Edward Said and Graphic Novels Part 1: Introduction

by tigermanifesto

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This is part one of an eight-part post critiquing six graphic novels through the definitions and methods employed in Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism. In this part, we look at how Said defines culture and imperialism, and how graphic novels seem to have a special relationship with the Middle East as a subject.

Graphic novels represent a new frontier for cultural critics. Today, the graphic novel has taken its place alongside the action blockbuster and the evening (and morning, and afternoon, and nightly) news, America’s favorite source of education about the Middle East. That is no cause for either simple celebration or lament. Peering through the lens of Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism, this paper will try to see what Americans might be learning from this relatively young medium and what kinds of ideology they might be imbibing. Following a discussion of Frank Miller’s propagandistic oeuvre, the humanistic fairy tale of Craig Thompson’s Habibi, Brian K. Vaughan’s Pride of Baghdad, and Iranian-Western counterpoints Persepolis and Zahra’s Paradise, the paper will briefly point to the potential of a renewed cultural criticism grounded in Lenin’s definition of imperialism as “the highest stage of capitalism,”thus grounding his analysis of Western false consciousness in a material analysis of global political economy.

First, however, the reader will benefit from a short exposition of the key concepts and terminology Said uses in Culture and Imperialism, especially the terms “culture” and “imperialism.” Despite Said’s fondness for complicated syntax and burying the lede, he readily supplies such definitions. For “culture” he provides two definitions: first, he means “practices, like the arts of description, communication, and representation” which are relatively autonomous from social and political forms. In the second sense, culture is “a concept that includes a refining and elevating element, each society’s reservoir of the beset that has been known and thought.”¹ Culture is in this way situated as a source of identity, a structuring of attitudes at both a mass level (first definition) and an elite one (second), a discourse that is supposed to transcend everyday existence and provides narratives for the nations that produce and protect it. In turn, Said believes culture becomes a “protective enclosure” that can stifle criticism as much as promote it.²

Imperialism is defined as “the practice, the theory, and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan center ruling a distant territory,” which is not simply an “act of accumulation and acquisition” since it is “supported and perhaps even impelled by impressive ideological formations.”³ Imperialism  is possessive and constitutive of culture in both the dominating metropolitan center and the occupied territory, with culture driving the immense expansion of European and American domination over land. Land is the crux of the analysis, because in his method geography defines the position of the author involved. His method of reading, known as contrapuntal reading, “must take account of both processes, that of imperialism and that of resistance to it, which can be done by extending our reading of the texts to include what was once forcibly excluded.”⁴

Throughout the text of Culture and Imperialism, Said practices this discipline of reading on the margins, searching for and teasing out the critical psychological and cultural pillars of imperialism latent even in anti-imperialist texts. In the present study, the subjects of criticism are far newer, emerging in an environment already aware of Said, and there is already within these texts an awareness of the tropes they are using and the position of the narrative subjects as residents of either dominant or dominated regions of the world. This paper will therefore not be “including what was forcibly excluded,” but rather engaging texts—and images—which are in some way cognizant of the colonial and imperial legacies in which they reside. The current study will employ this contrapuntal method by taking into account books authored from both American and Middle Eastern perspectives, searching for the way ideologies of imperialism are propagated and how those who are marginalized respond to Western impositions.

By the end, however, we will find that there are significant limitations to Said’s method because it decouples culture from politics and the economy. Any discussion of imperialism that neglects these and focuses solely on ideology and culture is bound to be somewhat bloodless at least and at times even misguided.

Notes:

  1. Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), xii-xiii.
  2. Ibid, xiv.
  3. Ibid, 9.
  4. Ibid, 66-67.
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