Culture and Imperialism Analysis
Culture and Imperialism by Edward Said is a collection of essays on the symbiotic relationship between imperialist policies and the contemporary urban culture of the West.
The recurring thesis of the essays is that British and other European societies are affected by their respective colonial territories overseas and, in turn, British and European culture affects those colonized territories. Said uses the mainstream entertainment culture of the day—primarily English novels and popular literature— as an example of how Western culture expresses its imperialist guilt or ambitions.
For instance, Said cites Robinson Crusoe as a literary work that articulates the European mentality of claiming foreign land as their own and genuinely believing they have the right to own and exploit that non-European land.
In addition, such depictions of heroic and daring Europeans romanticizes the idea of colonization, rather than offering the perspectives of the natives, or colonized peoples, who suffer under the oppression of imperialist tactics.
Despite the fact that many former colonies gained independence by the late 20th century, imperialist tactics such as using Western culture to non-physically colonize foreign lands are still used in the modern age. For example, Hollywood has become one of America's greatest exports, and has shaped how non-Americans view American culture and people.
Culture and Imperialism
“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 apparently apolitical works such as Austen’s novels are said to reflect and sustain the self-justifications of imperial rule.
Said, then, calls for a subversive or “contrapuntal” reading of familiar texts, but he doesn’t stop there. At the same time, he insists, it is necessary to juxtapose these masterpieces from the imperial centers 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.”
Although Said notes that some scholars are “beginning to embark” on the course he has laid out, one would never guess from his book that the approach he champions is currently among the most fashionable in literary studies. That is only one point among many at which his narrative needs to be questioned, but such a critical reading—as opposed to automatic dissent or assent—is just what Said himself advocates.
Sources for Further Study
Commentary. XCVI, July, 1993, p.60.
Foreign Affairs. LXXII, Summer, 1993, p.194.
Journal of Historical Geography. XIX, July, 1993, p.339.
London Review of Books . XV, April 8, 1993,...
(The entire section is 2,725 words.)