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Eighteenth-Century Studies 36.4 (2003) 610-615
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Enlightenment and its Others:
Why They Still Matter, or Not
Brigham Young University.
Laura J. Rosenthal and Mita Choudhury, eds. Monstrous Dreams of Reason: Body, Self, and Other in the Enlightenment (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2002). Pp. 296. $45.00.
Rajani Sudan. Fair Exotics: Xenophobic Subjects in English Literature, 1720-1850 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002). Pp. 208. $45.00. 31.50.
In the introduction to his anthology on postmodernism, Thomas Docherty surveys the contemporary theoretical landscape and makes this pronouncement: "It is increasingly apparent that many of the debates around the issue of the postmodern not only have their sources in eighteenth-century controversies, but also recapitulate those earlier debates and reconsider them: the late twentieth century is contaminated by the late eighteenth" (Postmodernism: A Reader [New York: Columbia University Press, 1993], 15). Laura J. Rosenthal, Mita Choudhury, and Rajani Sudan implicitly thematize this utterance, either by retracing the lineaments of "eighteenth-century controversies" on the face of modernity or by isolating a colonialist strain of "contaminat[ion]" in British history. In reading Monstrous Dreams of Reason and Fair Exotics, it becomes evident that contamination works both ways, often fruitfully so: eighteenth-century studies are clearly at least as informed by the cultural categories and discourses of the late twentieth and the early twenty-first centuries as these discourses are by the long shadows cast by the Enlightenment. And yet, while this cross-pollination makes for arguments that are as pertinent as they are provocative, I must confess that it also left me with unsettling impressions of malaise. The books capably explain that some of this malaise derives from unhappy (e.g., imperialist, racist) legacies of Enlightenment thought that have filtered their way into the (post-) modern West. However, these books also symptomatically exhibit a malaise—a crisis in contemporary theoretical and cultural studies, perhaps—that seems constitutionally to inhabit literary studies.
Rosenthal and Choudhury convert this malaise into a motif, announcing in their volume's opening sentence that "The problems raised during the Enlightenment have neither been solved nor forgotten" (9). The editors lay the groundwork in their introduction for explorations of these problems, navigating the Scylla [End Page 610] and Charibdis of the archive and pop culture (e.g., in an extended analysis of The X-Files) in pursuit of three objectives. First, they extend the understanding of Enlightenment conflicts into cultural milieus situated beyond "the writings of seminal thinkers such as Locke, Voltaire, Diderot, Hume, Gibbon, Rousseau, Newton, and Lessing" (11). Second, they present the Enlightenment "not as a set of axioms, but rather as a network of ideologies and problems" that unearths "some of the unstable boundaries between the rational and the irrational, the liberal and the prejudiced, the ordered and the regulated, discovery and violation, contact and appropriation, exploration and exploitation." And third, they declare their interest in broaching "the enigma of the 'Other'" (11). The volume's twelve essays meet these objectives in mostly exemplary ways; each essay offers something of genuine interest. To cite only a few cases, Thomas A. King writes compellingly of permeable gender identities in the seventeenth century, drawing upon the broad cultural dimensions of the gaze in an era preceding The Spectator and the elaboration of a panoptical, self-observing and self-regulating model of subjectivity. Samantha Fenno recounts a chapter of the history of inoculation in England, reading Mary Wortley Montagu's introduction of the smallpox vaccine through Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno's critique of instrumental (or means-end) reasoning. Jonathan M. Hess teases out antisemitic aspects of benevolence and capitalist rationalization in eighteenth-century Prussia, both of which he finds to be "exercises in social engineering." Beth Fowkes Tobin analyzes the delocalizing, abstractive features of English Georgic poetry, while Ruth Perry uses Jane Austen's family history and the cultural dynamics of British colonialism as the backdrop against which to contrast Austin's sensitivity toward the subjugation of women with her opacity toward colonialist exploitation.
As a storehouse of curiosities regarding various aspects...