In the Wilderness

W.J.T. Mitchell

  • Culture and Imperialism by Edward Said
    Chatto, 444 pp, £20.00, February 1993, ISBN 0 7011 3808 4

The Foundation of Empire 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.

William Blake, ‘Annotations to Reynolds’

Blake’s famous remark in the margins of Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses on Art has always mystified me. How could Blake, the fierce ‘prophet against empire’, name his own beloved vocation of ‘Art and Science’ as the foundation of empire? Blake promises that when ‘sweet Science reigns’ and the prophetic artist’s work is done, ‘Empire [will be] no more/And now the Lion & Wolf shall cease.’ Was Blake merely reacting to Reynolds’s complacent and highly traditional notion that ‘art follows empire,’ serving it as mere ideological ornament, or at best as a moral allegory designed to flatter the exercisers of power, or as a sensuous diversion from the ennui of domination and conquest? Is Blake arguing that art, which looks parasitical on empire, is actually foundational? Could culture as such be the foundation of empire, forming the structures of feeling that make a people desire colonial conquest and domination and endure the sacrifices required for them? Or is there a more subversive suggestion that parasitical forms of ‘art and science’ must in some sense be ‘degraded’ and ‘removed’ in order to smash imperialism? Are not Blake’s own works of ‘art and science’, his illuminated books, a kind of de-graded art, hybrid, impure, heterogeneous, visionary, obscene, dangerous, self-contradictory, chaotic?

Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism cites Blake’s remark in its early pages in order to mediate an assertion and a denial. The assertion is that culture is a crucial factor in the desire to found and maintain imperial regimes; the denial is that this fact necessitates a ‘wholesale condemnation’ of culture, a ‘rhetoric of blame’ that reduces works of art (or science) to mere instruments of political domination. Said insists throughout his book on his aesthetic conservatism, his respect for the ‘autonomy’ of artistic values. Yet what can mediate or reconcile the assertion and the denial? Perhaps nothing but a carefully measured ‘de-gradation’ of a mystified conception of art, ‘which we have tended to sanities as a realm of unchanging intellectual monuments, free from worldly affiliations’. To de-grade in this sense is to de-sanities, to engage in a realistic, critical, worldly act of reading and interpretation. It is to confront, not only the historical, worldly situation of texts and images, but the situation of the interpreter, the scene of interpretation and the audience that it addresses. It is, in short, to uphold the tradition of the public intellectual, the social critic willing to address the full range of ethical, political issues and to connect them to the richest examples of cultural expression, the arts and sciences. If Said’s Orientalism provided the critical de-gradation of imperial sciences – the learned disciplines that constructed an Arabic ‘Other’ for an equally reified ‘Western Civilisation’ in modern Europe – Culture and Imperialism takes on an even more difficult and subtle task with the imperial arts. If it is relatively clear how historians, social scientists, demographers, anthropologists and colonial administrators deployed their ‘sciences’ to dominate subject peoples, it is considerably less clear how Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park can be seen as a cultural ‘foundation’ for imperialism. Surely a handful of references to a plantation in Antigua in a novel that otherwise seems totally insular is insufficient evidence for any such claim. Surely Mansfield Park is merely displaying a few symptoms, incidental traces of a historical reality in which it has no real interest.

The choice of Mansfield Park (and of Jane Austen) as Said’s opening literary example is a way of forcing this issue into the open. The canonical reading of Jane Austen as unworldly, uninterested in history, fixated on private, domestic, ‘feminine’ issues, typifies the sort of ‘sanitised’ and monumental view of literature Said wants to criticise. To de-grade Austen is to open her text onto its world of real, historical reference, to see her narrative as unfolding a relation between domestic, private domination and slavery abroad. It is not, Said insists, to turn Austen into an ‘imperialist stooge’, nor to see her novel as causing or responsible for the degradation and violence of British colonial policies. But it is to see her narrative as the complex articulation of a structure of feeling that makes imperialism seem natural, inevitable, so foundational to everyday life that it can be taken for granted. To de-grade Austen is to show how the British could acquire their empire ‘absentmindedly’, to show what sort of culture could sustain a system of global and domestic domination and could represent it to itself as morally enlightened and politically just. Austen’s art, in short, is a representation of a real cultural system in all its richness and detail. It is also a force for the reproduction of that system, and an occasion for its critical de-gradation and de-sanitisation, not (Said insists) for ‘blame’.

But how can blame and degradation be kept distinct? Perhaps they cannot, at least not in any systematic way. Perhaps they can only be divided strategically, rhetorically, as a matter of improvisation and practical criticism, not as a matter of pure principle or theory. Perhaps the only recourse is a critical practice that risks polemical engagements, provisional tactics, unresolved contradictions, the defacement of literary monuments and the cultural verities they express. The acceptance of these risks is what makes Culture and Imperialism a great and flawed book – great in its scope, intellectual energy, learning and critical passion, flawed in its excesses and repetitions, its drastic swings of tone, its unevenness in conception and execution.

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