Edward Said and the Cultural History of British Colonialism in India

Essay, 2009

11 Pages


Edward Said and the Cultural History of British Colonialism in India

“Intelligence is in inverse proportion to the breadth of the nose” claimed Edgar Thurston, superintendent of the Madras museum.[1] He was a convinced advocate of anthropometry, the late 19th century pseudo-scientific idea that intelligence and other character traits were directly related to body dimensions. On his initiative, thousands of Indians were measured, registered, and the data put together according to racial categories. Thurston complained that local women were running away, because they thought they would end stuffed in a museum, and he joked in a very macabre way: “Oh that this were possible! The difficult problem of obtaining models from the living subject would then be disposed of.”[2]

In the 1970s, most historians of imperialism would probably not have paid much attention to such an anecdote. Empire was still largely seen as concerned with economy and high politics. However, Said's “Orientalism” and the subsequent research has broadened the field immensely: topics as diverse as the Victorian novel, the history of medicine, tea-drinking, and popular songs all suddenly seemed to have played a part in the larger history of European imperialism. Both the cultural consequences of European imperialism in the colonized societies, and the way the experience of imperialism changed European culture itself appeared in a new light.

This essay will first reconstruct Said's main ideas and locate them in a historical context. Secondly, I will turn to two different directions in colonial history that were to an important extent inspired by the theories of Said and his followers. I will focus on two books on 18th to 20th century India, Christopher Bayly's “Empire and Information” and Nicholas Dirks' “Castes of Mind”, from which the episode above is taken. From the analysis of these two books, it will become clear that the general interest in imperialism as a cultural phenomenon has all but produced consensus. Finally, I will therefore turn back to a more theoretical level and asks what Bayly's and Dirks' book can tell about the usefulness of the research agenda initiated by Said.

Said and “Orientalism”

Said defines his concept of orientalism as a “Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient”[3] This definition encompasses orientalism as an academic discipline in a conventional sense, as well as a more general “style of thought” in European culture that sharply differentiates between “Orient” and “Occident”.[4] This wide definition allows Said to interchangeably look at individual European orientalists and at what Said claims are more general European attitudes towards the Orient as a whole. It also leads him to a very selective reading of mainly French, British, and American sources.

To be sure, Said was not a historian and did not strive to be one. “Orientalism” was never meant to be an exhaustive history of oriental studies or the European imagination of the orient, nor does Said deny the huge differences in what orientalists and other observers of Asian and African societies in Europe said about the non-European world. He insists, however, that there are certain recurring elements in European perspectives on the orient that are largely independent of individual normative attitudes or different national trajectories in the history of science. European orientalism, for example, is largely a monologue; it does not care about the way “Orientals” imagine their own society. As a consequence, it is also self-consciously constructivist: according to Said, the orientalists usually considered it to be their mission to conserve the “real Orient”, its cultural unity, and historical legacy, that “orientals” themselves were allegedly not even aware of.[5] A third recurring element in European orientalism is the idea that there is no autonomous historical change in the non-European world. Even those orientalists who were in love with the exotic and deplored the “Westernization” of the seemingly timeless “Oriental societies” thus became part of a mindset, in which European colonizers are taken to be the sole agents of progress and modernity. These observations lead Said to his polemical hypothesis: „It is therefore correct that every European, in what he cold say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric.“[6]

In his later publications, especially in “Culture and Imperialism”, Said tries to give a broader picture about how imperialism and European culture were connected. His special emphasis is on the way that Britain's and France's roles as colonizers influenced a number of famous novelists, who, by previous literary critics, were usually not seen as connected to empire at all. Said sees his contribution mainly in pointing out the importance of culture in European imperialism, in showing that the “enterprise of empire depends upon the idea of having an empire...and all kinds of preparations are made for it within a culture."[7] According to Said, only the cultural aspects of imperialism can explain the spread of imperialist forms of power far beyond the realm, in which European colonizers directly subjected others through their economic and military power. It is also the crucial role of culture that explains the continuity of an imperialist world order even after decolonization.


[1] For the episode see Dirks, Castes of Mind, p.183 pass..

[2] Ibid., p. 185.

[3] Said, Orientalism, p. 9.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See ibid., p. 86.

[6] Said, Edward: Orientalism, London 1978, p. 204.

[7] Said, Edward: Culture and Imperialism, New York 1994, p. 10.

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Edward Said and the Cultural History of British Colonialism in India
European University Institute  (Department of History, Florenz)
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This text discusses the role of culture in the history of European colonialism. It takes Said's notion of "Orientalism" as a starting point. It then discusses two very different books that have tried to make Said's notion useful for the study of concrete colonial situations: Christopher Bayly's "Empire and Information", and Nicholas Dirks' "Castes of Mind". Whereas Bayly's concept of an "information order" tries to undermine ideas about a European hegemony of knowledge, Dirks stresses the far-reaching influence European concepts had even on post-colonial notions of caste in India.
British Empire, Colonialism, Post-colonial studies, Cultural History, Racism, Foucault, Said, Subaltern Studies, Information, Orientalism, Knowledge, India, Bengal
Quote paper
Moritz Deutschmann (Author), 2009, Edward Said and the Cultural History of British Colonialism in India, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/163884


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