Four Views of Imperialism and the Transformation of its Meaning

Leong Yew, Research Fellow, University Scholars Programme, National University of Singapore


The Problem of Delineated Imperialisms

There are many more views of imperialism. But for now, these four views of empire usefully suggest that since formal decolonization, any discussion of past or present imperialism has conceived it as moving away from tangible and overt structures of domination to something less visible or noticeable, and therefore less rapacious. More than that, however, these four views highlight imperialism as something that is delineated. In other words difference among these views are "measured" or framed through visible or "self-evident" boundaries that sharply mark off the other or to allow for dialectical interplay. For instance, delineation is evidenced in these statements: if imperialism is not defined by this then it must be defined by that; imperialism has either ended or is still persisting in other forms; economic imperialism is different from missionary imperialism; or that present experiences of imperialism allow for a fuller interrogation of past imperialism.

Although these delineated views of imperialism do have some merit, they are self-contained, self-referential, and above all, claim to organize certain knowledge or facts of empire that exist externally of one's consciousness. One important reason for the ineffectiveness of these delineated views is tat the scope and pervasiveness of imperialism has been largely undervalued. If the view of imperialism as retrospective influence of the present attempts to recast empire as informal control of colonized people, it is the concept of "formality" and not "control" that becomes the subject of reevaluation. "Control" in this case unwaveringly retains its basic references to physical and political modes of domination, something that the other three views of imperialism have in common.

In the late 1970s, a different approach to the concept of imperial control, domination, and the consequences of imperialism on the colonized came from a wholly different channel within the western academy. Deriving in a mixed way from feminism, postmodernism, colonial discourse analysis, and postcolonialism, this approach provides an alternative way to reconsider knowledge, power, culture, consciousness, and the psyche as elements of an intricate web to which human subjectivity is bound. The notions of domination and control are therefore not simply effects of power that are epistemically real or external to the subjects upon which they are applied. Rather, there is a prior system of knowledge, one that is contingent on rather than independent of human consciousness, that discursively produces the terms, conditions, and rules on which control and domination can have their effect on subjects.

Under such forms of critical scrutiny, imperialism just does not have surface effects that go away with decolonization. Even though imperialism is associated with the creation hybrid societies out of its former colonial territories, and the continuation of western forms of imagination, they are generally not considered inconsistent with decolonization. As Marion O'Callaghan notes, the preoccupation of imperialism has been with the formal structures of territorial control and governance, while being oblivious to much more profound implications it has had in transplanting western forms of imagination and consciousness onto its colonial subjects. As a result decolonization has often meant the end of formal territorial control rather than an "attitude change" among the colonized (22-24).

Taking this a little further, other writers have sought to rationalize that if imperialism had merely been brute expressions of power and control, it would not have lasted for as long as it did or had as much effect on the colonized. Hence, by surveying the relationship between colonization and imagination, Nederveen Pieterse and Parekh have underscored three modalities of imperialism. First colonial rule did not justify itself on the propagation of modernity, instead it sought to create the subliminal conditions that sustained western rule. Second, colonial rule would not have lasted as long as it did unless western values and institutions were "grafted" onto the traditional base. And third, colonial rule did not cause a drastic rupture in the precolonial histories of colonized places (2). Imperialism is not merely about control now but also the creation of the conditions of knowledge for control.

By reading imperialism critically one can therefore appreciate how the colonization of imagination works to bind subjects in both the metropolitan centre and periphery to narratives that legitimize the functioning and consequences of imperialism. Conversely, it allows for an opposite effect, which is the resistance to these operations of imperialism. The best place to demonstrate such a critical reading of imperialism as legitimization would be the concepts of modernity and modernization. Instead of considering them as temporal effects of progress that all peoples (regardless of culture) will inevitably experience, modernity is understood as a typical response to how western man [sic] is to locate and order himself in the realms of nature, language, and the unknown (see Foucault, The Order of Things). Because of the overwhelming assumption that the natural world was divided between nature and culture, between the observable and yet-to-be observed, and between fact and value, modernity immediately invoked an elision between progress and culture.

An effect of this on the people at the metropolitan centres was thus what Mary Louise Pratt considers as "anti-conquest" where the very systems of observation and representation afforded by modernity proclaimed their innocence and benevolence while at the same time asserted European dominance of the periphery (see especially 7). These so called powers of observation were in no small part responsible for organizing an entire armada of scientific expertise. Something like anthropological or geographical "knowledge" of a "primitive" and "barbaric" non-western world and its inhabitants were not merely objective representations tailored for Western consumption, but measures that legitimized the actions of imperialism (see Said, Trinh). Tellingly so, the complicity of modernity and imperialism had quite a different effect on the colonized. Apart from conditioning them to accept these scientific narratives' affirmation of their primitiveness, modernity also significantly evacuated much of the colonized peoples' own sense of the world. Imperialism did not just involve the colonization of physical territories, it was also the colonization of the periphery's imagination. Likewise the temporal, negated form of colonization, decolonization, is not merely the removal of formal and physical structures of dominance, but as Mohanty says, is "defined as the process of unlearning historically determined habits of privilege and privation, of ruling and dependency" (110).

At this point, there is also a need to briefly mention some of the works of the French intellectual, Michel Foucault. The reason behind this is not so much to provide a single theoretical expose to the critical readings of imperialism, but to highlight an ironic disjuncture between the pervasiveness of imperialism's effect on the colonized and the possibility for resistance. Foucault has established two critiques of modern thought: the symbiosis of power and knowledge (power/knowledge) and the oppositional antagonism between power and resistance. In one instance Foucault fuses the two entities together by warning that neither term is reductive as "power and knowledge directly imply one another" (Discipline and Punish, 26-28; see also Power/Knowledge).

Such a fusion professes an underlying propensity in imperialism, that there is no easy resolution between imperial power and modern knowledge. If either concept were to be suddenly fused, then the operations and extent of imperialism would become more entrenched and subversive in creating a colonial subjectivity no amount of decolonization is able to resolve. In a different vein, Foucault also situates power not as a be all or end all of human condition, but that it has a counter-effect. In other words for Foucault, "wherever there is power, there is resistance" (History of Sexuality, 95-96). This may contradict the seeming totality of power to some extent, but then it is the only assurance Foucault can have in avoiding a theory that makes human subjectivity static and immutable. Applied to imperialism then, resistance (although not necessarily always through Foucauldian theory) is the very element that gives rise to different critical consciousness and productions of counter discourse in postcolonialism.

That imperialism is both possessive of a totalizing power that leads to the dilemma of the subaltern, and capable of being resisted against is not an unresolvable contradiction. It is contradictory to some extent, nut paramount to demonstrating a number of connections imperialism has with modernity/modernization, power/knowledge/desire, colonization/imagination, and representation/ambivalence. By saying that imperial power has produced a hybrid subjectivity that cannot but mimic the ways of the west, one strategically exemplifies a side of imperialism that the western, mainstream academia has long ignored. It is to point out the poignancy of the plight of the dispossessed, the exiled, and the marginalized, and to reveal the very starting position one must take if a more effective meaning of decolonization were to be sought. But by saying that there are possibilities of resistance against imperial power, then one draws on and begins where the previous understanding of imperialism culminates.

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Last Modified: 9 April, 2002