Tag Archives: Culture and Imperialism

Various views of imperialism

As with Fanon, Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism discusses (among many other things) the views of both the “natives” and the colonizers about colonization. Early in this week’s reading, he posits that “most cultural formations [in imperialist nations] presumed the permanent primacy of the imperial power. Still, an alternative view to imperialism arose, persisted, and eventually prevailed” (199). This presents a basic and concise view of the oppositions. The latter statement gives brief hope that despite the majority of this book talking about the ways that the colonized were repressed, in the end they have overturned their rulers. The former statement is, I think, much more interesting. That the imperialist nations assumed they would forever be able to subjugate other nations to tyranny is more surprising than, I suppose, it should be. Such a mode of thinking must have been present or they would have been much more terrified to rule in the first place (“They’ll take back power someday; we’d better treat them nicer . . .”). But the assumption that power dynamics would never change is just hubristic and naive.

Said points out later that of course the colonized peoples weren’t going to allow the status quo to remain. He discusses Thompson’s odd way of looking at it, that the British needed to “recognize that Indian men and women ‘want their self-respect given back to them’ ” (206). This sentence immediately calls Fanon to mind, whose arguments always rested on the colonized people taking back what they want, forming their own identity. Nothing is ever given back to them; and Said knows this as well: “as Fanon argued—the empire never gives anything away out of goodwill. It cannot give Indians their freedom, but must be forced to yield it as the result of a protracted political, cultural, and sometimes military struggle . . .” (207). Of course, this is not something the colonizer nation wants, so even the sympathizers cannot imagine (or at least describe) the violent struggle that will actually be necessary for the colonized to gain sovereignty. Instead, writers like Thompson wanted the imperialist nations to take the first step of realizing the humanness of the subjugated people and return to them what the imperialist nation had first taken away and, honestly, could not return.

A final viewpoint to mention here is one mentioned in one of the various novels Said discusses that rework Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to relate better to the colonized’s experiences. The passage Said quotes includes the following: “Sooner or later they will leave our country, just as many people throughout history left many countries. The railways, ships, hospitals, factories, and schools will be ours and we’ll speak their language without either a sense of guilt or a sense of gratitude” (212). The first sentence recalls the first idea mentioned in this response, that the colonizers thought they’d never leave. In the passage here, the speaker is not proposing violent removal of the colonizers, but rather asserting that, eventually, they will simply leave of their own accord. This way of looking at the colonizer nation is unique to most of what we’ve read: either it appears they will stay forever (whether because it’s a good thing or because it’s impossible to get rid of them) or that the only way to remove them is through violence. The second sentence contains another novel idea: once the colonizers leave, the nation left behind will get on just fine, continuing to create history from the spot where the colonizers left off. According to the speaker, the former colonized people will “speak their language” rather than attempt to return to life before the colonizers came; but in doing so they will hold neither “a sense of guilt or a sense of gratitude,” the former proposed by many others in the colonized nations (they shouldn’t perpetuate the culture of the colonizers), the latter assumed by the colonizers (“They ought to be grateful that we brought them such a variety of knowledge and culture”). The speaker thus rejects the oppositional binary that could trap the colonized nation in the same system it wanted to break free of.