Edward W. Said's "Liminal Intellectual"

Benjamin Graves '98, Brown University

In Representations of the Intellectual, in his lecture entitled "Intellectual Exile: Expatriates and Marginals," Said describes the secular critic's global predicament of continual transition and an ongoing negotiation of competing allegiances:

The exile therefore exists in a median state, neither completely at one with the new setting not fully disencumbered of the old, beset with half-involvements and half-detachments, nostalgic and sentimental on one level, an adept mimic or a secret outcast on another. (49)

Himself a liminal figure -- "nostalgic and sentimental" about his youth in Egypt and Lebanon (especially in After the Last Sky) but not altogether comfortable in his "new setting" amidst the university -- Said characterizes this "median state" as a liminal space between the prerogatives of national interest, academic specialization, and filial piety.

In The World the Text and the Critic, Said uses this "median state" (which, in Politics of Dispossession, he most often portrays as contemporary Lebanon and Beirut's "secular world") to show how the secular critic engages in the interface of "worldly" politics and the "texts" that produce/are produced by them. Said situates the secular critic between the processes of "filiation" (in which critics are bound to a place of origin "by birth, nationality, profession") and "affiliation" (in which critics acquire new allegiances "by social and political conviction, economic and historical circumstances, voluntary effort and willed deliberation") (World 24-25). Further on, in a chapter entitled "Criticism Between Culture and System," Said situates the secular critic "between the power of the dominant culture, on the one hand, and the impersonal system of disciplines and methods (savoir), on the other" (220). That is, the critic mediates between "culture and system" -- a subtle liminal space that Said dramatizes throughout the chapter by means of a theoretical comparison/contrast between Foucault's "cultural" understanding of "knowledge and power" and Derrida's perhaps comparatively discursive or systemic notion of differance. According to Said, in other words, the global critic oversees the continual interaction of discursive, textual "systems" and the power structures that shape broader cultural struggles. Much like Said's worldly combination of sympathy and skepticism towards the PLO in The Politics of Dispossession, the passage below from The World the Text and the Critic suggests the secular critic's position at a "sensitive nodal point" both supportive and critical of the "collective whole" of which he is part:

All this, then, shows us the individual consciousness placed at a sensitive nodal point, and it is this consciousness at that critical point which this book attempts to explore in the form of what I call criticism. On the one hand, the individual mind registers and is very much aware of the collective whole, context, or situation in which it finds itself. On the other hand, precisely because of this awareness -- a worldly self-situating, a sensitive response to the dominant culture -- that the individual consciousness is not naturally and easily a mere child of the culture, but a historical and social actor in it. (15)

The secular critic, in other words, acknowledges and understands the imperatives of "dominant culture" but carries "individual consciousness" sufficient to recognize its failings and interrogate its premises. Said's portrayal of the critic's "worldly self-situating" points again toward the connection between secularism and internationalism. Secularism, then, is a productive organizing term for radical intellectualism because it acknowledges, as perhaps nationalism does not, the trans-national exchange or migration at the heart of exilic displacement.

Material adapted from a paper written for Neil Lazarus' Postcolonial Studies: CLR James and Edward W. Said, Brown University, 1997.

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