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Kenan Malik examines how a critic of Western imperialism has ended up supporting Western intervention in Bosnia

The myth of the 'Other'

  • Culture and Imperialism, Edward W Said, Chatto & Windus, £20 hbk
In Salman Rushdie's novel, The Satanic Verses, one of the characters, Saladin, finds himself in a detention centre for illegal immigrants. Here, all the inmates have been transformed into beasts - water buffalo, snakes, manticores. 'How do they do it?', Saladin asks a fellow prisoner. 'They describe us', comes the reply, 'that is all. They have the power of description and we succumb to the pictures they construct'.

Like the inmates of Rushdie's fictional immigration centre, contemporary cultural theorists have a great fear of the 'power of description'. As Edward Said observes in Culture and Imperialism, 'representation itself [keeps] the subordinate subordinate, the inferior inferior' (p95).

Culture and Imperialism is a study of the role of Western culture in maintaining the subordination of the non-Western world. Imperialism, Said believes, is not just about physical subjugation. The power of the West over the third world arises from its ability culturally to represent the non-Western world as the 'Other'.

Western thought, argues Said, cannot allow anything to be defined in its own terms. When Western intellectuals seek to understand the non-Western world, they do so by creating such a world in terms of Western thought. They create a world, not as it actually exists, but as they see it. In so doing they rob non-Western people of the right to define themselves. Instead, such people simply become the silent 'Other' in Western thinking, distinguished solely through their antagonism to the dominant self:

'Without significant exception the universalising discourses of modern Europe and the United States assume the silence, willing or otherwise, of the non-European world. There is incorporation; there is inclusion; there is direct rule; there is coercion. But there is only infrequently an acknowledgement that the colonised people should be heard from, their ideas known.' (p58)

This cultural appropriation of the other, argues Said, is akin to, and indeed an indispensable part of, the physical occupation of foreign territory. Just as the West's politicians and generals annex foreign lands, so its intellectuals and philosophers colonise the field of knowledge.

At the heart of Said's argument in Culture and Imperialism is the view that there is an unvarying way in which Europeans have always viewed non-Europeans:

'Throughout the exchange between Europeans and their "others" that began systematically half a millennium ago, the one idea that has scarcely varied is that there is an "us" and a "them", each quite settled, clear, unassailably self-evident.' (pxxviii)

The whole of Western culture, writes Said, has first prepared the ground for, and subsequently validated, the quest of imperialism. Culture - literature, philosophy, music, visual art - is therefore an integral part of Western subjugation of the third world. Said trawls through the great works of the Western canon - from Austen to Verdi, from Conrad to Camus - to demonstrate their place in the imperial project.

An understanding of Western culture requires what Said calls a 'contrapuntal reading' - in essence, reading a work with mind to its social and political context. It means recognising when we read Conrad, for instance, that 'far from Heart of Darkness and its image of Africa being "only" literature, the work is extraordinarily caught up in, is indeed an organic part of, the "scramble for Africa" that was contemporary with Conrad's composition'.

Said's plea for contextual reading is useful. But rather than following his own stricture, Said removes culture from its historical and social context. He tries to force authors as different as Austen and Conrad, Defoe and Dickens into a single framework with a single view of the 'other', and thereby loses the particularity of each. You are left wondering why an author who extols the virtues of contrapuntal reading has apparently opted not to use the method himself.

In reality, the European view of non-Europeans has been anything but 'settled, clear and unassailably self-evident'. At different times over the past 500 years European society has viewed foreigners in many different ways.

Fifteenth-century Europe was a world characterised by its irrational premises, static nature and parochial scope, where all manner of prejudices attached themselves to anything out of the ordinary. In his book European Encounters with the New World, Anthony Pagden relates the tale of Bemoin, a Wolof prince from West Africa who in 1488 came to Portugal to ask for assistance in a war in which he was engaged. While in Portugal, Bemoin converted to Christianity, with the King and Queen acting as his godparents. Four days later he was made a knight. 'In Portugal then', observes Pagden, 'he had become a noble, a member of the Royal Household and a Christian Vassal of the "Lord of Guinea". He had, that is, become, European in everything but his skin colour'(p4).

Bemoin returned to West Africa with a fleet of ships, men and military equipment to help him prosecute his war. When the fleet had almost reached its destination, however, the Portuguese commander killed Bemoin and set sail back to Portugal. 'Once poor Bemoin had slipped away from the mouth of the Tagus', Pagden concludes, 'he had, for all those in Portugal, already...become part of another world'(p5).

Bemoin's story shows how society's view of strangers is more complex than Said suggests - the Portuguese clearly did not treat Bemoin simply as the 'other' despite his strangeness in terms of colour, religion, dress, habits and so on. At that moment in the development of European society, irrationality underpinned social perceptions - Bemoin was one of 'us' so long as he was in Portugal, but became a stranger during the course of travelling to Africa. Bemoin's story demonstrates how a society's view of outsiders is historically contingent - a West African immigrant to Portugal today would clearly be seen and treated very differently.

Three centuries later we find a very different conception of non-Europeans. The Enlightenment, the intellectual wind of change that swept through Europe in the eighteenth century, ushered in a new age of thought which tried to bury the prejudices and superstitions of the past and to establish the study of nature, humanity and society on a rational foundation. Unlike medieval writers, Enlightenment thinkers like Wilhelm von Humboldt stressed not difference and strangeness but 'our common humanity' and the need 'to treat all mankind without reference to religion, nation or colour, as one fraternity, one great community, fitted for the attainment of one object, the unrestrained development of the psychical powers' (quoted in A Montagu, Man's Most Dangerous Fallacy, p44).
This conception of humanity led to a radically new perception of non-Europeans. In his book Persian Letters, published in 1721, the French philosopher, Montesquieu, presents a series of fictional letters in which two Persian visitors to France describe to a friend back home their impressions of a strange society. Through these letters Montesquieu provides his readers with a fresh understanding of their own society. For Montesquieu, Persians, though foreign, were not 'other' at all. They were rational beings whose insights and sensibility could shed light on his own society.

How very different is this view from that expressed by British naturalist, Thomas Huxley, a century later. Huxley was a liberal, a humanitarian and one of the most progressive men of his age. Yet his concept of the negro as naturally inferior was diametrically opposed to the humanistic outlook of Humboldt and Montesquieu:

'It is simply incredible that, when all his disabilities are removed, and our prognathous relative has a fair field and no favour, as well as no oppressor, he will be able to compete successfully with his bigger-brained and smaller-jawed rival, in a contest that is to be carried out by thoughts and not by bites. The highest places in the hierarchy of civilisation will assuredly not be within the reach of our dusky cousins, though it is by no means necessary that they should be restricted to the lowest.' (Lay Sermons, Addresses and Reviews, p24)

Here at last we find a European view of the non-European that fits Said's description. But it is one that is specific to its time. Understanding it, and how it manifests itself in culture, requires a method that Said dispenses with - examining social consciousness in its specificity.

Looking at imperialism in terms of 'the other' eternalises Western domination. It also reduces the political and social processes of imperialism to the level of ideas.

For Said, imperialism expresses not a social or economic relationship, but a geographic one. More precisely, Said regards imperialism as the geographic expression of the dominance of self over other. 'The enterprise of empire', he argues, 'depends upon the idea of having an empire' (p10, emphasis in the original). This is why 'culture is in advance of politics, military history, or economic processes' (p241).

By seeing power as residing not in social relations, but in 'discourse', 'language' or 'representations', Said makes the material world disappear. Language and culture become reified into the only reality while social beings become illusions, constituted in the world of language and symbols. Viewed in this fashion, knowledge itself can become oppressive.

Because knowledge is implicated in imperialism, science, as the high point of knowledge, is at the forefront of Western domination:

'At the heart of European culture during the many decades of imperial expansion lay an undeterred and unrelenting Eurocentrism. This accumulated experiences, territories, peoples, histories, it studied them, it classified them, it verified them...but above all it subordinated them by banishing their identities, except as a lower order of being from the culture and indeed the very idea of white Christian Europe....Eurocentric culture relentlessly codified and observed everything about the non-European or peripheral world, and so thoroughly and in so detailed a manner as to leave few items untouched, few cultures unstudied, few peoples and spots of land unclaimed.' (pp267-68)

Said wants us to believe that there is an intimate connection between the scientific method and the imperialist project, between 'Eurocentric' knowledge and a racist outlook. But there is no such logical connection. The ability of nineteenth-century European scientists 'to learn about other people, to codify and disseminate knowledge, to characterise, transport, install, and display instances of other cultures' (p130), far from being oppressive, was a great step forward for humanity. Only by studying society can we have the understanding necessary to change it.

The problem is not science, but its use by the capitalist class to legitimise its rule. In the nineteenth century, the bourgeoisie increasingly press-ganged science into service, to justify capitalist society as 'natural'. Victorian positivism held that society could not be any other way because it was governed by natural laws. Scientific racism proclaimed the natural fitness of the capitalist class to rule over the working class and of the white race to rule over black. Such arguments demonstrate not the oppressive nature of science, but the primacy of social forces over ideological ones.

The problems arising from Said's methodology are not simply matters of academic concern. The political consequence of Said's approach can be seen in his discussion of the relationship between culture and the anti-imperialist struggle. Having removed imperialism from its social and political context, and reduced it to the cultural appropriation of the 'other', Said is forced to view anti-imperialism in a similar fashion. The struggle against imperialism, too, is removed from the real world and becomes an issue not of political or social liberation, but of challenging 'discourse' and 'reclaiming' culture.

The project of anti-imperialism, writes Said, lies in 'the rediscovery and repatriation of what had been suppressed in the natives' past by the processes of imperialism' (p253). Anti-imperialist movements need to 'rechart and then occupy the place in imperial cultural forms reserved for subordination, to occupy it self-consciously, fighting for it on the very same territory once ruled by a consciousness that assumed the subordination of the designated inferior Other' (p253).

Anti-imperialism used to mean the struggle against Western domination of, and intervention in, third world states. Liberation was acknowledged as political, economic and social emancipation. In Said's hands, it means reclaiming history and liberating the 'other'. In transforming the meaning of liberation in this fashion, Said signals his willingness to accept the inevitability of imperialist domination:

'There is the possibility of a more generous and pluralistic vision of the world, in which imperialism courses on, as it were, belatedly in different forms (the North-South polarity of our own time is one), and the relationship of domination continues, but the opportunities for liberation are open.' (pp277-278)

In practical terms, Said's accommodation to 'the relationship of domination' can been seen in Palestine. A leading member of the Palestine National Council, Said has been a key figure in urging Palestinians to recognise the state of Israel, to give up the struggle for liberation and to accept 'autonomy' on the West Bank. In place of self-determination, Said settles for 'space' within the imperialist framework.

But it is in relation to the current struggle in Bosnia that the reactionary consequences of Said's understanding of imperialism are best revealed. As a member of the Committee to Save Bosnia-Herzegovina, Said recently signed a letter which called on the West to arm the Muslims in Bosnia. 'The United Nations, the United States and the European Community bear a heavy responsibility', the letter argued, 'for pursuing a policy of pseudo-evenhandedness that has, in fact, strengthened the side of aggressive Serbian expansionism'. In the place of 'pseudo-evenhandedness', the authors made a plea for 'a progressive US foreign policy and a just and democratic international order'.

Suddenly, half a millennium of an 'undeterred and unrelenting Eurocentrism' is forgotten. The system which 'subordinated' the non-Western peoples by 'banishing their identities except as a lower order of being' has now become a potential champion of Muslim rights in Bosnia, and one that can be 'progressive', 'democratic' and 'just'.

There is no contradiction between Said's academic critique of imperialism and his practical support for Western military action. His call for Western intervention is the logical outcome of his idealist concept of imperialism. For all his insistence on the centrality of imperialism to Western society, Said regards imperialist domination less as the historical necessity of capitalism in the twentieth century than as a policy option pursued by certain governments. If only the major powers would stop seeing the rest of the world as the 'other', he suggests, then it would be possible for them to pursue a progressive foreign policy.

The corollary of this is that once imperialism is stripped of its historical specificity, any act of aggression can be seen as imperialist. Thus the actions of Serbia, an impoverished, isolated rump of a backward Stalinist regime, are seen as a greater threat to peace than the military firepower of the most powerful nations on Earth. Since, according to Said, Serbian nationalists view Muslims as the 'other', then their actions in the Bosnian conflict are the equivalent of American atrocities in Vietnam or German treatment of Jews. Meanwhile, the nations who, just two years ago slaughtered thousands of Iraqis and reduced their country to rubble, are seen as potential friends of Bosnian Muslims. This is a grotesque inversion of reality.

Said's idealist methodology leads in practice to an accommodation with imperialism. It should be a warning that debates about theory and method are not arcane and academic, but can have ominous practical consequences. The concept of the 'other', which seems at first reading to fix its sights upon imperialism, is in the end a barrier to understanding and opposing it.
  • The Fate of Hong Kong, Gerald Segal, Simon & Schuster, £16.99 hbk
Gerald Segal, Senior Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and editor of the Pacific Review, like many other commentators on Hong Kong, believes that the fate of the British colony could change the way China is governed. This is putting the cart before the horse. The hope that Hong Kong could drag China towards democratic capitalism is just the hope for a 'white knight' to come and save the world economy from recession.

Segal places far too much emphasis on Britain's role in Hong Kong's fate. Britain may have ensured the condi-tions for Hong Kong's success - by maintaining a repressive system of colonial rule for the past 100 years - but Britain cannot influence its future. That much was shown when governor Chris Patten kow-towed to China's gerontocracy over his proposed democratic reforms.

Segal does not answer the key question - why should Britain want to introduce democracy less than five years before handing Hong Kong over to China? He merely parrots what Patten and the British government say: that for some (unstated) reason a democratic Hong Kong would have more chance of survival as an independent part of China than it would with its present non-elected government.

In fact, Britain wants to demonstrate the moral superiority of capitalism over Chinese 'communism'. This is a last gasp of the Cold War - the sort of crusade that is designed to make a worn-out country like Britain look like it counts for something in the world. Unfortunately for Patten, Deng Xiaoping is less of a pushover than Neil Kinnock or John Smith. Anyone can look hard berating the Labour Party; taking on China is not so easy.

Segal leaves us with a choice of scenario for the future of Hong Kong. He places his bet on the slowing down of Hong Kong's economy to match that of the Shenzen Special Economic Zone and the eventual convergence of Hong Kong with China. This area would then become a new 'Natural Economic Territory' and 'develop into the next economic powerhouse in East Asia'. But every indication is that the development of the market in China's free enterprise zones is tearing the country apart.

Sheila Phillips
  • Latin America in the Time of Cholera: Electoral Politics, Market Economics and Permanent Crisis, James Petras and Morris Morley, Routledge, £35 hbk £12.99 pbk
This book is a useful introduction to the continent that time forgot. While most of the capitalist world celebrated the eighties boom, Latin America dubbed those years the 'lost decade'. The same image of Latin America prevailed in Europe and the USA - the only things that seemed to boom there were government debt and the drug trade. Yet the changes that have hit the world in recent years have not failed to touch Latin America.

The collapse of socialist visions of society gave a boost to economic liberalism. From Pinochet's Chile to Castro's Cuba, politicians, technocrats and intellectuals discovered the advantages of the market. But, as Petras and Morley show, 10 years of free market discipline have delivered plummeting production and living standards instead of the promised prosperity. Political liberalisation, often encouraged by the old dictatorial regimes, gave credibility to austerity measures and left the repressive state structures intact. The effects of letting capitalism loose are shown by the growth of casual labour - to over 80 per cent of the region's workforce according to the authors - and by the appearance of diseases, as with the cholera epidemic in Peru, not seen for a century.

The flipside of the triumph of capitalist ideology is the weakening of American power. Petras and Morley point out that 'whereas in the 1950s and 1960s Washington provided large-scale economic aid to allied regimes pursuing "appropriate" development models, today it demands massive changes to benefit US capital and commerce in return for historically low levels of funding support' (p70). Latin America was a net exporter of capital in the 1980s. US dominance is increasingly exerted not through the power of its investment, but through ideological and military campaigns like the invasion of Panama in 1989.

Latin America in the Time of Cholera is a useful examination of the collapse of the left and the consequences of the free market. But Petras and Morley condemn the role of Western governments in sponsoring militarism throughout the region, and at the same time demand the West put the Latin American 'state terrorists' on trial.

Paola Martos
  • The Other Heading: Reflections on Today's Europe, Jacques Derrida, Indiana University Press, £13.95 hbk
The process of unifying Europe has probably found its ideal commentator in Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstruction. Derrida makes a virtue of prevarication, thinking that to be conclusive is necessarily dogmatic. Just as European countries edge towards unity, interrupted by setbacks and conflicts, so Derrida ruminates over his doubts and worries about whether Europe is too definitive and exclusive a proposition.

Derrida has been promising an investigation of nationalism for some time. Last year he published a 'Prolegemona to an hypothesis' on the 'Onto-theology of national humanism' in the Oxford Literary Review (Vol14). Before that he worried, in Of Spirit, about the Nazi affiliations of the philosopher Martin Heidegger, in other respects an influence upon Derrida. Now in The Other Heading he returns to a supra-nationalism of Europeanism.

Derrida is keen to avoid the politically correct debate in which his ideas have been implicated to date. So he distances himself from the 'exhausted programmes of Eurocentrism and anti-Eurocentrism' (p13). His cynicism about Europe is quite intelligent in that he sees Europe as the outcome of national strategies rather than an unalloyed pan-Europeanism. He parodies Europeanism thus: 'I am all the more national for being European' (p48). But Derrida prevaricates to the end, protesting that 'I am not, nor do I feel, European in every part, that is European through and through' (p82). His personal ambiguity about the project is a poor analysis, but an accurate reflection of today's Europe.

James Heartfield
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 56, June 1993

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