Writers & Company

Edward Said's ideas about power and identity still resonate today​

Eleanor talks to the noted literary critic and public intellectual, author of Culture and Imperialism, in this conversation from 1993.
Edward Said's 1993 book Culture and Imperialism looked at the connection between Western imperialism and the golden age of British novels. (Mariam S. Said/Knopf Doubleday)
Listen to the full episode50:58

Edward Said is considered to have been one of the world's most eminent cultural and literary critics. A Palestinian Christian Arab who moved to the United States when he was 17 years old, his most famous work is Orientalism, which established his international reputation in 1978. In that book, Said explored the West's attitude towards Islam and the East, describing "a web of racism, cultural stereotypes, and dehumanizing ideology." In his provocative 1993 book Culture and Imperialism, he took the idea further, arguing that the justification for British imperialism was embedded in the cultural imagination of the West and exemplified in the work of novelists including Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling.

Eleanor Wachtel spoke to Edward Said in 1993, after the publication of Culture and Imperialism. He had been diagnosed with leukemia the year before, which he said spurred him to speak out more. Said died in 2003 at the age of 67.

Why nationalism makes him uneasy

Nationalism can quite easily degenerate into chauvinism. There's a tendency, when you're attacked from all sides, to fall back into the fold. You end up fraternizing with your kind, and anyone who doesn't think like you is an enemy. In general, nationalist movements work on that model. They tend to become smaller and more homogenous over time, or at least they pretend that's what's happening. Look at what's happening in Yugoslavia, where what used to be a multicultural and multilingual state has degenerated into ethnic cleansing. The same thing happened in Lebanon — it was a plural society with Christians and Muslims, and it became a kind of perpetual daily bloodbath.

I'm afraid it also happens in societies like the United States — and maybe Canada — where you have all these different ethnic communities who are beginning to feel that the problem is how they are going to preserve their own identity against the depredations of the others. And then identity politics becomes separatist politics and people retreat into their own enclaves. I have this strange, paranoid feeling that somebody enjoys this — usually people at the top who like to manipulate different communities against each other. It was a classic of imperial rule that you got different groups dependent on you and suspicious of their compatriots. That is all part of the process of nationalism and in that respect I find myself very unhappy with it.

Reading between the (imperialist) lines

The facts of imperial control have an imaginative side to them, which is part of the structure of identity that novels are all about. In the case of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, for example, the plantation that Sir Thomas Bertram owns in Antigua is used to finance the estate in England. There's a kind of imaginative projection in the narrative that suggests that England is tied up with its colonies in different ways. This experience is part of reading the English novel. You have to see it as something bigger than itself. One must remember that these places have a history beyond what's shown in the novel. There's a whole set of literature coming out of the Caribbean, for example, that sees the imperial experience from a completely different perspective. The fullest and most interesting way to read people like Jane Austen or Kipling is to see them not in terms only of English novels but also in terms of these other novels that go over the same history from a different point of view. That way you get a sense of the interdependence of these normally quarantined literatures, and there's nothing more exciting than that. 

Edward Said's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the broadcast interview: "Masar" composed and performed by Le Trio Joubran.