Literary Identity and Re-Configurations of Cultural Nationalism

Edward Said

From "Figures, Configurations, Transfigurations," 1 (1990) Race & Class 32

...If the chief, mostly official, forceful and coercive identity is the State with its borders, customs, ruling parties and authorities, and if that is questioned, then it must also be the case that other similarly constructed identities need to be similarly investigated and interrogated. For those of us involved in literature, our education has for the most part been organised under various rubrics--the creative writer, the self-sufficient and autonomous work, the national literature, the separate genres--that have acquired almost fetishistic presence. Now it would be insanity to argue that individual writers and works do not exist, that French, Japanese and Arabic are really the same thing, or that Milton, Tagore and Carpentier are only trivially different variations on the same theme. Neither would I want to be understood as saying that writing an essay about Great Expectations and Great Expectations, the novel that Dickens wrote, are the same thing. But I do want to be understood as saying that a focus on identity need imply neither the ontologically given eternally determined stability of that identity, nor its uniqueness, its utterly irreducible character, its privileged status as something total and complete in and of itself. I would much prefer to interpret a novel as the selection of one mode of writing among many others, and the activity of writing as one social mode among several, and the category of literature as something created, made to serve various worldly aims. Thus the focus that corresponds with the destablising and investigative attitudes I have mentioned in connection with active opposition to states and borders is to look at the way a work, for instance, begins as a work, begins from a political, social and cultural situation, begins to do certain things and not others.

Yet the modern history of literary study is strictly bound up with the development of cultural nationalism, whose aim was first to distinguish the national canon, then to maintain it in a place reserved for eminence, authority and aesthetic autonomy. Even where discussions concerning culture in general seemed to rise above national differences in deference to a universal sphere, it is very apparent that hierarchies (as between European and non-European cultures) and ethnic preferences were held to.

...the basic premise of what literary scholars now do is provided by the residue of nationalism with its various derivative authorities, in alliance with professionalism, which divides material into fields, sub-divisions, specialties, accreditations and the like.

Most students and teachers of non-European literatures today must take account of the politics of what they study right at the outset; one cannot postpone discussions of slavery, colonialism, racism, in any serious investigations of modern Indian, African, Latin American, Caribbean and Commonwealth literature. Nor, strictly speaking, is it intellectually responsible to discuss any of these literatures without specific references to their embattled circumstances either in post-colonial societies or as subjects taught in metropolitan centres where, for example, the study of what are marginalized and/or subjugated literatures is confined to secondary spots on the curricular agenda.

...I think it is a mistake to try to show that the 'other' literatures of Africa and Asia, with their more obviously worldly affiliations to power and politics, can be studies respectably, that is, as if they were in actuality as high, as autonomous, as aesthetically independent and satisfying as French, German or English literatures. The notion of black skin in a white mask is no more serviceable and dignified in literary study than it is in politics. Emulation and mimicry never get one very far.

Contamination is perhaps the wrong word to use here, but some such notion--of literature as hybrid and encumbered, or entangled with a lot of what used to be regarded as extraneous elements--strikes me as the essential idea adequate for the revolutionary realities that face us today, in which the contests of the secular world so provocatively inform the texts we both read and write....If configurations like Commonwealth or world literature are to have any meaning at all, it is, therefore, because, by their existence and actuality in the late twentieth century, they first testify to the contests and continuing struggles by virtue of which they have emerged not only as texts but as experiences; and second, because they interact ferociously not only with the whole nationalist basis for the composition and study of literature, but also with the lofty independence and indifference with which it has become customary Eurocentrically to regard the metropolitan western literatures. . . .

Instead of the partial analysis offered by the various schools of national or systematically theoretical approaches, I propose finally the contrapuntal lines of global analysis, in which tests and worldly institutions are seen working together, in which Dickens and Thackeray as London authors are read also as writers informed constitutively by the colonial enterprise of which they were so aware, and in which the literature of one commonwealth is involved in the literature of others. Separatist or nativist enterprises strike me as exhausted, since the ecology of the new and expanded meaning of literature that I have been discussing cannot at all be attached only to one essence, or to the discrete idea of one thing.

Edward Said Bibliography