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Book Review: Culture And Imperialism By Edward Said

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 A fairly widespread criticism levelled against the centrality of the State at the expense of acknowledging other actors was evident in post colonial thought. Bipin Chandra’s book titled Essays on Colonialism introduced me to the various facets of colonialism. He alluded to the cultural aspects of colonialism as highlighted by Franz Fanon and Edward Said. This sparked my interest in the whole set of relations that exist between the metropolis and the colony. Bipin Chandra limited the scope of his book to the economic relations between the metropolis and the colony however he emphasized that the cultural dimension of this relationship was explored with much sensitivity and awareness by Franz Fanon and Edward Said. While Bipin Chandra adopted a structural interpretation of the relationship between the metropolis and the colony, the post colonial scholars by contrast aimed to transcend materialist conceptions. They emphasized the role of ideas, perceptions, and drew on a score of mediums such as art, literature, theatre, and history. 

 Edward Said’s anti imperialist attitude was rooted in personal experience. As a Palestinian who grew up in the West, he could never integrate the two worlds. He was deeply sensitive to issues of identity because he belonged to two different worlds which were placed on a gradient. He warns against seeing Culture and Imperialism as just a sequel to Orientalism. Culture and imperialism highlights not just the historical development of a culture of imperialism but also emphasises the resistance which developed against it.  The focus of the book is on modern western empires of the nineteenth and twentieth century and the novel forms the central piece of analysis. He is quick to inform his readers that narratives are a crucial aspect of his work –“the power to narrate, 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.” 1The knowledge power nexus privileges certain theories which are exclusive by nature.  Said stresses, that historical experience cannot be seen around exclusions. Knowledge does not develop in isolation; it develops through an interaction with other knowledge structures and in that sense a degree of continuity is always maintained. Said’s attempts to “make concurrent those views and experiences that are ideologically and culturally closed to each other, end the attempt to distance or suppress other views and experiences.” 2Said was concerned with exploring- what renders certain ideas more powerful than the others? How does the power of imagination give geography and history  meaning? How this meaning in turn pervades cultural forms which assume the role of disseminating a highly exclusivist knowledge structure?  

It is in light of these concerns that Said traces the imperial map as was established by Europe. He does not understand geography as a mere physical space. He problematised the struggle for geography which for him has been given meaning by “ideas, forms, images and imagining.” The imagination of the empire and geography has been sustained by literature. The visualization of cultures as “solitary beings” eliminates the hybrid nature of cultures and privileges difference over commonality. 

Said’s work focuses on race and how a distorted conceptualization of it gives birth to notions of superiority and inferiority. Through the works of writers such as John Stuart Mill, Rudyard Kipling and Conrad, he familiarizes the readers with the cultural mediums that were used to delineate the West and the concerted efforts which were made to rationalize imperialism. 3

 It is clear that notion of power is central to his work. Power assumes a materialist dimension but it is also produced and reproduced through ideas. The material power of the West was well established; it was only reinforced and strengthened by the control the West had established over knowledge structures. Said focuses on the building of perceptions and attitudes by the West. This is done by deploying images of other cultures. 4He writes that the distinctive feature of the West is “its capacity to successfully project its representations and to have these accepted by other people.” 5 He specifies that the focus of his book is on the British, French, and American colonial experience. This is rooted in the fact that these empires, he writes, had a “unique coherence and a special cultural centrality” and there was a well developed and robust imperial culture which was given validation by the way they orchestrated fiction, geographical imagination or arts. 6

 A major theme of Said’s book is the resurgence of silenced voices. Speaking of Conrad’s work, he writes that it embodied a “paternalistic arrogance of imperialism.” The lesser mortals, as the natives were perceived to be lacked the “essential prerequisites” for recognition. The relationship between the westerners and the natives was an unequal one-”independence is to be wished for them so long as it is the kind of independent we approve of.” 7 The world Conrad presented was not unto eternity. Said warns against ignoring the stories of resistance. He writes-”though imperialism implacably advanced during the nineteenth and twentieth century, resistance also advanced. . .western imperialism and third world nationalism feed off each other, but even at tenor worst they are neither monolithic nor deterministic.” 8 

Said devotes much attention to the imperialist tendencies of the United States of America expressed through the interventions it carries out. The American expansionism is economic in nature; however it is the cultural ideas that serve the function of the wheels on which it moves. To sustain its ambitions it sets out on a path to civilize the rest of the world. America is presented as “obsessed, compelling, unstoppable, completely wrapped up in its own rhetorical justification and [its] sense of cosmic symbolism.” 9 

This book should be analysed keeping in mind that Said was a product of two worlds. Having been on both sides of the “imperial divide” he elegantly constructed a narrative which is rich in facts, lyrical in style and profoundly moving. In terms of the scope of the book, it is a monumental achievement. 

However Said takes certain assumptions for granted. His understanding of the West as a homogeneous entity ignores the internal complexity which characterised it. Koph articulates that Said ignores for instance “in the context of the British in India differences between the Orientalists sympathetic to Indian culture and anglicists who sought to undermine it existed.” Said notes that the humanist ideas of the west coexisted with imperialism however he does not focus on the extent to which these ideas too became an instrument of power in the hands of the colonisers.

 The book enables us to cross over the realm of great power politics. It urges and enables the reader to be sensitive to the insidious ways in which power has become all pervasive. It awakens us to the voices that have been silenced. A work of such magnitude succeeds in convincing the reader of the biased nature of the discipline of international relations and scholarly pursuit more generally, and it sensitizes us to the many voices that have been muzzled to sustain the power of dominance.

1.Said, E. (1994) Culture and Imperialism. Vintage Books, London. Pp-xiii 

2.Ibid., pp-37

3.Ibid., pp-197

 4.Ibid.,pp-41 and 127 

5.Ibid., pp-120 

6.Ibid., xxii 

7.Ibid., xxi 

8.Ibid., xxvi-xxvii