Culture and Imperialism – extracts . I have looked especially at cultural forms as the novel, which I believe were immensely important in the formation of imperial attitudes, references, and experiences. As one critic has suggested, nations are themselves narrations.
The basic legitimation of conquest over native peoples is the conviction of our superiority, but our moral superiority. We see that it can be as false to create a politics-free fictional universe as to create one in which nobody needs to work or eat or hate or love or sleep. Let us begin by accepting the notion that although there is an irreducible subjective core to human experience, this experience is also historical and secular, it is accessible to analysis and interpretation, and – centrally important – it is not exhausted by totalising theories, not marked and limited by doctrinal or national lines, not confined once and for all to analytical constructs.
On the contrary, no experience that is interpreted or reflected on can be characterised as immediate, just as no critic or interpreter can be entirely believed if he or she claims to have achieved an Archimedean perspective that is subject neither to history nor to a social setting. Lukacs belongs to the Hegelian tradition of Marxism, Gramsci to a Vichian, Crocean departure from it. At this pint alternative or new narratives emerge, and they become institutionalised or discursively stable entities. I have called it means reading a text with an understanding of what is involved when an author shows, for instance, that a colonial sugar-plantation is seen as important to the process of maintaining a particular style of life in England. Reading and interpreting the major metropolitan cultural texts in this newly activated, reinformed way could not have been possible without the movements of resistance that occurred everywhere in the peripheries against the empire.
We live of course in a world not only of commodities but also of representation, and representations – their production, circulation, history, and interpretation – are the very element of culture. In much recent theory the problem of representation is deemed to be central, yet rarely is it put in its full political context, a context that is primarily imperial. A radical falsification has become established in this separation. Culture is exonerated of any entanglements with power, representations are considered only as apolitical images to be parsed and construed as so many grammars of exchange, and the divorce of the present from the past is assumed to be complete. What Napoleon and his teams found was an Egypt whose antique dimensions were screened by the Muslim, Arab, and even Ottoman presence standing everywhere between the invading French army and ancient Egypt.
How was one to get to that other, older, more prestigious part? Egyptians would look like accoutred in style prevalent in 1870: Europeanised faces, moustaches, and beards are the giveaway. The result was an Orientalised Egypt, which Verdi had arrived at in the music quite on his won.