by Dietrich Harth
Specifity is not just there. India is not just there.
›Imperialism‹ in English usually means the dominion or autocratic rule of a sovereign, be it an individual (a king or emperor) or a collective actor (a constitutional government). Looking at the history of India covering a time-span of roughly 100 years, i.e. from about 1750 until about 1860, the dominant ›imperial cultures‹ to be put into focus will mainly be those which historians usually identify with the Moghul-empires.
›Cultural imperialism‹ on the other hand is nothing else but a shorthand-formula contracting the really monumental enterprise of the British of that time to appropriate the South-Asian country, also expressing their insensible efforts to violently shape the divergent cultures of the subcontinent in conformity with a homemade vision of civilizational standards.
Framing ›culture‹ as a scholarly applicable key-concept usually means to consciously or unconsciously connect to former patterns of theoretical thinking. My own memory of those patterns is shaped by a concept of cultural pluralism, that can be compared with the notion of culture first introduced into anthropological discourse by Franz Boas. It is a concept that very well fits the many-coloured, variously patterned web of Indian cultures because it not only favors cultural diversity and co-existence of the diverse, but it also is – at least on the side of the researcher’s perspective – akin to relativism. In fact, the position marked by that choice is well known because of its ties with a tradition of great influence represented by the name of Johann Gottfried Herder. There is in any case something about it: to combine the modern anthropological understanding (Boas) with that of the – if I may say so – classical philosopher of culture (Herder). For Herder saw the dignity and value of each individual culture, as he put it, enclosed in itself like the gravitation centre in a globe. That means that any individual culture has to be studied in its own rights, or to give it a hermeneutical twist, by methodically exploring it from within. This is, of course, a maxim which makes the comparison of different cultures a difficult task. It reminds us at least that one of the indispensable conditions in comparative cultural studies is the overt existence of similarities of different sorts shared by the cultures chosen for comparison.
By that last remark I also want to emphazise that behind the imperial culture and the cultural imperialism mentioned in the headline of my talk are hidden indeed two very different cultural patterns of the past, represented on the one side by traditional India, on the other side by the British Empire, a society that for a long time was in the position of a modernist avantgarde. Of course, the relation between both to a large part was not so much based on similarities than on deep going differences and hostile oppositions. There is, therefore, less reason to compare but enough reason to watch the interaction of both cultures before the backdrop of explosive confrontations and cultural violence. However, the argument of my paper is that relations between two complex and dynamic cultural worlds – especially if these relations oscillate for a considerable historical time between recognition and aggression – the crucial point (I say) is that in this case both cultural worlds will definitely change their characteristics, at least by degrees; and they will do that primarily by cooperating in order to bridge the gap in between.
Regarding the semantic width of the concept of culture I do not restrict it to art, science or religion. Instead, in what follows I will use the concept under systemic premisses, i. e. as an idea interconnected with, and often enough included in those contexts as politics, economics and social order. To repeat the trivial: cultures exist never on their own, they are one of the creative elements of the social world – shaping it and being themselves shaped by that world. Consequently my argument here will be rather versatile, tentatively moving to and fro between the institutional levels of social organisation, political order, economic reproduction and legitimizing discourse.
To be blunt: I reject the meaning of culture as a coherent unity; instead I prefer to use ›culture‹ as a marker signifying the interplay between soft- and hardware, or more to the point, between the imaginaire (incl. beliefs and world views as well as value- and symbol-systems) and the institutions (incl. the agencies of bureaucratic, political, military and economic power).