There is a parallel between Timothy Brennan’s biography of Edward Said and Said’s most famous book. Like Orientalism in 1978, Places of Mind appears at a time when colonialism and race have once again become subjects of public debate in North America and Western Europe. Reviewers have linked the reception of Said’s book and the politics it enunciated to that facing the supporters of movements like Black Lives Matter or Rhodes Must Fall. And it was to find out how we might understand such a trajectory, that I was eager to read the biography. Said was one of the earliest non-European immigrants to achieve fame in the American academy, and I wanted to know how he managed to spark the first new debate on imperialism since its formal dissolution.
That this debate was about imperialism as a form of knowledge, rather than of economic motives or political control, might be due to its posthumous character. For Said argued that orientalist ways of thinking both preceded and outlived colonialism, which made the struggle for freedom an epistemological one, perfectly suited to the university and intellectual life in the West. And the context of this struggle was provided by the 1970s, a decade of immigration from the global south to the north. This movement was no longer defined by the need for labour in post-war reconstruction but the democratic failures of post-colonial states. It created the educated, middle class, and elite diasporas in which Said belonged and whose entry into the professions constituted the sociology of his fame.
Timothy Brennan, Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said, Bloomsbury, London, 2021
As a Palestinian, of course, Said was not fully part of this post-colonial diaspora, dedicated as he was to the achievement of a national liberation whose consequences they had fled. His work on orientalism, colonialism, and the question of Palestine, then, managed to bring together two very different historical trajectories, in which the continuing struggles against Zionist occupation, like Apartheid, held the possibility of getting nationalism right and correcting the mistakes of decolonisation. Orientalism, in other words, served to name a history of race and empire that remained to be fought, even as many of Said’s post-colonial peers were moving towards a critique of the nation-state. His victory was to subordinate the national question to the colonial one as if to begin its history anew.