Sunday, October 17, 2010

Introduction to Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism

The extraordinary reach of Western imperialism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is one of the most astonishing facts in all of geopolitical history. Neither Rome, nor Byzantium, nor Spain at the height of its glory came close to the imperial scope of France, the United States, and particularly Great Britain in these years.
But while the rule of these vast dominions left scarcely a corner of life untouched in either the colonies or the imperialist capitals, its profound influence upon the cultural products of the West has been largely ignored. In this dazzling work of historical inquiry, Edward Said shows how the justification for empire-building was inescapably embedded in the Western cultural imagination during the Age of Empire, and how even today the imperial legacy colors relations between the West and the formerly colonized world at every level of political, ideological, and social practice.
With Culture and Imperialism, Said offers a powerful investigation of the relationship between culture and the imperialism of the West. Probing masterpieces of the Western tradition--including Austen's Mansfield Park, Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Verdi's Aida, and Camus's The Stranger--Said illuminates how the justification for empire-building in the 19th and early 20th centuries was inescapably embedded in the cultural imagination of the West. The result was a way of thinking that affirmed not merely the Europeans' right but also their obligation to rule--and touched nearly every facet of life in both the colonies and the imperial capitals.
Said reveals as well how writers such as W. B. Yeats, Salman Rushdie, Aime Cesair, and Chinua Achebe have challenged this imperial vision to reclaim for their peoples the right of self-determination in history and literature. Imperialist assumptions, Said argues, continue to influence our politics and our arts--from the media s coverage of the Gulf War to debates about what literatures are worth teaching in our schools. Finally, Said argues for an awareness that all cultures are interdependent and that the true human community is global. Probing some of the great masterpieces of the Western tradition - including Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Austen's Mansfield Park, Verdi's Aida, and Camus's L'Estranger - Said brilliantly illuminates how culture and politics cooperated, knowingly and unknowingly, to produce a system of domination that involved more than cannon and soldiers - a sovereignty that extended over forms, images, and the very imaginations of both the dominators and the dominated. The result was a "consolidated vision" that affirmed not merely the Europeans' right to rule but their obligation, and made alternative arrangements unthinkable. Pervasive as this vision was, however, it did not go unchallenged. Said also traces the development of an "oppositional strain" in the works of native writers whoparticipated in the perilous process of cultural decolonization. Working mainly in the languages of their colonial masters, these writers - including William Butler Yeats, Salman Rushdie, Aime Cesaire, and Chinua Achebe - identified and exposed mechanisms of control and repression. In so doing, they reclaimed for their peoples the right of self-determination in history and literature. In today's post-colonial world, Said argues, imperialist assumptions continue to influence Western politics and culture, from the media's coverage of the Gulf War to debates over what histories and literatures are worth teaching in our schools. But his vision reveals a hopeful truth: if the West and its former subject peoples are to achieve a meaningful, harmonious coexistence, it will depend upon the development of a humanistic historical understanding that all cultures are interdependent, that they inevitably borrow from one another. Finally this passionate and immensely learned book points the way beyond divisive nationalisms toward an awareness that the true human community is global.

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