On Collecting Culture in Graffigny: The Construction of an "Authentic" Peruvienne (1)

By Simon, Julia | Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

On Collecting Culture in Graffigny: The Construction of an "Authentic" Peruvienne (1)


Simon, Julia, Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation


Francoise de Graffigny's Lettres d'une Peruvienne has been both praised in recent years and despised at the time of publication, for the innovation in the creation of a new social and economic position for its heroine. Feminist readings have highlighted Zilia's position--with a "house of her own"--to read Graffigny's novel as a critique of contemporary constructions of female identity. (2) These readings suggest new avenues of analysis that question the discourses that enable the construction of such an identity. In particular, Zilia's position as property owner invites an investigation of the discursive systems that enable such a depiction of property and ownership.

Within Graffigny's novel, the Western discourses of property rights, ownership, and transfer combine with narratives of identity to reveal the paradoxes and inconsistencies in early modern conceptions of culture--both foreign and one's own. Graffigny's novel at once reinscribes and challenges the "order of things," as she weaves together multiple Enlightenment discourses of economics, aesthetics, epistemology, and psychology. Of particular concern in this analysis will be the relationship between identity and property that the novel enacts.

Drawing from James Clifford's questioning of the Western desire to collect both art and cultural objects, I seek to demonstrate the profoundly Western vision of subjectivity that emerges in and through Zilia's reconfiguration of self within French culture. Ultimately, I shall argue that Graffigny's novel comments critically not only on the Western practices that it explicitly denounces--in Zilia's letters that offer ethnographic accounts of French culture--but also on Western constructions of subjectivity that are wholly dependent on notions of property and ownership.

In his provocative essay "On Collecting Art and Culture," James Clifford sketches a brief history of collecting in the West) He suggests that underlying the desire to collect, and regulating its practice, is the law of property (217). With reference to C. B. Macpherson's seminal study, Clifford draws a parallel between the "possessive individual" self described by MacPherson, and the practice of collecting art, cultural objects, and other curiosities either in private collections or for museums. (4)

According to Macpherson's analysis, the possessive individual, who appears in the political philosophy of Hobbes and Locke, reflects a historically specific set of circumstances particular to seventeenth-century England. In this historically contextual reading, Macpherson argues against the universality or general, abstract quality of the claims made about human nature in Hobbes and Locke. For Macpherson, it is the historical circumstances of a competitive and even antagonistic social arrangement that necessitate the self-interested and acquisitive vision of human nature that emerges in these foundational texts of social contract theory. But clearly this vision extends beyond its early modern context of origin. Possessive individualism is equally a characteristic of humans under late capitalism who respond in similar ways to a competitive, even antagonistic, economic and social environment. The high value placed on the acquisition of property is common to both historical settings.

Acquiring property (understood as both land and moveable goods, including money) in seventeenth-century England, and in eighteenth-century France, meant a number of things. (5) First, and basically, it meant securing a comfortable life for oneself and one's family. Second, it meant ensuring a comfortable life in the future for one's children. Third, in a society increasingly tending toward more flexible class categories, acquiring property meant the possibility of ascending the social ladder. Property could even mean entrance into the aristocracy through the landed gentry in England and through the purchase of titles among the noblesse de robe in France. …

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