RADIO / The less Said, the better

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The Independent Culture
TWO WEEKS into The 1993 Reith Lectures (Radio 4, Wednesday and Radio 3, Friday), and it seems fair to ask: what is Edward Said talking about? His theme is 'Representations of the Intellectual'. Here's his definition of an intellectual from the first lecture: 'The central fact for me is, I think, that the intellectual is an individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion, to, as well as for, a public, in public.' So now we know.

After an unprecedented blitz of prepublicity and a promising interview with James Naughtie, this has turned out a deeply disappointing series. The problem is partly that, as the sentence quoted above suggests, Professor Said hasn't thought in terms of radio. A line like that demands study when you meet it on the page; on the radio you have no time to stop and ponder, and it's impossible to follow.

That isn't to say that Professor Said talks too fast - although slowing down might help. On the other hand, his delivery does seem calculated to confuse. He emphasises prepositions, pauses between intimately connected words, barely inflects his sub- clauses, so that you're perpetually being wrongfooted - you thought this sentence was going to be a 'but', and all of a sudden it's a 'furthermore'.

And the confusion of speech seems to reflect a deeper confusion about what he wants to say. The argument is that the intellectual stands on the side of freedom and opposition, a lone voice standing out against orthodoxy (it's taken an hour to say this). But the distinction between the prescriptive and the descriptive has got blurred: it's unclear whether he's saying what an intellectual is, or what he ought to be. If it's the former, he's wrong - what about the conservative intellectual, who's thought through the options and come out on the side of the status quo? If it's the latter, who is he talking to?

That's the crucial question. There's nothing remotely persuasive about these lectures, no attempt to pull you along with Professor Said's opinions, so you have to assume that he is consciously preaching to the converted, to his fellow dissident intellectuals. In the first lecture, Professor Said said, 'There is no such thing as the private intellectual, since the moment you set down words and then publish them you have entered the public world.' So these dissenting intellectuals are people who are already in the public arena. Is what we're hearing a rallying cry to the media classes: Stand Up and Be Counted, Michael Ignatieff?

In fact, from the second lecture's preoccupation with nationality and the intellectual's paradoxical position as spokesman for the nation and tribune for the oppressed, you guess that the Palestinian-American Said has an even narrower audience in mind: really, he is talking to himself. At the moment, there's little incentive for anybody else to listen.