Culture and Imperialism

by Edward W. Said

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said looks at works of literature through the lens of empire. Examining canonical works of European literature, Said sheds new light by placing them in the context of the imperial domination that held sway in the 17th–20th centuries. Everything that shaped the attitudes of the dominating metropolitan center, including theories, practices, and attitudes, may be reflected in writings about distant territories. Along with more obviously imperialistically-oriented works, such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Said places works set in the metropole, such as Jane Austen’s novels. In turn, he juxtaposes their interpretations to more recent postcolonial literary works.

One of Said’s themes is the omnipresence of imperialism, especially during the 18th and 19th centuries, as its hegemonic force extended through the centers of power as well as the colonies themselves. Because middle- and upper-class Europeans reaped the fruits of imperialism, they were entangled in its web even when not overly complicit.

Closely related is the theme of racism, as development and maintenance of racial as well as class hierarchies characterized imperial rule. The idea of racial superiority and accompanying responsibility to “enlighten” nonwhite, nonwestern peoples was one to which Said contributed significantly with his earlier work, Orientalism. Here, he extends the attention to race with additional consideration of Africa and the Americas.

An underlying theme that his focus on empire highlights is the political nature of all culture and the concomitant impossibility of producing works that are apolitical. To imagine that writers exist free of political considerations and that works of art can be apprehended on aesthetic grounds alone seems to Said not just naïve but dangerous, as it obscures the political-economic realities of cultural production.

As Said considers the theme of liberation and resistance, he addresses the weight of imperial burdens on the formerly-colonized who struggle to break free. Because the imperial powers imposed their language and education along with political and economic control, the literature of resistance that undergirds postcolonial cultural production inevitably draws upon those impositions. Writing in indigenous languages is one important step away but the separation can never be complete because of the character of intellectual dialogue.

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