Culture and Imperialism by Edward W Said - review by Matt Seaton

Matt Seaton

Watch the Writers

Culture and Imperialism


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‘There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.’ It is no wonder that Walter Benjamin is so beloved of literary critics: dead for more than half a century, he still seems able to supply an epigram for every occasion. The only wonder is that Edward Said saves these particular mots justes for the final pages, for they set out in glorious brevity the central theme of his monumental study.

In the first instance, the relevant documents of civilisation are the canonical works of English literature, especially those in the novel form, which were written between the end of the eighteenth and the middle of the twentieth centuries. Said’s interest is guided by the fact that these works (of Austen, Thackeray, Dickens, Eliot, Kipling, Conrad and others) coincided with the period of European colonial expansion and imperial consolidation. In other words, this golden age of English literature, which saw the development and maturation of the novel through its epistolary, high realist and modernist phases, was also the age of primitive empire-building, by means of conquest, native extermination, slavery and plantation, and then of imperial dominion, by ‘divide and rule’, exploitation imaginary. This study coincided with Said’s most strongly and assimilation.

Said’s argument is that, far from being a mere coincidence, the connections between imperialism on the one hand, and culture on the other, are intimate, organic and reciprocal. The great works of literature are testament to, and complicit with, the bicentenary history colonial plunder and genocide. The adornments of our civilisation are also the memorials of our barbarism. These are not now particularly original statements, though they still sound tendentious enough. Literary critics have been treading this postcolonial path in growing numbers for several years, though all would acknowledge Edward Said as a pioneer. It was his seminal work Orientalism that created an entire new field of study, radically historicising and politicising what had blandly passed as ‘comparative literature’. Culture and Imperialism is not, in that sense, a pioneering work. It may well be Said’s last addition to his academic oeuvre, since he is on record as saying that he wishes to turn his prodigious learning and talents to other literary tasks. What is impressive about Culture and Imperialism is its ambition and its colossal erudition. The latter hardly needs to be remarked on: the breadth and depth of his reading, his linguistic accomplishment, the sensitivity of his judgements and the scope of his cultural references are breathtaking. Simply, Said is one of a handful of great cosmopolitan humanist critics.

The ambition of Culture and Imperialism is properly commensurate: in an essay in the earlier collection The World, the Text and the Critic, Said writes – with enormous sympathy, and perhaps some straightforward empathy – of Erich Auerbach, the quintessential humanist scholar, composing his great account of Western culture, Mimesis, while in exile in Istanbul, on the run from the Nazis (who were of course trampling on everything he valued). Auerbach and Mimesis are mentioned several times in the present volume, and one cannot help reflecting that – even if Said does not find himself in such extremely embattled circumstances – Culture and Imperialism nurses a desire to set down an all-embracing argument, and to map out the development of colonial and postcolonial culture, accordingly, once and for all – für ewig.

It does also represent the culmination of an intellectual journey which began with Orientalism, and dissected a more narrowly defined segment of this colonial cultural history, the fantastic view of the ‘Orient’ constructed by the Western imaginary. This study coincided with Said’s most strongly Foucauldian phase, so that the influence of Michel Foucault’s potent insight into the relations between power and knowledge was perhaps overbearing. In Foucault’s own work, as Said points out in this volume, there was a decay of oppositionality, a tendency to see power no longer as abusive or oppressive, but simply as constitutive. Resistance to power is thus created by power, is neutralised and reabsorbed, simply folded back into a loop from which there is no escape. Orientalism, published in 1978, predated this conservative turn in Foucault’s thought, and yet, by Said’s own admission, there is in it an inattention to resistance, both physical, to the West’s actual colonising adventure, and cultural, to the colonial gaze which sought to obscure any native self-identity beneath a miasma of fantasy, propaganda and stereotype.

Culture and Imperialism is conceived by Said as setting this record straight, giving due weight to the historical facts of anti-colonial resistance and its intellectual and cultural correlatives, and carrying the intertwined narratives of culture and imperialism through to decolonisation and its aftermath. This is an immensely complex undertaking, which attempts to combine close readings of particular novels (Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, for example) and the work of individual artists (such as Verdi’s Aida), a materialist history of ideas, and a critical engagement with both literary and political theory, all within a broadly chronological framework which constantly provides historical contexts and coordinates for the local observations.

It is not surprising if at times Said seems reiterative or rudderless. If you come to this volume with the expectations of a reader who has enjoyed the conscientiously structured and sustained reasoning of his other work, then you may be perplexed. Forget metaphors of rapier-like wit and surgical precision: Culture and Imperialism deploys a bulldozer technique to amass the evidence in its favour. What matters, by the end, is not the precise contour of any single spot, but the overall shape of the landscape.

It is a little disappointing not to be able to extract any particular theoretical advances from the work of such a virtuoso intellectual performer. What he offers is modest: building on Raymond Williams’s concept of a ‘structure of feeling’, he coins a ‘structure of reference and attitude’ to denote the way in which real historical processes, contemporaneous with and external to a literary text, are inscribed in the very texture of the work.

Said’s locus classicus is the casual mention in Mansfield Park of Sir Thomas Bertram’s excursions to his plantations in Antigua (which would have been run, of course, on the labour of slaves). His persuasive reading is that the moral and narrative resolution of the novel depends as much on Sir Thomas’s good husbandry of his colonial possessions as on his restoration of order and propriety to Mansfield Park, and that the two are deeply reticulated. But this ‘structure of reference and attitude’, which Said uses to highlight the partially occluded imperialist inflection to the novel, is nevertheless a diluted supplement to the more robust tool of literary criticism which Williams invented.

Likewise, this close reading exemplifies what Said calls his technique of ‘contrapuntal’ criticism. He refers to this regularly enough for it to be presumed that he is offering it as a methodological innovation which could be extrapolated. I am not convinced either that the technique itself is clear enough to be followed, or whether anyone other than Said himself is capable of making it work to good effect. It seems to refer to Culture and Imperialism’s basic substructure of criss-crossing the historical narratives of empire and anti-imperialist struggle with the critical commentaries on individual texts and writers. The notion of ‘counterpoint’ stresses both an idea of reading against the grain, and of conflicting, vying melodies which are somehow harmoniously resolved. At one point, Said extends the musical metaphor to say that the overall effect should not be a vast and swelling symphonic theme with a nineteenth-century flavour, but a more modernist type of atonal, syncopated confluence of sound.

But Culture and Imperialism does not set itself the aim of enabling future work by theoretical and critical innovation; as Said well knows, for many of those engaged are his own former students, that work is well underway already. And Said is, in any case, intrinsically suspicious of totalising systems of thought: the counterpoint at work in his book represents what he calls ‘my homemade resolution of the antitheses between involvement and theory’.

Instead, Culture and Imperialism is a huge, neo-philological document which recalls the achievements of an Auerbach, but which differs in its explicit political orientation of anti-imperialism. At a time when reactionary elements in the academy are manipulating a moral panic over so-called political correctness in order to reverse many of the progressive curriculum changes and intellectual developments of the last twenty years, Said has stuffed a weighty stop in the door which let that new infusion of critical thought in. Culture and Imperialism repeatedly makes defensive gestures in that respect: to anticipate and forestall conservative critics, he emphasises that it is simply not his purpose to read the great literary works ‘reductively as imperialist propaganda’. For similar reasons, he dismisses the ‘identitarian’ politics of those soi-disant radicals who have proclaimed the end of literature written by dead, white males.

If Edward Said looks both ways before stepping into that controversy, if he manages to be moderate and passionate at the same time, if he reveres great art but insists on its political affiliations, then we should listen all the more carefully to his contrapuntal themes. Despite the barbarism that happened on the way, and continues still in multifarious forms and places, the story of Culture and Imperialism is ultimately that of cultural encounter, exchange and hybridity – a process which at least has the potential for civilisation.

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