Imperial Eyes, Travel Writing and Transculturation by Mary Louise Pratt, and: Discourses of Difference, An Analysis of Women's Travel Writing and Colonialism by Sara Millsw (review)
- Victorian Review
- Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada
- Volume 19, Number 2, Winter 1993
- pp. 90-94
- Additional Information
90Victorian Review Mary Louise Pratt. Imperial Eyes, Travel Writing and Transculturation. London and New York: Routledge, 1992. xii + 257. $10.99 US (paper). Sara Mills. Discourses ofDifference, An Analysis of Women's Travel Writing and Colonialism. London and New York: Routledge, 1991. vüi + 232. $35.00 US (cloth). As Calvino writes, "[T]he ideal position for reading is something you can never find" (9). The possible reading positions portrayed on the covers of both Mary Louise Pratt's Imperial Eyes (Pratt notes that reading was "the recommended way to pass the time while riding this way" ) and Sara Mills's Discourses of Difference look monstrously uncomfortable for the potential readers and for the men who carry them on their shoulders. These illustrations of colonial travel by porter encode the subject of these books, the imperial reading of empire. They make for unsettling but important reading. Both books lie at the intersection of Victorian, eighteenth-century, and postcolonial studies. They focus on the European gaze on colonization and the ideological construction of this gaze. Both are intimately concerned with genre, feminist reading and writing practices, and the way in which rhetoric enabled colonization. Pratt's Imperial Eyes examines how, by the very act of looking, the imperial "seeingman " (7) — explorer or travel writer — desires, objectifies, and possesses the observed. The site of this observation is the vast literature of European exploration and travel in the other, exotic, non-European world. The process of inventing this world begins, Pratt argues, with the "western habit of representing other parts of the world as having no history" (219). Committed to exposing colonial and postcolonial writings' influence on the present conditions of formerly colonized nations, Pratt takes a materialist, New Historicist, and formalist approach. Her method is to examine key passages in exploration or travel writings, to unpack the ideological underpinnings of their rhetoric, and to seek out traces of colonial discourse in postcolonial writing. Pratt's focus is "transculturation," a type of counter discourse, in which "subordinated or marginal groups select and invent from materials transmitted to them by a dominant or metropolitan culture" (6). Therefore, the locale of her examination is the frontier of empire, the linguistic "contact zone" (7). However, the book is fundamentally a study of genre, and the ways in which genre and various rhetorical, stylistic, and discursive practices encode ideology. Pratt is not a tourist in these areas, bringing considerable expertise in genre studies and discourse analysis to her project. Reviews91 As in Bernard Smith's examination of Pacific exploration writing, Pratt traces, in the first part of Imperial Eyes, the emergence of Europe's "planetary consciousness" in eighteenth-century natural history writing (15). In this discourse, "the naturalist naturalizes the bourgeois European's own global presence and authority" (28). This writing is, Pratt argues, a story of surveillance, resource assessment, and political control. Pratt also examines "civic descriptions" (20), writings in geography and political economy, and survival literature, which classify, systematize, and appropriate nature and make the world readable. She refers to this systematization of nature as an "anti-conquest," a seemingly benign (even Utopian) global appropriation (39). The second form of the anti-conquest is found in sentimental travel writing. Both John Barrow, a man of science, writing about South Africa, and Mungo Park, a "sentimental hero" (75), writing about the upper Niger, claimed to innocently pursue knowledge, although Barrow hoped to gain territory and Park to expand trade; together "they stake out the parameters of emergent bourgeois hegemony" and "sanitize" and "mystify" the aggression of imperialism (78). In a similar fashion, Pratt finds that in the erotic relations of colonizer and colonized, the myth of capitalist reciprocity mystifies the realities of sexual exploitation. Part two of Imperial Eyes centers on Pratt's account of Alexander von Humboldt's thirty volume reimagining of America in the early nineteenth century. Pratt details the dehistoricized views of pure nature in his writings about the new world, "a world whose only history was the one about to begin" (126), and she speculates about whether Romanticism might have "originated in the contact zones" (138). The sequel to Humboldt's narrative about the Americas was written in the first three...