Thursday, July 12, 2007

Some more thoughts on imperialism

Some more thoughts from Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism

The first thing to be done now is more or less to jettison simple causality in thinking through the relationship between Europe and the non-European world, and lessening the hold on our thought of the equally simple temporal sequence. We must not admit any notion, for instance, that proposes to show that Wordsworth, Austen, or Coleridge, because they wrote before 1857, actually caused the establishment of formal British governmental rule over India after 1857. We should try to discern instead a counterpoint is not temporal or spatial. How to writers in the period before the great age of explicit, programmatic colonial expansion-- the "scramble for Africa," say-- situate and see themselves and their work in the larger world? We shall find them using striking but careful strategies, many of them derived from expected resources--positive ideas of home, of a nation and its language, of proper order, good behavior, moral values.
But positive ideas of this sort do more than validate "our" world. They also tend to devalue other worlds and, perhaps more significantly from a retrospective point of view, they do not prevent or inhibit or give resistance to horrendously unattractive imperialist practices. No, cultural forms like the novel or the opera do not cause people to go out and imperialize-- [Hee hee-lovelesscynic] Carlyle did not drive Rhodes directly, and he certainly cannot be "blamed" for the problems in today's southern Africa-- but it is genuinely troublingto see how little Britain's great humanistic ideas, institutions, and monuments, which we still celebrate as having the power ahistorically to command our approval, how little they stand in the way of the accelerating imperial process. We are entitled to ask how this body of humanistic ideas co-existed so comfortably with imperialism, and why--until the resistance to imperialism in the imperial domain, among Africans, Asians, Latin Americans, developed-- there was little significant opposition or deterrence to empire at home. Perhaps the custom of distinguishing "our" home and order from "theirs" grew into a harsh political rule for accumulating more of "them" to rule, study, and subordinate. In the great, human ideas and values promulgated by mainstream European culture, we have precisely that "mould of ideas or conditioned reflexes" of which Kiernan speaks, into which the whole business of empire later flowed.
...Not only is this a Crusoe setting things in order: it is also an early Protestant eliminating all traces of frivolous behavior. There is nothing in Mansfield Park that would contradict us, however, were we to assume that Sir Thomas does exactly the same things--on a larger scale-- in his Antigua "plantations." Whatever was wrong there-- and the internal evidence garnered by Warren Roberts suggests that economic depression. slavery, and competition with France were at issue-- Sir Thomas was able to fix, thereby maintaining his control over his colonial domain. More clearly than anywhere else in her fiction, Austen here synchronizes domestic with international authority, making it plain that the values associated with such higher things as ordination, law, and propriety must be grounded firmly in actual rule over and possession of territory. She sees clearly that to hold and rule Mansfield Park is to hold and rule an imperial estate in close, not to say inevitable association with it. What assures the domestic tranquility and attractive harmony of one is the productivity and regulated discipline of the other.
There are days when I really wonder if academia is all that it's cracked up to be. But then there are days like when I read Edward Said, or someone else really good, and you see the good in literary theory and analysis. Because there are thousands of narratives, it seems to me, at those times, that are unmapped and untold, and if you have the wits to map them, you can help tell the secret history of the world, which has been covered up for whatever sinister reason or other.

The book is primarily based on rereading some of the classic works of European literature, with an eye to their relationship to imperialism. Even though Said was writing in 1993, comp lit still neglects the imperialist connections of classic works, or they did at my extremely academically conservative alma mater. And furthermore, he renders the immortal, universal truths of these works somewhat suspect, since as he rightly points out, they did little, for all their talk of human freedom and rights, to criticize the growth of imperialism. Makes me wonder, since we rely on these same great works today, why we're surprised how feeble our resistance to current imperialism is.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think you make a good point about the state of higher education and its possible negative influence on the well educated members of our population. And I agree, metaphysics can have a big impact on how we view the world.

However, I think the big bulk of problems are still mostly due to economics.