Silence in Culture and Imperialism

In the introduction and the first eighty pages of the book, I noticed how Said pays special attention to the concept of silence, of who is kept silent, and of what remains unspoken. Said first refers to silence in this context: “Without significant exception the universalizing discourses of modern Europe and the United States assume the silence, willing or otherwise, of the non-European world. There is incorporation; there is inclusion there is direct rule; there is coercion. But there is only infrequently an acknowledgment that the colonized people should be heard from, their ideas known” (50). It is interesting that Said extends this critique of the silence that is forced upon the colonized population all the way to Raymond Williams and contemporary Marxists, who discuss Western cultures without paying specific attention to how these cultures are produced and influenced by their imperialistic concerns. Said pays special attention to the narrative (which I greatly appreciate, being an English major!) because in many ways, it is the way to escape this silence, it is the way for the colonized voice to be heard. At the same time, Said does not celebrate the novel, a Western form of narrative. Instead, the novel is a vehicle of silence, a “cultural artifact of bourgeois society” (70). He continues that the novel “is an incorporative, quasi-encyclopedic cultural form. Packed into it are both a highly regulated plot mechanism and an entire system of social reference that depends on the existing institutions of bourgeois society, their authority and power” (70). Because novels and the criticism surrounding them are silent about the reality of the imperialistic nature of the cultures in which they are situated, silence pervades the novel’s readership as well. As such, reading and writing are both forms of silencing the colonized subject.

Said offers an alternative form of criticism, in which the colonized subject’s voice is also considered. He writes that “contrapuntal reading must take account of both processes, that of imperialism and that of resistance to it, which can be done by extending our reading of the texts to include what was once forcibly excluded” (66-67). As such, the critic has the choice either to remain silent about imperialism, as so many have, or to read contrapuntally, to break the silence.

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