Problematizing the Exilic: Eurocentrism and Elitism

Benjamin Graves '98, Brown University

In the passage below from Politics of Dispossession, in which Said describes the interconnectedness of Israel and Judaism (a non-secular correspondance of nation and religion), Said establishes an opposition between the secular and the universal:

With every apparent consolidation of its national existence Israel seems more and more to represent not only the place apart of Judaism but also the concentrated actions of Judaism. And Judaism, in two dimensions, each, commonsensically, incompatible with the other: the universal (timeless) and the secular (temporal). (17)

Set in opposition to universalism, the secular here seems a productive way of conceptualizing the secular temporality of Said's own critical position. Throughout his writings on the conflict between Israel and Palestine, Said's secularity and liminality are commendable not for their registering of "universal" values but because they are historically situated in the specific (although perhaps regrettably continuous) moment of the Palestinian struggle for decolonization. But Said's distinction between secularism and universalism in the passage above bears also upon the exilic category's potential for Eurocentrism. As Peter van der Veer suggests in Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament, "the very distinction between religious and secular is a product of the Enlightenment that was used in orientalism to draw a sharp opposition between irrational, religious behavior of the Oriental and rational secularism, which enabled the westerner to rule the Oriental" (qtd. in Robbins 27). Said's distinction between the secular and the universal thus runs the risk of unknowingly empowering a Eurocentric project aimed at othering and primitivizing, for instance, the Judaic theological imperatives of the Zionist movement in Israel.

Said's formulation of an exilic space -- and moreover his "voyage in" narrative involving what Robbins terms a "bindungsroman of Third World writers who have come to live and work in the metropolis" (30) -- is also problematic in that it privileges the academic intellectual with a capacity for mobility that is perhaps inaccessible to proletarian exiles. When Said complains that "what Adorno doesn't speak about are indeed the pleasures of exile" (Representations of the Intellectual 59), and when he suggests that "the intellectual as exile tends to be happy with the idea of unhappiness" (53), I cannot understand how his suggestion of levity would in any way ameliorate the status of Palestinian liberation efforts. Towards my third question above, then, I am particularly troubled by Said's comment in his essay "Traveling Theory" that "class consciousness begins with critical consciousness" (The World the Text and the Critic 233). A reformulation of his command that "solidarity before criticism means the end of criticism" (28), here Said privileges "criticism" not only over nationalism but also over class solidarity. Said's secularism thus stands in opposition to Antonio Gramsci's notion of the "organic intellectual" -- "whom Gramsci saw as directly connected to classes or enterprises that used enterprises that used intellectuals to organize interests, gain more power, get more control" (Representations 4). Whereas the organic intellectual serves the interest of class (not just the proletarian interests, Gramsci warns, but also the interests of the "capitalist entrepreneur"), the secular critic refuses class alliance much in the same way that he refuses alignment with the nation-state. My concern is that whereas Said adequately describes the dangers of intellectual being co-opted into the capitalist imperatives of "professionalism," and although he does criticize Julien Benda's description of intellectuals as a "clerical minority" who speak from on high, he perhaps overlooks the intellectual's responsibilities to the proletarian class in the struggle for decolonization.

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