Globalizing Enlightenment Aesthetics

David Alvarez
DePauw University

In The Primitive, the Aesthetic, and the Savage: An Enlightenment Problematic (Minnesota, 2012), Tony Brown contends that postcolonial and historicist scholarship fails to consider how figures of alterity condition Enlightenment thinking. By analyzing how exotic, savage figures constitute and disrupt European aesthetic theories, Brown argues that these figures of the other cannot anchor dyadic models of identity construction. The orient disorients. Likewise, a historicism that limits interpretative possibilities to historical context not only blinds itself to how figures structure historical thinking but also overlooks their disruptive force. The book’s argument is chiastically structured: the figure of the exotic other enables Europeans to apprehend an indeterminate aesthetic faculty, and this aesthetic faculty can enable a flexible, open apprehension of exotic others.

Brown’s book belongs to the global eighteenth century, but instead of focusing on Europe’s violent colonial expansion, it analyzes how the New World unsettles European self-understanding, creating “a breach in anthropological security” (219). This crisis appears most clearly, according to Brown, in the figure of the primitive, particularly when Enlightenment thinkers attempt to join “the primitive with the worldly or temporal existence that it inaugurates yet with which it remains incompatible” (43). His main example of this problem is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s attempt to understand primitive man, who is inaccessible to civilized humans because our modes of understanding—“judgment and reflection”—are not shared by the primitive (43). Rousseau’s struggle to comprehend the primitive, Brown claims, characterizes an “Enlightenment problematic” that also structures eighteenth-century aesthetic discourse. Both turn on the “problem of thinking the atemporal and temporal together” (12). For aesthetics, there is a tension between universal judgments (atemporal) and subjective pleasure (temporal), “from primitive faculty to derived experience” (12). To overcome this difficulty, aesthetic theorists often posit some je ne sais quoi faculty. Brown argues that European aesthetics tries to delimit this indeterminate faculty by appealing to exotic savage figures. Enlightenment aesthetics is thus a problem of the primitive addressed through figures of the exotic savage.

Referencing Michel de Montaigne’s famous privative definition of the Brazilian Tupi, Brown emphasizes that the savage—here delimited to European representations of Amerindians—is marked, liked the aesthetic, through “the absence of determinable qualities” (64). Because of this absence, “the savage does not form a solidly positioned difference but rather a differing figure of uncertain position within a system of positioning” (71). The indeterminate figure of the savage, therefore, can provide only an indeterminate identity that (contra Edward Said) cannot function in a “dyadic model of self-recognition” (71). Exotic figures, therefore, both make it possible to think the aesthetic and structure an “incomplete self” open to the other (20).

Brown begins his analysis of aesthetic theory with Joseph Addison’s emphasis on immediacy and variety. Because the immediacy of aesthetic experience bypasses cognition, and since the variety of objects that will give aesthetic pleasure cannot be determined in advance by the understanding, Addison’s aesthetics has an “unconditioned, noncognitive component” (88). The efficient cause of aesthetic pleasure is therefore obscure, and Addison’s appeal to a faculty of the imagination offers little illumination. This “primitive faculty” itself needs to be explained, and Brown argues that Addison turns to the exotic figure of the Chinese garden in order to present “to cognition what cannot directly be cognized” and thus “open[s] up a space … for thinking the aesthetic itself” (82, 98). While it delimits the aesthetic faculty, this exotic figure nonetheless remains figurative. As a result, the aesthetic subject cannot define itself in opposition to a determinate, exotic other. Enlightenment aesthetics instead discloses “a certain problematic that places the European self in … a globalizing perspective that simultaneously reveals the self’s incompletion, promises it completion, and denies it any sense of self-equivalence” (103). Because Addison’s aesthetic subject depends on an exotic figure to think itself and so can never be integral, his aesthetic theory is not pure ideology but instead enables us to think beyond and displace “Europe-as-sovereign subject” from within European aesthetics (225). Brown’s analysis could be strengthened by considering how pleasure compensates for the subject’s sense of incompleteness in aesthetic experience. His account also loses sight of the role promised the savage in his argument, since Addison does not describe the Chinese as savages. Nonetheless, Brown’s turn to exotic figures to understand the formation of Enlightenment aesthetic theory opens up postcolonial lines of inquiry that should spur more analysis.

Brown’s other example of how European aesthetic theory relies on exotic figures is Immanuel Kant’s interest in Maori facial tattooing. Again, the task is to understand how this figure enables thinking about the unconditioned element of aesthetic experience (i.e., the openness of reflective judgment and its freedom from the determinative concepts of the understanding). Focusing on Kant’s efforts in The Critique of Judgment (1790) to distinguish between free and adherent beauty, Brown argues that Kant deploys the exotic figure of the tattooed Maori New Zealander “to exceed and remark a boundary” between aesthetic and determinate judgment (124). Maori tattoos are examples of ornamental, adherent beauty that are almost free beauty. As Kant writes, “a figure could be beautified with all sorts of curlicues and light but regular lines, as the New Zealanders do with their tattooing, if only it were not a human being” (quoted in Brown, 107). The philosopher’s focus on Maori tattoos can partly be explained, Brown suggests, by the popularity of their images among Europeans, who considered them the most beautiful form of Pacific tattooing. Moreover, Kant relies on “a certain ethnological understanding” to place their practices “on the cusp of the wild and social” (117, 118). Marking the uppermost limit of savage ornamentation, Maori tattoos border on civilized beauty. Yet because they are attached to a human face, they cannot be beautiful. Unlike our aesthetic apprehension of a tulip, we cannot perceive a human face as a pure intuition without the perception of an end. It would be impossible “to detach from a concept of an end something that carries a necessary relation to the human” because Kant views the human being “as the ultimate end of nature” (138). We cannot bracket a determinate judgment, therefore, from an encounter with a human face. In the face of the tattooed Maori, Kant finds a figure that marks the limit of aesthetic judgment.

This boundary figure, however, also carries a disruptive force: “the tattooed New Zealanders form an ungoverned repetition in Kant’s text, defacing the third Critique by re-writing (in) it” (138). Although they possess a “certain textual form” (i.e., tattoos), Kant’s Maori do not have writing and cannot represent themselves. Unmoored from a referent, “repeatable,” the figure of the savage possesses a “license leaving it difficult to govern” (140). In addition, because tattoos belong “to an entirely incompatible representative order,” Kant’s reference to the Maori is allegorical, marked by a “temporal and spatial disarticulation of its putative object” (141–42). Kant’s aesthetic subject cannot define itself in opposition to such an unruly exotic figure. Instead, the savage figure enables an aesthetic thinking in Kant that cannot properly be called European. Moreover, as allegorical figures, the Maori mark not only a limit to aesthetic judgment but also a shift in Kant’s writing “from transcendental deduction to induction by example [and] from serious philosophical language to figural language” (143). The allegorical savage figure, therefore, is also disruptively ironic: figurative language should not usurp philosophical discourse, and yet Kant’s philosophy of aesthetics relies on a trope. Brown thus argues that “Kant articulates the conditions of possibility for a pure aesthetic judgment through the savage who, silent and occluded, nonetheless addresses us directly, within writing, to give rise to a certain utterance, though only on the basis (or parabasis) of dislocating the authority of the philosopher’s voice” (144).

But just how “directly” does this “silent and occluded” savage address us “within writing”? After all, one might hesitate to call a figure’s ironic allegorical representation a direct form of address. And who or what is doing the addressing? Brown’s discussion of the Maori ends with “It writes” (144). Does “It writes” mean “the colonial subject writes”? Brown objects to current practices of postcolonial literary criticism because they restrict the significance of exotic figures to their representation in European discourses: “One may well be attentive to mentions of Hottentots in eighteenth-century novels, yet as long as one remains concerned exclusively with the representations of Hottentots, one limits one’s perspective to that western peninsula of the Asian continent we call Europe” (xiv–xv). To give the Hottentots a disruptive agency, to treat them as something more than “necessarily only (European) representation,” Brown invokes “representation” as “an allegory of inscription” (xvi). This “alterity” of inscription, however, still belongs to representation, not to Hottentots.

Brown acknowledges that the alterity he deploys is not that of the New World other but of the nonphenomenological force of language: “the thought in question [is] properly neither European nor the product of a sovereign consciousness, individual or collective” (219). Indeed, exotic figures are “figures of thinking without a subject” (224). So much for the Hottentots. Yet Brown seems to overstate such claims by underplaying the significance of his own critical practice. Although figurative force belongs to all figures, he chooses to restrict his analysis to exotic figures because of their historical and political relevance. Appropriating the force of exotic figures to revise how they structure an imperial European self-understanding, his approach echoes Srinivas Aravamudan’s Tropicopolitans: Colonialism and Agency, 1688–1804. Cited but not discussed, Tropicopolitans treats the colonized subject as both “fictive construct of colonial tropology and actual resident of tropical space, object of representation and agent of resistance.”1For Aravamudan, the potentially disruptive force of figures can be “reappropriated by resistant positions and redeployed by the agency that comes from those positions.”2 Significantly, this agency seized by the “tropological revision of discourses of colonial domination” can be accomplished “immediately” by “a resident of tropical space” and “retroactively” by “postcolonial agents,” including twenty-first century literary critics. 3Brown’s choice of exotic figures and his retroactive revision of them seems best understood along these lines.

The book’s second half considers “how the language and logic of aesthetics is used to theorize certain temporal processes” (147). Brown’s analysis here is less convincing than his readings of Addison and Kant. His first example of coming to terms with what escapes our historical terms is Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). He describes Crusoe’s response to a large footprint on the beach as an encounter with an “uncaused primitive thing” located “outside history” that “appears to push beyond time” (153, 147, 152). As Crusoe “stood like one Thunder-struck, or as if [he] had seen an apparition,” he becomes “terrify’d to the last degree” and “is like a Man perfectly confused and out of myself” (Defoe, quoted in Brown, 150, 151). Brown reads Crusoe’s overwhelmed state in terms of an “especially complex logic of the sublime” that combines Longinus and (proleptically) Edmund Burke in a “distended sublime” (149, 150). This bigger sublime makes it possible to include Crusoe’s discovery of the cannibals’ campfire, when he “regains his firm footing,” as a recuperative moment in the logic of the sublime (149). Crusoe thus mistakes the campfire’s relationship to the footprint as empirically determined (i.e., the footprint was caused by a cannibal) when that relationship is actually aesthetically structured by the sublime. Crusoe’s ability to “link the primitive print with the local savages” is thus best explained not in terms of a historical cause and effect relationship but as the effect of an aesthetic figure. Crusoe’s self-understanding is therefore ideological. Mistaking an aesthetic relation for causality, he tries to establish “a determinate structure following upon an indeterminate judgment” (179). In other words, he understands his relief upon seeing the cannibals’ campfire not as a recuperative moment of sublime experience but as the result of having established his identity in opposition to the cannibals: “the remains of the cannibal feast show him what he is not: a savage in the state of nature where people eat one another” (178). Yet Crusoe’s apparent need to supplement this determination with the abstraction of natural law and the dictates of providence reveals its insufficiency: his firm identity established by negation is unstable. In short, Crusoe’s historicist self-understanding is blind to the constitutive and disruptive force of the sublime.

I was exceedingly surprised by this argument. Although bewildered and alarmed, Crusoe does not seem to perceive the footprint as a barely perceptible radical alterity hovering on the edge of nothingness, “barely anything, almost nothing” (176). Instead, he understands that it is a footprint, searches for more, listens, and looks around, fearful that “some Man or Men had been on shore there” (170). Casting the footprint as “primitive” allows Brown to bring the sublime to bear on Crusoe’s experience, but this is to focus on the wrong figures. Neither the sublime nor Crusoe appears to be especially relevant to Brown’s important questions. The distention of the sublime to encompass Crusoe’s experience from footprint to campfire seems less a revelation of figurative force than the uncomfortable forcing of a figure. Nor is Crusoe widely recognized as an icon of historicist hermeneutics.

A more promising historicist target appears in the final chapter, which examines how colonial Europeans attempted to make sense of North American Indian mounds. To understand this process, Brown turns to an eighteenth-century term of “aesthetic provenance,” Horace Walpole’s concept of “serendipity” (188). For Walpole, this term means something more than a lucky insight: it is “accidental sagacity … tethered to a prior ignorance” of knowing to look for what one has discovered (188). A surprising recognition of what lies outside our usual categories of perception, serendipity explains how “a certain deviation in terrain become[s] recognizable as a mound” (187). Yet the term also captures “a certain instability” in this flash of insight (195). Because the newly legible mound both stands “outside verification” (i.e., “the imagination has to be called into supply what direct observation cannot”) and has become “different from its familiar form without the familiar form itself being transformed,” serendipitous mound knowledge is always unstable and obscure (193, 207, 195). Tracing a history of biblical, nationalist, and historicist frames for interpreting the mounds, Brown criticizes historicism for failing to see that when it tries to contextualize cultural artifacts in relation to a mound’s layers of strata, “the representative objects, indexed stratigraphically, begin to facilitate a certain telling” (212). The mode of this telling is allegorical, since the mound is “recast as an object that tells of what it is not” (214). In fact, both historicism and serendipity are forms of allegory, since both involve a “temporal disjunction” between perception and interpretation that prevents cognitive closure (214). Thus “the mounds remain for nineteenth-century European observers things that force thought into a certain open-ended allegorical operation” (215). It is within this operation, Brown suggests, that the voice of the Native American might be heard in “a silence that … forcefully interrupts” the discourse of Europeans (215).

If Crusoe was the historicist victim of the work of a sublime figure that linked the primitive footprint to the savage campfire, nineteenth-century archaeologists think through an unlucky figure of serendipity—one whose logic of insight and blindness, Brown suggests, is perverted by the desire to annihilate Native Americans. False claims that Indians lack the culture to produce mounds are reinforced by this perverted serendipity: “the separating out of mound builders and Indians … helps secure one’s existing knowledge on one level (of Indians), even as one’s knowledge is called into question on another level (of mound builders)” (216). This negation of the Native American, however, is also a recuperation: “The primitive race [of mound builders] begins as the savage’s [Native American Indian’s] negation. The savage … stands beside history, inaugurating it yet not being a part of it” (216). Accordingly, historicists cannot think the primitive without the (absent) savage against which they desire to define themselves. These arguments once again, however, seem to force the figure. First, Brown attributes the denigration of Native Americans not to the force of the figure of serendipity but to the colonial desire to dominate and exploit: the colonial motivation is external to the structure of serendipity. Second, just as Crusoe is not known as a historicist, serendipity is not widely known as an aesthetic category. The book’s singular use of these terms risks limiting the force of its arguments.

And yet this study raises important questions about the relationship between exotic figures and aesthetics, formalist and historicist methodologies, and our understanding of orientalism in eighteenth-century texts. If the examples in the book’s second half are not always persuasive, Brown’s analysis of the role played by savage figures in Enlightenment aesthetics should stimulate more work on their function in these and other texts. The book’s contents are not simple, and this review cannot do justice to a certain stylistic complexity in Brown’s sentences. But his insistence on the open form of aesthetic thinking reminds us of its value for mediating alterity and its potential for resisting domination.


1. Srinivas Aravamudan, Tropicopolitans: Colonialism and Agency, 1688–1804 (Durham and London, 1999), 4.

2. Aravamudan, 6.

3. Aravamudan, 6, 15.