Representations of the Intellectual

Edward SaidLet me put this in personal terms: as an intellectual I present my concerns before an audience or constituency, but this is not just a matter of how I articulate them, but also of what I myself, as someone who is trying to advance the cause of freedom and justice, also represent. I say or write these things because after much reflection they are what I believe; and I also want to persuade others of this view. There is therefore this quite complicated mix between the private and the public worlds, my own history, values, writings and positions as they derive from my experiences, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, how these enter into the social world where people debate and make decisions about war and freedom and justice. There is no such thing as a private intellectual, since the moment you set down words and then publish them you have entered the public world. Nor is there only a public intellectual, someone who exists just as a figurehead or spokesperson or symbol of a cause, movement, or position. There is always the personal inflection and the private sensibility, and those give meaning to what is being said or written. Least of all should an intellectual be there to make his/her audiences feel good: the whole point is to be embarrassing, contrary, even unpleasant.

So in the end it is the intellectual as a representative figure that matters — someone who visibly represents a standpoint of some kind, and someone who makes articulate representations to his or her public despite all sorts of barriers. My argument is that intellectuals are individuals with a vocation for the art of representing, whether that is talking, writing, teaching, appearing on television. And that vocation is important to the extent that it is publicly recognizable and involves both commitment and risk, boldness and vulnerability; when I read Jean-Paul Sartre or Bertrand Russell it is their specific, individual voice and presence that makes an impression on me over and above their arguments because they are speaking out for their beliefs. They cannot be mistaken for an anonymous functionary or careful bureaucrat.

—Edward Said
Representations of the Intellectual

5 thoughts on “Representations of the Intellectual

  1. Said is very clearly Part of the Problem. If we ever hope to have a better, smarter and more just world, we need to be able to understand, parse, and discuss ideas apart from the person espousing them. The identification of ideas with the person putting them forward is the tool of the masters and serves the status quo. Blunt that tool; do not sharpen it.

    • I don’t think that’s what he’s saying here. I think he is getting at the avocation of the intellectual. He’s not saying the arguments don’t matter. But every intellectual brings their private self into the public environment.

  2. When people concentrate on the person, the argument never matters. It is unimportant whether Said intended this or not. As a matter of brute empirical fact, when people get to talking about bringing one’s self to the environment, the actual arguments disappear from the discussion. Every flippin’ time. Said is objectively pro-Bill O’Reilly.

    If someone’s arguments are good, I don’t care what they represent. See also: Frege. If someone is a good person, but their arguments are not good, they are useless to me intellectually. See also: Judith Butler.

    • I understand what you are saying. But Said is making a much bigger and more subtle argument than this. This is just two paragraphs out of a book length essay. His overall argument is that intellectuals should be confrontational to authority — that that is the purpose of the intellectual in public life. I recommend reading it. Said is a great thinker and writer.

  3. I think there are much better ways to say these important, salutatory things than in Said’s approach. I think leftists should start ignoring all post-structuralist influenced scholars, starting today. We’ll be smarter and more effective.

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