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Judith Butler on Edward Said

The Marvels of Exile

by YASSIN GABER

Celebrating what would have been the late Edward Said’s 75th birthday, Professor Judith Butler was invited by the American University in Cairo to give the sixth Edward W Said Memorial Lecture, organised around his birth anniversary (1 November 1935).

The lecture, entitled "What Shall We Do Without Exile? Darwish and Said on Addressing the Future", was held on 2 November at the AUC Ewart Hall. Professor Butler, known for her work in feminist theory, sexuality studies and 19th- as well as 20th-century continental philosophy, is the Maxine Elliot Professor in the rhetoric and comparative literature departments at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-director of the Critical Theory programme.

Butler began the lecture by expressing her intellectual gratitude for Said whom, as she stated, she never knew personally. Yet she "lived within the orbit of his thoughts and his political commitments, and live[s] there still". It was a touching remark and a harbinger of things to come: Butler went on to discuss the impossible presence of Said in the present as willed by Mahmoud Darwish in order that the Palestinians might "live". Perhaps we all still live within this sphere that Said — through Darwish, and now through Butler — invokes.

As she delved further into the substance of her lecture, Professor Butler began to question Said’s notion of bi-nationalism, also referred to as the one-state solution, within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Clearly she was critical of the notion. Likewise with regard to the questions of nations and the nation-less (those who possess and those who are dispossessed): Butler is in favour of a narrative transcending specific conflicts and breaking away from the constraints such notions impose on meaningful dialogue.

In this manner, fittingly enough, the lecture drifted between those who possess and the dispossessed, internal and external aspects of exile and the contradictory nature of bi-nationalism and nationalism. It was appropriately contrapuntal, considering that it was in homage to Said.

Said’s questions regarding"self-determination for Palestinians in the context of bi-nationalism" implied that "bi-nationalism could be the undoing of nationalism". She argued that though we may be opposed to the Zionist form of nationalism, we cannot be opposed to the nationalism of a people who are as yet stateless. Furthermore, though the conception of a "nation" rests heavily on a people’s ability to rightfully lay claim to a land, Israel’s entire history has rested on its ability to illegally confiscate and settle or colonise that land. This, as Butler argues, has led to the scattering of people, their disfranchisement and the reality of a nation- less nation. She pointedly asks how it is we are to deal with such an unbounded or boundary-less nation when even the boundaries we question are illegal.

The right of return for refugees became her focus as she continued to discuss the dispossession of Palestinians in 1948. She advocated a pertinent clarification of these rights, so often shrouded in imprecision: "The right of return has to be both complex and effective, which means that it has to be grounded in the rights of refugees, the illegitimacy of dispossession, and a new conception of the redistribution of lands."

This necessary step, she argues, is nearly impossible when the very history of this dispossession is constantly being effaced, preventing its actualisation as a historical truth. It was a sublime point which poignantly drew attention to the Zionist need to culturally, politically and militarily dispossess. As Butler so eloquently put it, "Israel in its present form cannot do without its mechanisms of dispossession, without destroying itself as Israel. In this sense, the threat to Israel is a consequence of its fundamental dependency on dispossession and expulsion for its existence." Butler later echoed this point: "So in asking, what would Israel be without its subjugation of the Palestinians, we pose a question that underscores that Israel as we know it is unthinkable without that subjugation."

Butler’s discourse on the diasporic was equally poignant as she contextually broke down the term diaspora. Arguing that any consideration of a Palestinian nation must include the diasporic Palestinian, she discussed two designations of the diasporic which in Arabic take on different names where al manfa refers to forced exiled and al shitat refers to the scattering of peoples — also forcibly. She pushes us to consider the quasi-citizen and the exile, for there are those dispossessed within and without, internal and external. She then adds, "Dispossession takes place in situ." So we mustn’t accept or understand the status of minorities, the occupied and the expelled as fixed or inert concepts since they are easily conflated, hard to distinguish as each can merge into the next producing an even more "wretched dispossession".

Butler encourages us not to work within the structure of colonial power but to undo the edifice of colonialism. Through Darwish’s poem, entitled " Edward Said: A Contrapuntal Reading", she highlights the self and identity. "Identity is the child of birth, but/ At the end, it’s self-invention, and not/ An inheritance of the past," Said tells Darwish in the poem. There is probably no one who gave voice more clearly to the condition of unwilled proximity, the modes of being bound together in antagonism and without contract, than Mahmoud Darwish. He did not precisely imagine a solution to this problem, Butler explained, but he made clear that this terrible embrace had to become something else, and that exile forms something of a signpost for the future.

Butler’s lecture thus ended on a daring and hopeful tone — challenging the audience, the immortal reader to will the impossible, as Edward Said asked Darwish to do in the poem. "He also said: If I die before you, my will is the impossible./I asked: Is the impossible far off?/ He said: A generation away./ I asked: And if I die before you?/ He said: I shall pay my condolences to Mount Galilee,/ and write, ‘The aesthetic is to reach poise.’/ And now, don’t forget:/If I die before you, my will is the impossible." Butler explained that in the poem Darwish questions whether we might continue to think this thought of two peoples, diasporic, living together, where the diasporic, understood as a way of attaining identity only with and through the other, becomes the basis for a less than wretched bi-nationalism. It is a question that remains open-ended.

YASSIN GABER writes for Al-Ahram Weekly, where this essay originally appeared.