Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Edward W. Said And Post Colonial Criticism

Most readers will have heard of the influential literary and cultural critic, Edward W. Said, who passed away a couple of years ago. His two most influential books were Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism. In these works Said expounded his post colonial theory that Orientalism had been an esoteric body of knowledge created by the West with the intention of keeping the East in subjugation. By understanding everything about the conquered peoples, perhaps even more than they understood about themselves, the colonial powers asserted their dominance and suitability to lead. However, this great scheme of learning, which began in earnest with Napoleon's conquest of Egypt in 1798, always ignored the ordinary natives, the lives of the people who had to live with colonialism every day of the week. In Culture and Imperialism, Said took the argument a step further. Asiatic history, for Europeans, only real began with their own conquest of large tracts of Asia. The people of Asia were merely a passive group receiving the benefits of rule from abroad, presumably gratefully. Said points out that it was only in the last days of Empire that struggle against colonialism by indigenous peoples seemed to be noticed by their colonial masters. It almost seems to have come as a surprise to some of them that Indians, Algerians, Malaysians, Indonesians didn't want to continue being governed by England or France forever. Colonialism then, expropriated the land and wealth of indigenous peoples and reduced them to virtual servitude in their own country. Nevertheless, these same people were expected to feel 'grateful' to their colonial masters for bringing them into the modern world by giving them roads, railways, hospitals, etc. Certainly, they were not expected to plot the death and destruction of those who controlled them from far away. It was a system based on greed, rivalry and exploitation that no right minding person could support for a day longer than necessary. Thus, destruction of the colonial system was always inherent in colonialism from the beginning and only a monster could have anything good to say about its results in the modern world: so goes the traditional Said argument.

All this is fine and as a liberal and democratic man I find myself agreeing with almost all of it. But there is a small voice inside my head which tells me that Said and other similar critics of Imperialism and Colonialism seem to believe in some intrinsic quality in man or God that shows demonstrably that all these things were horrible abominations that must never happen again. However, is that absolutely true? I remember reading a lecture some years ago by the French Existentialist, Jean Paul Sartre, where he says that he is an existentialist humanist because he wants to be: because he believes that this is the right direction to take. However, he adds that there is nothing deterministic about his belief. Nothing was inevitable. If enough people wanted to be democrats, then democrats they'd be. On the other hand, they might just as easily choose to be fascists. Nothing was determined absolutely. The world was a place of choice where people put their choices into action and worked out the consequences of those choices.
I think this kind of argument would be deeply disturbing to Said and his acolytes. They like to appeal to man's reason in the modern age and to the the obvious injustice of systems of government and domination that make virtual slaves of millions of people for the betterment of just a few. However, are we really so sure about our own rationalism? Isn't it possible that in the future other men may come along who will make other choices and believe very different things? How can we be sure that the Nazis were the last political group who will believe in the racial superiority of one or several races over others? How can we be sure that our own democratic and egalitarian "truth" will be the last "truth"? Other men, at future times and in future places may make very different decisions to the ones that we are comfortable with.

I think that in his secret heart, Edward Said understood all this very well


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