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.