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) 

In memoriam

Edward Said (1 November 1935 – 25 September 2003)


Further reading
Obituary: Edward Said, Malise Ruthven,The Guardian, 26 September 2003
Edward Said, Encyclopædia Britannica Online
Introduction to Postcolonial Studies, Emory University, Department of English

Posted by Roderick

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Sha, on Representations of the Intellectual (1)

Barriers that need to be broken

Said’s piece, “Representations of the Intellectual”, was a good read for meEdward Said - photo from Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Said) because this is something for me to refer to now when I think about what intellectualism is. I feel his views were put out nicely and clearly, a result of which is probably due to his experience as, and working with, other intellectuals.

What I thought would work better for me is if there were examples of “intellectual” work. He did give some examples of his work in Palestine and name-dropped a few intellectuals he’s grown to respect and debate with. But I can’t help but feel there are many other intellectuals he had not mentioned. I wondered if he would call his own parents intellectuals because they would have been a part of his development and shared as much of their values with him.

Representation is very important to me. Especially when the crafting of this representation is not “owned” by the person. Said pointed this out, “One task of the intellectual is the effort to break down the stereotypes and reductive categories that are so limiting to human thought and communication.” I often feel some individuals in civil society get branded to be this or that. I find this branding kills the person’s image and may not be the best representation of what he/she meant. Said did say, following this, that he didn’t know he had these limitations which was not set by him but others.

I remember writing my final project during my undergrad days on media sensationalism, and the topic came to me when my lecturer talked about Media Enthralled, written by Francis Seow. I remember the book analyzed the Singaporean press and the government’s control of it, which also determines the type of reports written and eventually published. I felt that lecture opened my mind to the reality that media stories I read could have been motivated by someone else’s agenda, and to what extent should I believe the stories and let them impact my life. Similarly, the sensationalism is not set out by the individual but by other actors with agendas, working in the background or foreground, refusing to believe or imagine the individual differently. I felt Said had been the subject of these reductive categories that sensationalised his background as an Arab born in Palestine — which became the precedent image the public had of him. In the end, I felt the intellectual’s role is loaded with having to spend time explaining and breaking barriers before getting to the crux of the problem.

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Richard, on Representations of the Intellectual (2)

The “People’s Philosopher”

It is not uncommon to see professional comments given by academics (intellectuals) in the papers almost every single day, ranging from the state of the economy, the nature of human behaviours, to the trends in social phenomenon. The comments tend to provide us with a sense of relief, a sense of questions being answered, a sense of having definitive answers to complexities in life. But as an intellectual providing these answers for public consumption –  as it seems to be increasingly trendy these days –  is there more to than just a professional opinion provider, or should the exercise be an attempt to speak truth to the matters at hand?  I am not so naive to think that academics provide public goods purely out of a certain sense of responsibility to the people, providing knowledge without agendas; but, on whose terms are they doing so? That’s the question.

Edward Said (photo from http://www.brown.edu/Departments/Joukowsky_Institute/Harmansah/byexiles.html)

Edward Said’s chapter on representing the intellectual provides an account of the strategies an intellectual could take in order to position him/herself in the larger picture of speaking truth to power, if they are willing to do so. In his enlightening opening, “all men intellectuals …”, to one on a serious note, “ … but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals”, Said laid out the spectrum of roles intellectuals take in the scheme of things. One of the two broad categories of intellectuals Gramsci had highlighted, which deserves additional discussion, is the existence of “organic intellectuals”: in Gramsci’s definition, perhaps a “capitalist entrepreneur [who] creates alongside himself the industrial technician, the specialist in political economy, the organisers of new culture, of a new legal system, etc” [i] An example of such an organic intellectual could be an advertising or public relations “expert” who helps to push market shares of capitalists in the free-market economy.

But Said didn’t seem to elaborate further. There is another class of organic intellectuals in any society: the citizens, or more specifically “active citizens”. Every state requires its citizens to be pro-active, to help themselves, to engage the state in making a society better; but little do citizens know that, by engaging with the state, there is a need to have definite skill-sets.

Active citizens must be armed with the knowledge of state system(s), of strategies deployed in politics, of the logical faculty of philosophy. This is something for which the state has not provided necessary education. The education process has been appropriated and managed with the objective of taking into consideration the well-being of the society at large in mind, where attitudes and standards are negotiated on “people’s terms”.

With such inadequacies in providing full objective, critical knowledge, not to mention the education in providing tools active citizens require in order to fully realise a “self-helping nation”, a citizen will never be active; active in logical thought, active in responsible citizen-action through active citizen-engagement. These people form the society that will contribute significantly in the setting of the agendas in that society. Those who are more privileged than others, in Gramsci’s words “all men are intellectuals, one could therefore say: but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals”, shall take various positions in society in providing knowledge to the people.

The key question hence: is it the role of intellectuals to help develop intellectual faculties within each citizen, in order to make the agenda-setting process a balanced one, sharing between the state, civil society and the people? This is a question that has not been fully answered.For, intellectuals on multiple fronts present perspectives to the people, but do not consciously educate them on how to go about accessing these information and gain perspectives for themselves, developing independent and logical thinking to address the issues at hand. Hence many people are led by the ear and nose by disguised rhetorical arguments in an attempt to win them over.

As I searched within the chapter “Representations of the Intellectual” in Said’s book of the same title, nothing was mentioned about a “people’s philosopher”, something that is urgently needed in present societies. Hopefully societies could nurture and develop philosophers – with the skills Said’s reference C. Wright Mills possessed – who are “ … fiercely independent intellectual(s) with an impassioned social vision and a remarkable capacity for communicating his/her (their) ideas in [ a ] straightforward and compelling prose(s).”[ii] A “people’s philosopher could be one who would help the people to understand the perspectives provided by both the state and civil society, in order to engage them effectively, strategically and productively towards the building of a more humane society. However, there is a larger question looming in the background: On whose agenda is the society going to anchor its development and cultivation on? It is one question that needs to be continually asked, reflected upon, and responded to.


[i] Antonio Gramsci, The Prison Notebooks: Selections, trans. Quintin Hoare and Geofrrey Nowell-Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), p. 4.

[ii] W., E. (1994). Representations of the intellectual: the 1993 reith lectures. Pantheon, p. 20.

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Heather, on Professionals and Amateurs

Celebrating the amateur

I will give the game away and profess: I support the amateur Photo from http://www.commondreams.org/headlines03/0925-06.htmintellectual! I will now discuss how I understand the term.

In his lecture, “Professionals and Amateurs”, Edward Said asks: Can there be anything like an “independent, autonomously functioning intellectual, one who is not beholden to, and therefore constrained by, his or her affiliations with universities that pay salaries, political parties that demand loyalty to a party line, think that that while they offer freedom to do research perhaps more subtly compromise judgment and restrain the critical voice” (67-8)?

This question is a problematic one. For Said, and I concur, the intellectual is “supposed to be heard from, and in practice ought to be stirring up debate and if possible controversy”. Naturally, the next questions are, “Who can, and will, speak?” and, perhaps more importantly, “Who is listening?”

Two public intellectuals in Singapore who I respect very much, and who I believe have (in many ways) “spoken truth to power”, are sociologist, Chua Beng Huat and architect, Tay Kheng Soon. I notice, however, that there appears to be a particular pitfall inherent in the act of speaking truth to power – that of coming closer to power itself.

For Said, the particular threat to the intellectual today is not censorship, but “professionalism”, specifically specialization (“losing sight of the raw effort of constructing either art or knowledge”), certified expertise (“speaking according to ‘norms’, and not openly”), and the drift towards “power and its requirements”

As “organic intellectuals” drift closer to power in order to speak to it, do they/we inevitably risk being branded by fellow activists as, horror of horrors, sell-outs? Is co-option inevitable in the process of engaging with, and transforming, power?

Writes Said, “The problem for the intellectual is to try to deal with the impingements of modern professionalization (…) not by pretending that they are not there, or denying their influence, but by representing a different set of values and prerogatives.”

It is here that I reiterate my support for the amateur: “Someone who considers that to be a thinking and concerned member of society one is entitled to raise moral issues at the heart of even the most technical and professionalized activity as it involves one’s country, its power, its mode interacting with its citizens as well as with other societies.”

What makes an amateur intellectual, is not solely what one does (for one needs to eat, after all, and this often necessitates compromise), but how one does, what one does. Is it possible to always seek to “represent a different set of values and prerogatives”, no matter what path we take? Can we be intellectuals every-day, every-where?

In many ways, I feel Post-Museum (www.post-museum.org) embodies the spirit of the amateur. It has remained an independent, creative, open and informal place – in this sense, thoroughly amateur – in support of artistic and intellectual activity for all three years I have known it, inviting many who would consider themselves amateurs into this space to share their perspectives with others, exhibit their projects and forge important alliances and friendships that will certainly expand and evolve for years to come.

It seems we already have a space for amateurs in Singapore! Are we ready to be amateurs ourselves?

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