Edward W. Said's Culture and Imperialism is one of the most important and widely discussed books of the past year. Calling for an “adjustment in perspective and understanding” of the Western cultural archive, it points out new directions for cultural criticism in the 1990s.
Said previously provoked a major shift in academic thought when his earlier book, Orientalism, changed forever the way the West views the Orient. A prime theorist of decolonialism, he melds traditional humanism, Marxism and poststructuralism in an emerging project of reclaiming from Europe the territories - both geographic and intellectual - that have been appropriated by empire.
In Culture and Imperialism, Said focuses on three major metropolitan cultures British, French and American to show how even their current identities are the product of power. Though the formal age of empire is past, its memory, sustaining ideology and political practices persist. Thus, linking culture and empire offers an important “point of entry” into the interpretation not only of so-called Third World countries but also into the study of “the formation and meaning of Western cultural practices themselves.”
Cultural Imperialism's four parts include: his main premise that cultural forms are hybrid, that we inhabit a world of “overlapping territories and intertwined history”; his reading of Western canonical texts revealing a complicity in empire that even their authors' “humanism” cannot redeem; his exploration of the colonies and of native movements of resistence in literature and theory; and, finally, his sharp critique of American ascendancy leading to his vision of liberation and identification of potential sites of counter-discourses animated by what he calls the exilic energies of our time.
Said's major methodological innovation is his contrapuntal analysis, which lets him bring together geographically, temporally and culturally discrepant experiences that may otherwise have been closed to one another, perhaps even suppressive of one another. Thus, colonial writers are read beside Eliot and Yeats, Conrad is juxtaposed to Ngugi and Tayeb Salih, and Austen is reinterpreted as imperialist by default.
Making such connections may give a new global vision of human history, but can we really blame Austen or Dickens or Conrad for not doing anything to block imperialism? Must we say, with Said, that the women's and the working class movements are culpable for being less sensitive to the plight of the colonies than to their own conditions?
Some readers may demand a corrective to Said's retrospective charges. But Said, himself, confuses matters when he disclaims “the rhetoric of blame” and advocates a cosmopolitan intellectuality, informed by anti-essentialist, anti-representational and anti-systematic attitudes.
He first rejects essentialism embodied in static theories of race and nationalism, advocating a new transnational identity that would be less constraining and coercive than local identities.
The intellectual's task, he then insists, is to challenge the politics of local loyalties and show “how all representations are constructed, for what purpose, by whom, and with what components.” Said's anti-representational stance is, however, paradoxical for his refusal to privilege one representation over another makes it hard to reconcile his critique of the West's representations of its non-Western others.
Finally, he is suspicious of the power of narratives to give or withhold attention; thus, he tries to give his book an anti-narrative, anti-linear, fragmentary and displaced form, reminiscent of Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth which he cites as his major influence. One can, however, sense in Said's predilection for close reading-as well as in the underlying temporal structure of his elegant argument whose four parts seem be symmetrically divided between the timeless, the past, the present and the future-the universalist, or perhaps even the modernist imagination at work.
Given Said's persistent references to modernist discourse, it is tempting to view his brand of idealism as an extension of the modernist privileging of art and culture. One consequence of his project would be to restore the responsibility of the artist or intellectual for shaping our reality. After all, he sees liberation as an intellectual mission and offers scathing criticism of academics for abandoning the issues of racism, poverty, ecology, and disease, albeit from a well-entrenched position within the academy.
Finally, one can question the absence in his contrapuntal reading of a gendered perspective and analysis. Most of his primary and secondary sources are male; he rarely mentions and never analyzes feminist texts that belong to the tradition of postcolonial resistance writing. It is a pity, for some of these texts might provide an interesting counterpoint to Said's celebration of nomadic mobility and migrant consciousness. Rather than challenging the system by choosing to live like nomads or exiles, these feminists see the possibility of subverting the discourse of essentialism by realigning their loyalties and allegiances to small communities.
Still, despite all of its internal contradictions and complexities, Culture and Imperialism remains an essential contribution to political, cultural and literary criticism that has been engaged in the process of decentring knowledge. It should be closely read by all interested in recent developments in cultural theory.
Eva C. Karpinski teaches in the School of English Studies, Seneca College.