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  • Orientalism’s Corporeal Dimension
  • William Cummings

Thomas Ellison, the youngest of the Bounty’s sailors, was hanged in Portsmouth on the morning of October 29th, 1792. On his right arm he had a date tattooed: 25 October 1788. Almost exactly four years before, that was the day the Bounty first sighted Tahiti (Dening 1992: 36). Emblematic of a widespread trend, it was the late eighteenth century when European sailors began to return from overseas with tattoos adorning their skin. Tattoos quickly became associated with the exotic and distant Pacific ocean, and the English language itself borrowed the word ‘tattoo’ from Tahitian. This association deepened when a handful of tattooed Polynesians themselves returned on those same ships and became the talk of European society.

We should also note that the late eighteenth century is the precise period that Edward Said identified as critical in the evolution of modern Orientalism, and I want to explore what at first seems a felicitous coincidence. This article investigates how the discourse of Orientalism, typically seen as a textual and discursive entity, was embedded in the exchange of physical bodies across oceans. They were an essential ingredient in the evolution of Orientalism as a style of thought, and by attending to these bodies carefully we can better understand the dynamic relationship linking discursive formations to the material worlds in which they are formed. In contrast to analyses of the construction of race and sex in colonial contexts (cf. Stoler 1995, Young 1995), this work turns from a concern with representation and its effects to the mechanics of the discourse of Orientalism.

In this article I analyze the role of tattooed bodies in providing Orientalism a corporeal component by which it was decisively shaped. More particularly, I examine the exchange of tattooed bodies of Europeans and Polynesians across the Pacific Ocean that began in the late eighteenth century. As a discourse, Orientalism — as many have noted — was not monolithic, but composed of numerous strands, each with its own characteristics and historical trajectory. Discourse about Pacific islands and islanders is one such strand. It possessed distinctive elements even as it contributed to the growth of a generalized ‘Orient’ dichotomously counterposed to a generalized ‘West.’ Said identified this manner of thought as the hallmark of Orientalism and the soul of colonialism. First, then, we should be clear about what ‘Orientalism’ is and was.

Orientalism and its Genesis

The chief work with which I am concerned, of course, is Edward Said’s provocative and prominent 1978 book Orientalism1. At the outset of this seminal work Said writes that when he uses the term ‘Orientalism’ he means three interdependent things. First, ‘Anyone who teaches, writes about, or researches the Orient… is an Orientalist, and what he or she does is Orientalism.’ Second, ‘Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between “the Orient” and (most of the time) “the Occident”.’ Thus, Said states, ‘a very large mass of writers, among whom are poets, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists, and imperial administrators, have accepted the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient…’ Third, ‘Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient — dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it…’ (Said 1978: 2–3).

In these and subsequent definitions Said emphasizes Orientalism as a textual entity, a matter of writing, thinking, reading, and speaking about the Orient. In one formulation it is ‘that collection of dreams, images, and vocabularies available to anyone who has tried to talk about what lies east of the dividing line’ and in another it is described as ‘a library or archive of information… [bound together by] a family of ideas and a unifying set of values proven in various ways to be effective’ (Said 1978: 73, 41–2). Above all, Orientalism is ‘a way of analyzing the relationship between texts and the way in which groups of texts, types of texts, even textual genres, acquire mass, density, and referential power among themselves and thereafter...

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