In Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said argues that much of western culture have been historically implicated in the Western project of empire-building. Said concentrates on literary texts, particularly the novel, to expound on this connection. While some novels may not directly call for the subjugation of foreign peoples or distant territories, these texts nonetheless refers to these colonizing ventures as pre-given or ideal. Reactionary notions of inferior “Others” as well as the acquisition of colonies are presented as part of the natural order of things and are therefore legitimized.
In Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park for instance, to cite some of the works surveyed by Said, “references to the protagonist’s colonial possessions give him his wealth, occasion his absences, fix his social status at home and abroad, and make possible his values.” The colonial order, the novel thus suggests to its readers, provides the condition of possibility for domestic wealth and bliss. In Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, an Indian Businessman and a Caribbean wife living in England are depicted as social undesirables. Wealth from the Australian penal colony meanwhile makes Pip’s Great Expectations possible in Charles Dickens’ novel. And of course, the aboriginal Friday becomes the dutiful servant of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.
Other novels, especially by the likes of Joseph Conrad or Rudyard Kipling (of “The White Man’s Burden” fame) have been less concealing of the imperialist bent in their works. The Latin Americas, Africa, and Asia, in these narratives are imagined to be uninhabited lands of milk and honey, the home of exotic peoples ready for plunder and adventure, or the domain of primitive barbarians that should be civilized.
For Said, these texts’ complicity with imperial conquest, their reproduction of attitudes and values that reinforce colonial rule, is no reason not read these works. Instead, Said suggests that it is precisely these up to now ignored aspect that gives the reader a better reading and understanding of these texts. “Understanding that connection,” Said said, “does not reduce or diminish the novels’ value as works of art: on contrary, because of their worldliness, because of their complex affiliations with their real setting, they are more interesting and valuable as works of art.”
Then again, given the real material conditions of imperialist domination, of unequal relations between the imperial centers and the semicolonial peripheries, it would be foolhardy to think that Third World readers can comprehend, let alone contemplate, these interesting nuances. After all, it would be preposterous to believe that a people held captive and stunted by colonial discourse as reproduced in western-dominated educational and media apparatuses are equipped to uncover and comprehend the cultural imperialism at work in these literary texts.
It is more likely that the unsuspecting readers, prey to centuries of what Gayatri Spivak refers to as epistemic violence or the use of western knowledge to justify the violent subjugation of other peoples, would only reproduce the colonial outlook embedded in these texts. Thus, pending the formation of such a critical faculty among majority of the World’s people, it becomes necessary to propose A Modest Proposal of limiting access to these literary texts from the Philippines and much of the Third World. Otherwise, the uninhibited consumption of these imperialist texts would continue foster a “colonial mentality” that Renato Constantino already diagnosed half a century ago. ■