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Eighteenth-Century Life 26.3 (2002) 1-9

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Christa Knellwolf
Australian National University

Iain McCalman
Australian National University


The seductive lure of the exotic is difficult to resist. Its vivid images of outlandish people in colorful costume against a noisy and sensual background seize the imagination with the promise of bewildering and riveting experiences. What is thought of as exotic in the twenty-first century often in some way involves a clash between traditional modes of life and makeshift adaptations of Western technology. An exotic scene might consist of trishaws scurrying through the busy inner-city traffic in Singapore or of donkey carts and rickety cars and buses competing for space in a town somewhere in the backwaters of Asia or Africa. The exotic manifests itself differently in the twenty-first century than it did in the eighteenth, but it still describes an encounter between different cultures. Then as now, the resulting incongruity exerts an attraction of its own.

The images to which we typically attribute the epithet of the exotic—a tropical palm, or a Fijian in traditional costume—are not necessarily intoxicating or alienating by themselves. In isolation, or in their native environment, they are just that: a tropical palm and a Fijian in traditional costume. It takes an observer from outside—a stranger who brings to bear [End Page 1] a dramatically different standard of what people and plants look like—to interpret them as exotic.

However extreme the differences may be, it belongs to the self-confidence of the period to assume that they can be bridged. In the eighteenth century, the exotic was a relational concept, embracing the observer and the objects of observation as well as the encounters between members of different cultures. Concrete examples show that this concept was amenable for the representation of mutually respectful encounters, but this does not detract from its overwhelmingly Eurocentric perspective. While the formation of the concept involved a dialogue, it was a dialogue with interlocutors who had been almost completely silenced through the act of being aestheticized. As a consequence, the uniqueness of their culture and personality could scarcely be registered. The objective of this special issue of Eighteenth-Century Life is to examine the cultural contacts for their potential—both failures and successes—as they are expressed in eighteenth-century images, ideas, and myths about the exotic.

The immediate appeal of the exotic on the senses and the imagination may account for the overwhelmingly positive response to our call for papers for the Eleventh David Nichol Smith Conference on 26-28 March 2001, hosted jointly by the Humanities Research Centre and the National Library of Australia. The theme of "The Exotic During the Long Eighteenth Century, 1660-1830" proved to be attractive precisely because scholars worldwide felt the need to rethink the cultural and intellectual backdrop of a veritable eighteenth-century cult of the exotic. The incisive collection of essays edited by G. S. Rousseau and Roy Porter represent important groundwork. 1 Intensive new research into the history of exploration and its ramifications for European culture and self-perception demonstrated the timeliness of the conference's topic, particularly in a year that celebrated the first centenary of federation in Australia.

An historical investigation of the exotic is mainly an account of misunderstandings, failed opportunities, and political and cultural imperialism. The chief objective of the conference, however, was not to deplore the many disastrous consequences of European arrogance and insensitivity during the period of first contact. Instead, it aspired to give historical context to both real and imaginary encounters, setting them off against cultural traditions and stereotypical views. First, it asked why and how the exotic gripped the eighteenth-century psyche and created a stock of fantasies that developed their own dynamics, keeping in mind the intense [End Page 2] emotional involvement in these fantasies to understand why they gained such prominence. Discussion of the hopes and fears behind the act of creating aesthetic abstractions of the exotic enabled a better understanding of the rationale behind the formation of stereotypes about ethnically specific identity, such as the licentious Tahitian or warrior Maori. Stripping the...


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