Empire, Geography, and Culture
Empire, Geography, and Culture
Beyond Race Foreword: Cultural Influences on Human Social Life, by Vera Kennedy, builds context around the relationship between culture and the social world. She describes five concepts that are central to cultural sociology: culture and meaning, culture as a social construct, cultural power, cultural identity, and the multicultural world. Depending on the history and location of various groups, the factors contributing to culture such as social order, cultural durability, race, gender, ethnicity, etc. change dramatically. The definitional knowledge and cultural insights that Beyond Race offers, allows us to further our analysis of Empire, Geography, and Culture and better understand Said’s ideas and goals.
T.S. Eliot Introduction
Said’s [link to bio] first chapter of Culture and Imperialism discusses the intersections of empire, geography, and culture and how the past influences the present. This starts with an extended quote by TS Eliot, specifically chosen for the way it lends itself to an explanation about the interaction among these three concepts. TS Eliot ruminates on the influence of the past on the present through his lens as a writer and the way in which a writer of a contemporary period is embodied in the context of literary history. As Eliot states, “the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that… the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence” (Said, 4). An artist builds their work on all the work of preceding artists, providing a reflection of an accumulated worldview as constructed through generations of cultural expression. With such a view, the past is always present, and contemporary thought, actions, and events invariably have their roots in the past. As Said notes, “there is no just way in which the past can be quarantined from the present” (Said, 4). No one can be excused from their history, because it has wholly shaped the state of society today.
Outside of the specific context of literature, Beyond Race describes the greater concept of culture in a similar fashion and that “culture touches every ‘aspect of who and what we are’ and becomes a lens of how we see and evaluate the world around us” (Kennedy, 2). No matter the group with which one identifies, geographically or culturally, the past and our social context shapes our ability to comprehend the present and future. Thus, this process is a self-reinforcing cycle as the views of the present are justified by evoking the past, simultaneously reaffirming the legitimacy of the past by drawing a direct line of continuity to the present. In the context of an imperialist state, the drive for empire and the inherent aggressive subjugation of peoples across different geographies creates an overlap among these cultural histories embodied in the contemporary era. As an empire is maintained, its very legitimacy and strive to remain the dominant cultural narrative in such an overlap is dependent on a foundation and continuous reproduction of cultural ideology - precisely the same cyclical process embodied in the excerpt of TS Eliot.
The American view of the pastThe American view of the past is a powerful example of how our representation of the past “shapes our understanding and views of the present.” (4) “In the American view of the past, the United States was not a classical imperial power, but a righter of wrongs around the world, in pursuit of tyranny, in defense of freedom no matter the place or cost” (Said, 5). This understanding of American history has masked many imperialistic pursuits as morally righteous. The framework of the American past has supposedly separated the nation from modern imperial empires such as Britain and France. However, the U.S. still operates imperially. During the Gulf War (1990-91), the US and Iraq battled because they possessed two opposing histories. The official parties of the US and Iraq justified their side of the conflict with the belief that they had to right wrongs. The United States invaded Iraq to defeat terrorism and right the wrongs of 9/11. US intelligence discovered Osama Bin Laden was located in Afghanistan, yet still carried out attacks on Iraq in part to gain dominion over oil reserves. [Link to explanation] The U.S. used their view of the past to craft a narrative which guised imperial ambitions. American education systems craft narratives of U.S. history to cater to future goals about imperialism. [1619 Project Link]
How does imperialism affect the world today?
A Considerable ShadowThere are no longer fleets of sailing ships and conquering armies traveling around the globe. However, it would be naive to think imperialism has diminished and no longer plays a role in international relations. The 21st century world is one of complex economic, social, political, and environmental connections that weave throughout every aspect of every life, and is heavily influenced, as Said would conclude, by history. This history is evident in studying the actions of past empires and understanding how they “laid the groundwork for what is in effect now a fully global world” (Said, 6). In pursuit of maintaining these empires, the economic and political components of the world were interconnected to elicit further imperial control.
These interconnections are not inherently positive or negative, but they do reveal the relational position of imperial powers to subjugated regions of the past is equivalent to the relationships of formal imperial powers to formal dominion states in the contemporary global framework. The world may have concluded the Golden Age of Imperialism may have ended, but our world is still darkened by its considerable shadow, and encapsulated in a new imperialism.
Media and Pop Culture
“Power is the ability to influence others directly or indirectly…” (Kennedy, 52). This meaningful phrase was likely first produced in a political context, but its message can help put into perspective much of our modern view of imperialism and the new forms it takes in the 21st century. It could be strongly argued that imperialism, conquest, and even colonialism are still current concepts, not just shadows, but that the shapes and patterns of conquerors have simply changed. Western values (and here it is important to separate “Western” and “former imperialist” countries; while there is much overlap, not all modern “Western” countries were former imperialist powers) and pop culture have proliferated into nearly every corner of the world, through media and economic relations.
These values are still casting their shadow on colonies through markets such as music, fashion, entertainment, and food. Coca Cola beverages, Air Jordan shoes, and Taylor Swift songs are American products that can be found in corner stores and in homes from Europe to the South Pacific. [Pictures/link] Who is to say this is any different than sailing to a new island and demanding they speak your language? In this way, we can think of globalization as a new form of imperialism which conquers through the weapons of media, imagery, and propaganda. Even philanthropic organizations like the Peace Corps can act imperialistic. The Peace Corps provides humanitarian aid but also spreads the message that America is the protectorate of the world. Good natured and helpful acts can be born out of imperialism.
The considerable shadow of imperialism is not black and white. The legacy of domination has seeped into every aspect of world relations because of the nature of our global world, and even actions taken with the best intentions can unintentionally oppress cultures. Modern students and scholars should attempt to recognize their historical narrative and current perspective to help realize how media and pop culture propagate bias in everyday life.
The "propaganda of expanding empire
There is a shadow of imperialism over contemporary global political and economic realities throughout the world. Said argues that this is due to how empires of the past “laid the groundwork for what is in effect now a fully global world” (Said, 6). In pursuit of maintaining empires, the economic and political components of the world were interconnected to elicit further imperial control.
To explain such a phenomenon, Said quotes the author O’Brien who stated that “the propaganda for an expanding empire… created illusions of security and false expectations that high returns would accrue to those who invested beyond its boundaries” (6). The imperial state sought to expand its influence and control lands outside of its dominion. To do this, it required the wealthy economic class to take capital risks through endeavors of establishing networks in outside lands, which tied these places closer to those of the empire. The empire encouraged these investments through the use of the propaganda statements that high returns would accompany such economic endeavors, thus successfully appealing to the business class to be actively involved in the expansion of empire.
Imperialism, conquest, and colonialism are still current concepts in the expansion of empire; however, the shapes and patterns of conquerors have changed. Western values and pop culture have proliferated into nearly every corner of the world, through media and wealth. These values, coming from “former” imperialist states, are still casting their shadow of empire on colonies through markets such as music, fashion, entertainment, and food. Coca Cola beverages, Air Jordan shoes, and Taylor Swift songs are American products that can be found from Europe to the South Pacific. This propagates imperial cultures of domination and legacies of arrogance into the modern era through new vessels of conquest such as media and economic relationships.
Empire is embedded in American culture in various ways. The simplest form of imperialism is physical expansion. Said reminds us that, “empty, uninhabited spaces virtually do not exist.” There is little awareness of the natural world and its native inhabitants. Everywhere we build we are persisting in imperial behavior. This expansive aspect of imperialism brings with it social ramifications as well. In addressing cultural geography, Said says, “that struggle is complex and interesting because it is not only about soldiers and cannons but also about ideas, about forms, about images and imaginings.” In addition to the seizure of land, empire also takes the form of “imperial politics” and shapes national cultures. For example, the United States has been founded on literature with language such as “inferior,” “subordinates,” and “subject races,” which has created an aura of superiority and domination in many American minds (Said, 9). As previously discussed in the T.S. Eliot Introduction of this chapter, Said’s analysis of the T.S. Eliot quote can be used to infer how influenced U.S. literary culture and heritage is by concepts of imperialism and racial superiority. Not only is this behavior perpetrated by a continued desire for expansion, but also a culture of American prestige.
[Link texts from Prof. Hart’s Native American Imagination Class (Whit)]
The role of education in the perpetuation of the propaganda of empire is crucial. In American education, "empire" seems to have a positive connotation. It is not associated with mass genocide or cultural scrutiny or takeover. In elementary school, Columbus, the face of European imperialism, was considered a hero of the American empire, not a villain. It was not common teachings in public school that Manifest Destiny and Westward Expansion were acts of grotesque imperialism against Native Americans, let alone our forays into Vietnam, Korea or Iraq. Would those nations label America’s actions as saving the world for democracy? While America calls them “police actions” defending the weak, they are truly a form of modern-day imperialism, a drive for creating an American empire. While we are no longer invading countries (as we did with the Native nations) and telling them that they now belong to the United States of America, rather our military takeovers are done in the pursuit of ‘making the world a better place’. Essentially, historical colonialism has evolved. It is now more political, ideological, economic, and social imperialism, “It can be achieved by force, by political collaboration, by economic, social, or cultural dependence” (Said, 9). "Empire" requires a narrative, says Said. It is meant to draw attention to the "right things," while creating a shadow over realities. Overall, the relationship between American culture and the social world has been shaped by a historical drive for empire.
What else contributes to culture and imperialism?
Said believes that because the United States was born from European imperialism and successfully rebelled against that to become independent, Americans view imperialism with disdain, and do not think of America as such a base nation. He defines imperialism as, “thinking about, settling on, controlling land that you do not possess, that is distant, that is lived on and owned by others” (Said 7). As a nation, we would say we are above imperialism. However, there have been many examples of America acting imperialistically. Interestingly, that is not how we choose to interpret our imperialistic actions. In elementary school, Columbus, the face of European imperialism, was considered a hero, not a villain. Would those nations label our actions as saving the world for democracy?
Similarly, students are taught primarily about the triumphs of American history, not the lingering inequalities that it created. Said explores the rhetoric surrounding United States history, wherein the country presents itself as a “righter of wrongs,” “no matter the place or cost,” shaping our view of the country today (Said 5). Language like this seeps through social classes, building a cultural standard in which people ignore the imperialist attitudes behind the actions. For example, after 9/11, when over 3,000 American citizens were killed, the United States retaliated, killing hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern civilians in the war on terrorism. We “righted” a “wrong” that was committed on American soil, but what is there to say for the murdering of thousands in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other Middle Eastern nations? The view of the American past is often portrayed in a much lighter setting than it should be because governing bodies and the subsequent education system morph imperialism into a “do good” attitude.
Interaction with the Environment
Said reminds us that, “empty, uninhabited spaces virtually do not exist” (Said 7). Everywhere we build buildings, tear down trees, or plant gardens, we are persisting in imperial behavior. There is little awareness of the natural world and its native inhabitants; whatever we have wanted to own, we granted land rights for, and claimed ownership over.
This expansive aspect of imperialism carries social ramifications as well. In addressing cultural geography, Said writes, “that struggle is complex and interesting because it is not only about soldiers and cannons but also about ideas, about forms, about images and imaginings” (7). Interaction with land differs from culture to culture which inspires an array of representations and perceptions of how the earth and its inhabitants should be treated.
In addition to the seizure of land, imperialism also takes the form of “imperial politics,” in which a nation’s leaders attempt to shape the way in which people view government action. Not only is this behavior perpetuated by a continued desire for expansion, but also a great deal of literature that promotes the facade of American prestige, like many of the public school textbooks floating around the United States, as noted by the 1619 Project.