Edward Said’s ambitious new book reconsiders a historical experience the nature of which, on a factual level, is not subject to debate. In the course of the nineteenth century, the European powers—preeminently Great Britain—gained control of an enormous proportion of the earth’s surface. By 1914, Said writes, “Europe held a grand total of roughly 85 percent of the earth as colonies, protectorates, dependencies, dominions, and commonwealths.” If that figure seems high (Said refers us to Harry Magdoff’s Imperialism: From the Colonial Age to the Present, 1978), no one will question the general scope of European colonialism. By the same token, while there is more room for debate about the nature of American imperialism, the policies of the United States in the Philippines, in Central America, and in many other regions have undeniably revealed the arrogance of power that characterized European colonialism.
This record of Western imperialism (still a virulently potent presence, many would argue) is familiar enough, the subject of exhaustive historical investigation. Said’s central claim, however; is that even while acknowledging the brutal realities of empire as earlier generations could not, we have failed to grasp the impact of imperialism not only on the colonized but also on the colonizers.
Said regards the relationship between imperial powers—his focus is on Great Britain, France, and the United States—and the distant lands they dominated or continue to dominate as “constitutively significant to the culture of the modern West.” By repeated emphasis on what he calls “the all-pervasive, unavoidable imperial setting,” Said asserts that the imperial relationship—with its oppositions between superior and inferior, civilized and primitive, white and colored, domestic and exotic, its perverse assurance that certain peoples were destined to be ruled by others—was absolutely fundamental: “No area of experience was spared the unrelenting application of these hierarchies.” While he explicitly disavows a crude determinism, a la Marxism-Leninism, he is particularly interested in exploring the intricate cultural manifestations of imperialism, not only in unashamedly racist and jingoistic pronouncements such as one finds in the writings of Thomas Carlyle but also in oblique form in such unlikely sources as the novels of Jane Austen. At the same time, Said wants to read Carlyle and Austen and Rudyard Kipling and Joseph Conrad side by side with “the enormously exciting, varied post-colonial literature produced in resistance to the imperialist expansion of Europe and the United States in the past two centuries. To read Austen without also reading [Frantz] Fanon and [Amilcar] Cabral—and so on and on—is to disaffiliate modern culture from its engagements and attachments.”
That is the thrust of Culture and Imperialism, but such a summary hardly suggests the achievements or the failures of this complex, frequently maddening book. A Palestinian American born in Jerusalem, educated at Cairo’s elite Victoria College and at Harvard University, Said is steeped in English literature and the Western cultural tradition (he has written widely on music in addition to the literary and polemical pieces for which he is best known), yet he also shares the intense anger that animates many writers from the Third World. In Culture and Imperialism he seeks to define a stance that is true both to his experience of literature and of art more generally and to his enforced awareness of imperialism. Rather than being anomalous, he suggests, his in-betweenness is exemplary: “No one today is purely one thing. Labels like Indian, or woman, or Muslim, or American are not more than starting-points, which if followed into actual experience for only a moment are quickly left behind.”
That stance offers a welcome contrast to the increasingly strident voices of identity politics (whose targets have included Said himself). Much of Said’s argument, however, does not so readily command assent. Most obviously questionable is the way in which he presents his project in relation to other work being done in literary studies.
A reader who had to depend on Culture and Imperialism as a guide to the current critical scene would be grossly misinformed. First, in insisting on the connection between culture and empire, Said repeatediy invokes an opposing view, one that he claims is dominant in the humanities, according to which works of art are seen as inhabiting “an isolated cultural sphere, believed to be freely and unconditionally available to weightless theoretical speculation.” This opposing view insists on the autonomy of art, cut off entirely from history. To anyone who is familiar with contemporary criticism (and especially criticism devoted to the novel, the form to which Said’s attention is largely restricted), this characterization will be simply baffling. While there are critics (and novelists) who affirm the autonomy of...