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The Culture of Imperialism in the World Beyond the 20th Century

Cover Image of "Culture and Imperialism"

With the impact of colonisation on the contemporary socio-economic, geographic, and political landscape of Palestine, it becomes imperative for us, as a generation, to turn to the ever-impactful work of the Palestinian-American Postcolonial theorist, Edward Said. Culture and Imperialism was published as a posthumous revival of Orientalism, owing to a series of lectures Said delivered in the United States, Canada, and England in 1985 and 1986. He moves ahead of Orientalism by discussing and mapping the show of cultural imperialism worldwide and the result of it, in the form of resistance (armed or otherwise), a claiming of national identity, and in a sense, a selfhood, by the native populations.

Said defines Culture as meaning two things: “First of all, it means all those practices, like the arts of description, communication, and representation, that have relative autonomy from the economic, political, and social realms and that often exist in aesthetic forms, one of whose principal aims is pleasure. […] Second, and almost imperceptibly, culture is a concept that includes refining and elevating elements, each society’s reservoir of the best that has been known and thought, as Mathew Arnold put it in the 1860s.” Therefore, Culture comes to mean a distinguishing identity of a people, a demarcator of their independent being and History.

What is interesting to note is that Said says colonialism and imperialism are different things while also associating one with the other. He defines imperialism as “...thinking about, settling on, controlling land that you do not possess, that is distant, that is lived on and owned by others”. Michael Murrin in his review of Culture and Imperialism says, “He thus can argue that imperialism has survived the disappearance of the colonial empires and devotes the last section of Culture to its workings in the United States since World War II.”

Said’s understanding of the relationship between culture and imperialism is simple: imperialism brings with itself a dominant culture, the culture of the Empire, and this culture is then forced upon the people who have been/are being colonised. This results in the subsequent erasure of the native culture or an amalgamation of both cultures resulting in a sort of novelty. This phenomenon, called cultural imperialism, is what lies at the heart of his work. Said implies the methods of contrapuntal reading and chronology in this book. The purpose for implying these methods is to make sure not to look at the 19th century European History in the way the Coloniser wants it to be looked at. That is a very ahistorical and hollow understanding of the past, rooted in imperial and ethnocentric vision. The task for us is to find the elements which are missing from such understandings and then employ in our arguments; one is the theory of postcolonialism. Said explains it through a number of phrases in the books, my favourite of all being “the decoloniser’s voyage as an especially intersecting variety of hybrid cultural work.” After reading this quote, I couldn’t help but think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Nobel lecture in which he elaborates on these models of Realism which he, along with all others in the world, had grown up reading. He questions their sustainability, truthfulness, one-sidedness, and inflexibility. He questions their status as the real or the homogenous, similar to what Said opined.

Said’s analysis of culture’s relationship to imperialism forces one to see a distinction in how communities have reacted to this post-independence. Countries in Asia have tried to reject the names/identities of the West even though they are still colonised in more ways than one, while places like Latin America have embraced the culture brought in by the Europeans and made it their own. Both of these are forms of resistance, but what is most intriguing is the way the United States has responded to it, by coming out of the shadow of imperialism and rejecting that subordination and the status of a once-colonised land, something Said has also highlighted in his book. The question which arises then is, can rejection be equated as a form of resistance?

In “Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism: A Symposium”, Mary Louise Pratt says, ‘When the Americas are brought into the mapping of the nineteenth century, alongside colonialism and imperialism, a third category of analysis surges into view: neocolonialism.' This is a category which Said rejects, even in the twentieth century.

Pratt argues that the reason the term neocolonialism is used is because for the Americas, the nineteenth century was the time of the struggle for independence, unlike the countries of Africa and Asia, for which it was the period of colonisation. This is also the reason, according to her, as to why America, especially North, remains aloof from the discourses on postcolonialism. Though I agree with her, I somehow believe this is a very simplistic reading of it. The fact that North America isn’t a part of the Commonwealth is not only because the machinery to liberate them was used to colonise the rest of the world. It is a larger impact of the growth of North America as the superpower in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is linked to the soft power hegemony of the United States which it used to turn discourses in its favour and not categorise itself with the “Third World” which happens to be backward and slow and unaware of technology and globalisation. This is the cultural imperialism of the 20th century, similar to the cultural imperialism of Europe which Said focuses on.

Said discusses the anti-imperialist intellectuals like Franz Fanon, C. L. R. James, and Wole Soyinka, in his book. He talks of the writings of certain scholars like Ranajit Guha from India and S. H. Alatas from Malaysia and calls their works “radically antithetical” to the Western tradition. He says that a lot of works by scholars of the 1950s and 1960s somehow tend to invigorate themselves within the Western tradition by also holding onto their nativity. Fanon’s work is of particular interest to Said because Fanon talks about the complete annihilation of Western cultural and imperial domination and about the process of decolonisation as integral to the drive towards emancipation.


By Ananya Bhardwaj (Columnist)

Ananya Bhardwaj is a final year student pursuing Literature in English at St Stephens College, Delhi University. Having published in national and international journals, her research interests include South Asian studies, post colonialism, partition studies, literatures and feminism.

Works Cited

Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Knopf, 1994. Print.

Robbins, Bruce, et al. “Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism: A Symposium.” Social Text, no. 40, 1994, pp. 1–24. JSTOR,

Murrin, Michael. Review of Culture and Imperialism, and: Edward Said: A Critical Reader. Modernism/modernity, vol. 1 no. 3, 1994, p. 259-263. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/mod.1994.0051

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