chapter  6
14 Pages

‘The Southern Question’ and Said’s Geographical Critical Consciousness

WithSHAOBO XIE

Edward Said never ceased to battle with what is called Hegelian historicism, a temporal mode of understanding which invokes opposition only to be reconciled in the end. The Hegelian historicist perspectivism always seeks to secure a core identity underneath myriad divergent, contradictory literary, social, and historical phenomena, resorting to all kinds of temporalities to resolve threats to that core identity. According to Said, such ‘temporal and redemptive optimism’ is shared among most modern literary critics and theorists. Even critics like Lukacs, for all their penetrative insight into the permanent gap between life and representation, self and Other, and subject and object, whose reconciliation occurs to them only as provisional and aesthetic, are none the less possessed by a deep-seated desire for their unifi cation in time. In Said’s view, all types of discourse prioritizing identity over difference or universality over locality do or can be deployed to justify the ongoing power relations between East and West or South and North. The one exception that Said asserts in contrast to Hegelian historicism is Antonio Gramsci, whose geographical and spatial mode of thinking not only conceives of social life and history as discontinuously and unevenly shaped, but always undertakes to expose the world as a stage for struggle for rule or hegemony. Many critics have mentioned Said’s indebtedness to Gramsci but the most illuminating account of Said’s inheritance of the Gramscian critical consciousness is made by Said himself in his 1996 article ‘History, Literature, and Geography’, which was later included in Refl ections on Exile and Other Essays. In his estimate, the Gramscian way of seeing is ‘geographical and spatial in its fundamental coordinates’:1 It considers the world to be made up of ruler and ruled or leaders and led; it is persistently opposed to the tendency to homogenize and equalize everything; it regards the history of the world as a history of different forces or social groups contending with one another for ‘the control of essentially heterogeneous, discontinuous, non-identical, and unequal geographies of human habitation and effort’.2 It is arguable that the Gramscian geographical critical consciousness as such underwrites all Said’s writing, from Orientalism through The World, the Text, and the Critic to Culture and Imperialism. To speak of Said’s indebtedness to Gramsci is to address

Gramsci’s indebtedness to Said as well, for it is Said who insightfully appreciated and elaborated what he termed ‘a new geographical consciousness of a decentered or multiply-centered world’, impassionedly recommending it to late twentieth-century critics for ‘deal[ing] with disjunctive formations and experiences such as women’s history, popular culture, postcolonial and subaltern material’ that refuse to be subjected to a repressive scheme of correspondences.3 This geographical mode of thinking, whose critical effi cacy is established through Said’s efforts, has become a major contribution to contemporary postcolonial studies.