Edward Said, Representations of the Intellectual (Intellectuals as Outsiders)

All of us live in a society, and are members of a nationality with its own language, tradition, historical situation. To what extent are intellectuals servants of these actualities, to what extent enemies? The same is true of intellectuals’ relationship with institutions (academy, church, professional guild) and with worldly powers, which in our time have co-opted the intelligentsia to an extraordinary degree. The results are, as Wilfred Owen put it, that “the scribes on all the people shove/And bawl allegiance to the state.” Thus in my view the principal intellectual duty is the search for relative independence from such pressures. Hence my characterization of the intellectual as exile and marginal, as amateur, and as the author of a language that tries to speak the truth to power.

…In underlining the intellectual’s role as outsider I have had in mind how powerless one often feels in the face of an overwhelmingly powerful network of social authorities – the media, the government and corporations, etc. – who crowd out the possibilities for achieving any change. To deliberately not belong to these authorities is in many ways not to be able to effect direct change and, alas, even at times to be relegated to the role of a witness who testifies to a horror otherwise unrecorded…

But there can be little doubt that figures like [James] Baldwin and Malcolm X define the kind of work that has most influenced my own representations of the intellectual’s consciousness. It is a spirit in opposition, rather than in accommodation, that grips me because the romance, the interest, the challenge of intellectual life is to be found in dissent against the status quo at a time when the struggle on behalf of underrepresented and disadvantaged groups seems so unfairly weighted against them. My background in Palestinian politics has further intensified this sense. Both in the West and the Arab world the fissure separating haves and have-nots deepens every day, and among intellectuals in power it brings out smug heedlessness that is truly appalling. What could be less attractive and less true a couple of years after it was all the rage than Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis or Lyotard’s account of the “disappearance” of the “grand narratives”? The same can be said of the hardhearted pragmatists and realists who concocted preposterous fictions like the New World Order or “the clash of civilizations.”

I do not want to be misunderstood. Intellectuals are not required to be humorless complainers. Nothing less could be true of such celebrated and energetic dissenters as Noam Chomsky or Gore Vidal. Witnessing a sorry state of affairs when one is not in power is by no means a monotonous, monochromatic activity. It involves what Foucault once called “a relentless erudition,” scouring alternative sources, exhuming buried documents, reviving forgotten (or abandoned) histories. It involves a sense of one’s rare opportunities to speak, catching the audience’s attention, being better at wit and debate than one’s opponents. And there is something fundamentally unsettling about intellectuals who have neither offices to protect nor territory to consolidate and guard; self-irony is therefore more frequent than pomposity, directness more than hemming and hawing. But there is no dodging the inescapable reality that such representations by intellectuals will neither make them friends in high places nor win them official honors. It is a lonely condition, yes, but it is always a better one than a gregarious tolerance for the way things are.


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