Said, Edward, Critical Notes on

Habib, Irfan
Date Written:  2005-10-17
Publisher:  International Socialism
Year Published:  2005
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX8303

Edward Said was admired by the anti-imperialist left for his courageous defence of Palestinian rights. However, Irfan Habib argues that unfortunately Said's scholarly work, notably his major work 'Orientalism,' was confused and sloppy to be point of being unethical.

one further problem with Said that needs certainly to be taken up is his notable lack of rigour in terms of documentation and logic; and I illustrate this by the treatment he metes out to Karl Marx.

On a preliminary page of his Orientalism, Said puts two short quotations, the first of which is from Marx: "They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented." An innocent reader will surely assume that Marx is here implying that Oriental peoples are incapable of representing themselves, and so Europeans (better still, European Orientalists) must speak for them. And, indeed, on p21, quoting Marx's words in original German, Said explicitly furnishes this precise context for his words.

There is a double sense in which this use of the quotation is unethical and irresponsible. The quoted words are taken from a passage in Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, where he speaks not of the position of Eastern peoples, but of the poverty-stricken smallholding peasants of France at a particular juncture in the mid-19th century. Since these peasants could not unite, they were "incapable of enforcing their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or through a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master (K Marx and F Engels, Selected Works, Moscow, 1950, vol I, p303)."

Not only does Said thus coolly substitute eastern peoples for French peasants; by a sleight of hand he also converts Marx's word 'representation,' meaning political representation, into 'depiction' (The Oriental people cannot depict themselves, and so the Orientalists' representation does the job (p21). The exploitation of Marx's quotation does not even end with this double misuse. On p293, Said makes the still more audacious statement that Marx had used the quoted phrase "for Louis Napoleon," as if Louis Napoleon had made any claims to represent or depict Orientals. Further on, quite forgetting what context he had given to Marx's quotation on p21, Said alleges in the 'Afterword' to the 1995 edition (p335), that by putting the quotation as one of the book's epigraphs, he, on his part, meant to refer to "the subjective truth insinuated by Marx, which is that if you feel you have been denied the chance to speak your truth, you will try extremely hard to get that chance!" One fears to voice the suspicion that Said had never cared to read the original passage of the Eighteenth Brumaire, and had just picked up the quotation from some secondary source. Even so, the range of manifestly wrong meanings so confidently ascribed to the same words, on different spurs of the moment, is incredible.

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