The Torture Hidden in Beauty, Research Time, 08/11/2013

Another smattering of crackerjack ideas from Edward Said. An idea that caught my eye yesterday was how he can spot a subtle imperialist attitude, how Said is able to recognize a terrifying presumption hidden in an incidental detail of a culturally noteworthy work. Even less than an incidental detail, he literally sees the terror of a moment that doesn’t even exist.

One lesson we can take from Fata Morgana: if there is any
true universal in humanity, it's the tendency of children to
pose for a camera.
You can get a clue as to what kind of idea he’s talking about by the name of a book he cites in the text, Walter Rodney’s 1972 work of political history, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. You don’t get much more confrontational than that. Having watched Herzog’s Fata Morgana again just before starting this research into imperialism, the notion hits me much more viscerally. Its images of desert desolation and poverty provide the required emotional weight to understand the human legacy of empire.

Arendt puts the beginning of the, definitionally speaking, imperialist period at 1884, the first year the “scramble for Africa” hit its full force. Said puts the start of this period at 1878, but he point is clear. Typically, imperialism is conceived as beginning with the mass military colonization of Africa. But the attitude and the socio-economic structures existed for centuries before that. Said cites a series of small, recurring discussions in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park about the source of wealth for the titular English estate: a slave plantation in Antigua. The aesthetically joyful shenanigans of the English idle rich depend on money imported from slave labour.

It only gets worse on the same page. Here’s a quote Said gives from John’s Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy. Remember that Mill is a great democratic reformer, one of the first activists for the rights of women in the West. Regarding the overseas colonies of Britain, they are—

“hardly to be looked upon as countries . . . but more properly as outlying agricultural or manufacturing estates belonging to a larger community. Our West Indian colonies, for example, cannot be regarded as countries with productive capital of their own [but are rather] the place where England finds it convenient to carry on the production of sugar, coffee, and a few other tropical commodities.”

The racism and ethnocentrism of one of the central philosophers of the politics of individual liberty is clear. This is the legacy of imperialism. The attitudes of condescension and devaluation of foreign peoples persist even in those who are otherwise the most progressive people. It’s so insidious, we don’t even know it’s happening to us.

If I could give one critique of Said so far, it’s that he considers the imperial activity of American military interventions and business interests of the same type as the imperialist activity of the old European empires. And I think, following my friendly influence from Antonio Negri’s theory of empire, that’s incorrect. If I could describe Negri’s idea in a tweetable (and necessarily very inadequate, if punchy) form, he conceives of empire, as distinct from imperialism proper, as an ecological economic globalization. Imperialism without a head, without intention, without direction.

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