Edward W. Said on "Contrapuntalism" and Exile

Benjamin Graves '98, Brown University


If "morality begins with [the intellectual's] activity," then the vast share of this activity -- a "hybrid cultural work," as Said argues in Culture & Imperialism -- must be spent "contrapuntally" arranging the ensemble of disparate "choices and priorities" that make up the secular world. My interest lies in the connection between secularism, the "voyage in" motif, and the musical metaphor of contrapuntalism central to the historical trajectories of both Culture & Imperialism and Orientalism. In the passage below from the first of these two books, Said describes contrapuntalism as a connection or mutual consideration of otherwise disparate social practices, of culture and empire, of history and the present:

That is, we must be able to think through and interpret together experiences that are discrepant, each with its particular agenda and pace of development, its own internal formations, its internal coherence and system of external relationships, all of them co-existing and interacting with others" (36)

Exile, with its suggestion of distance, separation, displacement, and detachment, would at first seem at variance with the contrapuntal. Whereas Said underscores his usage of contrapuntalism by appropriating E.M. Forster's phrase "only connect," the notion of exile and Said's example of poltical non-alignment would seem to suggest its opposite: "never connect." And yet the secular intellectual's liminal crossing or "voyage in" to the metropolis -- the crossing of a liminal space presupposing not complete detachment but rather a mingling of "half-involvements and half-detachments" (Representations 49) -- suggests that the critic assumes a responsibility of "contrapuntal" mediation. The transfer of cultural capital that Robbins reads into Said's "voyage in" suggests a "contrapuntal" mediation of First and Third World -- a transaction or connection that the liminal critic oversees. "We are, so to speak," Said argues, "of the connections, not outside and beyond them" (Culture 65). In other words, I would argue, the critic's occupation of a liminal space is useful in that it enables global, transnational exchanges and perhaps even alliances across nations in the First and Third World. Said often uses the narrative device of "double-vision" to describe the secular critic's contrapuntal capacity. "Because the exile sees things both in terms of what has been left behind and what is actual here and now," Said suggests, "there is a double perspective that never sees things in isolation" (Representations 60). In the passage below from After the Last Sky, Said describes how he and Jean Mohr both experienced a "double vision" that illustrates perhaps the fragmented Palestinian diaspora:

Our intention was to show Palestinians through Palestinian eyes without minimizing the extent to which even to themselves they feel different, or Ćother.' Many Palestinian friends who saw Jean Mohr's pictures thought that he saw us as no one else has. But we also felt that he saw us as we would have seen ourselves -- at once inside and outside our world. The same double vision informs my text. As a wrote, I found myself switching pronouns, from 'we' to 'you' to 'they,' to designate Palestinians. (6)

My overarching concern, in a sense, is that the secular critic's liminal position is a position of high stakes -- a position in which the benefits of a "double-perspective" could easily translate into the threat of drunken "double-vision" or perhaps even duplicity, given the temptations of power that shape an intellectual's affiliative decisions. If Said's "voyage in" motif suggests that "progress is possible," as Bruce Robbins argues, my intuitive worry is that the secular critic's migration (a transfer of cultural capital) could unknowingly serve the interests of neo-imperialism by removing intellectual resources from the Third World and re-situating them in the West. Of course, "exile" in its material sense doesn't accord the secular critic any sense of volition in the matter; that is, the "voyage in" is not a matter of choice but rather a condition of exile itself. Regardless, although the secular critic may "speak truth to power," my suggestion is that he must also somehow speak back to the material conditions of dispossessed peoples in the Third World. So long as the secular critic manages to do that, Said's portrayal of the secular intellectual is productive because of its encouragement of internationalism over what Said has termed the "pitfalls of nationalism" (Sprinker 233); its conceptualization of a "contrapuntal" mediation of disparate social practices; and ultimately its demonstration of the "hybrid cultural work" of anti-imperialist struggle.



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