Images of the Past, Pure and Impure
Edward W. Said’s ideas surrounding overlapping territories and histories are primarily understood through his notion of “hybridity” and the influence of the past on the present. T.S. Elliot, an American-English poet and literary critic, once argued that the past and the present co-exist. In Said's words, "even as we must fully comprehend the pastness of the past, there is just no way in which the past can be quarantined from the present" (p. 4). Overlapping territories extend beyond solely the physicality of the past, influencing cultural norms and attitudes of the present. These cultural artifacts of the past become solidified through cultural exchanges that we interpret as present. Each distinct culture is subject to the influence of other cultures and ideas, which is rooted in imperial relationships. Although no culture is confined to its own boundaries and closed to external influence, many claim to value "purity," which produces practices of exclusion, manipulation and the rewriting of past and present traditions.
While some cultures appear more exclusive than others, no group is exempt from change. Said contends, “far from being unitary or monolithic or autonomous things, cultures actually assume more ‘foreign’ elements, alterities, differences, than they consciously exclude” (15). In other words, cultures collect a wealth of outside (or ‘foreign’) customs and ideas that are internalized and adopted, manifesting in their own traditions. Culture is constantly evolving within itself, while simultaneously informing and influencing the ideas and elements of others'.
Said's idea of “hybridity” is embodied by the mixing of cultures and transferring of ideas. Hybridity occurs when a member of a culture is forced to relocate themselves within another. In doing so, they begin to assimilate, accepting and incorporate aspects of this new culture into their traditions and way of life. Simultaneously, they begin to discard parts of their initial culture that become increasingly irrelevant. Much of this transition occurs subconsciously-- the combining of the two cultures is unintentional. What remains is a culture-- almost like a third culture--that has been altered in some form to incorporate aspects of both cultures. Someone with this "hybrid identity" is able to participate in several cultures; however, this comes with "important social and political consequences," according to Said (15). An individual with the ability to experience hybridity has an opportunity to become “aware as we now are of how oddly hybrid historical and cultural experiences are, of how they partake of many often-contradictory experiences and domains, cross national boundaries, defy the police action of simple dogma and loud patriotism” (15). Take, for example, U.S. Representative and Bronx native Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Ocascio-Cortez describes her hometown community as a “hybrid”: “We are black; we are indigenous; we are Spanish; we are European” (15). She is a hybrid of the diverse cultures she embodies through growing up in this New York borough. This hybridity is advantageous: she familiarizes herself with people of color and/or low socioeconomic status, studied at Boston University, and thrives in the elitist and wealthy setting of congress. Ocasio-Cortez’s hybrid identity has afforded her the opportunity to relate to people of different sociopolitical identities, which has in turn leveraged her own social and political capital.
Said argues the “lines between cultures, the divisions and differences that not only allow us to discriminate one culture from another, but also enable us to see the extent to which cultures are humanly made structures of both authority and participation, benevolent in what they include, incorporate and validate, and less benevolent in what they exclude and demote” (15). Consequently, these “lines” are what ultimately enables us to differentiate cultures. However, Said suggests that these lines do not need to run parallel; rather, these lines intersect, allowing cultures to mix. In this vein, we can understand the manifestation of hybrid cultures. While the lines may appear divisive in creating in-groups and out-groups, their existence is not imperative for culture in the first place. Culture is unique to all groups of people, and without these lines, everything would be uniform. As Said states, cultures are “far from being unitary” (15). His central idea of overlapping (cultural) territories is understanding how these lines exist and how they can intersect to form hybrid cultures.
Alongside overlapping territories, Said emphasizes the idea of overlapping histories. A critical question for contemplation that he raises is about agency: who gets to imagine history? We must consider what justifies domination and why certain lived experiences are neglected in the process of subordination, which is innately intertwined with imperialism. While we have undergone surface-level societal changes since the rise of the 1800 Western imperial powers, we must question whether the interests and ideals have evolved in this change, or if is society still relys on evils of the past to influence the present, even if it happens unconsciously. One question ceases to exist: is it also possible for our society to learn from both our past failures and successes, to produce a better world? According to Said, "the connection between imperial politics and culture is astonishingly direct," (8) and still affects our society to this day. Overlapping histories that "formulate an alternative both to a politics of blame and to the even more destructive politics of confrontation and hostility," (18) have allowed us to accept imperialism and the benefits that were granted to certain groups of people. As a society, we continue to legitimize the ability of those who hold power because of ideals of the past.
Furthermore, there is a concerted effort to purify our images of the past. Said notes that despite the hybridity that exists today, there is an emphasis "on the pure (even purged) images we construct of a privileged, genealogically useful past, a past in which we exclude unwanted elements, vestiges, narritives" (15). This effort to retrospectively purify the past is another means through which individuals consolidate their legitimacy and look to exclude people from cultures. The "pure" historical roots enforce cultural attitudes today by establishing legitimicay through longevity.
Said states that “more important than the past itself...is its bearing upon cultural attitudes in the present," (17) demonstrating how past histories map onto present day. Society cannot escape the past, nor can we separate ourselves from our history. For instance, our history today is “partly embedded in the imperial experience,” which has created all sorts of divisions and tensions within our society today (17). It is evident here that imperialism is not something that just happened in isolation-- “imperialism still casts a considerable shadow over our own times” (5). In order to fully grasp the significance of imperalism in shaping our current day, Said urges us to examine both parties-- "those who left the colonies" and "those who were there in the first place and who remained, the natives" (17). Said’s use of “legacy” is important, too, because a legacy is something established with the hope and expectation for continuation. So, we can begin to wonder: how will the influence of our imperialist past continue to shape our future?