Representations and Reflections: Edward Said’s 1993 Reith Lectures

An introduction to Edward Said’s Representations

The work of the late thinker, writer, literary theorist, and humanist Edward Said has left a lasting imprint on intellectual history. Said and his legacy is, to many, an inspiring and influential expression how an intellectual is, or should be, like. These recently reached our shores – figuratively – in the form of his 1993 Reith Lectures, titled Representations of the Intellectual (Vintage Books, 1994). Group members each took on a chapter — with a couple of chapters doubled up — to read and present at our latest session.

This series of 30-minute lectures (given by “leading figures of the day”) and broadcast on BBC radio once a year, was done weekly over a period of 6 weeks. This format led Said to be “as precise, accessible and economical as possible” (p. xvi). In a similar vein, our reading group members also strove to do just this in our reflections and commentary of the written text of his lectures. They comprise Representations of the Intellectual (the title chapter), Holding Nations and Traditions at BayIntellectual Exile: Expatriates and Marginals, Professionals and Amateurs, Speaking Truth to Power, and Gods That Always Fail.

In all of these, Said seeked to “speak about intellectuals as precisely those figures whose public performances can neither be predicted nor compelled to into some slogan, orthodox party line, or fixed dogma”, that “standards of truth about human misery and oppression were to be held” regardless of any sort of affiliation or “primeval” loyalties (p. xii).

Indeed, an underlying, core theme of his lectures was — and still is — the need to speak truth to power, where necessary even against one’s own seemingly-natural allegiances. This principle resonates in milieux as diverse as views on the ongoing (as of this posting) North African-Arab uprisings (“End of ‘1989’?” Saroj Giri, OpenDemocracy, 1 March 2011), and that of a US “Realist” scholar of international relations (“Reporters, scholars, and patriots”, Stephen M. Walt, 2 March 2011), albeit in very different ways.

For Said, intellectuals appeal to “as wide as possible a public, who is his or her natural constituency”, and the problem for intellectuals is the presence and enviroment that give rise to “insiders, experts, coteries, professionals” who make public opinion “conformist, encourage a reliance on a superior little band of all-knowing men in power” (p. xiii). It is interesting to also note this last point, for “they” are almost always men.

Then at some point one would find oneself in a form of exile, of being in some ways marginalized. This is something that occurred to Said throughout his life, yet which supported the thesis of his lectures about the “public role of the intellectual as outsider” and “amateur” (p. x).

Many of us in the group too, would have considered ourselves — to different degrees — outsiders and marginals; some perhaps more than others. It is partly because of this that we identify with Said’s thoughts and writings.

Here then, are some of our reflections of Edward Said’s Representations. (more to be added later; do check in for updates)  Continue reading


Film Study event: Shake Hands With the Devil

The Rowell Road Reading Group is happy to announce an event that we’re organising at Post-Museum.

Film Study: Shake Hands With the Devil – The Politics and Aesthetics of a Filmed Memoir

In late 1993, when Lt. General Romeo Dallaire received the call to serve as force commander of the UN mission to Rwanda, he thought he was heading off to Africa to help two warring parties achieve a peace both sides wanted. Instead, he and members of his small international force were caught up in a vortex of civil war and genocide. Dallaire left Rwanda a broken man, disillusioned, suicidal, and determined to tell his story. This is his story.

Rowell Rd Reading Group will be presenting a study of the film adaptation of Dallaire’s acclaimed book on his experience as head of the peacekeeping force in this central African country. Roderick Chia, a researcher on conflict, security and human rights, will host the viewing of  ‘Shake Hands With The Devil’ and facilitate a discussion of the political and historical background of the events depicted in the film and book, as well as the aesthetics and themes explored in the film itself.

There is a entry fee of $14 including 1 alcoholic drink, or $10 with 1 non-alcoholic drink.

Come join us for an informative and interesting evening of film viewing and stimulating discussion!

Post-Museum Back Room,
107+109, Rowell Road (in Little India, near the junction of Jalan Besar)
Day and Time:
Friday, 30 April, 7.30pm – 10.30pm

Getting to Post-Museum (map)

If driving, there is a convenient multi-storey car park (MSCP) next to Blk 637 off nearby Veerasamy Road (map)

Post-Museum on Facebook

Singapore, the ISA and international civil society action in 1987

(This is a catch-up blog post for readings sometime in September last year onwards…there’ll be a few more  in the coming weeks)

The reading for the week of 6 September (2009) dealt with the international organisation and civil society reactions to the 1987 Internal Security Act (ISA) arrests in Singapore.

You can find the article at the Copenhagen Business School, Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies website.

Titled ‘The 1987 ISA Arrests and International Civil Society: Responses to Political Repression in Singapore’, it traces ‘the development of political dissent from abroad and how such actions played a formidable role during the so-called ‘Marxist’ conspiracy arrests in 1987 and how such alternative political viewpoints will continue to play a large role in shaping criticism and opposition to the present repressive political climate in Singapore.’ (from the abstract)

The group found the piece interesting and informative, and it certainly shed some light on some of the events  surrounding the Operation Spectrum arrests, which I believe is still quite obscure to most people of the post-75 generation, including most civil society activists living at the present time.

Three questions, however, appeared to us, and especially to me, as we discussed this article.

First, although the writer gave a fairly comprehensive overview of the organisations, informal groups and individuals involved in solidarity actions in the wake of the arrests of the so-called Marxist conspirators — post-1987, we are given precious little information or opinion regarding the abstract’s assertion, namely, how such alternative political viewpoints will continue to play a large role in shaping criticism and opposition…to the powers-that-be in the country. In fact, besides stating (in the paper) tantalising nuggets such as ‘The strong international interest shown during the 1987 ISA arrests compares markedly to other PAP crackdowns past and present’, we get to read little of how similar solidarity actions and/or alternative viewpoints (or lack thereof) will continue to shape criticism of and opposition to the PAP regime in Singapore.

Second, how did these international civil society actions tie in with other international fora such as in the UN General Assembly meetings? This blogger has personally heard an account of how the Singaporean delegation to the UNGA at that time was confronted with protests and questions from at least some of his or her counterparts at the UN level. The reading group understand that this was outside of the author’s focus for his paper; however, he could have briefly touched on other types of international interactions in tandem with his emphasis on international civil society actions.

Third — and this relates to the first question — where are most or any of these groups and individuals now, and how have they influenced, or helped to shape critical discourse and alternative/oppositional viewpoints, with regard to political repression in Singapore after the 1987 arrests? Again, the author of the piece could have provided readers a few clues, or pointers, or even a minimalistic projection of how they’d evolved, or even the way forward, if any.

In response to this, A said something that was rather insightful. In essence: some of the info that we may have expected to be there simply wasn’t, because there is most likely a culture of self-censorship and fear — on the part of the author, the editors, the managing editors of the journal, the sources themselves. Any single one or more element in this equation is plausible.

Of course, the questions we posed might just have had a simpler explanation: the info we wanted, the knowledge we seeked, was not part of the research scope of the paper, and/or the author might not have thought to include (even a passing mention of) them.

Posted by rodsjournal.

Men in Black or White: History as Media Event in Singapore

Men in Black or White: History as Media Event in Singapore

This forum is brought to you by Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore in collaboration with National Library Singapore.

The book, Men in White: the untold story of Singapore’s ruling party, has created a sensation in the mass media since its release in September 2009. Written by three senior journalists from The Straits Times and commissioned and published by Singapore Press Holdings, Men in White was publicized extensively in the print and cyber media. The book became an immediate bestseller in Singapore and generated buzz not only locally but reportedly in Asia as well. The media blitz surrounding Men in White turned on its claim to offer an accessible and unbiased history of the ruling PAP government and of post-World War Two Singapore history in general. Yet, this claim quickly provoked challenges and invited critical scrutiny of its contents and research methodology from different quarters in the country. For several months following the book’s launch, history took centerstage in the nation’s mass media.

This seminar is the first public forum since the launch of the book to examine Men in White as a sensation generated from the intersection between history and the mass media. Discussion will revolve around the popularization of history by non-professional historians, the writing and consumption of history in the mass media, the internet and the democratization of history as well as the specific impact of the book on the state of Singapore writing and historiography.

Date: 16 Jan 2010
Time: 14:30 – 18:00
Venue: The National Library Building The POD, Level 16, 100 Victoria Street Singapore 188064

To register, follow the link here.

Memory bleeding into the present

Poem/Haiku Created at Food03 inspired from the poetry reading today:

Memory bleeding into the present

Murmurs resenting
enraged, engraven silence;
You, bled into now.

Two ravens, a spear
Sacrificed to the present.
Storms then, ashes now.

Little drops, bitter
A tyrant wrestles my eyes.
Never stopping, now.

22 Nov 2009, Food#03
RRRG (Shao Han, Sha, Xiaoyun, Roderick, Tien, Ted, Shu Xia)

Invisible cities

Our reading two weeks ago was on Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

From the synopsis:

Dream-like story-telling at the twilight of an empire

In a garden sit the aged Kublai Khan and the young Marco Polo – Tartar emperor and Venetian traveler. Kublai Khan has sensed the end of his empire coming soon. Marco Polo diverts the emperor with tales of the cities he has seen in his travels around the empire: cities and memory, cities and desire, cities and designs, cities and the dead, cities and the sky, trading cities, hidden cities. Soon it becomes clear that each of these fantastic places is really the same place.

In our sharing about the multi-faceted aspects of cities and our experiences of them, one thing we asked each other was which city, or cities, we’d lived in, and which cities we wanted to live in for long periods of time – or possibly for the rest of our lives.

Four cities come to mind for me, but I only spoke of three of them that day – Auckland, Singapore and Bangkok. All three carry interesting memories. One was where I found out about life. The other was where I was born and grew up. Yet another was where I discovered another side of life, and the potential for so much more. The fourth shall remain un-named for now.

Here’s something S wrote on her blog – her thoughts on the discussion:

So this time around, it was Invisible Cities. We shared a text that had characters Marco Polo and Kublai Khan bro-mancing each other about social dimensions in a city. RI-C talked about a new shopping centre in Orchard Road and how it made him feel disconnected from the building. Not that a building can behave like a human being, but the fact that it is new, raw and demanding attention makes it less interesting. RO-C talked about his overseas stint in Auckland [Editor’s note: she originally thought it was ‘Oakland’] and Bangkok, the differences of it and how he eventually adjusted to Bangkok’s untamed streets. As for me, I couldn’t really figure out where I would choose to live but it would be awesome to explore South Asia for a bit. I’ve decided to pick up farming…somehow.

Right, well and good…although the farming bit is…interesting, to say the least 😉

Final thoughts?…There are still other cities, other vistas, to explore.

Posted by rodsjournal.

Where is Bandung 1955 now?

Or, reflections on ‘Everyone has their Indian’

The first things I want to comment on about the last reading, Amitav Ghosh’s essay, is not my own. A few things that A said were particularly salient.

One was that Ghosh’s trip to Egypt took place in the context of cultural and international exchanges between Asia and African, in the spirit of solidarity of the time between these two continents.  The second was about human behaviour – the mix of respect for Ghosh’s culture on the part of the Egyptians, and yet a certain casualness when, for instance, they asked him if would switch his religious allegiance to the camel now that he was in Egypt (as opposed to when he was in India and a Hinda, and thus would presumably worship the cow).

The third was the observation that it was unusual for an Indian PhD. student to go to Egypt or Africa to do field research – especially when it was still fashionable or ‘normal’ to go to the seat of the former colonial empire to study instead. And that’s where Bandung 1955 again comes in.

ban01It was the inaugural meeting of the Bandung Conference, which in later years led to the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement, or NAM. Initially a show of solidarity between the newly-independent nation-states of Africa and Asia – those in the 1950s – it has nevertheless been pulled in many directions, with some eventually allying themselves with either the Soviet bloc or the Western ‘democracies’ (many of which were still colonial powers). Although it was initially a noble attempt to forge a path between communism and capitalism, some of these countries combined elements of both, with very few becoming more liberal or advanced democracies.

So it is that the NAM’s relevance and legacy is continually being questioned, with progress framed in terms of economic (if not political development), and Africa faring worse than Asia on this score. This was an observation that underscored the 10th anniversary meeting of the NAM in 2005, written up in this article – ‘Bandung Revisited’.

It highlighted the statements made by various leaders, prominent in their own right if not in the NAM itself. I noted wryly that most of their statuses had changed. There was Japan’s Koizumi (no longer prime minister), Zimbabwe’s Mugabe (now in a power-sharing agreement with the country’s ex-opposition leader), Gyanendra of Nepal (deposed and no longer ‘king’). Then there was Kofi Annan (no longer UN Secretary-General).

One of the more unsavoury characters mentioned, or rather not mentioned, was the president of Sudan – although his country was. Can we really believe it when the Sudanese government ‘denied that it had instigated violence in its war-torn Darfur region’?

There is also the tendency to paint the nation-states of the NAM as having some sort of global solidarity, but with the plethora of regional organisations, arrangements and military treaty alliances  (ASEAN, ASEAN + 3, APEC, ARF, Five-Power Defence Arrangments, etc.)  that intersect and overlap, or the differences between Northeast, South and Southeast Asia, or the more affluent and developed states (e.g. Japan, South Korea, Singapore) in contrast to the rest, or the self-interest of Asian and African states in the context of great power competition (US, Russia, China etc.) still very much dominating international politics – I’m afraid that to depict the idea of the NAM as a cohesive ‘Global South’ may be a fantasy at best.

Bandung 1955’s legacy is yet to be fully revealed, much less celebrated.

Further reading

NAM Summit 2006: No More Crossroads

Bandung Revisited: The Legacy Of The 1955 Asian-Af Rican Conference For International Order

Bandung Revisited: The Legacy Of The 1955 Asian-Af Rican Conference For International Order
by See Seng Tan & Amitav Acharya (Eds.)

Posted by rodsjournal