Tuesday December 05, 2023

Nomads of knowledge

September 27, 2018

Edward Said was one of the seminal public intellectuals in the post-colonial period who gave a voice to forgotten voices and suppressed histories “drowned in the triumphant march of victors”.

He was a true polymath who wrote on diverse subjects, ranging from literature, philosophy, media, politics, history, and music to psychology. Said also brought forth problems of representation in modern discourse and discursive practices. His ideas triggered numerous responses and critiques that attempted to redress the historical underrepresentation of minority and marginalised viewpoints in comparative studies.

Said’s thesis of ‘Orientalism’ is a starting point for post-colonial cultural theory, which challenges colonial and nationalist history. Colonial knowledge was complicit and instrumental in the material and intellectual aspects of empire-building. Because of the complicity of scholarship with power, Said rejected theories that construe literary texts as an object apart from the world and everyday reality. He thinks that texts “even in their most rarefied form are always enmeshed in circumstances, time, place, and society – in short, they are in the world, and hence are worldly”.

Said realised that a text is the product of discourse. The technologies of power influence discourses and knowledge generates power. Therefore, any textual representation in a discourse tends to be influenced by power. In the case of imperialism, political power operated in subtle ways in the production of discourse about other societies. In his work, Said illustrated how a discourse of “the Orient” – a set of binary representations of the East produced by Western historians, philosophers and other scholars – enabled colonial powers to exercise power over foreign lands and justify policies of imperialism.

Besides epistemic reasons, Said’s exploration of the discursive and conceptual aspects of knowledge is informed by his personal situation – that is, his own situation as a Palestinian writing in exile. The idea of exile informs all his writings and helped him to develop conceptual vocabulary and categories to explain and analyse subaltern reality.

So, it can be said that exile is the leitmotif that underpins his work. For Said, “the exile ...exists in a median state, neither completely at one with the new setting, nor fully disencumbered of the old; beset with half-involvements and half- detachments; nostalgic and sentimental on one level, an adept mimic or a secret outcast on another”. Therefore, a true intellectual remains a liminal figure by, what Theodor Adorno calls, “not [feeling] at home in one’s home”.

The liminality of the intellectual doesn’t appear by adopting a confused position. Instead, it is an outcome of becoming, in the words of Edward Said, “nay-sayers’ not ‘yea-sayers”. It is the “nay-sayers” whose courage to speak truth to power invites the wrath of the authorities who try to colonise truth and our lifeworld. This results in a state where the mind becomes alienated from the dominant worldview through which people make sense of their reality.

Mental alienation, when combined with physical expulsion from land, completes the state of exile. However, an exilic state doesn’t beget a new mental state in itself. In most of the cases, exile has a debilitating effect on thought as perpetual anxiety deprives people from the compass of society and self. At the same time, investigation into the structure of exilic experiences is quite rewarding as it opens up vistas that remained closed to those with settled minds.

So far, most of the creative and intellectual works by artists and thinkers have been done by minds that are mentally ensconced in dominant worldview of a sedentary civilisation. Contrary to the sedentary way of thinking, there is a nomadic mind in exile whose exploration of the world proves enriching for the intellectual history of the world.

Although exile is a painful experience, Said deems it a morally valuable condition. Said’s idea of “liminal intellectual” precludes him from wholly and solely surrendering his critical stance to absolute ideas of nationhood, culture or religion. While living in the median state, he explores the worldly interface among politics, society, texts and the self.

His idea of liminal intellectual and the existential situation as a form of exile made him carry his fight at two fronts – epistemic and political. Like the typical colonial state, the state of Israel buttresses its position not only through military and political means, but also through knowledge. That’s why a certain section of intellectuals in the West reformulate old myths and histories to lend legitimacy to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.

In his book, ‘Exodus and Revolution’, Michael Walzer anachronistically recasted the Exodus story as the archetype for liberation politics and revolutionary movements of today.

Edward Said took Walzer to task by accusing him of deploying the rhetorical strategy of “de?coupage” (the selection of evidence and “stage setting”) to suppress the ugly aspects the Exodus story. The story is about liberation of Jews from oppression in slavery to liberation in the Promised Land.

In his essay titled ‘Michael Walzer’s Exodus and Revolution: A Canaanite Reading’, Said terms Walzer’s book a thinly-veiled justification for the state of Israel today. This is done with an impressive bit of intellectual legerdemain as Walzer masks polyphonic histories in the linear narrative of history that aims to provide an epistemic justification for the current policies of Israel. This is why Edward Said claims that “there is no Israel without the conquest of Canaan and the expulsion or inferior status of Canaanites – then as now”.

Today, the problem of rootlessness is further enhanced by globalisation, which uproots local cultures and societies. It results in a rootless civilisation where people inhabit global space, not on the basis of categorical imperative but on the basis of economic imperative.

In a world where identities and ideologies are rapidly shifting and transforming, intellectual nomadism has to become a norm. Employing poetic metaphors, Said sketches the life of a nomadic intellectual. He states that “exile is life led outside habitual order. It is nomadic, decentred, contrapuntal; but no sooner does one get accustomed to it than its unsettling force erupts anew”.

If the situation of rootlessness and perpetual exile is allowed to operate in free-floating space, it can turn cultural diversity into the fuel for global civil wars. Therefore, it is imperative to bring the heterogeneity of experiences of rootless cosmopolitans within a framework that enable us to create a modus vivendi for the global village.

This cannot be done by reverting to puritan ideologies or essentialist ideas of identity, but through irony, reflexivity, scepticism, care for other cultures, ecumenical commitment to dialogue, and hybridisation. Byran Turner calls these qualities the components of cosmopolitan virtue to which rootless cosmopolitans in mental exile can contribute.

To avoid the pitfalls of settled thinking and knowledge, it is indispensible to become a nomad of knowledge. Instead of settling in the home of foundational truths, final forms and received wisdom, the rootless nomad of knowledge prefers to constantly reformulate, reinterpret, deconstruct, subvert or reject knowledge to open the doors for new possibilities of imagining and expanding the horizons of thinking.

Home is what our thinking is. We need to find a home in thinking, not mimic masters and settled minds, to create a new language for our – what Erich Auerbach calls – “philological home”: the earth.

The writer is a fellow of Asia Leadership Fellow Program, Tokyo, Japan.