Problematizing Said's Exilic Category

Benjamin Graves '98, Brown University

Although in many ways secularism is a useful organizing term for the radical intellectual's liminal mediation of social formations, Said's emphasis of an exilic, liminal category poses a number of potentially serious problems in its translation into the complicated process of collective social transformation. In the contexts of ongoing imperialism and anti-imperial attempts at decolonization, secularism points toward a number of difficulties or limitations in the intellectual's capacity to incite and sustain substantive insurrectionary resistance to imperialism from a position of exile, skepticism, and non-alignment. My specific concerns, many of which I shall argue that Said is careful to answer, are:

1) that the exilic, liminal space ( the "median state" or "secular world") Said describes runs the risk of becoming a fetishized, ahistorical space that fails to engage the historically situated, temporal, material workings of dispossessed peoples.

2) whether the distinction between secular/nonsecular is itself a totalizing Western narrative construction.

3) the recurrent problem of elitism and classism -- specifically the problem of whether or not the term "exile" is meaningful to people in the Third World, and whether the privileging of a secular figure situates the intellectual atop a hierarchy of resistance.

4) the absence of a nuanced explanation describing the "countervailing authority" (in Robbins' phrase) that would support the secular critic in lieu of national backing.

5) my perhaps intuitive worry that, while Said's "voyage in" narrative may well re-distribute cultural capital and re-structure Metropolitan power structures, these resources are inevitably routed towards the metropolitan west and away from the Third World that needs them!

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