Social Class and the Environment Textbook: A Course Textbook

Connecting Empire to Secular Interpretation

Said focuses on the overarching influence of the West. While some are under the impression that imperialism is a thing of the past, its mechanisms are still running today. The world’s history of imperialism is characterized by the West as the imperializer and the non-West as the imperialized—setting up the privileging of white over people of color. The power dynamics created by this separation are especially relevant. In Beyond Race: Cultural Influences on Human Social Life, Vera Kennedy introduces the dynamics of power: “our assumptions and interactions with each other is a result of our position and power in a particular context or setting” (Kennedy 68). The world’s imperial history, territories, and histories, the1n, exist under these dynamics. Further, since “the social roles and categories we each fall into affect how and when we respond to each other”, all human interactions are affected by how power dynamics play out (Kennedy 68). Under the lens of imperialism, this gives the past a new layer. The repercussions of this imperial power imbalance are explored throughout this chapter, particularly through the following themes.

Goethe’s Weltliteratur 

Said introduces the concept of “Weltliteratur”, a term coined by Goethe. “Weltliteratur”-- the German translation for World Literature — is described by Said as somewhere between an understanding of classical books and having a vague synthesis of important world literatures (Said 45). Said highlights that this comparative literature of the “world” is really just focused on European literature, organized “epistemologically… as a sort of hierarchy, with Europe and its Latin Christian literature at its center and top’ (Said 45). Just as Said references the effects of Weltliteratur, including the illusion that “Europe and the U.S. together were the center of the world,” universal literary language accepts an “in crowd” and excludes others. Since these ideas assume a Eurocentric focus, other global and non-Latin Christian cultures are excluded.


Edward Woodberry, the first chaired professor in the first American department of comparative literature at Columbia University, discusses the field of comparative literature. He introduces the subject, arguing that; 
The parts of the world draw together, and with them the parts of knowledge, slowly knitting into that one intellectual state which, above the sphere of politics and with no more institutional machinery than tribunals of jurists and congresses of gentlemen, will be at last the true bond of all the world (Said 46). 
He continues to argue that this new field of comparative literature unites the world, holding reason over frontiers, race, and force. Thus Woodberry asserts that comparative literature is working towards “its goal in the unity of mankind found in the spiritual unities of science, art and love” (Said 46), creating an ideal reality. Said dissects Woodberry’s idea of spiritual unity, raising the question of how this unity overlooks harsh realities and political divisions. In celebrating an ideal reality, Woodberry seems to overlook the direct realities of materiality, power, and political division. 

Articulation and activation:

Said references two terms: articulation and activation. Articulation is, simply, defining what the conditions are and highlighting what the problem is. Activation takes things one step further, moving to an action to address the problem in recognizing that something needs to be done. If in our articulation we demonstrate that the empire’s power is to subjugate and alienate, then we need a different system that will do the opposite. That is, if we can identify (articulate) that there’s a problem, we want to be able to change (activate) it. In particular, Said references the world’s idealist historicism and concretely imperial geography as markers of the subjugating Western empire that has and still exists. When we can articulate these markers, we can activate. Through a contemporary lens, when we recognize the historical oppression of large groups of people, we can work to incorporate the previously silenced narratives.

Unification of the working class with intellectual class:

Said describes the segregated geography of Italy, first detailed by Gramsci in The Southern Question, to point out the striking physical contrast between the working and intellectual classes, separated between north and south. Said identifies that the issue is “how to connect the south, whose poverty and vast labor pool are inertly vulnerable to northern economic policies and powers, with a north that is dependent on it” (Said 49). This connection between the working class and intellectual class, or subjugated and subjugator, or imperialized and imperializer, is difficult to address because of the tension between sides and lack of acknowledgement from the side of power. The issue with the “The Southern Question” has moved fully into the 21st century; the global north has separated and distinguished itself to maintain the tension between north and south.

The US and its role:

With its sovereignty of the world, the West carries immense privilege. Said writes that “the universalizing discourses of modern Europe and the United States assumed the silence, willing or otherwise, of the non-European world” (Said 50). The United States, alongside Europe, participated in a continued production and interpretation of Western culture. The US failed when it revitalized the global understanding of Europe’s superiority over the world by adapting and continuing to extend their values and academic, and political practices. Not only does this continue to provide platforms for historically problematic views on works that don’t fall into this Eurocentric framework, but it also actively casts out the works of historically oppressed people.  The US has now become the world influencer of Westernization and the empirical power of the US can simply be observed by who we see on TV, the news, social media, and online around the world. 


To consider something contrapuntally, Said argues, is to take into account intertwined histories and perspectives. Said continues to emphasize considering the perspectives of both the colonizer and the colonized by reading with “awareness both of the metropolitan history that is narrated and of those other histories against which (and together with which) the dominating discourse acts” (51). By recognizing the thinking of both sides, the subjugated is given validity because both sides of the story are heard. Further, since this oppressive system is so formidable that you cannot simply avoid it, Said proposes an effective tactic where we analyze these colonizer’s texts through a “rebuttal” mentality. By critically combing through the arguments and breaking down the logic so we can point out flaws and fallacies, we can establish counter arguments. 

Maintaining the empire:

Said references “structures of attitude and reference,” which at their core show that “structures of location and geographical reference appear in the cultural languages… across several individual works that are not otherwise connected to one another or to an official ideology of ‘empire’” (Said 52). Things are connected even if they do not appear to be; as countries and people develop under the empire, the empire is repeated and built into the structures. This constant repetition and performance of empire and imperialism leads to an acceptance of empire and the underlying belief that the empire should be maintained. Further, the empirical power of Westernization is tied to academic success, political strength, and economic profitability. The lasting effects of 17th century Europe empirical power have continued to allow the United States to hold its place in the international world order as one of the most powerful nations in the world. The judicial system, the education system, the political system, and the economic system have all remained unchanged despite a perpetually changing society and radical differences to the world order as we know it today. There should be recognition of historical errors within each of these systems, as they were all constructed by a singular race, who put their interests above those of other cultures, solely for their own benefit and advancement.

Vigilance and self-criticism:

Said references the danger that can accompany any oppositional effort; the effort becomes institutionalized, marginality turns to separatism, and resistance turns to dogma (Said 54). A main theme throughout Said’s work is Orientalism, which is the Western attitude that Eastern societies are both inferior and primitive. Vigilance is important, as Said urges to continue vigilance in fighting the dominance of Orientalism. Alongside this, Said encourages sensitivity to representation, racial thinking, and unthinking and diving into the socio-political role of intellectuals in the past. He urges people to speak truth to power and to question the norm.  Additionally, self-criticism should not be far away from Vigilance. It is important to dive into oneself and understand those unexamined assumptions within us.

Exoneration of culture:

“Representations—their production, circulation, history, and interpretation-- are the very element of culture” (Said 56). Yet these representations are separated from their political context. Said identifies two spheres: “an isolated cultural sphere, believed to be freely and unconditionally available to weightless theoretical speculation and investigation” and “a debased political sphere, where the real struggle between interests is supposed to occur” (Said 57). While a professional scholar might only recognize one sphere, the two are ultimately the same. The separation of spheres is an attempted divorce of culture and power that could only exist in a vacuum, acquitting culture of its interconnected relationship with politics. However, it is impossible to separate anything from its imperial setting. Culture and power, representations and context, and past and present can never truly be separated. If we try to separate them, we cannot truly recognize or dismantle the overarching effects and presence of imperialism.

Embattled patriotism:

Said describes the reactionary response of the American elite to challenges to the traditional educational form. New threats and new ways of thinking prompted an effort to “reassert old authorities and canons, the effort to reinstate ten or twenty or thirty essential Western books without which a Westerner would not be educated” (Said 58). This reaction embraces the rhetoric of embattled patriotism: the fact that the pride behind patriotism is tied to the distinction of an “us vs. them”, or the loyalty and esteem for “us”, their respective country, but embattled hostility towards “them” or “other(s)”. We can see that in the way John Stuart Mill refers to Britain’s West Indian colonies not as countries, but as “the place where England finds it convenient to carry on the production…” (Said 59). Viewing these West Indian colonies not as independent nations, but as property, this proprietary tone matches the tone of embattled patriotism. There is both a devaluation and separation of the subjugated from the elite to reinforce the nationalist mentality of the West, alluding to the fact that rhetoric of embattled patriotism stems from colonization.

Empire and culture:

The relationship between empire and culture exists through imperialism: “the major, I would say determining, political horizon of modern Western culture” (Said 60). While Said argues that imperialism is fundamental to modern Western culture, this truth of Eurocentrism has been systematically ignored within Western culture. The presence and actions of empires have dictated much of the world’s history, resulting in most narratives, and subsequently cultures, tying back to the empire in some way. Said recognizes and attempts to unfold these narratives of “‘overlapping territories, intertwined histories common to men and women, whites and non-whites, dwellers in the metropolis and on the peripheries, past as well as present and future” (61). However, critical theory has largely avoided the topic of imperialism. Said continues to argue that “theoretical work must begin to formulate the relationship between empire and culture” (Said 60). As things begin to change with a new, often younger group of scholars, we have reached the rudimentary stage of “trying to inventory the interpellation of culture by empire” (Said 61). However, by recognizing the structure of imperialism and more wholly viewing the interrelationships between the past and present, we can start to understand the relations between empire and culture.

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