POST TIME: 5 July, 2018 00:00 00 AM
Behind the scene with Edward Said
We usually revolt against something negative, something menacing, or something that no longer can function in any given evolved structure
Hisham M Nazer

Behind the scene with Edward Said

To prepare a background for his critical judgement of those literatures that have not bothered to wrap “historical generalisation” in nicer rhetoric, Edward Said in his Orientalism has borrowed ideas from another great thinker Antonio Gramsci. Contrary to popular belief, he is sufficiently convinced that knowledge is not readily apolitical; that it is potent with all the necessary elements that can incite even a revolution. And it is true that no amount of bullet-proofing can save you from an idea shot by someone who can romance with the words.

The common understanding about “revolution” is generally positive. We usually revolt against something negative, something menacing, or something that no longer can function in any given evolved structure. But we cannot completely discount this rather disconcerting possibility that even mere sentiments can fan the fire of a revolution that essentially aims at personal (group-specific maybe) benefits.

To be aware of such an elaborate hegemonic operation, which in fact can be more devastating than a coup, it is to some extent imperative that we must cultivate an awareness of our social system and whatever happens within it.

This then raises the question of supervision and its extent, and whether to exclude the production of knowledge from this supervision.

Edward Said does not jump to any straight answer. Rather he begins from the beginning, from the dynamics of the desk, of the room, of the building, of the locality and the social/political structure from where a writer writes. He starts with the society and says: “In any society not totalitarian, then, certain cultural forms predominate, over others, just as certain ideas are more influential than others; the form of this cultural leadership is what Gramsci has identified as hegemony.”

Totalitarianism is never expected in a democratic state, but if we can keep aside what we have learnt in our childhood just for a while and look at this matter objectively, we will see that it is democracy that gives birth to powerful individuals or groups, because it is practically impossible for the government to harness or regulate the rise of an ideology in some uncharted corner of a country. Therefore in a democratic environment it is not too difficult for anyone to become elite or to hold a position that has the power to hegemonize the mass with a specific-interest-centric theory. Through his thoughts on classical Orientalism, Said has desperately tried to tell us that it is not just about the west and the east, but also the right and the left, and whatever comes in the middle. And what comes in the middle, is the common people.

For such a system that cannot completely supervise all the growths in all the places, Said warns us: “…there is such a thing as knowledge that is less, rather than more, partial than the individual (with his entangling and distracting life circumstances) who produces it. Yet this knowledge is not therefore automatically nonpolitical.”

This brings forth questions of philosophical kind. Can the idea outgrow the idealist? Can it remain unaffected by him no matter how hard he tries? Probably what Martin Heidegger means by “being in” explains this more philosophically than anything: ““Being-in” is a term we usually associate with our involvement in a situation or a context. Thus, “Being in” is not thought about solely in isolation, but in terms of “Being in something or other”. For example we can say that: the water is in the glass. However, in terms of inness the description cannot be terminated with that proposition for is not the glass also in the kitchen, which is in the house, which is in the village, which is in the county and so on…. This sense here is that the Being-present-at-hand describes a definite relationship of location, where something exists with something else….”  

Political and civil life, according to Gramsci, is undoubtedly interinfluential. What Said has tried to connect with his discourse of Orientalism is the idea that it is not always the “political” mind, as if developed somewhere distant from an actual context, which in isolation engages into political activities.

In fact any mind that is perceptive enough is bound to develop certain ideas/ideologies about its surroundings. Therefore, the network of apparently nonpolitical realities/works too can influence a mind, and a mind thus influenced cannot possibly transcend what it has learnt in its bones and blood when it comes to talking about something as perplexingly sensitive as cultural itself, of which knowledge and knowledge are intrinsic parts.

If works of Shakespeare or Wordsworth have nothing directly political about them, then at least they have contributed to the development of a proud “English consciousness” which, given that this consciousness is wedded to political ideas, might as well be the strength of a colonial conviction, or of a belief of racial superiority. Moreover, it is almost impossible to control what happens in a society and that is why it is always unpredictable (as it is uncontrollable) what history will engineer and occasion in the present reality.

If a culture has confessed colonizing interest, the very environment of that culture plagues one’s understanding of anything that is produced in that culture, which in turn directs his mind into feeling entitled to believing whatever is skilfully propagandized by the elite through the media. That is how we seal our affiliation. That is how, unknowingly, Shakespeare and Wordsworth, not entirely for the merit of their individual works, too have contributed to the gradual formation of an Orientalist attitude—an attitude that looks at others with disdain. That is exactly how in a fascist regime, that constantly seeks and rewards unwavering charlatanism, knowledge can get tainted with the personal motives of the writers.

Freedom of thought is a noble idea. But in a country like ours where one can publish his thoughts in a fortnight with just a handsome amount of money, is it absolutely wise to let Caliban tell the story only because it is just wonderful that he can?

The writer is Lecturer, Department of English, Varendra University