Continuing #4 of the 2009 Mini Challenges (please see former post Modern Literary Theory: Helene Cixous), to read 2 essays from the same collection, I read an essay by Edward Said. I picked this essay because it links to the other essay by Helene Cixous in that both are about how language creates 'otherness', a sense of a fixed template and how everything else is defective, sub standard, other. While Cixous has demonstrated how the female has continually been portrayed as an incomplete version of the male, Said discusses how non western cultures have been portrayed as lesser or other than their white western counterparts.
Edward Said, From Culture and Imperialism (1993), pp.20-35
Said starts by explaining that 'Domination and inequities of power and wealth are perennial facts of human society.' In post colonial society this seems to be viewed, throughout the subsequent literature as an after effect of imperialism, and can be viewed in two ways. One view is that it could be 'a consequence of self-inflicted wounds' like the view of critic V.S. Naipaul. On the other hand 'blaming the Europeans sweepingly for the misfortunes of the present is not much of an alternative'. Said says that we must look at these issues as 'a network of interdependent histories' and he takes Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad to illustrate his theory.
Said explains that despite the dominance of wealth and power, ethnic groups will never see those who have it as having the right to rule or as a superior race. However, once independence was reached, the natives realised that they needed the West and total independence was unattainable. Those who insisted on total independence brought 'a callous, exploitative tyrrany reminiscent of the departed masters.'
Today this has dissipated a little so that we live in more of a 'one global environment', and many of us see now that the 'selfish and narrow interests - patriotism, chauvinism, ethnic, religious, and racial hatreds - can in fact lead to mass destuctiveness'.
Said appreciates that we are all taught to be proud of our traditions and our nations, and there is no quick formula for harmony. He proposes only study of all the interactions between 'states, societies, groups, identities.' To achieve this, he says that we have to take into account the 'significant contemporary debate about the residue of imperialism - the matter of how "natives" are represented in the Western media' to illustrate interdependence and overlapping.
Said praises the honesty of Naipaul when he has argued that a lot of the present problems of post colonised societies is not all down to the brutalities of occupation, but are also linked to the natives own histories, where their pre-colonised societies were far from utopian. This in turn has led Westerners to rethink the processes of decolonization, because they had provided such societies with stability, progression and order. Many decolonized states led to the further occupation of the likes of Bokassas and Amin. Said warns about sweeping generalisations in these matters. It has been popular to blame the Europeans but it is not that simple.
Previous contemporary discourse has assumed the 'complete centrality of the West', shutting out all else with its 'all-enveloping...attitudes and gestures'. These attitudes take us back to the late nineteenth century and Said believes both sides are illustrated in Conrad's Heart of Darkness. 'Conrad wants us to see how Kurtz's great looting adventure, Marlow's journey up river, and the narrative itself all share a common theme: Europeans performing acts of imperial mastery and will in (or about) Africa.' Kurtz wields power in Africa and Marlow wields the power of narrative. No other points of view are offered and so imperialism has eliminated them as 'unthinkable'. However Conrad does not present the European alternative as perfect either allowing two views. One is to allow imperial enterprise to play on and establish the West as a major world order. The other view is that the world of Marlow and Kurtz is 'local to a time and a place, neither unconditionally true or unqualifiedly certain.' If Conrad gives Imperialism a date, then he allows us to view Africa as something other than a carved up continent of European colonies.
Said believes that Conrad has illustrated that darkness could occur anywhere, colonized or not, in Europe or in Africa. Conrad's limitation however is that 'even though he could see clearly on one level imperialism was essentially pure dominance and land-grabbing, he could not then conclude that Imperialism had to end so that "natives" could lead lives free from European domination. As a creature of his time, Conrad could not grant the natives their freedom, despite his severe critique of the imperialism that enslaved them.'
Debate over these issues has gone back and forth, both passionately and stubbornly. In conclusion Said writes 'Many of the most interesting post-colonial writers bear the past within them - as scars of humiliating wounds, as instigation for different practices, as potentially revised visions of the past tending towards a new future, as urgently reinterpretable and redeployable experiences, in which the formerly silent native speaks and acts on territory taken back from the empire. One sees these aspects in Rushdie, Derek Walcott, Aime Ceasire, Chinua Achebe, Pablo Neruda, and Brian Friel.'
I found this essay very interesting, especially leading on from Cixous, and suitably complicated because the issue is so huge. I have read Heart of Darkness too which obviously helps, as well as some of Derek Walcott's poetry and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, and other post-colonial work. Said gives a rounded argument, trying to see both sides. In such cases it is difficult, and some may say impossible, to reach a conclusion, but the discussion of it has to be fruitful.
This post completes #4 of the 2009 mini challenges.