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The South Atlantic Quarterly 102.4 (2003) 861-876

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Techniques of Trouble:
Edward Said and the Dialectics of Cultural Philology

Andrew N. Rubin

No twentieth-century intellectual has been the subject of such a large body of criticism in a wide array of disciplines over the past several years as Edward Said. In addition to the numerous essays, many, though certainly not all of them, arising out of debates and discussions of his undoubtedly most internationally influential work Orientalism, 1 a collection of books and monographs devoted to his vast and productive oeuvre have emerged over the past five years. 2 Yet in spite of all these notable attempts to define and identify an overarching methodology that can be traced throughout Said's some thirty books, with perhaps only one extraordinary exception, 3 few critics have successfully or at the very least convincingly identified an overall method that endures from his earliest work, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography, to his later works such as Culture and Imperialism and Reflections on Exile. 4 That such an Olympian thinker, who is credited with the invention of fields like Postcolonial Studies, and who has made a decidedly transforming contribution to the reinvention of humanism in general, has elaborated such a contested [End Page 861] and seemingly elusive overall method testifies neither to the difficulty of his work, nor to the fact that his critics seem to know only about half as much as he does.

Why this is the case has as much to do with what appears in his works as an informal method as it does with his method's relationship to the fields of Cultural and Postcolonial Studies as a whole—all fields which, it should be stated, are rooted in different traditions and conventions of literary and cultural interpretation that cannot so easily come to grasp the general structure and theoretical underpinnings of an intellectual whose development can be traced, though not grossly reduced to Said's affiliations with a wide range of figures, intellectuals, and critics including the philologists Erich Auerbach and Giambattista Vico, as well as the work of cultural critics such as Georg Lukács, Raymond Williams, Theodor Adorno, and to a lesser extent the eccentric modernist critic R. P. Blackmur, a former professor of Said's at Princeton in the mid-1950s. 5

What has made these affinities difficult to discern and elaborate together in the form of an identifiable method of critical activity is that throughout Said's writings as well as his interviews, 6 he has never explicitly defined a sustained method for himself, in spite of the substantial scholarly attention paid to the introduction of Orientalism, where the theoretical contributions of Michel Foucault, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Antonio Gramsci play a prevalent but by no means a defining role for Said's work as a whole. 7 Partly a consequence of the enormous attention paid to the presence of this triumvirate of theorists and their often oblique relevance to Said's many other works, critics have often settled mostly for descriptions of Said's general critical attitude that has served to conceal the real critical foundations of his model, if it can even be called such a thing. Indeed, Said's work is often described as presenting a heightened, powerfully motivated restlessness that is executed in a variety of worldly ways, making often provocative connections between, for example, Jane Austen's Mansfield Park and the novel's dependence on plantation slave labor in the Antilles. 8 All of this is similarly the case with his discussion of the seemingly paradoxical representation of musical silence in the scores and performances of Ludwig von Beethoven, the operas of Wagner, and the performances of Glenn Gould on the one hand, and the role of silence in the works of subaltern critics such as Ranajit Guha on the other. 9 No one as perspicacious as Edward Said, in other words, could make such a convincing and eloquent argument for the theoretical connections [End Page 862] between postcolonial historiography, classical music, and antiimperialist...


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