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.

And yet I think it could not have been otherwise, given the topic, the author, the historical situation. One’s editorial finger may occasionally itch for a blue pencil, but one’s readerly eye wants to remark, to annotate, to remember and reflect on the literally thousands of insights into the relation of culture and imperialism that this book offers. Culture and Imperialism provides a profound, comprehensive and brilliantly detailed account of its topic. If one had to rely on any single source-book about imperial culture, it would certainly be this encyclopedic study, which touches on practically every significant imperial venture in modern European history, and focuses with unprecedented subtlety on the 19th-century elaboration of French and British colonial systems, moving across the spectrum of cultural production from novels to poetry to opera to contemporary mass media. The general reader who wants this to be the only book he reads about imperialism may find some of the reading lists excessive, but the scholar will find them indispensable guides to the vast literature on imperialism that Said has at his fingertips.

The importance of Culture and Imperialism, however, is not simply the encyclopedic range of overlapping narratives and territories that take the reader around the entire globe through two centuries of imperial history. Equally important is what I can only describe as Said’s vulnerability to his subject, his refusal to master his topic with theories or narratives, his sense of incompleteness, of unsolved (even unsolvable) problems, of utopian alternatives, modest practical strategies, frustrated hopes and tragic mistakes.

Said writes at the end of what is now (over-optimistically) being called the ‘post-colonial’ era, the period – roughly since World War Two, in which the direct political administration of Third World countries by European colonial powers has apparently come to an end. And yet he also writes at a moment when national struggles of liberation from colonialism seem to be dissolving into ferocious forms of state terrorism, ‘ethnic cleansing’ and religious fundamentalism. He writes at a time when his adopted home country, the United States, has emerged as the undisputed heir to the crown of imperial dominatrix, when there is no longer an ‘Evil Empire’ to provide a kind of global moral allegory. The imperial stage is now the scene of a Pax Americana, one that teaches the world to sing in the perfect harmony of international corporate culture, while dispatching its smart bombs to surgically cleanse ‘trouble spots’. It is not all that clear whether the present era is to be seen as the final death-throes of imperialism, or as the moment when a new, more virulent, subtle and all encompassing form of economic neo-colonialism (complete with rapid-strike forces) is about to assume global dominance.

Said writes from a situation, in short, where the grand modernist hopes for de-colonisation and nationalist liberation, the prophetic and utopian accents of great public intellectuals like Fanon, have been betrayed by the likes of Idi Amin and Saddam Hussein. The masterly narratives of the public intellectuals have been replaced by less ambitious, more narrowly professional and academic ‘studies’ of empire. Said writes as a professional scholar at the end of a great age of cultural theorising and historical revisionism called ‘Post-Modernism’, yet he is relentlessly critical of professional, academic criticism, scornful of esoteric theory (even as he builds on its insights) and hopelessly nostalgic for the heroic age of public criticism when the kind of global study he wants could be realised.

Said has, in effect, attempted to write an impossible book for an impossible age, a book that would negotiate the contradictions between global scope and particular detail, master narratives and local histories, encyclopedic scholarly learning and a popular, public form of critical engagement. His description of the ‘peculiarities’ of Verdi’s Aïda (another flawed masterpiece) could easily be applied to his own book: ‘like the opera form itself, [it] is a hybrid, radically impure work that belongs equally to the history of culture and the historical experience of overseas domination. It is a composite work, built around disparities and discrepancies that have been either ignored or unexplored, that can be recalled and mapped descriptively; they are interesting in and of themselves, and they make more sense of [its] unevenness, its anomalies, its restrictions and silences, than analyses of the kind that focus on ... European culture exclusively.’

The ‘unevenness’ of Culture and Imperialism is partly a matter of the heterogeneous kinds of writing it deploys. Angry political polemic jostles against close, loving, formal analysis of aesthetic objects. Detailed historical interpretations of individual texts butt into philosophical reflections on the basic metalanguages of imperialism and culture. Broad historical strokes survey European imperial culture through its three major phases: the heroic, confident era of 19th-century Romanticism and Realism; the ‘ironic’ era of Modernism and resistance struggle; the irresolution and confusion of the post-modern, post-colonial era which we now inhabit. Yet this generalised story is continually complicated and undermined by a sense of local exigencies, cultural specificity and discrepant rates of historical development. At the very moment that Post-Modernism seems the cultural dominant of the New World Order, Arab intellectuals ‘are still concerned with modernity itself, still far from exhausted, still a major challenge in a culture dominated by turath (heritage) and orthodoxy’. Nor is this simply a question of the Third World ‘catching up’ on a single, homogeneous time-line to a prefabricated modernity, but a complex issue of re-functioning, translation and appropriation. The post-colonial ‘modernities’ of Iraq, Egypt, China, India have to be seen as distinct from one another, and from their Western ‘models’; at the same time their relations and common features must be mapped.

The tensions, contradictions and unresolved oppositions in Culture and Imperialism are not, then, straightforward ‘flaws’ in Said’s argument or method, but necessary consequences of his own historical position as a hybrid intellectual, mediating professional and public criticism, theory and history, aesthetic formalism and ethical engagement, cosmopolitan centrality and the marginality of the Palestinian exile. The flaws are also directly traceable to a deeply confused historical situation, ‘a period of vast uncertainty’ that resists master-narratives and totalising theories and permits only the formation of tactical, provisional cultural maps and contrapuntal narratives.

In this spirit, I want to offer a kind of secondary map of Culture and Imperialism that distinguishes three different forms of more or less necessary contradiction in Said’s argument. The first might be called the political, which animates the basic polemic of the book, its attack on such straightforward antagonists as imperialism, colonialism, nationalism, nativism and fanatical forms of religious or racial sectarianism. Arrayed against these forces (which have themselves been historically opposed at various moments, as in the conflict between nativist, religious, nationalist movements and imperial domination), Said traces a history of secular resistance to empire that goes well beyond the nationalist tendency to simply replicate and ‘nativise’ forms of imperial domination. This tradition stresses critical, emancipatory, dialectical notions of resistance, and is located by Said principally in the examples of Franz Fanon and C.L.R. James. When Said remarked at a conference in Chicago some time ago that he wanted to establish a Palestinian state so that he could critically attack it, he articulated the basic impulse that holds him back from one-sided polemic, and forestalls the sort of intellectual paralysis that can be brought about by simple oppositions – between imperialism and nationalism, between internationalist and nativist perspectives. Said’s political polemic is, in short, thoroughly dialectical (though not Hegelian) in its structure, consistently refusing static divisions between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

The second form of contradiction in Said’s argument might be called cultural/methodological. It deploys such oppositions as the religious and the secular; theoretical totalities and pluralistic strategies of critical practice; linear, narrative time and contrapuntal constructions of space. ‘The inherent mode’ for Said’s ‘contrapuntal method’ is, as he insists, ‘not temporal but spatial’. Following Gramsci, he clearly privileges the spatial categories of geography, landscape, place and terrain over the temporal categories that have dominated both Hegelian/Marxist and bourgeois historiography.

Said does not, however, regard narrative time as irrelevant to history. His argument is rather that the tendency of time-logic is to homogenise historical events and cultural phenomena, to reduce their significance to positions in a linear chain of cause and effect and to refer all final significance to a quasi-religious and totalising eschatology, a ‘goal’ of history, a resolution to the master-narrative. Temporality finally recuperates a spatial perspective by constructing what Said calls ‘a Western super-subject’ who treats ‘the whole of world history as viewable’. Thus, theory, religion and temporality collude at the level of explanatory method to reproduce the very cultural and political totalities and essences that require deconstructing in the first place.

The categories of space, by contrast, focus attention on the concrete boundaries and material formations of social relationships. They reveal these borders functioning simultaneously as barriers between peoples and as connecting links, as constructions of both culture (narratives, representations, discourses) and physical technologies (ships, weapons, systems of commerce). By starting from the real world map of imperial domination, Said is able to perform a global critique that is not totalising, and produce what he calls ‘overlapping narratives’ that are (following the tradition of Vico, Rousseau, Herder and the brothers Schlegel) secular, not eschatological, in their claims.

Said’s third form of contradiction is the most fundamental, and is indicated in the very terms of his study, culture/imperialism. Perhaps most telling is his decision to connect these terms with the ambiguous metonymic conjunction ‘and’, instead of tethering them with a hierarchical ‘of’, or the metaphorical evasions of ‘as’. Certainly this book has much to say on ‘culture as imperialism’, the ‘imperialism of culture’, and vice versa. But it steadfastly refuses formulations that make one term the cause, the other the effect. At the same time, it resists the temptation (implicit in ‘and’) to flatten out or erase the disjunctions and conflicts between culture and imperialism. After all, these things refer on the one hand to things like ‘art and science’ – novels, poems, paintings, learned professions, media of communication, and on the other to things like armies, bureaucracies, weapons and systems of communication.

As these two lists suggest, some cultural items (novels and poems, for instance) seem to stand at a considerable distance from the political realities of empire, others (media and communication systems) seem to touch them quite directly. Culture and imperialism must be read, then, as a form of global mapping that insists simultaneously on disjunctions and conjunctions of the aesthetic and the political. That is why Said can seem to engage in a ‘de-grading’ critique of apparently ‘innocent’ novels like Mansfield Park while at the same time insisting that he remains ‘as conservative as anyone when it comes to, if not the redemptive value of reading a classic ... the potential enhancement of one’s sensibility and consciousness by doing so’. It is why he can invoke as the literary pole-stars of his notion of culture the contrary figures of Blake and T.S. Eliot. Even as Said rejects Eliot’s idealism, Eliot remains the guardian of a sense of relatively autonomous cultural tradition that is inescapably spatial and multi-directional, a model for the spatial poetics of Said’s own book. Blake, by contrast, is the English poet Eliot notoriously charged with ‘meanness of culture’. Blake dared to suggest that ‘it is the Classics! & not Goths nor Monks, that Desolate Europe with Wars’, and that ‘the Foundation of Empire is Art and Science’. Said’s negotiation of these fearful contraries is what makes Culture and Imperialism a brilliant, courageous and necessary book, a far-flung empire of learning in its own right.

I am not suggesting, however, that Said has successfully finessed every conflict or teased out every contradiction into its dialectical resolution. Two issues, one of exclusion, the other of ambivalence, seem to me fundamentally unresolved. The exclusion is expressed in Said’s unswerving allegiance to what he calls ‘secular’ criticism, as opposed to religious hermeneutics and ‘theocratic’ alternatives to imperialism. Said tells an anecdote of a lecture in Cairo in which he is literally unable to hear a young woman wearing a veil asking about the ‘theocratic alternative’: ‘I had overlooked her concerns in my anti-clerical and secular zeal. (I nevertheless proceeded boldly to my attack!)’ One can certainly understand Said’s negative feelings about religious forms of resistance to imperialism, given his position between the Scylla and Charybdis of Zionism and Islamic fundamentalism. And yet the role of religious opposition to empire cannot be ignored, whether in such phenomena as the Abolitionist Movement, or the anti-colonialist claims of Zionism and Islamic revolutions. Said also seems fully aware that the foundations for his own ‘secular’ alternative, the great legitimating narratives of Enlightenment and modernity, have been thoroughly shaken in the post-modern era. If the ‘secular alternative’ involves faith in enlightened critical reason and Enlightenment notions of emancipation and historical progress, one has to ask what grounds there are for optimism in this quarter, since Said’s own history of modern European imperialism has shown it to be much more a product of secular than theocratic alternatives.

The ambivalence surfaces most clearly in Said’s performance of his hybrid role as professional and public critic. One of his characteristic polemical gestures is the claim that ‘professionalism’ has destroyed a sense of ‘vocation’: ‘Policy-oriented intellectuals have internalised the norms of the state ... and intellectuals whose charge includes values and principles – literary, philosophical, historical specialists – the American university has defanged them. Jargons of almost unimaginable rebarbativeness dominate their styles. Cults like Post-Modernism, discourse analysis. New Historicism, deconstruction, neo-pragmatism transport them into the country of the blue.’

Let’s lay aside for the moment the fact that the distinction between ‘profession’ and ‘vocation’ is rooted in the very difference between ‘secular’ and ‘theocentric’ spheres that Said has invoked, and that a sense of ‘religious vocation’ is one traditional grounding for ethical, political and even professional commitments. Anti-professionalism is an attractive and highly traditional stance for a ‘public’ critic to assume (especially in the US, where it feeds on a long tradition of populist anti-intellectualism) but it strikes me as far too easy, especially for a critic whose work owes so much to the critical movements he dismisses. Culture and Imperialism is itself a ‘Post-Modern’ text in its formal heterogeneity; the analysis of ‘discourse’ as a form of power is central to its project; its contrapuntal strategies of spatial and temporal juxtaposition are not so unlike recent work in New Historicism; its allegiance to a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ and what I have called a ‘de-grading’ or de-sanitising critical mode connect it inevitably to deconstruction; and its resolute rejection of theory and master-narratives give it an unavoidable relation to pragmatism. My sense is that Said has serious critical disputes with each of these movements, but the journalistic stereotype of ‘cults’, ‘jargon’, and ‘professionalism’ prevents him from real intellectual engagement with them. Instead he settles for a rhetoric that sounds more like Lynne Cheney or Hilton Kramer than himself.

The received idea that there are no more great public intellectuals, that academic professionalism has destroyed the critical vocation, is belied by a host of contemporary figures and movements, from Foucault to feminism, many of them gathered in Said’s own pages. (For more on this, see my essay, ‘The Golden Age of Criticism’ in these pages, 28 June 1987.) There is a history to be written of the changes in the public, political and professional role of intellectuals in contemporary society. Said could write such a history, and he himself would be an important part of it. But it would have to deploy a more subtle narrative line than the destruction of vocation by profession.

This ambivalence about professional, academic scholarship extends even to work that is absolutely identified with Said’s own project. A field of studies in ‘colonial discourse’ and ‘post-colonial theory’ has now emerged as an academic specialty in large part because of Said’s brilliant pioneering scholarship. Said faithfully and generously acknowledges his numerous predecessors and even more numerous followers in this massive scholarly effort. And yet he cannot repress his nostalgia for a ‘serener time’ associated with the ‘intuitive synthesis’ of great philologists like Erich Auerbach, Leo Spitzer and Dilthey, or his longing for the heroic age of public intellectuals like Fanon. When Said contrasts two generations of de-colonising criticism – the ‘modernist’ figures of C.L.R. James (The Black Jacobins) and George Antinous (The Arab Awakening) on the one hand, and ‘Post-Modern’ figures like Ranajit Guha (A Rule of Property for Bengal) and S.H. Atalas (The Myth of the Lazy Native) on the other – it is clear that his heart is with the earlier men, but his head is filled with the specialised learning offered by the later scholarship. He shares the public ambitions of the great modernists, but his anti-narrative methodology and professional situation identify him with the Post-Modern moment. That is why Said’s writing seems to vacillate between the professional tones of the immensely learned scholar, working collaboratively to sift the innumerable details of specific colonial episodes, and the voice of the prophet crying in the wilderness, alienated even from the community he has helped to create.

The best summary of Said’s multiple positions is in the marvellous passage from Hugh of St Victor that concludes Culture and Imperialism: ‘The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign place.’ Said is all these men: tender beginner, vulnerable to the infinite strangeness and incompleteness of his own vocation; already strong in a cosmopolitan, internationalist purview that seems at home everywhere; aspiring to a critical perfection that is sometimes indistinguishable from the most profound alienation.