Culture and Imperialism

Culture and Imperialism

Culture and Imperialism

Edward Said – Introduction

Edward W. Said was born in Jerusalem, Palestine and attended schools there and in Cairo. He was a Christian Arab. He received his B.A. from Princeton and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. He is University Professor at Columbia. He is the author of Orientalism, The Question of Palestine, Covering Islam, After the Last Sky, and Culture and Imperialism.

He delivered his speech Culture and Imperialism at York University, Toronto, February 10, 1993. He was an influential writer, speaker and teacher. 1950’s he went to the USA and studied at Princeton and Howard. His writings have been translated into 26 languages. Orientalism is his most influential book which presents the Western view of the Islamic World. It is limited to the Middle East only but it covers the whole landscape occupied by 19th and 20th century. He had been a teacher of Literature (Comparative) and made critical and literary analysis of most writers literary allusions are frequently found in his political works. He died on 25th September, 2003.

Said’s views on Culture and Imperialism

Culture and Imperialism is a lecture by ES. It briefly surveys the formation of Western Culture to show that the process itself was a result of imperialism. In defining the two terms he says that


The learned, accumulated experience of  communities and it consists of socially transmitted patterns of behavior.  According to  the anthropologist Cliff Greety, Culture is: An ordered system of meanings and symbols in terms of which social interaction take place.


(According to OED may be  defined as): aggressive expansion of peoples at the expense of the neighbors. This has been  going on for years.

Imperialism implies some sort of collective premeditation which means a policy formed at home by the imperialistic force before launching an offensive against another nation.

The Historian Solomon Modell, “Imperialism is a policy extending a country’s power beyond its own borders for the purpose of exploiting other lands and other peoples by establishing economic, social and political control over them.”

Introduction to the Book

Culture and Imperialism is an important document. ES explains his own concepts of Culture and Imperialism. ES explains Imperialism as “the practice, the theory and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan center that rules a distant territory.” Imperialism originated with the industrial revolution in 19th century. The British and the French held sway over a large part of the globe. 

For the industrial revolution, cheap raw material and labor was needed so for the development of the backward countries, loud claims imperialism were made out to be need of the nations. The slave nations were taught to regard it as a blessing. 1st world war ended the European Imperialism to some extent, but the 2nd world war brought about it. The two hot wars initiated a major cold war between USSR and the USA. Thus, Imperialism took a new shape. The USA reduced USSR and came to be the sole super power. It the USA-based Imperialism that ES targets in his works.

The book also has its literary merits like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India and many others.

Important Textual areas of his Speech

  • The 19th century is rise of the west for its for its dominating posture.
  • It grabbed lands so largely and abundantly as never before.
  • The industrial revolution caused imperialism.
  • Colonialism, almost always a consequence of imperialism, is the implanting of settlements on distant territories. Imperialism is simply the process or policy of establishing or maintaining an empire.
  • Direct colonialism of the British in India, the French in Algeria and Morocco has largely ended but Imperialism exists. Russia acquired bordering lands and the British and the French jumped thousands of miles for occupation.

Culture and Imperialism

The Soviet Union’s and America’s super power status which was enjoyed a little less than half a century derives from very different histories than those of Britain and France in the 19th century. In the expansion of western empires, profit and the hope of further profit was important – spices, sugar, slaves, cotton etc. gold.   There was very little domestic resistance to foreign dominations in Britain & France because the superior thought it a metaphysical obligation to rule the inferior. According to them, their imperialism was different from that of the Romans who were for the loot but they went there with an idea of civilizing and improving their life.

We see in the empire nothing but a mitigated disaster for the native people. It was their native, cultural design and need that matured imperialism and they regret it now. Imperialism has caused dislocations, homelessness for the Muslims, Africans and the West Indians. They have created the troubles for Britain and France and also caused the emergence of Soviet and later today America.

According to Arno Mayer’s telling phrase, “of the old regime” The Willy Brandt Report, entitled North-South: A program for the survival published in 1980. It says that the needs of the poorest nations must be addressed. Hunger must be abolished and other problems solved. The main purpose is power-sharing in decision making within the monetary and financial institutions.

It is different to disagree with it. But how will the changes occur? The post-war classification of all nations into 3 worlds, Ist, Second and the third.

The solution is the revised attitude to education, to urge students on insistence of their identity, culture and democracy, thus nationalism is the solution.

The relationship between culture and empire is one that enables disquieting forms of domination. Imperialism considered the mixture of cultures and identities on a large scale, but its worst and the most paradoxical gift was to allow people to believe that there only white, black, western or oriental.

Imperialistic allusions from literature

He believes that novel has been important in formation of imperialistic attitudes, references, and experiences. He calls Robinson Crusoe “the prototype of modern realistic novel”.  He draws his arguments particularly from the novel because he believes that “Narrative is crucial to my argument here, my basic point being that story are at the heart of what explorers and novelists say about strange regions of the world, they also become the method colonized people use to assert there an identity and the existence of their own history.” Said further argues that narratives of emancipation and enlightenment mobilized the people to rise against the yoke of imperialism. The stories of Sir Walter Scott charged the Scottish nation against the British rule. Said cites Mathew Arnold who says that culture is each society’s reservoir of the best that has been known and thought. Literature is, no doubt, the mirror that faithfully captures and reflects the picture of culture.

Culture and Imperialism

He says that his entire life was devoted to teaching culture. He developed the habit of looking for the imperialistic implications in the stories. He says that in Great Expectations by Charles DickensWhat Dickens envisions for Pip, being Magwitch’s London gentlemen is roughly equivalent to what was envisioned by English benevolence for Australia.” Said believes that nearly all Dickens’ businessmen, wayward relatives and frightening outsides have a fairly normal and secure connection with Empire.

Said highly admired Joseph Conrad – a star novelist of the late Victorian period for his superb criticism of Imperialism, especially in the Heart of Darkness which is still highly relevant to the situation across the world.

Said’s message is that Imperialism is not about a moment in history, it is about a continuing interdependent discourse between subject peoples and the dominant empire. Said’s view of the empire and colonialism is best expressed through Fanny and Sir Thomas from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park which is the story of Fanny’s being taken into Sir Thomas’s life at Mansfield Park where she eventually adjusts into the role of mistress of “estate”. Fanny was poor. Her parents are not capable managers of wealth.  These skills she acquires when she goes to Mansfield Park to live at 10.  Said’s comment on Jane Austen’s writings highlight the extent to which he sees in her the reflection of empire.

Read it also:  Bacon as an essayist

1 thought on “Culture and Imperialism”

Leave a Comment