Reconciliation without Duress: Said, Adorno, and the autonomous intellectual.

Reconciliation without duress: Said, Adorno, and the autonomous intellectual

Author: Bayoumi, Moustafa
Geographic Code: 4EUUK

Date: Jan 1, 2005
Words: 7599
Publication: Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics
ISSN: 1110-8673

This article assesses the increasing importance of Theodor Adorno’s writings on the work of Edward Said. It argues that Said’s growing interest in Adorno derives substantially from his own political activism, particularly his principled opposition to the 1993 Oslo Accords. While it is true that he is drawn to Adorno for his music criticism and his own reflections on exile, Said also finds much common ground with Adorno’s warnings against instrumental reason and his prescription that philosophy must retain its autonomy in the world to remain committed to human rescue. Said believed that true reconciliation—unlike that of the Oslo Accords—could only occur through the type of autonomous thought championed by Adorno, where intellectual autonomy refuses to trade away justice, equality, and human rights for false hope.


Even occasional readers of Edward Said’s impressive and substantial oeuvre will recognize that he never suffered from a Bloomian anxiety of influence. Throughout his work, Said freely names the philosophers, writers, and critics from whom he borrows certain ideas and concepts, and he then openly animates, assimilates, and—to use his word—affiliates himself to them in his own inimitable fashion. (1) The list is long and distinguished, and it indicates Said’s particular intellectual genealogy, one that largely combines a critical Marxist Humanism (found, say, in the work of Raymond Williams) with his own notion of worldliness, allowing Said to extend the reach of Marxist theory into the realm of imperialism and its culture. (2) While the sources and influences are unmistakable, it is important to underline, nonetheless, how the work remains always and altogether Said’s own. In fact, the key to understanding Said and his use of theory and philosophy is ultimately not found only in drawing out his affiliations with past thinkers but in recognizing his hostility to any kind of slavish obedience, even to past masters. More than anything, Said’s work can, and ought to be, described as anti-authoritarian, that is to say, he remained skeptical of all kinds of authority, even the authority of other thinkers whom he admired. The ethical note sounded in Said’s work then is for his readers to challenge his own authority as well, and thus to engage them critically and not unthinkingly or reflexively. While it is certainly true that Said, far from following intellectual lads, had a knack for creating them, it is also true that he largely rejected the term "postcolonial" as a description of his work and preferred instead the moniker of "secular criticism," (3) a phrase far less assimilable into doctrine, precisely out of his aversion to systems and schools of thought.

Nevertheless, we do have an unambiguous sense of who makes up Said’s particular pantheon of scholars and writers, and something can be gained by tracing this genealogy, if only to understand the particular rhythms and modulations, in fact, the imaginative scope of Said’s thought, and to note how, when theories travel into Said’s work, they are often criticized, reformulated, and reinvigorated. (4) Standing clearly in the wings of Orientalism, for example, are the figures of Michel Foucault and Antonio Gramsci, two significant twentieth-century European philosophers who come, albeit rather differently, out of the Marxist tradition. But even here, Said’s use of their work and ideas is highly specific, one might say strategic, and is employed largely for the ends of the argument of Orientalism rather than for indicating membership in a school of thought.

Consider, for example, Said’s use of Foucault and the notion of discourse in Orientalism. While he is often credited with introducing the work of Michel Foucault into American academic thought, Said, interestingly enough, seems to have been largely finished with Foucault by the time of Orientalism’s publication, going so far as to draw the gap between him and the French philosopher in the introduction to that work. "Yet unlike Foucault, to whose work I am greatly indebted," Said explains, "I do believe in the determining imprint of individual writers upon the otherwise anonymous collective body of texts constituting a discursive formation like Orientalism." (5) Here Foucault’s influence is willingly acknowledged, but Said’s own humanism (found in the idea that Foucault’s notion of discourse tends to deny how humans make and can thus change their own destinies) is asserted and takes precedence. Foucault’s method is enabling to Said, but that does not mean he has to go wherever Foucault goes. "Never solidarity before criticism," (6) writes Said in Representations of the Intellectual, and this is as much an intellectual prescription as it is a political one.

Gramsci is more useful to Said in the long run, but Gramsci’s ideas too are relevant in particular ways. For Said, Gramsci’s uses can be summarized in three specific areas: the notions of "hegemony" and "personal inventory," as Said describes in the introduction to Orientalism; the idea in Gramsci of developing a "critical consciousness" (7) and of locating the "intellectual, and not social classes, as pivotal to the workings of modern society"; (8) and the depth of Gramsci’s analysis deriving substantially from his ability to examine the world not only out of a sense of history but also through a consideration of geography. (9) Despite the variety of these areas, Gramsci’s influence and deployment remain largely consistent throughout Said’s intellectual life.

In fact, a particular strength of Said’s work has always been how he seems to have fully thought through his influences before engaging them in his work, giving his interventions their unique stamp, remarkable consistency, and individual energy along with an almost belated quality of recognition. The work, in other words, always seems both refreshingly new and rigorously traditional at the same time, precisely because the thinking is so complete and always has been. Perhaps in no other major thinker of our era do we witness the presence of a fully formed body of thought virtually from the outset and then observe how the reach of the career has been to mine that terrain more deeply to create fresh modes of thinking and new means of perception. In total, Said’s work invites a particular analysis of cultural politics that is novel and historical concurrently and that aims to take culture and politics seriously, both individually and at the level of their profound interaction, and it does so through thirty years of unswerving labor.

Other influences beyond Gramsci and Foucault of course abound, and one gets a sense of Said’s dynamic and complete repertoire when considering them all together. Owing in part to Said’s training in comparative literature and his impressive mastery of literatures and languages, they come unsurprisingly from around the world. Among the Italians, we find not only Gramsci and the idea of hegemony but also a lasting debt to Giambattista Vico (who comes to Said by way of Erich Auerbach) for the very notion that the secular (and not the sacred) world is where human life happens and in the secular world history is made by individual humans. (10) Raymond Williams figures impressively in Said’s work, to the point that Said adopts and adapts Williams’s analytical formulation of the "structures of feeling" (11) of a society into "structures of attitudes of references" as a reading strategy in Culture and Imperialism. (12) The German comparatist Erich Auerbach is also referenced throughout Said’s work, from Beginnings all the way to Humanism and Democratic Criticism, (13) likely through the influence of Said’s teacher R. P. Blackmur. (14) Here too, however, Auerbach is used strategically and deployed to indicate the benefits of exile, the pleasures of comparative literature, and the idea of universal belonging. Said was fond of quoting Auerbach quoting Hugo St. Victor: "the man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner: he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land." (15) This idea of the gains and not just the losses of exile becomes regularly associated with Auerbach throughout Said’s career, to the point that what we are basically left with in the end is not Auerbach in his entirety but Said’s specific version of Auerbach, particularly as it is associated with exile and belonging. (16)

Revolutionary thinkers from the non-European world also inform Said’s thought, particularly from the mid-1980s forward. Mahmoud Darwish is frequently cited and a line of his poetry, of course, is the title of Said’s meditative essay on Palestinian lives, After the Last Sky. (17) Aime Cesaire and C. L. R. James play large and important roles as critical Third World intellectuals, in Culture and Imperialism in particular. Said is drawn to Cesaire’s magisterial poem Notebook of a Return to the Native Land and to the brilliance of James’s thought, particularly in his engaged works of historical investigation like The Black Jacobins. It may seem like the non-European intellectual is a newly develoPing concern for Said since Cesaire and James are mostly investigated in the 1980s, but close readers will note that Frantz Fanon has been a steady influence throughout for Said, where the first mention of the Martiniquean psychiatrist can be found all the way back in Beginnings. (18)

And of course other literary figures consistently recur, most notably Jonathan Swift, W. B. Yeats, and Joseph Conrad (all of them, of course, insiders and outsiders of Europe in their own ways). Swift is important for his own anti-authoritarianism (his "Tory Anarchy") and his intellectual independence (see Said’s chapter entitled "Swift as intellectual" in The World, the Text, and the Critic). In Yeats, Said uncovers all the needs and problems of nationalism and colonial liberation, and with Conrad, his lifelong literary companion, Said probes multiple ideas: the ambivalences of colonialism, the productive life of exile, and the fiction of autobiography.

And there we have it, an abbreviated but (I think) largely accurate compilation of Said’s intellectual genealogy, one that is secular, humanist, Marxist, literary, and Third World. Furthermore, while he was a student of all of these figures, he was never a follower of any of them. To be a follower, alter all, would negate Said’s anti-systematic and anti-authoritarian stance. Yet, do we observe a shift, a puzzling if not downright mystifying change in the later Said when he begins to identify so closely to the German philosopher Theodor Adorno? Sympathetic references and theoretical alignments to Adorno’s work are claimed repeatedly in Said’s later work, and he consolidates this allegiance when he declares in an interview published in Ha’aretz in 2000, that he is "the only true follower of Adorno," writing today. (19) This pronouncement, along with Said’s almost unqualified loyalty to Adorno in this last phase of his career, is perplexing in at least two ways: the independent critic claims he is a follower—and of Theodor Adorno, the Frankfurt School prophet of pessimism, no less. Why a follower? And why Adorno?

Perhaps a brief detour through Adorno’s biography will be useful. Born as Theodor Wiesengrund in 1903 (he adopted the surname Adorno from his mother’s maiden name in 1938) in Frankfurt-am-Main to an assimilated Jewish father and a Catholic mother, Adorno was to become an extremely prolific writer, especially in his music criticism, and one of the twentieth century’s most challenging philosophers. As a teenager, Adorno was schooled by Sigfried Kracauer in Kant, and later he would meet Max Horkheimer and Walter Benjamin, two enormously influential friends, while completing a doctorate in philosophy (which he finished at age 21) at Frankfurt’s Johann Wolfgang Goethe University. Adorno was also a musician and, as a young man, he lived briefly in Vienna to study under Arnold Schonberg before returning to Frankfurt. In 1923, he began associating with the Institute for Social Research (what was to become known as The Frankfurt School after the Second World War) while preparing his Habilitationsschrift upon which the possibility to teach in German universities rested. Supervised by the theologian Paul Tillich, Adorno’s Habilitationsschrift was accepted in 1933 on the same day Hitler came to power.

Shortly thereafter, Adorno’s right to teach was revoked by the Nazi government, and he moved first to Berlin, then to England, and eventually to the United States, where he remained during the war, living initially in New York City and then later in southern California. Horkheimer too was in the United States, and during this period of painful exile, with Europe falling into ruin. they co-wrote Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), and Adorno followed immediately afterwards (1944-1947) by composing his meditation on exile and philosophy, Minima Moralia, which he dedicated to Horkheimer. After the war, Adorno eventually returned to Germany, where he wrote an enormous amount of material, much of it on music. In 1958, after Horkheimer’s retirement, Adorno assumed full directorship of the Institute for Social Research, a position he held until his death in 1969.

It would be a fool’s errand to attempt to summarize Adorno’s complex thought in a few paragraphs, but one can reasonably point to some of its general tendencies, nonetheless. First and foremost, Adorno’s oeuvre can be fairly categorized as an unrelenting critique against the forces of domination in the modern world, whether those forces are the powers of commodification, racism, or Enlightenment reason itself. Critical theory is the name of the practice associated with the Institute for Social Research and with Adorno’s work. Neither a methodology nor a school, critical theory is best understood as an Ansatzpunkt, a point of beginning, that incorporates Kant’s notion of examining both the limits and the possibilities of rational criticism with Marx’s historical critiques of ideology. Critical theory, moreover, aims for a high degree of self-consciousness, contemplating the act of thinking while the thinking occurs. At bottom, critical theory desires to embed its practice and its philosophy in the social world in opposition to the reified positivism of the past. It is, in short, critical of objectivity.

One of the most self-reflexive of thinkers, Adorno also added to critical theory by combining the insights of Freudian psychoanalysis with Marxism, particularly when theorizing Fascism. Dialectic of Enlightenment, in fact, should be seen as a high point of critical theory for the way it self-reflexively critiques the concept of the Enlightenment as containing within it the possibility and the limit of both liberation and domination. The Enlightenment is part of the progression of the human world to gain control over nature, similar to "myth" before. However, the Enlightenment also threatens to establish a new "mythology" which rather than delivering humans to liberation leads them instead to barbarism. Fascism, of course, is everywhere in Dialectic of Enlightenment, as is the totalitarian impulse of modern society, exemplified most clearly by the "culture industry." It is the culture industry that defeats individuality, is the "negation of style," (20) and produces pure obedience to social hierarchy. Through the culture industry, "the might of industrial society is lodged in men’s minds." (21)

Dialectic of Enlightenment appears to be a bleak text, but there is hope to be found within its pages. "The task to be accomplished is not the conservation of the past, but the redemption of the hopes of the past," (22) write Adorno and Horkheimer, and redemption can be found only through a truly critical philosophy, where reason is deployed in non-instrumental forms. The problem with the Enlightenment has been precisely its instrumentalization of reason, which leads, inexorably, to a totally administered society. Philosophy must carry on regardless, but only autonomously and in the spirit of human rescue. Thus, by the end of Minima Moralia, Adorno would write, "The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption." (23)

While redemption can he thought, it cannot be realized in the realm of thought alone. Adorno is suspicious of the positive dialectics found in Hegel, where philosophy marches forward in the world through resolving the contradictions of human history and experience (through the Hegelian dialectic). Adorno adopts instead the concept of "negative dialectics," where thought has a duty to point to the irreconcilabilities of the world with immanent (as opposed to transcendent) criticism. To understand the concept of immanent criticism as it relates to negative dialectics, it is worth quoting a longer passage:
[Immanent criticism] takes seriously the principle that it
is not ideology in itself which is untrue but rather its pretension
to correspond to reality. Immanent criticism of
intellectual and artistic phenomena seeks to grasp,
through the analysis of their form and meaning, the contradiction
between their objective idea and that pretension.
It names what the consistency or inconsistency of
the work itself expresses of the structure of the non-existent.
Such criticism does not stop at a general recognition
of the servitude of the objective mind. but seeks rather to
transform this knowledge into a heightened perception of
the thing itself. Insight into the negativity of culture is
binding only when it reveals the truth or untruth of a perception,
the consequence or lameness of a thought, the
coherence or incoherence of a structure, the substantiality
or emptiness of a figure of speech.... In such antinomies
criticism perceives those of society. A successful
work, according to immanent criticism, is not one which
resolves objective contradictions in a spurious harmony,
but one which expresses the idea of harmony negatively
by embodying the contradictions, pure and uncompromised,
in its innermost structure. (24)

This desire and existential need to discover negative harmony (in the spirit of human rescue) begins to explain why Adorno, a consummate critic of music, is attracted to the difficult twelve-tone music of Arnold Schonberg, who articulates in music much of what Adorno writes as philosophy. Schonberg crafts a form of art that "moves emphatically towards the dissolution of art," (25) eschewing false reconciliations in spheres of harmony, music, or the world. Adorno is particularly taken with Schonberg’s late style:
The impatience with sensuous appearance in
[Schonberg’s] late style corresponds to the emasculation
of art faced with the possibility of its promises being fulfilled
in reality, but also to the horror which, in order to
suppress that possibility, explodes every criterion of that
which might become an image.... His incorruptible
integrity once attained this awareness when, during the
first months of the Hitler dictatorship, he unabashedly
said that survival was more important than art. (26)

This is the kind of negative space that Adorno dwelt in. In a degraded present, true art continues to be art by, in a sense, refusing its own artfulness. It self-consciously negates the possibility of being assimilated into the world. Thought too exists under the same pressures, constantly threatened with instrumentalization towards inhuman uses. In Negative Dialectics, Adorno writes that "when men are forbidden to think, their thinking sanctions what simply exists. The genuinely critical need of thought to awaken from the cultural phantasmagoria is trapped, channeled, steered into the wrong consciousness." (27) What is needed is not socially useful thought or art (which will only be "mythologized" and subsequently turned into barbarism) but instead autonomous thought, autonomous art, and autonomous intellectuals.

All of this is produced in the thickest of languages. Adorno’s prose, so unlike Said’s graceful pen, is deliberately turgid, difficult, and dour. "A writer will find that the more precisely, conscientiously, appropriately he expresses himself, the more obscure the literary result is thought," explains Adorno, "whereas a loose and irresponsible formulation is at once rewarded with certain understanding." (28) Like the new music of Schonberg that he admired, Adorno’s prose aims for a similar difficulty of reception, born out of a suspicion of advertising and skepticism of ideology. Unlike Said’s writing, Adorno’s prose plays up its difficulty to impede a sense of immediate comprehension in order to be a part of as much as represent the fragmented, fractured, and unreconciled world in which we currently live.

At first glance, then, there would seem to be unbridgeable differences between Adorno and Said even beyond mere stylistics. Adorno’s oeuvre is full of a "vast speculative pessimism," (29) while Said’s is constantly lifted, even in its bleakest moments, by an always emergent sense of potential in human effort to correct the errors of the past. How else to explain the very existence of Orientalism, for example, which is as much an optimistic book of the possibilities of change as it is a devastating critique of past scholarship? (30) Moreover, both Said’s more blatantly political writing and his scholarship have always been deliberately and explicitly engaged in the muck and mire of the world, while Adorno’s criticism, although forever about society, sits overwhelmingly above politics in the quiet space of thought and reflection. One would be hard pressed to call Adorno an engaged intellectual, and he himself would actually abjure the categorization. (31) Said on the one hand is engage; Adorno on the other is politically quietist. Adorno, furthermore, has no discernable interest at all in the non-European world.

The natural expectation would thus be that Said would have found a greater affinity with, say, Jean-Paul Sartre than with Theodor Adorno. After all, Sartre is the theoretician of engagement and of tiers-mondisme. Sartre courageously stood for Algerian independence during that bloody war of independence, and he was the foremost philosopher of his era, endowed with a luminescent intellectual presence that meant that everyone had to have an opinion of him and his work. But the near total absence of Sartre in Said’s thought could perhaps be attributed at least in part to Sartre’s unyielding support for Israel, particularly after 1967, which Said found inconsistent with his humanistic and anti-racist philosophy. (32) Furthermore, one could argue that Sartre’s very stature in French politics and philosophical thought demanded that he take a position on nearly everything, leaving him in a way oddly stretched and reflexively dependent on both his adversaries and his causes.

For better or worse, the lack of an explicitly engaged and current politics in Adorno allows for no such inconsistencies in his thought, although he was, it must be remembered, his own kind of public intellectual, giving frequent radio (and occasional television) commentaries on contemporary life in post-war Germany after his return from exile. Much of this work concerns "the nature of political culture in the FRG [Federal Republic of Germany]," in the words of Russell Berman, (33) and it includes important essays like "What does ’Coming to Terms with the Past’ Mean?" and "What is a German?" Those predisposed to remembering Adorno as an engaged and committed intellectual frequently point to his comments in 1967 when a student, Benno Ohnesorg, was shot and killed by German plainclothes police while protesting a visit to Berlin by the Shah of Iran. Adorno did in fact offer critical assessment of this event, linking the actions of the police with his analysis of authoritarianism. (34) Yet others who aim to illustrate Adorno’s lack of direct political nerve point instead to the fact that on 31 January 1969, at the height of the student movement in Germany, Adorno believed that students were ready to occupy the Institute for Social Research. He responded by calling in the police. (35)

Said’s first references to Adorno seem to consider him in this light, namely in the manner of a brilliant but politically quietist philosopher, but it is a quietism with a difference. For Said (as for Adorno), such quietism actually offers its own mode of struggle, a stance Said will return to again and again. In a 1986 interview, Said says, "Adorno’s notion of the ’totally administered society’ ... breeds an inner kind of quietism, which is itself a form of resistance. It’s very carefully formulated as quietism and resignation, but quietism and resignation as resistance to the onslaught [of modern culture]." (36) The parallels between Adorno’s thought and the Palestinian predicament are also drawn in 1986, when Said quotes Adorno, from his essay "Resignation," (37) in After the Last Sky:

"What has been cogently thought," Adorno says, "must be thought in some other place by other people. This confidence accompanies even the loneliest and most impotent thought." That is another way of phrasing the Palestinian dream: the desire for a perfect congruence between memory, actuality, and language. Anything is better than what we have now—but still the road forward is blocked, the instruments of the past are insufficient, we can’t get to the past. (38)

Thus, one of the major philosophical problems for Adorno—that pure reason is insufficient to displace instrumental reason but it is all we have, and that therefore thought must be cultivated in a world that is not ready for thought (39)—begins in the mid-1980s to assume a role in Said’s own work, particularly for its relationship to the Palestinian situation. While this occurs as early as 1986, it will begin to assume a more prominent position after 1993, as we shall see.

First, however, it is worth considering Said and Adorno in tandem again, for on second look, one could say that Adorno and Said actually do share a good deal, particularly if we consider their affinities not only from a perspective on the demands and autonomy of thought (to which I’ll return) but also from the point of view of simple biography. Both were reared from a position of class privilege, and both had a close connection, cultivated since childhood, to European high culture, especially European classical music. Said and Adorno, furthermore, were both anti-systemic thinkers with an ambivalent relationship to Marxism, drawing extensively on its traditions and its training but refusing to subscribe fully to its orthodoxy or totalizing theories. (With both thinkers, the idea of proletariat consciousness, as just one example, is almost nowhere to be found.) Both, moreover, were moralists (of a sort) in, and of, exile, where the condition of exile produces a kind of vantage point for drawing out one’s ethics. Said finds much common ground with Adorno’s writing on exile. "[I]t is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home," (40) writes Adorno in Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, a thought that no one believed more strongly than Edward Said.

But exile is not the only topic through which Said invites us to see his affiliation to Adorno. For Adorno. as for Said, music criticism is a primary area of investigation, and, in fact, most of Said’s sustained engagements with Adorno’s work are found in the realm of music. In Musical Elaborations, Parallels and Parodoxes, or his essay "Adorno as Lateness Itself," Said reveals his debt to Adorno’s thought by repeating Adorno’s position on modern music (that it—particularly the music of Arnold Schonberg—wasn’t meant to be listened to, but instead exists autonomously in an unreconciled fashion to the administered culture around it). (41) Adorno (and Said) was also deeply interested in the idea of "late style," of how the final works of a great artist (especially Beethoven) exist not as a summation of one’s own oeuvre but in fact in a position of alienation from one’s audience. "Beethoven’s late-style works constitute an event in the history of modern culture," writes Said, "a moment when the artist who is fully in command of his medium nevertheless abandons communication with the bourgeois order of which he is a part and achieves a contradictory, alienated relationship with it." (42) (And after 1993, Said too will see himself in a contradictory and alienated relationship with much of the political world.)

Said discusses the idea of late style in Adorno as one that is related primarily to the evidence of one’s own mortality. He concludes his essay "Adorno as Lateness Itself," by stating that "in Adorno’s own essays, the irony [since Adorno had written that late style does not admit the definitive cadence of death] is how often lateness as theme and as style keeps reminding us of death." (43) Certainly, "late style" as an idea grew in importance to Said after his own diagnosis with leukemia in 1991, when he began facing his own mortality with steely courage.

Examined biographically, Said’s reasons for growing closer to the work of Adorno, his music criticism, and his concept of late style then begin to have their own specific inflections related through Said’s individual history. But this, I believe, is only a partial and in fact unsatisfactory answer to explain Said’s growing debt to the dour and difficult Adorno. Rather, we need to note Adorno’s constant reiterations of the irreconcilability of art or intellectual thought to modern life, which is increasingly administered and totalitarian in impulse, to get to the heart of the matter. Schonberg is interesting to Adorno for this reason, precisely because his music cannot be reconciled to the listening public (and thus retains a certain status of truth). It is this notion of irreconcilability, along with the idea of the autonomous intellectual who refuses to give in to instrumental reason, that brings Said around to Adorno. The reason for Adorno, in other words, is not only personal but also (and perhaps primarily) political, and we ought to look for Said’s interest in Adorno not in New York, Frankfurt, Weimar, or Jerusalem, but in Oslo, Norway.

More than a decade has elapsed since the Oslo Accords and the 1993 Declaration of Principles between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Rabin’s Israeli government, and in the span of these years full of failed promises, increased repression, massively expanded settlements, and a second intifada replete with enormous human suffering and sacrifice, it is easy with hindsight to see how correct Edward Said was in his opposition to the agreements. What is less easily remembered, however, is how singular his voice was in 1993. "I have kept up a lonely struggle against the intellectual bad faith and governmental shortsightedness and opportunism [of the ’peace process’]," writes Said in the introduction to Peace and Its Discontents. (44) Calling the agreements "a Palestinian surrender, a Palestinian Versailles," (45) Said accuses the PLO of transforming itself "from a national liberation movement into a small town government." (46) The problems with the agreements were manifold: not only did they force the PLO to "become Israel’s enforcer, an unhappy prospect for most Palestinians," but they also transformed "the PLO’s sense of identity. From being a partisan against Israeli actions it has now become a (perhaps unwilling) partner." (47) In other words, the so-called peace process was a disaster by the leadership on two tiers simultaneously, on one level for the specific details of its arrangement, and on another for selling out the very principle of self-determination, that is to say, the entire history of more than forty years of Palestinian struggle. The last decade has sadly proved Said right.

"Domination delegates the physical violence on which it rests to the dominated," writes Adorno in Minima Moralia, (48) and this is a tragically apt description of where the Oslo Accords have left the Palestinian national movement. Said’s opposition to Oslo was based on the fact that the leadership could not, or would not, see that this is the case. By contrast, Said presents us in Peace and Its Discontents with the inspirational life of Hanna Mikhail, who lived "as an intellectual should ... according to his ideas and never tailor[ing] his democratic, secular values to suit new masters and new occasions." (49) Mikhail, for Said, was an autonomous intellectual, unwilling to be swayed by the pressures of compromise or the marketplace of thought.

It is important not to underestimate the profound sense of loss that the "peace process" brought to Edward Said, precisely because he rightly believed it alienated him and the Palestinian people from both their land and their historic aspirations. The temptation may exist to view the Oslo agreements as merely part of an ongoing political game, but in fact Oslo represented a new phase of Palestinian history, a lengthy promulgation of the Palestinian tragedy and a thwarting of historic justice, something Said recognized immediately. The agreements were never about true "reconciliation," a term that recurs frequently in Said’s writing during these years. As Said explains,
I sincerely believe in reconciliation between peoples and
cultures in collision, and have made it my life’s work to
try to further that end. But true reconciliation cannot be
imposed; neither can it occur between cultures and societies
that are enormously uneven in power. The kind of
reconciliation that can bring real peace can only occur
between equals, between partners whose independence,
strength of purpose, and inner cohesion allows them fully
to understand and share with each other. (50)

The entire "peace process" then can be summed up as nothing but false reconciliation performed under duress, to paraphrase Adorno’s famous essay criticizing the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukacs. (51) Said repeated again and again in his writings after the Oslo Accords that reconciliation is, and in fact must be, possible, but only with justice and never at the expense of justice. In so doing, he became more committed to his own independence and his own autonomous role, engaging in fierce criticisms of the PLO, Arafat, Israel, the United States, and other Arab regimes. The role of the intellectual, writes Said, is to be "embarrassing, contrary, even unpleasant." (52) His own bulldog interventions became more pointed, more independent, and more contrary to the status quo during this period. Said’s own criticism ought then to be seen as immanent, adapted from Adorno’s own method. It is worth recalling the Adorno quote found above to understand what this means: "A successful work, according to immanent criticism is not one which resolves objective contradictions in a spurious harmony, but one which expresses the idea of harmony negatively by embodying the contradictions, pure and uncompromised, in its innermost structure." Said folds negative dialectics directly into the political world in order to keep Palestinian aspirations alive, even as an idea, where they were threatened with extinction by the instrumental reason of the leadership.

This is why, it seems to me, Said turns significantly during this period to Adorno, who wrote in another context that "the feeling of new security is purchased with the sacrifice of autonomous thinking." Adorno continues: "The consolation that thought within the context of collective action is an improvement proves deceptive: thinking, employed only as the instrument of action, is blunted in the same manner as all instrumental reason," (53) which again recalls the Palestinian predicament after 1993. The Palestinian leadership had instrumentalized the struggle, and, by doing so, had, in effect, sold it out. Moreover, Said comes to see that his entire life’s work, now foreshortened due to his own terminal illness, may not bear fruit while he is still living to witness it, but he absolutely refuses to sacrifice any of his principles to political exigency, as the PLO had done, or to the somber facts of mortality. Said then sounds very much like Adorno’s description of Schonberg, lauded for his "incorruptible integrity," and Said finds a model in Adorno on which to base his incorruptible ethics. The new beacon for Said becomes Adorno, the man who in the words of Martin Jay recognized that "our present totality makes a mockery of true reconciliation," (54) and who believed that instead of false reconciliation the only responsibility for philosophy today is "autonomous thinking" that may come to fruition only in some abstract future. "I can’t go on. I’ll go on," writes Samuel Becket in The Unnameable and, in like manner, Adorno says that it is "the uncompromisingly critical thinker, who neither superscribes his conscience nor permits himself to be terrorized into action, [who] in truth [is] the one who does not give up." (55) In the loneliness of his position, Said turns to Adorno and finds a partner in the dogged persistence for truth.

Said mentions Adorno at least twice more in relation to the Oslo Accords and current Palestinian reality, once in an interview with Jacqueline Rose and the second time in his essay "On Lost Causes." On both occasions, Adorno’s words from his essay "Resignation" function as resistance to the false triumphalism of the moment, a chimera that must be counterposed to the brute reality of continuing oppression. Said is particularly fond of quoting these lines (cited above) from Adorno’s essay: "[W]hat has been cogently thought must be thought in some other place and by other people. This confidence accompanies even the loneliest and most impotent thought." To Jacqueline Rose, Said says, "I borrowed [these lines] from Adorno at a time when I felt that things were going very wrong for the Palestinians, and that being left out of the progress of history is a fate which I didn’t want to settle for." (56) And in "On Lost Causes," Said quotes the same lines again and explains:
Consciousness of the possibility of resistance can reside
only in the individual will that is fortified by intellectual
rigor and an unabated conviction in the need to begin
again, with no guarantees except, as Adorno says, the
confidence of even the loneliest and most impotent
thought that "what has been cogently thought must be
thought in some other place and by other people." In this
way thinking might perhaps acquire and express the
momentum of the general, thereby blunting the anguish
and despondency of the lost cause, which its enemies
have tried to induces. (57)

The continuing dispossession of the Palestinian people from land, nation, and justice leads Said to Adorno, precisely because this conflict cannot be reconciled under duress or thought away simply. The importance for Said, now more than ever, was to remain true to the history of that struggle, which required, in a degraded and instrumental world, the kind of autonomous thought that Adorno championed.

In the end, Said is not really a "follower" of Adorno—both men are too anti-systemic and, in fact, autonomous for that possibility—but he is indebted to, and affiliates himself with, Adorno precisely because of Adorno’s persistent notion that the philosopher must believe that the search for truth will eventually, in some future, overcome the degradations and irreconcilabilities of the world and that this belief must override any desire for an intellectual’s instrumental importance. After all, the philosophical life is one still worth living for Adorno. "Philosophy," famously begins Negative Dialectics, "which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed." (58)

Through Adorno, Said is able to hold on to the idea that the opposite of political commitment is not apathy but false compromise, most recently represented by the failures of the Oslo Accords. To be sure, this is an inward turn for Said, but is necessitated by the outward betrayal of the Palestinian struggle by the Palestinian leadership, as well as the pressure from Israel, the United States, and in fact much of the world. The test of commitment, then, is not blind solidarity but true autonomy, for only through autonomous thought can the principles that have guided the Palestinian saga from the beginning be maintained. Adorno finds autonomy without false reconciliation to be the true contribution of modern music and believes it is to be the position that the contemporary intellectual should adopt. Said too finds himself increasingly drawn to autonomy without false reconciliation, particularly as it gets expressed in "late style," that is to say in Beethoven’s late style, in Adorno’s late style, and most tellingly in his own. In the crevice between conciliation and reconciliation lies justice. But in the loneliness of principle, the fight for justice must carry on, despite all the odds. Said, through Adorno, resolves that resistance, even in an individual consciousness, must never think of itself as futile, only patient.


(1) On Said’s notion of "Filiation/Affiliation," see my forthcoming essay "Our Philological Home is the Earth," Edward Said: Emancipation and Representation, ed. Adel Iskandar and Hatem Rustom (Pluto Press, forthcoming).

(2) On worldliness, see Edward W. Said, "Introduction: Secular Criticism," The World, the Text, and the Critic (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1983), 1-30.

(3) Aamir Mufti, "Auerbach in Istanbul: Edward Said, Secular Criticism, and the Question of Minority Culture," Critical Inquiry 25.1 (Autumn 1998): 95-125.

(4) See Edward W. Said, "Traveling Theory Reconsidered," Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2002), 436-52.

(5) Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1978), 23.

(6) Edward W. Said, Representations of the Intellectual (NY: Pantheon, 1994), 32.

(7) See Edward W. Said, "Opponents, Audiences, Constituencies, and Community," Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, 118-47.

(8) Representations of the Intellectual, 10.

(9) Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (NY: Knopf, 1993), 48-50.

(10) Said’s most in-depth look at Vico occurs in Edward W. Said, Beginnings: Intention and Method (NY: Columbia UP, 1975), 347-81.

(11) See Raymond Williams, Politics and Letters: Interviews with New Left Review (London: New Left Books, 1979), 159-74.

(12) Culture and Imperialism, 95.

(13) Auerbach is found throughout Beginnings and is discussed in depth in Humanism and Democratic Criticism (New York: Columbia UP, 2004), 85-118.

(14) See Edward W. Said, "The Horizon of R. P. Blackmur," Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, 246-67.

(15) See "Introduction: Secular Criticism." Said finishes the Hugo St. Victor quotation on the same page: "The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong man has extended his love to all places; the perfect man has extinguished his. From boyhood I have dwelt on foreign soil, and I know with what grief sometimes the mind takes leave of the narrow hearth of a peasant’s hut, and I know, too, how frankly it afterwards disdains marble firesides and paneled halls" (7).

(16) Said is critical of Auerbach, Williams, Foucault, and Adorno for their fundamental lack of interest in—or in the case of Auerbach, anxiety about—the non-European world.

(17) Edward W. Said, After the Last Sky (NY: Pantheon, 1986).

(18) Beginnings, 373.

(19) Responding to the statement that he sounds very "Jewish," Said says: "I’m the last Jewish intellectual. You don’t know anyone else. All your other Jewish intellectuals are now suburban squires. From Amos Oz to all these people here in America. So I’m the last one. The only true follower of Adorno. Let me put it this way: I’m a Jewish-Palestinian." See Edward W. Said, Power, Politics, and Culture, ed. Gauri Viswanathan (NY: Vintage, 2001), 458.

(20) Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (NY: Continuum, 1994), 129-30.

(21) Dialectic of Enlightenment, 127.

(22) Dialectic of Enlightenment, xv.

(23) Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, trans. E. Jephcott (NY: Verso, 1974), 247.

(24) Theodor Adorno, "Cultural Criticism and Society," Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge: MIT P, 1988), 32.

(25) Theodor Adorno, "Arnold Schonberg, 1874-1951," Prisms, 170.

(26) "Arnold Schonberg, 1874-1951," 171.

(27) Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics (NY: Continuum, 1983), 85.

(28) Minima Moralia, 101.

(29) Edward W. Said, Musical Elaborations (NY: Columbia UP, 1991), xvii.

(30) Consider the final paragraph of Orientalism in this regard: "Positively, I do believe and in my other work have tried to show—that enough is being done today in the human sciences to provide the contemporary scholar with insights, methods, and ideas that could dispense with racial, ideological, and imperialist stereotypes of the sort provided during its historical ascendancy by Orientalism. I consider Orientalism’s failure to have been a human as much as an intellectual one; for in having to take up a position of irreducible opposition to a region of the world it considered alien to its own, Orientalism failed to identity with human experience, failed also to see it as human experience. The worldwide hegemony of Orientalism and all it stands for can now be challenged, if we can benefit properly from the general twentieth-century rise to political and historical awareness of so many of the earth’s peoples" (328).

(31) Theodor Adorno, "Commitment," Aesthetics and Politics (NY: Verso, 1977), 177-95.

(32) See Edward W. Said, "My Encounter with Sartre," London Review of Books 22.11 (June 1 2000): 42-43. Josie Fanon, Frantz Fanon’s wife, had a similar reaction to Sartre’s support for Israel, and after 1967 she withheld permission to Francois Maspero, the publisher of Les damnes de la terre, to publish Sartre’s famous introduction to that work. See David Macey, Frantz Fanon: A Biography. (NY: Picador, 2000), 467.

(33) Russell Berman, "Adorno’s Politics," Adorno: A Critical Reader, ed. Nigel Gibson and Andrew Rubin (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002), 124.

(34) Berman, 127.

(35) In fact, the seventy-six students were looking for a place to meet. See Richard Leppert’s introduction in Adorno on Music, ed. Richard Leppert (Berkeley: U of California P, 2002), 18. To be fair, Berman discusses both events in his essay. See Berman, 130.

(36) Power, Politics, and Culture, 64-65.

(37) Theodor Adorno, "Resignation," Telos 35 (Spring 1978): 165-68.

(38) After the Last Sky, 75.

(39) "Enlightenment which is in possession of itself and coming to power can break the bounds of enlightenment." Dialectic of Enlightenment, 208.

(40) Minima Moralia, 39.

(41) See, for example, Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said, Parallels and Parodoxes (NY: Vintage, 2004), 42. Also see Adorno’s essay "Arnold Schonburg, 1874-1951," 147-72.

(42) Edward W. Said, "Adorno as Lateness Itself," Adorno: A Critical Reader, 196-97.

(43) "Adorno as Lateness Itself," 208.

(44) Edward W. Said, Peace and Its Discontents (NY: Vintage, 1996), xxiv.

(45) Peace and Its Discontents. 7.

(46) Peace and Its Discontents, 4.

(47) Peace and Its Discontents, 12 and 24.

(48) Minima Moralia, 182.

(49) Peace and Its Discontents, 84.

(50) Peace and Its Discontents, xxvi.

(51) Theodor Adorno, "Reconcilation Under Duress," Aesthetics and Politics, 151-76.

(52) Representations of the Intellectual, 12.

(53) "Resignation," 168.

(54) Martin Jay, "The Concept of Totality in Adorno and Lukacs," Telos 32 (Summer 1977): 131.

(55) "Resignation," 168.

(56) Power, Politics, and Culture, 419.

(57) Edward W. Said, "On Lost Causes," Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, 553.

(58) Negative Dialectics, 3.
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