The Edward Said Memorial Conference: A Critical Theory Bonanza

By Omri Preiss

The Aula at Utrecht University’s Academiegebouw is historically notable. As they provide in every introductory speech delivered there, it’s the place where the Union of Utrecht (1579) and the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) were signed. Funnily enough, on the particular morning in question, the Rector Magnificus forgot to put on his glasses, and so he cheerfully skipped through that part of his speech.

This was all very well, as the pomp and circumstance was to be provided elsewhere in the programme. The hall breamed and spilled over its edges, and the audience heaved with anticipation, as a pantheon of philosophers advanced onto the stage that would read like a required reading list in contemporary critical theory: Judith Butler, Paul Gilroy, Etienne Balibar, (Google these names) and many other.

The conference in question was organised by the University’s Centre for the Humanities to mark ten years since the death of Edward Said.The renowned Palestinian writer and critic was born in British Palestine, and spent most of his life in the United States.Among his many contributions in literary studies and critical theory, he defined the term “orientalism”, and strove to unpack and deconstruct Western views of the Middle East.

After a typical bombastic introduction, Butler took to the stage, and with a typical graceful  reserve, delivered an hour long lecture on the early, and now forlorn history of Zionism. Returning to the understanding of figures such as Martin Buber, who advocated one bi-national state for Jews and Arabs in Palestine, could assist us in rethinking our current options. There was an awe-inspiring, and yet comforting precision to the way that she spoke – using Said’s framework to reveal traces of colonial undertones in Buber’s thinking, but insisting that through his maxim of “I and Thou – I exist by virtue of being able to communicate to you”, a reconceptualization of a solution would be possible. Butler’s contribution here is valuable in providing an approach that would enable a development of Zionist notions of citizenship towards more pluralism and nuance.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict was dominant among topics of discussion, but other subjects were allowed their time to be aired. Etienne Balibar discussed Europe’s engagement with the process of translation from one language to the other, making translation itself a process of recognition, almost a language in itself. Engin Isin referred Balibar’s approach to European identity, and provided a history showing that what is European has always been  “the other”. Bilgrami offered an approach to viewing the global North from the perspective of the South, offering a re-evaluation of the emergence of concepts such as Locke’s Social Contract, and the nation-state. These were just a few of this author’s favourites, but it is perhaps no wonder that by the end of the third day, audiences felt their intellect had done a few laps around the block.

One of the niceties of these events is to be able to see and interact these writers in the flesh. While some of the speakers remained withdrawn, many hung around open to questions and discussion. When I asked Etienne Balibar what he thought about the application of his work in his “We the People of Europe?” (2004), he smiled slyly and said with a chuckle “that is an old book, the challenge would be to write a book for right now!” He then began on a lecture, off the top of his head, explaining what he thought were the key issues of the day, most worryingly, the rise of xenophobic nationalism around the continent which reject Europe and non-Europe alike. He had a direct and humble frankness one would not ordinarily expect from a writer of his calibre.

Over the three day conference, subjects were covered from art history, to photography and cinema, post-colonial theory, climate change, and the politics of Europe, the US, and the Middle-East. In the midst of talk of deconstruction of norms and images, the importance of recognising the other, and seeing a plurality of narratives, one irony remained unacknowledged. In the discussion of the Palestinian story and struggle, in which Said himself played a key role, the Israeli Zionist narrative remained a monolithic, unquestioned “Other”. Apart from Butler’s sensitive and nuanced treatment, Zionism remained a dark colonial force of dispossession, in the face of which Palestinians were presented by most speakers as a relatively passive collection of hapless victims. Regardless of whether one is Pro- one side or another, this seemed like a gaping lacuna. As it happened, the voices of Palestinian students who had been invited to the conferences offered that diversity of perception.

The three day conference certainly jogged the mind, and offered a brief intellectual retreat in which new perspectives can be considered and entertained. Critical theory is exactly as the name suggests: it is critical, and not prescriptive. It leaves a wide path open to those who would like to change the world based on that critique. They will have to develop their own plans and perscriptions.

If you did not attend the conference, videos of the lectures should at some point be made available on the website of the Centre for the Humanities. Look out for it!

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