Edward Said: Last Public Intellectual

Last autumn, I started being interested in Professor Edward Said, who is most known for his 1978 book “The Orientalism”. I won’t write about the book here, a lot has been written about it already. Edward Said, however, is much more than an author. He stands out as perhaps the last public intellectual of our time. We do not have public intellectuals of this caliber anymore, maybe with an exception of Noam Chomsky.

Edward Said is fascinating on a number of fronts. He is a very contrasting person who reconciled the polarities in his persona, such as being a Palestinian, a Christian, a refugee who was forced to leave Jerusalem in 1948, A Princeton graduate, a Professor of English at Columbia University, a scholar, a political activist, a novelist and literary critic, a movie director. You will not find these multiple dimensions in many people nowadays, this qualify has been rare since the times of the ancient Greece and Rome.

As I listen to multiple lectures and interviews with Edward Said online, I admire him for his ability to produce counter narratives in order to oppose those who outnumber and outpower him hugely, namely the Zionist narratives and the state of Israel. I admire his ability to look beyond the immediate and recognise the cultural behind the material. This is perhaps what I like most in him — the ability to put the cultural above the material, seeing the roots of domination in the power of ideas, but with an intricate link to the material realities which such ideas structure.

And I observe with awe his ability to bring to life important insights about neo-colonialism, power, conflict, dispossession and reconciliation among the two conflicting nations. This last bit is not surprising at all given my own background and interest in Armenia-Azerbaijani conflict. And on this last topic, he talks at length about the experience of the Palestinians.

His articulation is mesmerising, his knowledge is deep, and his courage is breath-taking. You can see a real aesthete who has not sold out for money or fame, who has principles engraved on his character, and who wins over hearts by the virtue of his talents and cause.

Below are two quotes from “The Orientalism” which give you the taste of Edward Said’s writing. And below is the last interview with him where he is candid about his life, mission, writing, journalism and the struggles worth living for. These are two quotes which perhaps sum up my own mission in teaching and research, there must be a reason why Edward Said resonates so strongly with my inner strings.

It isn’t at all a matter of being optimistic, but rather of continuing to have faith in the ongoing and literally unending process of emancipation and enlightenment that, in my opinion, frames and gives direction to the intellectual vocation.

My idea in Orientalism is to use humanistic critique to open up the fields of struggle, to introduce a longer sequence of thought and analysis to replace the short bursts of polemical, thought-stopping fury that so imprison us in labels and antagonistic debate whose goal is a belligerent collective identity rather than understanding and intellectual exchange

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