A Letter from 2005

April 6, 2005

Dear Andrew,

I recently finished a small book by Edward Said, Humanism and Democratic Criticism, and it made me think of many conversations we’ve had over the past couple of years. So I thought I would share some of Said’s ideas and my reflections on same with you. I suppose I’d be up for calling ours the Said-Ellacuria Affinity group, since both of them provide critical and constructive ideas for how we should be proceeding in these dark times.  And they are both dead, so it would be a memorial to them and a goad to ourselves.

Intellectuals, Individually and Collectively

First, one of Said’s enduring preoccupations is the role of intellectuals.  I used to say to Mev, “Mev, in my mind you’re a real intellectual.” She never thought of herself that way. I suppose she deemed that intellectuals were too bookish and disengaged, which is not how she wanted to be. But according to Said’s prescriptive view, intellectuals ought to be fully engaged and critical with their society (and, I might add, one’s church). [For more on this, see Said’s Reith Lectures, Representation of the Intellectual (Pantheon, 1994)]. In the current book, Said writes, “ The intellectual’s role is dialectically, oppositionally, to uncover and elucidate the contest I referred to earlier, to challenge and negate both an imposed silence and the normalized quiet of unseen power wherever and whenever possible. For there is a social and intellectual equivalence between this mass of overbearing collective interests and the discourse used to justify, disguise, or mystify its workings while also preventing objections or challenges to it.”  [135]  

This is what Stop Torture Now is about, among other things (such as the call to direct action).  “Normalized quiet”—isn’t this what you found so perverse about SLU’s campus last fall: we’re in the middle of a war and an election, and everything is so quiet, undisturbed, passive. Of course, we have our work cut out for us (“this mass of overbearing collective interests” and they have seemingly infinite resources of people and money, and what do we have?).  We must continue to challenge the discourse that justifies, disguises and mystifies torture. Your Talent-collage-Gould video piece is brilliant in this regard. I hope you’ve shown it to your students. As I mentioned, I think, on the phone, Joanie was deeply moved by it.

Accordingly, I think we need further to think along the lines of Said who borrows from French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu the idea of a collective intellectual.  Said, again: “the whole edifice of critical thought is thus in need of critical reconstruction. This work of reconstruction cannot be done, as some thought in the past, by a single great intellectual, a master-thinker endowed with the sole resources of his singular thought [think Jean-Paul Sartre in France, for example], or by the authorized spokesperson for a group or an institution presumed to speak in the name of those without voice, party, union, and so on [think Elie Wiesel, for Holocaust survivors]. This is where the collective intellectual [Bourdieu’s name for individuals whose sum of research and participation on common subjects constitutes a sort of ad hoc collective] can play its irreplaceable role, by helping to create the social conditions for the collective production of realist utopias.” [139]

CTSA can be a modest version of this kind of ad hoc collective, specifically, our joint writings, our Second Sundays, our public actions. Incidentally, I remember a slogan from the base communities in Brazil: “Memory, Resistance, Utopia.”  This strikes me as a good set of reminders for what we need to be about.  Also, I have been putting students’ work and reflections (and even Sharon Orlet’s Holy Thursday sermon) on the CTSA web site because I am trying to abide by one of Chomsky’s pronouncements: “Anything they [the government, mainstream media, hierarchy] want us to do, we do just the opposite. So they want us to be fragmented, and isolated, so our task is to bring people together.”  The more we can promote the thinking and expression of the people around us and give them a forum, the better.  It pleases me that someone randomly surfing may read Nathan Byrd’s piece on Hotel Rwanda.

Writing and Speaking

I’ve read many of Said’s books over the years and he, like Chomsky, is exemplary for his commitment to telling the truth about things that matter to a community that can do something about it.  Said is broad-minded, practical, and cunning when he writes that we need “intellectual performances on many fronts, in many places, many sites that keep in play both the sense of opposition and sense of engaged participation.” [140] Elsewhere, he states the obvious: “lecture platform, pamphlet, radio, alternative journals, occasional papers, interview, rally, and church pulpit, Internet. Use them all.”  Although it may seen anal-retentive, we should do some brainstorming for the specific ways we can use each of these this year, when it comes to Stop Torture Now (and the Palestine Working Group).  I am not saying this to pester you and Jean Abbott but I think you two need to get back together and consider ways you can refine your presentation and give it a second try someplace.  

Think of our long and footnoted Counterpunch pieces (and many more to come).  Said would approve: “humanistic resistance needs to occur in longer forms [than CNN sound bytes], longer essays, longer periods of reflection… Humanistic refection must literally break the hold on us of the short, headline, sound-bite format and try to induce instead a longer, more deliberate process of refection, research, and inquiring argument that really looks at the case(s) in point.” [73-74] I believe you have got scores of such articles batting around in the brain of yours.  We can find a way and a form to get them out, expressed, and circulating all over the net.

Humanism on the Margins of the Church

Much of Said’s work in this book is about recovering a viable form of humanism, linked, really, to classic philology, how to read carefully and critically.  But as I read these chapters, including an introduction to and appreciation of Eric Auerbach’s Mimesis, I think of liberation theology, ironically enough, as a kind of humanism, a radical humanism that was marginalized by the recently deceased pontiff  because it made a serious and costly preferential option for the poor.  Here’s the secular (though raised Christian Protestant) Said: “Humanism, I strongly believe, must excavate the silence, the world of memory, of itinerant, barely surviving groups, the places of exclusion and invisibility, the kind of testimony that doesn’t make it onto the reports but which more and more is about whether an overexploited environment, sustainable small economies and marginalized peoples outside as well as inside the maw of the metropolitan center can survive the grinding down and flattening out and displacement that are such preeminent features of globalization.”  [81-82] This again brings us back to “dangerous memories,” resistance that takes the form of solidarity (with torture victims, with the victims of our occupations), and a defiance that doesn’t grant the last word to corporate globalization, the empire’s latest guise.


Here is an idea for our underground seminary:  Perhaps this is too utopian, but I would like to see CTSA as an occasional reading room, where even four or five us come together to read for an hour or two, and then discuss what we’ve been reading. We have meetings, do meditations there, why not do reading? It could be reading a Berrigan biblical commentary, a news report, Euripides’ The Trojan Women, or the latest interview with Chomsky.  Even if sometime it’s only you and me, let’s do it. I got this idea from George Steiner in an interview in the Tel Aviv Review (1991): “But reading involves a real semiotics, a real linguistics, a real philology:  philology in the old sense, love of the Logos, respect for the text.  Most of us no longer know how to read.  Sometimes I think universities, which have become enemies of reading, ought to be closed down.  Instead there should be Houses of Reading where reading means exploring language and ideas.  We should use dictionaries:  the prime tool for the understanding of  language.  And we should know grammar, for grammar is the music of language.  And we believe we can read philosophy and literature without a knowledge of grammar, but we can’t.”   Said would concur: “A true philological reading is active; it involves getting inside the process of language already going on in words and making it disclose what may be hidden or incomplete or masked or distorted in any text we may have before us.” [59] As Thich Nhat Hanh would say, to slow down in the USA is counter-cultural; we need to cultivate silence and one-pointed attention and read without listening to music, checking email, or schmoozing with the family. As a first example of doing this, you and me, let us take 30-45 minutes to read in silence and respond to Berrigan’s chapter, “The Foundering of Academe”  from his autobiography To Dwell in Peace, then we can talk about it.

For an underground seminary, we would do well to abide by Said’s advice: “There are other learned traditions in the world, there are other cultures, there are other geniuses.” [26]  OK, read the Qur’an, read Rumi,  Egyptian feminists like el-Saadawi, and a thousand more.

SLU and Socrates

In addition to CTSA serving as an underground seminary or a counter-university, let’s consider SLU as a site of opposition in the sense mentioned by Said above.  Besides our classes, where we do what we can, how else might we exhibit the “prophetic imagination”?  Here’s a pessimistic passage in which Said draws upon the Japanese thinker Masao Muyoshi:  “That the humanities  as a whole have lost their eminence in the university is, nonetheless, undoubtedly true. As Masao Miyoshi has claimed in a series of densely argued essays, the late-twentieth-century American university has been corporatized and to a certain degree annexed by defense, medical, biotechnical, and corporate interests who are much more concerned with funding projects in the natural sciences than they are in the humanities. Miyoshi goes on to say that the humanities—which, he correctly supposes, is not the province of the corporate manager but of the humanist—have fallen into irrelevance and quasi-medieval fussiness, ironically enough because of the fashionability of newly relevant fields like postcolonialism, ethnic studies, cultural studies and the like. This has effectively detoured the humanities from its rightful concern with the critical investigation of values, history, and freedom, turning it into a whole factory of word-spinning and insouciant specialties, many of them identity-based, that in their jargon and special pleading address only like-minded people, acolytes and other academics.  If we don’t respect ourselves, he says, why should anyone else, and so we wither away, unmourned and unnoticed.”   [14]

Has anything come out of the Theology Department (with the exception of the Puleo Nicaragua immersion) that is something other than “quasi-medieval fussiness”?  However, lest we totally despair, consider Said’s relatively optimistic conviction (echoes of the Gramsci maxim, pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will): “the American university remains the one public space available to real alternative intellectual practices: no other institution like it on such a scale exists anywhere else in the world today…”  [71]  Now, he didn’t say this for adjuncts, but we are essentially free to  offer alternative intellectual practices: the courses we devise, the extracurricular opportunities we  invite our students into, the cross-fertilization we animate by getting them involved in STN (Meggie Fox), or CTSA (Magan Wiles), or CSTWT (Yael Diplacido, Samantha Watts, to name two of many), or Karen House.   Let’s think beyond the parameters of the tenured folks at the university and be even more Socratic:”  I shall never stop practicing philosophy and exhorting you and elucidating the truth for everyone that I meet. I shall go on saying…Are you not ashamed that you give your attention to acquiring as much money as possible, and similarly with reputation and honor and give no attention to truth and understanding and the perfection of your soul?…I shall do this to everyone I meet, young or old, foreigner or fellow citizen, but especially to you, my fellow citizens.”  Plato, Apology, 29d-30a  Still, our brother Cornel West says Socrates doesn’t have the last word and of course I feel TOTALLY VINDICATED by what he writes here:  “Yet our Socratic questioning must go beyond Socrates. We must out-Socrates Socrates by revealing the limits of the great Socratic tradition. My own philosophy of democracy that emerges from the nightside of American democracy is rooted in the guttural cries and silent tears of oppressed people. And it has always bothered me that Socrates never cries—he never sheds a tear. His profound yet insufficient rationalism effuses to connect noble self-mastery to a heartfelt solidarity with the agony and anguish of oppressed peoples. Why this glaring defect in Socratic love of wisdom? …Must not the rigorous questioning and quest for wisdom of the Socratic be infused with the passionate fervor and quest for justice of the prophetic?” [West, Democracy Matters, 213-214]

So, naturally, I am very curious about your essay-in-process on SLU and war-profiteering.  With students like Andrew Clifton (whom we met last week), there’s no shortage of venues and possibilities for raising questions about SLU’s eager willingness to “acquiring as much money as possible, and similarly with reputation and honor and giv[ing] no attention to truth and understanding.”  Let me know how I may be able to assist you in getting your piece together before the end of the semester.



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