Analysis

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 208

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,...

(The entire section contains 2725 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your subscription to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Start your Subscription

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 465

“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, p. 11.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 28, 1993, p.3.

The Nation. CCLVI, March 22, 1993, p.383.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, February 28, 1993, p. 11.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, December 28, 1992, p.51.

The Times Literary Supplement. February 19, 1993, p.3.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, February 28, 1993, p.1.

Culture and Imperialism

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2052

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 art in the terms outlined by Said, they are far from dominating critical discourse.

Even more baffling is Said’s failure to acknowledge the extent to which the very approach he advocates has become one of the most fashionable—perhaps the most fashionable—in contemporary criticism. Again and again he insists that critics have ignored the connection between culture and empire. While he notes that “a new group of often younger scholars and critics—here, in the Third World, in Europe—are beginning to embark” on the course he proposes in Culture and Imperialism (he adds that “the efforts so far made are only slightly more than rudimentary”), and while he generously acknowledges the work of several former students in his introduction, the reader would never guess from Said’s account that academic publishers’ lists are positively crowded with titles such as Rob Nixon’s London Calling: V S. Naipaul, Postcolonial Mandarin (Oxford University Press, 1991; Nixon is one of the former students whom Said acknowledges), Zohrah T. Sullivan’s Narratives of Empire: The Fictions of Rudyard Kipling (Cambridge University Press, 1993), Nigel Leask’s British Romantic Writers and The East: Anxieties of Empire (Cambridge University Press, 1993), and Annie E. Coombes’s Reinventing Africa: Museums, Material Culture, and Popular Imagination in Late Victorian and Edwardian England (Yale University Press, 1994). It won’t do to object that these are all very recent titles; this highly selective list is representative of a scholarly outpouring dating to the late 1980’s. Aggressively marketed by publishers under such headings as “postcolonial studies” and “cultural studies,” books in this vein are ubiquitous in the 1990’s, and a look at the leading scholarly journals will reveal the same pattern.

The discrepancy between actual critical practice and Said’s description of it really is striking. Thus, for example, Said writes:

there is no way that I know of apprehending the world from within American culture (with a whole history of exterminism and incorporation behind it) without also apprehending the imperial contest itself. This, I would say, is a cultural fact of extraordinary political as well as interpretative importance, yet it has not been recognized as such in cultural and literary theory.

But the perspective that Said outlines here is right in the mainstream of “cultural and literary theory” today; see for example the volumes published in Duke University Press’s New Americanists series, under the general editorship of Donald E. Pease, such as Cultures of United States Imperialism (1994) and National Identities and Post-Americanist Narratives (1994).

In itself the fact that “postcolonial theory” has been adopted and applied by many academics says nothing about its validity. On one hand, the theory’s popularity could be a tribute to its great explanatory power. On the other hand, there is always reason for skepticism when a theory is taken up whole instead of undergoing sustained critical examination. Suddenly a great many critics are using the same language: “The proliferation of oriental settings in British Romantic literature was not fortuitous, but linked in important ways with Britain’s emergence as a global imperial power.” Key terms recur with dizzying frequency: “representations,” “metropolitan center,” “construction of national identity.” A criticism that specializes in ideological vigilance rarely turns its suspicions on itself.

This leads to the most problematic aspect of Culture and Imperialism. Throughout the book, Said refers to what he calls “contrapuntal reading” or “contrapuntal analysis.” Reading contrapuntally means “extending our reading of texts to include what was once forcibly excluded—in L’Etranger, for example, the whole previous history of France’s colonialism and its destruction of the Algerian state, and the later emergence of an independent Algeria (which Camus opposed).” Given this emphasis (“contrapuntal analysis” even has its own entry in the index, with seventeen page references), it is surprising that Said never attempts to step outside his own argument to imagine how a critic might read the key assumptions and inferences of Culture and Imperialism contrapuntally.

Consider one of Said’s central themes: the way in which the Western imperial powers, “permeated with ideas about unequal races and cultures,” were utterly complacent in their sense of superiority. Said returns to this fact again and again, as if it were remarkable, in need of elaborate analysis. He says that we must “comprehend how the great European realistic novel accomplished one of its principal purposes—almost unnoticeably sustaining the society’s consent in overseas expansion”—as if, without the prop of the novel, those once-complacent imperialists might suddenly begin to question what they were doing.

In fact, however, as even a cursory study of history or anthropology will confirm, “ideas about unequal races and cultures” are not distinctive to modern Western societies. Said knows this, of course, and must acknowledge it, but he does so in a most peculiar way:

All cultures tend to make representations of foreign cultures the better to master or in some way control them. Yet not all cultures make representations of foreign cultures and in fact master or control them. This is the distinction, I believe, of modern Western cultures.

One does not know where to begin to refute this, so remote is it from historical reality. Were the Arab rulers of Spain not mastering or controlling a foreign culture? Were the Chinese who conquered the indigenous peoples of Southeast Asia not mastering or controlling foreign cultures?

In ancient China, Frank Dikotter writes (The Discourse of Race in Modern China, 1992),

The border between man and animal was blurred. “The Rong are birds and beasts.” This was not simply a derogatory description: it was part of a mentality that integrated the concept of civilization with the idea of humanity, picturing the alien groups living outside the pale of Chinese society as distant savages hovering on the edge of bestiality. The names of the outgroups were written in characters with an animal radical, a habit that persisted until the 1930’s.…

How does the Chinese attitude toward non-Chinese differ fundamentally from the European attitude toward non-Europeans? If it is true that similarly ethnocentric attitudes have characterized virtually all peoples, why is it remarkable that these attitudes were characteristic of Great Britain and France in their colonial heyday, and too often of the United States? Is it not more remarkable that today there is also a strong public critique of ethnocentrism, especially in the United States?

Said’s argument depends on the premise that Western imperialism is unique—a premise that he hedges now and then, only to reassert it with renewed force. Once that assumption is questioned, the notion of a special link between culture and empire is thrown into doubt as well. Take for example Said’s proposed reading of Camus’ The Stranger (1942), which should include “the whole previous history of French colonialism and its destruction of the Algerian state.” Why stop there? Why not extend the reading to an earlier epoch of imperialist advance, when Islamic armies from Arabia conquered North Africa, the homeland of St. Augustine, and effaced the Christian culture there so thoroughly that the average Bible-reading American has no idea that it was one of the flourishing centers of the early church? That would indeed be a contrapuntal reading, a “comparative literature of imperialism,” but it is doubtful how much it would enrich our understanding of Camus.

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, p. 11.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 28, 1993, p.3.

The Nation. CCLVI, March 22, 1993, p.383.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, February 28, 1993, p. 11.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, December 28, 1992, p.51.

The Times Literary Supplement. February 19, 1993, p.3.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, February 28, 1993, p.1.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Culture and Imperialism Study Guide

Subscribe Now
Previous

Summary

Next

Themes