Said (1994). Chapter 1 – Overlapping Territories, Intertwined Histories. (Culture and Imperialism.)

Said, E. W. (1994). Chapter 1 – Overlapping Territories, Intertwined Histories. In Culture and Imperialism (pp. 3–61). New York: Vintage Books.

[“Empire, Geography, and Culture” (p 3) …]

“… scarcely any attention has been paid to what I believe is the privileged role of culture in the modern imperial experience, and little notice taken of the fact that the extraordinary global reach of classical nineteenth- and early twentieth- century European imperialism still casts a considerable shadow over our own times. … [page break] … the United States, Russia, and several lesser European countries, to say nothing of Japan and Turkey, were also imperial powers for some or all of the nineteenth century.” (p 5-6)

“To speak, as O’Brien does, of ‘the propaganda for an expanding empire [which] created illusions of security and false expectations that high returns would accrue to those who invested beyond its boundaries’8 is in effect to speak of an atmosphere created by both empire and novels, by racial theory and geographical speculation, by the concept of national identity and urban (or rural) routine. The phrase ‘false expectations’ suggests _Great Expectations_, ‘invested beyond its boundaries’ suggests Joseph Sedley and Becky Sharp, ‘created illusions,’ suggests _Illusions perdues_ — the crossings over between culture and imperialism are compelling.” (p 6)

“Territory and possessions are at stake, geography and power. Everything about human history is rooted in the earth, which has meant that we must think about habitation, but it has also meant that people have planned to _have_ more territory and therefore must do something about its indigenous residents. At some very basic level, imperialism means thinking about, settling on, controlling land that you do not possess, that is distant, that is lived on and owned by others. For all kinds of reasons it attracts some people and often involves untold misery for others.” (p 7)

“A whole range of people in the so-called Western or metropolitan world, as well as their counterparts in the Third or formerly colonized world, share a sense that the era of high or classical imperialism, … has in one way or another continued to exert considerable cultural influence in the present.” (p 7)

“… during the nineteenth century unprecedented power… was concentrated in Britain and France, and later in other Western countries (the United States, especially). … [page break] … Consider that in 1800 Western powers claimed 55 percent but actually held approximately 35 percent of the earth’s surface, and that by 1878 the proportion was 67 percent … By 1914,… Europe held a grand total of roughly 85 percent of the earth as colonies, protectorates, dependencies, dominions, and commonwealths.9 … As a result, says William McNeill in _The Pursuit of Power_, ‘the world was united into a single interacting whole as never before.’10” (p 8)

“The American experience, as Richard Van Alstyne makes clear in _The Rising American Empire_, was from the beginning founded upon the idea of ‘an _imperium_ — a dominion, state or sovereignty that would expand in population and territory, and increase in strength and power.’12 There were claims for North American territory to be made and fought over (with astonishing success); there were native peoples to be dominated, variously exterminated, variously dislodged; and then, as the republic increased in age and hemispheric power, there were distant lands to be designated vital to American interests, to be intervened in and fought over — e.g., the Philippines, the Caribbean, Central America, the ‘Barbary Coast,’ parts of Europe and the Middle East, Vietnam, Korea. Curiously, though, so influential has been the discourse insisting on American specialness, altruism, and opportunity that ‘imperialism’ as a word or ideology has turned up only rarely and recently in accounts of United States culture, politics, history. But the connection between imperial politics and culture is astonishingly direct. American attitudes to American ‘greatness,’ to hierarchies of race, to the perils of _other_ revolutions (the American revolution being considered unique and somehow unrepeatable anywhere else in the world)13 have remained constant, have dictated, have obscured, the realities of empire, while apologists for overseas American interests have insisted on American innocence, doing [page break] good, fighting for freedom.” (p 8-9)

“As I shall be using the term, ‘imperialism’ means the practice, the theory, and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan center ruling a distant territory; ‘colonialism,’ which is almost always a consequence of imperialism, is the implanting of settlements on distant territory. … In our time, direct colonialism has largely ended; imperialism, as we shall see, lingers where it has always been, in a kind of general cultural sphere as well as in specific political, ideological, economic, and social practices.” (p 9)

“But there is more than that to imperialism and colonialism. There was a commitment to them over and above profit, a commitment in constant circulation and recirculation, which, on the one hand, allowed decent men and women to accept the notion that distant territories and their native peoples _should_ be subjugated, and, on the other, replenished metropolitan energies so that these decent people could think of the _imperium_ as a protracted, almost metaphysical obligation to rule subordinate, inferior, or less advanced peoples.” (p 10)

“Frantz Fanon says, ‘We should flatly refuse the situation to which the Western countries wish to condemn us. Colonialism and imperialism have not paid their score when they withdraw their flags and their police forces from our territories. For centuries the [foreign] capitalists have behaved in the underdeveloped world like nothing more than criminals.’19” (p 12)

“Doing this by no means involves hurling critical epithets at European or, generally, Western art and culture by way of wholesale condemnation. … [page break] … William Blake is unrestrained on this point: ‘The Foundation of Empire,’ he says in his annotations to Reynolds’s _Discourses_, ‘is Art and Science. Remove them or Degrade them and the Empire is No more. Empire follows Art and not vice versa as Englishmen suppose.’21” (p 12-13)

“The tendency for fields and specializations to subdivide and proliferate, I have for a long while argued, is contrary to an understanding of the whole, when the character, interpretation, and direction or tendency of cultural experience are at issue.” (p 13)

“… the literature itself makes constant references to itself as somehow participating in Europe’s overseas expansion, and therefore creates what Williams calls ‘structures of feeling’ that support, elaborate, and consolidate the practice of empire.” (p 14)

“Neither culture nor imperialism is inert, and so the connections between them as historical experiences are dynamic and complex.” (p 14)

[“Images of the Past, Pure and Impure” (p 15) …]

“… cultures are humanly made structures of both authority and participation, benevolent in what they include, incorporate, and validate, less benevolent in what they exclude and demote.” (p 15)

“Consider, for a more complex example, the well-known issues of the image of classical Greek antiquity or of tradition as a determinant of national identity. … according to Bernal, whereas Greek civilization was known originally to have roots in Egyptian, semitic, and various other southern and eastern cultures, it was redesigned [page break] as ‘Aryan’ during the course of the nineteenth century, its Semitic and African roots either actively purged or hidden from view.” (p 15-16)

“Large groups of people believe that the bitterness and humiliations of the experience which virtually enslaved them nevertheless delivered benefits — liberal ideas, national self-consciousness, and technological goods — that over time seem to have made imperialism much less unpleasant.” (p 18)

[“Two Visions in Heart of Darkness” (p 19) …]

“… the idea of _total_ independence was a nationalist fiction designed mainly for what Fanon calls the ‘nationalist bourgeoisie,’ who in tum often ran the new countries with a callous, exploitative tyranny reminiscent of the departed masters.” (p 19)

“The wonder of it is that the schooling for such relatively provincial thought and action is still prevalent, unchecked, uncritically accepted, recurringly replicated in the education of generation after generation. We are all taught to venerate our nations and admire our traditions: we are taught to pursue their interests with toughness and in disregard for other societies. A new and in my opinion appalling tribalism is fracturing societies, separating peoples, promoting greed, bloody conflict, and uninteresting assertions of minor ethnic or group particularity.” (p 20)

“This feeling in turn led to Westerners rethinking the whole process of decolonization. Was it not true, ran their new evaluation, that ‘we’ had given ‘them’ progress and modernization? Hadn’t we provided them with order and a kind of stability that they haven’t been able since to provide for themselves?” (p 22)

“There seemed little skepticism that a monolithic ‘West’ in fact existed, any more than an entire ex-colonial world described in one sweeping generalization after another.” (p 22)

“Conrad was certainly not a great imperialist entrepreneur like Cecil Rhodes or Frederick Lugard, even though he understood perfectly how for each of them, in Hannah Arendt’s words, to enter ‘the maelstrom of an unending process of expansion, he will, as it were, cease to be what he was and obey the laws of the process, identify [page break] himself with anonymous forces that he is supposed to serve in order to keep the whole process in motion, he will think of himself as mere function, and eventually consider such functionality, such an incarnation of the dynamic trend,’ his highest possible achievement.’31” (p 24-25)

“Our age, he said in the 1980s, is postmodernist, concerned only with local issues, not with history but with problems to be solved, not with a grand reality but with games.32” (p 26)

“‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on.’35” (p 28)

“Being on the inside shuts out the full experience of imperialism, edits it and subordinates it to the dominance of one Eurocentric and totalizing view …” (p 28)

“I can perfectly understand the anger that fuelled Rushdie’s argument because like him I feel outnumbered and outorganized by a prevailing Western consensus that has come to regard the Third World as an atrocious nuisance, a culturally and politically inferior place. … Most of them have now taken up a strident chorus of rightward-tending damnation, in which they separate what is non-white, non-Western, and non-Judeo-Christian from the acceptable and designated Western ethos, then herd it all together under various demeaning rubrics such as terrorist, marginal, second-rate, or unimportant. To attack what is contained in these categories is to defend the Western spirit.” (p 28)

“For if Conrad can show that all human activity depends on controlling a radically unstable reality to which words approximate only by will or convention, the same is true of empire, of venerating the idea, and so forth.” (p 29)

[“Discrepant Experiences” (p 31) …]

“If one believes with Gramsci that an intellectual vocation is socially possible as well as desirable, then it is an inadmissible contradiction at the same time to build analyses of historical experience around exclusions, exclusions that stipulate, for instance, that only women can understand feminine experience, only Jews can understand Jewish suffering, only formerly colonial subjects can understand colonial experience.” (p 31)

“I do not mean what people mean when they say glibly that there are two sides to every question. The difficulty with theories of essentialism and exclusiveness, or with barriers and sides, is that they give rise to polarizations that absolve and forgive ignorance and demagogy more than they enable knowledge. … [page break] … you are likely as a consequence to defend the essence or experience itself rather than promote full knowledge of it and its entanglements and dependencies on other knowledges. As a result, you will demote the different experience of others to a lesser status. ” (p 31-32)

“… various practices can be read and understood together since they belong to comparable fields of human experience, those Hobsbawm describes as attempting ‘to establish continuity with a suitable historic past.’37” (p 32)

“The notion of ‘discrepant experiences’ is not intended to circumvent the problem of ideology. On the contrary, no experience that is interpreted or reflected on can be characterized as immediate, just as no critic or interpreter can be entirely believed if he or she claims to have achieved an Archimedean perspective that is subject neither to history nor to a social setting.” (p 32)

“The discrepancy between the politics producing the _Description_ and that of Jabarti’s immediate response is stark, and highlights the terrain they contest so unequally.” (p 34)

“His experience produced a deep-seated anti-Westernism that is a persistent theme of Egyptian, Arab, Islamic, and Third World history; one can also find in Jabarti the seeds of Islamic reformism which, as promulgated later by the great Azhar cleric and reformer Muhammad ‘Abdu and his remarkable contemporary Jamal ai-Din ai-Afghani, argued either that Islam had better modernize in order to compete with the West, or that it should return to its Meccan roots the better to combat the West; in addition, Jabarti speaks at an early moment in the history of the immense wave of national self-consciousness that culminated in Egyptian independence, in Nasserite theory and practice, and in contemporary movements of so-called Islamic fundamentalism.” (p 34)

“… the tendency in anthropology, history, and cultural studies in Europe and the United States is to treat the whole of world history as viewable by a kind of Western super-subject, whose historicizing and disciplinary rigor either takes away or, in the post-colonial period, restores history to people and cultures ‘without’ history. … These elisions and denials are all reproduced, I believe, in the strident journalistic debates about decolonization, in which imperialism is repeatedly on record as saying, in effect, You are what you are because of us; when we left, you reverted to your deplorable state; know that or you will know nothing, for certainly there is little to be known about imperialism that might help either you or us in the present.” (p 35)

“… self-constituted ‘Western’ societies …” (p 36)

“While it is certainly true that the media is far better equipped to deal with caricature and sensation than with the slower processes of culture and society, the deeper reason for these misconceptions is the imperial dynamic and above all its separating, essentializing, dominating, and reactive tendencies.” (p 37)

“One of the canonical topics of modern intellectual history has been the development of dominant discourses and disciplinary traditions in the main fields of scientific, social, and cultural inquiry. Without exceptions I know of, the paradigms for this topic have been drawn from what are considered exclusively Western sources. Foucault’s work is one instance …” (p 41)

[“Connecting Empire to Secular Interpretation” (p 43) …]

“Behind such scholars was an even longer tradition of humanistic learning that derived from that efflorescence of secular anthropology … And underlying _their_ work was the belief that mankind formed a marvelous, almost symphonic whole whose progress and formations, again as a whole, could be studied exclusively as a concerted and secular historical experience, not as an exemplification of the divine. Because ‘man’ has made history, there was a special hermeneutical way of studying history that differed in intent as well as method from the natural sciences.” (p 44)

“… a major reason why such a view of human culture became current in Europe and America in several different forms during the two centuries between 1745 and 1945 was the striking rise of nationalism during the same period. … when most European thinkers celebrated humanity or culture they were principally celebrating ideas and values they ascribed to their own national culture, or to Europe as distinct from the Orient, Africa, and even the Americas.” (p 44)

“… the history of fields like comparative literature, English studies, cultural analysis, anthropology can be seen as affiliated with the empire and, in a manner of speaking, [page break] even contributing to its methods for maintaining Western ascendancy over non-Western natives…” (p 50-51)

“In an important sense, we are dealing with the formation of cultural identities understood not as essentializations (although part of their enduring appeal is that they seem and are considered to be like essentializations) but as contrapuntal ensembles, for it is the case that no identity can ever exist by itself and without an array of opposites, negatives, oppositions …” (p 52)

“To the best of my ability to have read and understood these ‘structures of attitude and reference,’ there was scarcely any dissent, any departure, any demurral from them: there was virtual unanimity that subject races should be ruled, that they _are_ subject races, that one race deserves and has consistently earned the right to be considered the race whose main mission is to expand beyond its own domain.” (p 53)

“Citizens and intellectuals of the United States have a particular responsibility for what goes on between the United States and the rest of the world, a responsibility that is in no way discharged or fulfilled by saying that the Soviet Union, Britain, France, or China were, or are, worse.” (p 54)

“We are, so to speak, _of_ the connections, not outside and beyond them.” (p 55)

“Cultural experience or indeed every cultural form is radically, quintessentially hybrid, and if it has been the practice in the West since Immanuel Kant to isolate cultural and aesthetic realms from the worldly domain, it is now time to rejoin them. This is by no means a simple matter, since — I believe — it has been the essence of experience in the West at least since the late eighteenth century not only to acquire distant domination and reinforce hegemony, but also to divide the realms of culture and experience into apparently separate spheres.” (p 58)

“Critical theory and literary historical scholarship have reinterpreted and revalidated major swatches of Western literature, art, and philosophy.” (p 60)

“… theoretical work must begin to formulate the relationship between empire and culture.” (p 60)

“Theoretically we are only at the stage of trying to inventory the _interpellation_ of culture by empire, but the efforts so far made are only slightly more than rudimentary.” (p 61)

Selected References

  • 8. O’Brien, “Costs and Benefits,” pp. 180-81.
  • 9. Harry Magdolf, Imperialism: From the Colonial Age to the Present (New York: Monthly Review, 1978), pp. 19 and 35
  • 10. William H. McNeill, The Pursuit of Power. Technology, Armed Forces and Society Since 1000 A.D. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), pp. 260-61.
  • 12. Richard W. Van Alstyne, The Rising American Empire (New York: Norton, 1974), p. 1. See also Walter LaFeber, The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1963).
  • 13. See Michael H. Hunt, Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987).
  • 19. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (1961; rprt. New York: Grove, 1968), p. 101.
  • 21. Selected Poetry and Prose of Blake, ed. Northrop Frye (New York: Random House, 1953), p. 447. One of the few works to deal with Blake’s anti-imperialism is David V. Erdman, Blake: Prophet Against Empire (New York: Dover, 1991).
  • 23. Raymond Williams, “Introduction,” in Dickens, Dombey and Son, pp. 11-12.
  • 24. Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization Vol. 1 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987), pp. 280-336.
  • 27. Salman Rushdie, “Outside the Whale,” in Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991 (London: Viking/Granta, 1991), pp. 92, 101.
  • 29. Joseph Conrad, “Heart of Darkness,” in Youth and Two Other Stories (Garden City: Doubleday, Page, 1925), p. 82.
  • 31. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951; new ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973), p.215. See also Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconcious: Narrative a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), pp. 206-81
  • 32. Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. 37.
  • 35. Rushdie, “Outside the Whale,” pp. 100-101.
  • 37. Eric Hobsbawm, “Introduction,” in Hobsbawm and Ranger, Invention of Tradition, p. 1.
  • 39. ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti, ‘Aja’ib ai-Athar fi al-Tarajum wa al-Akhbar, Vol. 4 (Cairo: Lajnat al-Bayan al-‘Arabi, 1958-1967), p. 284.
  • 50. Antonio Gramsci, “Some Aspects of the Southern Question,” in Selections from Political Writings, 1921-1926, trans. and ed. Quintin Hoare (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1978), p. 461. For an unusual application of Gramsci’s theories about “Southernism,” see Timothy Brennan, “Literary Criticism and the Southern Question,” Cultural Critique, No. 11 (Winter 1988-89), 89-114.
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