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Culture and imperialism.

What does Jane Austen have to do with the war in Vietnam? Edward W. Said provides the clues to solve this riddle.

April headlines featured a "discovery" by a Harvard-based researcher in a Moscow archive indicating that, in the mid-1970s, the Vietnamese government claimed some 600 prisoners of war when it actually held about 1,200. If true, said White House spokespeople, members of Congress, outraged heads of veterans' groups, and the punditburo, the U.S. Government should freeze the process of re-establishing relations with Hanoi. The document "proved" the rotten character of the Vietnamese communists.

When U.S. military authorities subsequently cast doubt on the document's authenticity, this "hot item" disappeared from the "news." The incident offers one illustration of the modern narrative's perspective, in which Western culture is inherently superior.

Lost in this incident and much other reporting on the Vietnam war is the fact that U.S. planes bombed Vietnamese cities, killing as many as a million civilians. In media portrayals, however, U.S. pilots and bombardiers, several hundred of whom became POWs, shine as unsung heroes who bravely bore the tortures of their captors.

Said's new book, Culture and Imperialism, offers readers a pathway of understanding to the ever-present but oftunstated premises of Western culture, from words in newspaper headlines through passages of great novels, operas, and literary criticism. From the Nineteenth Century on, Said argues, the reality of imperialism as a global political and economic system infected the premises of world culture. Indeed, its epistemology blanketed human thought, shaping the minds of the most talented literary figures as well as the most courageous and noble resistance leaders in the colonies and mother countries. The conquerors virtually asphyxiated the narrative of the vanquished, by belittling its forms (or turning them into exotica) and imposing the imperial story as the universal way of telling.

To demonstrate his thesis, Said explores the subtexts of great Nineteenth Century English, French, and American literature, taking the reader on a journey between the lines of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, Andre Gide, and a host of other writers whose work students either enjoyed or fought their way through in high school and college.

Austen and empire? The sensitive narrator of Nineteenth Century moral ambiguities does not indulge in imperialist polemics, Said assures us, but rather the context of empire encompasses the daily reality of her characters--as it did for most of the characters sketched by the literary masters. When Austen or Arnold make moral judgments, they assume empire and its hierarchy of values, rather than judge it. The morally impeccable Jane Austen drops into "esthetic silence," Said notes, when Sir Thomas of Mansfield Park journeys to the sugar plantation in the West Indies, whence comes his surplus wealth.

Empire was an inseparable element of thought patterns, ways of speech--indeed, of middle-class lifestyle itself--reflecting the assumptions derived from conquest and colonization. And, logically, Austen's and Dickens's characters reflect that imperial ethos.

Culture, after all, as Said declares, "is a source of identity, and a rather combative one at that." The novel is a key form of imperial storytelling from which the careful reader discerns the weave of imperial culture. "Stories," Said explains, "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 their own identity and the existence of their own history." Thus "the power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging, is very important to culture and imperialism."

Yes, Americans were mistreated in Vietnamese POW camps, but if there were only a way to measure the indignation factor! In the very grammar of conception, the U.S. mission in Southeast Asia originated as a noble effort to bring a "superior" way of life to an alien people who were less than civilized--and communists to boot. Unfortunately, it had to be done by such measures as napalm bombs, carpet bombing, and the destruction of that people's forests and land. Vietnamese government officials frequently appear in our literature and films as savages who force POWs to play Russian roulette (Deer Hunter) or as old-fashioned Hollywood torturers and liars. "Sometimes," as an American officer told a reporter, "you have to destroy a village in order to save it."

Since "we" are civilized and "they" are not, the mass death and suffering inflicted by soldiers in a righteous cause merits understanding. The U.S. "mistake" in Vietnam was "not winning" the war, which was the "civilized" way to resolve temporal historical conflicts. ("Play, play the game," Matthew Arnold instructed.)

In the U.S. narrative on the war, with few exceptions, the very form of telling deprives the Vietnamese of moral reciprocity, indeed of human identity.

On the other side of the imperial coin, Said argues, the colonized, the vanquished, face life in a void, caught between traditional values that have lost their political and social authority and an alien way of life imposed upon them by the conquerors. Excluded from equal status, their opposition leaders seek to fill the cultural void by resurrecting remnants from the past and combining them--knowingly or not--with parts of imperial education which contain, ironically, the seeds from which antagonism to empire logically arise.

If the "other" race is morally or genetically inferior, imperial logicians aver, the dark-skinned person can never achieve true equality (even though "all men are born equal"). So in this cultural hierarchy, inevitably, identity politics emerges--inside and outside the imperial centers.

Third World nationalism arises as one form of opposition, whose narratives not only contest imperial storytelling, but often go on to shape the past into self-justifying tales, reviving ancient quarrels and converting them into contemporary hatreds and prejudices. Vulgar nationalists have used--and continue to use--history to justify massacres. Or ethnic cleansing.

Modern nationalism in conquered areas, a concept that derives from imperial thought, arises from legitimate grievances but, like certain forms of identity politics, tends to blur class lines and reduce the commonality among oppressed peoples in favor of tribal, language, racial, sexual-orientation, or gender definitions. Once these identifies are achieved, however, the Mexican or gay boss or landlord still confronts the Mexican or gay worker or tenant on a more material plane. And the Serbian, Croatian, and Muslim workers slay each other.

Rather than engage in militant blame rhetoric, however, Said suggests a more complex approach to integrating the dialectical play between empire and literary genius, on the one hand, and conquest and resistance, on the other. He does not diminish the genius of Jane Austen because her novels validated the premises of empire, nor just point out that her talent flourished in the precise context of British empire. Indeed, Said praises some of Kipling's work, despite the fact that Kipling was a strong defender of imperial assumptions about inferior and superior races.

For Said, those whose genius developed within the imperial framework need to be read along with those great talents whose works opposed the imperial system. "Critical literature has taken no cognizance of the enormously exciting, varied, post-colonial literature produced in resistance to the imperialist expansion of Europe and the United States in the past two centuries. To read Austen without also reading [Frantz] Fanon and [Amilcar] Cabral ... is to disaffiliate modern culture from its engagements and attachments."

Culture and Imperialism illuminates the current debate over future curriculum. On one side, the Western classics approach circumvents what Said shows to be the central historical issue of the last half of our millennium: "All the energies poured into critical theory, into novel and demystifying theoretical praxes, like the new historicism and deconstruction and Marxism, have avoided the major ... determining political horizon of modern Western culture, namely imperialism."

Said also rejects the narrow, albeit militant, critique that belittles the works of imperialist authors as a way to restore a sense of dignity and meaning to people who have been beaten down--or just plain beaten. With his erudition, Said shreds the sterile debate between those advocating the predominance of Western classics and the Third-World-Is-Beautiful types. But Said cautions against those who would narrow their visions to exclude the talented imperialists on the basis that they were imperialists.

"No one today is purely one thing. Labels like Indian, or woman, or Muslim, or American are not more than starting points. . . ." For good or ill, Said concludes, "imperialism consolidated the mixture of cultures and identities on a global scale. But its worst and most paradoxical gift was to allow people to believe that they were only, mainly, exclusively, white, or black, or Western, or Oriental." He concludes that "survival ... is about the connections between things" and that all ought to open their ears, quoting T.S. Eliot, to "other echoes [that] inhabit the garden," as a way toward grasping reality.

Instead of resorting to the accusatory language of emerging identity groups, Said insists on the "interdependence between things." This formula for balancing the talent of empire with the genius of anti-imperialist writing establishes the basis for an exciting curriculum. Beleaguered educational designers might well borrow this notion to help shape a Twenty-first Century course of study that contains a vision of the past corresponding to a fuller and better-documented reality.

It is a treat to relearn subjects once studied in high school and college, especially if it involves reviewing old novels and finding out how much we missed in the first reading. Edward Said teaches by taking the reader on a journey through the subtexts of the novels of Austen, Dickens, Thackeray, Conrad, and hosts of others, so that in the future we will read all prose with greater skepticism. Despite some ponderous passages and repetitive sections, Said succeeds in using Culture and Imperialism as a pedagogical instrument.

His book appears in this confusing transitional era, between Cold War and "New World Order," between identity politics and an oft-obfuscated struggle in which demands for justice and equality are thought to be based on skin color, sexual orientation, or gender alone, rather than class affiliation. Like his masterful study of Orientalism, Said's new book is an enriching read for educators and thoughtful progressives.
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Author:Landau, Saul
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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