Unsettling the World is the first book-length treatment of Edward Said’s influential cultural criticism from the perspective of a political theorist. Arguing that the generative power of Said’s thought extends well beyond Orientalism, the book explores Said’s writings on the experience of exile, the practice of “contrapuntal” criticism, and the illuminating potential of worldly humanism. Said’s critical vision, Morefield argues, provides a fresh perspective on debates in political theory about subjectivity, global justice, identity, and the history of political thought. Most importantly, she maintains, Said’s approach offers theorists a model of how to bring the insights developed through historical analyses of imperialism and anti-colonialism to bear on critiques of contemporary global crises and the politics of American foreign policy.
Jeanne Morefield is associate professor of Political Theory and fellow at New College, University of Oxford. She is also a non-residential fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, Washington DC. She is author of Empires without Imperialism: Anglo American Decline and the Politics of Deflection (Oxford UP, 2014) and Covenants without Swords: Idealist Liberalism and the Spirit of Empire (Princeton UP, 2005).
Chapter One, “Writing at a Distance: Exile, Loss, and Critique.” This chapter explores the sometimes-unnerving contradictions of Said’s exilic disposition, from his reflections on his own life in exile to his discordant prose style, focusing on the productive criticism that he believes flow from this unsettling disclosure. It focuses on Said’s 1982 essay, “Secular Criticism” and explores his approach to analyzing filiative and affiliative modes of ideological connection. The chapter concludes by turning from Said’s theoretical writing about exile to his exilic writing in 1984’s After the Last Sky which offers a powerful glimpse into the attached and detached mode of seeing at work in Said’s exilic orientation. It also provides a fuller sense of how this orientation twins a critique of power, nationhood, and exclusion with a deep sympathy for the ties that bind love to home, love to loss, and love to loss of home.
Chapter Two, “A Cluster of Flowing Currents: Theory Unresolved and Groundless.” This chapter focuses on the implications of Said’s exilic approach for political theory research, looking at how it unsettles questions of identity, history, coexistence and justice. It begins with an exploration of two political theorists who have devoted time to Said’s scholarship, Fred Dallmayr and Joan Cocks, looking at both their appreciation for his political passion and their ultimate disappointment with his rejection of philosophical closure. The chapter also compares Said’s unclosed, ungrounded theory to mainstream cosmopolitanism and global justice literature and to the work of Iris Marion Young on Palestine-Israel, focusing, in particular, on what Said called a “method for thinking about a just peace” in Palestine-Israel. The chapter concludes with an examination of Said’s ethical impulse toward ungrounded subjectivity, a perspective which enables a mode of theorizing that opens our eyes to political possibilities foreclosed by philosophical resolution.
Chapter Three, “Into the Language of Music: The Colonizer and the Colonized Together.” This chapter investigates Said’s powerful conception of counterpoint through a close analysis of 1993’s Culture and Imperialism. It focuses on the affiliation between Said’s approach to contrapuntal criticism and anti-colonial resistance, exploring some of the political tensions generated by his Foucauldian orientation and some contemporary Marxist criticisms of that orientation. The chapter continues by exploring Said’s understanding of counternarrative resistance and his reading of Fanon’s “integrative view of human community and human liberation” which, he argued, transforms “social consciousness beyond national consciousness.” The conclusion explores the relationship between Said’s “critical practice as a form of resistance” and his sense of the world as a “contrapuntal ensemble,” both torn asunder – and connected by – imperialism.
Chapter Four, “Reading You in Your Presence: Political Interpretation and Worldly Humanism.” This chapter explores Said’s influential theory of worldliness and his controversial notion of humanism. The chapter first contrasts Said’s concept of worldliness to the Cambridge School’s “ideas in context” approach and then traces the evolution of his humanism from his early career through some of his last essays. It then explores the “slowness” of Said’s worldly humanism, contrasting this interpretive pace with the kinds of humanism associated with the “turn to ethics” in political theory. The chapter also compares Said’s belief in worldly-humanism’s capacity to resist “the disappearance of the past” with both Michael Ignatieff’s self-proclaimed “humble humanism” and Walzer’s “thin universalism.” The conclusion turns again to Arendt’s theory, focusing on her approach to the “loss of the world” and critically re-imagine it alongside the interpretive and political promise of Said’s humanist vision.
Chapter Five, “The Honeypots of Our Mind: Public Intellectuals in an Imperial World.” This last thematic chapter of the book focuses on Said’s commitment to theorizing the relationship between public intellectuals and political power, as well as his critique of public intellectuals who transmute imperial power into quasi-scholarly narratives about “our culture.” The chapter thinks again about the status of public expression in political theory and Said’s complex and controversial insistence on speaking and writing as a public intellectual. It examines his equally complex and controversial understanding of exile as a “metaphysical” condition, his rigorous critique of a certain type of pronoun politics (e.g. narratives about “who we are” as a nation), and his re-centering of public intellectuals within the connections between the United States and the rest of the world. The chapter concludes with an extended look at some of the many criticisms that have been leveled against Said’s public intellectualizing over the years.
Chapter Six,“The Treason of the Intellectuals: Reading Said Against Liberal Narcissism.” This chapter conducts a Said-inspired investigation of the cultural and political entanglements between liberalism and imperialism. It makes the case that Said’s critical orientation provides political theorists with a generative approach for transforming our increasingly robust historical critiques of liberal imperialism into equally robust critiques of liberal imperialism in American foreign policy discourse today. The chapter digs into contemporary political theoretical approaches to the study of liberalism, interrogating the difference between studies of liberalism as a political philosophy and studies of liberalism as a historical ideology. It analyzes current liberal internationalist discourse and its relationship to American foreign policy, focusing on those ardent defenders of the “American-led, liberal world order.” The chapter then lays out a Said-inspired critique of liberal internationalism that bridges the divide between IR and political theory while challenging the omnipresent “we” narratives that too often plague both subfields. It concludes with some thoughts on the “treason” of the intellectuals in a world transformed by Trumpism and considers Said’s humanist alternative to a politics of rage and reaction: an alternative that imagines “the other” – the immigrant, the resident of the “shithole country,” the person on the other end of the drone strike – “reading you in your presence.”
Jeanne Morefield’s Unsettling the World: Edward Said and Political Theory extends her already impressive body of work on the nature and function of empire and imperialism into a radical turning point. In Said she has found a kindred soul not just to interpret the world, as Marx had urged, but to change it. With this master stroke Morefield relocates us in “the middle of a raging cyclone” as she puts it which is Said’s way of recasting the world not despite but against empire. The result however is not just rereading Said against the grain of the current imperial meltdown. She borrows from Said to build a whole new moral and imaginative citadel from which not just to reimagine but rebuild the world. In Said, Morefield detects and praises what she performs with uncommon verve and vitality for a whole new generation of critical thinking.
Unsettling the World advances a riveting and revelatory account of Edward Said’s political thought. Probing the complexity, contradictions, and polemics that have led other commentators to misjudge Said’s anticolonial humanism, Morefield situates Said’s work in the company of Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, and C. L. R. James and demonstrates why political theorists cannot afford to neglect Said’s profound analysis of the entanglements of race, empire, and modern political ideals.
Jeanne Morefield’s Unsettling the World is an original and outstanding interpretation of Edward Said’s work and of its contribution and importance to the field of political theory.