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Aboriginal History, Volume 38, 2014

Representing Humanity in the Age of Enlightenment edited by Alexander Cook, Ned Curthoys and Shino Konishi, 237 pp, Pickering and Chatto, London, 2013, ISBN 9781848933736 (pbk), 9781781440155 (e-book), £60.00.

My interest in this collection springs from inquisitiveness more than specialist notice. I offer this disclaimer to the editors and contributors in advance should I squib on a more disciplined evaluation, for I am not an eighteenth-century scholar, but a visual historian interested in prefigured conventions of representation, and how they may have shifted under the asperities of industrialised, colonial modernity. A neophyte, however, can provide a view from the outer filaments of the disciplinary clusters and this collection richly rewards the curious and wide-ranging, as it will those working more closely on the Enlightenment philosophico-scientific and political project.

‘Humanity’ was at the centre of eighteenth-century thought. The epistemological revolutions in natural science, philosophy, proto-anthropology, morality and human rights that informed the sweeping revolutions in Europe and the Americas, are shown to have mandated conditions across a range of social fields for conflicting and ‘competing visions of human life’ (p. 3). Horizons expanded exponentially through commerce, conquest and exploration, and human difference leavened debate about human essence and nature, with implications for political organising in the marshalling of new forms of citizenship, habitation, occupation, education, communication, remembering, conversing, composing and painting. To take one instance of how this collection recites intriguing expressions of these changes, in Vanessa Agnew’s essay musical difference figures national cultures in the deployment of the periphery in theorising social development. Yet all the while the Gora instrument of Khoikhoi evinced ‘musical polygenesis’ by ‘straddling two separate organological branches’ (p. 93). A transnational Enlightenment unfolds through the essays, one in which periphery perspectives assail the established norms and parochial conventions in thinking of human identity and relations.

The two meanings of the word ‘represent’— to depict, and to speak for, transmute under new visions, vantages, places, frameworks and lenses. In another fascinating contribution in which the tension between these two meanings pull taut, Kate Fullagar shows how the neoclassical ideals of virtue and unity as cultivated by art clashed with the market for portraits and were ultimately undone by Reynold’s portraits of the Polynesian Mai, and the Cherokee Ostenaco. Aesthetic ideals of humanity were pursued in theories of taste by Reynolds, but his own ambivalent interest in the exotic threatened his aesthetic politics appealing as it did to a universal human character while depicting the essence of the New World savage.

In another of Shino Konishi’s studies of François Péron (zoologist and anthropologist of the French Baudin expedition of 1800–1804), his response to tombs on Maria Island and ruminations on the custom of cremation contrasts with instructions for the disinterring and repatriating of savage remains by Cuvier. Péron however, followed the more typically enlightenment directive of Degérando, who placed more emphasis on ‘deathways’ or the treatment, rituals and scenes of the dead, and how these became a ‘marker of humanity’ (p. 112). Having posed a ‘thought experiment’ Péron was reacquainted with his initial impressions of the ‘happiness and simplicity of the natural state’ (p. 121). Nicole Starbuck takes up Baudin’s expedition at Port Jackson where the encounter with the savage was now refracted through 15 years of colonialism. Ideas of pristine ethnographic subjects were counterposed by a strong sense of European corruption— at least by the ‘lower orders’. Starbuck contextualises new disciplinary specialisation, in attempts to account for the liminality of the partially ‘civilised’ savage, within Revolutionary naturalist notions of human similarity— itself the basis for political organisation of equality within the nation. Efforts to represent Aborigines as unaffected by European contact were overshadowed by their agency in adapting, and the manifest deterioration of their health and wellbeing through contact. In Starbuck’s incisive analysis, this apparent failure to achieve equality under European influence threatened the ‘Republic’s demographic venture’ (p. 113). One wonders whether the French dispelled these doubts by figuring the English as lesser exemplars of civilisation.

Yet new notions of human rights spurred the civilising projects of colonial expansion. Alexander Cook examines French revolutionary semiotics in the positing of man as the bearer of rights within the political concept of the citizen in ‘demarcating sovereignty’. Notorious Revolutionary philosopher Volney conferred a certain intelligibility to Humanity, in positing a common nature in the quest for emancipation as it was shared transnationally. As with a number of essays Cook examines the cosmopolitan impetus in the period’s philosophical speculation. Volney perforated the ‘barriers’ by which Europe distinguished itself from the surrounding world, and countered the prevailing prejudices that the peoples of Africa and the Middle-East were ‘universally fit for despotism’.

The New World and the ‘Orient’ spurred interest and supplied new arenas of philosophical speculation which took self-conscious forms such as the emphasis on ‘conversation’ discussed by Jon Mee, as new patterns of communication were enabled by urban gathering and, of course, print. Exchange and commerce propelled interest in the circulation of ideas while it conversely inculcated an ethos of politeness and dispensed a new role of women in ‘literary sociability’. This segues neatly into Ned Curthoy’s essay on German-Jewish Bildung and the ‘quest for self-creation’ (p. 65) marked by auto-critique through interlocutory performance. This idealised ethical comportment and aesthetic exercise was democratised. Curthoy’s facility for language is itself an excursion into an idealised ethical comportment and aesthetic exercise making his essay both a trove for the word packrat, and a salute to the committed reader.

Mary Spongberg’s study of Mary Hay’s female biography in theories of woman, examines the influence of rational dissent in the ‘sympathetic history that evolved as a feminized genre’ (p. 28). As a category for analysis in Enlightenment historiography, the functionality of woman ‘as a measure of civilisation’ was countered by Wollstonecraft. The rise of companionate marriage and the ideal of monogamy situated female chasteness as a civilising force, yet women’s infidelity constituted a property infringement. Spongberg at times assumes knowledge in the reader, but again, perhaps only the uninitiated reader, on the scandal following Wollstonecraft’s death, on Godwin’s publication of her memoirs and the nature of her relationship with Imlay.

Gender is indissociable from the Enlightenment scope of human referentiality. Hsu-Ming Teo’s careful reading of Montesquieu’s Persian Letters reveals Enlightenment ideals were undone by gender inequity and domestic politics as it conflicted with ideals of democratic sociability. Montesquieu’s Orientalism referenced Persian gender despotism to advance a ‘proto-feminist’ (p. 136) argument that European men were undemocratic in the private sphere. In an acute, ex-centric analysis of the medieval Arab world John Docker pivots forward into genocide studies and backwards to the Crusades to disorient the ‘Western-centric narrative of secularization’ that manifests from a ‘totalizing Eurocentric historical framework’ (p. 41). Docker creatively examines the appraisal of the Crusades by Hume, Robertson and Gibbon and the influences of stadial theory from the Scottish Enlightenment to pose a question increasingly urgent for our own times, ‘how in history does change from one kind of society to another occur’ (p. 43). He reveals the vagaries of history in the farcical and unintended outcomes of feudal lords waging a dishonourable, vicious war, such as the dawning of property rights in their vassals. The Crusades, Docker warns, presaged the repeated scourge of European genocide.

The productive tension that arises from the catachresis inhering in the meaning of representation appears again in perhaps the hub essay of the collection— Jonathan Lamb’s essay which assiduously pursues Enlightenment elaborations of the category ‘human’ in political philosophy to then relate it to ‘fictional constructs of the person’ (p. 150) in Epicurean and dissident materialist thinking. Sensation, mediated matter, affect and social personality are mapped against fiction as an ‘effort of mind absolutely necessary for a citizen fully active in the work of social representation’. Supernatural figures— such as the sylph— in the French libertine fairytale paradoxically— within the rationalist vocabulary of the time— engage in a ‘wordly conversation with the human’ in Peter Cryle’s enchanting contribution. Henry Martyn Lloyd finds Sade’s refusal ‘to elevate the human within the realm of nature’ (p. 173) precipitates the ‘polymorphous nature of Enlightenment humanism’ (p. 173). Moral sense as innate comes under attack by Sade who counters with a radical egoism, yet he argues against humans separating themselves from nature. Sade was in ‘magnificently violation’ of classical liberalism as it would adhere to utilitarianism later under Mill. Lloyd’s essay is able to draw to a conclusion the twin uses of ‘humanism’ cohering the volume— ‘the ethical-political sense linked to the contemporary term “humanitarian” and the philosophical-anthropological sense, the science of the human’ (p. 174).

As a conference proceeding, the collection remains cogent, yet its remit is hardly exclusive. It negotiates the twin impulses of the period towards humanisation and individual political ‘natural’ rights. Encounters with diverse peoples as trade and exploratory routes took hold positioned the ‘native’ and ‘noble savage’ as paradoxically transnational types, whose telescoping variance prompted the taxonomies adapted from zoology to ethnology in the disciplinary carve up shaped by specialisation and attempts to manage the influx of unwieldy masses of new data. Indeed the coincidence of this typological impulse with developments in the technology from which it drew its lexicon— print, instituted an observational ethos in attempts to decipher a universalising character of man that informed political theorising, which might have lent more material to the collection. This republic of letters was international in scope, propelling a transnational public sphere that in fact harboured an interlocutory scene of plural publics, such as ecclesiastical as it vied against secularisation, guild as it responded to nascent industrialisation, scientific as its disciplines specialised, each entering into the social contract as it formalised and legislated property relations. The ‘conceits’ of revolutionary culture surely intersected with colonialism leaving this reader pondering how settlement echoed and foundered on these brightly suspended notions of sovereignty, citizenship, rights and emancipation for a humanity divided and fragmented. The manifold way ‘man’ was invoked and put to work, by what description and techniques, is the constellate of the collection— it warrants a wide currency.

Liz Conor


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