Writing about Travel Studies, James M. Buzard directed his reader’s attention to the multiple ways in which default assumptions about travel often guide discourse and cripple serious thought. His call for a treatment of travel that is both wider and narrower than the common treatment (cf. Buzard 43f.) seems to stem from strong misgivings as to the acceptability of bad yet commonly accepted definitions. However, as we will see in the course of the present paper, ‘travel’ is not the only concept in need of clarification. The other central concept is ‘theory’.
Edward W. Said’s essay “Traveling Theory” is firm on what theory is and under which constraints it works . Theory, in Said’s reading of philosophical history, cannot be separated from its author and its author cannot escape the circumstances of his or her time. Thus, theory is firmly anchored to a time and place, because its author is. This means that, being a reader of theory in a different set of circumstances, one is prone to misread the theory, as “[n]o reading is neutral or innocent” (Said, WTC , 241), because the reader, too, is bound to his own set of circumstances.
However, later generations of writers can take this theory and put it to use in their own set of circumstances, different as it is from the original set. The theory, as it resurfaces in the works of these second-generation writers, has, in a way, travelled through time and space. As we will see later on, Said keeps silent about the actual traveling. His sole interest is in the point of departure and the point of arrival.
The present paper will provide a critical reading of Said’s essay and the concepts it is based on, but at the same time, it will provide a defense of the essay, an apologia, in a way. It will be shown that the first step in an analysis of traveling theories must be a clarification of the status of theories before the travels can be considered. Subsequently, it will be shown, what, once the meaning of ‘theory’ has been ascertained, this means for the possibilities of travel and traveling theories and “Traveling Theory”.
The major example in Said’s essay for the theory he is proposing, is centered around Lukács’ theory of reification and the way that theory has been taken up by Lucien Goldmann in his magisterial study of Pascal and Racine Le Dieu Caché. We will now briefly sketch, without going into the theoretical details, how Said’s example is structured.
He begins with the writings if the then young and ardent revolutionary Lukács, who, according to Said, wrote an “astonishingly brilliant” (231) analysis of his time. Lukács’ major achievement appears to be an analysis which Said considers “an act of political insurgency” (232). Lucien Goldmann, who took up Lukács’ theory and applied it to an analysis of Jansenist thought and writing has diluted that theory by having textualized the parts of the theory that were directed at the external world. This is not to be called a misreading, as both writers are determined by their historical and social situation.
This must suffice as a summary of Said’s central example. In the next part we will turn to Said’s concept of theory.
“Traveling Theory” is based on the idea that theory, arises from and responds to a historical situation (for the Marxist background, see Schleifstein 39). This claim is buttressed by Said with a lengthy explanation of a theory by Lukacs and the changes which this theory underwent at the hands of subsequent critics. These changes are claimed to be inevitable and they can be counted on to either dull the fervor of the theory, so that it becomes “a dogmatic reduction” (208) or to implode by activating aporias within itself, that were already there. Travel, in other words, is necessarily negative, as “[l]ater versions of the theory cannot replicate its original power” (Said, Reflexions on Exile and Other Essays, 436).
In a recent essay called “Traveling Theory Reconsidered” (cf Said, Reflexions on Exile and Other Essays, 436ff.), Edward Said rethinks his approach to the problem of traveling theories and admits that his analysis was marred by a “common enough bias” (436). To the possibilities of change he adds a way that travel might affect a positive change in the theory, something he claims will happen only if a “traveling theory [becomes] tougher, harder, more recalcitant” (440).
Even though he does not discuss the process of travel, he leaves no doubt as to how that change is effected and what he is focusing on: the mind of the theorist, be it Lukács, Adorno, Fanon or somebody else. Saying ‘mind’ in this case entails talking about their personal, emotional involvement with the situations they write their theory in, more than any rational aspect. Thus, Said spends quite some time investigating Fanon’s development as a writer and reader (cf. Said 446ff.). Except for the quotes Said provides, the theoretical text never makes an appearance. Dismissing formalism out of hand, Said concentrates solely on content. What the theory means is not up to the textual aspect of the theory, but up to the author’s intention, which is shaped in turn by the time and place this author lived in. According to Said, theory is an object crafted by an individual mind and the emphasis of Said’s reading is always on the maker. It is not primarily Lukács’ theory but Lukács’ intentions which are revolutionary and it is primarily Lucien Goldmann’s scholarly intentions which dull the sharp edges of the original theory, not Le Dieu Caché.
If we keep the two elements of our previous explication of ‘theory’ there is a second possibility as to the nature of theory. Until now we distinguished text and a reader willing to read the text with regard to practice but located the actual theory in the reader’s mind. In doing so, we might have fallen prey to the commonsensical idea of needing to allocate a well-defined place and shape to theory.
However, if we are prepared to jettison this figurative concept, if we are wiling to take “the parallax view” (Žižek), a different possibility opens up. Parallax is a concept in use for instance in astronomy to describe “the apparent displacement of an object […] caused by a change in observational position that provides a new line of sight” (Žižek 17).
Transposing this concept on our discussion of theory results in a re-objectification of theory. Theory, in this concept, is external to the reader’s mind, even though the reader’s practical reading is pivotal here, too, since it is the reader’s reading which constitutes him as the observer in the parallax concept. A reader who reads the same text purely as a work of literature does not belong to the class of observers who are crucial to our understanding of theory in this variation . Thus formulated, however, we seem to have lost the element of travel altogether, as we are left with a single, unmoving object.
Then again, the apparent displacement is anything but objective. Žižek claims that “a ‘epistemological’ shift in the subject’s point of view always reflects an ‘ontological’ shift in the object itself” (Žižek 17). This does not refer to ‘real’ changes, because this is not the debate Žižek is leading here . Instead, the statement reflects the impossibility of ascertaining the reality of the object. All we have, in a way, are the observer’s accounts. So, as in the previous case, a comparison of theories will involve a comparison of theorists. Although, this time, it is the theory which moves (with the text remaining a stable force or minor importance behind it), it is impossible to compare the two readings directly, as there “is no rapport between the two levels, no shared space – although they are closely connected (4).
We find in both of our reworkings of what constitutes theory one common element: in both cases the text gets short shrift, as it does in Said’s essay. While the text is important, a close reading will not resolve any of the methodological difficulties of such a comparison. It is the readers who will have to be read and the tentative ideas on a future anthropology which James Clifford puts forward in the first chapter of Routes and the concept of traveling culture(s) offer fascinating tools for this kind of project.
The possibility of positive change, as explained earlier, is not the only new element in “Traveling Theory Reconsidered”. The other major development is the inclusion of a theoretical writer of postcolonial studies such as Fanon. Whereas the first essay charted lines of influence within Western Europe’s academia, Said now turns his attention to fields connected to postcolonial studies, a development anticipated by Clifford’s critique of “Traveling Theory” as too focused on travels within Europe, “within an unmarked ‘Western’ place and history” (Clifford, “Notes on Travel and Theory”, 4).
Once the element of non-western culture enters the discussion, the mapping of travels become less easy, as the mapper “runs the risk of distorting the new object” (Shen 218).There is a difficulty inherent in this kind of discussion, giving rise to “non-linear complexities” (Clifford 8), that Said sidesteps elegantly by not once referring explicitly to culture. However, moving away from the simple revolutionary/bourgeois dichotomy which dominated the earlier essay, and moving towards other cultures and other academic fields, he opens up his own theory to a discussion of culture, which calls for a reformulation of the basic tenet of his essay: “Reconsidering Traveling Theory” is based on the idea that theory, like any other text, arises from and responds to culture.
As James Clifford has shown, culture is not a monolithic entity, nor does it make sense equating it with a location. Cultures travel, too, and the circumstances of the reader/writer of theory, do not only consist of his local situation, the cultures he belongs to must be considered as at least as decisive a force in shaping his subjectivity and consequently his reading, writing and understanding of texts. Arguably all of this takes place under the Überbau of Marxist theory, we did not stray too far from that path, but the circumstances of Said’s theory cannot be simply equated with Marxist terms, thus the inclusion of culture(s) can by all means be called an extension of Said’s circumstances.
Cultures can travel without the members of the culture moving corporally, for instance through receiving visitors or through being subjected to medial influences, such as television or literature (cf. Clifford, Routes, 27f.). On the other hand, cultures can maintain their integrity even while travelling and being integrated into the local culture (cf. 25f.).
As a member of such a culture, our projected reader/writer cannot be regarded simply as a local, or, to use the anthropological expression, as a native, as the culture(s) he belongs to are constantly shifting and changing, travelling, in a multitude of ways. Whereas one could say that Said claimed to be able to reduce his own reader/writer to the village he lives in, to use a trope of Clifford’s, we cannot do such a thing.
On the contrary, we have to recognize that the inbetween of the process of travel is filled by the shifts in cultures. Books may travel to the reader’s culture or the reader may travel to the country where the books are printed, the reader may or may not have read books on a similar topic, he or she may or may not have in-depth knowledge of that particular text’s field of expertise etc. A similar amount of factors can be found at the writer’s end of the process as well. It appears that it is a plentiful wellspring of possibilities that surrounds the process of traveling theories.
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