Review Essay: Edward Said: Criticism and Society, by Abdirahman Hussein
Edward Said at the Limits, by Mustapha Marrouchi

Reviewed by
Matthew Abraham


“The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical process to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory” (Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, quoted in Said’s Orientalism, p. 25).

“The focus of the book is on the extraordinary ferment of a critic’s intellectual life, all the way from politics to literature, cultural history, to music. In such a long span, any such treatment has to be selective, and the book has its fair share of skimmings and exclusions. But I have tried to register something of the wealth of intellectual preoccupations of this remarkable individual and to frame it theoretically with some reflections on the nature of intellectual work in general and is place in cultural life in particular” (Marrouchi xiv).

While the process of “remembering Edward Said” began around 1992 when he was diagnosed with leukemia, Said’s passing on September 25th, 2003, confirmed the urgency and necessity of building an up-to-date critical analysis of his literary-political writings, while also surveying the impact of his life as a scholar and political activist. Two recent books, Abdirahman Hussein’s Edward Said: Criticism and Society and Mustapha Marrouchi’s Edward Said at the Limits, provide vital assessments of the Saidian critical corpus—surveying the symbiotic relationship between his work as a literary critic, living and writing in the United States, and Said’s growing political awareness through his coming to consciousness as a Palestinian intellectual. He described Orientalism nearly thirty years ago, as “an attempt to inventory the traces upon [him], the Oriental subject, of the culture whose domination has been so powerful a factor in the life of all Orientals.”[1] While neither Edward Said: Criticism and Society or Edward Said at the Limits can be described as simple autobiography—as Hussein’s effort is an analytic synthesis of how Said’s work, from Beginnings through to The World, the Text, and the Critic,  and later books such as Culture and Imperialism, stages a confrontation between a “agonistic dialectic” and an “archaeological/genealogical approach”  whereas Marrouchi’s survey connects Said’s personal evolution to his work as a Palestinian spokesperson, music critic, and literary theorist  through such Said’s memoir, Out of Place and the famous Wellek lectures, which became Musical Elaborations—one  senses an attempt by both authors to narrate Said’s life by weaving together the fate of the Palestinian exile with an evolving, against-the-grain, and oppositional critical awareness that restores confidence in the importance and restlessness of the solitary thinker posed against an array of corrupt governments—guided by provincial interests—, frightening religious dogmas, and short-sighted institutions.

It’s this figure-cum-trope of “the engaged intellectual speaking truth to power” against daunting odds that pulses through both of these important studies; each captures Said’s immense energy and passionate commitment to speaking out against grave injustices, his ability to break the easy-going collegiality of the professional guild while confronting one’s own colleagues, who often collude with the dictates of disciplinary decorum, while ignoring some of the most horrific aspects of U.S. and European military adventurism: Said’s call to “worldliness” brings with it a recognition of the connection between academic criticism and affairs of state—indeed, to what degree does academic knowledge provide a sort of ideological cover or rationale for the U.S.’s worldwide imperial plundering?  That Said, as a sort of native informant, could ask this question in so many various ways, while weighing the colonial effects of this U.S. military expansionism upon others, signifies a critical act of Chomskyian proportions with a twist: as a Palestinian, Said was often writing a history of his own people’s dispossession and loss. The act of writing this history forms an act of resistance against the gregarious, defanged, uncritical, and “official” stories of U.S manifest destiny—stories that readily ignore the faces of its victims.

While Marrouchi’s Edward Said at the Limits examines the dynamic interplay between Said’s biography and his courageous attempts—through political activism and a much needed polemicism—to awaken academic criticism from its slumber, Hussein’s Edward Said: Criticism and Society focuses on developing a coherent view of Said’s methodology from his first books, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography and Beginnings, through his later books, Culture and Imperialism and Musical Elaborations. Extending an argument developed earlier by Tim Brennan, Hussein works through many of the misrepresentations and misunderstandings of Said’s supposed Foucauldianism in Orientalism and develops an understanding of what Hussein calls Said’s “agonistic dialectic” that often combined with an “archaeological/genealogical approach” that cut through the ideological veneer that often mars contemporary criticism, providing ideological cover for state apologetics."[2]

In Hussein’s estimation, then, Said devoted both his literary and political careers to upending ideological alibis and cover-ups as these have been perpetuated through pseudo-scholarly projects, projects that promote projections of state power and the demonization of Arab peoples, particularly when they interfere with Western interests and self-understanding. The brilliance of Hussein’s study resides in its insightful observation that Said’s abiding and consistent concern, from The Fiction of Autobiography through to Culture and Imperialism, is to examine the problematic of individual agency in relation to culture—how does the individual consciousness resist and invent itself within and against the hegemonic and multiple pressures of a dominate culture, pressures that ensures the force of imperial domination and its attendant discourses such as orientalism? The will, the life force that animates human action, must be activated by choice—the choice to confront injustice or misrepresentation, while demonstrating a disregard for the material consequences. This attitude animated Said’s life and career, as Hussein points out:

The point I want to insist on, is this: whether explicitly stated (as in The Fiction) or simply assumed, there is a sense in which Said’s entire critical project is predicated on the very idea of a radicalized dialectical engagement—an engagement between an author and his work, between critical consciousness and the material (textual or otherwise) under its scrutiny, between the intellectual and the category of culture (whether broadly or narrowly conceived) that empowers and constrains him or her, and so on” (34).

According to Hussein, this dialectic between the individual and the social, or the specific and the total, animates Said’s critical concerns throughout his scholarly corpus. The ability of the individual to begin, to break free of tradition and to start anew—as a burgeoning sign of critical consciousness— represents a radical act of freedom, a necessary act of resistance that occurs between culture and system. As Hussein writes, “In effect, the mind interrogatively engages the world but does not subsume it altogether. On this view, Said’s various historical studies—despite their considerable thematic disparity—can be seen as attempts to render as cogently as possible the anthromorphic geneses, deracinatiions, dispersions, and transformations of modernist consciousness since the eighteenth century” (Hussein 11). Such a huge epistemological project, as Said demonstrated in Orientalism, The Question of Palestine, and Covering Islam: How the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World, contains within it radically disruptive and transformative possibilities for understanding the very categories and containers of human perception, which are often explained and promulgated by the “learned discourses” of research paradigms and mass-media pundits. 

Filiative loyalties, those we owe to nation, family, and species cannot be broken—they are facts of birth. Affiliative loyalties, those that arise by virtue of profession and temporary alliances, replace filiative relationships; in this sense, one can refashion an identity through relations unrelated to birth, relations that can be invented and fashioned according to time and circumstance. It is this individual effort, in Said’s estimation, that exists between the filiative and the affiliative.  Breaking free of the constraints of a textual tradition or a disciplinary apparatus, or departing from the cliché-ridden dictates of a cynical real politick, manufactured for the benefit of a crippling conformism, can have a numbing effect upon the critical mind as it navigates between the Charybis of independence and the Scylla of communal acceptance. Criticism before solidarity, then, according to Said, must stand as the critical intellectual’s guiding mantra; which the condition of exile drives home quite firmly. The condition of exile, as Said so powerfully demonstrated and enacted, provides a site—a stance or state of mind—through which to remain alert to the seductions and trappings of power, attractions that often reduce the most perceptive critic to a mere state functionary, as well as through which to fight the Gramscian “war of position.” In his Representations of the Intellectual, Said writes:

Nothing in my view is more reprehensible than those habits of mind in the intellectual that induce avoidance, that characteristic turning away from a difficult and principled position which you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take.  You do not want to appear too political; you are afraid of seeming controversial; you need the approval of a boss or authority figure; you want to keep a reputation of being balanced, objective, moderate; your hope is to be asked back, to consult, to be on a board or prestigious committee, and so to remain within the responsible mainstream; someday you hope to get a honorary degree, a big prize, perhaps even an ambassadorship.[3]      

This constant intellectual vigilance, so necessary for resisting the easy comforts and acceptance of a mass-culture mentality, brings with it a loneliness and isolation that becomes difficult to sustain over time. The pressures of career, family, and the day-to-day drudgery associated with contemporary life often relegate the embrace of the critical attitude to an unreachable and impractical ideal: only a handful of intellectuals, the Chomskys, Saids, Finkelsteins, and the Shahaks, can live up to Benda’s critical model—resisting trahison des clercs. Standing against daunting odds, going against the cultural flow, and not engaging in the massive, selective amnesia that is so much a part of the American cultural landscape requires constant effort, an energy and sense of purpose that never longs for a pep rally, a sign of acceptance and reassurance. When one receives such a sign, it’s high time to change course, to re-evaluate one’s position in relation to the larger culture, and to chart a new direction that avoids the idée reçues that reduce the complexity of the human community to a facile formulation of “us” and “them”. Such idée reçues include “the exportation of democracy,” “the war on terror,” “unequivocal support of the only democracy in the Middle East,” and “the necessity of defending our values and way of life.” These repetitive, mind-numbing incantations have taken on the form of cultural dogmas that are seemingly uncontested and uncontestable, where to question them is to commit a sort of thought crime, a high intellectual treason of sorts. That Edward W. Said continually challenged these incantations throughout his critical career signaled his staunch unwillingness to simply enjoy an orthodox academic career, free of the world’s complexities and unseemliness—a stance he surely could have taken. Because of his restlessness and discomfort with what he sensed was the liberal Left’s gregarious tolerance for several types of social oppression throughout the world, including, of course, the dispossession and occupation of the Palestinians and Palestine through the creation of Israel and the U.S.’s continued support of expansive Israeli militarism respectively, Said could not enjoy a regular academic career.

That the Israeli government has been able to speak for “the Jewish people” and, in turn, to and often for the Palestinian people, two groups upon whom have been inflicted the most horrific nightmares of the twentieth century and that both groups should be pitted against one another in a death struggle over territory stands as one of the century’s most perplexing and cruel ironies. The figure of the refugee, whether Eastern European or Palestinian, creates a metaphoric condition through which to explore the cruelty of modernity and the utter failure of intellectual criticism to address the complicity of knowledge production in producing this thing called “the conflict.” The treatment of the refugee, then, becomes a symbol through which to gauge humanity’s progress toward creating a brotherhood and sisterhood of men and women. That the human community has so frequently averted its eyes from the status of the refugee throughout much of world history attests to the defenselessness and utter marginality of those dispossessed through war and oppressed through occupation. Both Marrouchi and Hussein treat this evasion, particularly as it animated Said’s critical concerns, particularly in his last years. Through his bringing together of “discrepant experiences” and the creation of conditions of possibility for non-coercive community, and as the last follower of Adorno and as “as a Jewish-Palestinian,” Said sought to complicate and intercede where others sought to simplify and polarize.

The Palestinian refugee, however, has been dealt a doubly cruel fate: while the dispossession of one’s homeland and cultural institutions is surely difficult enough to endure, the labeling of sentiments that express anger and disappointment toward this dispossession as “anti-Semitic” surely signal the immensity of just how much is at stake in representing Palestinian history and culture. This is the darker side of modernity’s commitment to reason that Said documented with such rigor and clarity throughout his trilogy—Orientalism, The Question of Palestine, and Covering Islam—through to Culture and Imperialism. That idée recues, rather than careful analysis, have marred the criticism of Said’s critical corpus have led many academics to overlook that Said’s consistent concern has been to explore the importance of the individual in society, working within and against traditions, large discursive structures, and daunting odds. 

The ability of the individual to make an impression, a mark, upon the collection of civilization’s accumulated texts and traditions signals the importance of human agency in forging intellectual resistance against discourses such as orientalism, imperialism, and the luxuries of a culture’s selective amnesias. Said’s career-long belief that the individual could still emerge through these maze of discourses—while attempting to awaken an intellectual community from its self-induced, philosophical slumber—finds repeated expression from Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography through to Freud and the Non-European. The importance of the individual relying upon, while also resisting tradition, found such repeated articulation in Said’s work because it was directly tied to Said’s self construction as a critical intellectual. Paul Bové, in his Intellectuals in Power: A Critical Genealogy, places Said in a pantheon of thinkers that include Nietzsche, Foucault, Auerbach, I.A. Richards, and Hodgkin, who sought to secure their own dynastic place within the Western tradition by enacting an intellectual charisma and independence,  which radically depart from this tradition, while also securing their dominance within it.

Posing a challenge to the tradition, through a type of intellectual resistance that stands as an immense threat to entrenched political interests—particularly those that configure the Israel-Palestine conflict in the American public sphere—Said created a persistent problem for those attempting to construct a self-serving history of the Middle East that would erase the many injustices visited upon the Palestinians for over the last fifty years. The al nakba (the catastrophe of 1947) and al naksa (the setback of 1967) are erased from the West’s memory.   Benjamin’s famous statement that “[e]very document of civilization is a document of barbarism” seems apt here. Seemingly every treaty or accord that has been brokered between the Palestinians and Israel by the United States stands as a glaring testament to Benjamin’s statement. The survival of cultural practices and traditions, to a degree, depends upon the repeated exercise of a type of symbolic violence that excludes marginal and abnormal discourses. Said’s attempt to take stock of this symbolic violence in such texts as Orientalism, The Question of Palestine, and Covering Islam interrupts a doctrinal hegemony that had remained largely unopposed. That a Western educated Palestinian, who suffered the pangs of dispossession and loss, would subject the epistemological ruses of philosophical idealism and empiricism to such a thoroughgoing critique, exposed the degree to which Orientalist scholarship worked co-extensively with the aims of imperialism. As Said points out, however, choosing a supposed neutral position—often which takes the form of silence—is as much a choice as becoming engagé:

 …there is no neutrality, there can be no neutrality or objectivity about Palestine. This is not to say, on the other hand, that all positions are equal, or that all perspectives are
as heavily or as lightly invested. But it is to say that so ideologically
saturated is the question of Palestine, so manifestly present is it to most people
who come to deal with it, that even a superficial or cursory apprehension of
it involves a position taken, an interest defended, a claim or a right asserted. There is no indifference, no objectivity, no neutrality because there is simply no room for them in a space that is as crowded and overdetermined as this one.[4]

Hussein claims that “Said’s dissatisfaction with idealism and empiricism stems from his conviction that, separately and together, these two modes of intellection (and, by extension, the two broad philosophical-cultural traditions deriving from them) have repeatedly collaborated with ideological coercions and mystifications” (10). That a native informant would use his high modernist training to trace the history of Orientalist discourses was, by definition, a polemical attack upon the collegiality often demanded by the guild. As Timothy Brennan recently observed, “Rarely has uncollegiality been so handsomely rewarded.”[5] It is clear that the scholarly community was not quite ready for Said’s critique. As Marrouchi writes, “For many in the West, he is still a slightly embarrassing presence, the unruly enfant terrible who makes a display of himself at the dinner table” (206). We should remember the difficulties Said experienced in even securing a publisher for Orientalism in the late 1970’s. As the requisite critical vocabularies and paradigms were still not quite in place, the importance of what Hussein labels Said’s “left-handed analysis” could not even have been recognized. 

It is possible to view the Saidian critical corpus as providing a powerful corrective, a form of intellectual resistance, against popular representations, and in turn, misrepresentations of Islam and Muslims in Western culture, particularly the United States. Just as Hussein finds that Said expressed a consistent concern, throughout his scholarly work, about the dialectic between the individual and culture, it should be equally recognized that Said—through this dialectic—is struggling to understand the West’s domestication of Islam through the discourses of orientalism, imperialism, and anti-Semitism. That such hostile and negative stereotypes (e.g. Arab irrationality, Arab intransigence to civilizing processes, and the Arab incapacity for self-government) could be generated to defame, and to a degree, to “understand” over three-hundred million Arabs attests to the strength of the West’s epistemological dominance, solidified through the “triadic interaction” between Orientalism, neo-imperialism, and Zionism (Hussein 283). As Said writes in Covering Islam

It is only a slight overstatement to say that Muslims and Arabs are essentially covered, discussed, and apprehended either as oil suppliers or as potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Muslim life, has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Islamic world. What we have instead is a limited series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as, among other things, to make the world vulnerable to military aggression. I do not think it is an accident that talk during the 1970s of United States military intervention in the Arabian Gulf, or the Carter Doctrine, or discussions of Rapid Deployment Forces, or the military and economic “containment” of  “political Islam,” has often been preceded by a period of  “Islam’s” rational presentation through the cool medium of television and through “objective” Orientalist study (which, paradoxically, either in its “irrelevance” to modern actualities or in its propagandistic “objective” variety, has a uniformly alienating effect)… (Covering Islam 28).

Said’s efforts to recuperate a neglected history, a history of the demonization and the “cruel and punishing destiny” of the Palestinian Arab in the West and elsewhere , stands as a towering testament to his belief that he was writing the history of anti-Semitism’s secret sharer—Orientalism.[6] Now that we have Abdirahman Hussein’s Edward Said: Criticism and Society and Mustapha Marrouchi’s Edward Said at the Limit, we can accurately judge the success of Said’s efforts, to borrow R.P. Blackmur’s famous phrase, to create “a technique of trouble” for exposing the loose seams of a Western metaphysical will-to-dominance.  “In what sense, then, and with how much success,” we may ask “did Edward W. Said live up to his early billing as a secular border intellectual?”[7] Hussein and Marrouchi make the answers to these questions fairly clear.


[1] Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979, p. 25.

[2] See Andrew Rubin's "Technique of Trouble" (South Atlantic Quarterly, December 2003.)

[3] Representations of the Intellectual, p. 11.

[4] Said, Edward. "The Burden of Interpretation and the Question of Palestine," Journal of
Palestine Studie
s, 1992, p. 30.

[5] See Brennan’s “The Illusion of a Future: Orientalism as Traveling Theory” Critical Inquiry, Spring 2000.

[6] Said writes in Orientalism, “I have found myself writing the history of a strange, secret sharer of
 western anti-Semitism. That anti-Semitism and, as I have discussed it in its Islamic branch, Orientalism  resemble each other very closely in a historical, cultural, and political truth that needs only to be mentioned to an Arab Palestinian for its irony to be perfectly understood” (28).

[7] See Abdul Jan Mohamed’s “Worldliness-Without-World, Homeless-as-Home: Toward a Definition of the Specular Border Intellectual” in Edward Said: A Critical Reader. Michael Sprinker, Ed. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1992, pp. 96-120.


Matthew Abraham teaches in the Department of English at University of Tennessee at Knoxville