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The Impact of the Exotic

By Martin Staum
H-Net Reviews

brown_primitive coverTony Brown’s preface challenges the explanatory power of historical interpretation. His preference for literary theory yields a work that will be heavy reading even for intellectual historians. Most prominent are the insights of Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida, though to be fair Brown has read deeply in the secondary historical literature on primitivism and the Enlightenment.

For the author, the Enlightenment problematic, typical of the eighteenth century, was the attempt to bridge the universal and timeless faculty of experiencing or imagining the beautiful or pleasurable with the experience of actual historical contact with non-European peoples or cultures. This bridging effort employed temporally situated savage or exotic figures to limit the aesthetic. The forceful impact of the New World (broadly defined) included contacts in the Americas, the South Pacific, and even the very non-savage world of China that upset European biblical chronology and complicated biblical narrative. According to the author, thinking the primitive, defined as the atemporal original human state, was uniquely difficult in the eighteenth century due to secularization. There could be no easy resort to a Divine Creator of the primitive. Unlike the possible nineteenth-century alternative, there could be no displacement of the category of the primitive by placing it within Hegelian historical stages of Spirit. The primitive could not be synonymous with the savage, since the primitive stood outside history. This was a kind of Rousseauist state of nature, while Europeans encountered existing, temporally situated savage societies.

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