The Pen and the Sword

This review was originally published at the indispensable Electronic Intifada.

Edward Said was one of the great public intellectuals of the twentieth century – prolific, polymathic, principled, and always concerned to link theory to practice. Perhaps by virtue of his Palestinian identity, he was never an ivory tower intellectual. He never feared dirtying his hands in the messy, unwritten history of the present moment. Neither was he ever a committed member of a particular camp. Rather he offered a discomfiting, provocative, constantly critical voice. And against the postmodern grain of contemporary academia, his perspective was consistently moral, consistently worried about justice.

Said was primarily a historian of ideas. More precisely, he was interested in ‘discourse’, the stories a society tells itself and by which it (mis)understands itself and others. His landmark book “Orientalism” examined the Western narrative of empire in the Islamic Middle East, as constructed by Flaubert and Renan, Bernard Lewis and CNN. Said’s multi-disciplinary approach, his treatment of poetry, news coverage and colonial administration documents as aspects of one cultural continuum, was hugely influential in academia, helping to spawn a host of ‘postcolonial’ studies. Said’s “Culture and Imperialism” expanded the focus to include Western depictions of India, Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America, and the literary and political ‘replies’ of the colonised.

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