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  • Interpreting Colonialism, SVEC 2004:09
  • Daniel E. White (bio)
Byron R. Wells and Philip Stewart, eds. Interpreting Colonialism, SVEC 2004:09. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2004. xii+421pp. £65; €99; US$125. ISBN 0-7294-0845-0.

The title of this collection is deceptive in its clarity: the essays will perform the act of interpreting an object called eighteenth-century colonialism, but thereafter questions about the two terms begin to proliferate. The eighteen pieces included in the volume, which emerged from an August 2000 seminar at the Williams Andrews Clark Memorial Library, UCLA, represent a range of disciplinary perspectives, predominantly those broadly aligned with literary and cultural studies, political science, history, and art history. In light of the array of approaches represented here, defining the act of interpreting proves as challenging as delimiting colonialism, the object of study. Interdisciplinarity both within and among the contributions reveals different methods and models of interpretation, but the real diversity in these pages is geographical. The "contributions take us on a virtual Grand Tour" (ix), write the editors, from Europe to West Africa, the Americas, the Caribbean, Tahiti, China, Thailand, and India. Few people will read this book cover to cover, but for those who do, the voyage across methodologies, histories, lands, and cultures will be as eye-opening yet bumpy as any such excursion around the colonial world must be.

The collection is divided into four sections, each including four or five essays: "Representations," "Mercantilism," "Religion and Ideology," and "Slavery." As one might expect from these headings, the second and fourth sections are considerably more coherent than the first and third. As an instance of the unevenness of the collection, I will briefly point to the first two essays. "Representations" begins with two contributions in French, Driss Aissaoui's "L'Image de l'autre dans le Journal de voyage de Robert Challe" and Fabienne-Sophie Chauderlot's "Prolégomènes à un anti-colonialisme futur: [End Page 234] Histoire des deux Indes et Supplément au Voyage de Bougainville de Diderot." The pairing of these two at the outset calls attention less to the overall productive diversity than to the occasional disparity of approaches taken to colonial relations of power throughout the collection. For Aissaoui, Challe's Journal d'un voyage fait aux Indes orientales (1690–91) reveals the author's personal growth away from his youthful xenophobia towards a more mature and "étonnante ouverture sur les cultures étrangères" (3). Travel writing becomes "une école de relativisme," permitting "à la fois une reconnaissance de l'Autre et une redécouverte de Soi" (15). The essay seems uncritically to accept relativism as a transhistorical solution to colonial oppression both between colonizer and colonized and within the self of the European subject. (On the basis of liberatory forms of knowledge of self and other acquired through travel, Challe calls, in his own words, for "une heureuse paix, qui les rendit tous content les uns des autres," and Aissaoui then asks, "N'est-pas là une précieuse leçon d'altruisme et de fraternité?" [15].) If for Aissaoui enlightenment travel writing contains the means to free itself from its own prejudices—"s'affranchir des préjugés" (11)—and thus includes its own self-critique, one that looks remarkably like our contemporary celebrations of difference and multiculturalism, for Chauderlot Diderot's representations of alterity force us to rethink our present-day assumptions about the nature of "anti-colonialism." "Il me semble crucial de redécouvrir la pluralité des positions originelles" (17), she writes, and among these positions is Diderot's denunciation of colonialism through the erasure of difference. In the Supplément, Diderot's Tahitian "others," the vieillard and Orou, "utilisent la raison et la langue du colon pour combattre la logique de ses raisonnements" (20). Neither speaks a language proper or distinct to himself, and the present-day reader might thus find an incipient colonialist logic within the denunciation, but Chauderlot insightfully concludes otherwise: "Il est difficile aujourd'hui de ne pas voir en l'effacement des différences le masque d'un essentialisme toujours plus ou moins eurocentré," but it is precisely this effacement of difference that allows Diderot's Enlightenment reader to...


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