In retrospective approaches to the twentieth century, the critique of capitalism and the critique of colonialism emerge as two alienated halves of an intellectual Zeitgeist that would have profited from a serious encounter with one another.1 Instead, this missed encounter resulted in a Western European Marxism deaf to the concerns of colonialism, and a postcolonial critique disconnected from the aims of revolution. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the mutual disintegration of Western Marxism and postcolonial thought, the hope for a more comprehensive theory could only appear nostalgic: “History is made of missed encounters, of lost opportunities that leave the bitter taste of melancholia.”2 Given current reappraisals of how to think these two spheres together, particularly within the context of the Global South, returning to the work of the Lebanese Marxist Mahdi Amel's critique of Edward Said's critique of Karl Marx provides a timely opportunity to reconsider this split between Western Marxism and postcolonial theory.3 More specifically, Amel's work, which is little known in the West, provokes reflection on whether this desire for a more unified, comprehensive theory, one that could have combined the two alienated halves of Western Marxism and postcolonial thought, was flawed from the start.
Amel's brutal critique of Said suggests as much, since it rests on a critique of identity-thinking, a critique that precisely resists the idea of unitary, self-sufficient forms of thought, whether we think about postcolonialism or the critique of capitalism, and thus resists the idea that these two halves could have somehow been stitched together. Instead, Amel's critique unravels a more pernicious problem, the dominance of positivist thinking in the twentieth century, a thinking that mistakenly renders these two realms as autonomous, independent spheres of thought. Amel notes that this is a constitutive problem in Said's understanding of Orientalism. Said's allegiance to a positivist mode of thought, which Amel qualifies as a form of identity-thinking, produces an inability to think historically, materially, and dialectically, and thus results in a curious reversal whereby Orientalism takes on the status of a master narrative within which all Western standpoints are subsumed. Amel thus performs an immanent critique of Said's views, revealing the suppressed core that Said cannot admit—that is, showing that Said fails to acknowledge the contradictions in thinking, which are produced by real, historical circumstances, and thus that he fails to acknowledge the reality of class struggle. In this way, Amel provides a potent—Marxist—critique of Said's reading of Marx; yet, what also emerges in this piece is Amel's own struggle to think dialectically. To borrow the language of critical theory, Amel struggles to think the “nonidentical.”
The critique of positivist thinking was part of a certain philosophical dispute in the mid-twentieth century—particularly within European critical theory—about the possibility of constructing a revolutionary social theory.4 If Max Horkheimer demonstrated the paucity of positivist thought for addressing the crucial relationship between theory and practice, and Theodor W. Adorno critiqued the identitarian logic of philosophical concepts that effaced the sensuous particularity of experience, then Amel brings the critique of positivism and identity-thinking to bear on the question of Orientalism. Amel focuses on Said's charge that Marx was an Orientalist, that is, that Marx was unable to transcend his Western, European framework in his thinking about India.5 Furthermore, Amel focuses on Said's emphasis on the split between rationality and sentiment in Marx's approach to India; while Marx expresses sympathy for the suffering of the Easterner, his reason leads him to make Orientalist assumptions. According to Amel, Said rationalizes the real contradictions in Marx's thinking about the East by formulating a split, and in doing so he forces Marx into the either/or of binary logic. Amel's charge that Said is an identitarian thinker transpires on multiple levels, and it is worth schematizing here, since it is against this tendency in Said that Amel positions his own dialectical recovery of Marx.
1. Amel acknowledges that Said conceives of Orientalist discourse as homogenizing; it is “a kind of identity politics: namely, ‘a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.’”6 In this sense, Orientalist discourse produces the Orient in its own image and thus an image that is “suitable for the prevailing, dominant culture.”7 This construction of the “Orient” effaces the actual East because this concept has no contact with its object. The subject of Orientalist discourse is itself produced by that discourse, and in this sense, Orientalist discourse is identical to itself.
2. In turn, Orientalist discourse arises from what Amel terms “the dominant culture,” which is itself totalizing, since it “aspires to abolish everything that is not in its own image” in order to appear as the sole absolute culture.8 In this sense, the dominant culture effaces the difference between its actual historical existence, that is, its status as the culture of a dominant class, and the form in which it appears, as the absolute, or as the culture of an entire nation.
3. The distinction between Orientalist discourse and the dominant culture is crucial for Amel's critique, since he goes on to show that although Said views Orientalist discourse as identitarian, Said himself identifies with the viewpoint of the dominant culture that gives rise to Orientalist discourse; that is, he identifies with the thought of the nation.9 For Amel, Said falls prey to a form of identity-thinking central to idealism—and we can suppose here that Amel has in mind a form of Hegelian idealism—because he characterizes the thought that arises from the dominant culture as simply Western bourgeois thought, rendering it devoid of historical determination and internal contradiction. Said's view, according to Amel, equates the appearance of the thing with the thing in itself and thus abolishes the contradiction and struggle between different ideas within the history of thought. As a result of Amel's criticism, Said appears to be a thinker who resurrects the metaphysical idea of thought as a self-subsisting absolute, free of internal contradiction and eternal in its formation. In this sense, Said holds an idealist view of the dominant culture, which itself is beholden to identity-thinking.
4. Furthermore, Amel accuses Said of adhering to an additional form of identity-thinking, one that endorses instrumental thinking or reification. According to Amel, Said views Western scholars as essentially fungible insofar as they are unable to escape the Orientalizing framework; that is, Said seems to believe that all Western thought is Orientalist and is always governed by the logic of Orientalist thought. Amel faults Said for not being able to distinguish between specific thinkers and for thereby creating a homogenizing effect, such that everything that the intellectual thinks is subsumed within the thought structure of the nation.
5. Yet another form of identity-thinking appears in Said's thought, which Amel terms “logical positivism.” Said's thought succumbs to binary logic and an either/or thought structure. This form of identity-thinking appears as an adherence to “I = I” and therefore excludes the possibility of contradiction. In this sense, the logical formalism that governs Said's thought doesn't permit materialist contradiction: “This is why thought premised on formalistic logic—which is empiricist logic—slips into confusion, or in fact, a crisis whenever it collides with materialist contradiction, whether in thought or in reality.”10
As if to leave no doubt, Amel's reading of Said shows that his thinking is not only prone to identity-thinking but is a conduit for all of its historical forms. In Amel's picture, Said is at once an idealist, a logical positivist, and an instrumentalizing or reifying thinker. As one proceeds through Amel's continuous refrain that Said is an identitarian thinker, it takes on the quality of an ideé fixe; it becomes the one totalizing lens through which Amel views Said's critique of Orientalism; thus, as I will discuss later, it flattens certain concerns that informed Said's critique of Orientalism. Amel's tunnel vision notwithstanding, he does show the grave consequences of identity-thinking, which bear directly on the possibility of praxis.
Given Said's adherence to identity-thinking, he is unable to sustain internal contradictions within thought, which are the very contradictions produced by historical struggles. Instead, these internal conflicts are externalized onto a conflict between national thought and the individual, a conflict that for the most part is always resolved in favor of the former, except in exceptional situations, where the thought of the individual is somehow able to contest the thought of the nation. In this crucial sense, Said's allegiance to identity-thinking leads him to misrecognize the nonidentical. For Amel, Said incorrectly puts the onus on individual genius, an exceptional case of the nonidentical that contests the homogenizing narrative of Orientalism. What Amel's critique implies is that Said's emphasis on the individual conceals the true nonidentical in this schema—the reality of class struggle. In doing so, it continually reinforces the dominance of the nation; the West is eternalized, and the brief insurrections against it never shake its position of dominance. In this sense, Said's view of Marx, as an intellectual subject to Orientalist thinking and only capable of—at times—holding an exceptional viewpoint, flattens the real contradictions in Marx's thinking. There is
a contrived binary, of two irreconcilable poles, between human feeling and historical necessity. However, the actual contradiction in Marx's text is established by a material antagonism between stagnant traditional social structures that resist change, on the one hand, and the historical necessity for changing those very structures, on the other. The movement of history is precisely the historical dialectical movement. There is no reconciliation between two poles of contradiction; rather there is a unity of contradictory opposites, a unity of antagonism.11
Here, Amel begins to suggest a way in which Said's dichotomous reading of Marx can be rectified by examining the material antagonisms that give rise to the contradictions in Marx's thinking, contradictions that cannot be—should not be—reconciled but that should be thought of as the unity of contradictory opposites or the unity of antagonism.
As Amel points out, the aporetic structure in Marx's thinking about India results from a real, material contradiction—the tension between traditional social structures, which are static, bound in a unity, and subject to eternal laws, and the possibility of the new, of revolutionary change bound by the temporal. Amel refers here to Marx's essays for the New York Daily Tribune, where Marx presents India as having a static social structure.12 Amel turns to the passage that Said critiques, which addresses the relationship between British colonialism and India, and in particular to Marx's diagnosis of the “double mission” of England, which combines two missions, “one destructive, the other regenerating—the annihilation of old Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundations of Western society in Asia.”13 Amel suggests that Marx's position, which Said reads as Orientalizing, actually presents an objective view of history, and not from a moral or humanist position. Said mistakenly reads Marx from an idealist perspective, where “England is History's Master, located within an intentional movement where history proceeds according to its ideological logic, which is the logic of Orientalist, and colonial, consciousness.”14 By contrast, Amel purports to give a more accurate reading of Marx's view that England is the “‘unconscious tool of history,’ located within an objective movement where history proceeds according to its dialectical materialist logic—outside, if not against, human consciousness and will.”15
Against the split between reason and the heart that Said finds in Marx's writings on India, Amel's “unity of opposites” presents a historicist understanding of Marx: England is the “unconscious tool of history” and thereby detached from any intentional, prescriptive application of either violence or emancipation; the process unfolds according to its own necessity. But this is certainly not a dialectical rethinking of the heart and the mind; rather, it is a removal of the subject and consciousness altogether from the equation. Amel's reading affirms the Althusserian break between the early humanist Marx and the later scientific Marx, an epistemological break that sought to rescue Marx from Hegel's idealist version of history. This is clear in Amel's own positioning of Said as espousing an idealist reading of history and himself as giving the truly materialist reading, the former bound by will and consciousness and the latter free from these ideological implications.16 Yet Amel's embrace of a “scientific” understanding of Marx's theory of revolution reinscribes the silence about colonialism already present in this version of history, insofar as it removes the subject from the equation.17 In this sense, Amel's vindication of class struggle as the occluded center of Said's critique reveals the occluded center of Amel's own criticism—the complicated nexus of racial violence that is at the heart of colonialism.
We can then ask: what would be the way out of this binary between class and race that forms on account of Amel's effort to rescue Marx from Said's critique? Although Amel's critique of Said centers on the concept of identity-thinking, its counterpart, the “nonidentical,” is never explicitly mentioned. Yet there is an affinity with the Adornian concept that is worth pursuing. By thinking Amel with Adorno, I further open this discussion onto the vexed development of Marxism and anticolonial and postcolonial thought. Amel and Adorno have strikingly similar ideas about the critique of positivist thinking and what constitutes identity-thinking. As we have seen, in Said's case, Marx's sensitivity to the Easterner—the nonidentical—is relegated to the “heart,” or intuition; that is, while Marx's sympathy might be in the right place, he reduces the Easterner to the “irrational,” thereby placing the Easterner—or the nonidentical—outside the bounds of reason. Thus he is unable to think outside of the strictures of his own Orientalism precisely because there can be no space for the irrational in the rational, or for the nonidentical in the concept. Amel refigures the dichotomy between the irrational Easterner and the rational Westerner, as precisely not the basis for understanding Eurocentric modes of thought but rather the flaw in the critique of Eurocentrism itself.
Yet if the nonidentical is that which is excluded by the concept, then this must be thought of as a double-sided rejection.18 The nonidentical does not accord with the parameters of the concept, and it also refuses to be domiciled by the concept. Thus it both is negated and negates. By virtue of its exclusion, the nonidentical challenges the autonomy of the concept. Its presence is like the return of the repressed; the exclusion is felt within the concept itself, continually threatening its autonomy, a presence that the concept can neither completely subsume nor completely exclude. This dialectical view of the nonidentical complicates Said's and Amel's readings of Marx and, in particular, the dichotomy between the postcolonial critique of Marx, which accuses him of Orientalist thinking when it comes to the question of the “Easterner,” and a structuralist return to Marx, which removes the problem of the “Easterner” altogether from the historical development of colonization. In both cases, the nonidentical remains unthinkable, suppressed by Said's critique and ejected in Amel's rejoinder. The point must be to pursue a dialectical rethinking of the nonidentical, one that must unfold in the antinomy between class and race that emerges from Said's and Amel's views.
Amel's critique provides a powerful rejoinder to the wholesale rejection of Marxist paradigms for their deafness to the colonial situation. For Amel demonstrates that the very premise of this critique is flawed. Amel's reading, then, reveals an important point of tension in the Marxism covered over by Said's rendering of Marx as an Orientalist. Said is rendered an intellectual beholden to identity-thinking; that is, the negativity of class struggle is precisely the nonidentical that cannot enter into the binary logic of identity-thinking that conditions our understanding of the East and West, reason and nonreason, universal and particular. While Amel's critique reveals Said's tendency to address Marxist thought in a decidedly non-Marxist way, Amel's own resistance to a dialectical negativity, the driving motor that disrupts identity-thinking, creates a tension between Said's non-Marxist Marxism and Amel's undialectical dialectics. In the end, Amel's own allergy to idealism renders his idea of dialectical thinking devoid of dialectics' speculative character and thus leaves it susceptible to the postmodern play of differences, a dialectics without negativity, a history without a subject. In this sense, Amel is unable to provide an antidote to his own characterization of Said's reading of Marx, insofar as the reintroduction of the class character of Said's critique produces another form of identity-thinking, one that occludes race, the very motor of Said's critique of Orientalism. The question, then, cannot be how to unite the critique of capitalism with postcolonial theory, but rather, how to think through their elisions of the occluded other—the nonidentical that implicitly returns to haunt the narrative that excludes it.
Traverso, Left-Wing Melancholia, 52. Enzo Traverso's idea of a missed encounter between Western Marxism and anticolonial thought is rooted in the lack of reference Theodor W. Adorno and C. L. R. James have to each other's works, particularly despite their respective readings of Oswald Spengler. Edward Said had already presented a markedly different view of the relationship between Western Marxism and anticolonial thought, particularly by thinking through the reception of György Lukács's Marxist concept of reification in the work of Adorno and Frantz Fanon. While Traverso laments that history did not occasion the opportunity for Adorno and James to theoretically complement one another, Said argues precisely against “facile universalism or over-general totalizing: One would not, could not, want to assimilate Viennese twelve-tone music to the Algerian resistance to French colonialism: the disparities are too grotesque even to articulate” (“Traveling Theory,” 452). See also Bardawil, “Fractured Ground,” which returns to the idea of traveling theory in order to suggest that Said's Arab critics, among whom we can include Amel, were not merely dogmatic supporters of Marxism but were pointing to larger issues related to traveling theory, which “disables certain critical paths and opens up new ones, stifling political projects while boosting others, despite the best of intentions of the secular critic” (21).
Nadia Bou Ali notes that the end of the Lebanese Civil War coincided with the fall of the Berlin Wall and that in this context, Amel's work was also considered a part of the left-wing melancholia that was seen to proliferate among Marxist thinkers after the retreat of Marxism (“Mahdi Amel's Colonial Mode,” 243).
This is, of course, not a charge specific to Said, but in the 1980s it embodied the view of subaltern studies more generally. Similar to Amel's critique of Said, see Vivek Chibber's critique of subaltern studies in Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital . Chibber accuses subaltern studies of being beholden to their own form of Orientalism. For example, Chibber argues that Dipesh Chakrabarty's Provincializing Europe, which emphasizes nonrational practices outside the spectrum of capitalist modernity, mimics the mindset of colonialism, according to which the Easterner is not capable of rationality and thus must be civilized.
We might think of Amel's characterization of Said's identification with the thought of the nation as an “empathy with the victor” (Benjamin, “Theses,” 256). As Michael Löwy explains,
Benjamin introduces a new concept here, that of Einfühlung, the closest equivalent to which is empathy, but which he himself translates into French not as empathie but as identification affectif. He accuses historicism of identifying with the victor. Self-evidently, the term “victor” does not refer here to common battles or wars, but to the “class war” in which one of the sides, the ruling class, has constantly won out over the oppressed. (Fire Alarm, 47)
See Lindner's discussion of Marx's 1853 essays on India and the aspects of Indian society that lead Marx to make this characterization, with particular emphasis on examining the Eurocentric sources, such as Bernier's travel diaries, that contributed to Marx's Eurocentric view of India, in “Marx's Eurocentrism.”
In this respect, Amel exonerates Marx from the undeniably Eurocentric framework in which he made his remarks about India.
Perhaps this peculiar affirmation of a historicist understanding of Marx can be made more understandable if Amel's critique of Said is positioned within the context of his work more broadly. As Samer Frangie argues, “[Amel's] whole project was to develop a Marx for the periphery, by deploying the notion of CMOP [Colonial Mode of Production] as a way to escape the historicist reading of Marx. But when faced with the critique of Said, he had to revert to a defense of the same historicist Marx he had tried to deconstruct earlier, in an effort to confront what he saw as a dangerous relativism” (“Theorizing,” 477).