Theme of the meeting: The ‘charisma’ of critics: how do intellectuals make their way in the world, immprovise, perform, and enthrall?
Theme of the meeting: The ‘charisma’ of critics: how do intellectuals make their way in the world, immprovise, perform, and enthrall?
I spoke with Neema Parvini from “Shakespeare and Contemporary Theory”
In this episode: experiences of studying under Edward Said; the birth of the theory journal; how new historicism collapsed traditional divisions between historical scholarship and criticism; the movement for ‘professionalism’ in the US academy in the 1980s; the development of Marxist theory in America; Greenblatt’s concept of salutary anxiety and arbitrary connectedness; the history of ideas vs. human experience and how new historicism differs from the older historicism represented by E.M.W. Tillyard; thoughts on evolutionary criticism; and new historicism and academic distance.
“Veeser, H. Aram. Edward Said: the charisma of criticism. Routledge,
2010. 260p bibl index ISBN 9780415902649, $39.95
Coauthor (with Dana Self and Linda Nochlin) of the essays in the
exhibition catalog Ken Aptekar: Painting between the Lines, 1990-2000
(2001) and editor of The New Historicism (1989) and The New Historicism
Reader (I 994), Veeser (City College of New York) has written a
beautifully crafted examination of the legacy of the renowned
Palestinian literary critic, who died in 2003. Nearly two decades in
the writing, the book is neither hagiography nor attack. In each
chapter, the author provides a discussion (often dense) of Said’s
relationship with an intellectual or political movement, followed (and
mirrored) by a vignette of Veeser’s tortured relationship with that
movement’s particular critic or exponent. Among the topics: nonlinear
thinking, Orientalism, Swiftian satire, and religious criticism. Each
facet of Said’s thought falls within Veeser’s definition of charisma,
the powerful appeal of the individual within an institution. Veeser
suggests that Said’s foray into world politics was disappointing
because of his failure to consider the individual as always socially
embedded and, thus, not fully autonomous. None of this, Veeser argues,
detracts from Said’s charisma in the classroom, where he was most
brilliant and rhetorically effective, as evidenced by his many
successful students. Summing Up: Recommended. ** Upper-division
undergraduates through faculty.—B. A. McGowan, Moraine Valley
us English • am Հայերէն • RSS Feed
In Edward Said: The Charisma of Criticism, an intriguing new quasi-biography of Edward Said, Aram Veeser presents the man he came to know in the 35 years he spent as his student, friend, and colleague.
From the beginning, it is evident that Veeser simultaneously admires, resents, and forgives his subject matter—the elusive, unpredictable, and prickly Said—leaving the reader at times perplexed and often bemused by the emotional undertones of this narrative. Veeser pulls through with theoretical and critical amplifications that amount to a multi-layered, bubbling study of a complicated “academostar.”
For Veeser, much of Said’s authority came from his charisma, tied tightly to his “institutionality.” From offering a dictionary definition of “charisma,” Veeser proceeds to discuss Max Weber’s religious-based description where “charisma turns into routine,” and moves on to John Guillory’s post-Weberian definition, which argued that a “divergent” form of the Weberian formula was needed for literary critics’ charismatic authority. However, the “superstar literary critics” are not exclusive of the institutions that house them, and neither is Edward Said of Columbia. “Harold Bloom would not be Harold Bloom were he working at Burger King. His identity resides in his institutionality: he is Yale Professor of English Harold Bloom,” holds Veeser. And thus, the very “proclamations” that “tell-off” these institutions “strengthen the power that they hope or purport to oppose.”
“Orientalism had its glamour,” writes Veeser, and that glamour, which emanated from the personalities featured in Said’s work—among them “eccentrics and writers like Richard Burton and Chateaubriand, the political rhinos like Balfour and Cromer”—is reflected on his person. “He does not passively wait to receive charisma from institutions of Orientalism, he steals it with his swashbuckling pen… Orientalism is at once a searing attack, an elegy, a work of literary criticism (for none of the examples is there by accident), and an inspired essay of cultural criticism.” However, the very routinization and institutionalization of his charisma paint Said’s world gray.
Younger critics don’t quite get Said, argues Veeser. They think, “Said wasn’t even boring.” In addition, no one seems to grasp what Said’s phrase “secular criticism” really means. “Secular criticism means dealing with minor points first and major ones later just as it means capturing “the sporting element.” It means attracting attention to the artificiality of performance. It means speaking with a mock-heroic English intonation. It means speaking against regimes even when speaking places you at risk. Said was always good at intimidation and shutting people down.” Said was the secular critic.
The book is organized in a peculiar way. It is comprised of 12 sections, with a Discursion following the first 11. The 260-page book has a 6-page long index, 9 pages of bibliography, 25 pages of notes, and a handful of photographs.
Boxes are strewn throughout the book with passages from Said’s and others’ writings. The first we encounter is “From Said’s Memorial to Foucault.” Others include “‘Impediments’ by Lionel Trilling,” “Said on Conrad,” “Examples of Vico’s Style,” and parts of interviews with such figures as Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, Eqbal Ahmad, Edward Said, and George Khadder. Joseph Conrad, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Paul de Man, among many others, are also discussed in these pages, as is Said’s love for style and quality products.
While each chapter offers an analysis of the development and reception of Said, along with digestible loads of literary, social, and political criticisms, his Discursions are snapshots of an untold memoir, Veeser’s direct and indirect brushings with Said. For example, “Discursion 1 (That Bastard, Said)” recounts the time Veeser first heard of Said:
“Mary was a leggy Minnesotan who had attended the then-entirely WASP preparatory school for girls, Dana Hall. On this bonny day, she was talking about her thesis advisor, Edward Said.
“Having done her M.A. under Said, she now wanted to enter the doctoral program in English and comparative literature at Columbia, and he had just refused to write her a letter of recommendation. Barbara and I shifted uncomfortably. Conspiratorial glances accompanied every mention of Said. What did that mean? I knew it had something to do with romance or even sex…
“‘God!’ Barbara exclaimed. ‘He sounds like such a bastard. He is such a bastard!’
“I pieced together a rough impression of this bastard. He was young, brilliant, an Arab, sexy, unpredictable, arrogant, unyielding, unfeeling—in fact, a total bastard. After a while, the breeze off the Hudson picked up, and we decided to go. Mary leaned on me getting back into her shoe. And for my part, I had made up my mind. I would go to Columbia and major in English.”
In “Discussion 2 (Your Name is Aram),” Veeser tells of his first encounter with Said in the fall of 1968 at Columbia. As Veeser met with his advisor, Said, the latter, upon noticing Veeser’s middle name, seemed delighted and asked whether his new student spoke Armenian. Upon receiving a response in the negative, Said seemed to reprimand the young Veeser, and with a few friendly remarks quickly ended the meeting. “I found myself standing in the hall, having just experienced for the first time Said’s gift for extraordinary intimacy and steely, dismissive rejection—simultaneously. This pattern of embrace-plus-expulsion distinguished so many of his involvements… The meltingly warm embrace overlaid a cold and steady gaze, like two transparencies on an overhead projector,” reflects Veeser.
“All the themes of the book… the humanism defined as letting people be themselves; the inseparability of personal and political liberation; the love of excellence and the spirited encounter of superior minds; the crucial role of the enabler. Tolerance and permission occupy the center of this portrait… No less than his mocking comebacks and his relish for life in the big arenas, Said’s acquaintances remember him as… someone selfless enough to drift quietly into the background, who steps aside and takes pleasure in another’s self-fulfillment,” concludes Veeser.
H. Aram Veeser is an associate professor at the City College of New York whose once thoughtful act of sending a wheel of Flor the Escueva cheese to his former teacher, Edward Said, ended with the NYPD detonating the “suspicious object” in an armored vehicle.
Scott McLemee of the Chronicle of Higher Education reviewed The Charisma of Criticism for the Barnes & Noble Review. Here’s an excerpt:
Part biography, part critical study, part memoir, this is the work of someone who has spent decades reading and thinking about Said—but also yelling at him, at least in his head. Admiration and hostility are blended together so thoroughly that one doubts even the author can tell them apart. Insight and grievance jostle for space. The familiar apparatus of academic writing (citations, endnotes, bibliography) just barely holds the volume together. This seems appropriate: most of Said’s own books were collections of essays, or so loosely organized that they might as well have been. Even in its peculiarities, Edward Said: The Charisma of Criticism is an homage to its subject.
Read it at the Barnes and Noble Review
I’m just back from the rollicking Radius of Arab-American Writers meeting, where my presentation on Edward Said riled a few folks and gratified others. The Mead-designed slides and sound clips went off fine because Matthew set it up right. Had he actually been there, we’d have truly rocked the casbah.
RAWI is an extraordinary group, where you can hear the Arabic of Libya, Morocco, Lebanon, and Tunisia. Big brains, splendid poets, riveting fiction, compelling essays. Anton Shammas and Nouri Gana, Khaled Mattawa and Marilyn Nelson, Michael Malek Najjar and Fadia Faqui joined with hipsters and graduate students. And old Veeser friend Tom Abowd, currently teaching at Colby College in Maine, dropped in to raise the roof. Tom, come back to New York. We haven’t had a good party here since you left. Tom is considering a post at CUNY.
Lots of excitement around the Said book. All the available copies were quickly sold.
Charisma as Contradiction, Esoterica, Intellectualism, Ostentation, and Liberation
Review of H. Aram Veeser’s Edward Said
by Kim Petersen / May 27th, 2010
The notion of criticism as charismatic in professor H. Aram Veeser’s Edward Said: The Charisma of Criticism was intriguing. I am not so interested in a biography, but — with my own acquaintance with Said’s oeuvre being confined to Orientalism, Covering Islam, and a few essays — I welcomed illumination on the thought of the prominent Palestinian-American (or is it American-Palestinian?) former professor of English at Columbia University Edward Said on resisting the occupation-colonization of Palestine.
Veeser begins by defining charisma, and his definition, which includes “extreme charm and a magnetic quality,” captures the essence of the dictionary meaning. Yet Veeser also describes — a seemingly oxymoronic — “charismatic anger,” as a hallmark of Said. Charisma is obviously very subjective, but Veeser tries to pin it down. The charisma stems more from the man than criticism per se. In the case of Said, Veeser writes that the professor was the recipient of an institutionally produced charisma that led to “demiurgic status.”
Veeser pays much attention to Said as a fashion icon, describing him as a “clotheshorse” who “was an expert practitioner of the irrational aspect of charisma,” enhanced, peculiarly, by his irascibility. The book is replete with inordinate references to Said’s sartorial reflecting the author’s preocupation with fashion. Yet in the iconic picture of Said throwing the stone at the Israeli occupation — “the planetarity of his charisma” — by donning a baseball cap, Said captures the quintessence of the prototypical American Joe.
Esoterica underlies Edward Said, as the book delves into rhetoric, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, post-colonialism, New Historicism, radical romanticism, liberationism, theory of “molestation,” secular criticism, Michelangelo’s sculpture Captive as allegory, the opera Aida as inspiration for historical scholarship, and the art of debate.
Veeser writes, “Unembarrassed by anything, Said openly declared he was a work in progress…” What did Said mean by this declaration? Is this unusual? Are not most of us works in progress? How many people feel that they are complete or self-actualized?
Veeser conveys Said’s avoidance to being pinned down. Said embraced criticisms directed at him and his work. With eel-like guile, criticisms of his “inconsistency” slid off him as he professed a predilection for “doubt and uncertainty” and a contempt for “determinism.” Passivity was abhorrent to Said.
Veeser writes that Said’s critics targeted his “turgidity of exposition, a tendency toward self-contradiction, an undisciplined slippage or dérapage, a poverty of argumentation, and a failure to reach decisive conclusions.”
These criticisms are well grounded, but as Veeser notes, Said converted them into strengths.
Is this charismatic? Who decides? This elusiveness of Said is reminiscent of Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud who posited a “theory” that was impervious to scientific scrutiny. However, the very fact that Freud’s psychoanalysis sought to escape scientific scrutiny and criticism led to its rejection in scientific circles. Should Said’s oleaginous musings be regarded with equal skepticism?
The Charisma of Criticism
By H. Aram Veeser
Publisher: New York: Routledge (2010)
Hardback: 262 pages
Veeser’s book mirrors the esoterica of Said. Orientalism is an intellectual achievement, but its turgid prose demarcates its audience (appealing primarily to academics — as does Veeser’s Edward Said). Said’s use of jargon and citation of foreign writing in its original language — without translation — comes across as self-indulgent because, after all, what purpose do words that are incomprehensible to most readers serve?
The biography Edward Said is also peppered with sesquipedalianisms.
Veeser acknowledges that Said’s Orientalism is loaded with contradictions, and he explains that Said has craftily prepared an out: Menippean satire. Perplexing to its critics, Orientalism, as with Menippean satire, (similar to Freud’s use of denial to deflect cogent objections to the underpinnings of his psychoanalysis) attacked inimical ideas and systems through satire.
Veeser mixes criticism and praise of the writings of Said. For instance, he points to Said’s “rebarbative language” and “sumptuous glamour.” Is this charismatic?
Is Said’s admiration for the power of the Occident charismatic? Said commented on the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt:
“And all across them is written the power and prestige of modern European country that can do to the Egyptians what Egyptians cannot do to the French. I mean, there’s no comparable Egyptian survey of France.”
“You need the power to be there, and the expertise to see what the natives themselves cannot see.”
These remarks sound astoundingly Eurocentric coming from a distinguished Oriental professor. Whereby does Said assert that Egyptians (or the Mamluks) cannot see what is around them? Where were the historical French pyramids and treasures to be plundered by Egyptians? Which country would have been the power had the pyramid-building Egyptians chosen to survey France at the height of pharaohnic might? Power is ephemeral as the later pharaohs learned and as Napoleon soon learned when British admiral Horatio Nelson defeated his French navy in Aboukir Bay. The scoundrel Napoleon abandoned his men and skulked back to France with his booty.
According to Veeser, philosopher Frantz Fanon’s post-colonial thought influenced Said. Fanon’s principle of reciprocal exclusivity, where white settlers live in rugged towns and men of ill repute populate the native towns, alludes to the dispossession of Palestinians and colonies erected by European Jews on the seized land. How, I wonder, did Said reconcile his living in the settler/colonial towns of the United States made possible by dispossessing the Original Peoples of Turtle Island?
Perhaps Said’s own “settler” lifestyle explains his support for recognizing the existence of Israel. Palestinian resistance to occupation was encouraged and justified. Yet Said attempted to circumscribe it. Said’s criticism of resistance to Zionist occupation was in turn criticized for its remoteness.
The author explores this belonging/nonbelonging of Said. For he is presented variously as both a part of, and a non-part of, the United Sates where he was educated, lived, and worked and the Middle East where he was born, grew up, and learned the language and culture.
Veeser’s own presentation of information on the Middle East stirs questions. In a 1999 interview with Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, Veeser demonizes both Yasir Arafat and Saddam Hussein, asking if the act of Said translating an Arafat speech was equivalent to Arafat’s embracing Hussein? He asks about a “[negative] impact on the public.” [italics added]
First, what exactly is the embrace of Hussein by Arafat supposed to signify? Astonishingly, an Arab leader stands up to Zionism and US imperialism, and the Palestinians who have endured many decades of bystanding by much of the world and suffered the cudgels of Zionism and imperialism are supposed to – what? — stand by? What did the Palestinians have to lose from supporting Hussein? Some jobs for Palestinians and monetary support in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait? What could they have gained from supporting Hussein? It turned out to be unsympathetic exposure of their occupation in the Occident, but the hope was for liberation. Second, who is “the public”? Which public should Said be concerned about (acquiescing here to Veeser’s implicit assumption that Said should be concerned about public perception and reaction)?
Veeser calls the intifadah Said’s Waterloo because he helped co-opt it for the corrupt leadership of the passive Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from the active, disaffected Palestinian youth in the streets — from which Said backed away, but too late, writes Veeser.
Veeser interprets Said’s condemnation — from his book The Question of Palestine — of “the conservative version of the Palestine quest” as opposition to — in Veseer’s words — “the desire to push Israel into the sea and other such bluster.” What is the context for Veseer’s interpretation? Besides, how can a country be pushed into the sea? Said, states Veseer, belittled the total undoing of the Palestinian dispossession as “theological”!? As well, Said clung to a realist position that “the liberation of Palestine was neither possible nor really our goal, so why maintain so ludicrous a formula?” Since Said has a foot in more than one camp, who was “our goal” referring to? Presumably it referred to the Palestinian camp, but Said knew well of schisms in that camp, so it is puzzling who the outsider-insider Said was speaking for. Moreover, if the expression of such a formula is ludicrous for Palestinians, what should one conclude about the rejectionist position of the United States and Israel?
Said as Self-contradiction
Interestingly, Veeser channels Said’s self-contradiction to depict intimidation (“bullying”) as charisma, noting that Said was “always good” at “shutting people down.” In fact, Veeser states that Said was unburdened by reasoned argument or facts in debate; instead he used the freedom of rhetoric to his advantage. Veeser asserts, “Charisma depends on remaining unpredictable.”
Said manifests schism. Veseer writes, “A chasm divides the PLO man from the charismatic critic Said.” He states that Said “had to decide whether he was a Palestinian or an American,” while acknowledging that Said “was both.” It is part of the contradiction of Said, the “PLO insider” and “charismatic outsider,” the man who denied being a teacher and acknowledged that he was a teacher.
Veseer writes that Said “could not hold a coherent political line,” but he exposed “certain liberals’ covert double standards.”
Vesser turns to Marxist thinker Aijaz Ahmad who bridled at that discrepancy of the relatively wealthy Said vis-a-vis revolutionaries. Vesser argues, “Said earned the right to represent this [revolutionary] class by giving language proficiency glamour and symbolic value.” I demur. Is pedantry glamour in language? One wonders what is the symbolic value of esoterica? Truly, Said violates utterly the fundamentals to effective written communication — as logically proffered by George Orwell in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.”
Intellectuality and Charisma
Veseer seeks to further burnish the intellectual star of Said, claiming “one of the principal markers of academic status is proficiency in a variety of languages…” Arguably, this represents a self-incriminating bias. Is hubris academic or intellectual? Does such a marker respect intellectual diversity since not all people are similarly disposed to secondary language acquisition? And not all people receive the opportunity of exposure to various languages.
Veseer argues, “Teaching is perhaps the most transient of intellectual genres, the one that leaves the least material of visible traces.” This is an odd statement since intellectuality is immaterial and invisible. Vesser does not describe what a material or visible example of intellectuality would look like. Furthermore, good teaching (I prefer the word facilitating since it describes best what a good facilitator/teacher would do) should facilitate the development of critical thinking and healthy skepticism among learners — the necessary building blocks to intellectuality.
Nonetheless, Vesser imparts that Said produced “extraordinary works” — “a solid legacy of sorts.” Is this not a tangible, visible, material example that could be traced back to teaching?
Vesser fittingly wraps up his biography with another seeming contradiction. Of the “moneyed, prepped, polished, upper crust American prince,” Veeser asserts: “Said’s real impact lay in his humility.” Vesser defines this humility as being achieved through selflessness, encouraging the liberation of others — to be themselves: an expression of charisma. One wonders how Veeser reconciles this selfless humility versus Said who “offered himself as exemplum and imitable type” for television interviews.
Edward Said is a roller coaster read. It was at times stimulating, enervating, plodding, and racing. The reader is forced to confront Said the man, decide whether he is charismatic (criticism as charisma eluded me), consider his apparent contradictions, his causes, and his vanity; and then the reader will reflect them on the author Vesser, an admirer but not an acolyte of Said. Readers are challenged to ponder and draw their own conclusions from Veseer’s depictions of Said and his impact within literary academia and on any advancement in the quest for social justice for Palestinians.
Charisma is discussed throughout Edward Said, and the book raises many questions about the nature of charisma. Is criticism charismatic? Is self-contradiction charismatic? Was Said charismatic? Whether Said left a charismatic legacy is moot; he did leave an intellectual legacy. And that is how it will remain because Said, the man, is no longer a work in progress.
This article was posted on Thursday, May 27th, 2010 at 8:32am and is filed under Book Review, Israel/Palestine, Language. ShareThis
I’ll be reading with Matthew Mead at Alwan for the Arts on May 19th. Here are the directions.