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MARLENA DONOHUE

EDWARD SAID:
AN HOMAGE AND A PROTEST


"I urge everyone to join in and not leave the field of values, definitions, and cultures uncontested."
--Edward Said

The recent death on September 25th in Manhattan at the age of 67 of scholar, art and social theorist Edward Said touched off some serious reflection on my part. About how we process information these days. About the far reaching, often unpredictable ramifications of esoteric art theory. About the possibility of a real relationship between life practice and intellectual theory. About the subtle, powerful relationship between art as symbolic language and politics. About a post modern world that requires us to fashion the oddest reconciliation between mutually exclusive positions--personal and intellectual--and pretty much precludes old promises of comfortable cognitive closure.

As to how information comes in to us and how we fashion reality from it, beginning in the 1960s and continuing to the present, the post modern world--aided and abetted by media-delivered visual culture--has required us to give up our evolutionary desire for experiential, emotional, and psychic gestalt. Stories used to feel right when they resolved themselves; but rarely do they any more. Paintings felt right when they moved toward some sort of unity; we no longer need that from art, and in fact we expect the opposite.

For millennia, our systems have seemed geared toward finding resolution between oppositions, perhaps because the organisms that could make such subtle distinctions of difference lived longer. Well, we have entered a new phase of information processing and cognition predicated on the opposite of closure. This isn’t a bad thing, it just is.

This change has come in increments, and in an odd and ultimately ironic fashion Said played a major role in this discourse. The ‘60s brought the vernacular gaze--art historians used the term to describe that stroboscopic intake of complex visual info that came with the post modern city: billboards hawked wares, lights flickered, graffiti screamed. The Rauschenberg combine stood as an emblem for this new way of multi-channeled seeing and being. The ‘80s and ‘90s brought us the related sound bite. Also delivered via visual culture however aurally, it was the summary of the Cliff Notes version in ten quick words delivered by talking heads or a ticker tape passing under them that said everything and nothing at once. Noted by cultural observers like John Berger, these new "ways of seeing" have become part of our perceptual apparatus.

Today these styles of information processing and truth-making have evolved into what I call constant cognitive non-closure; hard to say that fast three times, and maybe harder to live with it. This form of data and sensory processing, of constructing experience and meaning if you will, offers up simultaneous and mutually exclusive moral/ethical/experiential positions woven together in a single sign and syntax that forces us to emotionally, intellectually reconcile--or leave forever unreconciled (neither very comfortable)--things that simply do not match. This state of perpetual cognitive non-closure has been heightened by the radical shrinking of the world over the last decade that’s forced oppositional realities--white/black, Christian/Islamic, hetero/homo, right/left, first/third world--to rub up against each other in an itchy, close-quartered friction provided by increased access to the the World Wide Web, MTV, CNN and growing numbers of global “ground zeros,” from Somalia to Ramalla, from Baghdad to Manhattan.

It is this new cognitive style that permits Americans (bless our hearts, we seem the most adept at maneuvering this slippery truth terrain) to elect, cheer for, fund, and heroicize our action-film, sport, art, political, music stars even if they indulge in behavior/values that in and of themselves are anti social or worse. It is not just resignation to the age-old double standard that I am talking about here; this cognitive lack of closure is much more psychologically complex. It entails more than the rejection of a fixed value system such as we find in nihilism, for if you look deeply at Nietzsche he longed for the ideal. In this new model of cognition, anything as fixed and focused as an ideal approaches obsolescence. Further, wherever you find yourself with respect to this current and undeniable processing style--either pretending it does not exist, or reveling in its open-ended fluidity--the state I am describing permits us, for better or worse, to rest in no fixed epistemological or ontological space.

These collisions of position that we are forced to process have been nicely packaged and delivered as fascinating hybrids by visual culture and the media into a constant informational diet, usually for monetary gain. Edward Said was among the first to call attention to this.
This absence of fixed positions is in some quarters (perhaps accurately) equated with tolerance, acceptance of diversity, or the not small idea that meaning and reality are socially constructed and in a constant state of flux. So prevalent has this style of dealing with information become that we hardly notice the internal machinations it requires of us. Enter Said and my utter inability to square up a gestalt of the man even in death.

As an art historian who has lectured on, cited, and written about Said’s enormous contributions to cultural theory I feel a strong need to eulogize his passing from leukemia, and equally compelled to excise him from my syllabi, to be outraged by his intellectual hypocrisy and the dangerous and divisive places his remarkable intellect eventually took him.
The publication of Said’s Orientalism: Western Concepts of the Orient in 1978 changed the face of cultural studies. His work was among the first to suggest that Western scholarship and art history had created an imaginary 'Orient' that hid the real Middle East, and loaded a fiction of it with stereotypes of “indolence and lasciviousness” which, according to Said, told us more about the projections of those who held those myths than about the “other” being so represented (keep this idea of projection in mind; further along I will touch on how Said fashioned his own dark “other”).

Said traced with remarkable clarity the manner in which one form of prevailing truth--white, Western, technological--constructed via clever and careful control of symbols a world of meaning that fashioned the non-white in its image, to its convenience, in ways that suited the economic and hegemonic interests of the prevailing culture. Said raised the possibility that what is, things we take as real--like history, race, authorship, etc.--might be better approached from the perspective of what group is doing the envisioning, the symbol making, the describing and recording. Said's scholarship suggested that relations between the West and the rest of the world might be ideology masquerading as academic inquiry.

Back in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, even as the first women’s groups were being formed at Fresno State and Cal Arts by women like Judy Chicago, even as Black power and Chicano caucuses were sprouting up in colleges nationwide, Said lent a strong intellectual voice to the ideas at the core of the disenfranchised “other.” Women, ethnic minorities, and anyone directly and indirectly subject to marginalization were impacted by the logical conclusions of his essays. The imprimatur of Said’s intellectual position, the clarity of his conceptions, his undisputed brilliance came in the ‘80s and ‘90s to inform and support art and social theories from post-colonialism to post-structuralism. Whether you agreed with the specific and implied villains and victims of Said's views, you could not but appreciate Said’s prescient global view of things, the unique manner he came at information to shed light on insular truth systems, suggesting that we might take that really tough step of looking outside ourselves.


Jean-Léon Gerome, "Slave Market
(For Sale)," 1866, oil on canvas.

His theories on the “other” were both intellectual and highly personal. Edward Said was born in Jerusalem in 1935, during the British mandate over Palestine. His family moved per force to Egypt and he attended schools in Cairo. After immigrating to the U.S., he received his B.A. from Princeton and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. His works spanned topics on literature, music, Middle Eastern politics; his book called Orientalism set the benchmark for the studies of alterity that have dominated art theory since the early 1980s. Other books included Reflections on Exile and The End of the Peace Process; he wrote a regular column for the Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat in London; and served as a professor at Columbia for nearly forty years.

Said also was a member of the Palestinian National Council--a parliament-in-exile--from 1977 to 1991. He had been an advocate of peace, even to the extent of helping to draft ideas for the Palestine National Congress on a 'two-state solution,' the only real hope for reconciliation in the Middle East. But after 1993 and his resignation from the Council, Said became one of the most public critics of Arafat and of the peace talks. He felt that participating in the Oslo Accords was no more than empty maneuvering. His every lecture and article over the last decade saw this brilliant theorist fall into the very mire on which he’d built a career.

With a blindness to his own process, Said created his own cultural hierarchy, with its very own demonized, fictional and constructed “other:” the Zionist Jew. With stunning myopia, Said began to use the very visual and literary metaphors and representations he had decried in the West’s construction of the Oriental--words like bestial, brutal, animal abounded--as he increasingly painted every Jew with the broad brush of rabid Zionism (just as the West had dismissed the Orient). Making preposterous claims that the Zionists have the “entire U.S. Senate at their beck and call,” exploiting the very categories of race and color he’d so valiantly and astutely helped to deconstruct, he called on American blacks to join the Palestinian struggle, fanning racial hatreds and undermining efforts at peace. We have seen the result of this kind of thinking over the last three horrific years.

So what began as Said’s efforts to transcend racial differences, to undo the fiction of the other, ended with his constructing his own subhuman “other:” the Jew. His death sits at the epicenter of my opening ruminations. I have had to process his passing with an uneasy lack of resolution that attends so many things in life’s experience.

As to the possibility of classroom esoterica having any bearing on real life, an issue I struggle with each time I teach, Said made his theories on colonial power a springboard for what began as humanistic political activism and a genuine concern for the under-represented. He said that his teaching, writing, academic and personal life were of one fiber, and that theory for its own sake was in essence empty. With this I strongly agree. As one who exposed the role of power, symbolic language, and class, he deserves our remembrance and respect. As one who eventually applied his theories and subtle erudition to reify divisions and replace one hated “other” for another, he personifies this compartmentalized non-gestalt that increasingly characterizes the way we think, act and experience the world today. And as I pay him homage and deep protest at once, I have no comfort of closure.