- Said's Worldliness
This paper may anger Said traditionalists since I argue here that Said was a globalizing capitalist. Said—unlike some of his academic peer group, who critiqued him—accepted capitalism as the primary engine of globalization. The worldliness of his literary theory has closer ties to globalized capital than have race-and-identity postcolonial theories of globality. Said's worldliness is a family inheritance from Said's father, a mover and a shaker who internationalized a branch of trade in Egypt and made tons of money there. Unlike his son Edward, the senior Said had no interest in politics or the liberation of Palestine. Nonetheless, his interest in global networks of trade was decisive in forming his son's interest in global networks of ideas, power, and opinion. Looking at the young Said's formation, one has to wonder: How could a spoiled, rich, only son of a patriarchal family emerge as an edgy pioneer of liberationist energies and radical theories?
Completely apolitical until 1967, Edward Said entered the public fray as a writer trying to correct misconceptions of the Arab peoples that had come to his attention. These reductive perceptions of Arabs reached critical mass during the "six-day war." He wrote his first political criticism for an undergraduate newspaper. His article, "The Arab Portrayed," was a critique of the stereotyping of Arabs. As time went on, with forays into literary theory and music criticism, he came to excel as a pioneer of as-yet-unnamed cultural criticism. It seems strange that these largely cultural successes brought him to the center of PLO power. But so it was. By 1974 he knew Yasir Arafat and the PLO elite. In 1979 he was meeting quietly with U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and almost worked out a deal for an independent Palestinian state—though head of the PLO, Yassir Arafat, dropped the ball on this initiative. Throughout the 1980s Edward Said hobnobbed with McNeil and Lehrer, Ted Koppel, Phil Donohue, and other media machers. He debated ambassadors and presidents. He was summoned to Washington, D.C., to meet personally with U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz and try to work out a Palestinian/Israeli peace plan during the first Intifada.
But Said's enduring intervention was to forge a new kind of political criticism, a theoretical armature that had little debt to Marxism or to the New Historicism, the then-current styles of politicized literary analysis. Said had engaged with Marxist (and marxisant) theories. In his classes and seminars [End Page 415] of the seventies and early eighties, Said assigned and taught marxist works by Lukács, Althusser, Eagleton, Pierre Macherey, and Raymond Williams; he was reading deeply in politicized non-marxists such as Foucault who cared about real world exercises of power; but he was most interested in Western Marxists such as Lukács and Gramsci. But in the end, his Marxist encounters turned out to be flirtations. His dismissal is famous: "criticism modified in advance by labels like 'Marxism'…is an oxymoron," he wrote; "The net effect of 'doing' Marxist criticism or writing at the present time is of course to declare political preference, but it is also to put oneself outside a great deal of things going on in the world…" (Said 1983b, 28-9). Scholars loyal to Marxism were angry at Said's defection at just the moment of a Marxist revival: the Marxist Literary Group and its house organ, the minnesota review; quarterly academic journals such as Race and Class, Social Text, New Left Review, Red Critique, and Marxism Today, all were flourishing. And contributors to these journals found Said's positions to be puzzling and evasive. "Marxism was swept aside," complained one of Said's most incisive Marxist critics, Aijaz Ahmad (1992, 178). So offended was Said that he resigned from the editorial board of Race and Class when that journal reviewed Ahmad's book favorably. Ahmad reported, accurately, Said's complaint that Marxist criticism "puts one outside of things going on in the world"—in other words, that Marxism was too narrow for a complex world. Said's prominence and indeed the rise of postcolonial...