Said (1994). Introduction. (Culture and Imperialism.)

Said, E. W. (1994). Introduction. In Culture and Imperialism (pp. xi–xxviii). New York: Vintage Books.

“As I use the word, ‘culture’ means two things in particular. First of all it means all those practices, like the arts of description, communication, and representation, that have relative autonomy from the economic, social, and political realms and that often exist in aesthetic forms, one of whose principal aims is pleasure. … The prototypical modern realistic novel is _Robinson Crusoe_, and certainly not accidentally it is about a European who creates a fiefdom for himself on a distant, non-European island.” (p xii)

“Readers of this book will quickly discover that narrative is crucial to my argument here, my basic point being that stories are at the heart of what explorers and novelists say about strange regions of the world; they also become the method colonized people use to assert their own identity and the existence of their own history. … [page break] … As one critic has suggested, nations themselves are narrations. The power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging, is very important to culture and imperialism, and constitutes one of the main connections between them.” (p xii-xiii)

“Second, and almost imperceptibly, culture is a concept that includes a refining and elevating element, each society’s reservoir of the best that has been known and thought, as Matthew Arnold put it in the 1860s. Arnold believed that culture palliates, if it does not altogether neutralize, the ravages of a modern, aggressive, mercantile, and brutalizing urban existence. You read Dante or Shakespeare in order to keep up with the best that was thought and known, and also to see yourself, your people, society, and tradition in their best lights. In time, culture comes to be associated, often aggressively, with the nation or the state; this differentiates ‘us’ from ‘them,’ almost always with some degree of xenophobia. Culture in this sense is a source of identity …” (p xiii)

[Conrad’s Nostromo, 1904 …]

“Much of the rhetoric of the ‘New World Order’ promulgated by the American government since the end of the Cold War — with its redolent self-congratulation, its unconcealed triumphalism, its grave proclamations of responsibility — might have been scripted by Conrad’s Holroyd: we are number one, we are bound to lead, we stand for freedom and order, and so on.” (p xvii)

“The world today does not exist as a spectacle about which we can be either pessimistic or optimistic, about which our ‘texts’ can be either ingenious or boring. All such attitudes involve the deployment of power and interests.” (p xx)

“In our wish to make ourselves heard, we tend very often to forget that the world is a crowded place, and that if everyone were to insist on the radical purity or priority of one’s own voice, all we would have would be the awful din of unending strife, and a bloody political mess, the true horror of which is beginning to be perceptible here and there in the reemergence of racist politics in Europe, the cacophony of debates over political correctness and identity politics in the United States …” (p xxi)

“One of imperialism’s achievements was to bring the world closer together, and although in the process the separation between [page break] Europeans and natives was an insidious and fundamentally unjust one, most of us should now regard the historical experience of empire as a common one. The task then is to describe it as pertaining to Indians _and_ Britishers, Algerians _and_ French, Westerners _and_ Africans, Asians, Latin Americans, and Australians despite the horrors, the bloodshed, and the vengeful bitterness.” (p xxi-xxii)

“In the United States this concern over cultural identity has of course yielded up the contest over what books and authorities constitute ‘our’ tradition. In the main, trying to say that this or that book is (or is not) part of ‘our’ tradition is one of the most debilitating exercises imaginable. … For the record then, I have no patience with the position that ‘we’ should only or mainly be concerned with what is ‘ours,’ any more than I can condone reactions to such a view that require Arabs to read Arab books, use Arab methods, and the like. As C.L.R. James used to say, Beethoven belongs as much to West Indians as he does to Germans, since his music is now part of the human heritage.” (p xxv)

“Partly because of empire, all cultures are involved in one another; none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogenous, extraordinarily differentiated, and unmonolithic.” (p xxv)

Selected References

  • Conrad, J. (1904). Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard. Garden City: Doubleday.
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