What role did culture play in imperialism?



"Notre monde vient d'en trouver un autre" (Montaigne, Essais III, 6)

"In an increasingly polycentric world, our task may be to prepare for a world in which nothing is pink on the map."
(Henry Louis Gates Jr., Loose Canons. Notes on the Culture Wars, 1992)

"I think first of all that the western theoretical establishment should take a moratorium on producing a global solution."
(Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, The post-Colonial Critic, 1990)

The French historian Michel de Certeau called heterology a "science of the other" which has yet to be entered on the map of the sciences and which has examined the routes and spaces of travel beyond Europe's borders since the missionary and colonial beginnings as journeys and tracks on which the projections of the own onto the foreign have been described. This new science would of course have to change the perspective of observation and ascertain the destructive production costs, as Montaigne was one of the first and the explorer Alexander von Humboldt was not the last to describe them in his diary in 1801 while traveling on the Río Magdalena noted: "How inhospitable European cruelty makes the world!" The confrontation with the foreign, "continuous undercurrent of the entire European intellectual history since the 16th century" [1], as it is symptomatically presented in a "projective ethnology" (unlike in Montaigne and A. v. Humboldt), (miss) understands the other and his culture only as a projection of his own culture. The "science of / about the other" called for by Michel de Certeau wants to correct these traditional visions. As in the anti-imperialist anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss and in many of the researches inspired by it, the framework of a historical-philosophical and religious universalism is broken because it authoritatively limits the diversity and diversity of cultures and delivers them to destruction. As long as the criticism of the practice of conquering and colonizing "foreign" peoples could not (or did not want to) fundamentally question the framework of thought that legitimized this practice, the prerequisites for such a "science of / about the other" were missing. and ethnocentrism not possible. For the Enlightenment, which founded the principle of criticism and self-criticism, Europe was not just the center of the world, but the epitome of all humanity. It was only with European Romanticism that the tide turned, albeit within the limits of idealizing and Rousseauist ideas of the "good savage" that are not free from paternalism. Friedrich Schlegel, himself the founder of a magazine entitled "Europa", criticized the European overestimation of America and Asia in his Viennese lectures "On Modern History" (1810) at a time when the independence movements were beginning in the Spanish colonies. "As independent as Europe imagines itself to be, as much as it believes itself to be not just the center but the epitome of all humanity, however dominant European influence, along with America, also became in Asia in the eighteenth century, more almost than under Alexander's successors or Rome's Caesars Yet Europe is in many ways bound by this rule, by this extra-European power, and the first source of the changes that are taking place here is mostly to be found in the movements and tremors of distant parts of the world. " [2]

Like Herder, Kant also represented an ethnocentric and Eurocentric point of view when he z. B. in the "Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime" (1754) identified the concept of the "ridiculous" in a racist way among the "Negroes of Africa". "The negroes of Africa have no feeling of nature that goes beyond the ridiculous." These are not only marginal and long-overcome characteristics of a way of thinking that defines the framework and limits of universality, humanity and humanity through exclusivity from a certain center and marginalizes the others and refers them to the periphery. A European "will to power" undermines and endangers the axioms of the Enlightenment, the ideas of democracy, justice, solidarity and tolerance. When the talk of the "European house" and the cultural identity of Europe made the rounds in the 1980s, the rhetoric of which quickly experienced its moment of truth in the new hot wars in Eastern Europe, it remained unrecognized that it was Hitler who was in his den Speech to the German Reichstag on March 7, 1936, justifying the exit of Nazi Germany from the League of Nations, used the image of the "European House" to demand the Germanic dominated "recognition of ethnic substance". Carl Schmitt commented on this speech at the time. "If the Fiihrer and Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler in his great Reichstag speech of March 7, 1936 referred to the European nations as a 'family' and Europe as a 'house', this is not any of the earlier phrases of the 'famille des nations', but about the conscious foundation of a new European order on the spirit of community and kinship of the European peoples. " [3]

Today Jacques Derrida drew attention to the old and new forms of cultural takeover in a speech on European identity (1990). He quoted a text from the Stuttgart Congress "Kulturraum Europa" (June 1988), which reproduced with the best of intentions the imperial and missionary gesture of Eurocentrism. It says: "There is no political ambition that does not have to be prepared by conquering the spirits: it is up to culture to enforce the feeling of European unity and solidarity." [4] The geography of the spaces and their subdivisions into domains and areas of influence, in the center and periphery, core and peripheral zones (German politicians are already talking about core Europe again!), Or (as some are now beginning to speculate) in Western Europe as a cultural area and Eastern Europe as a natural space, is determined by a global strategic logic. It has challenged the resistance to such centralistic and totalizing tendencies put forward in the name of the defense of cultural identity. The problem here is whether the cultural identity is defined within the framework given by the logic of the spaces and spheres of influence or whether other alternatives are conceivable beyond this logic of cultural imperialism. Reflections such as Jacques Derrida's, in which the universalistic and imperial central perspective is abandoned in favor of a confrontation (and an examination of its correspondences) of the self-assertion of an identity with the universal, aim at this open and open question. Then one will ask, "Is there a European today beyond the exhausted, exhausting, but indelible program of Eurocentrism and anti-Eurocentrism? Precisely by discussing the novelty of cultural domination in terms of geographic-political If you think about fields that have been showing lustful looks since perestroika, the destruction of the Berlin Wall, since the so-called democratization movements and all the currents that cross Europe, the question of hegemonic centrality has to be reworked in the midst of technical-scientific or economic ones Data changed problems. " [5]

One can read the study, which the comparative literary scholar Edward W. Saïd, who has been teaching at New York's Columbia University for over 20 years, published in 1993 under the title "Culture and Imperialism", as a specific contribution to the further clarification of this open question. Saïd has become internationally known with his book "Orientalismus" (1978; Ger. 1981 by Ullstein), which has also been translated into German and describes the invention of the Orient in the European discourse of science as a problem of self-perception and the perception of others. His new book, which can now be read in the translation by Hans-Horst Henschen, edited by Fischer-Verlag, with a subtitle specifying the topic, follows on from this older study: "Culture and Imperialism. Imagination and Politics in the Age of Power".

In the current debate that is going on in this country about a cultural-scientific orientation of the so-called humanities, Saïd's book could have the effect of an initial spark in order to free oneself from the pressure of the legacy of a narrow, disciplinary and politically non-binding scientific culture that looks for new ones Misrepresents connections and paralyzes all creative energy. Said's study not only represents the differently motivated American scientific culture, in which "cultural imperialism" is an overarching topic today, the disciplinary boundaries of the "humanities", as the humanities are more precisely called in America. He also specifically portrays this culture of thought with a view to the various disciplines and viewpoints. It is the horizon of a cultural and scientific discourse to which the literary scholar Saïd refers with the plea for a "comparative literary and cultural studies of imperialism". Some readers who still remember Georg Lukàcs' study "German Literature in the Age of Imperialism", published in 1946 by Aufbau-Verlag in East Berlin, may frown. A comparison with Saïd's study, which attests that "a large part of Western Marxism in the aesthetic and cultural field" is blind to the problems of imperialism (369), could of course revive the discussion about the reasons for this.

For Saïd, the place where global power constellations are reflected in theoretical developments is primarily the university as the institution where knowledge is produced and imparted. The book's great theme, the decolonization of the mind, therefore requires a trip to the "cultural archive", the documents of which Saïd subjects to a "contrapuntal reading". He calls it a "voyage in", a journey inward, on which the relationship between imperialism and culture and the philosophies and discourses that justify it are analyzed not from the outside but from the inside. "Let us begin by reading the cultural archive not as a univoke phenomenon, but in a contrapuntal way, with the awareness of the simultaneity of the metropolitan history that is being told and of those other stories against which (and in comparison with them) the discourse of domination acts." (92)

Saïd sees the "journey inward" in the nomadic migrant, embodied in the Traveler as a figure of critical counterculture. He explained it using Salman Rushdie's novel "Midnight's Children" as an example, a text that "feeds on the liberating fantasy of independence itself, with all its many anomalies and contradictions. The conscious effort to enter the discourse of Europe and the West transforming him and getting him to recognize marginalized, repressed or forgotten stories is as characteristic of Rushdie's work as it is of an older formation of writing in the Resistance, the work of dozens of researchers, critics and intellectuals in the peripheral world; I call it 'voyage in'. " (295)

With this figure of the migrant and the traveler, who can also be an emigrant and exile, Saïd brings up his own biography. He sees himself as another of this "political figure between the spheres, between the forms, between the languages. From this perspective, however, all things are really strange, original, rare and strange." (437) He sees his book as the book of an exile whose experiences give him a decentering, contrapuntal view of the entanglements between imperialism and culture.

"For objective reasons over which I had no control, I grew up as an Arab with a Western upbringing and education. As long as I can think about it, I have felt that I belong to both worlds without being completely at home in one or the other. In the course of my life, the parts of the Arab world to which I was most attached have either changed profoundly or ceased to exist as a result of war or civil war upheaval. For long periods of time I have been an outsider in the United States, especially as them went to war against the (far removed from perfection) cultures and societies of the Arab world and came into stark opposition to them. But when I say 'exile' I don't mean anything sad or depressed imperial watershed enables one to understand it more easily.For the rest, it is New Yor k, where the book was written, in many ways the city of exile par excellence; however, it also contains the Manichean structure of the colonial city described by Frantz Fanon. "(31f.)

This reference to the autobiographical background of experience needs to be taken into account. It is more than a confession and characterizes an attitude that does not withhold one's own point of view of observation and places it behind pretended objectivity. It is the attitude of a new criticism, that of the "post-colonial critic" [6], which today in America by a whole Pleiad of countries from the so-called Third World, socialized and predominantly in the context of so-called "Western culture and education" American universities teaching academics as well as African and Asian Americans. The concept of a "post-colonial criticism" as a "voyage in" specifies above all the old concept of anti-imperialism, which, used as an analytical instrument, prevented the perception of the symbiotic and complicit entanglements between imperialism and culture. The alternatives tried and staged under the umbrella of an anti-imperialist culture (often equated with anti-American) were therefore mostly helpless and even counterproductive. In relation to the decolonization process in countries of the so-called Third World, Saïd speaks of an asymmetry between political independence and the continued existence in new forms of cultural colonization. This explains the paradoxical situation in which the post-colonial critic finds himself, as described by the Bengali critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: "We live in a post-colonial neo-colonized world."

Saïd is not trying to relax this situation, but - and that is the exciting thing about his study - to describe it as the effect of a historical structure that is "texted" in the "cultural archive" of Eurocentrism and the liberation and decolonization that cannot be isolated from it . There is no better way to describe the theoretical framework of his analysis than he can:

"Few critical studies have focused on the relationship between modern Western imperialism and its culture, the exclusion of this symbiotic relationship being a result of that relationship itself (74) ... I tried to focus on those moments of an evolving focus on European culture that imperialism used as its successes accelerated and, on the other hand, describe how it came about that the imperialist European could not or did not want to admit that he or she was an imperialist, and how it came about, ironically, that the non-European saw the European under the same circumstances only as imperialist. "For the native," says Fanon, "a European value such as objectivity is always directed directly against himself" (302) ... The theory that I am in present book is that culture is a very important, indeed indispensable, one hey role played. At the center of European culture during the many decades of imperial extension has been an unimpressed and relentless Eurocentrism. This Eurocentrism accumulated experiences, territories, peoples, stories; it studied them, classified them, verified them and, as Calder says, allowed 'European businessmen to plan on a grand scale', but above all it subjugated peoples by changing their identities banished from culture and even from the idea of ​​white Christian Europe. This cultural process formed the reinforcing parallel enterprise to the economic and political machinery as the material center of imperialism.Eurocentric culture codified and observed everything around the non-European or peripheral world and left few cultures untouched, few peoples and landscapes unused. (302) "

Said's portrayal amounts to a revision of hegemonic and authoritarian interventions in the diversity and diversity of cultures. As the political geography of cultures and their concepts - "Strictly speaking, imperialism is an act of geographical violence, by means of which every corner of the earth is explored, measured and finally placed under curatell" (305) - Saïd understands the "decolonization of the spirit" Realizing his book drafts a cultural policy program. It takes up this topos of the American debate on multiculturalism, which the Africanist Ngugi wa Thiongo gave the name with his book "Decolonising the Mind" (1986) and determines its historical and theoretical location. The American trauma that has been smoldering since the Vietnam War in the face of lost illusions about ethical values ​​and human ideals, in whose name millions of people were sacrificed, had sparked the ongoing debate in the United States about a revision of the educational canon, in which Saïd expressly stated the subject of his book intervened. It is an attempt to bring the fronts hardened in this debate, which has led to such grotesque confrontations as that between "Westerners" and "barbarians", into conversation about common and global conditions through a reflective look at one's own culture. The "pairing of power and legitimacy", the dangers of a telecracy of polyphonic harmonization, as demonstrated in the McBride report "Many Voices, One World" (1980), prepared on behalf of UNESCO, determine the unrest in Saïd's analyzes. At the center of the three historical forms of imperialism, British, French and American, which form the framework, is a canon revision of a different kind. Said's contrapuntal reading compares the images of the own and the foreign in two groups of literary and theoretical texts to them both formative opposing discourses of Eurocentrism and decolonization. On the one hand there are texts of complicity in works by Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Ruydard Kipling, Albert Camus and André Gide. On the other hand, texts of liberation and resistance such as the Frantz Fanons, who as "the first theoretician of anti-imperialism" played a leitmotif in the book, Aimé Césaires or by CLR James with his book "The Black Jacobins" (1938) and WB Yeats with his oeuvre as "a great international symbol of cultural decolonization." (322) Verdi's "Aida" reads Saïd as "a work of imperial rule, as art that has become involved with the empire." (169)

Instead of a "blame policy and rhetoric" (79), which easily steers the debate about multiculturalism into a cul-de-sac of cultural ghettoization, one could infer from Saïd's study the better vision of interculturalism. Because the "dangers of chauvinism and xenophobia ('Africa for Africans') are very real ... We have evidence of the devastation: accepting nativism means accepting the consequences of imperialism, the racist, religious and political divorces that the Imperialism itself prevailed. To give up the historical world in favor of a metaphysics of 'beings' such as negativity, Irishism, Islam or Catholicism means to let history go for slogans that are efficient enough to incite people against one another. " (310)

The "decolonization of the mind" shifts under Saïd's distancing gaze with the violent geography of center and periphery, the boundaries of culture and its concept, just as it reorientates intercultural understanding as a task of translation, communication and mediation. No culture is singular. All cultures are plural, "hybrid, heterogeneous, highly differentiated and not monolithic." (30) The insistence on cultural identity, as an act of negation, is therefore only a first step towards liberation. Identity as a "fundamentally static concept that has been the centerpiece of cultural existence throughout the era of imperialism" (30) hinders the "nomadic, unsteady and anti-narrative energy" (369) that Saïd describes in his book The thrust of the "journey inward" leaves the imagination of its readers at the mercy of its readers.


1. Hinrich Fink-Eitel: Philosophy and the savages. About the importance of the foreign for European intellectual history. - Hamburg 1994

2. Friedrich Schlegel: About modern history. Lectures held in Vienna in 1810. - Vienna 1811, p. 501

3. Carl Schmitt: Positions and terms in the struggle with Weimar - Geneva - Versailles 1923 - 1939 (1940). - Berlin 1988, p. 213

4. Quotation in Jacques Derrida: Course to the other cape - Europe's identity. In: Liber. European cultural newspaper. Vol. 2, No. 3 (Oct. 1991), p.12

5. Jacques Derrida, op. Cit., P.12

6. That is the title of a book by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak published in 1990: The Post-Colonial Critic. Interviews, strategies, dialogues.

Printable version



Karlheinz Barck
* 1934 Quedlinburg, Germany. Since 1992 project manager for the theory and history of aesthetic thinking at the Center for Literary Research in Berlin.