Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (1993)

Bibliographical details: Culture and Imperialism (London: Chatto & Windus 1993), 440pp.

See also ...
Edward Said, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient [1977] (Penguin 1995) [infra] and Ernest Gellner’s the critique of Culture and Imperialism - extracts [infra].
See further quotations under W. B. Yeats > Commentary > Edward Said - as supra.

Notes & Extracts

Preface speaks of […] general worldwide pattern of imperial culture, and a historical experience of resistance against empire [xii]

I have looked especially at cultural forms as the novel, which I believe were immensely important in the formation of imperial attitudes, references, and experiences. [xii]

The main battle in imperialism is over land, of course; but when it came to who owned the land, who had the right to settle and work on it, who kept it going, who won it back, and who plans its future - these issues were reflected, contested, and even for a time decided in narrative. As one critic has suggested, nations are themselves narrations. The power to narrative, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging, is very important to culture and imperialism, and constitutes one of the main connections between them. Most important, the grand narratives of emancipation and enlightenment, mobilized people in the colonial world to rise up and throw off imperial subjection; in the process, many Europeans and Americans were stirred by these stories and their protagonists, and they too fought for new narratives of equality and human community.’ [xiii].

There is something systematic about imperial culture therefore that is not as evident in any other empire as it is in Britain’s or France’s and, in a different way, the [xxv] united States’. When I use the phrase “a structure of attitude and reference” this is what I have in mind. [xxxvi]

the connection between imperial politics and culture is astonishingly direct [7]

As I shall be using the term, ‘“imperialism” means the practice and theory, and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan centre ruling a distant territory; “colonialism”, which is almost always a consequence of imperialism, is the implanting of settlements on distant territory. [Neither imperialism nor colonialism is a simple act of accumulation and acquisition. Both are supported and perhaps even impelled by impressive ideological formations that include notions that certain territories and people require and beseech domination […’; 8]

Quotes Jules Harmand (1910): ‘a principle and point of departure [is] the fact that there is a hierarchy of races and civilisations, and that we belong to the superior race and civilisation, still recognising that, while superiority confers rights, it imposes strict obligations in return. The basic legitimation of conquest over native peoples is the conviction of our superiority, but our moral superiority. Our dignity rests on that quality, and it underlies our right to direct the rest of humanity. Material power is nothing but a means to that end.’ (Quoted in Phillip D. Curran, Imperialism, 1971.)

Quotes Salmon Rushdie on the rise of Raj revisionism at the time of the Falklands War; ‘whaleness, this world without quiet corners [in which] there can be no easy escapes from history, from hullabaloo, from terrible, unquiet fuss.’ (Rushdie, ‘Outside the whale’, in Imaginary Homelands: Essays in Criticism, 1981-1991, Viking/Granta 1991, pp.92, 101; here p.23.)

Further [quoting Rushdie]: ‘We see that it can be as false to create a politics-free fictional universe as to create one in which nobody needs to work or eat or hate or love or sleep. Outside the whale it becomes necessary, and even exhilarating, to grapple with the special problems created by the incorporation of political material, because politics is by turns farce and tragedy, and sometimes (e.g., Zia’s Pakistan) both at once. Outside the whale the writer is obliged to accept that he (or she) is part of the crowd, part of the ocean, part of the storm, so that objectivity becomes a great dream, like perfection, an unattainable goal for which one must struggle in spite of the impossibility of success. Outside the whale is the world of Samuel Beckett’s famous formula: I can’t go on, I’ll go on.’ (Ibid., 100-101; here p.30.)

Let us begin by accepting the notion that although there is an irreducible subjective core to human experience, this experience is also historical and secular, it is accessible to analysis and interpretation, and - centrally important - it is not exhausted by totalising theories, not marked and limited by doctrinal or national lines, not confined once and for all to analytical constructs. […] I do not mean what people mean when they say glibly that there are two sides to every question. the difficulty with theories of essentialism and exclusiveness, or with barriers and sides, is that they give rise to polarisations that absolve and forgive ignorance and demagogy more than they enable knowledge. Even the most cursory look at the recent fortunes of theories of race, the modern state, modern nationalism itself verifies this sad truth. If you know in advance that the African or Iranian or Chinese or Jewish or German experience is fundamentally integral, coherent, separate, and therefore comprehensible only to Africans, Iranians, Chinese, Jews or Germans, you first of all posit as essential something which, I believe, is both historically created and the result of interpretation - namely the existence of Africanness, Jewishness, or Germanness, or for that matter Orientalism and [35] Occidentalism. And second, you are likely as a consequence to defend the essence or experience itself rather than promote full knowledge of it and its entanglements and dependencies on other knowledges. As a result, you will demote the different experience of others to a lesser status. (pp.35-36.)

The notion of “discrepant experiences” is not intended to circumvent the problem of ideology. On the contrary, no experience that is interpreted or reflected on can be characterised as immediate, just as no critic or interpreter can be entirely believed if he or she claims to have achieved an Archimedean perspective that is subject neither to history nor to a social setting. In juxtaposing experiences with each other, in letting them play off each other, it is my interpretative political aim (in the broadest sense) to make concurrent those views and experiences that are ideologically and culturally closed to each other, and that attempt to distance or suppress other views and experiences. (p.37.)

Contrasts the Description de l’Egypte by Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Fourier with Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti’s Aja’ib al Athar, both from the 1820s. (p.37.ff.)

Remarks on Auerbach (pp.50f.)

Lukacs belongs to the Hegelian tradition of Marxism, Gramsci to a Vichian, Crocean departure from it. (p.57.) Cites Gramsci, The Southern Question. [57]

As we look back at the cultural archive, we begin to reread it not univocally but contrapuntally, with a simultaneous awareness both of the metropolitan history that is narrated and of those other histories against which (and together with which) the dominating discourse acts. […; 60] At this pint alternative or new narratives emerge, and they become institutionalised or discursively stable entities.’ (p.61-60.)

Cf., p.78: In practical terms, “contrapuntal reading” as I have called it means reading a text with an understanding of what is involved when an author shows, for instance, that a colonial sugar-plantation is seen as important to the process of maintaining a particular style of life in England. (p.78); and further, ‘each cultural work is a vision of a moment, and we must juxtapose that vision with the various revisions it later provoked […]’ (p.79.)

Reading and interpreting the major metropolitan cultural texts in this newly activated, reinformed way could not have been possible without the movements of resistance that occurred everywhere in the peripheries against the empire. (p.62.)

Remarks on the ethnographer Colonel Creighton, who is also head of British intelligence services in India, in Kipling’s Kim. [65]

We live of course in a world not only of commodities but also of representation, and representations - their production, circulation, history, and interpretation - are the very element of culture. In much recent theory the problem of representation is deemed to be central, yet rarely is it put in its full political context, a context that is primarily imperial. Instead we have, on the one hand, an isolated cultural sphere, believed to be freely and unconditionally available to weightless theoretical speculation and investigation, and, on the other, a debased political sphere, where the real struggle between interests is supposed not to occur. (p.66.)

A radical falsification has become established in this separation. Culture is exonerated of any entanglements with power, representations are considered only as apolitical images to be parsed and construed as so many grammars of exchange, and the divorce of the present from the past is assumed to be complete. And yet, far from this separation of spheres being a neutral or accidental choice, its real meaning is as an act of complicity, the humanist’s choice of a disguised, denuded, systematically purged textual model over a more embattled model, whose principal features would inevitably coalesce around the continuing struggle over the question of empire itself. (p.67.)

Jane Austen and Empire [chapter title 95]

On Verdi’ Aida (1870): ‘What Napoleon and his teams found was an Egypt whose antique dimensions were screened by the Muslim, Arab, and even Ottoman presence standing everywhere between the invading French army and ancient Egypt. How was one to get to that other, older, more prestigious part?’ (p.142.)

I think that Mariette had in his own mind’s eye transmuted the pharaonic originals into a rough modern equivalent, into what pre-historic Egyptians would look like accoutred in style prevalent in 1870: Europeanised faces, moustaches, and beards are the giveaway. / The result was an Orientalised Egypt, which Verdi had arrived at in the music quite on his won. (p.145.)

[…] Aida is a self-sufficient work of art, he [i.e., Verdi in his letter to Filippi] seems to be saying, let’s leave it at that. But isn’t there something else going on here too, some sense on Verdi’s part of an opera written for a place he cannot relate to, with a plot that tends in hopeless deadlock and literal entombment? / Verdi’s awareness of Aida’s incongruities appears elsewhere. At one point he speaks ironically of adding Palestrina to the harmony of Egyptian music, and he seems also to have been conscious of the extent to which ancient Egypt was not only a dead civilisation but also a culture of death, whose apparent ideology of conquest (as he adapted it from Herodotus and Mariette) was related to an ideology of the afterlife. The rather sombre, disenchanged, [148] and vestigial attachment that Verdi had to the

British Governor of Jamaica, E. J. Eyre, ordered a retaliatory massacre of Blacks for the filling of a few whites; this revealed to many English people the injustices and horrors of colonial life; the subsequent debate engaged famous public personalities both for Eyre’s declaration of martial law and massacre of Jamaican Blacks (Ruskin, Carlyle, Arnold) and against him (Mill, Huxley, Lord Chief Justice Cockburn). In time, however, the case was forgotten, and other “administrative massacres” in the empire occurred. Yet, in the words of one historian, “Great Britain managed to maintain the distinction between domestic liberty and imperial authority [which he describes as ‘repression and terror’] abroad.’ (See Bernard Semel, Jamaican Blood and Victorian Conscience: The Governor Eyre Controversy, Boston; Riverside Press 1963 p.179; here p.157.) / Most modern readers of Matthew Arnold’s anguished poetry, or of his celebrated theory in praise of culture, do not also know that Arnold connected the ‘administrative massacre’ ordered by Eyre with tough British policies towards colonial Eire and strongly approved of both; Culture and Anarchy is set plumb in the middle of the Hyde Park Riots of 1867, and what Arnold had to say about culture was specifically believed to be a deterrent to rampant disorder - colonial, Irish, domestic. Irishmen, and women, and some historians bring up these massacres at ‘inappropriate’ moments, but most Anglo-American readers of Arnold remain oblivious, see them - if they look at all - as irrelevant to the more important cultural theory that Arnold appears to be promoting for all ages. (pp.157-158.) Note further reference to Daumier whose ‘famous … drawing, for instance, explicitly connects Irish whites and Jamaican Blacks.’ (p.162.)

On Kipling’s novel Kim: ‘Two factors must be kept in mind as we interpret Kim. One is that, whether we like it or not, its author is writing not just from the dominating viewpoint of a white man in a colonial possession but from the perspective of a massive colonial system whose economy, functioning, and history had acquired the status of a virtual fact of nature. Kipling assumes a basically uncontested empire [162; …] / The second factor is that, no less than India itself, Kipling was a historical being as well as a major artist. Kim was written at a specific moment in his career, at a time when the relationship between the British and Indian people was changing. Kim is central to the quasi-official age of empire and in a way represents it. And even though Kipling resisted this reality, India was already well on its way toward a dynamic of outright opposition to British rule (the Indian National Congress was established in 18 8 5), while among the dominant caste of British colonial officials, military as well as civilian, important changes in attitude were occurring as a result of the 1857 Rebellion. The British and Indians were both evolving, and together. They had a common interdependent history, in which opposition, animosity, and sympathy either kept them apart or brought them together. A remarkable, complex novel like Kim is a very illuminating part of that history, filled with emphases, inflections, deliberate inclusions and exclusions as any great work of art is, and made the more interesting because Kipling was not a neutral figure in the Anglo-Indian situation but a prominent actor in it. / Even though India gained its independence (and was partitioned) in 1947, the question of how to interpret Indian and British history in the period after decolonization is still, like all such dense and highly conflicted encounters, a matter of strenuous, if not always edifying, debate. There is the view, for example, that imperialism permanently scarred and distorted Indian life, so that even after decades of independence, the Indian economy, bled by British needs and practices, continues to suffer. Conversely, there are British intellectuals, political figures, and historians who believe that giving up the empire-whose symbols were Suez, Aden, and India-was bad for Britain and bad for ‘the natives’, who both have declined in all sorts of ways ever since.’ (p.163.)

Babu: Kim’s native and secular mentor in the Great Game;

Said speaks of the conclusion of Kim as an instance of ‘Britain (through a very loyal Irish subject) taking hold once again of India’; ‘British India […] would pass into chaos or insurrection unless roads were walked upon properly, houses lived in the right way, men and women talked to in the correct tones.’ (p.174.)

Bibl [on Kipling]., Mark Kinkead-Weeks, ‘Vision in Kipling’s Novels’, in Kipling’s Mind and Art, ed. Andrew Rutherford (London: Oliver & Boyd 1964); Edmund Wilson, ‘The Kipling that Nobody Read’, in The Wound and the Bow (OUP 1947); Angus Wilson, The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling (London: Penguin 1977).

Said disputes Edmund Wilson’s view that Kipling sets the British Raj and native Indian worlds side by side without resolving the conflict on the grounds that for Kipling ‘there was no conflict’. [176; his italics.]

Quotes Moorhouse’s speculation that the love-hate relationship between the British and Indians derived from the complex hierarchical attitudes present in both people. “Each grasped the other’s basic social premise and not only understood it but subconsciously respected it as a curious variant of their own.”‘. (Moorhouse, India Britannica, 1984, p.103; here p.187.)

The novel’s ease of atmosphere [193]

The striking parallel between Camus and Orwell is that both men have become exemplary figures in their respective cultures, figures whose significance derives from but nevertheless seems to transcend the immediate force of their native context. The note is perfectly struck in a description of Camus that comes near the end of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s agile demystification of him in a book that in many ways resembles (and was written for the same series as) Raymond Williams’s Modern Masters study of Orwell. O’Brien says: “Probably no European writer of his time left so deep a mark on the imagination and, at the same time, on the moral and political consciousness of his own generation and of the next. He was intensely European because he belonged to the frontier of Europe and was aware of a threat. The threat also beckoned to him. He refused, but not without a struggle. / No other writer, not even Conrad, is more representative of the Western consciousness and conscience in relation to the non-Western world. The inner drama of his work is the development of this relation, under increasing pressure and in increasing anguish.”.’ (O’Brien, Albert Camus, NY: Viking 1970, p.103; here p.209.) / Having shrewdly and even mercilessly exposed the connections between Camus’s most famous novels and the colonial situation in Algeria, O’Brien lets him off the hook. There is a subtle act of transcendence in O’Brien’s notion of Camus as someone who belonged ‘to the frontier of Europe’, when anyone who knows anything about France, Algeria, and Camus-O’Brien certainly knows a great deal-would not characterise the colonial tie as one between Europe and its frontier. Similarly Conrad and Camus are not merely representative of so relatively weightless a thing as ‘Western consciousness’ but rather of Western dominance in the non-European world. […] The Western colonialism that O’Brien and Conrad are at such pains to describe is first a penetration beyond the European frontier and into the heart of another geographical entity [; &c.] (pp.209-10). ‘O’Brien further rescues Camus from the embarrassment he had put him in by stressing the privilege of his individual experience. […] Here then is a moral man in an immoral situation.’ (p.210.)

Quotes Camus on the ungroundedness of Algerian nationalism: ‘en ce qui concern l’Algérie, l’independence nationale est une formule purement passionelle. Il n’y a jamais eu encore de nation algérienne […, &c.; Essais; here p.216].

Camus’s obduracy accounts for the blankness and absence of background in the Arab killed by Mersault; hence also the sense of devastation in Oran that is implicitly meant to express not mainly the Arab deaths (which, after all, are the ones that matter demographically) but French consciousness. / It is accurate to say, therefore, that Camus’s narratives lay serve and ontologically prior claims to Algeria’s geography. (p.217.)

Camus’s novels and stories thus very precisely distil the traditions, idioms, and discursive strategies of France’s appropriation of Algeria. He gives its most exquisite articulation, its final evolution to this massive “structure of feeling”. But to discern this structure, we must consider Camus’s works as a metropolitan transfiguration of the colonial dilemma: they represent the colon writing for a French audience whose personal history is tied irrevocable to this southern department of France; a history taking place anywhere else is unintelligible. (p.223.)

Said on Modernism: ‘As against this optimism, affirmation, and serene confidence [of Kipling’s “Great Game”], Conrad’s narratives - to which I have so often referred because more than anyone else he tackled the subtle cultural reinforcements and manifestations of empire - radiate an extreme, unsettling anxiety: they react to the triumph of empire the way Hirschman says that romantics responded to the triumph of an interest-centred view of the world. Conrad’s tales and novels in one sense reproduce the aggressive contours of the high imperialist undertaking, but in another sense they are infected with the easily recognizable, ironic awareness of the post-realist modernist sensibility. Conrad, Forster, Malraux, T. E. Lawrence take narrative from the triumphalist experience of imperialism into the extremes of self-consciousness, discontinuity, self-referentiality, and corrosive irony, whose formal patterns we have come to recognize as the hallmarks of modernist culture, a culture that also embraces the major work of Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Proust, Mann, and Yeats. I would like to suggest that many of the most prominent characteristics of modernist culture, which we have tended to derive from purely internal dynamics in Western society and culture, include a response to the external pressures on culture from the imperium. Certainly this is true of Conrad’s entire oeuvre, and it is also true of Forster’s, T. E. Lawrence’s, Malraux’s; in different ways, the impingements of empire on an Irish sensibility are registered in Yeats and Joyce, those on American expatriates in the work of Eliot and Pound. (p.227.)

Similarly [to the ‘Asiatic’ plague in Mann’s in Death in Venice] Joyce, for whom the Irish nationalist and intellectual Stephen Dedalus is ironically fortified not by Irish Catholic comrades but by the wandering Jew Leopold Bloom, whose exoticism and cosmopolitan skills undercut the morbid solemnity of Stephen's rebellion. Like the fascinating inverts of Proust's novel, Bloom testifies to a new presence within Europe, a presence rather strikingly described in terms unmistakably taken from the exotic annals of overseas discovery, conquest, vision. Only now instead of being out there, they are here, as troubling as the primitive rhythms of the Sacre du printemps or the African icons in Picasso's art. (p.228.)

The River Between by James Ngugi (later Ngugi wa Thiongo) redoes Heart of Darkness by inducing life into Conrad’s river on the very first page. […] In Ngugi the white man recedes in importance - he is compressed into a single missionary figure emblematically called Livingstone - although his influence is felt in the divisions that separate the villages, the riverbanks, and the people from one another. [&c.] (p.254.)

Cites Tayb Salih, Season of Migration to the North [255]

The core of Aimé Césaire’s Caribbean Une Tempête is not ressentiment, but an affectionate contention with Shakespeare for the right to represent the Caribbean. (p.256.)

Three great topics emerge in decolonising cultural resistance […] One, of course, is the insistence on the right to see the community’s history whole, coherently, integrally. Restore the imprisoned nation to itself. [259; …] Second is the idea that resistance, far from being merely a reaction to imperialism, is an alternative way of conceiving human history. […] Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children is a brilliant work based on the liberating imagination of independence itself, with all its anomalies and contradictions working themselves out. The conscious effort to enter into the discourse of Europe and the West, to mix with it, transform it, to make it acknowledge a marginalised or suppressed or forgotten histories is [260] of particular interest in Rushdie’s work, and in an earlier generation of resistance writing. This kind of work was carried out by dozens of scholars, critics, and intellectuals in the peripheral world; I call this the voyage in. / Third is a noticeable pull away from separatist nationalism towards a more integrative view of human community and human liberation. I want to be very clear about this. No one needs to be reminded that throughout the imperial world during the decolonizing period, protest, resistance, and independence movements were fuelled by one or another nationalism. Debates today about Third World nationalism have been increasing in volume and interest, not least because to many scholars and observers in the West, this reappearance of nationalism revived several anachronistic attitudes; Elie Kedourie, for example, considers non-Western nationalism essentially condemnable, a negative reaction to a demonstrated cultural and social inferiority, an imitation of “Western” political behaviour that brought little that was good; others, like Eric Hobsbawm and Ernest Gellner, consider nationalism as a form of political behaviour that has been gradually superseded by new transnational realities of modern economies, electronic communications, and superpower military projection . In all these views, I believe, there is a marked (and, in my opinion, ahistorical) discomfort with non-Western societies acquiring national independence, which is believed to be “foreign” to their ethos. Hence the repeated insistence on the Western provenance of nationalist philosophies that are therefore ill-suited to, and likely to be abused by Arabs, Zulus, Indonesians, Irish, or Jamaicans. / This, I think, is a criticism of newly independent peoples that carries with it a broadly cultural opposition (from the Left as well as from the Right) to the proposition that the formerly subject peoples are entitled to the same kind of nationalism as, say, the more developed, hence more deserving, Germans or Italians. A confused and limiting notion of priority allows that only the original proponents of an idea can understand and use it. But the history of all cultures is the history of cultural borrowings. […, &c.] (pp.260-61.)

The women’s movement is central here. For as primary resistance gets under way, to be followed by fully fledged nationalist parties, unfair male practices like concubinage, polygamy, foot-binding, sati, and virtual enslavement become the focal points of women’s resistance. (p.263.)

In sum, decolonisation is a very complex battle over the course of different political destinies, different histories and geographies, and its is replete with works of the imagination, scholarship and counter-scholarship. (p.264.)

[“Yeats and Decolonisation”, pp.265-88; formerly a Field Day Pamphlet (Derry).]


‘You must have the independence and detachment of someone whose homeland is “sweet”, but whose actual condition makes it impossible to recapture that sweetness, and even less possible to derive satisfaction from substitutes furnished by illusion or dogma, whether deriving from pride in one’s heritage or from certainty about who “we” are.’ (Culture and Imperialism, 1993, p.407; quoted in Gerry Smyth, The Novel and the Nation: Studies in New Irish Fiction, 1997, p.148.)

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