Bruce Robbins on Edward W. Said's "Voyage In"

Benjamin Graves '98, Brown University

In Culture & Imperialism, Said codifies the "voyage in" as the movement and integration of Third World thinkers into the metropolitan First World. An inversion of narratives such as Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness that emphasize a "voyage in" to the Third-World's interior in name of colonization, Said's re-appropriation of the journey motif and his reversal of its direction suggest the ways in which exiled intellectuals "write back to the centre" (in Rushdie's phrase) by migrating across a liminal space separating the First and Third Worlds:

The voyage in, then, constitutes an especially interesting variety of hybrid cultural work. And that it exists at all is a sign of adversarial internationalization in an age of continued imperial structures. No longer does the logos dwell exclusively, as it were, in London and Paris. No longer does history run unilaterally, as Hegel believed, from east to west, or from south to north, becoming more sophisticated and developed, less primitive and backward as it goes. Instead, the weapons of criticism have become part of the historical legacy of empire, in which the separations and exclusions of 'divide and rule' are erased and surprising new configurations spring up. (295)

In "Secularism, Elitism, Progress, and Other Transgressions," Bruce Robbins uses Said's "voyage in" motif to show how secularism withstands the criticisms that it (along with post-colonialism generally) "deviously serves the interests of neo-imperialism" (25) by co-opting elitist authoritative structures that are every bit as oppressive as colonial rule. Instead, as Said argues in the passage above, the Third-World intellectual's "voyage in" to the metropolis is an insurgent practice -- an "adversarial internationalization" that disrupts the Third-World's history of passivity and exploitation, encouraging instead an active displacement of a Eurocentric "logos" from its position of sanctity in "London and Paris." Robbins conceptualizes the "voyage in" as a transfer of "cultural capital" -- the "dynamic economy of the cultural resources" embodied by Third World educators, writers, and artists (30). The exiled intellectual's position of liminality engages in culture productively by enabling the transport of cultural capital between the First and Third Worlds -- a process in which, according to Robbins, the First World's patterns of authority are not just taken back but redefined (32). At the risk of elitism, the secular critic's mobility across the bounds of national identity enables an engagement of "hybrid cultural work" that seems to Robbins to achieve substantive progress in the struggle for decolonization:

National origin matters; transfers from the periphery to the center do not leave the center as it was. the transnational story of upward mobility is not just a claiming of authority but a redefinition of authority, and a redefinition that can have many beneficiaries, for it means a recomposition as well as a redistribution of cultural capital. In short progress is possible. ("Secularism, Elitism, Progress and Other Transgressions" 32).

Robbins' reading of the "voyage in" -- in which he portrays the radical intellectual as a central participant in the "hybrid cultural work" of anti-imperialism -- is convincing because it suggests how Said re-situates the struggle for decolonization within the global contexts of the contemporary world system and its movement of capital across national boundaries. Robbins' interpretation of Said's secularism is thus especially compelling because it returns the notion of "exile" to Said's skepticism of national movements whose totalizing, patriotic dogmas assume what Said terms a "tribal solidarity" across a supposedly homogenous body politic (Sprinker 233). In the "Secular Critic" from The World the Text and the Critic, Said suggests that "solidarity before criticism' means the end of criticism" (28). Although Said uses the phrase in the context of scholarly affiliation and its unfortunate rendering of Marxism as an "academic subspeciality" (28), his skepticism of group collectivity easily translates to the context of social or national formation. In Culture & Imperialism, in the chapter entitled "Resistance and Opposition," Said critiques nationalist models (namely Fanon's) with an eye toward the way in which fetishized national solidarities can be just as constraining to a population's multiple, plural interests as colonial rule. "Nationality, nationalism, nativism: the progression is, I believe, more and more constraining" (277). The secular, exilic intellectual's "voyage in" to the metropolis -- a voyage across the liminal zone separating First and Third Worlds -- enables a crossing of these constraints.

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

Postcolonial OV discourseov Edward Said