Biography 28.3 (2005) 436-441
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More Exotic Memories of Us and Them
Scott begins his account of nineteenth- and twentieth-century French travel literature by pointing out how "the quest for the new and the different is paradoxically accompanied by a nostalgia for an integrated semiotic system" (2). In support of his point that, after the nineteenth century, this nostalgia has become "an integral part of the appeal of the exotic," he quotes from my Exotic Memories: Literature, Colonialism, and the Fin de Siècle (Stanford UP, 1991), noting that part of the underlying project of exoticism is to recover a "'concrete apprehension of others that is [ . . . ] typical of traditional communities but has been [ . . . ] eliminated from our own'" (2; Scott's ellipses). While understandably pleased at the positive reference to my book, I was nonetheless puzzled by those two ellipses. Had I really made such an authoritative statement about "traditional communities" and their difference from "our own"? It turned out that my original claim was rather less emphatic: what I had actually said was that the project of exoticism is to recover a "concrete apprehension of others that is (or so the critics of modernity hypothesize) typical of traditional communities but has been, or is being, eliminated from our own" (9).
Minor as they might appear, these two edits are in fact symptomatic of major problems with Scott's book. Most notably, by dropping my cautionary parenthetical aside about "the critics of modernity," Scott signals his commitment to having familiar ideological assertions regarding the relation between tradition and modernity stand as truth claims rather than hypotheses. While such assertions are doubtless central to the exoticist project, it is by no means certain what bearing, if any, they have on reality—or, indeed, whether the concepts upon which they depend, such as "modernity" and "tradition," are anything more than cultural phantasms that have for centuries now provided an extraordinarily convenient way of figuring our dominant relation to (those we insist on perceiving as) "others." Very occasionally, Scott does acknowledge the phantasmatic dynamics of the literary tradition he is examining. He admits early on, for instance, that "the comparative stability of other, non-European cultures and civilizations is partly illusory" (6; my italics), and in a very brief "Conclusion" he belatedly identifies several of the "mythologising structures" at work in travel writing (211–12). But from beginning to end of this book what most strikes one is the author's decided unwillingness to question the basic assumptions that have shaped the tradition of French exoticism from Gautier to Baudrillard— [End Page 436] a tradition that he at points rather grandly identifies as "modern travel writing" tout court (56).
Scott consistently treats exoticist tropes as veritable signs of the real: he would appear to have no desire to distance himself from the ideological vision of the world promoted by a handful of self-conscious critics of modernity whom he believes "offer the deepest insight into the other" (187). Thus, we find him making many an unironic appeal to such things as "the millennial stability enjoyed by other civilisations—Indian, Chinese—and the numberless so-called primitive societies of the Americas and Australasia" (6), or to "the fundamental clash between modern western culture and the immemorial systems of the East" (68). While this lack of critical distance has disturbing political ramifications (as we will see at the end of this review article), its most obvious consequence is that the author spends much of the book describing what he ought to be analyzing. Instead of the critical interrogation of colonial and neo-colonial discourse to which several decades of postcolonial criticism have now accustomed us, the author most often contents himself with offering elaborate paraphrases of how the writers under consideration have themselves described and analyzed the "other" worlds to which they were drawn "as a real and viable alternative or complement to the known, western, system" (13).
This lack of analysis...