“Text too are worldly in as much as they have a way of existing that even in the most rarefied form are always enmeshed in circumstances, time, place, and society” -Edward Said in The World, the Text and the Critic
[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] E [/yt_dropcap] dward Said, even 13 years after his untimely death, remains today a powerful, well-reasoned voice of the voiceless, as well as a courageous critic of cultural imperialism. His mind was like that of Leonardo: where others saw an abyss between East and West, he saw a bridge that needed to be constructed. His serene fair critique of cultures is very much needed as we weather the latest fierce storms in the Transatlantic dialogue and a resurgence of the Cold War.
While writing a Ph.D. dissertation on Vico at Yale University, some thirty five years ago, a book appeared which attracted my immediate attention. But it was not its author, still relatively obscure at the time, rather it was its title which urged me to buy Beginnings by Edward Said. To my mind, that title echoed immediately Vico’s notion of “origins.” And in fact, as expected, Said not only acknowledges Vico as the book’s inspiration and methodology, but dedicates a whole section to him. It turned out to be a kind of epiphany for me, in the same way that Ignazio Silone had previously been, not so much for what the book revealed about the problematic in the New Science that I was then grappling with (i.e., that of transcendence and immanence in Vico’s notion of Providence), but for what it said on the crucial role of the intellectual vis-à-vis the culture he lives and works in.
One of the most pregnant passages in that book is this: “The writer’s life, his career, and his text, form a system of relationships whose configuration ‘in real human time’ becomes progressively stronger (i.e., more distinct, more individualized and exacerbated). In fact, these relationships gradually become the writer’s all-encompassing subject” (p. 227).
Here was a writer who did not see his role as that of the neutral “objective” scholar but as that of the engaged “worldly” critic who refuses to separate his work from his life’s experience. In doing so, Said was able to speak truth to power, rather than merely analyze power. In effect he becomes the well reasoned voice of the voiceless, within the tradition of “the conspiracy of hope” initiated by Ignazio Silone (see his Pane e vino, Fontamara, or Il seme sotto la neve). He therefore succeeds in making his life work relevant to the general public, especially the culturally powerless.
Later on in his The World, The Text, and the Critic Said would assert that not only individuals, but text too are worldly in as much as “they have a way of existing that even in the most rarefied form are always enmeshed in circumstances, time, place, and society” (p. 35).
And indeed, even if Said is no longer with us in body, his powerful voice is still heard via his texts. He was born in Palestinian Jerusalem, studied there and in Cairo, then moved to the United States. He acquired a “Western” education (Princeton B.A., Harvard Ph.D.), becoming the Old Dominion professor of Humanities at Columbia in 1963. As a displaced Arab and an American citizen studying European literature in America, he became the voice of the voiceless and the dislocated and in as much as he understood well both East and West, he was eminently qualified to bridge those two disparate cultures.
This concept of bridging of cultures is vitally important, at a time when the transatlantic dialogue and relationship can best be characterized as one of mutual suspicion, misperceptions and near political disasters. A turbulent time when the very concept of multi-culturalism is being dismantled.
In one of his essays critiquing modern education, Said mentions that there was a passage on Leonardo Da Vinci by the French poet Paul Valéry which haunted him. In it Valéry describes the mind of Leonardo; its beauty and power and elegance and then says that Leonardo could only think of a bridge whenever he thought of the abyss. Metaphorically speaking, an abyss is the equivalent of what is presented to us as immutable, definitive, impossible to journey on. No matter how deep and problematic the scene that presented itself, Leonardo’s beautiful mind always had the capacity to think of some alternative, some way of solving the problem, some gift for not passively accepting what was given, any hopeless scene could be imagined and envisioned in a different more hopeful, way.
Then Said went on to say that he believes that education at its best should train students not so much in methods and skills but in the ability to see things differently and try ways of constructing bridges across the abyss. For Said knowledge is more than the amassing of information. He quotes Jean Paul Sartre who once said about a friend who had studied at a prestigious scientific college (Ecole Polytechnique): “my friend is really incredibly brilliant. He knows everything. But that is all he knows.” Echoes of Pascal’s “the heart has reasons that reason knows not?”
But let us go back to Said’s beginnings (also the title of his above mentioned book) from which continuities follow, and apply a non-linear conception of career to his own career. If we take a look at his Ph.D. dissertation we discover that it is concerned with a novelist of Western imperialism: Joseph Conrad. This gives us a clue as to where Said’s “beginning intentions” were in his life-long criticism. Three such can be discerned: 1) a desire to make critical work out of the fabric of one’s life experience, 2) a refusal to separate the imperialism of the mind from that of nations (an eminently Vichian concept), 3) a will to forge literary criticism into an act of political intervention in the production of cultures.
In his very first book titled Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography Said shows how the past was re-narrated (another Vichian concept: history as narration from the beginning) in Conrad’s writings as a remedy of sort for his fear of personal disintegration. Then in Beginnings Said continues his study of the narrativization of personal experience tracing the changes culminating in the modern novel. Eventually he arrives at Orientalism, and culture and imperialism as history through which Western scholars have fictionalized the Orient, in collusion with their governments, to arrive at fictions such as “Arabs” and “Islam.” Those books are now considered by many scholars as foundation documents in the history of post-colonialism. In any case, one thing that stands out in Said’s writing is the notion that the history of cultures and personal histories are hardly separable.
All of the above begs the question: what exactly was the main topic of Said’s life-work? Were I to choose one, it would be Eurocentrism, especially as manifested in imperialism. In the above mentioned early book on Conrad, Said shows that Conrad’s identification with “Europeanism” was an act of secular salvation by which he rescued himself from “the heart of darkness.”
But a shift occurs in Beginnings. Although apparently a history of the modern novel, the book is more properly a history of the imperialism of the mind reducing human subjects to functions of systems. In this respect Said is uncannily similar to Levinas. Be that as it may, in his subsequent Orientalism, Said explores the relation between the production of knowledge and the invasion of territories. He points out that imperialist history is the precondition for European imperialism per se; that is to say, Orientalism precedes the European Empires in the Orient. There was indeed a cultural preparation to Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt at the end of the 18th century, just as there must be one before forbidding Moslem women to wear a scarf in public schools. In other words, the imperialism and colonization of the mind must precede that of the physical territory.
A careful reading of Orientalism can teach one how to understand other nations for themselves, rather than through the distorting lenses of Western imperialism. But Said is not just an observer of cultures happy to merely offer a diagnosis of what hails them. He considers it a responsibility of a critic to intervene in the formation of cultures which he sees as a mixture of pre-texts, texts, and para-texts just as Vico saw history as a mixture of pre-narrations, narrations and para-narrations. Genuine intellectuals should be “oppositional” and not mere observers and analyzers.
Beginnings is permeated with this issue of the critic’s responsibility not only to analyze but also to intervene in the discursive formation by retelling its history; retelling the story, so to speak. Said does exactly that in Orientalism. In so doing, much as Foucault had done before him, he intervenes to show how a discourse is formed, thus offering an alternate view of the media’s coverage of Islam. Said is convinced that it is the critic’s responsibility to challenge the hegemonic power of cultural formation because of its “elevated or superior position to authorize, to dominate, to legitimate, demote, interdict, and validate: in short, the power of culture to be an agent of, and perhaps the main agency for, powerful differentiation within its domain and beyond it too (The World, the Text, and the Critic, p. 9).
In a world of political and cultural “correctness,” it was a veritable tragedy to lose a very public intellectual like Edward Said. But I have no doubt that his legacy, like that of a Silone or a Havel, will be an ongoing one. He will continue to be the voice of the voiceless and the dispossessed, in any culture.
Many intellectuals, even among Palestinians themselves, will continue to resent his frankness and his calling a spade a spade. But that is nothing new, it begins with Socrates being branded a gadfly. It behooves us not to forget that truth is an equal opportunity critic. If they were sincere with themselves those critics would acknowledge that Said, as a quintessential humanist, has taught us how to see the foreign Other as oneself instead of constructing him/her as one needs him/her to be for one’s own self-justification. That would by itself constitute a signal contribution to a Western imagination sick with extreme rationalism, positivism and reductionism. Some sicknesses are unto death unless the courage is summoned to reverse them with a reclamation of the very concept of truth. Said can certainly help us do that.
Davos: The Other Side of the Mirror
It has been a couple of months since I was hanging out in Davos learning about this year’s World Economic Forum. Perhaps I have a unique view, because I am the founder of Peppr and Ohlala, described as “the one dating app where everyone’s intentions are very clear.” and the person said to be responsible for the #escortgate controversy, in which paid escorts showed up at one of the world’s most exclusive investor conferences in Berlin in 2016. I am also the author of the statement that “We all have sexwork to do,” I follow up on all conversations related to escorting and sexwork, which I deliberately call “paid dating.”
I have been following up on the conversations ever since: about world leaders said to be not acting as role models (or acting as bad role models), about the hypocrisy over sustainability, philanthropic models or the proposals to adjust taxes for the wealthier among us to secure a basic standard of living for all, a conversation the ones directly affected seemed to be avoiding.
Davos, as we know, brings together so many of the world’s most powerful leaders –parleys occur, deals are made and opportunities appear that likely don’t ever arise elsewhere. And among these deal makers are people whose drive takes other avenues.
As one woman was quoted as saying: “It’s the kind of place where if a woman turns away to exit a conversation and looks back just quickly enough, she’ll find her posterior aesthetic being carefully dissected by the man who just asked her for her business card — even if he is the CEO of a major bank. When we weren’t being asked how we got here, we were constantly being stared up and down by CEOs, hedge fund managers, finance ministers and embassy heads.”
However, I am still a bit confused about the opinionated statements that were going on this year after Davos. It’s the same debates and thoughts we had around #escortgate.I have been wondering how to productively progress the conversation around this morally, emotionally loaded topic, because clearly we are running around in circles.
What I have seen is a whole lot of personal, subjective judgments of people sometimes labeled as “escorts” and how they are not supposed to be around in places like Davos. I had hoped for a more deliberate thought-through conversation, a dialogue, but mostly what I read stigmatizes and judges people on their very personal choices and agreements: how they want (or have to — as most of us do) to make money, to afford a living.
“I don’t want to be mistaken for a prostitute”
You might wonder which conversations or statements I was so confused about. First, about the existence of escorts at the Forum, by a young woman named Baillie Aaron:
“And then I heard the whispers of what happens at night, at the parties, in the hotel lobbies and at the famous Piano Bar where it was an unspoken understanding that some men ‘took off their wedding rings.’ Almost all my male colleagues commented on the presence of female escorts at these venues, many of which were guest-list only, or required a hotel badge to access. A quick online search displayed a number of articles confirming that the existence of and easy access to escorts at Davos is nothing new, and what for some delegates, could be a strong motivator to attend.” Statement found here.
Demand creates supply. It’s as simple as that and from an economic standpoint, I do understand wo/men going there to seek business, in any sense. Also, on that particular one.
However, I wonder: What is so bad about the “existence of and easy access of escorts” in the first place? Why shouldn’t there be men or women who get paid to date at the World Economic Forum? If it’s true, maybe some men took off rings because they are in an open marriage? Why would you care about someone else’s choice? (Unless you are the wife of that person and you have a personal private agreement to stay physically faithful and not take the ring off.)
In Switzerland, at least, if there really were some men or women paid to have sex, it would be legal and regulated — not even a breach of law. For me, these workers should be as much part of the conversation as anyone else in Davos.
Actually, given the current political environment in the US around the topic of sexwork, they should definitely be part of the conversations, because this industry screams:“Please reinvent me and improve circumstances for those who are not protected. Make it safer for everyone involved.”
Some politicians already seem to be having a change of heart. Decriminalization is their way forward. Going along with all the standing proposals of Amnesty International.
What else has been subject of the realm on feeling “unsafe” or “discriminated” at Davos.
I look and check bodies all the time myself, with men and women. I can appreciate a beautiful person without having the urge to hook up. We do checkout people all the time — on Instagram and Facebook. But we are not allowed to look in real life? Everyone does it. Recently, I have found myself with other people in the office kitchen wondering how cute the new intern is. #Wetoo do it.
Third quote about warnings regarding sexual harassment
“At the Davos opening Women’s Reception, with some male allies in attendance, I asked a question: Why is it that in 2019, young female delegates are forewarned about sexual harassment — as if it’s our responsibility to protect ourselves — but the delegates themselves aren’t given training on how (or why) not to harass? There was no answer, other than a murmuring recognition that it was a known issue: many of the women who attended in past years had personal experience of sexual harassment.”
What is actually sexual harassment?Can we come up with a definition?Does sexual harassment go both ways?Where does it start?Where to draw the line?
There is always two sides of the story and I feel like, in the realm of the “gender narrative debate” (certain traits assigned to genders because of a gender), we need to let both parties speak in order to find a common ground. What one attempt-to-hit-on-someone finds okay, another may feel totally offended.
Of course we could be confused anyway. Every third relationship evolves in a work-related context. So that means, including these events, it could be a dating market as well, right? Personally, 90 percent of my time, I am surrounded by people with whom I somehow work together. The chances that I meet someone that I want to partner up with is high. So naturally, events like this also create a space where I might get to know someone for a night, maybe more.
I understand, there are certain limits: If someone runs up to someone during the day time event in a straightforward business context and does a pussy or penis grab (Presidential style?), I understand negative sentiment. But if people (yes, men AND women) hit on each other in a Piano Bar to romantic music at 2 in the morning, after a couple of glasses of wine or even four gin and tonics, where people go to hang loose and left the laptop in their hotel room, you cannot possibly be surprised that this is happening.
Again, it goes both ways. We all forget our manners sometimes, when we are drunk (or high, or whatever). On a personal note: The most aggressive hit on me ever was by a drunken woman, not a man.
“I think about what I wear more because there are a lot of prostitutes in Davos, especially at the Piano Bar,” one woman said, referencing the popular late-night hot spot. “I don’t want to be mistaken for a prostitute.”
When we gender mainstream almost everything, even adjust anthems of countries, toilet signs, why don’t we just get rid of that particular word too? Or best: all of them: escort, prostitute, whore. Those devaluating terms are connected directly to women. We will not evolve in any of the conversations if we use preconceived terms. We need to let go of these terms.When we talk empowerment, we need to empower all women (or people in general). That certainly includes also those who get paid to date.
I would like to start proposing a couple of solutions and quick fixes.Here are some ideas that I would like to propose as to how to progress in this entire discussion:
Power of perception: Could you, instead looking down toward this type of entrepreneur, take it as a compliment?Flip the coin. Be bold and brave. So what? Maybe that person misread the signs? If he/she thinks you want to be paid to date: just say. ‘No, I don’t‘. This way you are still respecting other people, especially women who do this — as a personal choice entering into an agreement — and you maintain your own integrity. Problem solved. That I find acting out of a position of power, instead of victimizing yourself.
Let’s stop gender blaming!People can have female and male traits. This makes the whole gender debate almost irrelevant. This is “how men are” or this is “how women are” is simply stereotyping our way to further separation. Even the Davos Vanity Fair – as my legendary professor Anis H. Bajrektarevic calls the WEF – advocates the gender neutrality.
This whole finger pointing and mansplaining doesn’t solve anything but create negative sentiment because we simply sometimes don’t know anymore as to how to behave in certain contexts. I feel like the whole dynamic is ruled by fear, as to what we are not supposed to do, instead of relearning how we can handle each other in certain contexts. Reframe it in a positive way. Look at it as a chance or opportunity.
And it goes both ways, this #metoo. We have to find a common ground towards a #wetoo. From he said, he did, she said, she did. We need to evolve to a “#wetoo are going to solve this together.”
3. Education is key.We need proper training of all sorts on how to handle each other. Why not invest in our (work) relationships?
Maybe we need to elaborate a guideline. We could design a new sort of “Knigge” or a Code of Conduct on how to behave in a work-related context. This could help navigate through some uncertainties, especially if cultures vary across borders and continents.
Or maybe even a defense class to train people for difficult situations. For example: I had a compulsory defense class in middle school. We were trained by really big guys to defend ourselves. The impact in my life? I always feel/felt safe, because though I might be physically inferior, I know some really important tricks. It gave me a lifelong confidence.Maybe that’s what we all have to learn at the end of the day: articulate our intentions properly and (be able to) show the limits.
Imagine a world, free from personal judgement, where “it” would be decriminalized. People active in this field could seek help if they needed it and would pay taxes. The proceeds of the taxes could be used to combat negative forces within this market.
That for me, is a desirable future. One I would like to help shape.What do you think?
A Calamitous Week
Something is infinitely wrong in the picture, a juxtaposition of polar opposites: New Zealand, a country of unfailingly courteous and kind people, and an extremist terrorist killing 40 Muslims at prayer. Of course, modern guns made it possible, a hate-filled extremist of Australian origin set the stage, and a country not familiar with such violence — thus an easy target. All together they broke the proverbial camel’s back.
My own experience of New Zealand — visiting universities and delivering the occasional lecture as academics do — was uniformly pleasant. It was as if a piece of 1950s England had been sliced off and transported to the Pacific, down to the egg, sausage, bacon and tomato breakfast. The numerous small kindnesses of the people one met left a warm glow.
I was therefore, quite unprepared for Australia, the only country where I have been taken aside into a room to be grilled by an immigration official for what seemed an eternity. People are people: The hotel receptionist was welcoming and helpful.
At the Sydney Opera House, Joan Sutherland was appearing in The Daughter of the Regiment to a sold-out first night. As luck would have it, a ticket return was my ticket in . Quenching a thirst during intermission, the withering looks of fashionably-dressed matrons is now an aide-memoire. Otherwise, I might have forgotten, as I have, for example, the performance at Schloss Schonbrunn outside Vienna.
Universities are different of course, and students and professors tend not to harbor such prejudices or exhibit them within the ivory towers. The conference was much like others. Australians in person seem friendly, unselfconscious and lacking the class prejudice common in England. I must add that I have counted quite a few as friends and academic colleagues over the years.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s outburst at New Zealand following the shooting was a trifle premature. Of Turkish origin, 40-year old Gorkmen Tanis opened fire inside a tram in Utrecht, Netherlands killing 3 and wounding 3 others. Hate and more hate in a world of conflicting values and customs, coming into sharper focus as people travel outside their own countries (and comfort space) in quest of greater economic reward. Necessity or greed, opportunism or adventure, each individual has his own motivation for leaving home.
The situation is not improved by jingoist politicians exploiting it during elections or otherwise (Modi in India or Trump in the US) trying to boost standing with their base support.
Calamities other than from the barrel of a gun but perhaps not unaided by human hand gave us an historic deluge mid-March, flooding almost the whole state of Nebraska. Rich countries have the resources to limit deaths in these catastrophes but not the devastation and the ruined lives of those who have to start all over again. In Mozambique, however, President Felipe Nyusi fears the death toll will be far higher than the present 200 estimate in the aftermath of cyclone Idai which hit the port city of Beira. We are told it is possibly the worst storm ever to hit the southern hemisphere; its path of destruction enveloped Zimbabwe, Malawi and of course Mozambique. In addition to the deaths in the latter, another 150 at least have perished in the other two countries, and thousands injured. The inundation and loss of crops are expected to impact the lives of more than 2.6 million people.
Calamities engineered by man or by nature aided by man are the story this week. Can we change?
How men can play an active role in promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment
International Gender Champions and Heads of the Vienna-based United Nations organizations have discussed how men can play an active role in promoting gender equality.
The event, held to mark International Women’s Day 2019, kicked off with a presentation by Matt Wallaert, a behavioural scientist and entrepreneur working at the intersection of technology and human relations. He talked about the importance of being aware of the micro-behaviours that hamper or promote gender equality in organizations.
Wallaert said that achieving gender equality benefits men and women but that to achieve it “we need men to change.”
Yury Fedotov, Director-General of UN in Vienna and Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, said, “We need to heed the call of this year’s International Women’s Day to ‘think equal, build smart, innovate for change’ and do more to fast-track gender equality through innovation around gender-responsive systems and services.”
LI Yong, the Director General of the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), said the call to innovate for change is a key part of his organization’s work to achieve inclusive and sustainable industrial development.
Li said, “As UNIDO evolves to meet the challenges of the future, we will continue to support women innovators, entrepreneurs and industry leaders to find ways where technology and innovation can remove barriers and advance gender equality.”
Ambassadors Brendon Charles Hammer, Permanent Representative of Australia, and Ambassador Alicia Guadalupe Buenrostro Massieu, Permanent Representative of Mexico, both related incidents of struggling with and prevailing over gender inequality during their careers.
Lassina Zerbo, Executive Secretary of Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, said, “In the 21st century, we must have the courage to understand gender equality as a path to social justice. It all comes down to respect and making space for each individual to exercise his or her talents. This approach benefits humanity, peace and development.”
UNIDO’s Li highlighted the need to build an equal partnership between women and men for the benefit of all, adding that, in this context, “men have an important but often less acknowledged role and responsibility.”
“We have to break the glass ceilings and the glass doors to arrive at gender equality,” Li concluded.
The event, which was moderated by Ambassador Andrej Benedejčič, Permanent Representative of Slovenia, was a joint initiative of the Gender Focal Points of the CTBTO, IAEA, UNIDO, UNODC/UNOV and the Focal Points for Women from UNODC/UNOV.
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