Embarrassing, Contrary, Unpleasant: An Introduction to Judith Butler and Cornel West in Conversation


Professor James Schamus, Columbia University, New York
30 October 2013

Good evening, and thanks Lila. Let me briefly lay out the format for tonight's event, meditate a bit on some of the questions its title might suggest to our speakers, and commence with a first question. Let us begin by acknowledging that this was a very hot ticket - more on that in a second - and that tonight we are in, to borrow a phrase both from Israeli jurisprudence and from Judith Butler's recent work, a lot of absent-presences. So while we will solicit questions to supplement and continue tonight's conversation, we're going to do so virtually, in the hope that those of you not sitting with us in Low Library will feel the connection we here certainly feel with you.

So if you'd like to join the conversation, tweet your question to @CUpalestine using #edwardsaid or post to our Facebook Event page Judith Butler and Cornel West, in Conversation, by the Center for Palestine Studies at Columbia University. Operators are standing by; and in about 45 minutes to an hour or so one of them will discreetly hand me a stack of questions and comments and, if and when the opportunity arises and the conversation finds a lull, I will share them with you. If, however, the conversation feels like it can continue uninterrupted, I'll hold fire, and ask your forgiveness in advance if we entertain few if any questions.

So, some preliminaries to an initial question, prompted by the sub-title of tonight's event: "Palestine and the Public Intellectual: Honoring Edward Said." I'd like briefly to break down some of the constituent parts of that title in preface to the conversation it announces.

First, Honoring Edward Said. This evening takes place as one of a wonderful number of events commemorating Edward Said, and as such it prompts if not begs the question as to the uses and reasons for those commemorations, honorifications, memorializations and celebrations. A couple of weeks ago in Lerner Hall Edward Said was remembered; last week his memorial lecture was delivered; and tonight he is honored. It is appropriate, under such circumstances, to ask whether and how his memory is working, and how it should be working, and for whom it should be working.

One use, of course, arises from the simple conjunction of the name Edward Said with the word Palestine. And here, I feel the need to try to articulate a specific and particular sense of excitement about tonight's conversation. Let's face facts, each of tonight's interlocutors, alone, is, to use the language of celebrity (which raises its own questions but also feels somewhat appropriate tonight), as I said before, a hot ticket. But together, in conversation, present, to each other, Judith Butler and Cornel West make this feel like a moment, an event. And the territory, occupied or otherwise, where they come together is, not just figuratively, Palestine. Tonight it feels as though, unlike perhaps in Edward Said's day, it is not the question of Palestine that is invoked. Rather, it is Palestine that is asking the questions; indeed, Palestine is demanding answers.

Then we have this word "public." What is a public, or, to ask the question another way, what do publics do? (And what is the public doing here tonight?) Unlike proletariats, peoples, communities, and masses, publics exist mainly to...have opinions. Or, perhaps we could say that the "public" in these neo-liberal times serves as a notional value or subject that provides the site for the production, management, circulation, and consumption of the idea or representation of "their" opinions.

For Said, though, the word public always held out the promise of its Enlightenment origins, as the site of public reason, as a place where genuine truths can emerge. That's why, for Said, there is no need for the category of "public" intellectual - for the intellectual is, by his definition, always public, someone who publishes, who comes into being as such by making representations to a public. As Said writes in his wonderful volume Representations of the Intellectual, "There is no such thing as a private intellectual" (12). The intellectual, he says, "is an individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public" (11).

To, as well as for. The intellectual represents, paradoxically teaching her public, something, in a sense, the public already knows but just doesn't know that it knows - teaching it, in the Saidian version, the unknown truth about what it really is. The Saidian intellectual plays a strange role, one that requires the intellectual to come into being wholly in relation to the public, but to not be the public, or part of the public - to be a representing representation. For Said, the intellectual stands outside, and mainly, again with a nod to his enlightenment heritage, because, as Said writes, the intellectual's speech is always "on behalf of universal principles" (11). That is, the intellectual speaks on behalf of that which is not particular to a public, on behalf of that which cannot be contained within any particular public, but which is somehow essential to the idea of any public insofar as it is a public.

The weight of that universal burden, unmoored from an actually situated public home, makes the intellectual anything other than the usual expert sent out to manage the public through his or her expertise: Said's intellectual paradoxically maintains the social prestige and authority of the intellectual class, but is, as he puts it, "...someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d'etre is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug" (11).

And here you see another, paradoxical dialectical leap in Said's thinking - the "public" that the intellectual is to represent to the public is actually the abjected, the forgotten, the oppressed, that is to say outsiders, those who have been relegated to a space outside the public sphere. Paradoxically, in order for the intellectual to play the role of intellectual to the public, she must mimic the abject state of these outsiders, but now from a position of authority if not of power.

Heavy burdens to bear, which is no doubt why Said constantly references the intellectual's, well, crankiness: "Least of all," he writes, "should an intellectual be there to make his/her audiences feel good: the whole point is to be embarrassing, contrary, even unpleasant" (12). It is as if, for Said, the repulsion felt by the proper public for those habitually abjected and excluded must, if only as a moment of negative pleasure, be felt also in the presence of the intellectual. Intellectuals may represent the public, and represent to the public, but the process required in order to make these representations is a fundamentally antagonistic one, making the representations themselves by definition incongruous and dissonant.

I think I speak on behalf of tonight's public, when I say how excited I am to be here to listen in on what I know will be, in honor of Edward Said, a truly embarrassing, contrary and unpleasant conversation. And let's start it by asking, as we have asked about what memorializations do, what publics do, what intellectuals do, and what Palestine does, a simple question you need entertain only by ignoring it: What, exactly, are we doing here tonight?

1. Edward Said, Representations of the Intellectual, New York: Vintage, 1996.

2. For an interesting exploration of these issues, see Danielle Ranciere and Jacques Ranciere, "The Philosopher's Tale: Intellectuals and the Trajectory of Gauchisme," in Jacques Ranciere, The Intellectual and his People, London: Verso, 2012, pp. 74-100.

See video here