Politics and the Academy

Timothy Brennan, Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said

Bloomsbury, 464pp, £25.00, ISBN 9781526614650

reviewed by Raphael Cormack

The Edward W. Said Reading Room is at the end of a long corridor, on the sixth floor of Columbia University’s main library. It holds what remains of Edward Said’s personal library and, as such, is a physical manifestation of his intellectual life. On the left as you walk in, there are shelves of books on music; you then move past Arabic literature, European and American literature, past a whole wall of Middle Eastern history and politics and then return to music, where you started. If you take the books off the shelf to read them you will find inscriptions from some extremely well-known scholars and writers of the 20th century — Mahmoud Darwish, Cornel West, Marina Warner, Anton Shammas, Christopher Hitchens — as well as Said’s academic colleagues including the editor of a text of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, various faculty at Columbia, and former students.

Said was a hero to many when he was alive. He represented, to his many supporters, a clear thinker who could see through so-called ‘unbiased’ scholarship to its political effects as well as an eloquent spokesperson for the Palestinian cause at a time when few were given a chance to appear in the American public sphere. Since his death in 2003 his stature has only grown and he has come about as close to sainthood as it is possible for an academic to come. Now, his intellectual heirs fight it out for the right to be anointed his representative on earth.

I must confess, I myself am not immune to his pull. Why else, whenever I go to Columbia library, do I make sure to get a desk in his reading room, cocooned amongst his books? It is, of course, some kind of attempt to inhabit his mind, even if just for a short period. I try to exchange glances with other people working in the reading room and imagine that we share some private understanding. I like to think that they return my sentiments but they may just find me strange or annoying.

How can you write a biography of a man like this? He became such an icon that people used to approach him after lectures just to be able to touch him. Of course, he had his enemies too, many of whom are still around today. But the remarkable vehemence of their attacks only confirms his canonisation. There was even a proto-birtherist campaign against him which claimed he had exaggerated his own personal connection to Jerusalem to boost his credibility as a Palestinian exile. (Many of the main exposé’s claims were undercut because Said’s own memoirs, which gave an extremely detailed account of his peripatetic life across the Middle East before 1948, appeared in the same month as the article. Its author, Justus Reid Weiner, confronted by this account, wrote that he ‘[could not] rule out the possibility’ that Said had got wind of his investigations and altered his memoirs because of them.)

Timothy Brennan’s new biography of Said, Places of Mind, has taken up the task. Written by a former student and friend of Said, it attempts to peel back the veneer that has accumulated around the great man and write a comprehensive intellectual biography. In elegant and readable prose, Brennan takes us through Said’s academic life, from his early formation, through his development as a literary theorist, and into his later work. At the same time, he keeps a constant eye on Said’s politics and his long and close engagement with the Palestinian struggle.

Those expecting gossip, comical anecdotes, or petty feuds will not find much to titillate. Other details — his marriages, his intellectual friendships as well as a few surprises (including reasonably detailed plot summaries of two unfinished novels that Said eventually gave up on) — are woven around those two tentpoles of politics and academia. Brennan only mentions a few of Said’s personal idiosyncrasies (not quite odd enough to be called eccentricities) — his love of bull-fighting, his avid consumption of American action films, and his habit of calling people on the telephone early in the morning and when he invariably found them still asleep berating them for their idleness — and he does not dwell on them for long.

Had this biography been written around the time of Said’s death in 2003, it would probably have looked very different. Then, the War on Terror and the occupation of Iraq were in their early phases and people were searching for intellectual justifications for military invasions in the Middle East. In this climate, Said’s old arguments about the uncomfortable relationship between academic study and imperialism looked prophetic.

Now, in 2021, things look different. Timothy Brennan’s 2021 model of Edward Said does not so much stand in condemnation of academia but as a symbol of what can be possible within it. This is an Edward Said who believed in the power of the academy to shape the intellect and the power of the intellect to shape the world, when done right. He was a product of the 20th-century university system. Of course, he was a rebel and at odds with the WASP elite of American ivy leagues, but it was still a system that formed him.

It was from this basis that his political activity began. His politics, which included unofficial and advisory roles within the PLO and a significant but difficult relationship with Yasser Arafat, was informed by his work. Just as his work was informed by his politics. As early as the 1950s, he was declaring that ‘all writing is political’, a credo he followed for his entire life. He frequently attacked other scholars for failing to think and act politically enough – a major reason why he lost patience with much post-modern theory by the 1980s. In works like The Question of Palestine the link between politics and academia is clear. In many others, it is less direct but it is always there.

Given Said’s serious political convictions and commitment to practical action, Brennan’s biography reveals a few surprising things about Said’s classroom politics. During the political action in Columbia in the late 1960s, some students tried to disrupt his class and he was not sympathetic. Said believed (in Brennan’s words) that ‘the classroom was the last place to wage war against the state’ and ‘despite the obvious justice of the students’ cause, intellectual life should not be disrupted’. Years later Said himself was more explicit. ‘In thirty years of teaching, I’ve never taught a class on the Middle East. I don’t believe in politicizing the classroom.’ To see someone whose own work was resolutely political disavow the politicisation of education is surprising, even a little confusing.

This is not the only potential surprise for readers with set ideas about Said as the dean of post-colonial studies. Brennan argues that he did not accept the title (‘I don’t think the “post” applies at all,’ he said). He also goes further to say that Said was fundamentally opposed to ‘fixations on personal “identity”’ in intellectual pursuits, saying that Said opposed any equation between ‘what one knows and what one is’.

This might come as a surprise to many, particularly those who are invested in the idea that Said thought that only Arabs should write about the Arab world (or some similar statement). This is a surprisingly common belief. This year, an opinion piece in The Australian claimed that Said argued that ‘true representation cannot come from a foreigner, only a member of the ethnic group’. It is true that there are some sentences in Orientalism that seem to support this view. One very often quoted line appears pretty clear: ‘It is therefore correct that every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric.’ But this is a huge simplification, even distortion, of his work. Reading this sentence in the context of the rest of the book it is quite easy to argue that Said was not stating his view about how the world ought to be but making the pained empirical observation that Europeans in the 19th century seemed simply unable to shake off their prejudices.

Brennan argues strongly and convincingly that Said did not believe that only people from ‘the East’ could talk about ‘the East’. To make this point Brennan uses Said’s own arguments from his article, ‘The Politics of Knowledge’, published in 1991. In it, Said describes an encounter at Rutgers University where he is attacked for not including living scholars of colour in his bibliography. Said, in the encounter, is left with the feeling that he is being pulled into an ‘inconsequential academic contest’ by being asked simply to name non-white scholars, but it also leaves him unsettled. In the end, he concludes that ‘although I risk over-simplification, it is probably correct to say that it does not finally matter who wrote what, but rather how a work is written and how it is read’.

It is difficult, at times, not to read some of Brennan’s own opinions into these arguments. He himself was involved in debates about what he called ‘the false notion of “post-colonial identity”’ at the same time that Said was writing these articles. This may influence some of Brennan’s accounts of Said’s work, but, it must be said, he has clear textual basis for his claims.

Reading these sections, there seems to be a clear link to the debates happening in universities and on campuses now. Is Brennan trying to enlist Said in today’s culture wars? He certainly never does so explicitly and there is no reason why we should draw this conclusion. But there may be times when readers might make these connections.

This may simply be because the debates that we are having now have actually been going on since 1980s and 1990s. It is strange to read articles written by Edward Said in the early 1990s that could have been written today, lambasting the defenders of ‘academic freedom’ and opponents of broadening the curriculum as partisans of a very narrow, nationalist, nativist idea of ‘Western’ culture. Likewise, as an advocate for Palestine, he experienced people trying to censor him, have him dismissed from his post, and firebomb his office because of his views. For Palestinians, so-called ‘cancel culture’ has a long history.

The problems of academia today, as Said would surely see, are not in these ever-repeating debates. They are structural: the corporatisation of universities; increasing attempts by government to control them; the crisis of the academic labour model. Edward Said’s model of the politically engaged, self-critical academic may be dying now but, if it is, this is not because of catchy buzzwords. Academics like Edward Said may become a thing of the past in the 21st century. At the end of the book, Brennan quotes one of Said’s friends saying: ‘I don’t know what you’re fighting about. . . You’ve won.’ It is true, he had won almost all his academic battles. His rebellion is the new orthodoxy. But did he win the war? Does Said’s ideal model of the academy still exist? I am not sure.

Raphael Cormack is a visiting researcher at Columbia University and author of Midnight in Cairo: The Divas of Egypt's Roaring 20s.