Reading in the World (On Edward Said’s Humanism and Democratic Criticism)

Edward Said initially wrote the first three chapters of this book as lectures sponsored by Columbia University and the Columbia University press on aspects of American culture. In October and November, 2002, Said expanded these three lectures, altered their emphasis, and added a fourth lecture, all of which he delivered to the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities at Cambridge University. In revising the lectures for publication as a book, Said subsequently added a fifth chapter, also originally a lecture, entitled “The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals.” These five chapters – “Humanism’s Sphere,” “The Changing Bases of Humanistic Study and Practice,” “The Return to Philology,” “Introduction to Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis,” and “The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals” – comprised the book Humanism and Democratic Criticism, which was published by Columbia University Press on May 15, 2004. Said died on September 25, 2003 and so did not live to see the publication of the last work he completed.

In the past couple of weeks I’ve been looking for some guideposts among the work of various literary critics, past and present. In part I’ve been looking for something like an image of what it is exactly that I do. In part I’ve been looking for some inspiring models whose examples I could adapt to my own idiosyncrasies and purposes. The other day, at the Webster University library, I picked up a copy of an earlier work by Said (from 1983) called The World, The Text, The Critic and this reminded me that I had his more recent work sitting on our bookshelf. So with the somewhat attention deprived frame of mind that has seized me of late, I picked up Humanism and Democratic Criticism. Surprisingly, given this frame of mind, it held my attention and I finished it over the course of a few sittings.

Indeed, the first thing to say is that it is a testament to the relevance of Said’s reflections and to his engaging, accessible style of writing that the book so absorbed me. I don’t want to offer a lengthy summary of the entire work, so much as use a passage that struck me as particularly intelligent and moving as an occasion to summarize Said’s description of reading (offered in Chapter Three: “The Return to Philology”). Suffice it, by way of summary of the whole, to say that Said offers an impassioned argument, firmly set in the realities of globalization and the post 9/11 war on terror, for the urgent importance of humanism and, within that, of a particular kind of humanist work centered on the act of reading. He left me with a tentative sense that perhaps this is what I do, if insufficient in certain respects by comparison with Said’s model and example, and want to do more of: humanism and democratic criticism.

My book is all dog eared and marked up because there was so much in it that I agreed with. But here is a passage, for starters, that more than any other spoke to my current feeling of predicament. Said riffs off David Harlan’s The Degradation of American History, citing with approval that author’s “diagnosis of the currently depressed state of academic writing”:

“the influence of antifoundationalism, discourse analysis, automatized and tokenized relativism, and professionalism, among other orthodoxies, has denatured and defanged the historian’s mission. Much the same applies, I believe, in humanistic literary practice, where a new dogmatism has separated some literary professionals not only from the public sphere but from other professionals who don’t use the same jargon.”

And here is the passage that described so well my own current feelings:

“The alternatives seem now to be quite impoverishing: either become a technocratic deconstructionist, discourse analyst, new historicist, and so on, or retreat into a nostalgic celebration of some past state of glory associated with what is sentimentally evoked as humanism. What is missing altogether is some intellectual, as opposed to a merely technical, component to humanistic practice that might restore it to a place of relevance in our time. This is what I am trying to do here, that is, to escape the impoverishing dichotomy.” (p. 70)

Said’s proposed response to this dichotomy is reading. But of course, he has a very specific, if venerable in several traditions, idea of just what reading means. Said introduces this dichotomy and his idea of reading in the chapter called “The Return to Philology.” In his preliminary remarks, he offers a quick sketch of the history of philology in both the Western and Arabic-Islamic traditions that, along the way, quickly touches on Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico‘s New Science (1744), a work that, “launches an interpretive revolution based upon a kind of philological heroism whose results are to reveal, as [19th century German philologist and philosopher Friedrich] Nietzsche was to put it a century and a half later, that the truth concerning human history is ‘a mobile army of metaphors and metonyms’ whose meaning is to be unceasingly decoded by acts of reading and interpretation grounded in the shapes of words as bearers of reality, a reality hidden, misleading, resistant, and difficult. The science of reading, in other words, is paramount for humanistic knowledge.” (p. 58) He continues then, drawing upon 19th century American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson‘s notion of language as “fossil poetry”, to assert that

“A true philological reading is active; it involves getting inside the process of language already going on in words and making it disclose what may be hidden or incomplete or masked or distorted in any text we may have before us. In this view of language, then, words are not passive markers or signifiers standing in unassumingly for a higher reality; they are instead, an integral formative part of the reality itself.” (p. 59)

Having established these historical underpinnings of the practice of philology, Said goes on to elaborate his own definition of that practice, given the state of the world, and of the humanities, today. Reading, Said says, meaning philology, “involves the contemporary humanist in two very crucial motions that I shall call reception and resistance.” What does he mean by these two terms?


Said’s first definition of “reception” is

“submitting oneself knowledgeably to texts and treating them provisionally at first as discrete objects (since this is how they are initially encountered); moving then, by dint of expanding and elucidating the often obscure or invisible frameworks in which they exist, to their historical situations and the way in which certain structures of attitude, feeling, and rhetoric get entangled with some currents, some historical and social formulations of their context.” (p. 61)

Said glosses this further by saying that

“the act of reading is the act therefore of first putting oneself in the position of the author, for whom writing is a series of decisions and choices expressed in words. It need hardly be said that no author is completely sovereign or above the time, place, and circumstances of his or her life, so that these too, must be understood if one is to put oneself in the author’s position sympathetically.” (p. 62)

I really love this and feel that it puts words to a practice I have been trying to carry out without exactly knowing it or calling it that. In part, this is because I’ve been trying to write in my recent criticism about works that I have loved and this love perhaps naturally entails at the very least a sympathy, if not love, for the author. With this invocation of sympathy (and the remarks that follow, see just below) Said insists on the importance of affect in rigorous reading, a dimension that seems largely overlooked, if not implicitly or even explicitly prohibited by the conventions of contemporary academic criticism. This emphasis on affect, too, coincides with an animating drive of my recent work. I’m reminded of the emphasis that one of Said’s own graduate instructors, the critic R. P. Blackmur (who had no more than a high school degree), placed on affect when he wrote that criticism is an act of love and so the properly the province of the amateur (a word derived from the Latin word for love).

The method for doing so entails, in the first place, reading and rereading. Here Said quotes from the Austrian philologist, linguist, and literary critic Leo Spitzer (1887-1960): “work from the surface to the ‘inward life-center’ of the work of art: first observing details about the superficial appearance of the particular work (and the ‘ideas’ expressed by a poet are, also, only one of the superficial traits in a work of art); then, grouping these details and seeking to integrate them into a creative principle which may have been present in the soul of the artist; and, finally, making the return trip to all the other groups of observations in order to find whether the ‘inward form’ one has tentatively constructed gives an account of the whole. The scholar will surely be able to state, after three or four of these ‘fro voyages,’ whether he has found the life-giving center, the sun of the solar system.” (pp. 64-65, quoted from Spitzer’s essay “Linguistics and Literary History,” in the collection Linguistics and Literary History: Essays in Stylistics (Princeton Univ. Press, 1948), p. 19. The experience of having found this “life-giving center” occurs “when, in the act of reading, one is ‘struck by a detail, followed by a conviction that this detail is connected basically with the work of art'” (p. 65).

Said is quick to point out that there is no guarantee of rightness, no proof that the method has worked, but “only a deep subjective sense for which no substitute, no guidebook or authoritative source is possible. One must make the decision oneself and take responsibility for it.” (65). For, Said continues to riff off Spitzer’s description, “the process of reading begins and ends in the reader, and what enables the reading is an irreducibly personal act of commitment to reading and interpreting, the gesture of reception that includes opening oneself to the text and, just as importantly, being willing to make informed statements about its meaning and what that meaning might attach itself to.” (p. 66) (I want to just note here that Said sees “the avoidance of this process of taking final comradely responsibility for one’s reading” as a “crippling limitation in those varieties of deconstructive Derridean readings that end [as they began] in undecidability and uncertainty. To reveal the wavering and vacillation in all writing is useful up to a point, just as it may here and there be useful to show, with Foucault, that knowledge in the end serves power. But both alternatives defer for too long a declaration that the actuality of reading is, fundamentally, an act of perhaps modest human emancipation and enlightenment that changes and enhances one’s knowledge for purposes other than reductiveness, cynicism, or fruitless standing aside.” [p. 66])

Now, even with so rigorous and attentive a process as Said describes, the reception part of reading may appear to be not only highly subjective, but exclusively so. Here Said observes that, admittedly “ideally,” “what keeps the humanist honest is” a “sense of common enterprise shared with others, an undertaking with its own built-in constraints and disciplines.” (p. 68) After describing in moderate detail how this works in the Islamic philological tradition, Said asserts that Spitzer, no less than Emerson, understood and accepted the importance of “something like conventions, semantic frameworks, and social or even political communities operating as partial constraints on what would otherwise be an out-of-control subjective frenzy . . .” (p. 69)

With this account of reading as reception, and the emergence of a horizon of community, Said comes to the “impoverishing” dichotomies (which I quoted above) limiting the formation of such a humanistic community and the practice of reading as reception in the American literary academy. Having set forward his aim to escape this dichotomy, Said introduces the second facet of reading: resistance.

Before getting into that section, I want to confess that I felt wary on encountering this term, resistance, at this particular point in the text. My wariness stems from two sources, as far as I can tell. First, my own critical work has shifted its emphasis from what I (but perhaps not Said) would call a “resistant” mode through the mid 1990s to a “receptive” mode since that time. I’m oversimplifying, but in the main I shifted emphases because the style of resistant criticism I was practicing struck me as esoteric and so wildly implausible, utterly incapable of supporting the claims that it made for its own (or literature’s) efficacy in the world. I think, now, and in view of Said’s account of resistance below, that the problem was not with the concerns that work intended to address, but with the narrow and limiting argumentative and stylstic conventions through which it sought to address those concerns. Second, I don’t like the way in which resistance comes to define itself, negatively, by what it opposes, implying, among other things, that if what it opposes were to vanish so would whatever drove the human activities of resistance. So, to the degree that I’ve concerned myself with resistance, it has been to try to assert the importance of exploring resistance as a sometimes inevitable by-product of affirmation; affirmation of one’s own desire, one’s own connections to the world and visions of what the world could be, and one’s own capacity to act. But upon reading Said’s section on resistance, it seems to me that his idea of the practice can easily accommodate a kind of “preface” that strongly asserts the affirmations in the name and service of which one has been driven to resist. Indeed, such affirmations may be found all over the place in Said’s book.


Said insists that reading cannot stop with reception (“close reading, hermeneutic induction,” “troping the general language further in one’s own critical language with a full recognition that the work of art in question remains at a necessary final remove, unreconciled and in a state of integral wholeness that one has tried to comprehend or impose” [p. 71]. Rather the humanist should also “offer alternatives now silenced or unavailable through the channels of communication controlled by a tiny number of news organizations” in the face of “an assault on thought itself, to say nothing of democracy, equality, and the environment, by the dehumanizing forces of globalization, neoliberal values, economic greed (euphemistically called the free market), as well as imperialist ambition” (p. 71).

Said argues that working as a reader also entails responsibility for one’s own writing. Specifically, a responsibility to “overturn and dismantle” “alienating,” “prepackaged and reified representations of the world that usurp consciousness and preempt democratic critique” (p. 71). He stresses the importance of time to this process, noting the ways in which “deadlines, the obligations to an importunate and exigent employers, and the pressures to produce on a regular basis” may conspire to abet these alienating representations. So he’s thankful for the space a university job has given him to pursue his reading in good time. I can’t help but wish that Said had said something here about how this very position is under attack today on a variety of fronts: whether it is the excessive demands placed on faculty (especially untenured faculty) to administer a larely aimless institutional bureaucracy or the subcontracting of various university missions to overworked, underpaid adjunct faculty desperate to do something remotely related to the interests they have spent so many years cultivating in graduate school. He is certainly right that the University is the last place in America that affords time for thought, but the very spirit of democratic criticism he calls for inspires me to want to point out the very (and increasingly) limited nature of that place.

Said then turns to language, the language in which we might cast the report we formulate of our reading. He nicely dispenses with the specious argument that justifies esoteric jargon on the grounds that it, in and of itself, somehow resists or eludes the ideological underpinnings of the prepackaged style of “plain speech.” Moreover, he points out, the “risks of specialized jargons for the humanities . . . are obvious: they simply substitute one prepackaged idiom for another” (p. 72). “There are,” he argues, “too many available models of intelligible language all around us whose basic graspability and efficiency goes the whole range from difficult to comparatively simple” so that he sees

“no need to employ preposterously outré and repellent idioms as a way of showing independence and originality. Humanism should be a form of disclosure, not of secrecy or religious illumination. Expertise as a distancing device has gotten out of control, especially in some academic forms of expression, to the extent that they have become antidemocratic and even anti-intellectual” (pp. 72-3)

He’s wary of the “short, telegraphic forms” of thought and communication that predominate in the mediasphere and maintains that “humanistic resistance . . . needs to occur in longer forms, longer essays, longer periods of reflection” (p. 73).

Here again, I agree with some reservations. In the first place, it seems possible to me that humanistic resistance can take shorter forms (the aphorism as practiced, say, by Theodor Adorno in Minima Moralia, by Nietzsche in The Gay Science, or by Walter Benjamin in various works, come to mind). Of course, we aren’t all Adorno, Nietzsche, or Benjamin. But I see no reason to equate vapidity with brevity, or, for that matter, rich humanist criticsm with length. My second reservation has to do with access to media. The opportunities to publish the sort of thing Said seems to have in mind have been narrowing in American society for some time now (except perhaps for people like Said). The commercial publishing market has little interest in the sort of humanist criticism, especially in the literary field, he describes (if it’s output is to be taken as an indicator) and the academic publishing market has been economically restricted in a drastic fashion and, where it does publish, seems mostly to publish the sort of thing that Said decries. I don’t want to overstate this: trade presses have certainly published serious humanist criticism in recent years and literary critics like myself might pay heed to what those critics who are getting published are doing differently than we are. Lastly, I wonder, as I’ve stated here already in a different entry, whether blogging can provide a democratizing access to an audience for a humanistic critical practice of the sort Said advocates. Though even as I assert that wonder, that hope, I’m aware that I fear this entry is too long for a blog. (In this vein, I’m still trying to get my hands on an article by one Gerard Goggin, on Said and blogging!)

Moving on from language and form, Said goes on to describe how the resistant facet of reading entails the elaboration of ever widening frameworks: of the writer in his or her time and place, likewise of the text, and finally of the reader’s situation in a complex, overlapping network of institutional and social locations and historical processes. This necessarily entails the humanist migrating in his or her writing across such spheres of human

endeavor as literature, philosophy, history, economics, policy and current events. “This,” he says, “is what resistance is: the ability to differentiate between what is directly given and what may be withheld, whether because one’s own circumstances as a humanistic specialist may confine one to a limited space beyond which one can’t venture or because one is indoctrinated to recognize only what one has been educated to see or because only policy experts are presumed to be entitled to speak about the economy, health services, or foreign and military policies, issues of urgent concern to the humanist as a citizen. Does one accept the prevailing horizons and confinements, or does one try as a humanist to challenge them” (pp. 75-6)

Said describes this movement as the source of relevance for the humanities in America today. To learn and to teach others to read well is, Said argues, an

“estimable task in itself, of course, but one that by its own inventive energies also necessarily takes one further and further from even the most highly cherished inward reception. Yes, we need to keep coming back to the words and structures in the books we read, but, just as these words were themselves taken by the poet from the world andevoked from out of silence in the forceful ways without which no creation is possible, readers must also extend tehir readings out into the various worlds each of us resides in” (p. 76).

Carrying this work out, finally, requires of every humanist critic a willingness to “be both insider and outsider to the circulating ideas and values that are at issue in our society or someone else’s society or the society of each other.” He cites as exemplary, in this regard, the lives and works of certain great Jewish thinkers described in Isaac Deutscher’s The Non-Jewish Jew; thinkers (Spinoza, Freud, Heine, and Deutscher himself — and there are probably countless other, often anonymous, examples right up through the present day) who “were in, and at the same time renounced, their tradition, preserving the original tie by submitting it to the corrosive questioning that took them well beyond it, sometimes banishing them from community in the process.” We can see in their example “the crystallized role of the American humanist, the non-humanist humanist as it were” (pp. 76-7).

He concludes the essay with this inspiring passage:

“Humanism . . . is a technique of trouble . . . [its] task is constitutively an unending one, and it should not aspire to conclusion of the sort that has the corollary and, in my estimate deleterious, effect of securing one an identity to be fought over, defended, and argued. . . . In the post-Cold War world, the politics of identity and partition . . . have brought more trouble and suffering than they are worth, nowhere more than when they ar associated with precisely those things, such as the humanities, traditions, arts, and values, that identity allegedly defends and safeguards, constituting in the process territories and selves that seem to require killing rather than living” (p. 78).

I can’t resist concluding this summary reflection on the book with a little anecdote that serves to draw attention to a fine, if tiny, example of the sort of work Said wants us to practice.

I first heard of the work when a visiting lecturer made reference to the third chapter of the book, “The Return to Philology,” in particular to Said’s reference there to the parameters of reading and humanistic study in the Islamic tradition. Among the elements required of a scholar in this tradition, according to Said, is “a component of personal commitment and extraordinary efforts, called “ijtihad” in Arabic.” Said goes on to explain, parenthetically, that ijtihad derives from the same root as jihad, and notes that the latter “does not mainly mean holy war but rather a primarily spiritual exercise on behalf of the truth.” (68-69) I’d never heard that before, but it made great sense to me and stayed with me.

But I realize now that already in that little passage, parenthetical no less, Said was providing a highly compressed, but no less effective for its brevity, example of the kind of reading, the kind of philology, the kind of democratic criticism, the kind of humanism that he was advocating throughout the book: attending to the specificity of words, with all the historical sediment they bear, and sharply asserting an informed, complicating interpretation of those words that directly confronts the ignorant understandings, which, harnessed to economic and military power, cause so much suffering in our world today.

  • Hey Yago, thanks for sharing your and Said's insights about the task of the critic, which ideally is also the task of the reader. I wouldn't have thought about reading the book if you hadn't explained a little bit about it, putting it in its context and highlighting the problems of reception and resistance. I've been also trying to think the problems of reading, education and teaching (in the context of Chile, of course), so your essay was really interesting for me. My own "resistance" would appear on the idea of reading as a mainly subjective activity. By this topic, we tend to forget the other cultural processes that intervene in our way of understanding the world. Some critics address this issue as "Missreading." But then we usually fail to grasp the process as a really horizontal activity. On the other hand, we can't avoid thinking this process inside the humanist tradition, to which reading is fundamental. I tend to think that sometimes, in those communities which dwell in the limits of our intellectual grasp, the way in which we understand reading doesn't work completely. I'm sure they have their own way of "resisting." Our effort should be (my opinion) not only to go through the way of sympathy or empathy (Benjamin has already warned us about the Romantic fallacy on it), but to risk ourselves in a more deep transformation. Sorry that my English is sloppy, but I haven't used it often since I left Saint Louis. It would have been nice to discuss this issues around a table, maybe with a beer or something else. Saludos desde Berlin. Vicente.P.S.: I wrote a long essay on the problems of reading and education in Chile. If you are interested I could send it to you. I just need an e-mail.

  • Hey Vicente,What a nice surprise to find your comment! I'm glad the essay helped in some way. I'm not sure I understood, though, what you meant in saying that your resistance is on the subject of reading as a subjective activity. I know you elaborated in your comment, but I really didn't quite understand fully. Though I couldn't agree more with your statement that we should be risking ourselves in a deeper transformation. I certainly think that Said is open to that. But I wonder what you think that sort of transformation might entail or require of us. It would be great to talk about these things over a beer — I wish we could! We certainly miss you! And, yes, indeed, I would love to see your essay:

  • Maybe in Spanish I could be more clear. At this stage I'm afraid I can't elaborate more about the deeper transformation. In any case, I'm thinking it in a really Utopian sense. It entails the society as a whole; not the society that I have in my mind, but the one that should be built in the face of the needs and contingencies of the others. I'll send you the essay. Perhaps there I'm clearer than here and in English. (German is starting to conquer mi mind, but my German is so basic that now everything is basic). Hugs and enjoy Spring while it last.

  • Yago, I haven't read this work of Said (now I will do so), but your citation of (Said's citation of) Spitzer and the idea of being "struck by a detail" reminded me of Barthes's notion of the punctum, which I've always understood as a subjective recognition (am I wrong about that?), and I wondered if Camera obscura might be another text with which to think about reading and writing and thinking. I don't know a lot about Camera obscura (as is no doubt becoming more and more evident as I write), but that text has always struck me as deeply humane–for me, because of the way it is so much about Barthes's love for his mother, and about her death…. All this to say that your post helped me think about reading and about writing, and of course I am grateful for that.

  • Thanks Peggy! I'm glad the post was helpful to you. I have to confess that I've either forgotten Camera Obscura completely, or else never read it but pretended to (more likely). So I will add that to my growing list of potentially inspiring works of criticism to check out.

  • oop, Camera lucida. Maybe that's why you don't remember it…

  • Ha ha, I wish that was why I don't remember it. I think that just proves that I never read it (and probably pretended to)!

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