The American Comparative Literature Association’s Annual Conference, which met in Toronto in 2013, featured a plenary panel commemorating the tenth anniversary of Edward Said’s death. The organizers of the plenary panel - professors and students in the Centre for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto - wanted to honour Said’s intellectual and political legacy and celebrate his continuing influence in literary and cultural studies. The distinguished members of the panel who spoke on that occasion were Professors Gauri Viswanathan, Ella Shohat, and Linda Hutcheon. The University of Toronto Quarterly is proud to publish the revised versions of their eloquent talks delivered at that commemorative plenary.
As with many of my contemporaries, what struck me most when I first read Said’s Orientalism in the late seventies was the note of passion in that distinctive critical voice that commented so sharply, yet generously, not only on literature and the problems of representation but also on the political realities of our world. For those of us who are the postcolonial products of a Western education, Said’s book was a call to take stock of our own position in the Euro-American academy. This was not a call for a politics of identity; this was a call for an awareness of how a history of conquest and colonization has shaped the contemporary geopolitical spaces in which we are positioned. In Orientalism, as in his other books and essays, Said was acutely aware of how the global positioning systems of the powerful have always asserted their right to locate, fix, and demarcate the world. But he was also supremely aware that these systems can never succeed fully in positioning the world in a tidy manner. Said, who chose to title his memoir Out of Place, remarked in an interview that “the unevenness and heterogeneity of the territory that one is looking at has to be the main point of assertion . . . All of these systems that confirm themselves over and over again so that every shred of evidence becomes an instance of the system as a whole - these systems are really the enemies” (Hentzi and McClintock 11). The man who acknowledged the influence of [End Page 1] Foucault’s theory on his work was the same man who could write, “What we also need over and above theory, however, is the critical recognition that there is no theory capable of covering, closing off, predicting all the situations in which it might be useful . . . [Theory cannot fully accommodate] the essential untidiness, the essential unmasterable presence that constitutes a large part of historical and social situations” (Said 241).
In the year 2000, the University of Toronto awarded Edward Said an honorary doctorate. An excerpt from the award’s citation, written by Professor Linda Hutcheon, sums up eloquently what many of us most value in Edward Said’s work. Although I am mindful that I should replace Professor Hutcheon’s present-tense verbs with the past, I will not change them as I think Said’s writings continue to inspire us in the present. Here is what Professor Hutcheon wrote in her citation:
“Passion, courage, boldness”: these words . . . are not the usual ones used to describe professors of English and comparative literature, either inside or outside the academy. But “passion, courage, boldness” are the words you begin with when you try to describe Edward Said. From there, you move on to talk about his fierce intellectual independence and equally fierce integrity, before passing on to his exhilarating originality and creativity. Edward Said is a radically innovative thinker who has changed forever the face of literary studies: by demanding that criticism be “worldly” and therefore acknowledge its investment in the political realm, he has exercised a powerful moral pressure on the academy.(5)