Edward Said’s seminal work Orientalism took Western historians and academics to task for constructing an essentialized view of the Asian and the Middle East, further arguing Western representations of the East revealed more about Western culture than those outside of Europe and the Americas. Traversing similar terrain, Said’s Culture and Imperialism explores the role of “culture” (as Said seems to define it through literary works, art and music) in the imperial project and culture’s connections globally. Focusing on the Western Empires of the nineteenth and twentieth century (more specifically those of the US, Britain and France) and their cultural productions , Said notes that too few scholars have paid close attention to “the privileged role of culture in the modern imperial experience” noting that its “global reach” continues to “cast a shadow over our own times.” (12)
Much like Arjun Appadurai, Jeremy Prestholdt, and to a lesser extent David Harvey, Said attempts to illuminate obscured relationships between imperialism and its colonies taking note of imperialism’s obscured presence in the domestic culture of imperializing nations. Said’s literary examples include Thomas Hardy, Albert Camus, and Chalers Dickens among others. Utilizing examples such as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Said illustrates the implicit connections between European protagonists and Europe itself to Asia , Middle East, and the Caribbean. For example, Jane Austen’s protagonists depend on Antigua for their economic livelihood, a dependency often presented by the text as peripheral. Heart of Darkness’ Marlowe simultaneously reinforces ideas about non whites and Africa while also expressing a deep skepticism about the project of imperialism itself. Said suggests that the “great texts” of European and American culture must be reexamined such that scholars “give emphasis and voice to what is silent or marginally represented.” (66) In addition, Accordingly, the metropole/periphery formation cast subjectivities on the Middle East and Asia as well as other realms of empire, as places younger Europeans went to “sow their oats”, a wild adventure among irrational non-western peoples.
Paying close attention to “cultural resistance” as another way of viewing history, Said explores the works of CLR James, George Antonius, Salmon Rushdie, and Franz Fanon among others. As Said acknowledges, “the post imperial writers of the Third World … bear their past within them”, meaning their works continue to exhibit a connection to imperialism well after its “official” political collapse. However, Said carefully distinguishes earlier writers such as CLR James whose work explore imperialism and its connections more broadly from more recent such as Ranajit Guha who focuses more exclusively on cultural productions emanating from imperialism or post-colonial networks of authority. Some of this difference rests on the note the shift between “the terrain of nationalist independence to the theoretical domain of liberation,.”(268) which Said argues historians ignore at our own peril.
Still, not all cultural resistance pleases Said. Efforts to rightly resist imperialism sometimes fall back on an essentializing nationalism that morphs into nativism negating politics and history. Again, like Appadurai, Said raises concerns about the role of media in reifying and inscribing negative images about Asia and the Middle East while also marginalizing the experiences of such peoples by only giving historical context when geopolitical conflict erupts.
Said’s work illustrates the point that literature and culture are not confined to the nation state. Uncovering imperialism’s “structure of attitude and reference” which partakes of “racial superiority as much as of artistic brilliance, or political as of technical authority, of simplifying reductive as of complex techniques” (112), Culture and Imperialism contends the imperial nations and those subjected to their rule remain interconnected. Critics might point to Said’s failure to explore literature from the very people Said argues Western works obscure or essentialize. Chinu Achebe’s work Things Fall Apart or Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood serve as obvious examples worth analysis. Moreover, the dominant focus on works of literature limits the argument to higher level cultural production, failing to account more popular forms. Finally, in terms of accessibility, should the reader lack Said’s eruditeness, much of the argument proves elusive.