Wednesday night, in the Low Rotunda and around the world, people gathered to witness two of the greatest thinkers of our generation, Judith Butler and Cornel West, engage with the legacy of Edward Said –ten years after his death from lymphocytic leukemia. Said was best known for his views on the Western study of Eastern cultures, as espoused in his 1978 book Orientalism. A proud Palestinian American, he was also considered by many to be the strongest voice in favor of the establishment of a Palestinian State. Zachary Hendrickson sat in awe of genius.
The event, subtitled Palestine & The Public Intellectual: Honoring Edward Said, was first and foremost a memorialization of a man who often called Columbia University his “home.” The introduction by Lila Abu-Lughod was a very touching moment that reminded the audience of the humanity that Said so keenly displayed through his determination, his courage, his brilliance, and his conviction. But the event was more than just a solemn glorification of one man’s work. As Cornel West pointed out, that was the last thing “Brother Edward” would have wanted. And so the event was also a chance for critical engagement with the terms and ideas that marked Said as one of the most profound thinkers of his time; terms like “public intellectual,” and “secular humanist.” It was a very technical conversation at times, but the captivating personalities of Butler and West kept the conversation dynamic and engaging for all those in attendance.
One of the first things discussed was that for Edward Said, the term “public intellectual” was redundant. In his mind, the intellectual was inherently tied to the public, tied to an Enlightenment way of thinking that demanded engagement with the community at large. It is the duty of the intellectual to publish his views and serve as fact checker for the public. From this standpoint, it is impossible to be anything other than public. Certainly, Edward Said was well-known in his day for his unpopular pro-Palestinian stance, at one point being declared a “Professor of Terrorism.” Despite the criticism and even death threats he carried on with his work. It was said that even just two months from his death in 2003, he would finish a chemotherapy treatment and give a lecture later that day with a fiery disposition that couldn’t help but inspire.
The conversation then turned to a more technical discussion of Edward Said’s use of the word “secular” to describe his political views. Judith Butler started by lamenting that due to the political atmosphere of the late nineties she never took the time to get to know Said as much as she wishes she would have. However, this feeling of remorse left her curious as to what understanding she could pull from some of his stances that she had once found so disagreeable. Butler eventually came to the conclusion that Said uses “secular” as a term of broad inclusion. “It does a lot of work for him,” said Butler. This word was meant to capture a sense of Othering, of what is “lost and left out,” and a historical connection to all peoples who have experienced a significant catastrophic event such as genocide, prolonged occupation, and enslavement. Cornel West gave the example of the Biblical diaspora of the Jews, “What about the Canaanites who were already living in the land of milk and honey!?” Through his emphasis on the catastrophic he links the hardships and historical narratives of Armenians, Palestinians, African Americans, Jews, and others. Said was also true to his convictions. As Cornel West would go on to say, “If there was a Palestinian occupation of Israel he would have been the first in line to say something about it.”
The night ended with a few questions taken from Twitter and Facebook (much to the chagrin of the featured speakers). The first question was asking for political guidance — how to get involved. Judith Butler declined to answer, saying that to dole out advice for action was not the role of the intellectual. Rather, an intellectual should inspire questions and dialogue through discomfort. Hopefully the discomfort is great enough that it compels people to act. Another particularly striking question reminded us how far we still have to go in dispelling certain myths and Western-fueled stereotypes that would paint the Palestinian people as backwards and in need of saving. The question was whether or not Palestinian culture was already past a point of oblivion. It was almost too much for Butler to respond, who gave the floor over to Dr. West. Long story short: it’s not. The awkward moment did help illuminate another important fact about the night’s proceedings, however. For a conversation on Palestine, the voices of native Palestinians were completely absent. In a way it signified the importance of what Professor/Philosopher/Public Intellectual/Friend/Fellow Columbian Edward Said felt about what is “lost and left out.” We must always keep searching for the voices forgotten, not so that we can prop them up and “save” them, but so that we might provide a platform for those voices to finally be heard – in a way that is authentic and real.
A Global Center via Wikimedia Commons