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Eighteenth-Century Life 26.3 (2002) 10-30

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The Exotic Frontier of the Imperial Imagination

Christa Knellwolf
Australian National University


The exotic is now associated with the sensual fantasies conjured up by the lush landscapes of far-off countries and the bewildering yet alluring rituals practiced by their inhabitants. During the eighteenth century it mainly described botanical specimens, but the frisson of distant places nevertheless became a fundamental part of the culture. If we consult the Oxford English Dictionary we note that the twentieth century projected the term into nightclubs where "exotic dancing" described the striptease performances by artists of African or Asian origin, who were afterward available for sex. This recent usage foregrounds the term's intrinsic contradictions between desire for unrestrained sensual enjoyment and the attempt to know—appropriate, possess, and control—its titillating qualities.

The exotic became associated with the sensual appeal of far-off , mainly tropical, climes only during the eighteenth century. When it first entered the English language in the sixteenth century, exotic simply described something that is "outside," so that the term's semantic shift records the intellectual adjustments demanded by increasingly aggressive imperial politics. At a time of unstable boundaries, imaginary portrayals of that which is outside familiar perimeters are a means of understanding the changing demarcations between inside and outside. The term exotic defines the implicit boundaries of society, state, and church. By contrast with a term like periphery —which has center as its opposite—the exotic has no overt [End Page 10] counterpart. We may speculate that this is because the contemporary worldview could not imagine an external perspective or, conversely, that its opposite is included in the point of view implied by the exotic, is contained in the collective European personal pronoun "we" whose experience is described. A term with a similar ideological backdrop and that also lacks an opposite is home . It likewise corroborates abstract boundaries between inside and outside, while encouraging the imagination to roam without restraint. For these reasons G. S. Rousseau and Roy Porter propose the following definition of the Enlightenment exotic: "The fantastic realized beyond the horizons of the everyday world the Europeans knew." 1 Claims about what belongs within the familiar or domestic and what should be excluded from it define the norms and standards of a particular society. In the words of Bernard Smith, the exotic "could never represent those others, the non-Europeans, as they viewed and valued themselves. It was a category of accommodation by means of which the European perceived and interpreted the Other according to the limits and constraints of European understanding." 2 The "exotic" thus describes fantasies as well as historical responses to otherness, both permeated with the attempt to contain it within the intellectual and real boundaries of empire.

It is relevant to remember that from the early modern period Western notions of land ownership have pivoted on the idea of enclosure. Rousseau famously defined the act of enclosing a piece of ground as the foundational moment of civil society. 3 Legal property, particularly at the colonial frontiers, was circumscribed by the literal fence drawn around the land. 4 When Robinson Crusoe makes himself at home on his desert island—or rather, appropriates it as his home—he spends enormous efforts on building enclosures. While looking for suitable terrain for new enclosures, he reports a stroke of luck: "Here I found a clear piece of land near three acres, so surrounded with woods that it was almost an enclosure by nature." 5 He admits that nature herself may not build enclosures, but he is convinced that by providing the necessary environment nature facilitates cultural appropriation as a matter of course.

Linda Colley argues that Britain invented itself as a nation through war over colonial dominion. 6 In the eighteenth century the lure of wealth sparked armed conflicts that were supported by an elaborate ideological machinery. James Thomson's patriotic song "Rule, Britannia" (1740) projects the boundless energy of the British spirit. The rousing chorus, "Rule, Britannia, rule the waves; / Britons never will be slaves," subdivides the [End Page...


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