Edward W. Said's "Politics of Secular Interpretation"

Benjamin Graves

In the introduction to The Politics of Dispossession (1994), an anthology containing over two decades' worth of essays on the struggle for Palestinian self-determination, Edward Said describes his simultaneous support and skepticism of the "tangled history of the Palestinian national movement":

Since my mother lived in Lebanon -- and after my father's death I was often obliged to make more frequent trips there -- my relationship to the Palestinian struggle and to Arafat developed but never my party affiliation. I refused all inducements to join one of the groups or to work in the PLO, largely because I felt it was important to preserve my distance. I was a partisan, yes, but a joiner and member, no. (xxiv)

Despite his "partisan" awareness of the Palestinian predicament of exile and dispossession, Said's "distance" from the PLO foregrounds his unwillingness to align himself with national movements -- and more broadly his wariness of constituencies predicated upon national, religious, racial, academic, or institutional solidarity and collectivity. Said's critical position exterior to the PLO demonstrates his commitment to the "secular" responsibilities of the radical intellectual and critic. From The World the Text and the Critic (1983), in which Said portrays criticism as "skeptical, secular, reflectively open to its own failings" (26), to his suggestion in Representations of the Intellectual (1994) that the "true intellectual is a secular being" (120), Said has consistently encouraged and defended what he has termed in an interview with Jennifer Wicke and Michael Sprinker the "politics of secular interpretation" (Sprinker 231).

Said's secularism is centrally an oppositional critical practice whose meaning emerges against, or perhaps in contrast with the practices of religious solidarity, national movements, professionalism, and "organic" or class-aligned intellectualism. As Bruce Robbins argues in "Secularism, Elitism, Progress, and Other Transgressions" -- an article in which Robbins for the most part defends Said from charges of elitism by portraying Said's secularism as an enabling form of internationalism that empowers Third-World intellectuals to dismantle and reshape metropolitan systems of authority -- the "most crucial meaning of secular, in his usage, is as an opposing term not to religion but to nationalism" (26). In one sense, Said "secularizes" the term itself, re-appropriating the secular into a political context in which it stands opposed not only to the church but to the quasi-theological dogmas of national associations, organizations, and collectives -- even those collectives whom the critic ostensibly supports. Said's detachment from the PLO, coupled simultaneously with his ongoing censure of U.S. foreign policy, suggests that his "politics of secular interpretation" is also a complicated anti-nationalist politics of non-affiliation, irony, detachment, exteriority, amateurism, self-reflexive skepticism, and "crusty" (in Julien Benda's phrase) anti-authoritarian defiance.

Postcolonial OV discourseov Edward Said