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Power, Politics, and Culture: Interviews with Edward W. Said


Power, Politics, and Culture: Interviews with Edward W. Said

Edited and introduction by Gauri Viswanathan. New York: Pantheon, 2001. 485 pgs, hardcover, $30.00. ISBN: 0375421076.

Edward Said could probably be called the last surviving "Renasissance man" -- not only is he a distinguished professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, he is also a human rights activist, a cultural critic, a political expert, and a music aficionado. The latest of his books, which now number twenty, is Power, Politics, and Culture, puts his multifaceted talent on brilliant display.

The collection, edited and with an introduction by Columbia humanities professor Gauri Viswanathan, brings together transcripts of interviews with Said from the beginning of his controversial and pathbreaking career in the 1970s to the present day, and the steady link that connects them all is that "Said rarely talks about literature without also engaging in politics, and vice versa," according to Viswanathan. The book is divided into two sections: the first half offers interviews relating to literary criticism and cultural theory, while the second half is focused upon Said himself. In an interview with Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics in 1993, Said affirms his placement of significance on the ideal of a well-rounded, comprehensive and contextual approach to any subject: "I want to see how everything works. I am not just interested in Palestinian themes in American literature, or Palestinian themes in French literature. What I am interested in is how all these things work together. That seems to me to be the great task -- to connect them all together -- to understand wholes rather than bits of wholes."

Indeed, it was Said who first saw beyond the innocently imaginative texts and canvases of European writers like Flaubert, Matisse, Renan, Ingres, and others, and instead recognized a pattern of representing the Middle East in a manner that was not only inaccurate, but relegated the Middle East and its "natives" to the status of "other" -- which is inherently inferior. Therefore, in these orientalist works, the Middle East and its inhabitants are base, morally depraved, primitive and in need of civilization. According to Said (who outlined this theory in his groundbreaking Orientalism [1978]), such representation makes it easier to conquer the other and to justify imperialism. Even writers as politically benign as Jane Austen wrote in a manner that pitted England's empire against the natives of England's colonies. Says Said: "[These writers] were part of an imperial culture and part of a process which, as the theorists of empire have said, involved not only the most sordid practices but also some of the best aspects of society."

In other interviews, Said further argues that the misrepresentation of the Middle East and of Arabs persists today in the demonization of Islam. In fact, the image of Arabs and Islam by the American (as well as the European) media and academia is "a deeply flawed, deeply antagonistic, deeply uninformed and uninforming view that regulates what is covered and what is not covered." Said accuses "a whole cadre of scholars, experts" and advocates of Orientalists and Zionists for the unbalanced view of the Middle East and for America's lopsided current foreign policy towards the region, and especially towards the Arab-Israeli conflict over the land of Palestine. He believes that the demonization of Arabs and Arab culture -- that is, the depiction of the Arab as an inherent terrorist -- is the last acceptable form of racism in the United States. He refutes many popularly believed myths about the Israeli-Palestine conflict, and defends the Palestinian movement for sovereignty and independence (many of these interviews, conducted in the 1980s and early 1990s, are eerily appropriate considering the current dark turn the path to peace in the Middle East has taken).

The book reads easily, and one gets a sense of the voice and tone of Said, which the interview format captures in ways that his essays cannot. Whether he is smartly answering a loaded question by an interviewer, or passionately rebutting points made by Bernard Lewis during a debate, or, as in most cases, when he is calmly explaining his complex theories in a way that makes one think, "of course," the ideas and the ideals of Said echo loudly in one's mind. That's the classic Said: examining the various issues, then inserting them into the "big picture," like the artist of an intricately crafted intellectual mosaic. He makes the complex seem simple, and all the while, maintains the human element of it all. In other words, it's easy to talk about political theories and the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict, but what does it mean for people now? What will in mean for both Israelis and Palestinians ten years from now?

I attended a conference in honor of Said's achievements and influence four years ago in Windsor, Canada. It was easy to see that he sparked the ire of some scholars, but that he inspired the respect and admiration of most. Either way, whether one hates or loves him, it's impossible to underestimate his influence.

Susan Muaddi Darraj