and the Contradictions of Cultural Differences

Paul B. Armstrong

As an outspoken public intellectual who has not shied away from controversy, Edward W. Said has been at times a polarizing figure. His critics are often so ready to discredit him that they pay no attention to the complications and ambiguities of his thought, and his defenders can be so protective of his reputation that they lose patience with dissent. The critics seem eager to play "Gotcha," and the defenders consequently may regard criticism as a betrayal. The controversy ignited by Said's memoir, Out of Place, illustrates this polarization all too clearly. 1 In the relatively short time since the memoir's publication, the escalating violence in the Middle East and the nationalistic intolerance brought on in the United States by the 11 September 2001 attacks seem to have made it even harder to analyze and evaluate the implications of Said's life and work with the scrutiny and the attention to complexity that his own eloquent defenses of the work of criticism call for. My intent is neither to attack Said nor to glorify him but to analyze his life story in all of its contradictions, along with his writings on issues relevant to that story, for the purpose of illuminating the problem of how [End Page 97] to mediate cultural differences. The heightened sensitivities on both sides suggest that much is at stake in an author's attempt to shape and control his or her persona in an era in which the authenticity of the author's subjectivity is sometimes seen as necessary for establishing the authority of her or his argument. It matters little to me, however, whether any one of Said's autobiographical claims happens to be true or false. What interests me is how the persona he constructs in his memoir helps us understand, perhaps better than his theoretical writings, how personal identities and community affiliations are created and how cross-cultural conflicts thwart the hermeneutic and political ideal of reciprocity. 2

I do not believe that demystifying Said's persona as a dispossessed Palestinian intellectual would say anything one way or the other about the value of his views on imperialism and the politics of interpretation, any more than his ideas would gain if his personal history genuinely exemplified the oppression suffered by colonial peoples (and, in all its complexity, it does not). The contradictions defining his history suggest a more complicated and compelling model of the politics and epistemology [End Page 98] of cultural difference than the ones offered by either of his most important books on the subject, Orientalismand Culture and Imperialism. 3 Moreover, his narration of his life helps explain why these books contradict one another, the latter criticizing and revising the former's depiction of the epistemology of imperial domination and identity formation, even though Said's commentaries on Orientalismattempt to disguise the contradiction by recasting this book in the image of his later views.

Out of Place describes a life more contradictory and complex than either Said's detractors or his defenders acknowledge. Although he was born in West Jerusalem and speaks in the preface of his immense sadness at returning there a few years ago after a long exile, his memoir shows that he lived most of his childhood and youth in Cairo, where his father, a self-made man and an enormously talented entrepreneur, ran "by far the largest office equipment and stationery store in the Middle East" (91). The regional representative for Royal office machinery, among other things, the elder Said pioneered the introduction of an Arabic typewriter. Said has been a tireless defender of the downtrodden and the oppressed, but his own youth was privileged: his father's wealth allowed for first-class ocean travel and long stays in suites at the world's best hotels. Furthermore, his father, although Palestinian by heritage, was, curiously, an American citizen, because he had spent ten years in the United States as a young man and had fought in the American army during World War I. Said reports that his father hated Jerusalem and that his inordinate pride in being an American is the reason that Said himself attended English-speaking schools in Cairo and was then sent to America for preparatory school and college. The material advantages of an American passport and his father's Egyptian-based business success contributed in no small way to Said's ability to fashion himself as an exiled Palestinian intellectual.

When his detractors use these contradictions to dismiss Said's persona as a fabrication, however, they miss the point. Although Said describes himself in Orientalismas "the Oriental subject" who seeks "to [End Page 99] inventory the traces upon me . . . of the culture whose domination has been so powerful a factor in the life of all Orientals" (25), his subject position is much more heterogeneous, contradictory, and complex than his self-description there suggests:

My own experiences of these matters are in part what made me write this book. The life of an Arab Palestinian in the West, particularly in America, is disheartening. There exists here an almost unanimous consensus that politically he does not exist, and when it is allowed that he does, it is either as a nuisance or as an Oriental. The web of racism, cultural stereotypes, political imperialism, dehumanizing ideology holding in the Arab or the Muslim is very strong indeed, and it is this web which every Palestinian has come to feel as his uniquely punishing destiny. (27)

The racism and prejudice afflicting Muslim Arabs are real and despicable, as recent events remind us. Nevertheless, Said's identification with the "oriental" here is a simplistic self-representation that Out of Placecomplexly revises. Curiously, his name bears the traces of empire, inasmuch as "Edward" was suggested by the Prince of Wales's name, but "Said" is a pure invention by his father, who chose it to replace the surname "Ibrahim" for reasons that are not clear to the surviving members of the family (although again empire may have had a role, if this act of self-naming testified to his American drive to create himself). "The travails of bearing such a name were compounded by an equally unsettling quandary when it came to language," Said reports. "I have never known what language I spoke first, Arabic or English, or which one was mine beyond any doubt" (Out of Place, 4). An American Palestinian in Egypt with equal facility in Arabic and English (because both were spoken at home), he possessed a hybrid identity from the very beginning—and that, in contrast to the monolithic assertion of identification with "the Oriental subject" in Orientalism, is the point of Out of Place. This hybridity extends as well to religion, because Said, although as an adult an eloquent defender of Islam against the prejudices and misunderstanding of Americans, was raised a Christian by parents who were married in a Baptist church in Nazareth where his mother's father was the minister (after holding a ministry in Texas, of all places).

The complexity of Said's background and the multiplicity of his identity are, he says, "a form both of freedom and of affliction" (Out of [End Page 100] Place, 12). A profound ambivalence marks his response to his lack of a straightforward, unitary national and cultural identity or of a simple, coherent sense of belonging to a single community and heritage:

I have retained this unsettled sense of many identities—mostly in conflict with each other—all of my life, together with an acute memory of the despairing feeling that I wish we could have been all-Arab, or all-European and American, or all-Orthodox Christian, or all-Muslim, or all-Egyptian, and so on. . . . "What are you?" [he remembers being asked]; "But Said is an Arab name"; "You're an American?"; "You're American without an American name, and you've never been to America"; "You don't look American!"; "How come you were born in Jerusalem and you live here?" [in Cairo]; "You're an Arab after all, but what kind are you? A Protestant?" (5-6)

Said remembers that at his American junior high school in Cairo, "the overall sensation I had was of my troublesome identity as an American inside whom lurked another Arab identity from which I derived no strength, only embarrassment and discomfort. I saw in [American classmates] Stan Henry and Alex Miller the much more enviable, rocklike hardness of an identity at one with the reality" (90). At Mount Hermon, however, he discovered that being "out of place in nearly every way, gave me the incentive to find my territory, not socially but intellectually" (231). Throughout his life a longing for the wholeness and harmony that others seem to have but he does not conflicts with a sense of the liberating values of dissonance and multiplicity:

I occasionally experience myself as a cluster of flowing currents. I prefer this to the idea of a solid self, the identity to which so many attach such significance. These currents, like the themes of one's life, flow along during the waking hours, and at their best, they require no reconciling, no harmonizing. . . . A form of freedom, I'd like to think, even if I am far from being totally convinced that it is. That skepticism too is one of the themes I particularly want to hold on to. With so many dissonances in my life I have learned actually to prefer being not quite right and out of place. (295)

Said's defining contradiction, then, is the doubled condition of desiring a unified, assimilated, "rocklike" identity (all-something, whatever it may be, rather than an ensemble of ill-fitting parts) and of enjoying the liberating, expansive pleasures of multiple identities that never fully cohere. [End Page 101]

I recognize this emotional landscape because of my mother's own experience, with much less intellectual intensity, to be sure, as a Danish immigrant who came to America after World War II and has always felt "out of place." Her fierce desire to assimilate to her adopted culture and have "all-American kids" always alternated with pride in the hidden difference that she passed on to us (as much as we were supposed to be like everyone else, we were constantly reminded that we were not the same, even as we were warned not to show it). In 1954, when I was five years old, I spent a summer in her village in rural Jutland and learned Danish fluently, as only a young child could. When we returned to the New York suburbs and I would toss in an occasional Danish word while talking with my playmates, my mother was aghast, because, in those xenophobic years filled with McCarthy-driven fear of the "red menace," she was afraid that any sign of foreignness would ostracize us, and she immediately stopped speaking Danish at home (as my current command of the language will attest). She has felt uncomfortable and inadequate throughout her life, because she has never known for certain if her mimicry of American customs and conventions was quite right, but this unease has coexisted with secret contempt for friends and neighbors who were not as cosmopolitan as she was (although her fears of the new and the unknown showed her provincial origins, which she never overcame). Like Said, my mother has experienced her doubleness as both unsettling and valuable and has alternated between desiring to overcome it and asserting and protecting it. 4 [End Page 102]

Similar contradictions defined the experience of Joseph Conrad, the Polish English sailor-writer about whom both Said and I have written at length (no doubt because of similar autobiographical attractions). According to Said, Conrad was "so many different people, each one living a life unconnected with the others. . . . He was a self-conscious foreigner writing of obscure experiences in an alien language, and he was only too aware of this." 5 Conrad himself described his identity as double: "Both at sea and on land my point of view is English, from which the conclusion should not be drawn that I have become an Englishman. That is not the case. Homo duplex has in my case more than one meaning." 6 Conrad both is and is not English, just as he both is and is not Polish. Said's cultural identity is similarly double and split, inasmuch as he too both is and is not American, just as he is and is not Palestinian. Conrad, like Said, responds by alternately wishing passionately for solidarity with a community and skeptically asserting the inevitability of cultural differences and interpretive multiplicity. Solidarity and fidelity are absolute moral values for Conrad, because, as his narrator Marlow maintains, "We exist only in so far as we hang together." 7 Writing no doubt out of his experience of alienness, however, Conrad also repeatedly dramatizes a profound and insuperable loneliness as the bedrock of existence, because who we are to ourselves can never be identical with who we are to others. He oscillates between advocating solidarity and demystifying its illusions by showing that it can be a mechanism for scapegoating others who remind us uncomfortably of the doubleness of identity, a split existence that may be more marked in exiles and émigrés but that characterizes human being in general (that is the point, for example, of the panic unleashed by the shipwrecked foreigner in Conrad's early story "Amy Foster," or of the trial and Brierly's suicide in Lord Jim).

The doubleness of cultural identity that Said, Conrad (anglicized from Korzeniowski), and Asta Jensen Armstrong exemplify gives evidence of the fundamental decenteredness of human being that Helmuth [End Page 103] Plessner captures in his telling phrase "Ich bin, aber ich habe mich nicht" [I am, but I do not have myself]. 8 According to Wolfgang Iser, this paradox describes the plasticity of human being, which does not have one essential form but is only as it stages itself in an ever-changing variety of modes of being. Iser quotes with approval Plessner's argument that human being has a "doppelgänger" structure: "Human being as a being . . . is generally related to its social role but cannot be defined by a particular role. The role-player or bearer of the social figure is not the same as that figure, and yet cannot be thought of separately from it without being deprived of its humanity. . . . Only by means of the other of itself does it have—itself." 9 We are, but we do not have a being that absolutely and essentially defines us, and we can be and know ourselves only through roles that we both are and are not. "The fact that we cannot capture ourselves in any absolute role lifts all limits on the number of roles that can be played" (82). "Division," Iser concludes, "is characteristic of human beings," and "being oneself . . . means being able to double oneself" (80, 81).

This doubleness is responsible for the heterogeneity of identity positions in any culture and for the even greater multiplicity of identities across cultures with varying constellations of roles and conventions. Emigrés or exiles who have experienced conflict between the roles they played in their communities of origin and the roles they must learn if they wish to assimilate to their adopted cultures might be more attuned to the doubled relation between the role-player and the role than a "native," for whom the role seems "natural," a given, simply who one is. Such an assumption is a mystification that covers over the possibly unsettling but also liberating decenteredness and negativity of identity, because we are never simply one with the roles in which we enact ourselves.

The role of the negative in cultural subject formation means that one's belonging to a nation or community is not simply a given, determined once and for all, but a "narration" dependent on both "pedagogy" [End Page 104] and "performance." In teaching a people the lesson of their belonging, "the scraps, patches, and rags of daily life must be repeatedly turned into the signs of a national culture," Homi K. Bhabha explains, "while the very act of the narrative performance interpellates a growing circle of national subjects. In the performance of the nation as narration there is a split between . . . the pedagogical, and the . . . performative," and "this splitting . . . becomes the site of writing the nation." 10 If a nation, culture, or community must be "written" to exist, the negative distance between individual identity and group belonging is the difference that makes pedagogy both possible and necessary. Performances of cultural or national identity are double structures of staging who one is in narrations that are necessarily not who "we" are. Otherwise they would not need to be performed and learned to continue to define "us." As structures of difference, nations and cultures are therefore internally heterogeneous and open to variation despite the stories they may tell of their timeless homogeneity.

Said refers to similar phenomena with his distinction between "instinctual filiation and social affiliation," which also suggests the pedagogy through which he learned to perform his own Palestinian identity. To Said, cultural belonging is a matter both of filiation (with the community into which one is born) and affiliation (with groups to which one becomes aligned by virtue of social, political, or professional practices). These modes of belonging can reinforce or oppose one another: "Affiliation sometimes reproduces filiation, sometimes makes its own forms." 11 Although Said is Palestinian by filiation, inasmuch as he was born in Jerusalem, his long sojourn in Egypt meant, paradoxically, that he became Palestinian only by affiliation—by learning from his parents and other relatives the import of the diaspora of 1948 and by taking on the appropriate attitudes of and identifications for this mode of cultural belonging. His family, in fact, spent the year of 1947 in Jerusalem, but Said describes his twelve-year-old self as "a scarcely [End Page 105] conscious, essentially unknowing witness" of the "dislocation our family and friends experienced," a tragedy that had to be explained to him because he did not comprehend or feel it: "Only once in a typically sweeping way did my father elucidate the general Palestinian condition, when he remarked about [a friend's] family that 'they had lost everything'; a moment later he added, 'We lost everything too.' When I expressed my confusion as to what he meant, since his business, the house, our style of life in Cairo, seemed to have remained the same, 'Palestine' was all he said" (Out of Place, 115). After this one moment of solidarity with his community of filiation, however, Said's father attempted to go about his business in Egypt as if nothing had happened. Looking back, Said says:

It seems inexplicable to me now that having dominated our lives for generations, the problem of Palestine and its tragic loss, which affected virtually everyone we knew, deeply changing our world, should have been so relatively repressed, undiscussed, or even remarked on by my parents. . . . But the repression of Palestine in our lives occurred as part of a larger depoliticization on the part of my parents, who hated and distrusted politics, feeling too precarious in Egypt for participation or even open discussion. (117)

He reports that "it was mainly my aunt Nabiha" who, through her charity work with refugee families in Cairo, "would not let us forget the misery of Palestine" (117).

Although he was born Palestinian and witnessed the Palestinian diaspora, Said's identity as a Palestinian did not come naturally. He had to learn it from his aunt despite his parents' efforts to educate him to a different set of identifications, and then he recommitted himself to it with the publication of Orientalism in 1978, an event that surprised many because Said's books on Conrad and poststructural literary theory had not suggested the identity of the oppressed oriental subject that he affirms, discloses, and performs in this book. My point is not that this identity is false or misleading but rather that, as the distinction between filiation and affiliation itself suggests, it, like all cultural identity, is double and split. Said both is and is not Palestinian, and therefore he must learn and perform this role, which he can identify with only because it is not simply who he is.

The negativity and doubleness of cultural identity can have a variety [End Page 106] of consequences, none of them predetermined. National identity can feel like a trap or a prison, an alienation we experience by producing it, because we are not how we are hailed, even as we sustain its coercive authority by performing the pedagogies through which we have learned the patterns of belonging that define us. Or it may seem a refuge from the unsettledness of a decentered existence. Or the contingency of cultural belonging can allow the negative to be used for play, transformation, or protest—to create "room for maneuver" out of the difference between who one is and who one is not. 12 A culture may seek to deny the contingency of its defining roles and its resulting heterogeneity by unifying against the other whose difference is threatening because it suggests the decenteredness of identity. The solidarity of "us" versus "them" scapegoats the other by branding it as evil or inferior, the goal being to dominate the other materially or epistemologically (or both) so as to contain and control its threat. (This is, of course, the epistemological mechanism and the moral and political purpose of "orientalism.") Or the doubleness of existence may allow someone to cross boundaries and exchange differences with others in a process of cross-cultural negotiation—provided that the material conditions to make this possible are available (as they were to Said). This ideal may sound utopian, however, because even when material or economic interests are not at stake (as of course they typically are), the negativity of cultural identity can unleash a fearsome will to power, motivated by a desire to overcome the anxieties of decenteredness and doubleness by dominating and controlling the threat of difference, in which case expansive, playful cultural negotiation and exchange hardly stand a chance.

Said's memoir dramatizes these contradictions, and his theoretical works attempt to formalize and understand them. His aim, he says, is to increase the now slight possibility that being "out of place" will be creative and constructive rather than anguished and embattled. Hence his description of his vocation as a critic: "Criticism must think of itself as life-enhancing and constitutively opposed to every form of tyranny, domination, and abuse; its social goals are noncoercive knowledge produced [End Page 107] in the interests of human freedom." "The dictum 'solidarity before criticism,'" he explains, "means the end of criticism. . . . I take criticism so seriously as to believe that, even in the very midst of a battle in which one is unmistakably on one side against another, there should be criticism, because there must be critical consciousness if there are to be issues, problems, values, even lives to be fought for" (World, 29, 28). The doubleness and negativity of cultural identity make criticism possible by opening up the distance and detachment from which a perspective on oneself and one's world can emerge that could not if we were simply unitary. But this negativity can also lead to a battle for the domination of one position over its rivals, even in the realm of criticism: "All texts essentially dislodge other texts or, more frequently, take the place of something else. As Nietzsche had the perspicacity to see, texts are fundamentally facts of power, not of democratic exchange" (45). Said's life and intellectual career repeatedly show this tension between desire for a utopian space where differences can be exchanged in noncoercive, mutually liberating relations and hard-nosed recognition of the realities of power that seeks to control and contain difference by structuring it into a hierarchy of domination and subordination. 13

In Out of PlaceSaid reports a number of mutually reinforcing incidents in which he is branded "other" in a manner that illustrates the role of negation in identity formation, the process of exclusionary differentiation that he later argues is crucial to orientalism in particular and culture in general. Creating itself in opposition to what it is not, culture is "a series of exclusions legislated from above, but enacted throughout its polity," "a differentially negative doctrine of all that is not best, . . . a constantly practiced differentiation of itself from what it [End Page 108] believes to be not itself" (World, 11, 12). This is the general rule of which the construction of the "Orient" as the valorizing other to the Anglo-European world of the orientalist is a particular instance: "The construction of identity—for identity, whether of Orient or Occident, France or Britain, while obviously a repository of distinct collective experiences, is finally a construction in my opinion—involves the construction of opposites and 'others' whose actuality is always subject to the continuous interpretation and re-interpretation of their differences from 'us.' Each age and society re-creates its 'Others.'" 14 Here again identity is a double structure that depends for its defining difference on the other it negates, just as, in Michel Foucault's classic analysis on which Said silently depends, "reason" constituted itself in the Enlightenment by constructing "madness" as whatever it was not.

Said first consciously experienced this negation when he took a shortcut home from school across the grounds of his father's club and an Englishman who was its secretary and the father of one of his classmates challenged him: "'Don't you know you're not supposed to be here?' he asked reprovingly. I started to say something about being a member, but he cut me off pitilessly. 'Don't answer back, boy. Just get out, and do it quickly. Arabs aren't allowed here, and you're an Arab!' If I hadn't thought of myself as an Arab before, I now directly grasped the significance of the designation as truly disabling" (Out of Place, 44). One moral of this story is that who a person is must be learned, here by being branded with a racist label, which seems odd to the young Said because it assigns him to a group outside the community to which he thought he belonged. The Englishman thinks that he is pointing out nature (the boy's presumed race), but instead he is exercising the oppositional power of negation, which creates one affiliation (who belongs to the club) by excluding an other group, and the conflict for the boy is that he discovers an affiliation that he had not felt (his identity as an Arab) by being refused recognition for an affiliation that he had taken for granted (membership in his father's club).

This incident shows what Jean-Paul Sartre calls the power of the "look of the other" to define and categorize the self, as when the playwright Jean Genet is caught stealing and is labeled "thief," a categorization [End Page 109] he then rebels against by performing it with a vengeance: "All right, then, call me a thief. I will be the thief!" 15 The other's gaze fixes and controls, but redefining the assigned name by playing it in one's own way creates room to maneuver and the possibility of answering back. On several other occasions the young Said experiences the power of the defining label that would fix and place him, and he struggles for ways to escape and protest it. After a field trip to a sugar refinery on the Nile, his American teacher reprimands him for his bad behavior: "Miss Clark had purposely, deliberately, even fastidiously, defined me, caught me, as it were, from within, had seen me as I could not or would not see myself. . . . 'Who is this person?' I imagined them [his classmates] saying, 'a little Arab boy, and what is he doing in a school for American children? Where did he come from?'" (Out of Place, 86). Later, at a summer camp in Maine, when he takes an extra hot dog beyond his ration, a counselor named Murray calls him a "sneak": "It was only years later, when I read Stendhal, that I recognized much the same kind of deformation in Julien Sorel, who when he is suddenly confronted with a priest's direct gaze, swoons away. I felt myself to be a shameful outsider to the world that Miss Clark and Murray wished to exclude me from" (137). At a British school he plays the "bad boy" as "a form of resistance" and is confronted by a teacher, who expels him: "Isolated, pinpointed, transfixed, I had suddenly stepped outside every circle I had once inhabited" (186, 209). Here as before, an experience of exclusion defines Said even as it solidifies the authority of the person who asserts the power to know and label him and to cast him out.

There may be at least a little personal mythologization at work in Said's depiction of himself as a repeated victim of the Anglo-American imperial gaze who fights back by rebelling against his oppressors. Regardless, what is interesting is the epistemology of the response he describes. These and similar incidents lead him to construct two selves: the public "Edward" who is chastised, criticized, and categorized and "my inner, far less compliant and private self, who could read, think, and even write independent of 'Edward.' . . . It was something private [End Page 110] and apart that gave me strength when 'Edward' seemed to be failing" (Out of Place, 165). Said speaks of

the almost absolute separation that existed between my surface life at school and the complicated but mostly inarticulate inner life I cherished and lived through the emotions and sensations I derived from music, books, and memories intertwined with fantasies. It was as if the integration and liberty I needed between my selves would have to be endlessly postponed, although I subliminally retained the belief that one day they would somehow be integrated. (202)

Once again contradictory, his split self is simultaneously a resource and a cause for anguish and regret. He desires an integral, unified self, but he uses as a refuge and a source of strength the contradiction between his self-for-others (the "Edward" others see and seek to discipline) and his self-for-himself (his interior world of aesthetic pleasure and rebellious thoughts). The perspective that this doubleness gives him on the defining categories of the authorities distances him sufficiently from their power that he can criticize and evade them. If he is not powerful enough to fight back and win, he can nevertheless create for himself an alternative world that allows escape from their reality and that exposes its inadequacy. (Interestingly, it is books, film, and music that make possible this space of protest, criticism, and solace; even more, it is Western texts, especially European music and Said's beloved opera but also, surprisingly, American films with heavy colonial overtones, like the Tarzan series and Arabian Nights—which shows that the cultural resources of imperialism can be employed for other purposes than domination and hegemony even as they also serve those ends.)

One frequent criticism of Orientalismis that it describes the defining gaze of the orientalist as so powerful that the oriental subject would seem to have no way of fighting back. Said asserts later, in Culture and Imperialism, that "never was it the case that the imperial encounter pitted an active Western intruder against a supine or inert non-Westerner; there was always some form of active resistance, and in the overwhelming majority of cases, the resistance finally won out" (xii). Given the power that Orientalism attributes to the categorizing projections of Western orientalism in constructing its object of study according to its own preconceptions, and adding to this the impenetrable, self-reinforcing homogeneity of the book's solipsistic view of the other, it is hard to theorize [End Page 111] how such resistance by the oriental subject would be possible. "The Orientalist attitude . . . shares with magic and with mythology the self-containing, self-reinforcing character of a closed system, in which objects are what they are becausethey are what they are, for once, for all time, for ontological reasons that no empirical material can either dislodge or alter" (70). One flaw of the epistemology of Orientalism is that it fails to explain how it itself could have been written as a powerful act of answering back. Out of Place shows how resistance is possible, however, by demonstrating how the doubleness of identity formation allows a critical consciousness to develop in opposition to the definitions that the dominant authority would impose on the subordinate subject. Because Said both is and is not the "Edward" defined by the gaze of the authorities, his doubleness allows him to evade their control and, eventually, to turn their weapons (their texts, traditions, and interpretive procedures) into instruments for fighting back and asserting a different identity for himself and for those with whom he affiliates himself. Opposition of this kind would not be possible if identity were single and unitary. 16

In 1994 (the year after Culture and Imperialism), Said expresses in his "Afterword" to Orientalism bewilderment and disappointment that the book has been taken as "anti-Western" and has been embraced by Arab nationalists as "a systematic defense of Islam and the Arabs." He especially regrets that the us-them constitution of the other that he criticized in the orientalist has returned in the antihegemonic assertion of the oriental subject's claims: "In all my works I have remained fundamentally critical of a gloating and uncritical nationalism" (331, 337). He laments that his attack on the strategy of exclusionary differentiation has not overcome polarizing oppositions but has inadvertently reinforced them. [End Page 112]

In fact, Orientalismis contradictory on this score. In it Said does ask "whether there is any way of avoiding the hostility expressed by the division, say, of men into 'us' (Westerners) and 'they' [sic] (Orientals)," and he regrets that "the result is usually to polarize the distinction—the Oriental becomes more Oriental, the Westerner more Western—and limit the human encounter between different cultures, traditions, and societies" (45, 46). But he also asserts that the power of orientalism as a hegemonic "system of truths" was such that "every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric. . . . As a cultural apparatus Orientalism is all aggression, activity, judgment, will-to-truth, knowledge" (204; emphasis added). In the "Afterword" Said claims that his book "stress[ed] the actualities of what was later to be called multiculturalism, rather than xenophobia and aggressive, race-oriented nationalism," and he calls it "a multicultural critique of power using knowledge to advance itself" in "the realization, almost universally acknowledged, that cultures are hybrid and heterogeneous and . . . so interrelated and interdependent as to beggar any unitary or simply delineated description of their individuality" (335, 347). He is perhaps closer to the truth when he acknowledges that "Orientalism is a partisan book, not a theoretical machine" (339)—what Nietzsche calls a Streitschrift, which fights power with power at the risk of reproducing the divisions that Said claims later to want to transcend.

Said's ambivalence about Orientalism's reception expresses the contradiction I have described between his longing for solidarity with a community (to be all-something) and his appreciation of the values of multiplicity (the fluidity and freedom of not belonging). As a Streitschrift, Orientalism encourages a homogeneous identification with the oppressed alongside whose interests Said unequivocally aligns himself (calling himself "the Oriental subject"). He thereby achieves a moment of unitary, "rocklike" identity, turning the tables on the others who labeled and displaced him by naming and subordinating them (through the powerful coinage orientalism, which has become immediately recognized as a category that demystifies and condemns a wide sweep of people, texts, and cultural and epistemological practices). Instead of being cast out, he assumes the superior pose of knowing the authorities better than they know themselves by carrying out an act of polemical [End Page 113] revenge on those who fixed and labeled him as well as on those others with whom he now claims solidarity. This act is epistemologically justified if all texts are, as Nietzsche claims, combatants in a never-ending battle for power, always seeking to dislodge their rivals for political, cultural, and intellectual domination. The problem, however, is that Said gains the unitary, superior identity he has long desired (to be "at home" in a homogeneous community) only by setting himself in antagonistic relations with other groups and conventions with which he also identifies. The American and European traditions that were central to his education, gave him refuge as a young man, and underlay his professional identity as an author and critic have the status for him of personally defining intellectual and cultural affiliations. Moreover, such solidarity denies the internal heterogeneity and feeling of difference that give Said a powerful sense of freedom (the pleasure of not fitting in any of the homogenizing categories that are thrust on him). As much as he desires solidarity, the singular self he thereby attains also betrays him.

Said responds to this dilemma by proposing in Culture and Imperialisma heterogeneous model of cultural difference that claims to reject polarization (or the "rhetoric of blame" [18]). A year after this important book's publication, he writes his "Afterword," which recasts Orientalism as an argument for multiculturalism rather than a polemical counterattack against imperial domination that risks reproducing the us-them exclusionary structures of differentiation it unmasks. Said explains that "most people resist the underlying notion that human identity is not only not natural and stable, but constructed and occasionally even invented outright," and he claims that his critique of orientalism was aimed primarily at its failure to recognize the constructedness of its cultural categories: "As a system of thought Orientalism approaches a heterogeneous, dynamic, and complex human reality from an uncritically essentialist standpoint" (332, 333). Although not entirely unfaithful to the original text, this argument fails to recognize that the Foucauldian notion that identity is created by us-them exclusionary negation and the Nietzschean claim that knowledge is all a battle for power provide Said in Orientalism with little or no alternative to the epistemological structures whose polarizing effects he now laments. If the author of Orientalism wins, he becomes the "us" that succeeds in [End Page 114] defining "them" and himself risks essentializing and homogenizing the others whom he has powerfully categorized and labeled. As Said writes in Culture and Imperialism, "The world is a crowded place, and. . . if everyone were to insist on the radical purity or priority of one's own voice, all we would have would be the awful din of unending strife, and a bloody political mess": "A new and in my opinion appalling tribalism is fracturing societies, separating peoples, promoting greed, bloody conflict, and uninteresting assertions of minor ethnic or group particularity" (xxi, 20). To construct an alternative to "unending strife," however, one needs to understand culture as more than simply a battle of texts for dominance. One needs a model of semiotic and epistemological relations that recognizes the Nietzschean moment but then suggests how a victory might lead to different conditions of exchange (reciprocal, emancipatory, and noncoercive) instead of perpetuating the winner-loser dichotomy and the tit-for-tat of cultural and epistemological conflict.

Said gestures toward such a model in his advocacy of "contrapuntal criticism" in Culture and Imperialism. Attempting to move beyond Orientalism's dualism, which is hard pressed to achieve the noncoercive, liberating knowledge of other cultures it imagines, Said acknowledges that "the difficulty with theories of essentialism and exclusiveness, or with barriers and sides, is that they give rise to polarizations that absolve and forgive ignorance and demagogy more than they enable knowledge" (31). This is true not only of the institution that Orientalismattacks and unmasks but also of the reverse polarization that Said deplores in his book's reception. In Culture and Imperialismhe proposes instead "a contrapuntal perspective" that would seek "to think through and interpret together experiences that are discrepant" (32). As he argues, "partly because of empire, all cultures are involved in one another; none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogeneous, extraordinarily differentiated, and unmonolithic" (xxv). Consequently, Said asks "how a post-imperial intellectual attitude might expand the overlapping community between metropolitan and formerly colonized societies. By looking at the different experiences contrapuntally, as making up a set of what I call intertwined and overlapping histories, I shall try to formulate an alternative both to a politics of blame and to the even more destructive politics of confrontation and hostility" (18). This is an attractive ideal, [End Page 115] and it is not surprising that Said turns to the realm of music, always a space of expansive, noncoercive pleasure for him, for a metaphor of cross-cultural exchange that supersedes battles for power. It is not clear, however, that the notion of counterpoint (the harmonious juxtaposition of different melodies) can do more than point to the desirability of this political and epistemological work. As a metaphor for negotiating cultural differences, counterpoint assumes what needs to be established—the possibility of moving beyond perpetually divisive conflict to a productive, creative exchange of differences—without demonstrating systematically how it can be achieved.

The challenge, as Said himself describes it, is how to overcome "the almost insuperable contradiction between a political actuality based on force, and a scientific and humane desire to understand the Other hermeneutically and sympathetically in modes not influenced by force" (Culture, 56). In large part this is, of course, not an epistemological problem but a political one: how to replace structures of domination and subordination, like imperialism, with democratic relations based on equality and mutual respect. But the question then returns as to whether this political ideal is epistemologically possible—or helplessly naive about the ubiquitous interdependence of knowledge and power that would remain problematic even if economic and material parity were created and inequities based on race or gender were eradicated. These are utopian imaginings, to be sure, but the point of such a thought experiment is to suggest that, even under otherwise ideal conditions, the will to know may always carry with it a will to power that will disrupt the democratic negotiation of differences by seeking to replace equality with dominance.

This is the difficult issue that Said both illuminates and obscures with his metaphor of contrapuntal criticism:

As we begin to look back at the cultural archive, we begin to reread it not univocally but contrapuntally, with a simultaneous awareness both of the metropolitan history that is narrated and of those other histories against which (and together with which) the dominating discourse acts. In the counterpoint of Western classical music, various themes play off one another, with only a provisional privilege being given to any particular one; yet in the resulting polyphony there is concert and order, an organized interplay that derives from the themes, not from a rigorous melodic or formal principle outside the work. (Culture, 51) [End Page 116]

"Polyphony" is created out of the discordant concord of counterpoint because the will to dominance of any one melody is contained by a structure that orders all of the conflicting elements into a relationship that is nonsynthetic and nonunitary but nevertheless reciprocal. This feat depends both on the controlling force of the composer's intention and on the generic conventions of contrapuntal music that lay out the rules of the game. The situation in cross-cultural interpretation is not exactly analogous. The contrapuntal interpreter may intend to achieve a similar discordant concord among the heterogeneous cultural materials that he or she seeks to understand, but there is nothing like the conventions of counterpoint to govern the juxtapositions and conflicts with which the interpreter works. How to establish such a game— conditions of exchange governed by nonsynthetic, nonconsensual reciprocity aimed not at solidarity or dominance—is precisely the challenge and the need, and it is the question that the metaphor of counterpoint begs.

For whatever reasons, Said's own attempts at contrapuntal interpretation often reenact the quest for ascendancy instead of creating nonsynthetic reciprocity. One of the most important and interesting instances is his depiction of Conrad as an insightful critic of the cruelty and exploitation of imperialism who nevertheless replicates the very blindness and inhumanity he exposes. After calling for criticism to go beyond the rhetoric of blame, Said faults Conrad for reasons that show an odd lack of sympathy and historical understanding. 17 Although Conrad was able "as an outsider . . . to comprehend how the machine works," Said argues that he "does not give us the sense that he could imagine a fully realized alternative to imperialism": "Conrad's tragic limitation is that even though he could see clearly that on one level imperialism was essentially pure dominance and land-grabbing, he could not then conclude that imperialism had to end so that 'natives' could lead lives free from European domination. As a creature of his time, Conrad could not grant the natives their freedom, despite his [End Page 117] severe critique of the imperialism that enslaved them" (Culture, 25, 30). This judgment is surely unreasonable in the expectations it sets for a writer to rise above the limitations of his or her own period and enter some realm of transcendent understanding that Said's own insistence on the historical worldliness of writing would call into question. To accuse Said of ahistorical utopianism, however, is not to suggest that we read Conrad solely with reference to his contemporaries' ability to understand themselves. As Sartre argues in What Is Literature? writers may attempt to reach across the horizons of the present by writing for a future of readers whose reactions they cannot fully imagine, predict, or control, and they do so by criticizing the limits and exposing the inadequacies of their contemporary worlds. 18 Writing can therefore be an act of transcendence not in the sense that it claims apodictic universality but in the sense that it goes beyond the conditions it exposes through the very process of disclosing them.

The contradictions in Conrad's depiction of imperialism are evidence of an attempt to point beyond a situation that it would be unreasonable to expect him fully to transcend. By using Marlow to dramatize contradictions that neither author nor narrator can resolve, Conrad poses to future readers the challenge of creating conditions of reciprocity that he bemoans the absence of but does not know how to produce. Understanding Conrad's contradictory representation of imperialism as an attempt to reach beyond his situation by engaging it is a way of reading Heart of Darkness historically by seeing the time of writing and the time of reading in a reciprocally determining relationship across its history of reception. This reciprocity is not a counterpoint of past and present but a dialogue in which each partner helps construct the other through exchange. There can be no pregiven socially, culturally, or aesthetically agreed-on conventions for the unfolding of this process, because the act of interpretation that merges the horizons of writer and reader brings different conventions of understanding to the exchange with each new generation or different culture of interpreters. The interaction is consequently unpredictable and open-ended, and [End Page 118] the rules governing it may vary and evolve as the exchange plays out its implications and discovers its possibilities. 19

Said claims that exiles and émigrés are more likely than others to understand and exemplify the contrapuntal ideal. He describes Culture and Imperialismas "an exile's book":

For objective reasons that I had no control over, I grew up as an Arab with a Western education. Ever since I can remember, I have felt that I belonged to both worlds, without being completely of either one or the other. . . . Yet when I say "exile" I do not mean something sad or deprived. On the contrary belonging, as it were, to both sides of the imperial divide enables you to understand them more easily. (xxvi-xxvii)

Said's claims for himself as an "exile" are once again contradictory, inasmuch as they assert the ascendancy of the special identity he has long desired (as the exemplary exile, he is all-something, after all), even if this identity is not the integration he sought but a recognition that doubling and difference are inescapable. The broader question, however, is whether an exile occupies a unique, privileged position or represents practices more generally available to others with different histories. I have argued that Said's status as an exile who finds himself always "out of place" stages in his particular circumstances our general destiny as beings whose identity is double and split. If so, then hybridity and heterogeneity constitute a potential common ground for cross-cultural understanding rather than a basis for one individual's epistemological privilege.

What matters from this perspective is not whether some of us are exiles and others not but how we engage in historical acts of doubling. These practices are both situated and open-ended and vary according to the circumstances and horizons of the practitioners. The decisive distinction is whether such practices aim to be conflictual and divisive (used as instruments for exercising the will to power) or hermeneutically productive, noncoercive, and mutually liberating (used as the enabling materials of contrapuntal exchanges). This distinction in turn [End Page 119] depends not on the kind of being one is but on how one responds to the historical circumstances one finds oneself in. Here again the metaphor of counterpoint is too ahistorical—that is, too static, closed, and unsituated—to suggest adequately the open-ended work of constructing mutually enhancing exchanges with otherness. Although music is a temporal art, the goal of establishing harmony or concord is too stable and homogeneous to figure the movement of differences interacting across historical horizons and cultural boundaries. Furthermore, the aim of creating and sustaining noncoercive, emancipatory relations that are nonconsensual but reciprocal is not necessarily harmony. Interactions that are lively, liberating, and mutually enhancing may be productively discordant without being violent or oppressive.

A more adequate metaphor for illuminating these complications is "play," in Iser's analysis of this double-sided term. Unlike counterpoint, play does not decide in advance whether its aim will be conflict or reciprocity, discord or concord, domination or mutual enhancement. Iser distinguishes two kinds of play: the play of games that entails an instrumental attempt to master and control (culture modeled on the will to power) and play as an open-ended, unpredictable, to-and-fro movement (power used in a reciprocal exchange intended to multiply differences rather than to freeze them into the single hierarchical distinction between winner and loser). The second kind of play supplements the first with a model of culture as emancipatory interchange. The difference is between games that aim to end play with the victory of one side and open-ended interchanges that are playful precisely because they resist resolution. The two kinds of play are related, however, because noncoercive, nonmanipulative interactions can degenerate into gamesmanship (reciprocity being undermined by instrumentality) even as the momentum of play in a game can seek to perpetuate itself and avoid the disappointment of closure.

One important source of Iser's analysis of play is his mentor Hans-Georg Gadamer's use of this metaphor to characterize the historicity of understanding. Both kinds of play—for instrumental gain or for expansive dialogue—are historical practices in that the players are situated in particular circumstances that help define the differences between them that make interaction possible. Further, their engagement with one another occurs through time as they exchange differences back [End Page 120] and forth across their horizons in an unpredictable manner. Play, as both Iser and Gadamer understand it, requires history as its stage even as it enacts itself through history. 20

I have attempted to read Out of Placeboth critically and sympathetically to engage in productive, mutually enhancing play across the horizons separating me and Said. By taking up Said's interpretation of his history to offer an alternative reading that tries both to re-create and to go beyond his self-understanding, I have sought to demonstrate nonconsensual reciprocity. One premise of this work is that dialogue between different, not fully aligned positions will happen historically, if it happens at all. It does not have to happen—that is another sign of its historicity, its contingency, the lack of inevitability that differentiates history from fate. There can be no end of history if our doubleness as divided selves means that we can never capture ourselves or become simply one with others in a homogeneous community. Instead, history offers the hope and the possibility that we will learn to play games of nonconsensual reciprocity by, among other things, responding with acts of attentive criticism and understanding to the overtures of other players.


Paul B. Armstrong is professor of English and dean of the college at Brown University. He is author of The Phenomenology of Henry James (1983), The Challenge of Bewilderment: Understanding and Representation in James, Conrad, and Ford (1987), and Conflicting Readings: Variety and Validity in Interpretation (1990). He is also editor of the Norton critical edition of E. M. Forster's novel Howards End (1998). He is at work on a book about the politics of reading and the modern novel.


1. Edward W. Said, Out of Place: A Memoir (New York: Knopf, 1999). The game of "Gotcha" is exemplified by Justus Reid Weiner's notorious essay "'My Beautiful Old House' and Other Fabrications by Edward Said," Commentary, September 1999, 23-31. For a balanced account of the Commentary controversy and a sympathetic interview with Said about Weiner's charges see Emily Eakin, "Look Homeward, Edward," New York, 27 September 1999, 48-53. For representative negative and positive reviews of the memoir, respectively, see Ian Buruma, "Misplaced Person," New York Times Book Review, 3 October 1999, 10; and Ammiel Alcalay, "Stop-Time in the Levant," Nation, 20 December 1999, 23-28.

2. In this respect I am interested in what Paul John Eakin would call the "narrative identity" that Said constructs. The story he tells is not his actual, lived experience, in all its confusing immediacy, but an interpretation of it. My essay offers a different interpretation by analyzing the complexities and contradictions of the life story Said tells and by placing it in relation to other texts he has written. Said's life story and my interpretation are alternative constructions of a history that transcends both versions even as it, like every history, is available only through different renderings. For a useful discussion of the relation between "narrative" and "identity" see Paul John Eakin, "Storied Selves: Identity through Self-Narration," in How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999), 99-141. For an analysis of some of the epistemological ambiguities of history and historical interpretation see Paul B. Armstrong, "History, Epistemology, and the Example of The Turn of the Screw," in Conflicting Readings: Variety and Validity in Interpretation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 89-108.

3. Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon, 1978); Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Knopf, 1993). All quotations of Orientalism are taken from the 1978 edition unless otherwise indicated.

4. The differences between Said's and my mother's experiences of doubleness are important and complex. The Danish and Palestinian situations are certainly not comparable (although the Danes do think of themselves, ironically but with pride, as having a marginal identity, in contrast to citizens of the central European powers). The differences between their stories have more to do with class, however, than with national identity. My mother's sense of exile and homelessness in middle-class America are largely attributable to her lack of education beyond a high-school-level business course, as well as to her background as the daughter of the nurseryman at the village slaughterhouse who had escaped the farm for the factory. She identified through her children with American middle-class aspirations but never quite knew how her own story fit in. Her children's educational and professional successes often made her feel a failure and an outsider. The role of class in Said's ability to create and sustain a multiple identity, as well as in the doubleness of his identification with the oppressed, is part of a different history.

5. Edward W. Said, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966), viii, 4.

6. Zszislaw Najder, ed., Conrad's Polish Background: Letters to and from Polish Friends, trans. Halina Carroll (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), 240.

7. Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1924), 223.

8. Helmuth Plessner, "Soziale Rolle und menschliche Natur," in Schriften zur Soziologie und Sozialphilosophie, vol. 10 of Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Günter Dux, Odo Marquard, and Elisabeth Stroker (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1985), 235.

9. Wolfgang Iser, The Fictive and the Imaginary: Charting Literary Anthropology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 80.

10. Homi K. Bhabha, "DissemiNation: Time, Narrative, and the Margins of the Modern Nation," in Nation and Narration, ed. Homi K. Bhabha (London: Routledge, 1990), 297.

11. Edward W. Said, The World, the Text, and the Critic (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983), 24.

12. Ross Chambers, Room for Maneuver: Reading (the) Oppositional (in) Narrative (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

13. Jim Merod makes a similar point: "The overt celebration of the sentimental is not Said's project in the least, although an undercurrent within his writing suggests a desire to exert a utopic theme, a hope for the usefulness of intellect to increase cultural contestation at the expense of outright skirmishes, bloodshed, brutality, and carnage" ("The Sublime Lyrical Abstractions of Edward W. Said," in Edward Said and the Work of the Critic: Speaking Truth to Power, ed. Paul A. Bové [Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000], 115). Rather than a mere "undercurrent," however, I see a defining tension between tough-minded skepticism and a reasoned belief in the possibility of critical, productive conflict that exists throughout Said's career but becomes marked in Culture and Imperialismand Out of Place.

14. Edward W. Said, "Afterword," in Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1994), 332.

15. See Jean-Paul Sartre, Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr, trans. Bernard Frechtman (New York: Braziller, 1963), 17-22, 49-58.

16. There are obvious parallels here to G. W. F. Hegel's classic analysis of the master-slave dialectic, which thoroughly if silently informs Sartre's interpretation of Genet's transformation of authority's defining gaze into an opportunity for rebellious self-consciousness and self-fashioning. See also Said's brief but interesting discussion of Franz Fanon's rereading of Hegel to illuminate the battle between colonizer and colonized (Culture, 210). Said's point is that Fanon shows "the partial tragedy of resistance, that it must to a certain degree work to recover forms already established or at least influenced or infiltrated by the culture of empire" (210). Such a transformation of the dominant culture's instruments into tools for oppositional purposes is made possible by the doubling I have described.

17. Conrad, like Said an émigré seeking authoritative standing as a critic of imperialism, may have for him an especially charged status as a rival and competitor. If so, a battle for ascendancy between them would be an excellent test for a contrapuntal criticism that aims to replace the will to dominance with a harmonious, nonsynthetic concord that gives neither party the upper hand.

18. Jean-Paul Sartre, What Is Literature? trans. Bernard Frechtman (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), 32-60.

19. For a detailed interpretation of Heart of Darkness along these lines see Paul B. Armstrong, "Heart of Darkness and the Epistemology of Cultural Differences," in Under Postcolonial Eyes: Joseph Conrad after Empire, ed. Gail Fincham and Myrtle Hooper (Rondebosch: University of Cape Town Press, 1996), 21-41.

20. See Iser, 247-80; and Paul B. Armstrong, "The Politics of Play: The Social Implications of Iser's Aesthetic Theory," New Literary History31 (2000): 211-23. See also Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, 2d ed. (New York: Continuum, 1993), 101-34.

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