CULTURE AND IMPERIALISM
Edward W. Said
Said's latest book largely reiterates his familiar argument for cultural recognition of the "Other" (more cogently marshalled in his Orientalism, 1978), particularly the colonized "Other" that has been molded in popular perception by the crucial (to Said) element of Western imperialism. Perusing Verdi's Aida, Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Kipling's Kim, even Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, Said insists that the fact that one culture has dominated another is the subtext for any 19th-century exploration of the exotic--or even, in Austen's case, for "the ordination" of the colonizer's rights and local freedoms. Said, though a gifted professor, is a gluey stylist ("Moreover, the various struggles for dominance among states, nationalisms, ethnic groups, regions, and cultural entities have conducted and simplified a manipulation of opinion and discourse, a production and consumption of ideological media representations, a simplification and reduction of vast complexities into easy currency, the easier to deploy and exploit them in the interest of state politics")--and he is certainly subject to his own charges of simplification. Didn't colonized cultures have, in turn, their own colonies, imperialisms, dominations? Has there ever been a human society in which the "Other," the "impure," the "raw," the "strange" hasn't been used as a lever for advantage? Is culture, for that matter, supposed to be complex and fair--or is it, rather, self-essential and reflective? Said spends no time weighing these questions, which he sends out onto the field but never puts in play. It's following the sections of highly tenuous lit-crit here that Said's lack of focus and ill-thought-out positions become most apparent. Drifting screeds and apologies--against the Gulf War, for Oliver Stone's JFK and the equally astigmatic Salman Rushdie--plus ever more academic recommendations of scholarly books Said agrees with give his own a tiresome, soapboxy sensibility, undercutting its formality and most of its seriousness.