Edward Said Showed Intellectuals How to Bring Politics to Their Work

The Palestinian writer Edward Said wasn’t merely an intellectual who took brave political stands. Said’s whole approach to his work should be a model for politically engaged scholarship that doesn’t get bogged down in the thickets of academic culture.

Professor and writer Edward Said in his office at Colombia University in New York City, 2003. (Jean-Christian Bourcart / Getty Images)

It is well known that Edward Said was a prominent intellectual who stepped outside of his professional role to argue for the cause of Palestine. Along with a few others — Noam Chomsky surely chief among them — Said stood out in the United States and Europe during the 1970s and ’80s as a voice of rationality, skepticism, and courage.

He challenged the prevailing mainstream positions on the Palestine/Israel question, which were largely rooted in liberal Zionism, demonstrating Washington’s complicity with Israeli conquest, colonization, and breaches of international and human rights law, and argued for a just peace. In doing so, he suffered obloquy of a particularly extreme kind, including personal attacks, death threats, and the firebombing and desecration of his office at Columbia University.

Said often liked to portray himself as an independent and nonaffiliated dissenter, and indeed he was never a member of any of the Palestinian parties, factions, or guerrilla groups. The idea of independence was very important to him, whether it was a matter of being an independent member of the Palestine National Council or carving out an intellectual and even epistemological vantage point in his scholarly work.

Said’s great model of independence was the eighteenth-century Italian philosopher and rhetorician Giambattista Vico, whose ideas and values were foundational for him. Vico took up a position between the reigning, competing empiricist and rationalist philosophies of his day by creating himself as an autodidact. There is no doubt that Said sought to do something similar.

Nevertheless, there is also no doubt that Said operated in and helped to mobilize many networks and groups of people in his work on Palestine. He thought of his own activity as taking place in this way, too. In what follows, I will seek to show how both his “political” and “academic” work had the same wellsprings in this regard, even though they at times seemed different.

Worldly Deeds

“A book is a deed,” Joseph Conrad once argued, and Said, who wrote his PhD thesis and first book on Conrad, agreed wholeheartedly. From early in his career, Said had a very strong sense of writing as a kind of action — even of writing as an event. His favorite term for this would, by the 1970s, be “worldliness” — a general sense that all writing, no matter how exalted or esoteric or complex it might be, took place in the world and had a relationship to it.

The idea that a kind of writing could somehow lift itself free of the contexts of its making was anathema to Said. One could always show writing — a modernist poem, say, or a philosophical essay — to have a relationship (even if it was only one of denial) with the place and time of its creation. Equally, we must also always see reading or interpretation as being related to a context.

Texts, Said wrote in 1975, quoting Friedrich Nietzsche, must be understood as facts of power, not of democratic exchange. He envisaged writing as taking place on what Fredric Jameson once called a “Homeric battlefield,” where one text purchased its ascendancy or popularity, or even hegemonic influence, at the expense of another’s demotion.

If this sounds rather abstract or “literary,” then we should immediately see Said’s ideas in action in the following quote:

Political ideas like Zionism need to be examined historically in two ways: 1) genealogically in order that their provenance, their kinship and descent, their affiliations both with other ideas and with political institutions may be demonstrated; 2) as practical systems for accumulation (of power, land, ideological legitimacy) and displacement (of people, other ideas, prior legitimacy).

Here Said was arguing for the analysis of Zionism as a “worldly” political, intellectual, and cultural movement. Zionism needs to be understood, he argued, not only for its background and lineage but also for its “worldly” capacity to dislodge other ideas and people, and to accumulate for itself the legitimacy of the dispensation it has shouldered aside, ideologically but also in territorial and political terms.

Said’s approach to literary criticism, in other words, offered him powerful tools for the political analysis of a formidable ideological system like Zionism. He deployed the “academic” ideas for political use in the most overt manner.

Narrative Struggles

But this mixing of the scholarly and the political went further. This quotation came at the head of “Zionism From the Standpoint of its Victims,” one of Said’s most brilliant and valuable essays, first published in Social Text in 1979 and then included in his book The Question of Palestine the same year.

In this essay, which marshaled a large amount of historical, political, and intellectual material, Said related Zionism to the European imperial “scramble” of the late nineteenth century, and quoted from a wide variety of liberal nineteenth-century European opinions on the alleged historical destiny of the Jewish people to “return” to their supposedly ancestral home.

He showed that the Zionist movement conceived of itself in quasi-military terms well before 1948, but also demonstrated that the people and culture which Zionism pushed aside (in exactly the “worldly” terms used above) constituted an epistemological fulcrum from which one could ultimate produce the most powerful and fundamental knowledge of Zionism. To look at Zionism from “the standpoint of its victims” was to produce the most important kind of knowledge of Zionism, just as for Georg Lukács, the class consciousness of the victims of capitalism was the ultimate critical awareness of capital.

Another valuable instance where Said’s literary-critical expertise fed powerfully into his political writing came in the essay “Permission to Narrate,” published in the London Review of Books and the Journal of Palestine Studies in 1984. Ostensibly a long review-essay of books about the Lebanon War and the camp massacres, it eventually turned into something else.

While he was admiring of books such as Jonathan Randal’s The Tragedy of Lebanon, and particularly Noam Chomsky’s towering work, The Fateful Triangle, Said also put forward a fundamental critique of these writers. Although their portrayal and analysis of the Palestinian dilemma in Lebanon was cogent and important, he believed that none of them were capable of thinking about the fate of the Palestinians in narrative terms.

Drawing on the historian Hayden White’s insight that narrative is always linked to questions of authority, Said pointed out that the Palestinian experience lacked a countermanding narrative expression and idea, and the authority that flows from it, when set against the overmastering narrative of Zionism (Jewish national consciousness, organization, affiliation to empire, colonization, and eventual state creation).

In effect, the Zionist narrative was able to block the production of a Palestinian narrative, both ideologically and in the crudest and most literal sense, through the theft of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s archives by Israeli forces as they entered Beirut. This was another example of Said’s sense that politics and ideas partook of “worldly” struggle.

An Energetic Activist

The point, then, is not just that Said was a university professor who pursued activism or journalism or media commentary in his free time, but that such activism was actually at the root of his academic work, too. This is a point made powerfully clear in Timothy Brennan’s recent fascinating biography of Said, Places of Mind.

Brennan alters or adjusts our sense of Said in a number of important ways. Where Said himself had rooted his interest in political work in the catastrophic defeat of 1967, Brennan shows us that the young Edward already had strongly held and passionately expressed political opinions about Palestine and its fate when he was a teenager. Brennan also reveals the important relationship between Said as a young professor at Columbia and his brilliant Trotskyist colleague F. W. Dupee.

Dupee was, along with Lionel Trilling, a major representative of the cohort known as the New York intellectuals within the walls of the academy. But whereas Trilling created a mandarin stance of disinterestedness in his critical work, drawing on the tradition of Matthew Arnold, Dupee was committed, partisan, and combative, as much a literary street fighter as an analytical scholar. Dupee was Said’s most important mentor in his early professorial career. It was partly due to this influence that Said published his early literary essays not in exclusively academic journals but rather in para-academic venues such as Partisan Review, the chief platform of the New York intellectuals.

While Said had portrayed himself as an independent figure in his political activity, Brennan shows us that he was actually an activist and networker of exceptional vigor and dedication. From the early 1970s, Said was in regular and intense correspondence with a very wide range of people and organizations either inspired by him, or supported by him, or who had recruited him for advice. The list included dissident Jewish organizations, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Democratic Socialists of America, and the European Coordinating Committee of Non-Governmental Organizations.

Said intervened to shape research agendas and nudged think tanks, journals, and publishers to consider new work. He made suggestions to Columbia University Press for new publications, and encouraged or endorsed new departments and programs. Equally, he campaigned for educational projects in the Middle East. At the same time that he was arguing constantly for Arab states to set up American studies programs, he agitated for the development of Arab studies programs in the United States.

As early as 1972, Said and his wife Mariam sponsored a book drive for the Birzeit School for Girls in Ramallah. A decade later, they set up the Palestine Defense Fund. Over the course of many years, Said and his old comrade Ibrahim Abu-Lughod campaigned to found a Palestinian Open University in the West Bank. Late in his life, he revealed that he had compiled an archive of more than nine thousand photographs of Palestinians since 1948. Said pressed for a Palestinian census to be conducted and drew up a profile of the Palestinian people for the Institute of Policy Studies.

He was active, too, in the Association of Arab-American University Graduates (AAUG). Formed in 1967, the AAUG took on particular importance during the overt harassment of Arab Americans fostered by the Nixon administration’s “Operation Boulder.” Said’s work for the AAUG, eventually serving as its vice president, contributed to the FBI’s decision to open a file on him. By the end of his life, it had grown to become a 238-page dossier. There can be no doubt that Said’s enemies — and there were many of them — thought him an energetic and formidable activist.


A neglected 1982 essay of Said’s, “Opponents, Audiences, Constituency and Community,” stands as one of his most overt statements about criticism “in the world.” He noted the tendency of most schools of literary criticism to end up talking to and about themselves, and the pressures of academic intellectual work that caused even putatively “radical” intellectuals to avoid intervening in affairs or arguments outside of their disciplinary field. Said argued instead for a practice that he called “interference.”

In place of conformity to the internal politics of academic discourse — which, he argued, could even defang and de-radicalize Marxism — Said pressed for a committed, politicized (“worldly”) breaching of the borders of academic discourses and practices. This is what he branded “interference.” It may sound like the familiar idea of interdisciplinarity, but comes with a radical edge, stepping outside of the academy itself.

As Brennan stresses, this essay shows not just how Said argued for a politicized, streetwise criticism, but also that he had a very strong sense of the politics of the media and of access to information. In a world already dominated by international media multinationals when Said was writing in the early 1980s, he insisted that the task of the activist-critic was to intervene in the politics of representation — whether of Palestine, “terrorism,” or other subjects — in an agile, secular, and nonauthoritative manner, entirely unlike the quasi-religious cults of dry “theory” or pious aestheticism.

In his glancing but brilliant survey of English criticism and the “public sphere,” The Function of Criticism (1984), Terry Eagleton noted that one of the essential preconditions for a radical, political, or activist critic was a receptive public. He argued that Raymond Williams, despite being a major and widely read writer, suffered from the lack of a widespread and energetic left culture in Britain during the postwar period.

Williams did work very hard to find and to make such a public, with his books, his work in adult education, and his fiction. Said also fought very hard to make an audience for his positions on Palestine. If he played up the image of the lone dissenter, this reflected his sense of isolation. But it was also a form of position-taking in the field of discussion, predicated on the individual qualities of charisma, courage, eloquence, and erudition which he commanded so well.

Said could perform a medley of intellectual styles, not just one or two. One of his most memorable, but also oblique and subtle, projects was a marvelous book that combined Jean Mohr’s superb photographs of Palestinians, taken over the period since the Nakba, with Said’s meditative commentary: After the Last Sky (1986).

As ever, there was a very immediate and worldly occasion for the creation of this book. In 1983, Said served as a consultant to the UN International Conference on the Question of Palestine in Geneva. There was due to be an exhibition of Mohr’s photographs at the Palais des Nations, where the conference was held.

In one of those bitter paradoxes that often mark the Palestinian quandary, a group of the “frontline” Arab states that were supposed to be Israel’s strongest opponents cooperated to impede the display of any captions more elaborate than a location for each photograph. Said and Mohr found their way around this grim piece of statecraft by publishing a book with a selection of the photographs, allowing Said free rein to write commentary as he pleased. A finer example of “interference” could hardly be found.

Responding to Oslo

Relatively late in his career, Said began to write regular columns for the Arabic press. Many of these articles were then collected in his three last volumes of political essays: Peace and Its Discontents (1995), The End of the Peace Process (2000), and the posthumous From Oslo to Iraq and the Roadmap (2004). These essays mostly concerned themselves with Said’s powerful critique of the Oslo process, which he recognized from the start as a sham and a disaster for the Palestinians.

However, this was also the first and only period in which Said wrote a regular political essay, once a fortnight, which was syndicated and published in publications such as Al Ahram Weekly, Al Hayat, or Le Monde Diplomatique. Writing regularly, addressing audiences both popular and political, Said almost certainly had a great exemplar in mind: Jonathan Swift, the most brilliant and scabrous polemicist in the English language.

The eighteenth-century Irish poet, churchman, and pamphleteer had long fascinated Said (Brennan informs us that he twice tried to publish a book on him). He found in Swift’s embittered and furious essays, written particularly after he had fallen out of political favor with the British government in the early 1700s, a kind of intellectual performance ideally suited to his own stance toward the Palestinian liberation movement.

But Swift also offered a model of “writing to the moment” — a kind of writing which was evanescent, tied to the occasion, even parasitic on that occasion or on what it opposed, and yet also determined to explode, displace, modify, or occlude those enemies and rivals. When Swift wrote his satire on literary-political debate, The Battle of the Books, he depicted the books in St James’s Library in London scrambling off their shelves to do battle on the reading room floor. Said saw his political interventions in a similar way.

A Collective Intellectual

In his later years, however, Said also argued for collective or at least comradely work. He became friendly with the great French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who hosted him at the Collège de France. Bourdieu, a non-Marxist radical of the French left, spent much of his career examining the ways that society produces and reproduces what he called “cultural capital” — the social garland which is composed from one’s birth, education, and institutional and economic locations.

Bourdieu’s masterly studies of French academia, or of the noblesse d’état which runs the French state, or of the power of cultural institutions to confer authority, must all have appealed to Said. As he wrote in Orientalism:

There is nothing mysterious or natural about authority. It is formed, irradiated, disseminated; it is instrumental, it is persuasive; it has status, it establishes canons of taste and value; it is virtually indistinguishable from certain ideas it dignifies as true, and from traditions, perceptions, and judgements it forms, transmits, reproduces. Above all, authority can, indeed must, be analyzed.

One of Bourdieu’s last great projects was his extraordinary book La Misere du Monde (1993), a devastating portrayal of the lives of France’s poor and marginalized. Based on extensive fieldwork, and authored with a team of writers and researchers, La Misere appeared at a moment when Bourdieu himself began to take public positions critical of neoliberalism in its French manifestation.

In Humanism and Democratic Criticism, Said’s posthumous book on the value of philological approaches to culture, he also included a late essay on the public role of intellectuals. It advocated for what Bourdieu called a “collective intellectual” — the forging of a comradely, group intellectual identity, which could in Bourdieu’s words “play its irreplaceable role, by helping to create the social conditions for the collective production of realist utopias.” The situation in Palestine may seem very distant from any hope of “realist utopias,” but Said’s efforts, individually and as part of wider groups of activists and scholars, offer a powerful and inspiring model for those of us who work in his wake.