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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Wednesday, June 29, 2005


Culture, Imperialism and the Society of the Spectacle

Just pausing to draw breath a bit. About a dozens 'things to do' circling around me and seven weeks school holidays / full on 'carer mode' start on Friday. Three days to go...

So whilst there is still some free time, will take some mental exercise.

After re-reading and re-re-reading Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, turned to Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism. (Whilst listening to Wagner Gotterdammerung -oh dear). Culture and Imperialism - C/I for short - was written during/ against 1991 Gulf War by Said who, although a USA based academic, was a Protestant Christian Palestinian Arab.

His underlying theme in C/I is that the USA is functioning as, but shies away from the word, an imperial power. His more overt theme is to ask why 19th century imperialism is absent from the huge body of academic analysis of 19th century/ early 20th century European (British and French) novels? From the study of 'culture' generally.

So, to give an example, he looks at Jane Austen's Mansfield Park (1814) where a main character's English country house lifestyle is maintained by slaves in Antigua. (Where Tulip, my next door neighbour in Hackney came from. She worked at Hackney Hospital. One time, 1991 , I was woken by loud crashing sounds and shouts in the middle of the night. I went outside to find Tulip sobbing. The police had kicked her front door in, looking for her nephew who they suspected of a mugging- since he was young and black and lived in Hackney. I didn't know what the hell to do, but I put my arms round her. I have never forgotten what she said "Alistair, even after all this time, we are still slaves" . She came visit me after Pinki died- we had moved to another estate nearby- and to Pinki's funeral, which I really appreciated.)

Back to C/I... re- reading it slowly last thing at night, thinking about it as I drift off into sleep.

What is Said saying? That empires and imperialism are based on an innate sense of cultural superiority by the imperialists over their subject peoples. That this sense of superiority existed even where and when it was not directly stated, it was almost 'invisible', taken for granted, 'natural'. So that those within it could not imagine any space outside or beyond it.

Also that, since so much of 'our' culture refers back to the 19th/ early 20th centuries, 'our' sense of who 'we' are contains/ is contained by imperialism. That we are and remain cultural and even physical ''imperialists'. As current adventures (post C/I) in Afghanistan and Iraq reveal.

What I wonder, even if I can't quite articulate the thought, is if there is an overlap between Said’s 'imperialism' and Debord's 'spectacle'? I am sure there is. If there is, then may be there is hope in the failure of power to control the totality of 'situations' the overt use of power has created. Empires fall. This is the lesson of history. Debord may be right, and the Spectacle may, as with Orwell's 10984, attempt to negate and deny history by locking us into an eternal present, but history has not ended. Even if no-where recorded and no-where remembered, history is still being made. And right here, right now, this, along with millions of other blog sites and personal web pages, is recording and remembering history.

Ideas have their own power. Part of my reason for doing this is test the theories. To find a space where there is time. To re-affirm William Blake's brave cry "Rejoice, Empire is no more!"

So many little spiders spinning their webs around the whole wide world.

But are the spiders conscious of history, are they aware of what they do? I cannot speak for other spiders, but this one is certainly doing its best to be as conscious and aware of history as possible. But to become so means reading a bit more of Culture and Imperialism, which is what I will now do. Meanwhile, the world keeps spinning...


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