Edward Said and the Religious Effects of Culture

Edward Said and the Religious Effects of Culture

Edward Said and the Religious Effects of Culture

Edward Said and the Religious Effects of Culture

Synopsis

This book provides a distinctive account of Edward Said's critique of modern culture by highlighting the religion-secularism distinction on which it is predicated. It refers to religious and secular traditions and to tropes that extend the meaning and reference of religion and secularism in indeterminate ways. It covers Said's heterogeneous corpus--from Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography, his first book, to Orientalism, his most influential book, to his recent writings on the Palestinian question. The religion-secularism distinction lies behind Said's cultural criticism, and his notion of intellectual responsibility.

Excerpt

Said's work, as exemplified by Culture and Imperialism, is affiliated with an English-language tradition of cultural thought that extends backward through Raymond Williams'Culture and Society to Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy. Matthew Arnold was a man caught between two worlds: the world of traditional Christian belief and the world of modern scientific reason, one dead, the other powerless to be born. In a world where national identity (increasingly racialized) had displaced religion as the center of value and the highest object of loyalty, Arnold was a proponent of cultural criticism as the Aufhebung (negation, preservation, and transformation) of religious thought. Through the mediations of T. S. Eliot and the New Critics, in whose work religious themes are prominent, Said appropriates and transfigures aspects of the Arnoldian cultural idea while rejecting others. He joins Arnold in praise of high culture as “the best that has been thought and said, ” but cannot celebrate culture insofar as it is transfigured religion. Instead, he joins Marx in opposing a wide array of cultural fetishes. If Arnold construes culture as the transfiguration (Aufhebung) of religious thought, then Said construes the critique of culture — that is, the critique of transfigured religion — as the premise of all criticism.

Arnold's cultural critique simultaneously negates theological dogma, both popular and philosophical, preserves Christianity's core (its moral truth and existential efficacy), and transforms Christianity from an offense to modernity's scientific spirit to a deferential but skeptical accomplice. The task of religious thought would no longer be that of telling us how the world is, in a cosmological or metaphysical sense, but of how we should live. Culture plays the same role in Arnold's thought that Reason does in Hegel's. Where speculative reason overcomes the divisions of modern society caused by a one-sided rationality, culture . . .

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