- Inventing Exoticism: Geography, Globalism, and Europe’s Early Modern World by Benjamin Schmidt
Benjamin Schmidt’s work is part of a new generation of books that transcend the literary turn affecting the humanities in the late twentieth century. Rather than ignoring poststructural and postcolonial analyses, Schmidt sets out to provide much needed historical depth to fashionable literary theories. In this endeavor he finds inspiration in the work of Roger Chartier, who challenged the “textual tyranny” governing current historical analyses of books. Moving beyond the text, Chartier urged scholars to attend to engravings, covers, as well as editors and publishers to foster a fuller understanding of the historical artifact that constitutes a book. Building upon Chartier’s extensions, Schmidt pushes the analysis into the realm of postcolonialism. In connection with such analyses, Schmidt does not reject the underlying premise of Edward Said’s monumental work, but maintains that the concept of “Orientalism” glosses over historical shifts and even reversals within Europe’s preoccupation with the “exotic.” Schmidt’s mission is “to explicate a rich chapter in the history of Europe’s engagement with and formulation of the wider world at a pivotal moment of global history from circa 1670 to 1730” (p. 19). [End Page 175]
In these crucial six decades, the term “exotic” was expanded beyond its existing foothold in natural history to encompass the whole of the non-European world. Schmidt finds this shift significant because earlier encounters with new worlds found explorers making the strange more commensurable with the European world they had left behind. Plants, peoples, and animals were generally depicted as similar to those found in Europe. By 1650, however, this representation experienced a decisive shift. Rather than making the foreign world familiar, the “exotic” alterity of non-Western places was deliberately exaggerated. The cultural and natural differences between Africa, Asia, and the Americas were intentionally erased to highlight their exotic appearance. At the same time, this process also erased existing divisions within Europe, thus widening the gap between non-European and European worlds. Schmidt argues that this shift in representation of the exotic originated in the Low Countries. Following Chartier’s call for a historical analysis that extends beyond the textual pages of a book, Schmidt provides a wealth of illustrations, close to two hundred to be exact, as well as background on the Dutch editors and publishers who were the driving force behind this development.
After eighty years of devastating conflict, the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) brought about a decline of Habsburg hegemony over Europe, which also resulted in the independence of the Low Countries—an independence, however, came at a heavy cost. While the Dutch East and West Indies Companies were strong competitors with the Spanish and the Portuguese at the beginning of the seventeenth century—resulting in a sizable transoceanic empire—by the end of the seventeenth century, the Dutch focused more narrowly on trade of spices and other “exotic” items, which included elaborate travelogues richly adorned with images. No strangers to plagiarism, the Dutch took accounts and images of foreign places from the Habsburgian sources predating them. The Netherlands became an “entrepôt of exoticism” (6).
The book’s four chapters can be roughly divided into three parts. The first part, comprising the two first chapters of the book, expertly explicates the inner workings of publishing in Holland, which, according to Schmidt, was always caught in a dialectic swing between teaching and delighting the reading public. Following 1670, teaching took second stage. Besides pilfering images and texts from other European sources, Dutch publishers often depicted flora and fauna that a twenty-first-century observer would recognize as not being native to the particular region of the world being depicted. The same principle also applied to ethnographic descriptions and depictions, which were frequently misplaced [End Page 176] to the wrong continents. Schmidt argues that such glaring errors were actually calculated interventions in an attempt to provide a nonexistent unity to the non-European world. Willfully ignoring the great variety of non-European climate...