Sunday, October 17, 2010

What is Culture and what is Imperialism and how does Said relate the Two in the Literary Context? (P.U. 2003)

Edward Said, a brilliant and unique amalgam of scholar, literary critic and political activist, examines the roots of imperialism in the Western culture and traces the relationship between culture and imperialism. Imperialism has always fascinated the literary writers and political thinkers as a subject. It was a major theme of nineteenth and twentieth century native and non-native novelists and poets. Different writers have different perception about the phenomenon. A lot has been written on the subject in the past but Edward's book Culture and Imperialism attracted everybody's attention. This book was read and discussed in all parts of the world and was hailed by reviewers and critics as a monumental work.

In the Introduction to Culture and Imperialism, Edward states that his previous work Orientalism was limited to Middle East, and in the present book he wanted to describe a more general pattern of relationship between the modern West and its overseas territories. This book, he says, is not a sequel of Orientalism, as it aims at something different.
According to Edward there are two types of attitudes towards culture. One that considers culture as a concept that includes refining and elevating element, each society's reservoir of best that has been known and thought. The other is the aggressive, protectionist attitude viewing culture as a source of identity that differentiates between 'us and 'them', and power with which we can combat the influences of the foreign cultures. Such an attitude is opposed to liberal philosophies, as multiculturalism and hybridism, and has often lead to religious and- nationalist fundamentalism. Culture conceived in this way becomes a protective enclosure that divorces us from the everyday world.
"I have found it a challenge not to see culture in this way- that is, antiseptically quarantined from worldly affiliations, but as an extraordinary field of endeavour."
Edward Said sees the European writing on Africa, India, Ireland, Far Hast and other lands as part of European effort to rule distant lands. He says that Colonial and post-Colonial fiction is central to his argument. These writings present the colonised lands as 'mysterious lands' inhabited by uncivilized barbarians, who understood only the language of violence, and deserved to be ruled. This is a misrepresentation of the native people and their cultures, and needs to be redressed. Edward Said finds a connection between these narratives and the imperial process, of which they are a part. These writing ignore the important aspect of the reality- the native people and their culture.
Edward Said refers to two novels in order to explain what he had in mind: Dickens' Great Expectations, and Joseph Conrad's Nostromo. Dickens' Great Expectations is a primarily a story about Pip's vain attempt to become a gentleman. Early in life Pip helps a condemned convict, Abel Magwitch, who after being transported to Australia, pays back Pip with huge
sums of money through his lawyer. Magwitch reappears illegally in
London after sometime. Pip does not welcome him and rejects him as an unpleasant criminal. Magwitch is unacceptable being from Australia, a penal colony designed for rehabilitation of English criminals. This is a remarkable novel,
according to Said, but the focus of the narrative is
London, not Australia. Dickens did not bother to discuss the plight of the convicts in Australia, from where they could never return. In Said's judgment the prohibition placed on Magwitch's return is not only penal but also imperial. These ugly criminals could not by allowed to return to England-the land of decent people.
Conrad's Nostromo, the second example picked up by Said, is set in a Central American Republic, independent, but dominated by outside interests because of its immense silver mines. In this novel Holroyd, the American financer tells Charles Gould, the British owner of a mine:
‘We shall run the world's business whether the world likes it or not.
The world can't help it- and neither we can, I guess.'
This is the general thinking of the imperialists. Much of the rhetoric of 'The New World Order' with its self-assumed responsibility of civilizing the world, seems to be originated from this thinking, says Edward Said,
The problem with Conrad is that he writes as a man whose Western view of Non-Western world is so ingrained in as to blind him to other histories, other cultures and other aspirations. He could never understand that India, Africa and South Africa had lives and cultures of their own, not totally controlled by the imperialists. Conrad allows the readers to see that imperialism is a system and it should work in a proper fashion. There are certain obvious limitations of Conrad's vision. Conrad was both imperialist and anti-imperialist, progressive in rendering the corruption of overseas domination, deeply reactionary in ignoring the fact that Africa and South America had independent history and culture, which the imperialist violently disturbed but by which they were ultimately defeated.
All such works, says Edward Said, seem to argue that source of world's significant action and life was the West, and rest of the world was mind-deadened, having no life, history or integrity of its own. It is not that these westerners had no sympathy for the foreign cultures; their real drawback was their inability to take seriously the alternatives to imperialism. The world has changed since Conrad and Dickens due to imperialistic globalisation. Now various cultures have a closer interaction and have become interdependent. The colonisers and the colonized do not exist in separate worlds. So, one-sided versions cannot hold for long. Even those who are on the side of those fighting; for freedom from imperialists need to avoid narrow-mindedness and chauvinistic trends. One has to listen to what people are saying on other side of the fence. (This is what Seamus Heaney says in Redress Of the Poetry.) This, says, Said, is a positive development. One should always suspect the impressions of an exclusive consciousness. Most of the Western writers, for example, could never imagine that those 'natives' who appeared either subservient, or uncooperative were one day going to be capable of revolt.
In the last part of the Introduction to 'Culture and Imperialism' Said makes some other points about the book. The purpose of his book, he says, is so trace the relationship between culture, aesthetic forms and historical experience. His aim is not to give a catalogue of books and authors, "Instead, I have tried to look at what I consider to be important and essential things." My hope is that readers and critics of this book will use it to further the lines of enquiry and arguments about the historical experience of imperialism put forward in it." Moreover, he has not discussed all the empires. He has focused on three imperial powers: British, French, and American. This book is about past and present, about 'us' and 'them', he says.
Said says that the origin of current American policies can be seen in the past. All powers aspiring for global domination have done .the same things. There is always the appeal to power and national interest in running the affairs of 'lesser peoples', and the same destructive zeal when the going goes rough. America made the same mistake in Vietnam and Middle East.
The worst part of the whole exercise has been the collaboration of intellectuals, artists and journalists with these practices. Said hopes that a history of imperial adventure rendered in cultural terms might serve some deterrent purpose.
Said makes it clear that the criticism on imperialism does exempt the aggrieved colonized people from criticism. The fortunes and misfortunes of nationalism, of what can be called separatism and nativism, do not always make a flattering story. Narrow and dogmatic approach to culture can be as dangerous to culture as is imperialism. Secondly, culture is not the property of the East or the West.
Edward Said, by necessity, was in a position to be objective in his approach, as he lived most part of his life in exile and had the personal experience of both the cultures. He was born in Middle East and lived as an exile in America, where he wrote this book. He sums up his position in following works.
“The last point I want to make is that this is an exile’s book. Ever since I remember, I have felt that I belonged to both the Worlds, without being completely of either one or the other”, He says.

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