Book: Culture and Imperialism By Edward Said
A bout five years after Orientalism was published in 1978, I began to gather together some ideas about the general relationship between culture and empire that had become clear to me while writing that book. The first result was a series of lectures that I gave at universities in the United States, Canada, and England in·1985 and 1986. These lectures form the core argument of the present work, which has occupied me steadily since that time. A substantial amount of scholarship in anthropology, history, and area studies has developed arguments I put forward in OrieniiiJiJm, which was limited to the Middle East. So I, too, have tried here to expand the arguments of the. earlier book to describe a more general pattern of relationships between the modern metropolitan West and its overseas territories.
What are some of the non-Middle Eastern materials drawn on here?
European writing on Africa, India, parts of the Far East, Australia, and the Caribbean; these Africanist and Indianist discourses, as some of them have been called, I see as part of the general European effort to rule distant lands and peoples and, therefore, as related to Orientalist descriptions of the Islamic world, as well as to Europe’s special ways of representing the Caribbean islands, Ireland, and the Far East What are striking in these discourses are the rhetorical figures one keeps encountering in their descriptions of”the mysterious East,” as well as the stereotypes about “the African [or Indian or Irish or Jamaican or Chinese] mind;” the notions about bringing civilization to primitive or barbari~ peoples, the disturbingly familiar ideas about flogging or death or extended punishment being required when “they” misbehaved or became rebellious, because “they” mainly understood force· or violerice best; “they” were not like “us,” and for that reason deserved to be ruled.
Yet it was the case nearly everywhere in the non-European world that the coming of the wl-iite man brought forth some sort of resistance. What I left out of Orimtalirm was that response to Western dominance which culminated in the great movement of decolonization all across the Third World. Along with armed resistance in places as diverse as nineteenth century Algeria, Ireland, and Indonesia, there also went considerable efforts in cultural resistance almost everywhere, the assertions of nationalist identities, and, in the political realm, the creation of associations and parties whose common goal was self-determination and national independence. Never was it the case that the imperial encounter pitted an active Western intruder against a supine or inert non-Western native; there was always some form of active resistance, and in the overwhelming majority of cases, the resistance finally won out.
These two factors-a general world-wide pattern of imperial culture, and a historical experience of resistance against empire–inform this book in ways that make it not just a sequel to Orimtalirm but an attempt to do something else. In both books I have emphasized what in a rather general way I have called “culture.” 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. Included, of course, are both the popular stock of lore about distant parts of the world and specialized knowledge available in such learned disciplines as ethnography, historiography, philology, sociology, and literary history. Since my exclusive focus here’s on the modem Western empires of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, I have looked especially at cultural forms like the novel, which I believe were immensely important in the formation of imperial attitudes, references, and experiences. I do not mean that only the novel was important, but that I consider it the aesthetic object whose connection to the expanding societies of Britain and France is particularly interesting to study. The prototypical modern realistic novel is Robinson Cru.roe, and certainly not accidentally it is about a European who creates a fiefdom for himself on a distant, non European island.
A great deal of recent criticism has concentrated on narrative fiction, yet very little attention has been paid to· its position in the history and world of empire. 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. The main battle in imperialism is over land, of course; but when it came to who owned the land, who had the right to settle and work on it, who kept it going, who won it back, and who now plans its future–these issues were reflected, contested, and even for a time decided in narrative. 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. Most important, the grand narratives of emancipation and enlightenment mobilized people in the colonial world to rise up and throw off imperial subjection; in the process, many Europeans and Americans were also stirred by these stories and their protagonists, and they too fought for new narratives of equality and human community.
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 186os. 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, and a rather combative one at that, as we see in recent “returns” to culture and tradition. These “returns” accompany rigorous codes of intellectual and moral behavior that are opposed to the permissiveness associated with such relatively liberal philosophies as multiculturalism and hybridity.the formerly colonized world, these “returns” have produced varieties of religious and nationalist fundamentalism.
In this second sense culture is a sort of theater where various political and ideological causes engage one another. Far from being a placid realm of Apollonian gentility, culture can even be a battleground on which causes expose themselves to the light of day and contend with one another, making it apparent that, for instance, American, French, or Indian students who are taught to read their national classics before they read others are expected to appreciate and belong ioyally, often uncritically, to their nations and traditions while denigrating or fighting against others.
Now the trouble with this idea of culture is that it entails not only venerating one’s own culture but also thinking of it as somehow divorced from, because transcending, the everyday world. Most professional humanists as a result are unable to make the connection between the prolonged and sordid cruelty of practices such as slavery, colonialist and racial oppression, and imperial subjection on the one hand, and the poetry, fiction, philosophy of the society that engages in these practices on the other. One of the difficult truths I discovered in working on this book is how very few of the British or French artists whom I admire~ took issue with the notion of “subject” or “inferior” races so prevalent among officials who practiced those ideas as a matter of course in ruling India or Algeria. They were widely accepted notions; and they helped fuel the imperial acquisition of territories in Africa throughout the nineteenth century. In thinking of Carlyle or Ruskin, or even of Dickens and Thackeray, critics have often, I believe, relegated these writers’ ideas about colonial expansion, inferior races, or “niggers” to a very different department from that of culture, culture being the elevated area of activity in which they “truly” belong and in which they did their ”really” important work.
Culture conceived in this way can become a protective enclosure: check your politics at the door before you enter it. As someone who has spent his entire professional life teaching literature, yet who also grew up in the , pre-World War Two colonial world, I have found it a challenge not to see culture in this way-that is, antiseptically quarantined from its worldly affiliations–but as an extraordinarily varied field of endeavor. The novels and other books I consider here I analyze because first of all I find them estimable and admirable works of art and learning, in which l and many other readers take pleasure and from which we derive profit. Second, the challenge is to connect them not only with that pleasure and profit but also with the imperial process of which they were manifestly and unconcealed a pan; rather than condemning or ignoring their participation in what was an unquestioned reality in their societies, I suggest that what we learn about this hitherto ignored aspect actually and truly enhances our reading and understanding of them.
Let me say a little here about what I have in mind, using two well-known and very great novels. Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861) is primarily a novel about self-delusion, about Pip’s vain attempts to become a gentleman with
neither the hard work nor the aristocratic source of income required for such a role. Early in life he helps a condemned convict, Abel Magwitch, who, after being transported to Australia, pays back his young benefactor with large sums of money; because the lawyer involved says nothing as he disburses the money, Pip persuades himself that an elderly gentlewoman, Miss Havisham, h·as been his patron. Magwitch then reappears illegally in London, unwelcomed by Pip because every.thing about the man reeks of delinquency and unpleasantness. In the end, though, Pip is reconciled to Magwitch and to his reality: he finally acknowledges Magwitch-hun~ed, apprehended, and fatally ill-as his surrogate father, not as someone to be denied or rejected, though Magwitch is in fact unacceptable, being from Australia, a penal colony designed for the rehabilitation·but not the repatriation of transported English criminals.
Most, if not all, readings of this remarkable wor~ situate it squarely within the metropolitan history of British fiction, whereas I believe that it belongs in a history both more inclusive and more dynamic than such interpretations allow. It has been left to two more recent books than Dickens’s–Robert Hughes’s magisterial The Fatal Shore and Paul Carter’s brilliantly speculative The Road to Botany Bay-to reveal a vast history of speculation about and experience of Australia, a “white” colony like Ireland, in which we can locate Magwitch and Dickens not as mere coincidental references in that history, but as participants in it, through the novel and through a much older and wider experience between England and its overseas territories.
Australia was established as a penal colony in the late eighteenth century mainly so that England could transport an irredeemable, unwanted excess population of felons to a place, originally charted by Captain Cook, that would also function as a colony replacing those lost in America. The pursuit of profit, the building of empire, and what Hughes calls social apartheid together produced modern Australia, which by the time Dickens first took an interest in it during the 184os (in David Copperfield Wilkins Micawber happily immigrates there) had progressed somewhat into profitability and a sort of “free system” where laborers could do well on their own if allowed to do so. Yet in Magwitch Dickens knotted several strands in the English perception of convicts in Australia at the end of transportation. They could succeed, but they could hardly, in the real sense, return. They could expiate their crimes in a technical, legal sense, but what they suffered there warped them into permanent outsiders. And yet they were capable of redemption as long as they stayed in Australia.1
Carter’s exploration of what he calls Australia’s spatial history offers us another version of that same experience. Here explorers, convicts, ethnographers, profiteers, soldiers chart the vast and relatively empty continent each in a discourse that jostles, displaces, or incorporates the others. Botany Bay is therefore first of all an Enlightenment discourse of travel and discovery, then a set of travelling narrators (including Cook) whose words, charts, and intentions accumulate the strange territories and gradually turn them into “home.” The adjacence between the Benthamite organization of space (which produced the city of Melbourne) and ‘the apparent disorder of the Australian bush is shown by Carter to have become an optimistic transformation of social space, which produced an Elysium for gendemen, an Eden for laborers in the 184os.z What Dickens envisions for Pip, being Magwitch’s “London gentleman,” is roughly equivalent to what was envisioned by English benevolence for Australia, one social space authorizing another. But Great Expectation.r was not written with anything like the concern for native Australian accounts that Hughes or Carter has, nor did it presume or forecast a tradition of Australian writing, which in fact came later to include the literary works of David Malouf, Peter Carey, ,and Patrick White. The prohibition placed on Magwitch’s rerum is not only penal but imperial: subjects can be taken to places like Australia, but they cannot be allowed a “return” to metropolitan space, which, as all Dickens’s fiction testifies, is meticulously charted, spoken for, inhabited by a hierarchy of metropolitan personages. So on the one hand, interpreters like Hughes and Carter expand on the relatively attenuated presence of Australia in nineteenth-century British writing, expressing the fullness and earned integrity of an Australian history that became independent from Britain in the twentieth century; yet, on the other, an accurate reading of Great Experiment must note that after Magwitch’s delinquency is expiated, so to speak, after Pip redemptively acknowledges his debt to the old, bitterly energized, and vengeful convict, Pip himself collapses and is revived in two explicitly positive ways.
A new Pip appears, less laden than the old Pip with the chains of the past-he is glimpsed in the form of a child, also called Pip; and the old Pip takes on a new career with his boyhood friend Herbert Pocket, this time not as an idle gentleman but as a hardworking trader in the East, where Britain’s other colonies offer a sort of normality that Australia never could.
Thus even as Dickens settles the difficulty with Australia, another structure of attitude and reference emerges to suggest Britain’s imperial intercourse through trade and travel with the Orient. In his new career as colonial
businessman, Pip is hardly an exceptional figure, since nearly aU of Dickens’s businessmen, wayward relatives, and frightening outsiders have a fairly normal and secure connection with the empire. But it is only in recent years
that these connections have taken on interpretative importance. A new generation of scholars and critics-the children of decolonization in some instances, the beneficiaries (like sexual, religious, and racial minorities) of advances in human freedom at home-have seen in such great texts of Western literature a standing interest in what was considered a lesser world, populated with lesser people of color, portrayed as open to the intervention of so many Robinson Crusoes.
By the end of the nineteenth century the empire is no longer merely a shadowy presence, or embodied merely in the unwelcome appearance of a fugitive convict but, in the works of writers like Conrad, Kipling, Gide, and, Loti, a central area of concern. Conrad’s Nostromo (1904)–my second example-is set in a Central American republic, independent (unlike the African and East Asian colonial settings of his earlier fictions), and dominated at the same time by outside interests because of its immense silver mine. For a contemporary American the most compelling aspect of the work is Conrad’s prescience: he forecasts the,unstoppable unrest and “misrule” of the Latin American republics (governing them, he says, quoting Bolivar, is like plowing the sea), and he singles out North America’s particular way of influencing conditions in a decisive yet barely visible way. Holroyd, the San Francisco financier who backs Charles Gould, the British owner of the San Tome mine, warns his protege that “we won’t be drawn into any large trouble” as investors. Nevertheless, We can sit and watch. Of course, some day we shall step in. We are bound to. But there’s no hurry. Time itself has got to wait on the greatest country in the whole of God’s universe. We shall be giving the word for everything–industry, trade, law, journalism, art, politics, and religion, from Cape Hom clear over to Surith’s Sound, and beyond it, too, if anything worth taking hold of turns up at the North Pole. And then we shall have the leisure to take in hand the outlying islands and continents of the earth. We shall run the world’s business whether the world likes it or not. The world can’t help it-and neither can we, I guess.3
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. No American has been immune from this structure of feeling, and yet the implicit warning contained in Conrad’s portraits of Holroyd and Gould is rarely reil~ted on sinct: the rhetoric of power all too easily produces an illusion of benevolence when deployed in an imperial setting. Yet it is a rhetoric whose most damning characteristic is that it has been used before, not just once (by Spain and Portugal) but with deafeningly repetitive frequency in the modern period; by the British, the French, the Belgians, the Japanese, the Russians, and now the Americans.
Yet it would be incomplete to read Conrad’s great work simply as an early prediction of what we see happening in twentieth-century Latin America, with its string of United Fruit Companies, colonels, liberation forces, and American-financed mercenaries. Conrad is the precursor of the Western views of the Third World which one finds in the work of novelists as different as Graham Greene, V. S. Naipaul, and Robert Stone, of theoretiCians of imperialism like Hannah Arendt, and of travel writers, filmmakers, and polemicists whose specialty is to deliver the non-European world either for analysis and judgement or for satisfying the exotic tastes of European and North American audiences. For if it is true that Conrad ironically sees the imperialism of the San Tome silver mine’s British and American owners as ·doomed by its own pretentious and impossible ambitions, it is also true that he writes as a man whose Western view of the non-Western world is so ingrained as to blind him to other histories, other cultures, other aspirations.
All Conrad can see is a world totally dominated by the Atlantic West, in which every opposition to the West only confirms the West’s wicked power. What Conrad cannot see is an alternative to this cruel tautology. He could neither understand that India, Africa, and South America also had lives and cultures with integrities not totally controlled by the gringo imperialists and reformers of this·· world, nor allow himself to believe that anti-imperialist independence movements were not all corrupt and in the pay of the puppet masters in London or Washington.
These crucial limitations in vision are as much a part of Nostromo as its characters and plot. Conrad’s novel embodies the same paternalistic arrogance of imperialism that it mocks in characters like Gould and Holroyd. Conrad seems to be saying, “We Westerners will decide who is a good native or a bad, because all natives. have sufficient existence by virtue of our recognition. We created them, we taught them to speak and think, and when they rebel they simply confirm our views of them as silly children, duped by some of their Western masters.” This is in effect’ what Americans have felt about their southern neighbors: that independence is to be wished for them so long as it is the kind of independence we approve of Anything else ‘is unacceptable and, worse, unthinkable.
It is no paradox, therefore, that Conrad was both anti-imperialist and imperialist, progressive when it came to rendering fearlessly and pessimistically the self-confirming, self-deluding corruption of overseas domination, deeply reactionary when it came to conceding that Africa or South America could ever have had an independent history or culture, which the imperialists violently· disturbed but by which they were ultimately defeated. Yet lest we think patronizingly of Conrad as the creature of his own time, we had better note that recent attitudes in Washington and.among most Western policymakers and intellectuals show little advance over his views. What Conrad discerned as the futility latent in imperialist philanthropy-whose intentions include such ideas as “making the world safe for democracy” the United States government is still unable to perceive, as it tries to, implement its wishes all OVC!i the globe, especially in the Middle East. At least Conrad had the courage to see th~t no such schemes· ever succeed because they trap. the planners in more illusions of omnipotence and misleading self-satisfaction (as in Vietnam), and because by their very nature they falsify the evidence.
All this is worth bearing in mind if Nostromo is to be read with some attention to its massive strengths and inherent limitations. The newly independent state of Sulaco that emerges at the end of the novel is only a smaller, more tightly controlled and intolerant version of the larger state from which it has seceded and has now come to displace in wealth and importance. Conrad allows the reader to see that imperialism is a system. Life in one subordinate realm of experience is imprinted by the fictions and follies of the dominant realm. But the reverse is true, too, as experience in the dominant society comes to depend uncritically on natives and their territories perceived as in need of Ia mission civiJisatn’ce.
However it is read, Nostromo offers a profoundly unforgiving view, and it has quite literally enabled the equally severe view of Western imperialist illusions in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American or V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the. River, novels with very different agendas. Few readers today, after Vietnam, Iran, the Philippines, Algeria, Cuba, Nicaragua, Iraq, would disagree that it is precisely the fervent innocence of Greene’s Pyle or Naipaul’s Father H1.1ismans, men for whom the native can be educ•ted into “our” civilization, that turns out to produce the murder, subversion, and endless instability of”primitive” societies. A similar anger pervades films like Oliver Stone’s Salvador, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and Constantin Costa-Gavras’s M.,issing, in which unscrupulous CIA operatives and powermad officers manipulate natives and well-intentioned Americans alike.
Yet all these works, which are so indebted to Conrad’s anti-imperialist irony in Nostromo; argue that the source of the world’s significant action and life is in the .West, whose representatives seem at liberty to visit their fantasies and philanthropies upon a mind-deadened Third World. In this view, the outlying regions of the world have no life, history, or culture to speak of, no independence or integrity worth representing without the West. And when there is something to be described it is, following Conrad, unut, terribly corrupt, degenerate, irredeemable. But whereas Conrad wrote Nostromo during a period of Europe’s largely uncontested imperialist enthusiasm, contemporary novelists and filmmakers who have learned his ironies so well have done their work after decolonization, after the massive intellectual, moral, and imaginative overhaul and deconstruction of Western representation of the non-Western world, after the work of Frantz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral, C.L.R. James, Walter Rodney, after the -novels and plays of Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wole Soyinka, Salman Rushdie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and many others.
Thus Conrad has passed along his residual imperialist propensities, although his heirs scarcely have an excuse to justify the often subtle and unreflecting bias of their work. This is not just a matter of Westerners who do not have enough sympathy for or comprehension of foreign cultures–since there are, after all, some artists and intellectuals who have, in effect, crossed to the other side-Jean Genet, Basil Davidson, Alben Memmi, Juan Goytisolo, and others. What is perhaps more relevant is the political willingness to take seriously the alternatives to imperialism, among them the existence of other cultures and societies. Whether one believes that Conrad’s extraordinary fiction confirms habitual Western suspicions about Latin America, Africa, and Asia, or whether one sees in novels like Nostromo and Great Expectation the lineaments of an astonishingly durable imperial worldview, capable of warping the perspectives of reader and author equally: both those ways of reading the real alternatives seem outdated. 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. To the extent that we see Conrad both criticizing and reproducing the imperial ideology of his time, to that extent we can characterize our own present attitudes: the projection, or the refusal, of the wish to dominate, the capacity to damn, or the energy to comprehend and engage with other societies, traditions, histories.
The world has changed since Conrad and Dickens in ways that have surprised, and often alarmed, metropolitan Europeans and Americans, who now confront large non-white immigrant populations in their midst, and face an impressive roster of newly empowered voices asking for their narratives to be heard. The point of my book is that such populations and voices have been there for some time, thanks to the globalized process set in motion by modern imperialism; to ignore or otherwise discount the overlapping experience of Westerners and Orientals, the interdependence of cultural remains in which colonizer and colonized co-existed and battled each other through projections as well as rival geographies, narratives, and histories, is to miss what is essential about the world in the past century.
For the first time, the history of imperialism and its culture can now be studied as neither monolithic nor reductively compartmentalized, separate, distinct True, there has been a disturbing eruption of separatist and chauvinist discourse, whether in India, Lebanon, or Yugoslavia, or in Afrocentric, Islamic Centric, or Eurocentric proclamations; far from invalidating the struggle to be free from empire, these reductions of cultural discourse actually prove the validity of a fundamental liberationist energy that animates the wish w be independent, to speak freely and without the burden of unfair domination. The only way to understand this energy, however, is historically: and hence the rather wide geographical and historical range attempted in this book. 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, and-to speak about my own part of the world-the intolerance of religious prejudice and illusory promises of Bismarckian despotism, a Ia Saddam Hussein and his numerous Arab epigones and counterparts.
What a sobering and inspiring thing it is therefore not just to read one’s own side, as it were, but also to grasp how a great artist like Kipling (few more imperialist and reactionary than he) rendered India with such skill, and how in doing so his novel Kim not only depended on a long history of Anglo-Indian perspective, but also, in spite of itself, forecast the untenability of that perspective in its insistence on the belief that the Indian reality required, indeed beseeched British tutelage more or less indefinitely. The great cultural archive, I argue, is where the intellectual and aesthetic investments in overseas dominion are made. If you were British or French in the 186os you saw, and you felt, India and North Africa with a combination of familiarity and distance, but never with a sense of their separate sovereignty.
In your narratives, histories, travel tales, and explorations your consciousness was represented as the principal authority, an active point of energy that made sense not just of colonizing activities but of exotic geographies and peoples. Above all, your sense of power scarcely imagined that those “natives” who appeared either subservient or sullenly uncooperative were ever going to be capable of finally making you give up India or Algeria. Or of saying anything that might perhaps contradict, challenge, or otherwise disrupt the prevailing discourse.
Imperialism’s culture was not invisible, nor did it conceal its worldly affiliations and interests. There is a sufficient clarity in the culture’s major lines for us to remark the often scrupulous notations recorded there, and also to remark how they have not been.paid much attention. Why they are now of such interest as, for instance, to spur this and other books derives less from a kind of retrospective vindictiveness than from a fortified need for links and connections. One of imperialism’s achievements was to bring the world closer together, and although in the process the separation between 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.
My method is to focus as much as possible on individual works, to read them first as great products of the creative or interpretative imagination, and then to show them as part of the relationship between culture and empire.
I do not believe that authors are mechanically determined by ideology, class, or economic history, but authors are, I also believe, very much in the history of their societies, shaping and shaped by that history and their social experience in different measure. Culture and the aesthetic forms it contains derive from historical experience, which in effect is one of the main subjects of this book. As I discovered in writing Orientalism, you cannot grasp historical experience by lists or catalogues, and no matter how much you provide by way of coverage, some books, articles, authors, and ideas are going to be left out. Instead, I have tried to look at what I consider to be important and essential things, conceding in advance that selectivity and conscious choice have had to rule what I have done. My hope is that readers and critics of this book will use it to further the lines of inquiry and arguments about the historical experience of imperialism put forward in it. In discussing and analyzing what in fact is a global process, I have had to be occasionally both general and summary; yet no one, I am sure, would wish this book any longer than it is!
Moreover, there are several empires that I do not discuss: the Austro-Hungarian, the Russian, the Ottoman, and the Spanish and Portuguese. These omissions, however, are not at all meant to suggest that Russia’s domination of Central Asia ·and Eastern Europe, Istanbul’s rule over the Arab world, Portugal’s over what are today’s Angola and Mozambique, and Spain’s domination in both the Pacific and Latin America have been either benign (and hence approved of) or any less imperialist. What I am saying about the British, French, and American imperial experience is that it has a unique coherence and a special cultural centrality. England of course is in an imperial class by itself, bigger, grander, more imposing than any other; for almost two centuries France was in direct competition with it. Since narrative plays such a remarkable part in the imperial. quest, it is therefore not surprising that France and (especially) England have an unbroken tradition of novel-writing, unparalleled elsewhere. America began as an empire during the nineteenth century, but it was in the second half of the twentieth, after the decolonization of the British and French empires, that it directly followed its two great predecessors.
There are two additional reasons for focussing as I do on these three. One is that the idea of overseas rule–jumping beyond adjacent territories to very distant lands–has a privileged status in these three cultures. This idea has a lot to do with projections, whether in fiction or geography or art, and it acquires a continuous presence through actual expansion, administration, investment, and commitment. There is something systematic about imj,erial culture therefore that is not as evident in any other empire as it is in Britain’s or France’s and, in a different way, the United States’. When I use the phrase “a structure of attitude and reference,” this is what I have in mind. Second is that these countries are the three in whose orbits I was born, grew up, and now live. Although I feel at home in them, I have remained, as a native from the Arab and Muslim world, someone who also belongs to the other side. This has enabled me in a sense to live on both sides, and to try to mediate between them.
In fine, this is a book about the past and the present, about “us” and “them,” as each of these things is seen by the various, and usually opposed and separated, parties. Its moment, so to speak, is that of the period after the Cold War, when the United States has emerged as the last superpower. To live there during such a time means, for an educator and intellectual with a background in the Arab world, a number of quite particular concerns, all of which have inflected this book, as indeed they have influenced everything I have written since Orientalism.
First is a depressing sense that one has seen and read about current American policy formulations before. Each great metropolitan center that aspired to global dominance has said, and alas done, many of the same things. There is always the appeal to power and national interest in running the affairs of lesser peoples; there is the same destructive zeal when the going gets a little rough, or when natives rise up and reject a compliant and unpopular ruler who was ensnared and kept in place by the imperial power; there is the horrifically predictable disclaimer that “we” are exceptional, not imperial, not about to repeat the mistake of earlier powers, a disclaimer that has been routinely followed by making the mistake, as witness the Vietnam and Gulf wars. Worse yet has been the amazing, if often passive, collaboration with these practices on the part of intellectuals, artists, journalists whose positions at home are progressive and full of admirable sentiments, but the opposite whe11 it comes to what is done abroad in their name.
It is my (perhaps illusory) hope that a history of the imperial adventure rendered in cultural terms might therefore serve some illustrative and even deterrent purpose. Yet though imperialism implacably advanced during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, resistance to it also advanced. Methodologically then I try to show the two forces together. This by no means exempts the aggrieved colonized peoples from criticism; as any survey of post-colonial states will reveal, the fortunes and misfortunes of nationalism, of what can be called separatism and nativism, do not always make up a flattering story. It too must be told, if only to show that there have always been alternatives to Idi Amin and Saddam Hussein. Western imperialism and Third World nationalism feed off each other, but even at their worst they are neither monolithic nor deterministic. Besides, culture is not monolithic either, and is not the exclusive property of East or West, nor of small groups of men or women.
Nonetheless the story is a gloomy and often discouraging one. What tempers it today is, here and there, the emergence of a new intellectual and political conscience. This is the second concern that went into the making of this book. However much there are laments that the old course of humanistic study has been subject to politicized pressures, to what has been called the culture of complaint, to all sorts of egregiously overstated claims on behalf of “Western” or “feminist” or “Afrocentric” and “Islam Centric” values, that is not all there is today. Take as an example the extraordinary change in studies of the Middle East, which when I wrote Orientalism were still dominated by an aggressively masculine and condescending ethos. To mention only works that have appeared in the last three or four years-Lila Abu-Lughod’s Veiled Sentiment.r, Leila Ahmed’s Women and Gender in Islam, Fedwa Malti-Douglas’s Woman’.r Body, Woman’.r World4-a very different sort of idea about Islam, the Arabs, and the Middle East has challenged, and to a considerable degree undermined, the old despotism. Such works are feminist, but not exclusivist; they demonstrate the diversity and complexity of experience that works beneath the totalizing discourses of Orientalism and of Middle East (overwhelmingly male) nationalism; they are both intellectually and politically sophisticated, attuned to the best theoretical and historical scholarship, engaged but not demagogic, sensitive to but not maudlin about women’s experience; finally, while written by scholars of different backgrounds and education, they are works that are in dialogue with, and contribute to, the political situation of women in the Middle East. Along with Sara Suleri’s The Rhetoric of Engli.rh India and Lisa Lowe’s Critical Terrain.r,5 revisionist scholarship of this son has varied, if it has not altogether broken up the geography of the Middle East and India as homogenous, reductively understood domains. Gone are the binary oppositions dear to the nationalist and imperialist enterprise. Instead we begin to sense that old authority cannot simply be replaced by new authority, but that new alignments made across borders, types, nations, and essences ate rapidly coming into view, and it is those new alignments that now provoke and challenge the fundamentally static notion of identity that has been the core of cultural thought during the era of imperialism. Throughout the exchange between Europeans and their “others” that began systematically half a millennium ago, the one idea that has scarcely varied is that there is an “us” and a “them,” each quite settled, clear, unassailable self-evident. As I discuss it in Orimtalitm, the division goes back to Greek thought about barbarians, but, whoever originated this kind of “identity” thought, by the nineteenth century it had become the hallmark of imperialist cultures as well as those cultures trying to resist the encroachments of Europe.
We are still the inheritors of that style by which one is defined by the nation, which in turn derives its authority from a supposedly unbroken tradition. 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. Besides, its excesses are much more frequent than its contributions to historical accuracy. 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.
Yet the ideological concern over identity is understandably entangled with the interests and agendas of various groups-not all of them oppressed minorities-that wish to set priorities reflecting these interests. Since a great deal of this book is all about what to read of recent history and how to read it, I shall only quickly summarize my ideas here. Before we can agree on what the American identity is made of, we have to concede that as an immigrant settler society superimposed on the ruins of considerable native presence, American identity is too varied to be a unitary and homogenous thing; indeed the battle within it is between advocates of a unitary identity and those who see the whole as a complex but not reductively unified one.
This opposition implies two different perspectives, two historiographies, one linear and subsuming, the other contrapuntal and often nomadic. My argument is that only the second perspective is fully sensitive to the reality of historical experience. Partly because of empire, all cultures are involved in one another; none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogenous, extraordinarily differentiated, and non monolithic. This, I believe, is as true of the contemporary United States as it is of the modern Arab world, where in each instance respectively so much has been made of the dangers of”un-Americanism” and the threats to “Arabism.” Defensive, reactive, and even paranoid nationalism is, alas, frequently woven into the very fabric of education, where children as well as older students are taught to venerate and celebrate the uniqueness of their tradition (usually and invidiously at the expense of others). It is to such uncritical and unthinking forms of education and thought that this book is addressed-as a corrective, as a patient alternative, as a frankly exploratory possibility. In its writing· I have availed myself of the utopian space still provided by the university, which I believe must remain a place where such vital issues are investigated, discussed, reflected on. For it to become a site where social and political issues are actually either imposed or resolved would be to remove the university’s function and turn it into an adjunct to whatever political party is in power. I do not wish to be misunderstood. Despite its extraordinary cultural diversity, the United States is, and will surely remain, a coherent nation. The
same· is true of other English-speaking countries (Britain, New Zealand, Australia, Canada) and even of France, which now contains large groups of immigrants. Much of the polemical divisiveness and polarized debate that Arthur Schlesinger speaks of as hurting the study of history in The Disuniting of America is there of course, but it does not, in my opinion, portend a dissolution of the republic.6 On the whole it is better to explore history rather than to repress or deny it; the fact that the United States contains so many histories, many of them now clamoring for attention, is by no m~ans to be suddenly feared since many of them were always there, and out of them an American society and politics (and even a style of historical writing) were in fact created. In other words, the· result of present debates over multiculturalism is hardly likely to be ”Lebanonization,” and if these debates point a way for political changes and’ changes in the way women, and recent immigrants see themselves, then that is not to be feared or defended against. What does need to be remembered is that narratives of emancipation and enlightenment in their strongest form were also narratives of integration not separation,.the stories of people who had been excluded from the main group but who were now fighting for a place in it. And if the old and habitual ideas of the main group were not flexible or generous enough to admit new groups, then these ideas need changing, a far better thing to do than reject the emerging groups.
The last point I want to make is that this book is an exile’s book. For objective reasons that I had no control over, I grew up as an Arab with a Western education. Ever since I can remember, I have felt that I belonged to both worlds, without being completely of either one or the other. During my lifetime, however, the parts of the’ Arab world that I was most attached to either have been changed utterly by civil upheavals and war, or have simply ceased to exist. And for long periods of time I have been an outsider in the United States, particularly when it went to war against, and was deeply opposed to, the (far from perfect) cultures and societies of the Arab world. Yet when I say “exile” I do not mean something sad or deprived. On the contrary belonging, as it were, to both sides of the imperial divide enables you to understand them more easily. Moreover New York, where the whole of this book was written, is in so many ways the exilic city par excellence; it also contains within. itself the Manichean structure of the colonial city described by Fanon. Perhaps all this has stimulated the kinds of interests and interpretations ventured here, but these circumstances certainly made it possible for me to feel as if I belonged to more than one history and more than one group. As to whether such a state can be regarded as really a salutary alternative to the normal sense of belonging to only one culture and feeling a sense of loyalty to only one nation, the reader must now decide.
The argument of this book was first presented in various lecture series given at universities in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada from 1985 to 1988. For these extended opportunities, I am greatly indebted to faculty and students at the University of Kent, Cornell University, the University of Western Ontario; the University of Toronto, the University of Essex; and, in a considerably earlier version of the argument, the University of Chicago. Later versions of individual sections of this book were also delivered as lectures at the Yeats International School at Sligo, Oxford University (as the George Antonius Lecture at St Antony’s College), the University of Minnesota, King’s College of Cambridge University, the Princeton University Davis Center, Birkbeck College of London University, and the University of Puerto Rico. My gratitude to Declan Kiberd, Seamus Deane, Derek Hopwood, Peter Nesselroth, :rony Tanner, Natalie Davis and Gayan Prakash, A. Walton Litz, ‘Peter Hulme, Deirdre David, Ken Bates, Tessa Blackstone, Bernard Sharrett, Lyn Innis, Peter Mulford, Gervasio Luis Garcia, and Maria de los Angeles Castro for the favor of inviting, and then hosting, me is warm and sincere. In 1989 I was honored when I was asked to give the first Raymond Williams Memorial Lecture in London; ‘I spoke about Camus on that occasion, and thanks to Graham Martin and the late Joy Williams, it was a memorable experience for me. I need hardly say that many·parts of this book are suffused with the ideas and the human and moral example of Raymond Williams, a good friend and a great critic. I shamelessly availed myself of various intellectual, political, and cultural associations as I worked on this book. Those include close personal friends who are also editors of journals in which some of these pages first appeared: Tom Mitchell (of Cn”ticall111Juiry), Richard Poirier (of Ran”tan Review), Ben Sonnenberg (of Grand Street), A Sivanandan (of Race and Class), JoAnn Wypijewski (of The Nation), and Karl Miller (of The London Review of Books). I am also grateful to editors of The Guardian (London) and to Paul Keegan of Penguin under whose auspices some of the ideas in this book were first expressed. Other friends on whose indulgence, hospitality, and criticisms I depended were Donald Mitchell, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, Masao Miyoshi, Jean Franco, Marianne McDonald, Anwar Abdel-Malek, Eqbal Ahmad, Jonathan Culler, Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha, Benita Parry, and Barbara Harlow. It gives me panicular pleasure to acknowledge the brilliance and perspicacity of several students of mine at Columbia University, for whom any teacher would have been grateful. These young scholars and critics gave me the full benefit of their exciting work, which is now both well published and well known: Anne McClintock, Rob Nixon, Suvendi Perera, Gauri Viswanathan, and Tim Brennan.
In the preparation of the manuscript, I have been very ably helped in different ways by Yumna Siddiqi, Aamir Mufti, Susan Lhota, David Beams, Paola di Robilant, Deborah Poole, Ana Dopico, Pierre Gagnier, and Kieran Kennedy. Zaineb Istrabadi performed the difficult task of deciphering IllY appalling handwriting and then putting it into successive drafts with admirable patience and skill. I am very indebted to her for unstinting support, good humor, and intelligence. At various stages of editorial preparation Frances Coady and Carmen Callil were helpful readers and good friends of what I was trying to present here. I must also record my deep gratitude and almost thunderstruck admiration for Elisabeth Sifton: friend of many years, superb editor, exacting and always sympathetic critic. George Andreou was unfailingly helpful in getting things right as the book moved through the publishing process. To Maria JD, Wadie, and Najla Said, who lived with the author of this book in often trying circumstances, heartfelt thanks for their constant love and support.
New York, New York