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A Review of “Culture and Imperialism” by Edward Said Jonathan Worth Salve Regina University
The inability to apprehend the attitudes. it is for them that this book has been written. Said rails against the prevailing tendency to categorize and subdivide fields of study and expertise (e. the arts. its transmission is confounded by overwrought prose. A lasting influence from this age has permeated literature. prejudices. and political and social discourse in the West and in the developing world as well.Culture and Imperialism Whether or not one is in agreement with all of his conclusions there are two very 2 valuable. what he sees as the failure of Western scholars to transcend the “imperial dynamic and above all its separating. The second lesson follows from the first and is essentially a practical recommendation: political and cultural discourse (in particular the news media and especially literature) should therefore be digested critically with an awareness of its cultural and world-historical context. . and angry about. as a cheerleader of sorts for Western pop culture. Rather. cultural discourse throughout the world has been profoundly affected by the long era of European imperialism. “Middle Eastern studies”). and politics do not—indeed cannot—exist in a vacuum. which is evident in the complexity of his language. Said seems to regard this undertaking as the responsibility of academes and literati. His is an important message that should be conveyed and understood by all but. It is one thing for the media. the media. because doing so inhibits the recognition of underlying cultural interdependencies. essentializing. 37). fundamental lessons offered by Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism. Said is very sensitive to. sealed off from external influences. and reactive tendencies” (p. Indeed. unfortunately. and memes that inform a society’s cultural traditions undermines the cross-cultural and political understanding that is so important in today’s increasingly interconnected world. The first is fairly broad in scope: because history. dominating. to fail in this—Said quite reasonably does not expect the corporate media to challenge Western society’s self-image. As an Arab-American and a Palestinian exile.g. culture.
therefore.) Thus the “great canonical texts” of the Western imperial age should be read in the broader context of imperialism: In practical terms. Said wants the West to recognize how its imperial legacy continues to inform its cultural identity and to liberate itself from its perpetual need to dominate and to diminish “others” (nonwhites). 66) The “particular style of life in England” mentioned here. that a colonial sugar plantation is seen as important to the process of maintaining a particular style of life in England [as occurs in Austen’s Mansfield Park]. (p. Reactionaries in the Third World should not equate postcolonial liberation with nationalism because doing so merely continues the imperial experience whereby one exploitative oligarchy is exchanged for another. refers to the ownership of a large English estate being made possible by the colonial enterprise of slave labor on expropriated West Indian land. Liberation forms a central theme of the book: that is to say. should not concern what to read but how to read it. liberation from constraining and outmoded patterns of thought regarding personal and cultural identity. and political associations. Third World .Culture and Imperialism 3 The cultural debate. “contrapuntal reading” as I have called it means reading a text with an understanding of what is involved when an author shows. of course. for instance. cultural. The author calls this “contrapuntal” reading: the interpretation of works of literature not only for their aesthetic merit but also with an awareness of their historical. To be free of the residue of colonialism (which is impossible considering that the very political boundaries of so many former colonies were created by their former overlords). which he calls “structures of attitude and reference” (which phrase appears frequently throughout the book.
Said even dreads the information superhighway itself because he feels it will merely propagate uncritical. Said is at his best in his discussion of the impact of imperialism on Western artistic creativity. particularly with regard to the Middle East. which “plays the same game” with 4 imperialism by reinforcing an artificial demarcation between “us” and “them” and giving rise to “demagogic assertions about a native past. Indeed. supporting roles by Kipling.Culture and Imperialism reactionaries should also resist the nativist impulse. exemplifying the devaluation and marginalization of non-European cultures. the book shows its (and its author’s?) age a little—the Internet also now provides many sources of independent information (and disinformation—it is up to the news consumer to choose discriminatingly).” which he feels contributes little to enlightened debate over the issues. dead Arab . And today’s American society should liberate itself from the exceptionalist prejudices and justificatory propaganda served up by an acquiescent media (of course. narrative or actuality that stands free from world time itself” (p. The media serves as a propagandistic mouthpiece for the government by justifying foreign policy and disseminating a neo-imperial perspective of the world. Said’s recommendation could certainly apply to most any society in that regard). and Camus. 228). such as CNN. Said verges on polemic here. his argument is less convincing in light of the ascendancy of non-U. Conrad. Said reserves some of his harshest criticism for the American “information hegemony. where he supports his qualitative arguments with compelling evidence: the relegation of “native” characters to minimal.S. polemical. Conrad’s African characters are confined to a passive and silent backdrop. Said expresses considerable disdain for and distrust of American television news outlets. which wield so much influence not only in the United States but around the globe. and biased information that will do more harm than good. while Camus’s anonymous. news providers like al-Jazeera and Asian News International.
. ethnic. Said is at his most polemical in the final section concerning American exceptionalism. Said also seems to ignore or. as in his broad-brush treatment of the U. academes. involvement in the Gulf War and his rather ungenerous view of Western academia. anti-imperialists. it is hardly completely separate). at least. but there again he wields a broad brush in his indictments. In Verdi’s Aida we see the Western capacity to synthesize a totally idealized version of ancient Egypt at odds with historical fact and which completely disregards the contemporary Muslim presence. American attitudes are largely skewed against the Muslim world. The Indian characters in Kipling’s Kim. I do agree with him that. Still.g.S. Nor does Kim experience any conflict of loyalties between his Indian mentor and the British authorities because Kipling never considers that objections to British rule in India might exist. there are several soft spots in the underbelly of Said’s methodology that deserve some attention. the First Amendment of the U. particularly after 9/11. so accepting of their British masters. and religious identities.S. Throughout the book he makes some fairly expansive yet unsupported assertions. this seems to be the result of the very human tendency to identify with others who share the same cultural. to downplay the violence committed by Saddam Hussein when he derides the American media’s characterization of Saddam as “the . in general. granted. philanthropists. And yet.Culture and Imperialism 5 serves the practical function of setting the story in motion—a forgotten grain of sand around which the pearl of the plot develops. I do not agree with his assertion that the founders of the United States envisioned a Christian Empire because. in fact. Indeed. are never permitted to question the foreign presence in their land. Constitution (not to mention the Treaty of Tripoli) excludes religion from American politics (though. With the same broad brush he also paints a universalistic portrait of the West as a homogeneous whole while largely disregarding the contribution of contemporary and historical dissenters (e. and abolitionists).
the Middle East. fear of that which is different. mathematics. but the international system is not conducive to altruistic enterprises in its current form. and the Indian Ocean rim. by focusing solely on the impact of the Western imperialist enterprise.) Said’s castigation of the U. Said presents us with a one-sided view of what is really an innate human propensity toward prejudice and chauvinism. Also at issue is Said’s decision to focus solely on Western imperialism. and astronomy.” Moreover. should act more altruistically are a little on the idealistic side. The United States could (and should) pursue more peaceful and equitable ends. therefore.S.S. to name just a few fields of knowledge—perhaps. for its interventionism and support of despotic regimes to suit its own strategic and economic interests and admonishment that the U. and this omission from Said’s book is glaring. particularism. 100) and . etc. (By way of disclaimer I do not think that this is exceptionalism on my part because I am aware that the United States has on a number of occasions pursued a shameful course—e. It is true that Britain and France accumulated vaster colonial realms and that the Ottoman Empire never achieved the level of extractive efficiency of either of these European empires.” Said does not explore in detail the traits common to all of humanity—ethnocentrism.g. He acknowledges that “[all] cultures tend to make representations of foreign cultures the better to master or in some way control them” (p. xenophobia. For all his discussion of the “human community. a more apt title for this book might be “Culture and Western Imperialism. North Africa.” But the fact is that he was indeed a violent man. fear of change. the Vietnam War. There was indeed a considerable transmission from the ancient Muslim world to the West of science. But the Ottomans exerted considerable cultural and religious power over a significant portion of the planet. in so doing he discounts the influence of the Ottoman Empire upon Eastern Europe. the extermination of Native Americans.Culture and Imperialism 6 butcher of Baghdad” and as an Arab “Hitler.
Personal self-interest is reflected in politics. where the self-interest of the nation is analogous to the self-interest of the . Human beings for the most part can empathize with a child suffering before their eyes. But this is about the limit of his psychological exploration. politics should be moral. Politics reflects human nature—it is moral in some ways and not so in others. thanks to their geographic isolation in North America? I do agree with Said that the West mistakenly derived universality from its Classical tradition and that the West has “appropriated” history for its own purposes (self-definition is a necessary consequence of interaction with “others”). and in their customs. What about the underlying motivations behind greed. Indeed. human nature is being discounted and the assumption made that politics is necessarily moral. Is it such a surprise that the West should gravitate towards all things Greco-Roman since. Throughout the book Said takes the stand that the West should have taken a moral “high ground.” that the technologically superior Europeans should have exercised withstraint and not appropriate foreign lands and foreign peoples. but it isn’t always so. this tradition formed such a significant foundation of Western life? And is it such a surprise that so many Americans are geographically illiterate. True enough. just as not all individuals conduct themselves morally. aggression. with regard to the primacy of the legacy of ancient Greece and Rome in Western culture. and chauvinism that propel imperialism? Nor does Said consider the common human tendency to gravitate towards that which holds more meaning or familiarity. they are inferior because we are stronger. after all. but considering the wider picture of human suffering in lands over the horizon is another prospect entirely—more so when these people differ in the color of their skin.Culture and Imperialism 7 that imperialism distinguishes and emphasizes “otherness”: we are more advanced and therefore stronger than they are. in their dress. but again.
and that there is always more than one side to any story. I have taken away from the book a renewed and hardened resolve to read critically. Edward. I might add. misgivings I have felt since growing up the son of American diplomats—whose sole purpose. References Said.” to search for those “structures of attitude and reference. Said has illustrated the necessity of to understanding that everything is interconnected. that the past lives in the present. Every society needs people like Edward Said to poke and prod it towards constructive self-criticism. (1993). New York. NY: Vintage. How and why did the West conduct such an expansive imperial program throughout the globe? Was it because it could—is the answer that simple? Said does not really tell us. Culture and Imperialism.” Whatever the book’s flaws. to read “contrapuntally. These exceptions aside. was of course to promote the American national interest. . reading Culture and Imperialism was for me a revelatory experience that illuminated certain misgivings I have felt about the American cultural project.Culture and Imperialism 8 individual.