Forum explores Said’s influence

Beth McHenry

On Tuesday the first Main Hall Forum of the year examined the influence of controversial and authoritative author and social commentator Edward Said. The impact and possible flaws of Said’s work were analyzed by a panel of six faculty members from different fields in the humanities.A prolific author and a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, Said is best known and recognized for his positions on Middle Eastern affairs, especially his support of Palestinian rights. One of Said’s most famous and most controversial works, “Orientalism,” published in 1978, focuses on the complex relationship between Western Europe and the Orient. “Orientalism” asserts that orientalism, Western thought and scholarship towards Asia and the Middle East, has both defined Europe’s self-image and produced inaccurate Western perceptions of Middle Eastern culture. Said also applies the concept behind orientalism to explain European stereotypes towards Native Americans and Africans. Leukemia claimed 67-year-old Said’s life last September.

Spanish instructor Rosa Tapia, hoping to explore Said’s work with colleagues to facilitate intellectual growth for all, organized the forum, entitled “Edward Said’s Intellectual Legacy.” The forum drew an audience of students, professors, and community members. Representing multiple facets of liberal education, the panelists included Tapia, Alexis Boylan, assistant professor of art history, Catherine Hollis, assistant professor of English, Lifongo Vetinde, associate professor of French, Peter Blitstein, assistant professor of history, and W. Flagg Miller, lecturer in anthropology. Each panelist presented their own personal insight about Said and his effect on their field or their own life. The individual presentations were followed by a question-and-answer session moderated by Tapia.

Presentations ranged in scope from Boylan’s description of explaining her career choice to her father with Said’s words, to Tapia’s exploration of Spanish orientalism, to Miller discussing the negative impact that “Orientalism” still has on anthropological study in the Middle East. Blitstein and Vetinde explored how “Orientalism” can be applied to Russian and African culture respectively and Hollis examined the works of Virginia Woolf to compare literary attitudes towards Arab culture to Said’s ideas. Although multiple perspectives were explored, all panelists agreed that Said’s work redefined pre-existing ideas, especially those from the writings of Foucault, into an applicable and human work of “ultimate readability.” Though participants acknowledged possible flaws in Said’s work, such as his failure to address women’s issues, and the necessity to adjust Said’s model, the forum generally honored the ideas of this great intellect.