There is no one better positioned than the late Edward Said to offer advice on the conduct of intellectual life. At the time of his death in September, 2003 he was perhaps the best known intellectual in the world with millions of readers who saw him variously as a renowned professor of comparative literature, a cultural theorist, a musician, music critic, and (with maestro Daniel Barenboim) musical activist, and, with growing urgency over the last thirty-five years, the most passionate, eloquent, and clear-eyed advocate for the rights of the Palestinian people. Idolized and despised, venerated and denounced, Said was impossible to ignore.
The scope of his interests, the depth of his ambitions, the energy and effort invested in every project was vast, and yet each somehow informed and was influenced by the others, and each was animated by his understanding of humanism as universal, inclusive, communitarian, and democratic. Daniel Barenboim (2005) insists that Said had a “musician’s soul” and he traces Said’s fierce antispecialization, his sense of interconnectedness and inclusion, his distinction between power and force, volume and intensity—all insights of a musician—from his work in music to other fields. Said’s great work on Orientatism—which spawned the field of postcolonial studies, a field Said would go on to criticize and question as it developed its own lazy habits and received wisdom—was written and published after 1967, when Said was brought into Palestinian politics for the first time. Linkages abound around issues of conflicting narratives, visibility, and human rights.
As an advocate for Palestinian rights Said was unparalleled and yet he was not a spokesman in any conventional sense, for he held no office whatsoever, nor was he ever a mouth-piece for power. Indeed his criticisms of the official Palestinian leadership were both withering and relentless, keeping with his consistent injunction to oppose all orthodoxy, especially the lazy reductiveness or corruption or failures of those with whom one shares an affinity. Said in regard to Palestine was a powerful public example of someone with a mind of his own, arguing with himself without ever losing sight of the larger contexts of suffering and oppression.
Still the Palestinians had no more powerful champion. Said argued that “Humanism… must excavate the silences, the world of memory, of itinerant, barely surviving groups, the places of exclusion and invisibility, the kind of testimony that doesn’t make it into the reports.” To this end he made it his business to keep talking about Palestine, to say again and again and again—whether he thought anyone was listening or not—that the Palestinian people exist, and that while they have the sorry fate of being the victims of the 20th Century’s emblematic victims, they still have the same rights as any other people. Because all human beings are entitled to the same standards in regard to justice and freedom, Palestinians must be recognized; there simply is no sensible refutation to that self-evident if inconvenient fact. Against the most high-powered propaganda barrage, in the face of threats and smear campaigns, cancellations of talks and spurious “investigations,” Said stubbornly stood his ground and spoke of Palestinians.
His book-length essay After the Last Sky written with the Swiss photographer, Jean Mohr, provides an extended reflection on the lives of Palestinians, and fulfills his injunction to “excavate the silences.” In it he portrays Palestinians, reflects on the images the wider world has of them as well as the images they have of themselves. He maps the corrosive dimensions of occupation, and clarifies the basic human need for people to narrate their own stories in order to move forward.
It is for the Palestinian people themselves “to provide the answer that power and paranoia cannot” he wrote in Al-Ahram and Al-Hayat in 2001. That answer “can only come from moral vision” based on a common humanity, and never from “pragmatism” nor “practicality”: “If we are all to live—this is our imperative—we must capture the imagination not just of our people but of our oppressors.” In order to accomplish that, Palestinians must “abide by humane democratic values.” The moral vision must be “based on equality and inclusion rather than on apartheid and exclusion.” This is a humanist response to a very human tragedy.
Human beings, and particularly intellectuals and researchers, are driven by a long, continuous: “I don’t know.” It is, after all, not the known that pushes and pull us along, although we must be serious about preparation, work, discipline, and labor. Doing research can be hard work, and a researcher can feel (if she is like others who’ve gone down this path) as if she’s crashed into a wall—overwhelmed, uncertain, deeply confused and dislocated in turn. But if she stays with it, if she dives into the wreckage, she will likely find moments of relief, exhilaration, self-discovery, and even of joy.
There is a long tradition of scholarship whose avowed purpose is to combat silence, to defeat erasure and invisibility—this is research for social justice, research to resist harm and redress grievances, research with the explicit goal of promoting a more balanced, fair, and equitable social order. Several questions can serve as guideposts for this kind of inquiry:
∑ What are the issues that marginalized or disadvantaged people speak of with excitement, anger, fear, or hope?
∑ How can I enter a dialogue in which I will learn from a specific community itself about problems and obstacles they face?
∑ What endogenous experiences do people already have that can point the way toward solutions?
∑ What narrative is missing from the “official story” that will make the problems of the oppressed more understandable?
∑ What current or proposed policies serve the privileged and the powerful, and how are they made to appear inevitable?
∑ How can the public space for discussion, problem-posing and problem-solving, fuller and wider participation be expanded?
There is no single procedure, no computer program that will allow this work to take care of itself; there is no set of techniques that is orderly, efficient, and pretested that can provide complete distance from a phenomenon under study or from the process of inquiry itself. Researchers draw on judgment, experience, instinct, common sense, courage, reflection, further study. There is always more to know, always something in reserve. We’re never exactly comfortable, but neither are we numb or sleep-walking. We don’t get harmony, but we do get a kind of arching forward—always reaching, pursuing, longing, opening, rethinking.
Researchers must peer into the unknown and cultivate habits of vigilance and awareness, a radical openness, as we continually remind ourselves that in an infinite and expanding universe our ignorance is vast, our finiteness itself all the challenge we should need to propel ourselves forward. Knowing this, we nourish an imagination that’s defiant and limitless, and like the color blue or love or friendship, impossible to define without a maiming reductiveness. The goal is discovery and surprise, and in the end it is our gusto, our immersion, our urgency, enthusiasm, and raw nerve that will take us hurling toward the next horizon. We remind ourselves that the greatest work awaits us, and that we are never higher than when we’re not exactly certain where we’re going.
What interests, tendencies, or classes does our research precisely serve? What will invite people to become more aware, more critical, creative, active and productive, more free? While researchers might never know definitively how to answer these questions a priori, a certain angle of regard might help each of us to make sounder judgments, to construct a more hopeful and workable standard by which we can examine our efforts. We begin by recognizing that every human being, no matter who, is a gooey biological wonder, pulsing with the breath and beat of life itself, each with a unique and complex set of circumstances that makes his or her life understandable and sensible, bearable or unbearable. This recognition asks us to reject any action that treats anyone as an object, any gesture that thingifies human beings. It demands that we embrace the humanity of every student and every research collaborator, that we take their side.
What are the challenges to human beings today? What does the hope for democracy demand now? Edward Said points out that “Our country is first of all an extremely diverse immigrant society, with fantastic resources and accomplishments, but it also contains a redoubtable set of internal inequities and external interventions that cannot be ignored.” We are faced with the enduring stain of racism and the ever more elusive and intractable barriers to racial justice, the rapidly widening gulf between rich and poor, and the enthronement of greed. We are faced as well with aggressive economic and military adventures abroad, the macho posturing of men bonding in groups and enacting a kind of theatrical but no less real militarism, the violence of conquest and occupation from the Middle East and Central Asia to South America.
Encountering these facts thrusts us into the realm of human agency and choice, the battlefield of social action and change, where we come face to face with some stubborn questions: Can we, perhaps, stop the suffering? Can we alleviate at least some of the pain? Can we repair any of the loss? There are deeper considerations: can society be changed at all? Is it remotely possible—not inevitable, certainly, perhaps not even likely—for people to come together freely, to imagine a more just and peaceful social order, to join hands and organize for something better, and to win? Can we do anything?
If a fairer, more sane and just social order is both desirable and possible, if some of us can join one another to imagine and build a participatory movement for justice, a public space for the enactment of democratic dreams, our field opens slightly. There would still be much to be done, for nothing would be entirely settled. We would still need to find ways to stir ourselves and our students from passivity, cynicism, and despair, to reach beyond the superficial barriers that wall us off from one another, to resist the flattening social evils like institutionalized racism, to shake off the anesthetizing impact of the authoritative, official voices that dominate so much of our space, to release our imaginations and act on behalf of what the known demands, linking our conduct firmly to our consciousness. We would need to reconceptualize ourselves as “stunt-intellectuals,” the ones who are called upon when the other intellectuals refuse to jump off the bridge. We would be moving, then, without guarantees, but with purpose and with some small spark of hope.