English 456: C20 Criticism and Theory

Supplement on Edward Said:
"The World, the Text, and the Critic"

Al Drake | Cyber Cafe | Thurs. 6-7 | 714-434-1612

Edward Said is among the most influential writers associated with the diverse field known as cultural studies, a field that is difficult to define with any degree of precision. Proponents of cultural studies do not necessarily adhere to one way of interpreting texts or cultural phenomena, though cultural studies certainly includes those whose writing owes much to Foucault, Derrida, Said, Raymond Williams, and others. Perhaps it is best to say that if anything unites cultural studies as a discipline, it is an anti-formalist, anti-canonical insistence on broadening the area of study that counts as legitimate academic inquiry. You will find cultural studies people writing about canonical literature like the works of Shakespeare, of course, but you will also find them writing about the latest music and sartorial fashions, and their work sometimes involves theorization about the role of race, gender, sexual orientation, and other such matters. So cultural studies researchers are very far, generally, from promoting "standard," old-fashioned kinds of academic inquiry, and in fact there seems to be an openly political dimension to some of the work done in cultural studies, a rejection of traditional claims that academic work should be non-controversial and non-political. It is fair to say that the potential and actual rewards of doing cultural studies are great--at its best it consists in vital, engaging research into areas of life and literature that matter to a great many people both inside and outside academia. As with any pursuit, of course, there are some risks to go along with the rewards: the sheer diversity of the field we call "cultural studies" can be confusing, and cultural studies badly done can lapse into incoherence when heterogeneous influences collide in the same argument about a given topic. (Note 1)

But as for Edward Said, you won't find any such lapses in intellectual rigor--his work is among the strongest in the area of cultural studies. He begins "The World, the Text, and the Critic" by pointing out what he sees as a problem in earlier writer Paul Ricoeur's analysis of the difference between text and speech. Ricoeur, writes Said, implies that texts are isolated from the world until the critic or reader comes along and interprets them. Ricoeur, that is, sees circumstantiality or worldliness as a property of speech, not of writing. In this way Ricoeur reproduces what several recent theorists--most notably Jacques Derrida--have exposed as an ancient and ongoing attempt to privilege speaking over writing, mainly because speaking is considered closer to "truth" and "presence" while writing supposedly cuts one off from the truth that emerges from self-present, conscious individuals' utterances. (Note 2) But according to Said, texts are always "enmeshed in circumstance, time, place, and society" (1212).

To enhance this point, Said draws upon his own Arab intellectual tradition, referring to a medieval argument about interpretation of the Koran. It seems that the camp known as Batinists saw interpretation as a protracted process of drawing out layers of meaning buried with the very grammar of texts. That view tends to make interpretation the province of a priestly class of intellectuals rather than a process available to all or at least to many. It also, Said says, implies that arriving at stable meanings for the Koran or any other text is bound to be a difficult thing indeed--the emphasis seems to be on process, not product. By contrast, the Zahirites, Said explains, argued that meaning was on the surface, not buried in layers of mysticism; a stable, once-and-for-all set of interpretations could be attained if the interpreters properly saw the text's meaning as "anchored to a particular usage, circumstance, historical and religious situation" (1213). Lest one think that the Zahirites were nascent democratic spirits, Said warns, it is good to bear in mind that their goal was to control the process of interpretation, not open it up to the vagaries of endless process.

To strengthen his case that texts themselves generally are anything but democratic in their aims upon us, Said discusses the work of three remarkable writers--Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, Victorian playwright and essayist Oscar Wilde, and novelist Joseph Conrad. Wilde's work is instructive: his plays and essays, writes Said, are studded with epigrams, witty, well-rounded statements like "to love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance" and "the only link between art and nature is a really well-made buttonhole." Wilde's epigrams, as Said indicates, are highly concentrated, infinitely quotable statements that address various philosophical and social issues. Those epigrams are often delivered by the speakers in a dialogue, not just in the plays but even in Wilde's essays. (Note 3) Like the other two authors Said mentions, Wilde inscribes a concrete set of circumstances right into his texts so that readers will be constrained to interpret the text in light of those circumstances. The circumstantiality or contextuality of the work occurs at the same level as the words, with the result that the interplay between author and audience or readership is controlled by the author. Clearly, implies Said, that kind of writing isn't meant to provide the reader with a great deal of interpretive freedom, whatever its proponents may argue to the contrary. As Said describes Wilde's intention, the aim was to maintain for himself and, ostensibly, for the reader, the freedom that comes from true intellectual conversation--from speech, dialogue--and to avoid the loss of control that occurs when one's text ends up "in print." The brief sequence from the film Wilde (starring Stephen Fry) that we watched in class reveals what happened to Wilde's "speech" (i.e. his epigrams and love letters) when he finally lost control of it during the disastrous trials associated with the Marquess of Queensbury, father of Wilde's lover Alfred Douglass: the texts were subjected to hostile scrutiny and Wilde's protestations about his Platonic intentions toward other males fell on deaf Victorian ears. In effect, Wilde's words ended up "in print" in the sense intended by the term as Said implies Wilde understood it: to see your words or texts "in print" means to see their meaning taken out of their fluid, yet controlled, element as "speech" and fixed by others in connection with circumstances and contexts that aren't necessarily the ones you would want them connected to.

Ultimately, Said's theory about the relation between text and reader invokes the Nietzschean idea of "the Will to Power"--a controlling force that is not to be simply reduced to personal agency. Said insists that for a variety of reasons (political, ideological, etc.) both speech and texts try to dominate the interpreter. That is why, of course, he is concerned throughout "The World, the Text, and the Critic" to dismantle the common opposition people make between those two terms. Speaking and writing are both worldly acts--they control, they include some thoughts and exclude others, they have consequences in the world from the very beginning, even in the act of speaking or writing. As a critic, Said is concerned to point out that interpreters must pay attention to the will to power inherent in texts. The critic's aim should be to discover what the text has forbidden readers to say or think or do, to discover the path of thought the text has mapped out for us, and to make sure other readers understand the process of forbidding and the things that have been forbidden or mapped out in advance. It seems that Said argues for a more egalitarian kind of reading that only becomes possible when one stops allowing authors or texts to stake out as their own the privileged domain of "speech." Texts are in fact worldly, according to Said--but to focus on that fact, we must give up making naive oppositions between the qualities of speech and the qualities of writing.


Note 1. This risk of incoherence and sloppy thinking is underscored in the fairly recent controversy called "Sokal's Hoax." Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University, published a deliberately foolish paper combining quantum physics and literary theory. The paper was accepted by the cultural studies journal Social Text. Sokal himself soon gleefully exposed his article as a parody, and the editors of Social Text defended themselves less than convincingly, thereby touching off a long argument over the implications of Sokal's hoax for cultural studies and, more generally, for so-called postmodern literary theory. Neither side has a lock on righteousness and truth in this argument, but the fact that prominent cultural studies editors failed to recognize an obvious parody is troubling. Katha Pollitt admirably addresses the implications of the controversy in her essay "Pomolotov Cocktail."

Note 2. Derrida's point, by the way, is not that writing is closer to truth; it is instead that the phenomenon we call "consciousness" is no closer to truth, adequate contextuality, or presence than writing. So the anxiety of Plato's Socrates about writing makes sense, but it should be applied to speech as well. Here is the passage from the Phaedrus that I am referring to in mentioning Plato:

Socrates: The story [of writing's origin] is that in the region of Naucratis in Egypt there dwelt one of the old gods of the country, the god to whom the bird called Ibis is sacred, his own name being Theuth. He it was that invented number and calculation, geometry and astronomy, not to speak of draughts and dice, and above all writing. Now the king of the whole country at that time was Thamus, who dwelt in the great city of Upper Egypt which the Greeks call Egyptian Thebes, while Thamus they call Ammon. To him came Theuth, and revealed his arts, saying that they ought to be passed on to the Egyptians in general. Thamus asked what was the use of them all, and when Theuth explained, he condemned what he thought the bad points and praised what he thought the good. On each art, we are told, Thamus had plenty of views both for and against; it would take too long to give them in detail. But when it came to writing Theuth said, "Here, O king, is a branch of learning that will make the people of Egypt wiser and improve their memories; my discovery provides a recipe for memory and wisdom." But the king answered and said, "O man full of arts, to one it is given to create the things of art, and to another to judge what measure of harm and of profit they have for those that shall employ them. And so it is that you, by reason of your tender regard for the writing that is your offspring, have declared the very opposite of its true effect. If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is not true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows."

Phaedrus: . . . I agree that the man of Thebes is right in what he said about writing.

Socrates: Then anyone who leaves behind him a written manual, and likewise anyone who takes it over from him, on the supposition that such writing will provide something reliable and permanent, must be exceedingly simple-minded; he must really be ignorant of Ammon's utterance, if he imagines that written words can do anything more than remind one who knows that which the writing is concerned with.

Phaedrus: Very true.

Socrates: You know, Phaedrus, that's the strange thing about writing, which makes it truly analogous to painting. The painter's products stand before us as though they were alive, but if you question them, they maintain a most majestic silence. It is the same with written words; they seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you just the same thing forever. And once a thing is put in writing, the composition, whatever it may be, drifts all over the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it, but equally of those who have no business with it; it doesn't know how to address the right people, and not address the wrong. And when it is ill-treated and unfairly abused it always needs its parent to come to its help, being unable to defend or help itself.

Phaedrus: Once again you are perfectly right.

Socrates: But now tell me, is there another sort of discourse, that is brother to the written speech, but of unquestioned legitimacy? Can we see how it originates, and how much better and more effective it is than the other?

Phaedrus: What sort of discourse have you now in mind, and what is its origin?

Socrates: The sort that goes together with knowledge, and is written in the soul of the learner, that can defend itself, and knows to whom it should speak and to whom it should say nothing.

Phaedrus: You mean no dead discourse, but the living speech, the original of which the written discourse may fairly be called a kind of image.

Socrates: Precisely.

(from The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Eds. Edith Hamilton and H. Cairns. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1963. pp. 520-21. 274D-276B.)

Note 3. A good example would be the unequal dialogue between Cyril and Vivian in "The Decay of Lying" (1889):

C. Well, before you read me that, I should like to ask you a question. What do you mean by saying that life, 'poor, probable, uninteresting human life,' will try to reproduce the marvels of art? I can quite understand your objection to art being treated as a mirror. You think it would reduce genius to the position of a cracked looking-glass. But you don't mean to say that you seriously believe that life imitates art, that life in fact is the mirror, and art the reality?

V. Certainly I do. Paradox though it may seem--and paradoxes are always dangerous things-it is none the less true that life imitates art far more than art imitates life. (47)

(For the complete text in PDF, visit E-Texts for Victorianists.)