Book Review: Reclaiming Edward Said’s Political Legacies

Prasad Pannian (2016) Edward Said and the Politics of Subjectivity, United States: Palgrave Macmillan. Pg. XII, 205

Edward said, a towering intellectual and political philosopher of our times, was also a crusader of justice and human rights. He taught us to rethink the colonial enterprise in precise political terms by delineating the epistemological violence at its core. He underscored the fact that its strategy of control and domination derived basically from an attempt to define oriental knowledge by deforming and disfiguring it in ways that suited colonial interests. He called this massive devastation of civilizational knowledge, Orientalism. It became a classic work on its own right, although it had ostensible intellectual debts to the emerging fields of post structuralism and post modernism in multiple ways. His work paved the way for the emergence of a new hybrid discipline known as postcolonialism that gleaned freely from philosophy, literature and pollical science and shocked academia for decades to come. The book by Prasad Pannian is a significant addition to the global discussions on Edward Said and his enormous contributions to our cultural, political and social history.


Pannian’s approach is slightly different form the run of mill attempts to locate Said easily within familiar intellectual frameworks. He daringly presents a view of Edward Said as a political thinker, rather than a philosopher. But more interestingly, he ventures to find the political relevance of the human subject in Said’s work. Moreover, the writer places his exploration as ‘more ontological than epistemological’ focusing primarily on the ‘textuality of the Saidian subject that is hybrid, contradictory and fluid, but still capable of engaging in political action’. (p.8)

From Said’s politicization of subjectivity, Pannian separates a left-leaning intellectual whose emphasis on the cultural, social and material history of the text and the subject makes him emerge as an indisputable focal point for anyone attempting to create a politics out of their subject formation within the dominant poststructuralist anti-humanist discourses. He rightly points out that this sternness made him oppose the American exceptionalism of Fukuyama and Huntington on the one hand and made it possible for us to question the appropriateness in speaking about simulacrum or hyper reality as Baudrillard did, on the other end of the spectrum in the debate over subjectivity. Pannian goes on to investigates Said’s notion of subjectivity as implicated in his seminal work Orientalism and expertly demonstrates the affinity of Said to Gramsci in the modes of politicization of self that both the writers took up as authors and critics who endeavored to create the critical space. Said’s attempt to ‘Know thyself’, the inventory prescribed by Gramsci as an imperative to critical political action, begins from his early awareness of growing up in Palestine and Egypt.

Apart from this, his own experiences of the great power politics in the Middle East, the oil economics and the demonization of the Arabs constituted not only his personal self, but his writer-self as well. The confrontation of the nexus of knowledge and power that obliterated the oriental as a human being, was not exclusively an academic matter. Thus the 1967 Arab-Israel war became the context for Said to compile an inventory of his experience as one among the generation that grew up in the shadow of colonialism and imperialism.

As a critical exploration, Pannian’s reading of Said begins from the premise where Said had construed the dualistic opposition of identity and alterity as something to be obliterated rather than constantly piqued and challenged. In fact, the critical point to begin a confrontation of this Saidian dilemma is Said’s understanding and use of ‘know thyself’ in Gramscian political terms rather than in the Foucauldian historical-ethical terms.

For Foucault, the Delphic principle of ‘know yourself’ in itself meant the historical boundaries of self-constitution in Western knowledge that limits the perception of self through gaze of self and the other. Like Spivak observes, the reciprocal gaze of the object is more to reconstitute the looker than the looked at and hence it need to be a continuous project of reflection. It is from this realm of constant subjective political resistance to unmask the Occident that any reflection on the Saidian political subjectivity become more significant.

Pannian’s book represents a renewed effort to rekindle our interest in the theoretical and political positions that Said held close to his heart and understand their relevance for an intellectual practice that would help us resist the onslaughts of Eurocentric knowledge systems. We are at the crossroads of a transition from subordination by coercion to passivity of collaboration in a Euro-American enterprise of decentered subjugation. Reading Said and assimilating his wisdom for outlining the contours of an anti-globalization politics becomes immensely relevant in the contexts of our current political, and ethical quandaries.

(Reviewer is Professor, School of Interdisciplinary Studies, English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad)


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