U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Victim Standpoint Critique

In past weeks, we have begun to sketch out a project that takes seriously the emergence of Theory in the United States since the 1970s as a political project: an Epistemic Left. Virtually every aspect of this argument remains to be fleshed out and tested. Thus far, we have made the first steps in that direction by looking at the flagship journal of the American Epistemic Left, Social Text. 

Among the most trenchant critics of Social Text, at the time of its founding, was Edward W. Said. Reading the Social Text Prospectus in late 1977, Said found himself alarmed and disappointed by the absence of any sustained engagement with the politics of imperialism and anti-imperialism. Would Social Text–much like the early poststructuralist journals diacritics and boundary 2––serve as yet another clubhouse for “The Putative Left?”

Said wrote Mark Poster, a Social Text editorial board member and professor at Theory hub University of California, Irvine, in December of 1977:

But I must mention to you that it strikes me as no mean rhetorical achievment, to announce a Marxist magazine, devote several thousand words of every conceivable theory in the world, and not once mention what is the single most important fact about the modern world, namely, imperialism.

To suggest that a contemporary Marxist analysis be done exclusively on the level of Chomskian linguistics, or Derridean deconstruction, and leave out not only the concept but the very name of imperialism is no mean achievement for contemporary Marxism. This is but one of the things that disturbs me about literary Marxists in this country, and I very much look forward to the opportunity to be with you and others at SUNY Binghamton to talk about “The Changing Left” and to discuss the question as to whether it is left or something else, to wit, left in theory only.

I hope you understand the almost desperate animus behind my remarks, as also I try to understand the political, not to say intellectual trajectory to be traced out by Social Text. I will, in short, confess myself to be profoundly depressed about this matter…

(It is not clear if a response from Poster survives).

All the same, two years later, Said would published an essay in the inaugural issue of Social Text: “Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims.”

In the coming weeks, I will return to Said’s brilliant and moving essay.

Short on time, here, I wish to begin with a brief meditation upon Said’s title and theme, organized around a speculative premise: that “from the Standpoint of (X’s) victims” is the organizing principle of much that is valuable in Epistemic Left critique; or, put another way, that openness to “from the Standpoint of (X’s) victims”-oriented analysis is what separates the Epistemic Left from its Putative double.

What Said insists upon is that Zionism must be interpreted from the standpoint of the victims of Zionism––the Palestinians. And once that shift in consciousness is set in motion, huge swaths of conventional wisdom are rendered inert. This is an epistemic move: a way of working at the seams of power and knowledge. It is not a literary strategy, nor a matter of evening out representation. It is a means of forcing an opening to a new perspective. Choosing apposite quotes from Walter Benjamin and Antonio Gramsci as epigraphs, Said insists: the imperative to read a phenomenon from the standpoint of its victims ought to guide all of critical theory. How could a viable critical theory––or, at least, any critical theory that sought to honour the “tradition of the oppressed”––proceed otherwise?

Applied broadly, it is fascinating to contemplate just how much of left writing, post-World War II, can be re-organized as “from the Standpoint of (X’s) victims” Theory. What is E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, for example, if not a sustained argument for the existence of victims of the transition to capitalism in England, and for a historiography capable of registering that victimization as something other than the inevitable cost of progress toward the greater good. Surprisingly, Michel Foucault can also be read in precisely this way. What are the accounts of normalization in Madness and CivilizationThe Birth of the Clinic, and Discipline and Punish but calls for recognition of the violence done to the victims of modernity?

Similarly, Critical Race Theory––which has as one important point of origin W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction, a crucial example of historical revisionism that proceeds  “from the Standpoint of (X’s) victims”––with (X) signifying both slavery and the federal abandonment of Reconstruction––has long operated as a laboratory of dialecticization and deconstruction, tearing down ostensibly neutral forms of knowledge-creation with the simple demand for inclusion of the subaltern point of view. We think, in particular, of the Black Feminist work on the history of property law––Cheryl Harris’s “Whiteness as Property” and Patricia J. Williams’s Alchemy of Race and Rights, for example––which constitute some of the most politically efficacious theorization of “from the Standpoint of (X’s) victims” produced since the 1970s.

Likewise, we might understand the enduring appeal of a text like Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch if we recall the power of its “from the Standpoint of (X’s) victims” analytic framework: the way it makes available its (X)––primitive accumulation––as an object to be understood according to its own dynamics and as an engine of suffering and brutalization.

Dozens of other examples spring to mind, but I hope that, perhaps, readers will weigh in with some of these in the comments section.

Before we conclude, however, we should think at least a little bit about the perils of even forming the word “victim” in our mouths. We must recognize the enormous harm that has done both by and to the notion of “victim” in recent decades. Victim’s Rights discourse and “Victim impact statements” propel harsh sentencing and fuel punitive carceralization. The imaginative framework to which they attest gives rise to menaces to democracy and common decency like Nancy Grace. Conservatives have so perfected the art of assailing the “victim mentality” and those who would play the “victim card”––and so refined idioms of grievance that paint perpetrators of violence and exclusion as sacrificial lambs––that any invocation of victimization in the Saidian sense must now do battle with a thick fog of resentful resistance in which words no longer mean anything. Militaristic human rights professionals have become so skilled in artfully in gathering together “victims” in the service of calls for intervention that many of us no longer know how to process the image of a person in pain without reflexively demanding the bombing of this or that city.

This is all true, and perhaps it means that “from the Standpoint of (X’s) victims” is no longer a viable critical strategy (I would disagree with this evaluation, however). But we are working here as historians, first, and, thus, the accretion of problems around the figure of the victim since the 1970s would not necessarily prevent us from recognizing the power of the Saidian intervention in the period prior to the rerouting of victim talk into the switchboard of the politics of revenge. That is the most modest version of the argument that we might preserve. A more muscular survival, on the other hand––the one that I would want to identify with––would demand a persistent identification with “from the Standpoint of (X’s) victims” critique, a refusal to let those who would actively erase those victims off the hook, to demand that, at very least, that such erasure be acknowledged for what it is, with whatever consequences.

Works Cited

Edward W. Said, “Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims.” Social Text, No. 1 (Winter, 1979), pp. 7-58.

Edward Said correspondence to Mark Poster, December 21, 1977. Edward Said Papers, Columbia University. Box 30, Series 1, Subseries 1 folder 11. I am grateful to Esmat Elhalaby for his generous help (archival and otherwise) sorting out Said’s complicated relationship to Social Text. All errors and stupidities are, of course, mine.