veeserH. Aram Veeser teaches English at City College of New York. He is the author of Painting Between the Lines, with Dana Self and Linda Nochlin (2001), and the editor of The New Historicism (1989), The New Historicism Reader (1994), Confessions of the Critics (1996), and The Stanley Fish Reader (1999). He has also written for The Nation Magazine and various academic quarterlies, including The Journal of Armenian Studies, Ararat, and Armenian Forum.

Selected Writing

Symploke: review of Spanos, Exiles in the City, 2013

Harold Aram Veeser, review of William V. Spanos, Exiles in the City: Hannah Arendt and Edward W. Said in Counterpoint (Columbus, Ohio: The Ohio State University Press, 2012)

Around 1977, when Cornel West was sitting in Edward Said’s classroom, his lectures boiled with the names Gramsci, Foucault, and Althusser. Also Hanna Arendt, although Origins of Totalitarianism seemed by contrast tepid and liberal. William Spanos makes clear, forty years on, what Arendt had to offer the author of Orientalism.
Said’s standing as a theorist peaked with Orientalism (1978).  His anti-Theory barbs had begun to be felt by 1983, taking pokes at Derrida but sparing Foucault. Later, like Shakespeare’s queen Margaret, he condemned the loves of his youth, urging his followers to abandon the poststructuralist revolution that carried him to prominence—or the revolution that Said carried to prominence: the aid was mutual.
Spanos by contrast has remained loyal to theory and to Said the Theorist. In The Legacy of Edward W. Said (2009), he swung great roundhouse rights at “Said’s disciples,” even naming names. The book under review is less ad hominem but no less militant, proclaiming Heidegger the original de-strucktor of onto-theology, with Derrida and Foucault taking up the fight against a deceptive humanism, a mere idol that cloaks imperial conquest.
Spanos has the unusual advantage of both pre- and post-dating the heyday of Theory.  During World War II he served in the U.S. infantry, was captured by German troops, was present at the bombing of Dresden, an event recalled in Slaughterhouse 5 by fellow soldier Kurt Vonnegut.  As a war prisoner in Dresden, he dug bodies from the rubble. After the war, in another Gumpian coincidence, he taught at a remote boarding school during the very years that Said was an unhappy student there. Spanos went on to found boundary 2, one of the most exciting of the “theory journals” that mushroomed in the 1970s. As editor, Spanos rained down post-structuralist missiles on a defensive academe and supported a collective of important scholars including Donald Pease and Paul Bové. Combative still, he fights in the present book against the main currents of Said criticism.

What drew Said to Arendt and why would Spanos make her the pivot in his current campaign? Their loyalties differed—Arendt was in the end pro-Israel—and their intellectual roots were different, too. Arendt was formed by Nietzsche and Heidegger, Said by Vico and Auerbach, Foucault and Deleuze (158). But both obeyed the urgent pull of freedom. Spanos is attuned to the drive against any system that threatens to make “human beings . . . become a collective subjected subject . .  . ordained to devote its time, energy, and labor exclusively to the fulfillment of a collective task that . . . annuls the radical freedom that is the imperative of the human condition” (160). While this may sound like an existentialist, un-Saidian nihilism, it gives a philosophical basis to Said’s temperamental refusal to accept the constraints of membership in any group. Said chaffed within and finally abandoned Theory, the PLO, and postcolonialism.
Happily, Spanos wastes little time rehearsing Said’s familiar positions and quickly gets down to business. His opening chapter, “The Devastation of Language,” connects Said’s distrust of expertise with Arendt’s study of Adolf Eichmann’s evil banality. Spanos showcases his distinctive method, producing etymologies á la Vico and Heidegger and in classic hermeneutic fashion returning over and over to the same key passages. The method works with Heidegger but seems more of a zen mantra when he considers, for a fifth time, the same three straightforward lines of Aimé Césaire.
Chapter two outlines the philosophical roots of the exilic consciousness that Spanos considers fundamental to both Arendt and Said. He teases out Arendt’s references to the non-Jewish Jew and characterizes Said as the non-Palestinian Palestinian, “which I derive from his identification with ‘non-Jewish Jews like Isaac Deutscher, Sigmund Freud, Heinrich Heine, and, implicitly, Hanna Arendt” (2). Chapter three traces the genesis of metaphysics and convincingly shows that Heidegger was already on to much that poststructuralism now gets credit for, especially Foucault’s great bugaboo, the panopticon. The scopic drive, a meta ta physica, had already been roundly scourged, in Heidegger’s own words, as “the commanding overseeing which is expressed in the often cited phrase of Caesar: veni, vidi, vici—I came, I over saw [uber sah], I conquered.” Spanos calls this Heideggerian passage the “genealogy of Western humanism” and further explains it as the “’over-sight’ or ‘supervision’ with the will to power over all the sites in the lower, secular world” (78). The will to dominate over the vagaries of transient multitudinous facticity sounds Foucauldian avant le lettre. Other bits of Heidegger on the “menacing pressure” of humanism are shown to be seminal to Derrida.
Chapter four discusses errands in the wilderness, focusing on the Exodus from Egypt and the Puritan exceptionalism that Spanos finds operative from Plymouth Rock to Abu Graib. Spanos well understands that Said resisted any group of which he was a part and makes much of his sense of kinship with a non-Jewish Moses as expressed in Said’s short book, Freud and the Non-European. Chapter five addresses Agamben’s views, especially the unique importance of the refugee. Spanos examines Arendt’s “conscious pariah,” a touchstone of hope for her, and suggests that she pointed Said toward his discovery of exilic consciousness. Based on Said’s work on the “intellectual and artist in exile,” Spanos calls for a raising of the grade usually assigned to Said’s last big literary critical work, Culture and Imperialism. There, Said assigned to intellectuals the Gramscian role of crystallizing the consciousness of emergent classes, in this case émigrés and exiles, and telling them what their objective political role ought to be.
Said’s romanticized account of the exiled intellectual is allied to Spanos’s many celebrations of Said’s gnomic phrases about “counterpoint” as a social solution that will have “the whole consort dancing together.” But along with these gullible moments, Spanos produces a brilliant re-grounding of Said in the tradition of Arendt and Heidegger. The scopic drive that Heidegger savaged in his expose of “the world picture” was a defense of what he called “disposable reserve,” namely those peoples who failed to advance the imperial mission. What Foucault called “docile bodies,” and Arendt called “superfluities,” and Agamben re-names as “bare life,” all join Said’s “Orientals” as a category of people who are essentially beneath concern. Spanos has done much to rejoin Said to his liberatory post-structuralist lineage, a back-story that Said’s disciples have worked misguidedly to extirpate.

Ken Aptekar: Painting Between the Lines, 1990-2000, 2001


The Stanley Fish Reader, 1999


Confessions of the Critics, 1996


The New Historicism Reader, 1994


The New Historicism, 1989