|BOOK REVIEW BY TONY SIMOES DA SILVA|
Bill Ashcroft and Pal Ahluwalia
|London: Routledge (Routledge Critical Thinkers Series), 1999. 167pp. ISBN: 0-415-24778-0|
Best known for his influential work, Orientalism (1978), Said is at the forefront of a number of writers who have radically challenged the cognitive mapping of the last 200 hundred years of European domination of the world. Focusing especially on what Michel Foucault would identify as the 'archaeology of knowledge', Said has undertaken in his writings a profound critique of Western forms of acquiring and exercising control of other cultures and other places. To critics who argue that in his work Said is at best ambivalent about his relationship to the knowledges he critiques, if not entirely complicit with it, one might reply that his critique is all the more powerful precisely because he is so much a product of a neo-humanist tradition of the West. It is hardly surprising, then, that as the authors note, Said usually adopts a relaxed response to critics' claims that his, is, essentially, a neo-humanist position. For the xenophobe American or Eurocentric critic, Said is the epitome of the outsider who, once invited in, proceeds to expose the rot at the heart of domestic bliss. The reluctance by Western intellectuals to attack Zionism, for instance, and especially their failure to distinguish between it and Israel's right to exist as a nation, represents one of the continuing manifestations of Orientalism, an area of silence that epitomises the kind of construction of the Other Said has done so much to unmask. Critics who have suggested that in Orientalism Said cannot conceive of the Oriental as other than entrapped by the colonial / imperial gaze, fail to understand the way his work is about the mechanics of change, rather than the logistics of it. Although his purpose is to 'unlearn' us, as Ashcroft and Ahluwalia point out, it is also equally to teach us anew, in new ways of seeing, of being, of behaving.
Ashcroft and Ahluwalia compare Said to the Martinican Frantz Fanon, and suggest that in his work Said too lays the groundwork for a true theory of resistance. Given the way the text revolves around this premise, it represents also its most obvious weakness. Intellectuals such as Fanon, Amilcar Cabral and Che Guevara, light up the flames of revolution and stick around to fight the battles, even if, so often, they are unable to complete the task they set themselves. To Said, along with a long line of intellectuals such as W.E.B. DuBois, Toni Morrison, Michel Foucault or Judith Butler, we owe a careful and unrelenting project of demystification of the way we live today. They are much more effective at deconstructing the myths of Enlightenment than at fighting in the battlefront. Orientalism remains such an influential work because it is, in some ways, the history of Western oppression as an intellectual and 'physical' project. As the authors put it, "Orientalism ... is an openly political work" (54). Indeed, if Said shares anything with Fanon, it is especially the ability to prophesise, to see beyond into the increasing chaos in the middle-east in ways that others, politicians especially, have failed to do. It is an ability that I would argue is inextricable from his outsidedness, both a literal exile and an exile of the mind. I suspect that Said belongs to a tradition of intellectuals whose best work could not have been possible without the 'trappings' of exile (cruel as these sometimes can be).
Ashcroft and Ahluwalia do justice to Said's work, reading it with care and critical insight, yet there is at times a rather reverential tone that sits awkwardly in a work of this type. Similarly, the focus on the 1981 work, The Critic, The Writer and the Text, offers some difficulties. I am not sure that Said's position has remained as static as the decision of the authors of Edward Said to focus so closely on this work implies. A reading of some of his prolific contributions to Arab newspapers, might have proved a more illuminating site for a discussion of Said's concept of 'worldliness' and of his views on the intellectual as 'amateur'. Having said that, in this study Ahluwalia and Ashcroft have concisely summarised the gist of Said's work in ways that allow the student of postcolonialism to come to grips with the theoretical writings of one of the most original thinkers of the of the 20th Century.