Social Class and the Environment Textbook: A Course Textbook

Two Visions in Heart of Darkness

In Part III, Two Visions in Heart of Darkness, Said argues that imperialism as we know it from the nineteenth century continues to exist, but in new forms. He asserts that “nations of contemporary Asia, Latin America, and Africa are politically independent but in many ways are as dominated and dependent as they were when ruled directly by European powers” (Said, 19). In the first wave of imperialism of the nineteenth century, “the drive toward empire…brought most of the earth under the domination of a handful of powers” (Said, 20). Said argues that now “in the late twentieth century the imperial cycle of the last century in some way replicates itself, although today there are really no big empty spaces, no expanding frontiers, no exciting new settlements to establish” (Said,19). By contrast, what we have today is the expansion of influence, in new forms, by the dominant powers established in the first cycle of imperialism. According to Beyond Race, dominant groups “dictate, regulate, and control” culture as a whole, which contributes to the subjugation of minority people and perpetuates the core tenets of imperialism (Kennedy, 25). Furthermore, the oversimplification of history has helped perpetuate imperialist ideologies even if colonies are now legally independent.

Said argues that the general view of imperialism has not changed since the nineteenth century when Western countries held multiple colonies across the globe. While the imperialist history of Europe and the West remains prevalent within modern society, the ways in which these empires exert their control has changed. Beyond Race highlights the way in which modern powers can maintain their empires through cultural hegemony using dictation, regulation and control in order to maintain power over subjugated groups (Kennedy, 29). This power is maintained through recurrent ideals of glorification of imperium by Western powers throughout history. In Said’s opinion, the West determines how the story of imperialism is told: “imperialism has monopolized the entire system of representation” (Said, 25). One avenue through which the West maintains these narratives and ideals is through our education system (Said, 20). This “contemporary discourse…assumes the primacy and centrality of the West” (Said, 22) – the West has the power of defining how history is told as they have a sense of entitlement that puts the West at the centre of history. This attitude leads us to revert back to the imperial mind-set of the nineteenth century – “We suddenly find ourselves transported backward in time to the late nineteenth century” (Said, 22). So, is the West still in the imperial stage of the nineteenth century or has it moved on?

To this question, Said says Conrad, the author of Heart of Darkness, offers two arguments and visions of the post-colonial world.

The first is that Western/European powers have reconsolidated their territories post-WWII in new ways: through the market and economy and their influence on local ideologies – they continue “to rule morally and intellectually” (Said, 25). In this view, the powers “focus[es]…on what must never be shared [in the colonial experience], namely authority and rectitude that comes with greater power and development” (Said, 25) – once again emphasising the lack of focus on the people who are under this influence. In support of this argument, Said offers the insight that “the discourse of resurgent empire proves that the nineteenth-century imperial encounter continues today to draw lines and defend boundaries” (Said, 26). In addition, the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard offers a similar view on post-modern society – that it is “concerned only with local issues, not with history but with problems to be solved, not with a grand reality but with games” (Said, 26), these games being the continued spread of Western influence.

Conrad’s second view mirrors his own narrative and perspective. Conrad’s second vision is rooted in the idea that the demise of imperialism is inevitable: according to Conrad, “like all human effort, like speech itself-it would have its moment, then it would have to pass” (Said, 25). While Conrad’s own conception that “European tutelage was a given” prevented him from imagining an alternative to imperialism in his book, he does "date" imperialism, allowing his readers to envision a future for the colonies beyond Western control (Said, 25). 

Conrad’s first vision of continued Western rule through moral and intellectual means can be seen in the late 20th century when there was a resurgence of imperial ideology. The belief that these previously colonised countries were unable to effectively run their own governments persisted: Said argues that the “Third world” was viewed “as an atrocious nuisance, a culturally and politically inferior place” (Said, 28). With the West’s fear that communism was on the rise, Western powers concerned themselves with the new forms of power in the previously colonised countries and came to believe that “barbaric new regimes…came to power” and “decolonization had benefited ‘world communism’” (Said, 27). The West’s attitude of righting wrongs come into play once again and “terrorism and barbarism” enter. The ex-colonisers believe “it might be a good idea to reinvade their territories” (Said, 27) in order to prevent communism from spreading. However, the re-invasion of territories by the West only brought about “terrorism and barbarism.” As Said describes, “there is a relationship between liberation movements, terrorism, and the KGB” – one likely due to the “resurgence of sympathy for…authoritarian regimes who were Western allies” (Said, 27).

This continued domination of Western/European powers into the late twentieth century, Said further argues, has dictated the voices of history – “the residue of imperialism—the matter of how ‘natives’ are represented in Western media” (Said, 21). The key word here is “Western” – the Western media dictates the representation of history, which begs the question: how are subjugated people represented? Said would argue, they are represented according to Western perceptions backed by imperial history.  This reality indicates the immense cultural power held by the West. Beyond Race defines cultural power as something that “lends itself to social power that influences people’s lives by controlling the prevailing norms or rules and making individuals adhere to the dominant culture voluntarily or involuntarily” (Said, 25). The West, therefore, holds cultural power and uses it through creating the narratives about subjugated people that are disseminated throughout the world. Similar to imperialism of the nineteenth century, today there is extensive focus on “perceptions of ‘vital national interests’” and little emphasis on the interests of others involved. As citizens of one of the dominant world powers, “we are taught to pursue [our nation’s] interests with toughness and disregard for other societies” (Said, 20). This is seen today in narratives about migrants and refugees at the border of Mexico and the U.S. The protection of "national interests" derives from a history of individualism in the U.S., as is seen in the U.S.'s immigration policy and the common but incorrect rhetoric that immigrants “steal American jobs.” Many Americans are determined to protect their interests at all costs - even if it means harming others, especially those who live in other countries and people of color, who are often subjected to a form of "slow violence."

In order to more effectively move past these narratives and ultimately, the period of imperialism that Said argues still exists, we must examine history "contrapuntally."  Specifically, Said acknowledges the reality of “interdependent histories,” meaning that there are two, conflicting stories about the history of imperialism and colonization, the story of the colonizers and the story of the colonized (Said, 19). While much attention is drawn to the “imagined history of Western endowments and free hand-outs” (Said, 22), there is little acknowledgement of the “cost of maintaining that superiority” (Said, 22) and system of oppression (i.e. violence). These two sides of history are often separated due to the colonial divide and imperialism. The “residuum of a dense, interesting history that is paradoxically global and local at the same time…is also a sign of how the imperial past lives on” (Said, 20). It is important for both sides of histories to be considered and acknowledged. Although writers try to consolidate the two sides of the colonial divide, they cannot because “being on the inside shuts out the full experience of imperialism, edits it and subordinates it to the dominance of one Eurocentric and totalizing view” (Said, 28). Even though Conrad criticised imperialism, he even “could not grant the natives their freedom” (Said, 30) because of the continued defense of the “Western spirit” (Said, 28).

Imperialism still exists today but manifests itself differently than it did during the nineteenth century.  Today, imperialism is less economic and structural, but lives on through enforced morals and values brought and still imposed by colonizer countries. Said asserts that while the events and lived experiences of history are real, history is a story, and stories must be told. As we continue to tell the conventional, traditional, "radically unstable," Western-focused story, we change history, and in the process affect the present. Ideas are everything: they shape culture and the way we perceive ourselves. Prevailing cultural perceptions control the way reality is interpreted--our world is constantly, as Said says, "being made and unmade" through narrative and the powers that get to speak. Ultimately, there are two sides to this story of imperialism and its impact, but these sides are not told together. In almost every instance, one side is misrepresented or not represented at all which only furthers the divide between “the West” and “the rest.”

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