- Power, Politics and Culture: interviews with Edward W Said
South Africa is a consistent point of reference in Edward Said's recent career-spanning collection of interviews. This is perhaps unsurprising given that as much as half of Said's prodigious output has been devoted to advancing the Palestinian cause, a cause which he sees as having much to learn from the South African experience. Said of course is the celebrated author of Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism, two titles whose unorthodox blend of literary/cultural criticism and politics largely inaugurated the field of postcolonial studies. This overlap of traditional academic activity and more forthright politics has been the hallmark of Said's originality, and this title replicates such an approach, split as its contents are into sections on theory and criticism, and the other on Palestinian activism.
The parallels between the struggle of black South Africa and that of Palestine looms large for Said, and it is here more than anywhere that he best develops such comparisons. Hence his thoughts on the historical differences between the ANC and PLO (the former 'strategically very firm and tactically flexible', the latter 'exactly the opposite' [2002:406]), and on the similarities between Afrikaner and Israeli territorial claims (the Afrikaner possessed 'a proto-Zionist ideology' [2002:452]). Likewise, his musings on a model for integration: here the binational solution of a shared sovereignty he poses for Israel/Palestine is held up against the 'political realism' of the South African model based on goals of 'coexistence and equality with a hope of truth and reconciliation'. The overwhelming lesson of South Africa's recent political history, for Said, however, is that of looking carefully 'at a complex history of ethnic antagonism' understanding [End Page 89] it, and then 'moving on', rather than being mired in a rhetoric of blame which redivides constituencies along the old lines of separation (2002:451).
We have less 'Said the author' than 'Said the speaking intellectual' on show here. As quickly becomes apparent, there are very different risks involved in publishing a collection of interviews than in remaining within the more guarded domain of the strictly written word. Whether it is his intention or not, Said's text reminds us of the importance of the interview, of the spoken interchange, as a vital medium of intellectual activity - particularly so when activism forms a central part of the project. Of course the interview can make for a precarious situation for the intellectual. Whereas the printed word means that the author has had the time to consider his or her thoughts, to think them through, the spontaneity of the interview necessitates a 'thinking on one's feet'. Moreover, here it is the interviewer - for the most part - who is best prepared. It is here the case that sometimes Said's interlocuters make the best points; that the text, perhaps somewhat ironically, foregrounds some of the most trenchant critiques of his own position. One critic laments the 'flat-footedness' of Said's attack on Western media representations of the Arab, implying that Said's rather stark analysis of these mechanisms itself leans towards the stereotypical.
Far closer to touching a nerve is the point of a Calcutta interviewer who asks whether it is not the case that, as a result of his influence on colonial discourse studies, that Indian history writing has been derailed from its social history agenda. As much as Said insists on the historical groundedness of his work, the interviewer is right. Although Said has a great deal to offer us as a critic, his critical system has detracted attention from Marxist conceptions of history, ideology and capital. As important as Said's assertion of 'worldliness' is - that is, his aversion to intellectuals as super-specialised technicists with elaborate jargons and little or no contact with the real world of power, authority and struggle - at times his approach to critical activity seems dangerously atheoretical. This is especially the case when he suggests that 'the intellectual role is essentially that of … heightening consciousness, becoming aware of tensions, complexities' (2002:385...