Culture and Imperialism (Magill Book Reviews)
“What to read and what to do with that reading, that is the full form of the question.” Thus with enviable concision Edward Said defines the central issues that no one teaching or studying literature today can escape. There is no consensus to fall back on, and indeed much of the interest of Said’s book—for readers outside as well as inside the academic world—lies in the potential of such disagreement to clarify fundamental values.
In one respect, Said’s answer to the question of what to read and what to do with that reading is deeply conservative. He singles out for attention works such as Jane Austen’s MANSFIELD PARK and Joseph Conrad’s HEART OF DARKNESS because, he says, “first of all I find them estimable and admirable works of art and learning, in which I and other readers take pleasure and from which we derive profit.” So far Said’s rationale is quite traditional. His next move, however, is not. In reading these canonical works of the modern Western tradition, Said argues, we must place them in their historical context. For Said, that context is imperialism: “the practice, the theory, and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan center ruling a distant territory.” In imperial powers such as Great Britain and France in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (and the United States today), Said contends, no less than in the territories they dominated, the reality of empire pervaded the entire culture. Thus even...
(The entire section is 465 words.)
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Culture and Imperialism (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
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...
(The entire section is 2052 words.)