BRYN MAWR REVIEW OF COMPARATIVE LITERATURE

Volume 4, Number 1 (Summer 2003)
 
Madeleine Dobie, Foreign Bodies: Gender, Language and Culture in French Orientalism.

Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001. 
233 pp. ISBN 084741042. 

 

Reviewed by Francis Higginson
Bryn Mawr College

Madeleine Dobie’s Foreign Bodies: Gender, Language and Culture in French Orientalism, proposes an ambitious reassessment of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978).  Part of her project, she announces, involves eschewing the broad sweep of Said’s text and some of the pitfalls of its overreaching by instead focusing on the importance of women in the production of the “Orientalist” discourse.   “Western representations have not only ‘feminized’ the Orient,” she tells us, “but also Orientalized the feminine” (2).  Indeed, for Dobie the feminine (somewhat problematically) becomes the hub from which all other modes and forms of difference radiate.  She herself authorizes this universalizing of the feminine in part by invoking the recurrent theme of “unveiling” in Western metaphysics.  In so doing she proposes to demonstrate how the conflation of the feminine and metaphysical truth has made Oriental discourses and gender discourses mutually reinforce each other -- what, borrowing from Anne McClintock, she calls “articulated categories" (2).

In addition, the author proposes to put this hybrid of the “feminine” and the “Oriental” into play with the absent or erased discussion of Africa, the New World and slavery.  The discourse of Orientalism, from Montesquieu through at least Theophile Gautier, served as a mechanism by which to avoid the moral question of slavery.  The reason for this silence, Dobie contends, stems from the reluctance to criticize an institution (slavery) that enriches the French colonies.  According to her, when slavery was criticized it was “predominantly confined either to the condemnation of the Spanish conquistadors or to the abstract use of slavery as a metaphor for political despotism” (18).

Finally, as a methodological approach, Dobie adopts what she will call throughout her study a “double reading,” an “inevitable flickering back and forth between textual inscription of the unmasterable alterity of language and the irresistible reimposition of structures of knowledge and meaning” (22).  By this she hopes to mitigate the essentializing features of Marxist-historicist readings of the Oriental tradition while likewise avoiding the de-politicization of post-structuralist approaches to literary criticism. 

While “post-structuralism” and “deconstruction” have been repeatedly accused of a dangerous “relativism” (e.g. Terry Eagleton and beyond), it might also have been useful to point out that Jacques Derrida himself has spoken of almost nothing but the political in recent years and that many other “post-structuralists” such as Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault have always been preoccupied with the political.  In addition, scholars from Judith Butler to Homi Bhabha have suggested ways (whether satisfyingly or not) to “ground” their post-structuralist theories in order to gain better traction on the historical, thereby giving their work an important political dimension.  In this sense, Dobie’s strategy is perhaps not as innovative as she would have us believe. 

Chapter One shows how Montesquieu’s De L’Esprit des lois (The Spirit of Laws; 1748) uses Orientalist themes to define such terms as “despotism” and “culture.”  Dobie sees in Montesquieu the production of an “anthropological turn” in secular humanism, by which she means that “social theory was transformed by the perception that human society, like the natural world, is subject to laws, and by the apprehension that the various components of the social whole -- government, education, and religious and sexual practices -- are all interdependent" (36).  Montesquieu also inaugurates the feminine’s conflation with the Orient.  Here, Dobie also initiates her argument that “the fascination with the Orient that permeated eighteenth-century French culture was the symptom of France’s interest in its New World colonies, and, by extension, of a repression of France’s involvement in the Atlantic slave trade” (37).  Gender and slavery are, she tells us, intermeshed. 

More specifically, the dangerous alterity of women and black slaves need to be surreptitiously neutralized.  Montesquieu’s text does this by finding rational reasons (rather than moral ones) for the conditions obtaining in particular parts of the world.  His cultural a prioris are repressed and transferred over to the Orient.  In L’Esprit des lois, the image of the “Oriental despot” serves to address both the question of slavery (displaced as political servitude) and the question of women’s treatment (displaced as the harem) in one figure which sidesteps France’s participation in similar repressive practices. 

In this reading, Montesquieu’s discussion of the Harem becomes an abstraction of his displaced anxiety in the face of excessive female desire.  In addition, when Montesquieu was writing, the one-sex mode (male and female being variants of the same) was being replaced by the two-sex model (in which sex is marked by difference).  Thus, “the obsessive perusal of sexual relations in the Orient effectively “Orientalized” the women of Europe in order that their difference could be magnified and assessed and the appropriate conclusions drawn” (47).

Dobie maintains that this articulation of sexual difference occurs simultaneously to -- and in conjunction with -- the formation by a rising bourgeoisie of the Habermasian “public sphere” in which the public will belong to men and the private and/or domestic will belong to women.  The mutual influence of the dark world of the Harem then also threatens (as in Versailles) to dissolve this new differentiation between public and private and make women the power behind the throne.  Women in the public sphere threaten to become “foreign bodies.”  This interpretation of Montesquieu shows that foundational “difference” is always threatening to collapse back into the same. 

Chapter Two examines Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes (Persian Letters, 1721).  The world of the harem stages the “other of the other” -- a world in which language itself becomes both a form of power and a weakness.  In addition, the epistolary novel’s metaphor of unveiling begins the epistemological shift from the empiricism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to the aestheticism of the nineteenth century, while the dramatic conclusion anticipates the events of 1789.  This revolt is an unveiling of the women of the harem, that Dobie also sees as the political reality on which the harem itself is constructed.  She goes on to argue that the ending of the novel works against itself textually by having the veil both contain the truth and hide it, such that unveiling becomes an infinite deferral, or endless veiling and unveiling within language that she equates with Heidegger’s aletheia.  Roxane’s rejection of Usbek and her “suicide note” can thus be seen as the authority of writing itself as the master narrative that will “domesticate” or civilize Islam/woman.  The novel therefore serves as a critique of Ancient Regime tyranny just as it criticizes the empiricism of any reading that expects textual closure and full meaning. 

Chapter Three discusses the “Oriental tale” using Crébillon fils’s Le sopha (The Sofa, 1742) and Denis Diderot’s Les bijoux indiscrets (The Indiscreet Jewels, 1748).  Here, adding to the movement between the historical context of production and text-based deconstructive reading, Dobie insists on the importance of the “global forces of travel, exploration, colonial expansion and international commerce [in the] epistemological framework and critical message of these texts” (84).  At the same time, she proposes to connect the “Orientalist” preoccupations of these works with material culture, beginning with the sofa of Crébillon’s title.

Here, a man who has been turned into a piece of furniture is privy to the “true nature” of the women, of the “cabinet.”  The story is simultaneously structured to confirm the motif of truth as “unveiling” and the connection discussed earlier between truth and “Woman,” while demonstrating how concealment is part of a socially imposed role that reveals this unveiling as already “re-veiled” by the “social code itself" (87).  The sofa also marks historical shifts in the boundary between public and private, revelation and concealment that are major preoccupations of the period.

The domestic space itself is divided into the public salon and the private boudoir.  Yet because both exist within the privacy of the home, women increasingly control the furnishing and dynamics of this “public-private” space.  Furniture is therefore given feminine forms and names inspired by the comfort imagined in the “Orient.”  This furniture also suggests that the boundary between the privacy of the boudoir and the social space of the salon is porous.  The proximity of social and sexual exchange is metaphorically anticipated in the feminine “Orientally” inspired sofa, in which the piece of furniture itself erases the boundary between sitting and lying, social discourse and sexual intercourse. 

The rise of commodity culture is also the result of raw materials from the colonies inspiring new products, just as contact with the “Orient” provides ideas for new designs.  Furniture therefore becomes a metonym for the changing role of women in a society where the public and private spheres are taking shape while also serving as a displaced reminder of the colonial process in which France is actively engaged.  It also demonstrates the precise mechanisms of commodity capitalism by which use value and exchange value never correspond.  The truth of desire that should be reached at the end of Le sopha is once again deferred because at the moment of consummation the Zéïnis, the former man-sofa, is turned back into a man and taken away by Brahma before he can witness the sexual act.  This ending also confirms the unknowability of  “Oriental woman” while shifting the gaze to an epistemology privileging representation over authenticity.

In Diderot’s Les bijoux indiscrets, these conclusions are explored intra-textually.  While most readings of this novel underscore its anticipation of Freud’s theories of hysteria by literally enacting the talking feminine body, Dobie connects this theorization of sexual difference with cultural difference.  She claims:

This ‘globalization’ of a text conventionally studied within the frame of national literary history is, within the limited framework of literary criticism, a political gesture with resonance for our time, a small reminder of the inevitable contingence of boundaries erected against the international circulation of bodies, ideas, and goods. (107)

This interpretation underscores the imbrication of enlightenment empiricism (against Cartesian rationalism) and the urge to exploration and conquest.  Diderot’s novel explores the ethical vacuum left by the valorization of experience at the expense of ideas and the fact that the intercalation of language means that the interpersonal -- or knowledge itself -- can never be unmediated. 

Foreign Bodies also argues that Diderot’s use of the “talking vagina” in Les bijoux indiscrets speaks to the utilitarianism regulating the relationship between the West and the rest of the world, most dramatically Africa.  The foreign subject (here the Oriental woman) is reduced to a bodily function -- an object.  While such reductive reasoning erases or ignores the essential necessity of difference in sameness and sameness in difference, the question of linguistic authority is constantly undermining authorial mastery.  The novel, Dobie contends, because of its constant “play of sources” destabilizes the origin or meaning of language because everything is always already situated within language.  The ring that empowers Mangogul and transforms women into objects also specifically turns his lover Mirzoza into an Oriental woman.  By this Dobie designates, a woman who is simultaneously an idealized figure of truth that is both desired and lost and a “debased cultural category that participates in the scientific classification of race and sexuality” (116).  Mirzoza situates the Oriental woman as both exemplary of human alterity and a figure of language’s inevitable production of self-alienation.

Chapter Four argues that Gérard de Nerval’s Voyage en Orient “transformed travel writing by redefining the political and spiritual quest it came to entail as the pursuit -- at once philosophic and amorous -- of  “Oriental woman,” and foregrounded “the rhetorical foundations on which Western representations of the Oriental other were built" (122).  Between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries travel narratives shift from a fantastic “Orient” to the realistic “photographic” representation in which the “organizing gaze” disappears, thereby affirming the objective reality of the “Orient.”  Against this model, Nerval introduces subjective “fictional” or “novelistic” elements that undermine mastery of the Oriental landscape just as they question the “Orient” as a Western construct.  Nerval’s voyage becomes a pursuit of the feminine that constantly questions the legitimacy of Western/Masculine/Christian authority in favor of Oriental/Muslim/Feminine subjectivity.

Yet it would be precipitous to assume that Nerval is motivated by a proto-feminism.  He is an iconoclast who anticipates Nietzsche’s will to subvert the metaphysics of truth through an endless pursuit of the veil that makes truth a feminine principle.  As such, his text is also one of the first to articulate the colonial process as entailing an erotic union between the virile West and feminine Africa/Orient.  Nerval’s writing is, contrary to popular belief, preoccupied with the colonial project that it tends to advocate.  For Dobie

[T]he tension manifested in the Voyage en Orient between the drive to appropriate and control [. . .] and the countervailing desire to idealize [. . .] stems directly from the modeling of colonial relations on sexual relations.  In [. . .] 1830s and 1840s thinking of the Orient became infused with the contradictory mix of idealization and proprietary attitudes characteristic of gender relations in nineteenth-century France. (130)

The Voyage spends considerable time surreptitiously advocating increased French involvement in the “Orient,” particularly Syria and Lebanon.  In fact Nerval’s leftist politics would make him more -- not less -- likely to support colonial expansion.  Thus behind the apparently benign potential for a primal feminine unity that the Orient exemplifies resides a patriarchal ideal whose correlation with the colonial process is epistemological and whose efficiency depends on the preservation of the very difference it claims to want to overcome. 

Chapter Five concludes the study with Théophile Gautier’s Oriental tales Le Roman de la momie (The Romance of the Mummy, 1856) and Le Pied de momie (The Mummy’s Foot, 1861).  Gautier’s tales, we are told, anticipate the discovery and subsequent “real world” theatricalized unwrapping of an Egyptian mummy purportedly done in the name of science, an event at which the author would be a featured guest.  Gautier’s account of this latter event vacillates between revulsion and amazement in harmony with the revulsion/amazement engendered by the Woman/Orient.  To trace this dialectical relationship, Dobie retraces a history of Europe/France’s continuous fascination with the Egyptian mummy.

In the first tale the foot serves as the metaphor and metonym for the process of colonial appropriation.  This is all the more apparent when it becomes clear that this is a woman’s foot.  The story underscores the fetishistic role of the foot and the rupture it suggests in the linguistic sign.  The possession of the foot becomes a possession by the foot and the story itself repeatedly makes use of the slippage of language in order to make its point.  In addition, the foot (as metonym) for the possession of “Oriental” woman disappears at the end of the story, leaving a vulgar trinket in its place.  This ending, Dobie argues, anticipates the “Orients” throwing off the colonial yoke -- its refusal to be an object of possession.

The second text, Le Roman de la momie, has a group of archeologists discover a grave with a mummy in it.  The subsequent process of unraveling the mummy reverses the historical and authorial relationship between East and West and between man and woman.  The West gives birth to the East and the (male) archeologist “gives birth” to the (female) mummy, usurping the feminine role and taking possession of the Oriental past as a timeless essence that corresponds precisely with Gautier’s aesthetic.

Using both of the tales against Said’s claim that a certain avant-garde resisted France’s colonial impulse, Dobie argues that artists fed the “mummy craze” as a means of obscuring and displacing their own advocacy of -- or at least ambivalence toward -- the colonial process.  Dobie suggests that these artists chose to exploit the mummy because it simultaneously sublimated the violence of colonialism while grounding their work in an archetype of  “timeless” and unreferential exoticism.  This phenomenon is most apparent in Gautier’s attempts to establish the absolute independence of the linguistic sign by using the assumed timelessness of the (mummified) “Oriental woman” as its primary figure.  The “Oriental woman” thereby becomes the means by which art goes from being representative to being self-reflexive. 

Gautier’s “Oriental” tales illustrate why and how writers generally considered avant-garde surreptitiously advocated colonial expansion even at the expense of their own logic: technology, which they abhorred, promoted access to the ideal and the process itself altered the very Orient that they claimed to cherish as a-historically fixed.  Yet their fetishization of the Orient allowed French artists to vent their disillusionment with the state of contemporary France while denying the Orient a political and subjective identity detached from those created for it by the West.  This “fixed perfection” is perhaps best represented by the Egyptian mummy.  This displacement also serves to mask the male artist’s anxiety over the insatiable appetite of women. As the mummy, she is reduced to the fixed and controlled ideal mastered by the male gaze/hand.  This gesture likewise masks anxiety about the openness of the linguistic sign that refuses closure or the mastery of the speaker/writer.

In conclusion, at its best Dobie’s study provides us with some strong, occasionally even brilliant textual readings of a selection of authors from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Her work on Montesquieu and Gautier is particularly useful inasmuch as it nuances the assumed correspondence between political affiliation, art and the colonial enterprise while carefully dissecting the sources and mechanisms of their aesthetic systems.  At the same time, her text is a profoundly ambitious study that founders on itself because it is ultimately a disconnected array of claims and ideas that fail to provide the continuity of thinking necessary to bring all of these various works, authors, periods and theses together.  Much of this has to do with the length of the work. Given everything it proposes to cover -- Orientalism, women, the Atlantic slave trade -- there should be no surprise that it doesn’t quite fulfill its promise.  In addition, the sometimes haphazard selection of contradictory theories and thinkers invoked to structure her argument also render her argument difficult to follow.

In response to this criticism, Dobie might argue that this “gapped” writing tries to avoid the very pitfalls of a “masterful” writing that she spends considerable energy critiquing in her text.  The problem is that Foreign Bodies is ultimately a relatively orthodox textual and historical analysis.  Inasmuch as it is initiated as a traditional piece of research that follows the protocol of such writing, any attempt to undermine the form will come across as too little, too late.  In addition, given that she does propose to address specific lacunae in both Said and his subsequent critics, one hopes that these points will be addressed methodically.

One of the most tantalizing propositions of her introduction that fails to get the attention it deserves, except anecdotally, is that she will tie together Orientalism and the African slave trade and slavery in the New World. Such a connection would have filled one of the great voids in Said’s work.  Yet by concluding that “Western perceptions of the Middle East, perhaps to a greater degree than any other part of the world, continue to be shaped by ethnocentric stereotypes cemented in the colonial age,” Dobie ultimately follows Said in privileging the “Orient” over Africa as a site of repression.  What this ignores is that the “Orient” becomes the choice of a certain Western anthropological discourse because of its assumed historical and epistemological proximity to Europe.  The Occident’s historical struggle with Orient is a battle over the Word -- the Koran against the Bible -- that structures Europe’s history over at least two thousand years. Europe recognizes and has always recognized “the Orient.”  What one would have hoped is that Dobie would have acknowledged what Said did not: that the silence on Africa -- and Said’s perpetuation of that silence -- is the theoretical perpetuation of a historically continuous genocide.  Instead, Dobie ultimately repeats the very silence that she claims to detect in the works she analyses while telling us that she won't. 

Ultimately, Foreign Bodies is a promising, occasionally fascinating but ultimately disappointing study.  Had Dobie narrowed the ambition and scope of her work to the relationship between the “Oriental,” “Oriental women,” and European women, and added a hundred pages of research and explanation to fill the numerous gaps in her argument, this would have been a truly stellar piece of work.  As it stands, her book, albeit consistently intriguing, unfortunately comes across as a series of thematically connected essays whose continuity as a single work appears fabricated and whose forays into issues outside of her primary focus seem at best digressive and at worst opportunistic. 


URL: Dobie.html; Last updated: Summer 2003; mail to: Complitreview@brynmawr.edu
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