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A Defence of Edward Said

A Defence of Edward Said

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This essay attempts to highlight the importance of Said's work by offering an interpretation of his work allied with a strong understanding of his critics. J.B. Kelly's article "Imperial Masquerade" is the focus of this defence, although other criticisms are represented.
This essay attempts to highlight the importance of Said's work by offering an interpretation of his work allied with a strong understanding of his critics. J.B. Kelly's article "Imperial Masquerade" is the focus of this defence, although other criticisms are represented.

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Sep 01, 2012
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10/27/2013

 
I
Edward Said’s magisterial
Culture and Imperialism
is, in a sense,
Orientalism II 
. The1978 publication
Orientalism
portrayed the powerful influence of culture as a shaping forceupon popularly held beliefs and doctrines. Such an influential work it was that academicdebate ranged from the supportive to the hostile. This is usually the mark of a work of excellence for as Oscar Wilde quipped, ‘[d]iversity of opinion about a work of art shows thatthe work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord withhimself’ (Wilde, 17).J.B. Kelly in his article ‘Imperial Masquerade’, attacks Said from the standpoint of historical inaccuracy. Kelly writes, ‘Not being an historian, he [Said] obviously feels himself absolved from any obligation to respect the imperatives of historical scholarship, and free to prosecute the Western world at will’ (Kelly, 48). It is not my intention to investigate historyor to summarise whether such claims are true. We shall leave that to the historians. Rather, asa literary critc, I wish to examine if such a charge can in fact undermine Said’s thesis - that inWestern societies, culture and imperialism work together. Said writes that
 
the centraldifference of the Western tradition in contradistinction to others is that, ‘[a]ll cultures tend tomake representations of foreign culture the better to master or in some ways control them.Yet not all cultures make representations of foreign cultures
and 
in fact master or controlthem’ (
Culture
, 120).It is true that Said predicates his theory on an accurate history so that inconsistenciesin historical details will pose problems for the continuing veracity of his claims. However Ido not think that arguments as to how long the British occupied India (Kelly maintains that itwas
 just 
one hundred years) undermine the fact that the British
did 
in fact occupy India andterrible atrocities took place there under the guise of progress and rationality. (Kelly does not,of course, mention the length of Ireland’s occupation.) After all, Jeremy Bentham’sPanopticon was rarely used in the prisons of the nineteenth century, but through brilliantexposition Michel Foucault utilised this analogy to further augment his acclaimed work ondiscipline and punishment - which was hugely influence on Said. We turn now to an analysisof 
Culture and Imperialism
in order to highlight the coherence of Said’s theory. We shallthen return to Kelly and other criticisms of Said.
1
 
II
Before examining Said in more detail, we should carefully survey his definitions of colonialism and imperialism. In
Culture and Imperialism
he writes, ‘“Imperialism” means the practice, the theory, and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan centre ruling a distinctterritory; “colonialism”, which is almost always a consequence of imperialism, is theimplanting of settlements on distant territory’ (
Culture
, 8). Said postulates that colonialismhas largely ended but that imperialism lingers still, through power structures and attitudes of reference. ‘Though for the most part the colonies have won their independence,’ he writes,‘many of the imperial attitudes underlying colonial conquest continue’ (
Culture
, 17). Inimperialism, decent people believe in the subservience and inferiority of ‘natives’ who will benefit from Westernised lifestyles. This is a belief fostered through culture and a basicintuition with which Kelly does not disagree.Said’s work is primarily concerned with representation, in particular that of the Other.He is also interested in those portrayals which create an illusory sense of superiority.According to him, humans define themselves in relation to tradition or a link with the pastand he notes, ‘I wanted to reinsert or reconsider or refurbish the category of historicalexperience, bring it back to the study of literature and human history’ (Robbins et al, 22).History informs and inhabits the now. ‘How we formulate or represent the past shapes our understanding and views of the present’ (Said,
Culture
, 2). Identity comes in and through the past, but also via the particular cultural past of our predecessors so that who we are is a product of ethnicity. However, culture is nomadic: societies are never linear or singular butinterpenetrate each other. This is not the traditional stereotype of culture, which usuallydifferentiates ‘us’ from ‘them’. This separation has a long history and even goes back to thecradle of Western civilisation: that between the Greeks and the barbarians. We are theinheritors of such language. ‘Partly because of empire,Said explains, ‘all cultures areinvolved in one another; none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogeneous,extraordinarily differentiated, and unmonolithic’ (
Culture
, xxix).In his study, Said has found that the physical geography of empire has changed over time. The Roman Empire, for example, consisted of an unbroken connection. In contrast, theBritish Empire was spread all over the globe. Here it becomes necessary to picture thoseremote parts of the world abstractly. Now culture and literature become important as part of an active imperial imagination, legitimating the terrible crimes of colonialism through
2
 
Western ideals such as advancement and utility.Said’s earlier work 
Orientalism
demonstrated that culture provided us with a way of understanding globalised relations of power. ‘Orientalism depends for its strategy on thisflexible
 positional 
superiority’ (
Orientalism
, 7): someone to do the defining. He believesthere is a structure to the world which can be understood and argues that the ‘Orient’ has been created simply by the act of naming it. The ‘Orient’ is what the West is not theultimate ‘Other.’ This means that all the things which make the West ‘Occident’ are also a setof constructs. The way we talk about the East (and the West) does not correspond with the people who live there. He also considers that through careful scrutiny of Western discourse inrelation to the Orient, we can learn more about the West.
Culture and Imperialism
develops the outline of Said’s earlier book in a more purelyliterary way. One of the techniques he advocates is contrapuntal reading, a method of interpretation in which no particular voice is highlighted univocally. He argues thatawareness of the presence of imperial power behind the artefacts of Western culture obligatesus to read in such a way. Said suggests that this is especially how we should read thenineteenth century novel, inaugurated by
 Robinson Crusoe
which is definitive of the Britishnovel in that it is a story of empire. In reading texts, there is not just the singular story whichresides in the plot’s foreground (or main melody) but also the imperial or colonial encounter restrained to the background (or bass notes). For example, Bertha in
 Jane Eyre
is presented asmad, uncivilised, barbarous and a drunkard. Crucially, she is also a member of the colonisedrace in Creole. In
 Mansfield Park 
the fact that the Bertram’s estate is dependent on theslavery of the colonised in Antigua shows how such violence might be legitimated. Thereader serenely and reverently celebrates the rich estate of the Bertram’s, a tendency still verymuch alive today as shown by the popularity of the film
 Pride and Prejudice
. The nineteenthcentury novel implicitly argues that progress is made at the expense of ‘barbarians’. Suchwriters include even Bronte and Austen, who are usually seen as astute writers of moraldilemmas. Said is not claiming that Austen is, as Kelly notes, ‘indifferent to the condition of the subject peoples’ (Kelly, 49), rather that the colonial story is a narrative she is not willingto encounter.The focus of 
Culture and 
 
 Imperialism
is on resistance and opposition while readingcontrapuntally. In writing about resistance, Said employs a similar method to that of Foucault. The French theorist claimed that, ‘in order to understand what power relations are
3

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