Edward Said – Culture and Imperialism

Chapter One:  Overlapping Territories, Intertwined Histories

Said notes at the beginning of this essay that as individuals we must “fully comprehend the pastness of the past” while at the same time recognizing that the past is always informing the present.  Another way of saying this is that the ways that we think about and articulate the past always bring to bear on our perception and understanding of the present.  Turning to imperialism, Said notes that instead of being merely economic, imperialism is intrinsically tied to culture.

Tracing the rise of European colonialism, Said ties the “Age of Empire” to the process of globalization to demonstrate how the cultural imperialism operant during the colonial era informs the globalized era of the now.  Despite the myth of American “greatness,” the U.S. too participated – and marshaled in the post WWII period – in imperialist ventures throughout the globe.   Yet, in the contemporary context “direct colonialism” has mostly ended (what about U.S. military bases?); however, imperialism is still operative – especially in the cultural sphere.

Said notes that imperialism allowed metropolitan centers of the imperial power to flourish all the while justifying the subjectification of far-away individuals in the land of Empire.  In examining the imperialism of colonialist powers, Said wants to consider how the cultural – through consolidation of education, literature, visual/musical arts – operated to produce a shared national consciousness; in other words, Said is asking, “What, then, is the connection between the pursuit of national imperial aims and the general national culture?

The rhetoric of blame operates as the process whereby individuals remembering a colonial/imperialist legacy different from those in power end up incurring the wrath of state power.  Working back to Fanon’s description of the nationalist bourgeoisie, Said notes that the realities of cultural and economic imperialism force post-colonial states back into relationships with the West.

Key Definitions

Imperialism – thinking about, settling on, and controlling land that you do not possess, that is distant, that is lived on and owned by others (7).    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 (9).

Cultures – far from being unitary or monolithic or autonomous things, cultures actually assume more “foreign” elements, alterities, differences, than they can consciously exclude (15).

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