From Fetish to Subject: Race, Modernism, and Primitivism, 1919-1935

By Carole Sweeney | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
Constructing the Modern
Primitive

And we came to the land of the Cyclopes, a fierce, uncivilized people who
never lifted a hand to plant or plough but put their trust in Providence.
[…] The Cyclopes have no assemblies for the making of laws, nor nay
settled customs but live in hollow caverns in the mountain heights, where
each man is lawgiver to his children and his wives, and nobody cares a jot
for his neighbours.

—Homer, The Odyssey, book ix


INTRODUCTION

For centuries, certainly since the early European conquests of the Americas, the West, a fraught and loosely generic category, has been narrating and representing its “outside”; its others. Memoirs, journals, novels, poems, travel writing, journalism, ethnographic accounts, administrative documents, and essays have all contributed to the classification, codification, and textual representation of culture and customs outside of the sphere of Europe. Contact across cultures did not, of course, take the form of unalloyed wonderment and curiosity; in fact, as we know only too well, the converse took place, as indigenous cultures, local knowledges, languages, and sometimes whole peoples were eradicated in the name of commerce, civilisation, and progress. However, alongside conquest and exploitation, the West’s engagement with its others has been an elliptical movement of the self reaching out, extending out to the unknown and perhaps unknowable other. This engagement has produced a range of discursive structures and practices that have shaped Western understanding and representation of its others.1

-11-

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