Culture and Imperialism by Edward Said, Knopf, 380 pages, $25.00.

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Connoisseurs of book-jacket blurbs will likely award the palm for 1993 to Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism.“The most distinguished cultural critic now writing in America” (Cornel West). “Brilliant, lucid, learned, humane” (Henry Louis Gates). “A classic of contemporary criticism” (Richard Poirier). “Splendidly eloquent and inspiring” (Basil Davidson). High praise also from Frank Kermode and Noam Chomsky, although slightly less expansive, as befits their greater age and eminence.

Said is the leading token leftist on Nightline, MacNeil-Lehrer, and the New York Times op-ed page, and, specter-like, haunts the pages of Commentary, The New Republic, and the TLS. Raritan, Critical Inquiry, the Nation, and the London Review of Books are home turf. He has received not one but two offers from Harvard, and God knows how many others from elsewhere. There’ll be a MacArthur in his mailbox one of these years. For all these reasons, some envious and mean-spirited comrade is undoubtedly even now preparing to sneak up and jab him in his (relatively) undefended left flank. Me, actually.

Culture and Imperialism is an inexhaustibly tiresome book. The writing is clumsy, stilted, verbose, imprecise, and marinated – pickled – in academic jargon. It is larded with superfluous qualifiers and synonyms, there only to add syllables. If needless words were omitted, the text would be roughly a third shorter. “In greatly disparate post-colonial regions one sees tremendously energetic efforts to engage with the metropolitan world in equal debate so as to testify to the diversity and differences of the non-European world and to its own agendas, priorities, and history. The purpose of this testimony is to inscribe, reinterpret, and expand the areas of engagement as well as the terrain contested with Europe. … There is thus both a stubborn confrontation and a crossing over in discussion, borrowing back and forth, debate.” This is on page 30. By page 100, one’s jaw is slack. Does Harvard really want it graduate students to write like this?

Worse, Said’s polemical manners, here as elsewhere, are atrocious: sneering, overweening, ad hominem. Too often, he innocently misinterprets or not-so-innocently misrepresents other people’s arguments. Bernard Lewis, for example, did not exactly claim that changes in Stanford’s core curriculum would bring about the return of slavery, polygamy, and child marriage. Conor Cruise O’Brien did not peevishly dismiss the entire subject of imperialism with “Why don’t they appreciate us, after what we did for them?” John Corry’s controversial New York Times review of PBS’s The Africans was not “insensate,” “semi-hysterical,” or written in “turbulent and disorderly prose.” Said quotes a passage from Mill’s Principles of Political Economy and observes sternly: “In Mill we have the ruthless proprietary tones of the white master used to efface the reality, work, and suffering of millions.” Rubbish. The passage in question is about the meaning of the word “capital”; the West Indies are mentioned by way of illustration, nothing more. No one who ever lived was less capable of colossal insensitivity and self-deception than Mill. An only slightly less flagrant tendentiousness is inflicted upon Ruskin, Camus, Habermas, and many others who wander into Said’s sights.

Still, all these are not reasons for disagreeing with Culture and Imperialism, merely for disliking it. Actually, it’s impossible to disagree with the book’s argument in its widest, most general sense, because taken in that sense it is a truism: every work of art is produced in some political, social, economic, and biological circumstances or other, which will have some effect or other on its style, structure, and atmosphere. But which circumstances and which effects? The ideological proof is in the critical pudding.

Although Culture and Imperialism is a pretty unappetizing pudding -- soggy here., lumpy there, overspiced throughout – it is not utterly lacking in nutritional value. Said introduces us to some interesting and unfamiliar history; he’s a good quoter, at least. And there are some sensible observations about contemporary politics. But about literature, which is his main subject, though he’s sometimes thought-provoking, more often he’s just provoking.

“The extraordinary formal and ideological dependence of the great French and English realistic novels on the facts of empire,” Said announces, “has never been studied from a general theoretical standpoint.” This is an understandable omission, because there is no such extraordinary dependence. There is not even an ordinary dependence. The facts of empire go virtually unmentioned in the major works of Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Zola, Austen, Eliot, Dickens, and Thackeray. But perhaps it is an invisible, a tacit dependence? This is Said’s argument about Mansfield Park, his chief exhibit.

In Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram travels to his estate in the West Indies for several months; while he is away, the moral order of Mansfield Park is threatened by a pair of seductive visitors from London; on his return, order is reestablished and everyone’s character has been revealed. “Antigua and Sir Thomas’s trip there have a definitive function in Mansfield Park,” Said writes. Yes and no. The trip is transparently a plot contrivance. Sir Thomas might have fallen ill or gone to war; the structure and psychology of the novel would not be a whit different. The Antigua estate is alluded to only four or five times, never more than in passing, throughout this very long work. Lionel Trilling’s masterly essay on Mansfield Park does not so much as mention it.

Said is undaunted. His interpretive strategy is bold and ingenious. “How are we to assess Austen’s few references to Antigua, and what are we to make of them interpretively? … My contention is that by that very odd combination of casualness and stress, Austen reveals herself to be assuming … the importance of an empire to the situation at home.” This is the hermeneutics of suspicion a la folie.

In fact, not much more can usefully be said about the relation of Mansfield Park to the British Empire than that the former was written in the latter. “Extraordinary formal and ideological dependence,” my eye. It is just this sort of grandiloquent assertion that excited so many people about Orientalism and that makes Said’s celebrity so depressing. In that book, anticipating Culture and Imperialism, Said wrote:

Nearly every nineteenth-century writer … was extraordinarily well aware of the fact of empire … liberal cultural heroes like John Stuart Mill, Arnold, Carlyle, Newman, Macaulay, Ruskin, George Eliot, and even Dickens had definite views on race and imperialism, which are quite easily to be found at work in their writing.

Now, like every other educated person in the nineteenth century, Arnold, Newman, Ruskin, Eliot, and Dickens had some views on race and imperialism, though no very definite – ie, emphatic or precise – ones. Like most people, they were intermittently and, on the whole, vaguely aware – not “extraordinarily well aware” – of the fact of empire. One can, not easily but with determination and ingenuity, find this awareness cropping up here and there in their writing, interestingly (sometimes) illustrating the relation of political background to aesthetic or philosophical foreground. In short: conscientiously qualified, not much remains of Said’s sweeping affirmation.

Myself, I find conscientious qualification much sexier than resonant exaggeration. So for me, Edmund Wilson on Kipling, V. S. Naipaul on Conrad, P. N. Furbank on Forster, and Irving Howe on anybody are all more politically more stimulating than Said. Because these critics respect the boundaries – not metaphysical, to be sure, but practical – between art and ideology, because their sense of proportion is right and their discriminations are unforced, I pay attention when they do talk politics. Whereas after a few pages of Said’s nagging, I’m ready to watch television or go down to the mall.

Still, no book so earnest and erudite can be quite useless. Culture and Imperialism compels us – if only out of exasperation – to consider some important and difficult questions, so difficult that most of us usually leave them alone. For example: Why is imperialism wrong? The principal thesis of Culture and Imperialism is that European culture has supported imperialism by representing subjugated non-European peoples as inferior. Said works so hard at refuting any suggestion of inferiority that he succeeds at last in provoking the question: What if they were inferior – would that justify their subjugation? Suppose (just for the sake of argument) we agreed that there were indeed substantial variations in average aptitude for one thing or another among racial, sexual, class, or national groups. Suppose we gave in to the continual, practically irresistible temptation to call one society or group more “advanced” or “developed” than another, even in morality or politics. Would we – should we – therefore agree that one group has a right to govern the other without the latter’s consent? If so, why? And if not, then why such heroic but unnecessary efforts to demonstrate equal or equivalent group achievement?

Granted that there are evils in the world, notably imperialism. What’s art got to do with it? On Said’s showing, not much. Which leaves literary critics in the same boat as the rest of us: ordinary citizens, without politically relevant expertise. For many people with aesthetic tastes and talents, real politics – anything likely to produce new legislation, not just new curriculum – is bound to seem like fearful drudgery. Since neither accepting irrelevance nor plunging into the pedestrian is an attractive option to most literary people, some have looked for reasons to consider the aesthetic as political. It’s too difficult getting up to speed to debate economics or foreign policy with smart right-wingers. And organizing the unfortunate is appallingly dull. So, since finding evidence (however far-fetched) of the “formal and ideological dependence” of art on social structure appears to provide work both congenial and useful, it is denominated “political.”

This is not such a contemptible evasion. The dilemma it is meant to resolve is a subtle one; to feel it at all is honorable. And Said has, to his credit, plunged into the pedestrian – into the details of contemporary political debate – more than most. But few of his epigoni have the energy to follow him there. Those who don’t should heed Richard Rorty’s astute and chastening admonition: “We humanities types are not useless, but we are not nearly as useful as [some academic leftists] think. Our skill in practicing the hermeneutics of suspicion and our flair for detecting ambiguity and latent contradiction are talents with relatively limited application.”

The acknowledgment of ignorance is the beginning of wisdom. Perhaps the acknowledgment of political irrelevance will prove, for some at least, the beginning of political commitment.


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George Scialabba