Empire and Liberalism—a Saidian Reading: On Jeanne Morefield’s “Unsettling the World”

By Conor McCarthyJanuary 17, 2024

Empire and Liberalism—a Saidian Reading: On Jeanne Morefield’s “Unsettling the World”

Unsettling the World: Edward Said and Political Theory by Jeanne Morefield

EDWARD SAID, the 20th anniversary of whose death has just passed, was one of the United States’ greatest literary critics of the last 50 years. But he was also an intellectual, a figure who transcended or stepped beyond his professional location to think and speak publicly, about matters of public import, for and to a public.

Although Said was trained and practiced as a critic-scholar, the socioprofessional category that really interested him was that of the “intellectual.” Said’s interest in intellectuals and in making himself an intellectual—a central concern of his first two books, as Timothy Brennan pointed out years ago—was what enabled him to consider the realm of culture as a major zone of political engagement. For Said, the cultural intellectual could—and should—take on the tasks set by Noam Chomsky, in his 1967 essay “The Responsibility of Intellectuals”: to “speak the truth and to expose lies.”

Said lived up to that responsibility with great seriousness. Even today, his work and positions offer and embody provocations for disciplines where their effects remain yet unfelt. The challenge of considering these resonances lies at the core of political theorist and Oxford professor Jeanne Morefield’s intriguing monograph Unsettling the World: Edward Said and Political Theory (2022). Morefield argues forcefully that although political theory has only referenced Said’s work in passing, his ideas might be used to effect a thorough reworking of the discipline.

Said revolutionized the Anglophone study of literature by forcing the issue of empire and its legacies onto the agenda. He was not the first critic to address empire, but he did it with a rare combination of panache, aggression, learning, and theoretical sophistication. Orientalism (1978) amalgamated these qualities to make one of the most important works in the humanities for many years. In that book and its sequel, Culture and Imperialism (1993), Said demonstrated how the greatest works of European literature (the fiction of Jane Austen, for example, or Gustave Flaubert’s and Alphonse de Lamartine’s travel writing) represented and participated in the struggle of European powers—and, later, the United States—to understand and control the colonial world.

Secondly, and crucially, Said was not content to treat the matters of literature, intellectuals, and empire as merely historical questions from the past or as purely professional-academic questions. His courageous critique of Zionism and of American involvement in Israel’s repeated attempts to erase Palestinian ideas, culture, and people demonstrated a willingness to carry his critique of empire right up to his own time. In this way, Said brought issues out of the classroom and onto the street—the quintessence of his idea of a “worldly” criticism.

Both the critique of historical empire and of contemporary Zionism frequently focused on Said’s angry disappointment at the ways that putatively “liberal” thinkers—Alexis de Tocqueville or John Stuart Mill in the 19th century, for instance, or American liberals and left-liberals in the 20th century—had blind spots when it came to empire. Morefield argues that while political theory has produced powerful new understandings of the links between liberalism and empire in the 19th century over the last 20 years, it has failed to address such links in our own time. She reckons that the example of Said can be used to revitalize political theory, not only as a formidable historical and analytical discipline but also as an activist discourse that will break out of the library and seminar room to intervene effectively in the “real world” of politics and foreign policy.

In this way, Morefield’s aims are Said’s—first, to radicalize her discipline, and second, to bring it into the public realm. For many of Morefield’s fellow political theorists, such a move will seem anathema: the sullying of scholarship’s pure waters with the gravel and mud of policy and everyday ideological battle. With this book, one suspects, Morefield herself has stepped beyond ordinary professionalism and academic position-taking. However uneven the result, her courage in doing so is commendable.


Said always saw his work as “political,” in some loose sense. From the beginning of his career, he was interested in criticism as a kind of agon: a contest where one voice or discourse or body of ideas sought to win an audience, and to shoulder aside its rivals in the process. He figured this in various ways throughout his career—in the analysis of the creation of literary authority so central to his early study of Joseph Conrad; in his examination of Jonathan Swift’s Battle of the Books, where the volumes of the St. James Library tumble off the shelves to do battle on the floor; and in his espousal of Antonio Gramsci’s ideas about hegemony and intellectuals in and after Orientalism. Said embodied and legitimated an idea of critique as irreducibly political, even if he rarely wrote about political theory as such.

In a neglected but crucial 1982 essay titled “Opponents, Audiences, Constituencies, and Community,” Said set out his most concentrated view of the politics of his discipline and its relationship to “politics” more widely. In brief, sometimes slashing terms, he argued that university disciplines, subdividing, refining, and narrowing the search for, production, and final dissemination of knowledge, are ineluctably conservative and inward-looking. Said argued that American literary criticism, from the New Criticism of the 1950s through the post-structuralist and social-historical criticism of the 1980s—including even Marxist criticism—followed this division of labor and thereby colluded in its own marginalization. As much as Said respected and admired the work of brilliant Marxist peers such as Fredric Jameson and Terry Eagleton, he saw their sequestration in an academic-theoretical bubble, the construction of which Eagleton seemed to recognize and lament even as he contributed to it.

Referring to Jameson’s then recently published The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981), Said noted a basic dichotomy between two kinds of politics: “Politics 1,” or the long history of political theory from Hegel to Louis Althusser; and “Politics 2,” or “the politics of struggle and power in the everyday world,” which was dominated by Reaganism at the time of Said’s writing. To Said’s chagrin, Jameson had almost nothing to say about Politics 2 except in a brief footnote about local struggles and alliances; Jameson left it up to his reader to surmise the connection, if any, between Politics 1 and Politics 2.

Said differentiated between political theory and political activism, or between a contemplative and an activist criticism. He was dubious of a “politics” that was principally academic, as opposed to one capable of addressing and testing itself against the “world.” Accordingly, Said concludes “Opponents” with a call for “interference”: a deliberate transgressing of disciplinary and even institutional boundaries (achieved so well in Orientalism), and a deliberate intrusion by discourses usually marked by their “humane marginality”—literary criticism but also the humanities more generally—into the “real world” of politics and power generally controlled by “experts,” policy technocrats, the media, and politicians.

Said occasionally recruited overtly political writers for his critiques (Georg Lukács, Gramsci), yet the canon on which he drew was predominantly philosophical (Michel Foucault, Giambattista Vico, Friedrich Nietzsche) and literary (Erich Auerbach, Raymond Williams, Richard Poirier). Indeed, a significant part of the power of Said’s “politics” lies in his deployment of literary and philosophical materials to political ends. Put another way: Said was a literary critic who at times used literary criticism to make political arguments, and he regarded the zone of culture as a place to engage in not only intellectual but also ideological struggles. He subscribed wholeheartedly to Foucault’s dictum that “discourse is the power to be seized”—cultural discourse at least as much as political or media discourse.

This attitude makes Jeanne Morefield’s ambitious book all the more peculiar and interesting—and, perhaps, problematic. Morefield argues that Said’s thought has been neglected by professional political theorists, most strikingly when those theorists are interested in empire. She writes about and from within a strong turn to the consideration of empire and imperialism by Anglophone political theorists; in the last 30 years, scholars such as Duncan Bell, Jennifer Pitts, Sankar Muthu, Uday Singh Mehta, Joan Cocks, and Morefield herself have radicalized, revised, and expanded our understanding of European empire’s ideologies and justifications following the Treaty of Vienna. The crux of these critiques has been the striking parallel between the rise and development of liberal political ideas in the wake of the Enlightenment and American and French Revolutions on the one hand, and Europe’s extraordinary accumulation of overseas territories in the 19th century on the other.

Major European political thinkers in the liberal canon—including Montesquieu, Benjamin Constant, Immanuel Kant, Tocqueville, Mill—developed many of our modern ideas of rights, legislation, freedom of speech and worship, deliberative democracy, and the separation of powers at the same time as the polities with which they concerned were embarked on the most ambitious overseas imperial adventures. For her part, Morefield is interested not only in “liberalism” as defined in political philosophy but also in its different usage in international relations (IR) theory. This is the “liberal internationalism” recently dismantled so ruthlessly by John Mearsheimer in his book The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities (2018)—the tendency of Western liberal capitalist democracies to assume that the world needs to be remade in their image; that, since liberal tenets are universal, it is consistent with political liberalism to advocate, agitate, proselytize, and take aggressive action for the extension of those values and rights to other persons, polities, and regimes. For Morefield, this tendency illustrates the fact that, while liberalism may understand itself in universalistic terms and deploy a rhetoric of abstract universal rights and freedoms, it is fundamentally marked by self-referentiality or, simply, Eurocentrism.

But there is another element here. In IR theory, Morefield locates the movement of theoretical discussion out toward the public realm—or, at least, the policy realm. The United States has a formidable archipelago of foreign policy think tanks (each of various political or ideological colors) that create policy with an equal measure of theory and instrumentalism. Morefield’s interest in Said hinges on her frustration with the disjunction between the strong recent reinterpretation of 18th- and 19th-century liberalism and its relation to empire in her subfield, on the one hand, and the silence of those scholars on the contemporary moment, which concedes the field to IR theorists with their activist and instrumentalist concept of liberalism, on the other.

Morefield defends the value of Said’s work for its humanism, its focus on exile, its notions of “worldliness” and “contrapuntal reading,” its critique of intellectuals, and its critique of contemporary American imperialism. Her book includes chapters on exile and After the Last Sky (1986); on theorists Fred Dallmayr, Joan Cocks, and Iris Marion Young; on Culture and Imperialism, Foucault, and Marxism; on Said, humanism, and Michael Ignatieff; and on Hannah Arendt, Michael Walzer, and the Cambridge School. The final chapter offers a critique of liberal internationalism, seeking to bridge the gap between political theory and IR. This is not a comprehensive set of Saidian themes or elements. Already, though, it amounts to an interesting list of problematics.


What interests Morefield most is Said’s “worldliness.” Said was not a systematic thinker and “worldliness” is a loose term (related to Sartre’s “situation”), which Said coined in the 1970s to escape the formalism of New Criticism—then waning in influence—and the French theory that was in the ascendant. For Said, the term refers to the need to historicize texts while also historicizing the reader (the spatial metaphor suggests Said’s exilic sense of a mobile and dislocated geographical criticism, most apparent in Culture and Imperialism). So too does “worldly” refer to Said’s urgent need to make criticism a public practice, not a hermetic, self-referential guild procedure that never touches everyday politics and public debates. Said’s writing partakes of the anti-humanism and Nietzscheanism of his generation, although these elements are always related to history and experience: he offers a model of “exilic subjectivity” for the intellectual that is grounded not only in his admiration for exiled thinkers such as Adorno and Auerbach, but also in their historical experiences. His model of critique is intensely historically and politically self-aware or reflexive—he thinks about the past while maintaining a powerful activist sense of how it informs the present.

Primarily interested in Said as an activist thinker rather than an abstract theorist, Morefield sets up fascinating and rich comparisons. She discusses Iris Marion Young’s attempt to theorize a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict that recognizes the need for justice. She lambasts the “liberal imperialists” of recent times—Michael Ignatieff is a notable example—and uses Said to highlight what such thinkers occlude or ignore in their effusions. In a somewhat unusual move for Said scholarship but a logical one for her concerns, Morefield picks up on Said’s fierce debate with Michael Walzer, in which Said produced a “Canaanite reading” of Walzer’s argument in Exodus and Revolution that the Exodus story is the foundational narrative for all liberation movements. Said’s skewering of Walzer’s liberal Zionism—he points out how the “liberation” of the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage was predicated on the destruction of the Canaanites—squares perfectly with Morefield’s wish to critique and radicalize modern liberal political theory in its relation to worldly political issues today.

Some of Morefield’s readings of Said get him wrong or are marked by odd lacunae. Discussing his “humanism,” she concentrates on Humanism and Democratic Criticism (2004). This is a late and rather weak book, but she sees it as of a piece with the rest of his career—Beginnings (1975) dramatizes Said’s powerful sense of the great humanist philological legacy of Vico, Auerbach, and Leo Spitzer while also taking the measure of the arch anti-humanist Foucault. Morefield exhibits little awareness of the deep roots of Said’s version in European thought, though; Said was certainly not the first writer to try to bring thought into contact with its conditions of possibility. With equal peculiarity, Morefield regards Representations of the Intellectual (1994) as Said’s definitive statement about intellectuals. Yet The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983) is a much earlier and more powerful book on this theme. Morefield seems to think that Said was a pioneer in the study of culture and empire, yet he was anything but alone and he knew it—he always acknowledged predecessors such as Jonah Raskin, Victor Kiernan, and Benita Parry.

More damagingly, Morefield simply takes Said’s selective and skeptical relationship to Marxism at face value—presumably because she shares it. The recent political theoretical work on liberalism and imperialism of which Morefield is herself a notable scholar appears, for all its energy and creativity, to leave no space for the historical-materialist tradition which has been, from Lenin to Harvey, so powerful and valuable in its reading of empire and capital. Accordingly, Morefield seems to accept uncritically Said’s culturalist and underthought theorization of imperialism. She notes that Culture and Imperialism is much less Foucauldian than Orientalism, but she fails to flag the importance of Gramsci and Williams in either book. This is regrettable: the Marxist tradition would certainly strengthen Morefield’s professed wish to rearticulate the historical analysis of liberal thought in the “age of empire” with the critique of empire today and in the public sphere—as it would have strengthened Said’s own analysis.

Unsettling the World is an ambitious and deeply personal work. For Morefield, it clearly represents an unprecedented declaration of commitment. This explains her book’s powerful suggestiveness; it also accounts for a general unevenness in tone and effect (as well as some unfortunate errors, such as confusing Samuel Johnson and Jonathan Swift). Morefield’s critique of her discipline is bracing and attractive, but Said’s lesson is as much attitudinal as methodological. His concept of “contrapuntal reading,” say, is primarily a mode of historicist interpretation that is imbued with an unusually strong sense of its own historical and geographical location. By the time he published Culture and Imperialism, Said was offering a kind of public criticism that was hostile to his discipline’s professional and intellectual codes and fashions. For Morefield to do this with political theory will require more than critiques of Young, Walzer, and the Rawlsians—it will require the creation of an entirely new set of affiliations with ideas and writers outside the academy. From there, her recourse to a Saidian “unsettling” of the world will ring true.

LARB Contributor

Conor McCarthy teaches English literature and intellectual history at Maynooth University, Ireland. He is the author of The Cambridge Introduction to Edward Said (Cambridge University Press, 2010), and editor of The Revolutionary and Anti-imperialist Writings of James Connolly 1893–1916 (Edinburgh University Press, 2016).


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