Having set himself this vast task, which would cover virtually all Western history for the past three centuries, Professor Said must cut it back to manageable size: he will deal with parts of the British and French empires only, and culture will be represented by a small number of novels and one opera. Thereby the proposed Herculean labors come down to looking for references to the colonies in some works of fiction.
That occupies only the first two of four chapters. He then turns to the question of how decolonization is reflected in the culture of newly independent nations. In turn, this large subject is cut down to "one fairly discrete aspect of this powerful impingement"--that is, the work of intellectuals from the colonial or peripheral regions who wrote in an "imperial language" and who reflected on western culture. So we pass from Jane Austen's mentions of
So what we have here is a book on literature plus two or three pamphlets that contain much ranting, all barely held together in a bad case of intellectual sprawl. For the casual reader, there is plenty of interesting erudition and some sensitive literary analysis too much heated political diatribe. For students--supposing this book attains the trendy academic status of Said's Orientalism--there is only confusion, engendered by shifting definitions of such key words as "imperialism" and by Said's propensity to extravagant generalization, of this sort: "Without empire, I would go so far as saying, there is no European novel..." These vast generalizations (which alternate with angry attacks on other people's unwarranted "totalizations") are followed by passages of hedging and qualification, where Said affects to be moderate and cautious, but he soon resumes his extreme claims as though he had conceded nothing. One gets the impression that he wants to occupy all possible positions on a subject, always readying himself to deal with criticism by retorting, "Oh, but I say that too!"
Perhaps the basic difficulty and source of confusion is that "and" in his title. The reality is that the spread of British people and their civilization to the American colonies, to
There is a perfectly logical way of fudging this sort of problem: give each term so narrow a definition that you do get two distinct things which might then interact. For instance, you decree that the economy is "money-grubbing" and ideology is "highfalutin' ideas." You then have a genuine question: how do high-falutin' ideas disguise or glorify money-grubbing. The trouble is, conceived so narrowly, the problem loses much of its interest and descends to petty "unmasking." This is the method Said adopts in the first part of his book. Imperialism is given the narrow definition of stealing territory: "The actual geographical possession of land is what empire in the final analysis is all about." Culture is given an even narrower definition: "a realm of unchanging intellectual monuments, free from worldly affiliations." So now the supposed problem is how the activity of stealing land from natives shows up in, is romanticized or excused in, apparently apolitical works of art. It should be clear in advance that, first, such a narrow matter could be described as "imperialism and culture" only in a fit of grandiloquence; second, it will dredge up a list of allusions, hints, and mere mentions so long as it deals with works of art and not political tracts; third, it will culminate in So What?
The narrow view of imperialism as naked territorial rapacity cannot, of course, be sustained for long. When Said wants to denounce
SAID DESCRIBES his aim thus: "my subject [is] how culture participates in imperialism yet is somehow excused for its role." Or again: "One of my reasons for writing this book is to show how far the quest for, concern about, and consciousness of overseas dominion extended not just in Conrad but in figures we practically never think of in that connection like Thackeray and Austen and how enriching and important for the critic is attention to this material..." Well, what does he deliver?
He takes Jane Austen's
Thackeray is promised as another example, in the passage I have quoted. He goes on being promised and appearing in lists of imperial writers, but nothing ever comes of it but this: one character in Vanity Fair is described as a nabob and there are sundry other "mentions" (Said's word) of India in the novel. Said concludes, "All through Vanity Fair there are allusions to India but none is anything more than incidental ... Yet Thackeray and, I would argue, all the major English novelists of the mid-nineteenth century, accepted a globalized world-view and indeed could not (in most cases did not) ignore the vast overseas of British power."
The rest of his evidence for this large conclusion is equally slender:
In one of those accesses of mock moderation, Said adds, "I am not trying to say that the novel--or the culture in the broad sense--|caused' imperialism, but that the novel, as a cultural artifact of bourgeois society, and imperialism are unthinkable without each other ... imperialism and the novel fortified each other to such a degree that it is impossible, I would argue, to read one without in some way dealing with the other." No such "moderate" conclusion has been established, but Said is soon back to claiming that "we can see it [the novel] as participating in
Said then tries his hand at opera, choosing the easy target of Verdi's Aida. The
But Said cannot rest there. He soars aloft: "The cultural machinery [of spectacles like Aida] ... has had an aesthetic as well as informative effect on European audiences ... such distancing and aestheticizing cultural practices ... split and then anaesthetize the metropolitan consciousness. In 1865 the British governor of
At this point the bemused reader is apt to rub his eyes and run his finger along the text, for how did we get, literally from one page to the next, from Aida in Cairo in 1871, to a Jamaican massacre in 1865, to Vietnam and then to the Gulf War? We did it because Said reasons that Western art about an Oriental subject anaesthetizes Western consciousness to the point where at least some people are brought to excuse massacres of natives and foreign wars. And that is one way culture is connected to imperialism.
At least, it is one way Said slides from literary criticism to political tub-thumping. The whole book takes just such a slide partway through the third chapter. He has been discussing the interesting fiction and theory coming out of the new nations, and he notes that some of it is highly critical, not so much of the former imperialists as of the nationalist rulers who have succeeded them. He readily agrees that decolonization has, in many countries, led only to a change in the color of the oppressors, to "an appalling pathology of power," to dictatorships, oligarchies, and one-party systems. He lists
Astonishingly, the radically new perspective turns out to be an idea that Frantz Fanon published over thirty years ago: true liberation, as distinct from mere national independence, can only be won in a war of cleansing violence that will set the peasants, the damned of the earth, against not only the imperialists but their own urban compatriots. In the course of this war of liberation, there will occur "an epistemological revolution," and "a transformation of social consciousness." Said has a long section on Fanon's Les Damnes de la Terre (1962) which consists of ecstatic paraphrase. The "shift from the terrain of nationalist independence to the theoretical domain of liberation," Said declares, requires "a fertile culture of resistance whose core is energetic insurgency, a |technique of trouble'" and sometimes armed insurrection.
Said calmly says of this liberationist literature that "there is an understandable tendency ... to see in it a blueprint for the horrors of the Pol Pot regime." Indeed there is, and Said does nothing to counter that tendency except to assert that the violence invoked is only "tactical." That is one of those fine distinctions that gets overlooked in the killing fields. Moreover, as one might expect from a fine connoisseur of fiction who ventures into political theory, Said is vague about whether this miraculous cultural rebirth in violent war has actually occurred anywhere (apart from
Why spend so much time on him then, trumpeting him as the inventor of the alternative to both imperialism and nationalism? Said's reply to that seems to be that liberationist ideas survive as "an imaginative, even utopian vision which reconceives emancipatory (as opposed to confining) theory and performance." Besides that, such ideas encourage "an investment neither in new authorities, doctrines, and encoded orthodoxies, nor in established institutions and causes, but in a particular sort of nomadic, migratory, and anti-narrative energy." It is not clear what that means but it does not sound like practical politics.
I suspect, basing myself on passages scattered throughout this book, that Said is being coy here, even evasive. I believe he has in mind a specific case where Fanon's ideas about cleansing violence and cultural rebirth still have a chance. That case is the Palestinian intifada in the occupied territories of
He has spoken of the imperialist West's "regional surrogates" in the
This comes to rating the intifada pretty highly, but there is nothing absurd in that, nor anything ignoble. If Said does not say outright that the Palestinian cause is the last hope of Fanon's liberationist ideals, it might be because he is not sure. When he wrote this book, he had not visited the land of his birth since 1947 (although he was a member of the Palestine National Council, the parliament-in-exile, from 1977 to 1991), but since then he has gone back for a visit. He is now composing a memoir about it. It might tell us something interesting, particularly if it relies on what he sees rather than on the theories proposed in Culture and Imperialism.
The Source of Culture and Imperialism
Edward W. Said's latest work, Culture and Imperialism is indebted to Gramsci in several respects, even if less obviously than The World, the Text and the Critic. Gramsci unfinished essay on the southern question is one of Said's points of reference as a work that sets the stage for the critical attention given in the Prison Notebooks to the "territorial, spatial and geographical foundations of life." Said's analyses of a wide range of literary texts, which he uses as sources for understanding the dynamics of politics and culture in their connections with the whole imperialist enterprise, can be read as fulfillments of the historical materialist premises outlined in fragmentary form in both the Prison Notebooks and the Letters From Prison.
Unlike Gramsci, Said does not adhere explicitly to Marxism, nor does he identify himself with any one political current of movement. Nevertheless, underlying his work is a set of theoretical principles and practical stances that are certainly in harmony with a Gramscian world view. Certain tensions in Said's relationship to Marxism have been noted by the Indian Marxist Aijaz Ahmad, who argues in his book In Theory that Said has not really assimilated the materialist and revolutionary principles undergirding Gramsci's work. Ahmad frames his critique of Said within the boundaries of a rather strict interpretation of Marxism in his commitment to socialism as the foundation on which to build a genuinely oppositional culture. He is skeptical of Said's foregrounding of anti-imperialism and the principle of "liberatory" politics that avoids explicitly socialist partisanship.