Recent—or post-World War One—history in this country during a few periods here and there shows literary academics enjoying greater political prominence than the low influence I've just described. Certainly during the period of dissent occasioned by the Vietnam War in the '60s some literary academics achieved national importance as part of a national resistance to imperialist war. And MLA was forced to accept a relationship between worldly affairs and academic ones, but even then we worked by analogy; that is, since there was an announced revulsion from university complicity in such things as counter-insurgency, "scientific" and political warfare, literary academics tended to make an analogy between themselves and their colleagues in the social and hard sciences. The scientists' guilt was also theirs as teachers of literature. Certainly there were no publicly-known instances of literary people employed to practice counter-insurgency, and if there was a literary adviser to the electronic battlefield his name (or position) still isn't known: so there was contentment with arguments inculpating (or purifying) us by analogy, and there was much silliness since a general guilt could come and go with equal ease. One thing that did not get debated by academic literary people was the responsibility of an intellectual in a time of crisis, particularly his role in making or defining the crisis (I'm thinking of such concrete matters as the connection between the CIA and Encounter, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, etc.). We have made the distinction between the profession of literature and intellectual life much too rigid. It's hard to tell now what the lasting results of the Vietnam period are. Some literature was produced: the work of Kampf, Roszak, Ohmann, and a handful of others. But certainly also there was no contribution to a theoretical literature that treated the relationship between literary criticism and worldly politics, at least no contribution that has made a great impact. We seem now to have gone back to a time of quiescence. I very much doubt that anyone now will think of writing a book like Jonah Raskin's Mythology of Imperialism which, if you do not allow yourself to be sidetracked by its needlessly obtrusive rhetoric, is a very intelligent work. Not that imperialism has disappeared; it's gone away for the academic intellectual who has returned to writing within a fairly circumscribed political range. The contributions to theory in literary study have left out the role of institutions in literature. Even the semioticians have been extremely remiss about this. As for the rest of the avant-garde, literature for it has been a matter of texts, more texts, and still more texts. Most literary critics, particularly those of the avant-garde, think of themselves as technical critics, as technicians, if you like. It doesn't by any means go without saying that being a technical, advanced critic means that you think of yourself as an intellectual in the widest social sense of that word. Far from it. Indeed I think the extent to which—as I said earlier—the critical avant-garde is politically quietistic is a precise dialectical mid-point between, on the one hand, their political marginality and, on the other, their unwillingness to be general intellectuals.
If we have not had a Gramsci or a Lukacs to analyze class consciousness or the intellectuals as a class, we have had (and still do have) Marxist groups within MLA and within the profession. (I am confining myself to organized groups.) I have a great deal of sympathy for what they are trying to do, but I think it is a fundamental misjudgment of reality to base one's political work on an unsituated effort to show that Marxism is principally a reading technique. To say that Marxism cognitively and analytically can produce excellent readings of important nineteenth century novels is not in question: how can one deny it? What I am saying is that the doing of Marxist literary analysis alone cannot constitute the basis of a political program in the great world. And to turn a literary or intellectual project immediately into a political one is to try to do something quite undialectical. But to accept the form of action prescribed in advance by one's professional status—which in the system of things is institutionalized marginality—is to restrict oneself politically and in advance.
I think it would be extremely presumptuous to try to spell out what critics, committed or otherwise, should be doing, so I won't try. But I can talk a little about these matters, in particular the notion of worldliness, as they appear to me, for me. In the first place, I think we must recognize the marginality of our roles and, more important, that for the first time we are facing some dramatic, explicit impositions on us that make us more marginal as a class. The university, in particular its liberal arts division, is shrinking. Worse yet, our graduate students cannot find jobs, they find themselves standing uselessly before a closed door. We find ourselves torn therefore: what we do as professional scholars/teachers/ critics narrows in its focus and its technicality, it is influential amongst students who in turn may not have jobs; what is our response to be?
In the second place the world itself is shrinking. This is a cheerful McLuhanesque truism only if you think of the world as a problem of communications between its parts. But if you reflect that we face economic shortages of the most catastrophic sort, and that the great line separating the world today is between rich and poor, or North and South, or developed and developing nations, all competing for such basics as food and resource materials, the shrinking world appears rather a menacing place. In the U. S. we belong to a scandalously wasteful society, which consumes double and even triple its numerical share of resources. In addition, we are the strong man of the world economy (incidentally the idea of a world economy—as Immanuel Wallerstein has studied it—is an extremely important one), and our sense of things (what we call the economic order) is supported by fantastic economic strength, a network of unimaginably powerful institutions (see Barnet and Muller's Global Reach, or Pierre's Jalee's work, or Harry Magdoff's The Age of Imperialism), and a complex system of forces for imposing ourselves on the world, thereby guaranteeing our economic well-being. If you read what Geoffrey Barraclough has been writing recently you will see exactly what I mean.
In the third place, we are—or pretend we are—universalists in our cultural values. In fact, however, we are ethnocentric to a fault. Everything we say or do as teachers of literature applies principally to the Atlantic cultures, which are understandably privileged for us. Our whole sense of literary and cultural history is based on what the Egyptian sociologist Anwar Abdel Malek has called the hegemonism of possessing minorities. Consider, for example, that between 1815 and 1918 European territorial dominion increased from about 40% to 85% of the world's total surface. Anthropocentrism is "naturally" associated with Europeocentrism. Today territorial control has been transmuted into economic and social control.
In the fourth place, what goes on in the developing, or Southern, or Third or Fourth worlds scarcely occupies attention, or if it does we are unable to make it mesh with what we do as scholars/critics/teachers. I do not believe that we should become Regis Debrays or that the barricades are where we belong. The problem for us is much more dialectical than that, presuming of course that we don't a) turn our backs on the whole world and b) declare war on it. Perhaps the lamentable Daniel Moynihan does speak for the literary academics: I doubt it, but surely he doesn't speak for all of them. Nevertheless, I think we must somehow take in the realities of the U.S.'s position in the world.
— Edward Said, “Interview,” Diacritics (Fall 1976)