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Book Review

 

Nussbaum, Felicity, editor. The Global Eighteenth Century (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003). 385 pp, $55.00.

 
     For many observers, terms like global or globalization generally imply the study and analysis of ever expanding networks of economies and technologies, with particular reference to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. World historians, however, problematize these terms in order to explore the ways such ideas and concepts might be applied to earlier periods of human history. This is precisely the aim of an innovative collection of multidisciplinary essays The Global Eighteenth Century. 1
     The twenty-one essays in The Global Eighteenth Century cluster into three sections conceptual "mappings," human "crossings" that explore sex, culture and identity, and conceptual relocation of "islands." Space precludes consideration of all the essays, so I will "localize" this review by sampling one essay from each section in order to present the "global" nature of the book. 2
     Benjamin Schmidt's potent essay, "Mapping an Exotic World: The Global Project of Dutch Geography, circa 1700," intriguingly examines the ways that seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Dutch artists (re)presented their world. Schmidt's essays asks why the Dutch, acknowledged cartographers and geographers, engaged projects of (re)presenting their world at precisely the time that the Dutch reign of seaborne power and commercial supremacy was in decline. This question, examined through both paintings and stage productions, yields interesting conclusions. "It [Dutch geography] cultivated chaos, and it reveled in randomness . . . .it declined to play to a specific audience or perspective; it did not promote a particular place or purpose; it targeted no contested region or rival." (35-36) In short, Schmidt suggests, by the dawn of the eighteenth century the Dutch had "exoticized" the world and "presented the increasingly contested globe as a decontextualized, decentered repository of bountiful curiosities and compelling collectibles." (37) 3
     Linda Colley's insightful investigation into one female tale of capture and international intrigue, "The Narrative of Elizabeth Marsh: Barbary, Sex, and Power," captures the complexity of eighteenth-century cross-cultural encounters. Colley uses Marsh's story to examine the "Orientalist" (142) trajectory of British stories about Islamic encounters, and to explore the dimensions of sexual paranoia surrounding European-Muslim contact. Further, Colley's cogent analysis situates the particularity of British-Moroccan engagement during the eighteenth century, subtly suggesting that historians further explore Britain's eighteenth-century Mediterranean excursions and creatively use the vast literary corpus of eighteenth-century British experiences for historical ends. 4
     Rod Edmond's creative contribution, entitled "Island Transactions: Encounter and Disease in the South Pacific," uses the travel writings of Samuel Wallis, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, and James Cook to explore the "biomedical" (252) conceptions of the world that emerged through island travel, in this case the islands that comprised Oceania. Edmond chronicles the descriptions of island inhabitants by skin color, physical effects of disease (or imagined ailments) including disfigurement, and the general biomedical worries that beset many European island travelers of the eighteenth-century. Edmond ultimately shows that by the latter years of the eighteenth century "disease had become a focus of anxiety, reminding those who journeyed of the damage they wrought and the risks they incurred. Disease, whether real or imagined, was as much on their minds as more visible forms of exchange; it was the invisibility of its transmission that proved so disturbing." (262) Edmond's superb study connects easily with contemporary academic interest in medical history, and he uses literary and quasi-ethnographic observation to investigate the mental worlds of fear that afflicted eighteenth-century European travelers. 5
      While a summary of only three essays does not really attest to the analytical complexity of The Global Eighteenth Century, it does sample the multidisciplinary flavor of this collection. A number of specialists, historians, literary critics, and anthropologists, among others, employ various approaches to (re)imagining moments of contact, encounter, and cultural creation in the eighteenth-century world. The collective aim of this volume is not to offer a definitive picture of a globalized eighteenth century, but to start a conversation that will field new ways of imagining a "widened" eighteenth century with the theme of "encounter" at the center. In general, this important historical dynamic creates the possibility of reframing the past in larger ways; for the essayists in The Global Eighteenth Century, the theme of encounter allows the (re)construction of what editor Felicity Nussbaum calls "prehistories of globalization." (6) This does not mean that current manifestations of globalization (however defined) reveal the telos of earlier "global" encounters. Rather, "prehistories of globalization" would create a conceptual space in which to consider the global realities of specific eighteenth-century locations. Ultimately, the "prehistories of globalization" offer ways to understand the "glocal," (10) a term that connects local, regional, and global dynamics. 6
     This collection not only opens new vistas of scholarship: it also demands renewed pedagogical vigor. Put another way, the interdisciplinary scholarship featured here offers ways for educators (both secondary and postsecondary) to bring life to the past. For example, Schmidt's essay invites students to situate Dutch art in a particular historical context, noting where and how "exotic" places of the Dutch empire appear, and identifying, from subjects and objects in paintings, where the Dutch made colonial contact. Colley's essay probes students in another direction, as it invites reflection on an earlier age of Euro-Islamic encounter, and advances understanding of new economies of trade and new theatres of commerce that emerged in the eighteenth century. In addition, Colley's work encourages exploration of they ways gender influences perceptions of the world. Edmond's essay, to offer a final example, fits nicely with contemporary reflection on the history of disease, and serves as a supplement to the observations of scholars like Jared Diamond, whose well-known Guns, Germs, and Steel highlights the role of geography in world history. 7
     Though in some places difficult to penetrate, and, unfortunately, devoid of any sustained engagement with the larger contours of the religious history of the times, The Global Eighteenth Century ambitiously and successfully recasts the 1700s in global terms, and offers fresh analysis of a century that has received a seemingly exhaustive amount of scholarly investigation. In the end, The Global Eighteenth Century accomplishes its goals: "to foster intellectual debate among students and scholars who may not ordinarily encounter each other's ideas as we continue to forge a broader, sharper, and more collaborative understanding of the eighteenth century." (18) 8
Phillip Luke Sinitiere
Second Baptist School (Houston)
University of Houston

 
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