April 23, 2006

Said's "Intellectual Exile: Expatriates and Marginals"

To continue our discussion of the exile, I turn to Said's Representations of the Intellectual, based on the 1993 Reith Lectures. Said asserts that modern exile is much different than pre-modern exile (i.e. Dante) because "the normal traffic of everyday contemporary life keeps you in constant but tantalizing and unfulfilled touch with the old place" (49). That is especially true at the beginning of this century, as information about the goings-on of virtually anywhere in the world are available at the click of a button. Said also posits exile as a metaphorical condition as well as an actual one, the metaphorical exile being the intellectual who refuses to become part of the vast institutional machinery of his or her country, instead choosing to be always adversarial and critical. Said identifies Bazarov, the nihilist from Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, as the prototype for modern nihilistic intellectuals, as Turgenev represents him as cut off from his family and given little or no background information in the narrative: "he sets of seismic shocks, he jolts people, but he can neither be explained away by his background nor his friends" (56).

Said also makes a contribution to my examination of the context of human rights discourse. Because the exile is constantly negotiating between his lost homeland and the provisionality of his current place, he or she is able to bring multiple perspectives to any discussion: "Intellectually this means that an idea or experience is always counterposed with another, therefore making them both appear in a sometimes new and unpredictable light: from that juxtaposition one gets a better, perhaps even more universal idea of how to think, say, about a human rights issue in one situation by comparison with another" (60). This seems to be att odds with Said's assertion that any discussion of human rights is by its very nature tied to nationalism, but I think these views can be reconciled if we think of the idea of contrapuntal reading, an important Saidian term, instead of universal. The exile can point up differences and similarities between human rights abuses and expose the contradictions and hypocrisy that almost always occampanies apologetics concerning offical friends and condemnations for our enemies.

Another important aspect of exile is that one is able to appreciate the process of becoming as opposed to assertions that "things have always been that way." This is especially relevant in the context of the Palestinian/Israeli case, where the violence is oftentimes discussed without any context whatsoever, and a hopelessness sets in as if there is nothing that either side can do in working towards a solution. Said states: "Look at situations as contingent, not as inevitable, look at them as the result of a series of historical choices made by men and women, as facts of society made by human beings, and not as natural or god-given, therefore unchangeable, permanent, irreversible" (61). One can hear echoes of both Vico and Nietzsche in this position.

"The exilic intellectual does not respond to the logic of the conventional but to the audacity of daring, and to representing change, to moving on, not standing still" (64).

Said's "The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals"

In this essay, one of the last Said wrote, briefly sketches out the position, historically, or intellectuals and writers in public life, as well as pointing towards some of the new directions emerging technologies may take them. One interesting point that Said makes is that "the idea of an imagined community has suddenly acquired a very literal, if virtual, dimension" (21). Said's position as a leading academic and intellectual allows his work to be read simultaneously all over the world, the very same day that it is published in the NYT or Al-Ahram. This changes both the writer's idea of audience as well as the nature of the audience itself, which is no longer nationally bound. Instead of having to wait for a piece to be translated or published in a collection of essays, any English or Arabic speaker can have access to Said's work immediately upon its publication in a major newspaper. A constituency is now actively courted and created by the intellectual, because he or she can no longer assume the existence of definite groups one is writing for.

The idea of translation is also central in this essay, as Said argues: "...transparent, simple, clear prose presents its own challenges, since the ever present danger is that one can fall into the misleadingly simple neutrality of a journalistic World-English idiom that is indistinguishable from CNN or USA Today prose...The thing to remember...is that there isn't another language at hand, that the language I use must be the same used by the State department or the presedent when they say that they are for human rights and for fighting a war to 'liberate' Iraq, and I must use that very same language to recapture the subject, reclaim it, and reconnect it to the tremendously complicated realities these vastly over-privileged antagonists of mine have simplified, betrayed, and either diminisehd or dissolved" (22). The goal of the intellectual is always to problematize what Said refers to as "thought-stopping concepts" in order to open up the possibilites of new, more accurate, interpretations of events than those of equivocating policy makers. The intellectual is, in a very real sense, translating from one discourse into another, from the political/religious into the secular/contingent: "...every situation should be interpreted according to its own givens, but...that every situation also contains a contest between a powerful system of interests on the one hand and, on the other, less powerful interests threatened with frustration, silence, incorporation, or extinction by the powerful" (24). If we imagine, then, the powerful on one side and the powerless on the other, then perhaps we can identify the intellectual/translator in the interstice between, not as a mediator, but as an interfering agent who articulates the silences and obfuscations; someone who performs a necessary violence on the power-discourse in order to expose and reveal the deficiencies and injustices that accompany the official line.

We once again come to the importance of exile in Said's thought, this time in relationship to the struggle against "the huge accumulations of power and capital that so distort human life" (28): "I conclude with the thought that the intellectual's provisional home is the domain of an exigent, resistant, intransigent art into which, alas, one can neither retreat nor search for solutions. But only in that precarious exilic realm can one first truly grasp the difficulty of what cannot be grasped, and then go forth to try anyway" (29, emphasis mine). An affirmation of the contingency of life and the future bound with a desire to affect them somehow. Our goals, Said knows, may be unreachable or impossible, and yet that should not preclude us from trying. It is only by accepting exile, both in the sense of always being ready to attack one's deeply held convictions as well as forever remaining separate from one's roots, that intellectuals (and, I would add, non-intellectuals) can achieve a state of mind where one is neither foreigner nor native, but exiled.

Darko Suvin's "Displaced Persons"

Here is a very interesting article by Darko Suvin that focuses on four categories of displaced persons, the "inner phenomenology of each condition, and the historical forces that have produced them."


Said's "Reflections on Exile"

It's in this essay that we get Said's most sustained inquiry into the nature of exile. He defines it as "the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted...The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever" (173). The tone of this essay, and most of Said's works dealing with exile, especially Palestine, is one of melancholy shot through with determination. Hence his insistence that repeating the narrative of Palestinian is of utmost importance in order to combat the assertions that "there are no Palestinians" (Golda Meir) and, by extension, no place called "Palestine" to which they can return (or variations on this theme, for example, Jordan is the proper place for Palestinians). The bifurcated nature of the exile is evidenced in Said's formulation, with the parallelism between human being/self and native place/true home; the individual exile is identified and split simultaneously. And yet, paradoxically, it is necessary to "leave the modest refuge provided by subjectivity and resort instead to the abstractions of mass politics" (176) in order to conceive of the millions of refugees, exiles, expatriates and emigres which the modern world has produced.

Said insists on the fact that nationalism and exile cannot be discussed without reference to each other, moreso considering the fact that nationalism is often borne out of feelings of exile (American colonies, pre-unified Germany, Algeria, etc.). Even though the exile has opportunites to become affiliated in his or her new surroundings, even this entails a loss "of critical perspective, of intellectual reserve, of moral courage" (183). Thus by becoming more deeply attached to a state, one succumbs to an easy nationalism, chauvinism, and myopia.

Never one to accept defeat or play the victim, Said envisions exile as a state of being where new things become possible: "...I speak of exile not as a privilege, but as an alternative to the mass institutions that dominate modern life...provided that the exile refuses to sit on the sidelines nursing a wound, there are things to be learned: he or she must cultivate a scrupulous (not indulgent or sulky) subjectivity" (184), an attitude that all of Said's exilic examples: Adorno, Nietzsche, Joyce, exemplified.

In a particularly eloquent passage, Said reminds us: "The exile knows that in a secular and contingent world, homes are always provisional. Borders and barriers, which enclose us within the safety of familiar territory, can also become prisons, and are often defended beyond reason or necessity. Exiles cross borders, break barriers of thought and experience" (185). Forced to cross borders in the past, the exile becomes a willing crosser in the future, offering a promise of change. The idea of secularism is vital, as always, in that it signifies a refusal to submit to political and cultural mystification in exchange for security and false hope. Rather, by speaking clearly and thinking critically, the exile offers new perspectives and embodies the idea that human beings, not divine authority, have the power and responsibility to change their own destinies.

April 21, 2006

Said's "Opponents, Audiences, Constituencies, and Community"

In Said's collection of essays, Reflections on Exile, which is a monument to outstanding scholarship, he attempts to work out further his earlier applications of "filiation" and "affiliation," originally addressed in The World, the Text, and the Critic. For Said, modernity, and the modern novel in particular, ushered in a severe anxiety about the possibility and desirability of filiation or, the natural relationships between parents and children. Affiliation, on the other hand, is the answer to the question: “…is there some other way by which men and women can create social bonds between each other that would substitute for those ties that connect members of the same family across generations?? (17). Said's main thesis in "Opponents, Audiences, Constituencies, and Community" is that "culture works very effectively to make invisible and even 'impossible' the actual affiliations that exist between the world of ideas and scholarship, on the one hand, and the world of brute politics, corporate and state power, and military force, on the other" (119). In other words, intellectuals and scholars have uncritically accepted their relegation to secondary forces at best, and complicit actors at worst, within the spheres of the political realm. Because there is no active challenge to what passes as political analysis (Said wrote this during the beginnings of the Reagan administration, but I think it can be applied equally as well to today's milieu), "our political discourse is now choked with enormous though-stopping abstractions...[and] it is next to impossible to think about human society either in a global way...or at the level of everyday life" (120). The key element to Said's argument is this: "There is no center, no inertly given and accepted authority, no fixed barriers ordering human history, even though authority, order, and distinction exist. The secular intellectual works to show the absence of divine originality and, on the other side, the complex presence of historical actuality. The conversion of the absence of religion into the presence of actuality is secular interpretation" (131, emphasis mine). The underlying assumption of all Said's work is what he identified as the central element in Vico's New Science: that human beings make their own history, and can therefore change it.

I don't think it is too much of a stretch to see the kind of work that Said calls for as an act of translation. If we imagine translation etymologically as the "carrying across" of meaning, an act which is never completely transparent and which always involves a partial loss of information/meaning, then we can begin to see why it is important for the intellectual to "interfere," as Said says, "...crossing borders and obstacles, a determined attempt to generalize exactly at those points where generalizations seem impossible to make" (145). In the face of obfuscating pundits and politicians, as well as members of "think tanks" (or "non-think tanks" as they are sometimes called), the intellectual should be making connections, both historical and linguistic, between an almost religious/mystical discourse coming from policy makers which attempts to equivocate or misinform the public, and the actual effects of these policies and abstractions on actual people. My next post will be about the importance in Said's work on the concept of exile, and what that might mean for our interrogations of intellectual activity as an act of translation.

April 20, 2006

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

I began reading The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology, with essays from Slavoj Zizek, Eric Santner, and Kenneth Reinhard. The essays basically all take off from Freud's explorations in Civilization and Its Discontents on the question of what it means to affirm the injunction from Leviticus to "love one's neighbor" that has been the basis for so much moral thought for the past two millenia. One thing it made me think of is whether or not the idea of universal human rights is imagined as a secular alternative to Biblical neighbor love, and what this means for our present inquiries. If this is so, then is Freud's assertion that by loving everybody, we are inevitably diminishing our love for people who actually mean something to us (i.e. friends, family) and extending our love to people who may hate us or actually want to harm us, a legitimate one? Is there a distinction to be made between neighbor love as a moral act and universal human rights as a political/legal one? What is the difference? It seems clear that the violent nature of the State makes it absolutely inconceivable that, to take the case of the United States, there could be such a thing as Christian foreign policy or even domestic policy. Kierkegaard posited that only be erasing distinctions could we love our neighbors, and since death is the only thing that erases distinctions, we could only truly love the dead. Perhaps the neocons have been reading Kierkegaard as well as Leo Strauss...

National Defense Strategy of the United States of America

I wanted to briefly touch on some of the key points in the NDS, especially those related to borders and international law.

The US defines four main categories of challenges that it will likely face in the coming years, the most worrisome being those labelled "catastrophic." These are defined as "involv[ing] the acquisition, possession, and use of WMD or methods producing WMD like effects," probably similar to this. These sorts of challenges will most likely arise from "porous international borders, weak international controls, and easy access to information related technologies facilitate these efforts. Particularly troublesome is the nexus of transnational terrorists, proliferation, and problem states that possess or seek WMD, increasing the risk of WMD attack against the United States." The emphasis on transnationality and "porous borders" as being criteria for inclusion in the catastrophic category is telling, because it mirrors the current domestic discourse about immigrants. Also, presumably it's easier to bomb people if they're not moving around.

The NDS also demonstrates an odd schizophrenia about all things international. On the one hand, "Problem states will continue to undermine regional stability and threaten U.S. interests. These states are hostile to U.S. principles. They commonly squander ["they" squander, we just subsidize] their resources to benefit ruling elites, their armed forces, or extremist clients. They often disregard international law and violate international agreements. Problem states may seek WMD or other destabilizing military capabilities. Some support terrorist activities, including by giving terrorists safe haven" [emphasis mine]. Those darn problem states, they just keep violating international agreements, which of course we never do. We also never support and excuse our allies when they do the same...

Our committment to international fora and law is vital, clearly, so we shouldn't be surprised that "Our strength as a nation state will continue to be challenged by those who employ a strategy of the weak using international fora, judicial processes, and terrorism." It's amazing how unironic this document is. The message is clear: if it is in our best interest to cite international law in order to attack, sanction, or undermine another country, then it's okay. If other countries have any grievances with the United States, such as sanctions, occupations, military strikes, etc. then they have to revert to the "strategy of the weak," due process and international fora.

It is exactly this kind of discourse and strategy that Said thinks intellectuals should be against, as they should be both exilic and adversarial to power. His statement about imagined communities taking on a "literal, if virtual, dimension" (21) is great, because it allows the intellectual to use technology in order to widen his/her readership and to extend the adversarial discourse into other languages and cultures, allowing for communities that are no longer nationally defined/confined. This is from Said's essay, "The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals," which I will comment on more tomorrow.

April 19, 2006

Said's "Nationalism, Human Rights, and Interpretation"

In this, the final essay of Freedom and Interpretation, Said explores the discourse of rights as specifically linked to the State. For Said, in answering the question "the liberal tradition" posited in the language of the original question posed by Amnesty for the lecturers, one must keep in mind that Western national identities emerged at the same time as imperialism, and are thus linked with the subjugation and oppression of "non-Western" peoples. This was a practice that was condoned by liberal figures such as de Tocqueville and Mill, who were insightful when it came to other countries' sins but blind when facing those of their own. For Said, the construction of a universal rights discourse has been going on during the latter half of the 20th century, especially with the Geneva Conventions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, resolutions to protect minorities and refugees, etc. Said asserts: "...it is perfectly clear that an underlying 'critique of nationalist discourse' has been taking place, since it is national governments acting in the name of national security who have infringed the rights of individuals and groups who were perceived as standing outside the nationalist concensus" (197), a theme that I have been noting in the Cixous and Booth pieces.

The new consideration Said raises, however, is that "...in the Western community of nations presided over by the United States, an old, rather than a new, nationalist identity has been reinforced...[and] has given itself an internationalized and normative identity with authority and hegemony to adjudicate the relative value of human rights. All the discourse that purports to speak for civilization, human rights, principle, universality, and acceptability accrues to it, whereas in the case with the Gulf War, the United States managed its fortunes, so to speak, took it over. We now have a situation therefore that makes it very difficult to construct another universality alongside this one. So completely has the power of the United States...invested even the vocabulary of universality that the search for 'new ideological means' to challenge it has become, in fact, more difficult, and therefore more exactly a function of a renewed sense of intellectual morality" (197-98). Said's point is even more salient today, as the official discourse of "freedom on the march" and "enduring freedom" are espoused by those who endorse torture, extraordinary rendition, and possible tactical nuclear strikes that will end up encouraging the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

So, since discussions of human rights inevitably take place in a national context, what does that say for our discussion? I will examine the National Defense Strategy of the United States of America shortly, but perhaps a discussion of universal human rights is futile until the power of the United States is weakened to such an extent, or it becomes internationally isolated enough through it's deleterious foreign policy. More tomorrow.

April 18, 2006

Sole Booth

Unfortunately, I just lost a post on Wayne Booth's essay in Freedom and Interpretation that I worked on for about an hour, so I'll have to post a shorter version from memory. Booth's essay is titled "Individualism and the Mystery of the Social Self; or, Does Amnesty Have a Leg to Stand On?" Booth takes as his starting point the fact that at no time in human history has the idea of universal human rights universally accepted, most likely because they are universal. That is, some argue that by asserting universal human rights, we lose some notion of political/cultural/religious context/particularity, which are always vital and necessary in order to understand cases of injustice. Booth also reminds us that the idea of the undivided individual is a relatively recent idea, roughly two hundred years old.

Booth has two main criticisms of the individual qua atomic, isolated actor in society, as the basis for a discourse about universal human rights. The first is that even in Enlightenment texts which first asserted the existence of such individuals, there was never any sense that every human being should be granted such status (i.e. slaves, women, etc.) Even in writers such as Mill, individuals were only free from harm/punishment as long as their actions only affected themselves and did not extend into society, which is clearly not Amnesty's stance. Secondly, the notion that each individual had a uniqueness or originality cannot be the basis for a rights discourse since the traits or ideas that are truly unique in us are vanishingly small compared with the things we share with everyone else. Booth notes that Goethe himself believed that only 2% of his ideas were original. If we judge ourself against this standard, then of course the idea of our uniqueness seems tiny and not really worth defending.

The isolated, atomic individual then, is clearly not the best way to conceive of ourselves if we want to posit universal human rights. I quote Booth at length: "Our true authenticity, in this view, is not what we find when we try to peel away influences in search of a monolithic, distinctive identity. Rather it is the one we find when we celebrate addition of self to self, in an act of self-fashioning that culminates not in an in-dividual at all but in...a kind of society; a field of forces; a colony; a chorus of not necessarily harmonious voices; a manifold project; a polyglossia that is as much in us as in the world outside us" (89). Booth's metaphors are varied here, I think, in order to anticipate the charge that his model lies to closely to a conception of human lives as characters in one giant narrative, which may or may not be an ideal metaphor for anyone not interested in literary theory or literature at all. His use of "colony" and "manifold," especially, seem designed to appeal to a more scientifically-based model of human interaction. We can deny torture and assert human rights in this model because by harming/killing one person, we are by extension interrupting their possibility for continuing their own narrative (Booth's metaphor) as well as damaging every other narrative of which they are a part (friends, family, strangers passed on a street). Booth uses Kafka's "In the Penal Colony" as the example par excellence of this analogy, becuase it demonstrates the effects of torture on everyone involved: victim, warden, witness, crowd, reader. Booth asserts that "when any gifted story-teller engages fully with more than one character, what we find, even in the most modern of Erziehungsromane, is that the true meeting of any two characters destroys the borderline between them" (98, second italics mine).

I find Booth's argument quite convincing and appealing, especially since he manages to avoid any charges of mysticism or obscurantism. This almost Bakhtinian conception of the self connects us to both friends and strangers, allies and enemies. It also prevents us from pleading innocence or helplessness in the face of injustices we know are being committed yet do nothing to stop. In this way, Palestinian children or even al-Zarqawi become part of our own narratives, however disconcerting the latter example may be. Booth is vague on just what constitutes a "true meeting" between characters in Kafka's story or, by extension, our own lives, but something tells me that we know it when we read/experience it. It is just this type of meeting that strengthens both the protection of our rights, and our determination to obtain and defend those of others.

Fall into the GAP

There seems to be no reason why our discussion of rights for one species of African ape should not extend to other species.

Life Hypnotic with Helene Cixous

In the summer of 2005, in my attempt to complete my collection of Said's writings, I bought a book called Freedom and Interpretation: Oxford Amnesty Lectures 1992 from someone in the UK, in which Said's essay, "Nationalism, Human Rigths, and Interpretation," was included. I was unaware at the time that I already owned this very essay in Said's Reflections on Exile. The question that was put to the lecturers (who included Kristeva, Ricouer, Eagleton, et al.) was: "...consider the consequences of the deconstruction of the self for the liberal tradition. Does the self as construed by the liberal tradition still exist? If not, whose human rights are we defending?" (2). This is a question that came up in class when Steven and I presented, and one of the things we discussed in our preparation was whether there was a way of defining civil rights in a way that was meaningful that did not have to fall back on founding religious texts or terminology. This question seems especially salient in the United States, where citizens are much more likely to derive authority for their opinions from the Bible than, say, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Enlightenment texts, or the Constitution.

While reading the book, there occurred one of the happiest accidents of my life: the discovery of Helene Cixous. Her almost Woolfian prose and sensibility were invigorating, and although her "moment" may have passed, her texts remain relevant and moving, as all great writing is. For Cixous, the issue is why the construction of ourselves as subjects involves so much fear of the Other: "All poets know that the self is in permanent mutation, that it is not one's own, that it is always in movement, in a trance, astray, and that it goes out towards you. That is the free self. Our time is afraid of losing, and afraid of losing itself. But one can write only by losing oneself, by going astray, just as one can love only at the risk of losing oneself, and of losing" (19). Again, we ask ourselves, how can we construct or make our governments enforce an idea of human rights to individuals who are always "in movement," and "in permanent mutation"? Do my rights obtain in the instant where I am losing part of myself in the act of loving another? Whether I am recognized as a citizen in my place of residence or not? When I am captured and interrogated by American soldiers because my name is Abdur Zahid Rahman, which is, to them, the same as Abdur Sayed Rahman? Perhaps in the beginning of the 21st century, "in times of strangeness, by sharing unhappiness, by being strangers together, people and poet reconstitute an internal homeland" (26).

In the end, it is not a national identity that defines us, but language, which remains central even when we are in exile. Language does not lie apart from us, however, nor are we long immune from physical violence once language comes under attack: "Those who do not tell the truth, those who feed untruths to the world, have begun to kill. and the great scandals of our society have had modest beginnings. Every day the media spectacle poisons the public. We are assassinated from far off and from close up" (32). Finally, it is not those who are free, but those who are not, that stimulate us to expand the realm of freedom of language and movement: "Do we need a camp, a prison, a war, to free us from our indifference to ourselves and from our fear of others? So that we do no forget our good fortune?" (44).

Works Cited

Johnson, Barbara, ed. Freedom and Interpretation: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures 1992. New York: BasicBooks, 1993.

Murder at the Border?

Speaking of borders and famous exiles, what really happened to Walter Benjamin in Portbou, on the French-Spanish border?

Nietzsche the Exile, cont.

The aforementioned aphorism raises some serious questions, not the least of which is why I am citing Nietzsche as a vital influence in my theorizing about borders. Nietzsche was certainly not a democrat, did not believe in "equal rights" (which he always puts in quotes), and yet at the same time was fiercely anti-nationalist and anti-racist. This helps to explain, at least in part, his continuing relevance and application by intellectuals throughout the political spectrum. For my purposes, this aphorism is necessary in that it emphasizes the idea of a supra-national sensibilitiy as opposed to a "nationalism and race hatred...[which] take[s] pleasure in the national scabies of the heart and blood poisoning that now leads the nations of Europe to delimit and barricade themselves against each other as if it were a matter of quarantine" (339). Nietzsche was also highly conscious of the fact that the philosopher should be the "bad conscience of his time," a stance that Said will take up later in his developing views on the place of the intellectual in academic and political realms. One of the appealing threads in Nietzsche's thought is this insistence that any patriotism or "petty nationalism" should be avoided at all costs in order to preserve one's intellectual integrity. At a time when the jingoism of the Kaiserreich and virulent anti-Semitism dominated German life, Nietzsche warned against both and advocated both cultural and genetic boundary crossing in order to create the "good European."

Nietzsche the Exile

One of the central ideas of this blog will be the importance of the exile, especially as conceived by Edward Said. Before I discuss Said in future posts, though, I want to point to a precursor to Said, and that is Nietzsche. Nietzsche's wanderings through Europe were borne not just from a desire to find somewhere where his myriad health ailments could be alleviated, but from a strong anti-nationalist impulse and belief in the idea of the "good European," a concept that I think owes a great deal to Goethe's conception of Weltliteratur. The aphorism in which Nietzsche explicates this theme is in Part V of the The Gay Science, written in 1886-87, is fittingly titled "We who are homeless--"

Continue reading "Nietzsche the Exile" »

Guest Worker Program

Georgia has signed one of the toughest immigration bills into law.

One possible "solution" offered recently, especially by Republicans, is to follow the European model of dealing with immigrants. Fareed Zakaria analyzes why this is decidedly not the way to go.