This talk uses Edward Said’s contrapuntal reading of imperialism to critique the self–referential, exceptionalist impulses of contemporary liberalism – what I call liberal narcissism. A musical term that refers to the interplay of various, sometimes atonal, themes working their way through a single piece of music, in Said’s hands, counterpoint is transformed into a generative, interpretive lens through which to read imperialism, in the past and present. Crucially, a contrapuntal method seeks out moments of both rupture and connection, treating imperialism as a contested and joint experience. I adapt Said’s contrapuntal approach to a critical practice that reads liberalism as an imperializing, global ideology.
The point, I suggest, is to similarly approach the history of this ideology as a contested and joint experience that rationalizes – even as it occludes – it’s affiliative connections to imperialism. Tracing and disentangling these connections can help de-centre and de–exceptionalize liberalism precisely at a political moment when we need to be thinking beyond its limitations.
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