Edward Said, Humanism, and Secular Criticism

Article excerpt

Edward Said is best known for his examination of representations of the Orient in European literature--representations that, he argues, legitimated colonial rule. While he takes a critical view of orientalist representations, he at the same time identifies himself as a scholar in the tradition of humanism. This article examines Said's complex relationship to humanism, and his attempt to articulate a new humanism that moves beyond parochialism and relates to what he called "secular criticism." It ends with an analysis of his late work, in which he affirms the need for a critical humanism in the face of the alienating effects of modernity and the resurgence of imperialism.


It is difficult to overstate Edward Said's influence on cultural and social thought in the last twenty-five years. Said's work, especially Orientalism, radically transformed the intellectual landscape of the humanities and the social sciences. (1) For his students from the post-colonial world such as myself, it gave us a new lens through which to understand our own cultures and our relationship to the West. For scholars in the Western academy, it pointed to the complicity between supposedly disinterested scholarly pursuits and the edifice of Western imperialism. For its many lay readers, it articulated in an accessible way the inter-connections between political power and knowledge. In Orientalism, Said drew on the theoretical work of scholars such as Foucault and Gramsci, to interpret literary texts in the light of imperial geopolitics, single-handedly breaking the ground for the field of postcolonial literary studies. Committed to criticism as an oppositional practice, Said became increasingly wary, at the same time, of the solipsism and opacity of the "nouvelle critique." In 1995, he taught a graduate seminar at Columbia University entitled "Last Works, Late Style" that exemplified this shift from what we would now call "post-colonial criticism" to humanistic interpretation. When he died, Said was working on a manuscript on this topic, a brief preview of which appeared posthumously in article form in the August 2004 edition of the London Review of Books. (2) In his presidential address to the MLA, entitled "Humanism and Heroism," Said delivered a paeon to the labors of the pen, again in a pointedly humanistic register. (3) Just before his death, he completed a book entitled Humanism and Democratic Criticism, in which he assessed the nature of, and need for, humanistic studies in the present moment. In the following pages, I first briefly sketch his politicizing influence on literary and cultural analysis. I then attempt to make sense of his late engagement with humanistic scholarship, the imprint of which had always marked his work, and his attitude to humanism more broadly.

From Orientalism to Culture and Imperialism

In Orientalism, Said argued that Western cultural representations of the Orient contributed directly to legitimating European rule over imperial territories. Far from being an abstract body of ideas, such representations were a means of exercising cultural leadership or hegemony. Orientalist writers, from different periods and places, employed a relatively set repertoire of tropes that "put the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand." (4) These Orientalist structures of reference and attitude were, what is more, largely self-referential; Said noticed that writers would frequently echo each other. In fact, Orientalist writers often had very little first-hand experience of people and places in the East. According to Said, the discourse of Orientalism--that is, the repeated use and circulation of statements about the Orient--took on the status of "truths" declaimed with authority by Europeans. Orientalists produced this knowledge about the Orient because they enjoyed the unilateral power of representation. This Orientalist production of knowledge was not merely a conceptual exercise; it had far-reaching and profound material effects because it became the basis for imperial policy. …