Said: Humanism and Democratic Criticism

VOL. 34


No. 3
P. 102
Recent Books
Said: Humanism and Democratic Criticism


Humanism and Democratic Criticism, by Edward Said. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. xvii + 144 pages. Index to p. 154. $19.95 cloth.

Reviewed by W. J. T. Mitchell

Of all the sides of Edward Said's multifaceted career as a musician, music critic, intellectual historian, autobiographer, public intellectual, and polemicist, his life as a scholar was perhaps the most quiet and conservative. Although Said was a literary theorist and a pioneer in the use of Michel Foucault's methods, he never was identified with the vanguard of French theory. And although he often was called a founding father of "postcolonial" theory, he never really felt comfortable with the implications of the "post-," and regarded colonialism as still (unfortunately) alive and well in the late twentieth century. The fact is that he had an ambivalent relationship with some of the most innovative trends in recent criticism, often deploring its use of rebarbative language, urging on younger scholars the importance of remaining committed to old-fashioned institutions such as "literature," including (but not restricted to) the great writers of the Western canon. Said remained pretty much unmoved by those forms of radical or "progressive" criticism that denounce the "elite," or "Western," or "phallocentric" literatures produced by "dead white males." He was at home with Swift and Austen and Conrad and loved the masterworks of the Western canon despite their sometimes undeniable complicity in imperialist ideology. Said was a devoted formalist in an age that thought it had gone beyond formalism, an aesthete in an age of ideology critique, and a humanist in a time of post- and anti-humanism. Yet it would be a drastic mistake to think of Said's conservative commitments as retrograde or reactionary. He was in dialogue with the literary masters of the past, not on his knees before them. And his humanism was anything but a reflexive return to the past. If anything, it was a scholarly posture that grounded his critical stance toward the present and toward possible futures both in culture and in politics. Humanism and Democratic Criticism is the closest thing I know to a gathering and recounting of what I have been calling Said's conservative scholarly principles. He explores here his debts to the great tradition of European philology, particularly the work of Leo Spitzer and Erich Auerbach. He traces the lineage of humanism to Vico's insistence on secular and historical explanations of cultural monuments and explores the "tragic flaw" of radical incompleteness that he finds "constitutive" of the "whole idea of humanism" (p. 12). Above all, he tries to disentangle an authentic core of humanism-dialectical, restless, and contrapuntal-from the misuses that have been made of it in the service of racist forms of Eurocentrism, neoconservative polemics against critical innovation, and the hollow puffery of "canonical humanism" represented by Harold Bloom. In response to Saul Bellow's mean-spirited challenge-"Show me the Zulu Proust"-Said offers the openness and curiosity of the intellectual who is prepared to find value, and new kinds of value, any place that the human imagination is at work. Said's book walks a tightrope, in other words, between the latest rages in academic criticism and the conservative reactions to them. He steers his own perilous course, mobilizing the historical and archival resources of a universal and inclusive humanism (one which also grounded his political writings and made it possible for him to see beyond separatist and nationalist "solutions" to the Israel/Palestine conflict). To this he adds the imperative of what he calls "democratic criticism," a critical practice that is ceaselessly in ferment, engaged in debate and dialogue, and not merely exercising fixed canons of judgment to issue "rulings" or fatwas based in doctrine. This side of his work reminds me of the great art historian, Leo Steinberg, who insisted that true criticism is based, not only in the imperative to make a judgment, but in the need constantly to interrogate the grounds of judgment and to ponder the possibility that "other criteria" besides the ones with which one has grown comfortable may be pressed upon us by the emergence of new writers and artists and new frames for thinking about culture as such. A democracy for Said is a place where power grows out of arguments, knowledge, language, eloquence, and reason-in short, out of the resources made available by humanism and criticism. "Democratic criticism," then, means the right to dissent and the obligation to dissent. It is the refusal to be passive or silent, the insistence on "speaking the truth to power." Death will not silence his voice, and humanism of the sort he espoused will never die.

W. J. T. Mitchell is professor of English and Art History at the University of Chicago and editor of Critical Inquiry.