Enough Said; Review of Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993)

Enough Said; Review of Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993)

Mini Teaser: 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.

by Author(s): Neil McInnes

Review of Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993)

Professor Said says that his aim is to set works of art of the imperialist and post-colonial eras into their historical context. "My method is to focus as much as possible on individual works, to read them first as great products of the creative and interpretive imagination, and then to show them as part of the relationship between culture and empire." He says he has no "completely worked out theory of the connection between literature and culture on the one hand, and imperialism on the other"; he just hopes to discover connections. He says it is useful to do this because "by looking at culture and imperialism carefully...we shall see that we can profitably draw connections that enrich and sharpen our reading of major cultural texts." Indeed, it is more than useful; it must be obligatory if he is right in saying that the "major, I would say determining, political horizon of modern Western culture [is] imperialism," and that to ignore that fact, as critical theory, deconstruction and Marxism do, "is to disaffiliate modern culture from its engagements and attachments."

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 Antigua to Caribbean, Bengali and Malaysian views of imperialist practices. It is an original idea to put them together, but already the reader feels that the book is beginning to sprawl. That feeling grows when this third chapter deviates into a theory about decolonization as a political process, and about the difference between independence and liberation.

By the fourth and last chapter Professor Said has quite lost the thread and we are treated to a familiar denunciation of "American cultural imperialism." The only Western works of art mentioned here are "Dynasty," "Dallas," and "I Love Lucy" and there is no suggestion that they refer to empire in the way Kipling and Conrad did. There is much perfervid sweeping generalization about Western intellectuals' treatment of the Third World, notably of Islam during the Gulf War, balanced (if that is the word) by frank denunciations of the lack of liberty in that same Third World, notably again in Islam.

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 (of Kipling's Kim, for example) along with 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 Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere was a cultural phenomenon or it was nothing. That we can also call it imperialism does not mean that we thereby get two distinct things, one called culture and the other called empire, so that we can now ask how one "intersects with" or determines or causes the other. This is what happens when, for example, people ask whether ideology is determined by the economy. In order to get two things so distinct that one could determine the other, we have to find a completely non-ideological economy, and since that is impossible the discussion becomes confused.

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 "high-falutin' 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 U.S. foreign policy, he has to call it "imperialism without colonies" and "cultural colonialism," silently abandoning his own theory. Well before that he finds he cannot even account for classic imperialism, because he thinks there is a problem about how "Britain's great humanistic ideas, institutions, and monuments, which we still celebrate...co-existed so comfortably with imperialism." He is genuinely puzzled that the land of Jane Austen, John Stuart Mill, and Keats could run an empire, which is why he goes looking for tell-tale signs of guilt about empire in the highest reaches of British culture. Blinded by his narrow view of it, he cannot see that imperialist culture included not only authoritarian, commercial, and supremacist strains, but also libertarian, reformist, and co-operative forces dedicated to ideals of trusteeship, devolution (after the shock of the loss of the American colonies) and eventual partnership. Even more important, it was these latter forces that in the end won out over the likes of Curzon and Churchill; without always actually meaning to decolonize, they made so many adjustments, concessions, and reforms that empire was eroded from within. As P.J. Marshall has said, "An imperial identity ebbed away over a long period without a sudden disorientating crisis of loss." That is how scores of nations were freed from European imperialism, whereas Said's narrow view could only explain (in part) exceptional cases like Algeria, where land was tenaciously clung to.

S aid 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 Mansfield Park and turns up six references to Antigua and one to slavery. Now, in fact that is extremely interesting, as long as you can resist (as, alas, Professor Said cannot resist) the temptation to jump to earth-shattering, world-historical conclusions. When Jane Austen tells us that Sir Thomas Bertram's business trips are to the Caribbean and that it is not done to mention slavery in his house, she is hinting that that marvelous world of decorum, comfort, and respectability to which Fanny Price aspired was financed in part by plantation slavery. I am ashamed that I missed that point when I read the novel and watched the television series, and I am grateful to Said for stressing it. But he only knows because Jane Austen told him, so his airs of unmasking the imperialist villain, of smoking out perfidy from ethereal aesthetic creation are hardly warranted.

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: Rochester's deranged wife in Jane Eyre was a West Indian, and was not Abel Magwich in Great Expectations transported to Australia? A character in Henry James's Portrait of a Lady took a trip to Algeria and Egypt! The pickings are so slim that Said admits that through much of the nineteenth-century empire was "only [a] marginally visible presence in fiction." He even takes to complaining that it is not mentioned enough, because the wretched imperialists took it for granted, like their servants who feature only as props in novels. None of this deters him from his grand conclusion: there could be no novel without empire. Why not? Because of "the far from accidental convergence between the patterns of narrative authority constitutive of the novel on the one hand, and, on the other, a complex ideological configuration underlying the tendency of imperialism." This central mystery is never explained. One example is proffered (to Said's credit, diffidently): "Richardson's minute constructions of bourgeois seduction and rapacity" in Clarissa resemble "British military moves against the French in India occurring at the same time."

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 England's overseas empire" and that British imperial "power was elaborated and articulated in the novel." Therefore, we are bidden to re-read "the entire archive of modern and pre-modern European and American culture," no less, in order to discover "the centrality of the imperial vision." It will be worth the effort because we shall be rewarded with such nuggets of knowledge as that the Wilcox family in Howard's End owned rubber plantations! And the plague in "Death in Venice" came from the East! So did the wandering Jew, Leopold Bloom! Thus and thus does fiction fortify imperialism.

Said then tries his hand at opera, choosing the easy target of Verdi's Aida. The Cairo opera house had opened in 1869 as part of the celebrations for the inauguration of the Suez Canal and although Verdi declined the invitation to write a hymn for that occasion, he soon after agreed to write an opera for the Khedive, one based on an Egyptian story. So Said is correct to see Aida as a quintessential imperialist party-piece, a slap-up night out for the Suez speculators in the phony European sector of Cairo. Aida, he says, is "not so much about but of imperial domination."

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 Jamaica, E.J. Eyre, ordered a retaliatory massacre of Blacks for the killing of a few whites..." Not everyone in Britain would condemn Eyre; Ruskin, Carlyle, and Arnold would not. Their attitude reminds Said of American popular approval of the Gulf War: "making America strong and enhancing President Bush's image as a leader took precedence over destroying a distant society," even so soon after "two million Vietnamese were killed" and while "Southeast Asia is still devastated."

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 part-way 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 Third World countries where human rights are denied and asks, is this the only alternative to imperialism? No, there is another answer to imperialism besides nationalism, "a deeper opposition" and "a radically new perspective."

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 DamnŽs 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 get 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 Cambodia, I suppose) or whether it could happen anywhere else. "Algeria was liberated, as were Kenya and the Sudan," he says but is careful not to hold them up as successful cases of rebirth. He finally concedes that Fanon's ideas failed because he had no answer to nationalism.

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 Israel.

He has spoken of the imperialist West's "regional surrogates" in the Middle East in a context that makes plain he has Israel in view. The Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands thereby becomes a case of imperialism, and anyhow it answers to his definition of imperialism as stealing land from natives. Consequently, the Palestinian intifada becomes "one of the great anti-colonial uprisings of our times." It ranks with such vast causes as the ecological and women's movements as an example of a worldwide "elusive oppositional mood and its emerging strategies," a mood that must "hearten even the most intransigent pessimist." It is one of those mass uprisings such as occurred in the Philippines and South Africa, which feature "impressive crowd-activated sites, each of them crammed with largely unarmed civilian populations, well past the point of enduring the imposed deprivations, tyranny and inflexibility of governments that had ruled them for too long." Those stone-throwing Palestinian youths are memorable for the "resourcefulness and the startling symbolism of the protests," just like the heroic mobs of South Africa and communist Eastern Europe.

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.

Essay Types: Book Review