Exile, Instability, and the Problem of Anti-Foundationalism

Analysis of “States” by Edward Said written for my junior year AP English class:

In his essay “States”, Edward Said argues that the current state of Palestinians is one of exile. His evidence, through photographs, historical context, and personal memoirs, sheds new light on the suffering of Palestinians in the past and present. Throughout, Said repeatedly insists on the instability, uncertainty, and fragmented nature of the Palestinian state without any proposed solution of how one could go about piecing it back together. In fact, Said resists the idea that any certainty or clarity can be found, choosing an anti-foundationalist approach of experiencing and describing the Palestinian situation. As a result, “States” serves as an example of the problem with anti-foundationalism and why it is an unproductive approach that gets nowhere beyond discussing the uncertainty of the situation as opposed to working towards progress and helping to better the lives of Palestinians. 

Said argues for the fragmented and unstable condition of the Palestinians through very compelling personal memoirs. Whether we’ve heard it on the news or read about it online, most people have an idea about the enduring conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. However, most do not understand the extent of the Palestinian crisis and exile that Said describes or the impact it has on the individuals directly affected. Said, being a Palestinian himself, presents a unique and generally unacknowledged (at least in the West) perspective on this situation. First, he establishes that, “the stability of geography and the continuity of land have completely disappeared from [his] life and the life of all Palestinians” (548). Referring to the establishment of the Israeli state and territorial expansion in 1948 that effectively took control of over four million acres of Palestinian land within the last fifty years, Said argues that Palestinians have lost their homes and physical claim to land they once referred to as Palestine and are now without any connection to their land or the past (IMEU). Even more importantly, because of this, the Palestinian people have lost their identity. Said explains, “Identity – who we are, where we come from, what we are – is difficult to maintain in exile” (546).  The Palestinian identity is either constantly denied, challenged, or associated with being a refugee or terrorist. On top of all of this, the Palestinian history is forbidden in regions controlled by Israeli military. Palestinian narratives are rare, and many stories have been lost. Coupled with the powerfully compelling images of Palestinian refugees that capture what is still salvageable of a normal life for them, Said brings together a strong emotional appeal for illustrating the fragmented, desolate, and exiled state of the Palestinian people.  

After detailing the heartbreaking stories of difficult challenges that Palestinians and those living in Palestine continue to face, it would follow that the logical next step is to examine ways in which such suffering can be relieved, but Said never grants us this. Most readers who belong to a certain nation don’t realize that they take their identity for granted. As Said brings us to this realization and contrasts our comfortable lives to that of Palestinians, this raises the question of how we can promote awareness of these hardships with the intent of showing compassion towards Palestinians and gathering greater efforts to work towards helping them out of this inhospitable condition of exile. However, nowhere in the essay does Said provide a clear proposed solution to resolve the Palestinian crisis at hand. Instead, he presents contradictory perspectives that lack clarity. One of the first potential proposed solutions comes through Said’s retelling of a personal anecdote of how his father “spent his life trying to escape these objects, “Jerusalem” chief among them…” and how “he hated the place; for him, he often said, it meant death” (544, 545). Said sets up his father’s experience as strong anecdotal evidence to argue for the problem of holding on to physical objects that are reminders of how Palestine used to be and prevents Palestinians from being able to move on. Said explains, “sometimes these objects, heavy with memory… seem to me like encumbrances… we do not notice the bitterness, but it continues to grow nonetheless. In the end, the past owns us” (544). Palestinians live with a burden by remembering a past that they are unable to retrieve, hindering them from living in the present. As a result, one might reasonably conclude that Said is proposing a solution to overcome this fragmentation of state by not remembering the past so vividly. However, Said never follows through with or returns to this claim. On the contrary, later on in the essay, he contradicts this idea by writing, “Slowly our lives, like Palestine itself – dissolve into something else… The further we get from the Palestine of our past, the more precarious our status, the more disrupted our being.” Here, he argues that Palestine of the past should not be forgotten because if it is then all Palestinians will slip away from existence, which is exactly the opposite of healing their state, despite saying earlier that these past memories are encumbrances. The contradictory nature of Said’s argument demonstrates that he is unable to arrive at a solid resolution of a way in which Palestinians and outsiders should go about addressing the Palestinian crisis. This is indicative of Said’s larger unproductive anti-foundationalist perspective and how it discourages any and all certainty. 

Edward Said’s “States” displays the significant flaws and issues with taking an anti-foundationalist stand on topics and matters of importance that require decisions to be made in order to progress forward and deliver the change needed. Instead of encouraging readers towards finding a way in which to help Palestinians given that he has raised awareness of their exiled state throughout his essay, Said chooses an anti-foundationalist approach not to do so. Anti-foundationalism claims that, as there are no certain premises, you can never build on a sure foundation. All there exists is speculation without any possibility of meaningful or productive beliefs. Said is consistent with this perspective as he continually brings up the issue of instability, fragmentation and “how rich our mutability…how unstable our place – and all because of the missing foundation of our existence, the lost ground of our origin,” but doesn’t offer any proposed plan of how readers or Palestinians themselves can arrive at a more stable state (553). He reveals this most clearly when he writes, “Our friends and enemies whose dry rhetorical form is the query “When are you Palestinians going to accept a solution?” – the implication being that if we don’t, we’ll disappear. This, then, is our midnight hour” (570). Said argues for the fragmentation and lack of certainty in the state of Palestinians while resisting any attempt to find a solution by never giving his readers a clear sense of the purpose of his essay or a call to action because he claims that no solutions exist that they would ever accept. Furthermore, he unreasonably turns the blame back on those who ask for pressuring Palestinians and threatening their impending nonexistence without realizing the truth behind this idea, one that he has reinforced through his essay. Said goes as far as to accuse readers and interpreters of trying to find meaning in Palestinian writing, to try and piece together the broken fragments and untold stories from Palestinian perspectives. He argues that they are misreading if they try to find a more narrative thread in his work and the work of other Palestinians because “It is form that should be looked at… Our character mode is not a narrative, but rather broken narratives, fragmentary compositions,… in which the narrative voice keeps stumbling over itself and its limitations” (565). Indeed, the Palestinian narrative can be seen as a broken one, but readers should continue to question what can be done about it, changed, or improved. Consciously or unconsciously, a result of the Palestinian state of exile or not, Said is choosing an anti-foundationalist mode for experiencing and describing the Palestinian situation, one that lacks purpose and resists the idea that you can find clarity and certainty.  

In contrast to Edward Said’s unproductive anti-foundationalist approach that simply ends with emphasizing the broken narrative of Palestinians, Jane Tompkins demonstrates that we must avoid such an anti-foundationalist mindset and instead attempt to piece together broken parts of the narrative, whether it is that of Native Americans or Palestinians. Focus should also be directed at addressing what changes can be made in the present and how problems can be solved, not aimlessly complaining about the fragmented nature of the narrative from which nothing can be learned or gained. “States” supports Tompkins’ argument that anti-foundationalism does not get you anywhere as she argues and demonstrates throughout her own essay. Perhaps a more productive way in which Said could have directed his essay would be to additionally advocate for a sense of nationality without the political complexities of the two-state solution. Another possible Palestinian response to the problem of exile could be to require Israel to recognize the suffering of Palestinians and allow refugees to exercise their right to return home or receive compensation for lost house and property for those that cannot (PIJ). In the end, there is no simple solution to help the five million Palestinian refugees in need and millions of other Palestinians affected, but in order for us to have hope of there ever being a resolution in the near future, we must avoid the anti-foundationalist idea of raising awareness to the state of crisis without acting upon or doing anything about it (UNRWA). 

Said, Edward. “States.” Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers. 9th ed., edited by David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011, pp. 537-575 

Khalidi, Rashid “Palestine-Israel Journal: The Palestinian Refugee Problem: A Possible  

Solution.” N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Sept. 2016. 

UNRWA. “Palestine Refugees | UNRWA.” UNRWA. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Sept. 2016. 

Imeu. “IMEU Institute for Middle East Understanding.” Quick Facts: Shimon Peres. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Sept. 2016.