Study Guide

Edward Saïd Introduction

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Edward Saïd Introduction

Edward Saïd had a big bone to pick.

See, some theorists stir up controversies with the way they read books or define language. Then there's Edward Saïd, whose works made trifles over language seem like small, petty potatoes. This guy really knew how to get a rise out of people, and he got himself quite the reputation in the process. Sure, he was a pretty impressive post-Structuralist literary critic, but it was his leftist politics and support for the Palestinian cause (and criticism of Israel) that got him into the newspapers and on the bad sides of more than a few book readers.

And it wasn't just his positions on current issues that raised some hackles. Even his literary theories themselves were political. Saïd didn't read Jane Austen for her charming and witty portrait of British society and its kooky characters. He read Jane Austen so he could rip into her depiction of characters who live in fancy country homes because, according to Eddie, they live off exploited labor back in the colonial territories in Antigua (that's Mansfield Park in a Saïd nutshell).

Saïd tackled Jane Austen and more in his works Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism. But these weren't just page-turners for a few deep thinkers in well-worn armchairs. In fact, these works would be considered huge blockbusters—think Fifty Shades of Grey for the Ivory Tower of Academia set.

People dug (or wanted to debate) his takedowns of what he saw as the old-white-guy literary establishment. This guy was not a fan the tried-and-true Western Enlightenment traditions (a.k.a., how white European men think) and colonialism (a.k.a., how white European men take over countries and get really bossy and greedy). Critics from non-Western countries loved him because he popularized multiculturalism and brought attention to their concerns (by similarly telling Shakespeare and Chaucer to shove it). But just as many people felt like his focus on narratives of oppression was annoying political correctness and accused him of defending Islamic fundamentalism (one rightwing American publication even called him a "professor of terror").

He was, in short, controversial. Ol' Eddie really kicked the hornet's nest by proclaiming that the history of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust made it virtually impossible to criticize Israel: "How long are we going to deny that the cries of the people of Gaza […] are directly connected to the policies of the Israeli government and not to the cries of the victims of Nazism?" (from Politics of Dispossession). He once said that Palestinians were "victim of the victims," but eventually argued that Palestinians were just victims of really extreme Israeli oppression.

With bones like that to pick, it's no wonder this guy stirred the pot in every kitchen he entered.

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