Contrapuntal and contrapuntally are words that Edward Said uses to describe both the relationship between culture and imperialism, and the way that relationship may be apprehended. In essence: there are two thematic principals in culture, one dominant, and one subordinate (less visible), but crucially these two themes operate in an interdependent and highly dynamic manner. Specifically, Said is interested in examining the "interacting experience that links imperializers with the imperialized." (pg.194). In Culture and Imperialism, his crowning achievement published in 1993, Said examines this interacting experience through the prism of literature, his area of especial expertise.
Said begins his huge and difficult task by discussing, in general terms, the way that in the West (the dominant imperializers since the sixteenth century) cultural representations of the non-European world are crude, reductionist and often racist. Said believes this tendency is not accidental but systematic and part of an imperial impulse that needs to dominate. Voices of the non-European world in Western culture are not expected to be heard, and are deliberately, if not always consciously, suppressed. In Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, for example, the world of the Caribbean plantation is only peripherally referred to, though its existence and economic exploitation are essential to the well-being of the novel's main characters. When referred to, the plantation is subordinate and dominated--no non-European voices are heard. This illustrates one of Said's key arguments: "the experience of the stronger party overlaps and, strangely, depends on the weaker." In a wider political sense--and for Said politics and culture is one and the same thing--the developed world depends on the underdeveloped ("developing") world even though in cultural representations the former often portrays itself as separated and elevated from the latter.
The author also examines the work of Albert Camus, Rudyard Kipling, and Verdi (opera), among others, in detail and critically. Why was the Indian resistance (to British imperial rule) not represented in Kim? Why did Aida not attempt to examine contemporary urban reality in Cairo at the time of its making? Said enjoys and appreciates these works, and those of contemporaneous artists, but cannot help viewing them critically, and urges us to do likewise. He seems to want us to see the imperial motive in all cultural artefacts, most especially in "high art." Knowledge of domination and being dominated has been artificially and falsely separated from "culture", argues Said, whereas it should lie at the centre of our cultural understanding.
One important point that Said makes is that imperialism did not end after decolonisation, and that there is still an intense need to justify domination in cultural terms. The way the media in the West helps to engender consent for military interventions in places like Iraq and Afghanistan being a case in point. Rambo-like movies represent Arab Muslims as desperados, and so on. Journalists and intellectuals who should be able to think more critically, often participate in this cultural brain-washing, having internalized the norms of the state, and go along with the story--North Korea is therefore a "rogue" state, instead of just a state acting in its own interest. Palestinians who decide to resist Israeli domination are always portrayed as "terrorists." But the dropping of phosphorous and cluster bombs on civilian areas by Israel's military does not, apparently, deserve the terrorist epithet.
Cultural domination always meets cultural resistance, notes Said. This is one of the interesting things about the phenomenon of imperialism, and in the second part of his book Said discusses the work of Fanon, Lukacs, and others. In between these discussions, which are interspersed with interesting personal anecdotes, Said returns to his arguments and his agenda: "The job facing the cultural intellectual is therefore not to accept the politics of identity as given, but to show how all representations are constructed, for what purpose, by whom, and with what components."
Great books leave you looking at the world in a slightly different way, forever. Culture and Imperialism is, I believe, one such great text, and even if you cannot agree point for point with everything the author is saying, his overall import, that there is an unavoidable interdependency between imperialism and culture (the two phenomena cannot be artificially separated) is brilliantly and precisely argued. And also like all great books, Said's narrative raises as many questions as it answers, particularly about the nature of domination, and whether liberation can be achieved through "poetry" (a metaphor for non-violence) alone.