Critical Distants


Critical Distants

Edward W. Said,
Culture and Imperialism
New York: Knopf, 1993.

Italo Calvino,
The Uses of Literature
New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1986.

To note that culturally-bound narratives support political agendas seems, in the current climate of critical studies, a nodding commonplace; yet the beat goes on and this particular version of the story seems told anew with an almost metronymic regularity by scholars on the verge of resistance.

In the mid-1980s, Italo Calvino became the darling of world literary circles thanks to the publication and translation of his novel, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Calvino’s breakthrough onto the world literary stage was a work of extreme self-reflexivity, being a literary novel about the world of literary criticism and readership. The narrative of If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, such as it might be represented anywhere other than in that text itself, concerned the interplay between the reader and the text in constructing meaning from the vicarious experiences of the novelized form. At intervals, Calvino trotted out the various theoretical approaches to understanding the combustion of meaning between reader and work, and wove each of those into the praxis of plot upon plot. The brilliance of the work is undeniable.

Amongst the remaining body of his life’s work subsequently submitted to translation and worldwide publication were the series of essays and transcribed lectures presented in a volume entitled, The Uses of Literature (1986). It is in these earlier “thoughts” that one can read of Calvino’s own struggle to find the pen of the scholar who creates and critiques in the same hand. It is here that Calvino also tested the worth of literature as a site of political struggle. In one particular essay, “Right and wrong political uses of literature,” Calvino gives a somewhat confused report on his then held belief in the capacity of literature and poetry to foster change. His main reservation in regards to the intellectual treatment of literature would be the placement of “the literary” atop some kind of artistic pedestal. Calvino seemed most concerned that literature not be dismissed, as he put it, as the reserve of gentrified notions of “humanity.” Literature may be praxis, or so the 1970’s incarnation of Calvino proclaimed, the plaintive cry of the too often and too easily dismissed artist perhaps. It is ironic then that the moment of this same artist’s greatest acclaim came at the expense in many ways of the critic’s vaunted place in legitimizing the work of literature as a political forum.

Edward W. Said has had a similarly ironic movement through the scholarly and secular worlds, the conduct of which brought him, in the early 1990’s to author the comprehensively titled volume, Culture and Imperialism (1993). Said’s presence in first-world consciousness has been, for some time now, the lonely but strident voice of non-black Africans, and middle easterners, who find the face of racism turned in their direction as the cold war wanes and the underclass in the west seeks a reaffirmation of identity in Islam. His role as representative of “his” people was never more sharply drawn in the USA as during the few weeks of the Gulf War. During this time Said was called on repeatedly by various news organizations, to not only explain Islam, as were the rest of the few existing media figures with ethnic roots in “the Third World,” but also to express the feelings of Arabs from all over the world, including and especially those emotions felt by all Arab-Americans.

This may help to explain why Said’s book on culture and imperialism functions at times as a primer on comparative literature, and at others as an emotional indictment of post-colonial cultural oppression. Ultimately though, the work turns its back on its own authorial responsibility and complicity in the extension of European colonial influence via culture. The pursuit of the life of the mind, the study of literature as cultural artifact, the universalization of human experience, these are the sources of disempowerment amongst the nations of the (second &) third world (-s), and lies at the root of oppression in the first as well.

Like Calvino before him, Said, in this work, has wandered outside the confines of his chosen (“assigned”?) field and risked the criticism that by so doing he has abandoned his claim to authority. Said, the critic, contradicts Calvino and asserts that literature is indeed a, and perhaps the, “human” reserve within all cultures at all times. Like Calvino’s before him, Said’s is a universalizing argument, it seemingly runs in the opposite direction but it universalizes nonetheless. The drive to universalized argument is indicative of the larger issues surrounding culture at stake here: The impulse to universalize is decidedly western, decidedly invested with decidedly western colonial baggage and wedded inevitably to both the expressive form of the novel and the desire for empire. Drained of religious implication, empirical intent is nothing more than a secularized form of proselytizing (and is only qualified as “secularized” from within the conquering culture). Culture can be, and often is, invasive because it intrudes into the personal articulation between the human mind and body. It is only from within a given a culture that this articulation is impossible to see. From outside, it is easy to separate, to note pattern and compare literatures, to sense the political in what seems to be art. From inside of the west we cannot see that the joining of the mind and the body, theory and practice, the life of action and the life of the mind, are all inevitably braided together, that despite the continuous creation of jargon and ever-more miniscule categories, we inevitably create ourselves in the living that we do. Thus, it is through our never-ending struggles, especially in western intellectual circles, to separate ourselves into constituent parts that we create the western empirical consciousness.

Calvino’s fiction senses this, expresses it, and is the much more satisfying part of his body of work for that reason; just as Said’s inflammatory critique of the trivialization of all things un-western is similarly much more to the point than his how-to approach to literary criticism. It is only the need to flatten all thinking and experience, which is demanded by the western separation of the life lived from the life in the mind, that makes Calvino’s literary criticism, and Said’s political theorizing, seem so unsatisfactory.

Said makes this point best when in the course of a particularly emotional passage in his book, he details the highly charged reactions to the presentation on UK and US public television of Ali-Mazrui’s The Africans series in the mid-1980s. Where the Ayatollah called for a death sentence in the face of a similar challenge to “the faith,” the western critical mind, so Said’s citations indicate, moved to marginalize, leaving the question of which response is superior, which more praxical, which, in the end, more civilized, to go begging.

Richard DeLaurell is assistant professor of Television-Radio in the Center for Communication Arts at Southern Methodist University. His current interests involve the semiotics of cartography, concepts of convergence and control in media studies and mass communication theory.