Letter: Weakness of Said's either/or world

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The Independent Online
Sir: Edward Said is right to stress criticism as the fundamental tool of the intellectual ('Holding nations and traditions at bay', 1 July). He should apply that tool to his own unsubstantiated assumptions. Imbricated in everything he writes stands the notion of the Dialectic, a figment with an even more venerable history than that of the Holy Ghost, though no sounder empirical validation, yet elevated to a central principle by Hegel, Marx and their disciples in the metaphysical tradition.

According to Professor Said, there is 'always a structure of power and influence' as there is always 'an underside' of alternative values. One must be for the 'prevailing norms' or against them. There is 'triumphalist' authority or there is 'intellectual investigation and re-examination'. And, most crucially, we must (following Aime Cesaire and Frantz Fanon) invent new souls, ie usher in that alternative society of ultimate virtue 'just waiting to be born', so often predicted by the metaphysicians (in the dedicated implementation of this strategy, the field is still headed by Mao Tse-tung and Pol Pot).

'Never solidarity before criticism.' Agreed. But even more important: 'Never ideological (or philosophical) commitment before criticism.' There was indeed a 'structure of power and influence' among French intellectuals after 1945. It was exclusively Marxist: thus, the often brilliant perceptions of Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes and other Left Bank intellectuals are vitiated by their total failure to criticise the orthodoxy that class formation and power relationships are essentially as Marx said they were.

Professor Said's limited either/or approach reaches a climax in his concluding references to the Falklands and Vietnam. He fails to do justice to the powerful cohort of American intellectuals who spoke out against the appalling American crimes in South-east Asia; nor, of course, does he even think of the massed morons at that time mindlessly chanting, 'Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh'. Now that was a 'general chorus'. (Some) intellectuals today are looking very critically at the Hanoi regime and the whole subsequent history of Vietnam. Can Professor Said really be so confident in his simplistic polarisations?

Yours faithfully,