Travelogues of Difference: IR Theory and Travel Literature

By Guillaume, Xavier | Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, May 2011 | Go to article overview
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Travelogues of Difference: IR Theory and Travel Literature


Guillaume, Xavier, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political


Abstract

Influenced especially by Tzvetan Todorov's analysis of early modern European travelogues, travel literature has provided a strong heuristic for comprehending the development of modern and contemporary expressions of the international. This heuristic tends to emphasize the overpowering frameworks of the figure of inversion and the mechanism of othering to make sense of the relation between identity and alterity. This article retains the intuition that travel literature can provide for an heuristic of this relation while exploring an alternative way to decenter the European centeredness and modernist core of contemporary theories of international relations (IR) and calling on a non-European and non-modern travelogue to provide for such heuristic. Specifically, it explores some aspects of classical Greece as offering both a similar and a dissimilar experience to alterity by analyzing Herodotus' travel literature and the ways by which he translates difference into the realm of sameness. Calling upon Herodotus' writing shows that narration of difference does not necessarily imply othering and thus opens up new ways to conceptualize identity and alterity.

Keywords

travel writing, identity, alterity, Todorov, Herodotus

The discovery of the Americas, and more particularly Tzvetan Todorov's analysis of certain early modern European travelogues, has had considerable influence in the way some theorists of IR have conceptualized the identity/alterity nexus over the past twenty-five years. Whether directly or indirectly, they have used travel writing as one of their central sources for conceptualizing and reflecting on the sociological, political, and normative dimensions of the identity/alterity nexus. More specifically, this literature centers on the discovery, exploration, conquest, and colonization of the Americas, and the travel literature attached to it, because this specific event is believed to help situate Western/ Christian/modern responses to difference. This partly explains the centrality of static and dichotomized modes of representation in the field of international studies despite professed commitments to processes and practices.

Modem European travel literature, and especially its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century incarnation influenced by the process of colonization, has provided IR theory with a strong heuristic for comprehending the development of modem and contemporary expressions of the international. This heuristic, however, emphasizes the overpowering frameworks of the figure of inversion and the mechanism of othering to make sense of identity and alterity. These frameworks are limited and limiting for our ability to conceptualize identity and alterity with social and political theory. (1) This article, while affirming the fundamental intuition that travel literature provides a useful heuristic for the identity/alterity nexus, looks for an alternative way to decenter Eurocentricism and the modernist core of contemporary IR theory. It calls on a non-European and non-modem travelogue to provide for such heuristic.

The analysis starts by identifying the influence of modem European travel literature on IR theory and then contextualizes Todorov's interpretation to show the westem-centeredncss and the modernist assumptions shaping the appropriation that has been made of Todorov's work in IR theory in order to ground a specific understanding of identity and difference at the global level. The counterpoint I propose to explore derives from classical Greece as both a similar--the ancient Greeks' relation to alterity was mediated by travels, voyages and, ultimately, colonization--and a dissimilar--the perception of the self and the foreign was not based on a sense of centeredness but on a culture of the periphery -- experience of alterity. I do so especially by looking at the writings of Herodotus, and the way they translate difference into the realm of sameness.

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