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Edward Said on Contrapuntal Reading

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 18, Number 2, October 1994
pp. 265-273 | 10.1353/phl.1994.0025

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George M. Wilson EDWARD SAID ON CONTRAPUNTAL READING Edward Said's rich and powerful new book, Culture and Imperialism ,1 offers, as one strand of its multifaceted discussion, methodological reflections on the reading and interpretation of works of narrative fiction. More specifically, Said delineates and defends what he calls a "contrapuntal" reading (or analysis) ofthe texts in question. I am sympathetic to much ofwhat Said aims to accomplish in tiiis endeavor, but I am also puzzled about some key aspects of his proposal. I will begin by presenting a brief sketch of my understanding of what a contrapuntal reading involves, and I will tiien explain some of the doubts and puzzlement I feel. Unfortunately, there is much that Said says about even diis limited topic that I will have to by-pass, but I hope to say enough to initiate some helpful discussion of the issues. I should note that aldiough the topic of "contrapuntal reading" recurs with significant emphasis throughout his book, Said's direct explication of the enterprise is scattered across several chapters, and the relevant remarks tend to be, in each instance, fairly brief. Given this state of affairs, I have tried to extract a reasonably unified account from a wide range of passages, and I hope to have done so as sympadietically and accurately as possible. Nevertheless, die fact remains that what follows is my reconstruction of the view diat Said adumbrates. Contrapuntal readings are meant to interweave, mutually qualify, and above all, superimpose die legitimate claims ofinternal or intrinsic readings of a work, on the one hand, and the claims ofvarious forms of external critique, on the odier. Such readings rest upon the fact that any literary fiction refers to or depicts a complex of materials that have been drawn from the actual world, e.g., actual people, places, institutions , and practices. These items are taken up and variously deployed Philosophy and Literature, © 1994, 18: 265-273 266Philosophy and Literature within the wider imaginative project of the work. It is crucial to this deployment tiiat the intended audience can be expected to bring to the text a set of background "attitudes" concerning die relevant real world materials, and tiiat diese beliefs, concerns, ideological presuppositions, etc., are elaborated widiin die work's embedded patterns. Thus, die text is anchored in what Said calls "a structure of reference and attitude," and diis structure constitutes die base from which a contrapuntal reading chiefly proceeds. Reading contrapuntally, interpreters move back and forth between an internal and external standpoint on the work's imaginative project, with special attention to the structure of reference and attitudes it contains. From an internal standpoint, interpretation aims at explanation of the work's narrational, rhetorical, and linguistic strategies, an explanation that respects the strategies and die density of the textual elements tiiey implicate. It is important that the internal standpoint articulate die work's vision as compellingly as possible, not only because diis has an obvious interest of its own, but because the persuasiveness ofcommentary from an external standpoint depends upon giving full credit to the sophistication of the text. (We will return to diis point shortly.) An external standpoint examines the problematic seductiveness of die work's capacity to guide its audience's responses and seeks to define die limited degrees of freedom widiin whatever complexity it establishes . By reminding us of information about the structure of reference that die work ignores, distorts, or minimizes and by reminding us that the structure of invoked attitudes has plausible alternatives that the work has effectively excluded, die external standpoint situates the text critically within a wider field of imaginative possibilities. As Said formulates the point, we read from an external perspective "... with an effort to draw out, extend, give emphasis and voice to what is silent or marginally present or ideologically represented" in die work" (CUfI, p. 66). In elaborating the account above, I have spoken of "intrinsic readings " of narrative fictions, and it will help to fill in my sketch if I specify the fairly standard conception I have in mind. Said does not address diis as a separate topic, but I believe that die following remarks are fully compatible with what he seems...