Link to Current Week's Preparations Edward W. Said's<i>Culture AND Imperialism</i>

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First created: December 16, 2000
Latest update: December 21, 2000
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Edward W. Said's
Culture AND Imperialism

Copyright, December 2000: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata. "Fair Use" encouraged. Wecome to quote.

December 16, 2000:

With Edward Said's Culture AND Imperialism, [First Vintage Books Edition, 1994, copyright 1993. $14.00 at Vroman's], we continue our discussions of post-colonialism and of the empire imperative in political and social discourse today. Said sees "the disputed value of knowledge about imperialism . . . [as] a compellingly important and interesting configuration in the world of power and nations. There is no question," he insists, "that in the past decade the extraordinarily intense reversion to tribal and religious sentiments all over the world has accompanied and deepened many of the discrepancies among politiies that have continued since . . . the period of high European imperialism." (At p. 35.)

Said's message is that imperialism is not about a moment in history; it is about a continuing interdependent discourse between subject peoples and the dominant discourse of the empire. Despite the apparent and much-vaunted end of colonialism, the unstated assumptions on which empire was based linger on, snuffing out visions of an "Other" world without domination, constraining the imaginary of equality and justice. Said sees bringing these unstated assumptions to awareness as a first step in transforming the old tentacles of empire. To this end he wrote Culture AND Imperialism.

December 20, 2000:

I want to give you a sense of Edward Said's view of empire and colonialism, without asking that you read the whole text. That is primarily because of the tightness of all our schedules. The first passage I want to share with you is on pp. 88-89, in which he describes Fanny and Sir Thomas from Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. I'm going to assume that you are not familiar with the novel, which is the story of Fanny's being taken into Sir Thomas' life at Mansfield Park, where she eventually adjusts into the role of mistress of the estate.

Fanny was from a poor line of the family, and her parents are not scrupulous and capable and good and sensible managers of wealth. These are skills which Fanny acquires when she goes, at 10, to live at Mansfield Park. Edward Said notes that Jane Austen devotes little time to the colonies or the management thereof. But he identifies throughout the novel, her proclivity to accept the colonies as a proper means of maintaining the wealth of England. Said also notes that England, unlike the Spanish and to some extent the French, was more focussed on long-term subjugation of the colonies, on managing the colonized peoples to cultivate sugar and other commodities for the English. Said uses the literature of that period to illustrate the extent to which acceptance that subjugated peoples should in fact engage in such labor, and that the proceeds from that labor should support the English.

Said quotes the following passage describing Fanny's visit to the home she left at 10:

"Fanny was almost stunned. The smallness of the house, and thinness of the walls, brought every thing so close to her, that, added to the fatigue of her journey, and all her recent agitation, she hardly knew how to bear it. Within the rom all was tranquil enough, for Susan (Fanny's younger sister) having disappeared with the others, there were soon only her father and herself remaining; and he taking out a newspaper---the accustomary loan of a neighbour, applied himself to studying it, without seeming to recollect her existence. The solitary candle was held between himself and the paper, without any reference to her possible convenience, but she had nothing to do, and was glad to have the light screened from her aching head, as she sat in bewildered, broken, sorrowful contemplation.

"She was at home. But alas! it was not such a home, she had not such a welcome, as---she checked herself; she was unreasonable. . . . A day or two might shew the difference. She only was to blame. Yes, she thought it would not have been so at Mansfield. No, in her uncle's house there would have been a consideration of times and seasons, a regulation of subject, a propritey, an attention towards every body which there was not here." [Footnote omitted.]

Quoted at p. 88 of Culture AND Imperialism.

Said's comment on this passage highlights the extent to which he sees in Austen's writing the reflection of empire:

"In too small a space, you cannot see clearly, you cannot think clearly, you cannot have regulation or attention of the proper sort. The fineness of Austen's detail ("the solitary candle was held between himself and the paper, without any reference to her possible convenience") renders very precisely the dangers of unsociability, of lonely insularity, of diminished awareness that are rectivied in larger and better administered spaces."

As I contemplate Said's description, I am confounded once again by Spivak's insistence that suffering from racism is not the same as suffering colonialism. I do understand her insistence that the colonized are objectified as inevitably unworthy of enjoying the product of their own labor, and that the colonized have essentially nothing to gain. But when she suggests that those suffering from racism, or any form of ethnocentrism or sexism, I suppose, should rely on the access they have to the presentation of validity claims in the dominant discourse, I become skeptical. Throughout Said's analysis, I am constantly reminded that the mere illusion of access to "the goodies" simply distracts us from an understanding that there are very real ceilings to our aspirations. (Robert K. Merton spoke of these "three myths" of American society already in 1935, in Social Theory and Social Structure.

To describe workers under racism and other ism's as having real stakes that the colonized do not have, I think is to delude ourselves. If awareness is, in fact, the first, best step we can find towards peace and understanding, then I find such delusions dangerous. jeanne

December 21, 2000:

A few pages later in Culture AND Imperialism, Said points out the importance of this deeper and more complex criticism he has offered us of Austen's Mansfield Park. Most criticism, from whatever it's theoretical perspective, does not go into what Said calls "the structure of attitude and reference." [At p. 95.] And Said does not intend this postcolonial perspective to replace other perspectives. He expects such criticism to be used in addition to traditional literary criticism. His emphasis is on how much more there is of importance to the slight references to the colonial world made in great literature. He suggests that it is precisely in great literature that we are able to see the internal structure of conflict over a morality that, though not acceptable in the polite society of the empire, has permeated the thinking of those for whom the great literature was written. Jane Austen's sensibility could not deal with the issue of the "slave trade," which, in Mansfield Park, was met with "dead silence." Edward Said's comment: "In time there would no longer be a dead silence when slavery was spoken of, and the subject became central in a new understanding of what Europe was." [At p. 96.]