Culture and Imperialism, a Review of Edward Said
Culture and Imperialism, a Review of Edward Said
Edward Said remains one of the best selling and well known of the social and literary theorists that deal with identity and nation in the post-colonial global setting. This field is saturated with work dealing with culture and identity formation, post-modern “epistemic communities,” and most importantly, the relationship between context (ethnic, religious or economic) relative to the formation of such communities. There can be no question that the reading of Said’s book must take place within the context of the American neo-conservative drive to dominate the planet in the name of a vaporous “democracy,” or even “free markets.
” And for this reason, it is important for the author to establish his view on the United States as a “conqueror” power primarily, as her early history can be reduced to the “settler mentality. ” Transplants from the imperial center to the imperial hinterlands, for Said is basically the same as the slave societies functioning in the Carribean Islands, as his understanding of Austin shows. America is a slave power and a conquering power in that her development cannot be separated from the systematic pillaging of native traditions and lands.
What makes America more interesting is her ability to absorb many traditions, and, from that, to create an identity in a rather counter-intuitive sort of way. Even further, the claim is that such an imperial power has the ability to create unity out of disunity; of creating an identity out of cacophony. Austria, Russia and the Ottomans are just three other examples of predatory powers creating unity out of disunity, or, even more strangely, creating the imperial idea precisely from the materials of disunity, both ethnic and religious.
This kind of dialectic, i. e. identity from opposing elements, is central to Said’s concept of identity formation in the context of domination and exploitation. The central argument here is that identity formation has been poorly treated in the historiographic tradition both of the west and of the post-colonial world. Authors have tended to target the functional, “static” aspects of identity and culture, without understanding, as a whole, the nature of the social context.
In other words, social and economic exploitation is as much a part of post-colonial identity as the more static elements of language. In his own ethnic identity, that of the Palestinian, Said can competently say that his own identity exists not in a vacuum, but as intrinsically part of the cultural formation deriving from Turkish, British and Jewish forms of colonial rule. Hence, there is no “Palestine,” as a cultural formula outside of the multi-ethnic scope of domination and violent colonialization.
There is a culture, but it is a culture of “resistance,” a culture whose very formation exists in a matrix of humiliation. Hence, Said creates a dialectic of his own, following the more common Hegelian logical notion of the conclusion being manufactured though opposition. Identity, as a thesis, is a dialogue deriving from resistance to power. But even more, the antithesis, this identity formation derives at least in part from the “literary” (speaking broadly) production of the post-colonial center.
In other words, after the experience of colonialism, the former metropole continues to dominate the subject peoples from the point of view of literature itself, in fact, a form of identity formation often overlooked in the historical literature. Lastly, as a synthesis, Said holds that a post colonial idea of identity of a formerly subject people is a creation whose final end is indeterminate, and even in general strokes, is vulnerable to critique.
The synthesis here is itself an extremely pessimistic concept of identity that leaves the formerly dominated to be forever controlled by the mass-language modes of communication. Communication itself is a form of political power and colonial domination. It is a common idea, driving in modern times from Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm, that the “nation” or “ethnos” is a contrived entity. This does not negate its use as a variable in analysis, but it does show some light on the nature of “tradition” considered very broadly.
In short, Anderson has famously made the argument that the ethnos is a “imagined community” where the individual envisions himself part of a heritage and a history he had no part in making, and cannot ever hope to “experience” as a single entity. It is a series of mental images rather than as a set of incontrovertible facts. Hobsbawm, for his part, holds that the ethnos or nation is the synthetic creation not merely of a series of images, but that these images are the direct creation of elites who have a specific interest in development a sense of “unity” among a formerly disunified people.
Mass media, standardized language and an industrial economy are all necessary for such basic cultural standardization to take place. Hence, the idea of a nation, while still useful to the social sciences, remains an entity without actual substance; a monstrous creation rather than a natural growth (cf. 15-18). Said holds to these views, but of course, provides the reader with the more general and inclusive category of international exploitation.
While this is a broad category, it remains concrete, since, given the identity of any specific ethnic group, close analysis of its history shows not a “development” of an ethnic “idea,” but rather a life of domination, exploitation and manipulation that has forced a hasty and uncritical sense of self that is itself a distortion and the worst form of image manipulation. It is “unnatural” to the extreme, and hence the global context is highly alienated, since the bulk of the human population subscribe (passively, to be sure) to a sense of self that is a mere reaction of the ethnic immune system (210).