Said on The Exile

In reading Culture and Imperialism, I was most struck by Said’s final section, entitled “Movements and Migrations.”  This makes sense, as it is the final section of the book – and every author hopes to make their final section noteworthy, impactful, implanting something in the reader’s mind that keeps poking, provoking.  In this section, Said offers up a solution – or at least a form of resistance – to nationalism and imperialism in the figure of the exile.  I am partially unsatisfied by this because it has been done before (or maybe, actually, Said was among the first to do so – the historical timeline in my head is practically non-existent) – many an author has championed hybridity, liminality, the paradoxical here-not-here presence of the exilic figure.  At the same time, however, I am intrigued by his discussion of the exile and the ways it reflects his thoughts on identity.

In this discussion, Said makes a very Marxist move, claiming that the figure capable of undermining nationalism and imperialism has been created by those very systems: “As the struggle for independence produced new states and new boundaries, it also produced homeless wanderers, nomads, vagrants, unassimilated to the emerging structures of institutional power, rejected by the established order for their intransigence and obdurate rebelliousness” (332).  Particularly ironic is the way in which the exile is almost forced into the role of revolutionary figure, emphasized by Adorno’s statement that “He who offers for sale something unique that no one wants to buy, represents, even against his will, freedom from exchange” (333).  Refugees, migrants, exiles are excluded from the very nationalist system that they often desperately want to be a part of – and so have been forced by that system into a homeless state that allows them to effectively challenge nationalism.

I think Said saves himself and his argument by acknowledging the pain of this position.  Said values the exile for the challenge this figure poses to the essentializing, dichotomizing, binary-creating philosophy of imperialism.  Imperialism wants to divide the world into East and West, wants to give us distinct, permanent labels and identities.  Existing “between domains, between forms, between homes, and between languages” the exile reminds us that “we need to go on and situate [our identities] in a geography of other identities, peoples, cultures, and then to study how, despite their differences, they have always overlapped one another, through unhierarchical influence, crossing, incorporation, recollection, deliberate forgetfulness, and, of course, conflict” (330-331).  This claim can verge on sounding too idealistic and humanistic, romanticizing the role of the exile and seeming to encourage us to find what is commonly “human” among us.  Said, however, interrupts us with the reminder that “unexpected, unwelcome loss” is central to this state, that this position is often uncomfortable and painful.  The value in it is that it reminds us that all attachments to nation, all identities for that matter, are constructed and transitory – and inherently contain a similar loss, a similar pain.  In this argument, Said works to emphasize the positive and creative possibilities of this exilic position, but does not let us forget that it is the real, lived, often harrowing circumstance of millions of people currently in our world.

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