2 March 2009

Edward Said, post-colonialism and post-modernism

Edward Said, post-colonialism and post-modernism

I was one of 400 people heard Edward Said give a public lecture at the School of Oriental and African Studies in late March 2005. I was lucky in
double sense. I managed to get, while 500 people had to turned away; such is the political atmosphere these days that even at an relatively elite institution like SOAS, and the talk itself was an engrossing challenge to some influential academic orthodoxies. Afterward some students were saying he was against the very things their lecturers were encouraging them to accept.

The talk was supposedly about ‘post-colonial theory’. Said began by saying we not a ‘post-colonial theorist’ and did not intend to talk about that. What followed was a long attack on the much literary criticism and teaching. It was obsessed, he said, with merely formal questions and ignored the lived experience of people.

This applied equally to the proponents of traditional high culture and to the more recent adherents of post-modernism (and its off-shoot, ‘post colonial theory’). Even when adherents came from the left, they ended up encouraging forms of literature that omitted any sense of the pain and turmoil afflicting the great majority of humanity. This, he claimed, had happened to theorists in the 20th Century influence by the very abstract formulations about class consciousness in George Lukacs History and Class consciousness, such as the Frankfurt school of Adorno and Horkheimer, and had happened again with the post modernists.

Said made was not attacking all modernism. He contrasted someone like James Joyce with elitist modernists like Pound and Elliot,. In The Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses Joyce used modernist techniques not to abstract from lived hopes and pains of people, but rather to give expression to them. This is ignored by orthodoxies that only want to stress the formal or linguistic elements in literature and so lump together all ‘modernists’. They end up expunging from what they deem to be ‘good’ literature any concern with how the mass of the world’s population live, feel and suffer. Language become divorced from reality, and the text something to be judged only in its own terms. This trend reaches its logical conclusion with those post-modernists who deny any reality outside language.

Two movements which emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, Said argued, threw up challenges to the cosy orthodoxies. One was the rebellion against western imperialism of people in the third world. African, Asian and Latin American writers emerged – and so did black writers within the US itself – who used the forms of western literature (the novel and stage play) to challenge the assumption build into the ‘canonical texts’ of that literature. The second was the women’s movement, which challenged secondary, passive or even non-existent role played by women in that literature.

The demand for third world, women or black studies was initially a struggle against the excluding from literature and art of the experiences of the majority of the world’s people. It was a demand that literature and art be extended to include such experiences. Writers who were excluded began to break down barriers to and enrich literature and art.

This, Said insisted, was not the same as the ‘identity politics’. This came later and tried to impose its own criteria of exclusion, an exclusion built into ‘post-colonial theory’. At a time when the peoples and cultures of the world were being drawn together – and oppressed and exploited together – as never before, it sought to keep them apart.

Overall, the lecture was a devastating attack both on the old academic and literary elites and on the ‘post modern’ and ‘post colonial’ intellectuals who have attempted to monopolise and emasculate the literature insurgency of he 1960s and 1970s.

There were, however, problems with Said’s analysis. He did not take seriously enough his own demand to relate texts to experiences, often speaking as if ideas are simply generated by other ideas, and not by living people having to cope with an often-hostile world. The literature and the literary criticism of the 20th Century was produced by people who lived through two horrific world wars, the Russian and German revolutions, the world slump, the rise of Nazism, the Moscow trials, the Stalin-Hitler pact, the holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the cold war, the French wars against Indochina and Algeria, the US war against Vietnam, the suppression of the Hungarian revolution and the Prague Spring, the death squads in Chile and Argentina and the horrors of Pol Pot’s Kampuchea.

You cannot simply take, as Said does, a text written at one point in that trajectory, like Lukacs’ History and Class Consciousness (whose abstractness reflects the superoptimism of someone who had just stopped being commissar for education in a revolutionary government) and blame it for the text written, say by Horkheimer and Adorno, 20 years later after being driven into exile by the worst barbarism Europe had seen. As Marx long ago pointed out, criticism has a connection with the material world.

In fact, the real history of literature and art in the 20th Century was not simply one of exclusion of the experiences of the mass of people, even tough if those who decide which texts were in the ‘canon’ would like to present it like that.

One of the most fascinating aspects of that history was the way in which successive generation of writers and artists did attempt to break out the narrow world view of the privileged classes in the metropolitan countries – Dos Passos, Grassec Gibbon, Dreisser, James T Farrell, the early Malraux, the Mexican Muralists Orozco, Rivera and Siquieros, Doeblin, Serge, Richard Wright, the Sartre of Roads to Freedom and Les Mains Sales, even Faulkner and the Hemingway of A farewell to arms and For whom the bell tolls. And in many cases ;the concern with experience led at some stage to the question of commitment – the degree to which a writer or artist should or could be politically engaged. Again and again what characterises the work (and often the life) of the writer is a vital tensions. On the one hand, they feel the need for political commitment if they are going to encapsulate experiences outside comfortable world of the literary elites. On the other, they cannot give full artistic depression to such experiences if they are restricted simply to producing party propaganda.

The tension was not a static one. Non-artistic forces were continually changing its intensity.

This was espcially the case in the interwar years. The 1920s and early 1930s saw a whole range of writers and artists consciously setting out not only to give a voice to people and experiences ‘foreign’ to established high culture, but also to draw political conclusions: Grassec Gibbon with final volume, Grey Granite of his trilogy Scots Quair, Malraux with; his novel about China, The conquerors and Man’s Fate, Brecht and Weil with their Berlin collaborations, O’Casey with his Dublin plays, Rivera and Orozco with their enormous historical murals, Steinbeck with In Dubious Battle, James T Farrel with Stud Lonigan, Richard Wright with Native Son, the Progressive Writes movement in British India, with their stories about women and the lower castes.. For a brief moment it seemed that the forgotten voices of some of the world’s majority were beginning to get a hearing in literature and art.

But the moment was only brief. Optimism was snuffed out by the victory of Nazism in Germany, the high point of Stalinism in Russia, the defeat of the Spanish republicans. Those who tried to cling on to hope usually did so by attempts to identify with the Soviet regime.

At one point in his lecture, Said talked about the arguments between Stalinism and anti-Stalinism among the New York intellectuals as something which had always seemed something as an irrelevancy to him, as someone from the third world. Perhaps this was true of the way they were played out among rightward moving liberals in the 1960s. Yet the question of Stalinism is central to what happened to literature and art at a decisive period on the 20th Century. For most of those trying to give expression to the forgotten voices did so by identifying with Russia just as Stalinism was also turning its back on those voices. Attempts at social realism and social modernism were suffocated by the doctrine propagated at the Stalinist writers’ congress of 1934. Officially called ‘socialist realism’, the title was as mendacious as the statistics supposed showing improvements in peoples living standards at that time - when millions were dying of hunger in the Ukraine and Afghanistan. As John Berger has pointed out, the visual art was a reversion to the court painting of a century before, with smiling, clean faced peasants and workers feting heroically featured party leaders just as they had once feted kings and emperors. Those who refused to sully their pens and brushes with such output would get rejection slips from publishers and galleries if they were lucky; if they were unlucky they would end up dying in the gulag like Isaac Babel. [check that he died and was not executed].

The choices were not quite as barren for the ‘committed’ writers and artists in the west and the third world. But they were still expected to confine their creativity within a framework that would embrace the Stalin-Hitler pact one moment and Roosevelt and Churchill the next. Ralph Ellison’s modernist novel Invisible Man tells the disillusionment such twists and turns could produce for one black American writer. All often the response was for people to turn in on themselves. Where there had been the literature of commitment there was now the literature of cynicism or, at beat, despair, where there had been attempts at social realism there was now abstract expressionism, where there had been partisan New York intellectuals, there was now the Partisan Review mutual admiration society of liberal cold warriors.

Even those who tried to resist the trend usually succumbed to it. James T Farrell, for instance, could write a brilliant attack on those who retreated from the world in his essay The league of frightened philistines only to become a frightened philistine himself by the late 1950s. Sartre, who remained committed right to the end, could find every positive direction blocked when he tried to write the projected final volume of his Road to Freedom novels,

Even so, as the example of Sartre testifies, some worthwhile writing was done even in this grim period. Vasily Grossman did write about the twin horrors of Stalinism and the holocaust in his novel about Stalingrad, Life and Fate – banned for decades in the USSR and now not deemed worth keeping in print by western publishers. Solzhenitsyn did produce his three excellent early novels, A day in the life of Ivan Denisovich, First Circle, and Cancer Ward (and Lukacs did praise the first as a genuine example of social realism). The young Norman Mailer did produce the best novel about the Pacific War, The Naked and the Dead, and his strange parable about the rival oppressions of the cold war, Barbary Shore. JG Farrel did delve into the impact of British imperialism with Troubles, The Siege of Krishnapor, and Singapore Grip. Gunter Grass did use modernsit techniques in The Tin Drum and The Dog Years to convey the weird experience of ‘normal’ life in Nazi Germany.

Nevertheless, Said was right to focus on change brought about by the third world writers of the 1960s and 1970s. People like Ngugi, Achebe, Carpentier, Marquez, Rushdie, burst into western literature and began to reshape it. They did push into it lived experience outside the magic circle of the literary elite. The impulse has not completely died yet, as is shown by novels from the Indian sub-continent like Bapsi Sidwas’s (The icecandyman) and ???? modernistic accounts to convey the horrors of partition, ???’s attempt to convey what life was like for the poor under Indira Gandhi, or even Vikram Seth’s much abused use of the form of the classic realist novel to describe a key moment in post-independence Indian history in The suitable boy.

But there is a risk of gangrene setting in. Just as 60 years ago, the wilting of impulse to change world has led to a wilting of the impulse to change and art. During the Thatcher and Reagan years, the tendency in every sphere of life was for people to turn to individual solutions to what were in reality social concerns. Such was the legacy of the containment and defeat of the great collective challenges to the system of he previous decade. Individual groups were left to struggle by themselves – whether the miners in Britain or the Palestinians in the middle east – and then, when they were defeated, individual people were left to fend for themselves. Identity politics was an expression of this.

So too were post modernism and post colonial theory. It seemed that the only reference for any writer or artist could be the work of another writer or artist.. This was encouraged by a publishing industry dominated by a handful of multinationals not over-keen to encourage relevance in writing and by rich American academic institutions that offered comfortable niches for third world authors, so removing them for the milieus their art had once given expression to. The trend became for writers to write about writers, and for critics to write about writers writing about writers. The post-modernist denial that writing need have any contact with reality was the end point of this trend. And such comforting claims were justified by reference of the insurgent literature of the previous anti-colonial generation.

The importance of Edward Said’s lecture was that he recognised most of this and spoke out so strongly against it, even if he still mainly explained deformations in theory as a result of other theories, rather than of the harsh world of exploitation, accumulation and imperialism. HE had become more radical as the years have passed, no doubt in part because of what has been happening to his Palestinian homeland. Meanwhile many of those who pay homage to his book of some 20 years ago, Orientalism have become less so, and try to use it to justify their retreat from engagement with reality.

My only regret was that Edward Said’ still does not fully recognise where his path logically leads – to the living tradition of Marxist analysis that suffered , along with literature, from the horrors of the late 1930s and the setbacks of the 1980s.