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The term exoticism describes a cultural phenomenon that projects Western fantasies about profound cultural differences. It adopts a cultural perspective that is firmly entrenched in the conventions and belief systems of Western civilization and therefore constructs the East as the archetypical location of otherness.
Exoticism demonstrates itself in colorful spectacles of otherness purporting to be an unmediated expression of natural drives and instincts. Although exoticism is associated with notions of animality, it carefully distances itself from the violence and exploitation that characterize the related concept of barbarism.
Notions of the exotic are associated with the lush vegetation of the tropics, geographically positioned between the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer. They conjure up ideas of a bountiful nature, fertility, and uninhibited sexuality. An abundance of colors, sounds, smells, and tactile experiences promise to gratify the senses within an economy that gives free rein to consumption, unrestrained by political responsibility and ethical commitment to the real actors of exotic fantasies: that is, it disregards the role of disadvantaged people, coming mainly from third-world nations, who make a meager living from appearing in the dramatized fantasies staged in tropical holiday resorts and nightclubs.
The exotic first emerged as a concept in Western history when European nations began to explore and appropriate far-flung parts of the world. It experienced its first boom during the age of Enlightenment, when the establishment of trade routes began to supply Europe with such vast quantities of exotic goods that the purchase of luxury goods, including china, silk, perfumes, and precious stones, became affordable by the increasingly wealthy middle classes. This period also engendered a taste for the rich costumes of the Orient, the main geographic location of Enlightenment fantasies about the exotic. The fashionable Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, for example, had her portrait painted in a Turkish costume; the dissemination of stereotypes about the supposedly effeminate Orientals allowed her to appropriate the male garment of the turban without this being viewed as an act of cross-dressing.
The attempt by the age of Enlightenment to study and describe the vast number of different peoples of this earth was thus soon reduced to a mere interest in costume and other extrinsic markers of otherness, which were eagerly displayed in the European homelands. The demand of the nineteenth century for information about non-European peoples gave rise to numerous cheap reproductions of ethnographic drawings. Such easily affordable, popular publications, in their turn, further reduced cultural otherness to a matter of costume, which, among other things, suggested that supposedly primitive natives of, for example, Australia could be forced to abjure their traditional identity merely by donning the clothes of a European gentleman. The fact that nineteenth-century photographs of indigenous people wearing the clothes of their colonial masters now strike us as more exotic than early photographs of nonwesternized, indigenous communities reminds us that exotic fantasies entail a contrast of, and hierarchy between, two different cultures, controlled by the Western point of view.
For the twenty-first century, the experience of the exotic frequently thrives on an imitation of a ritual presumed to be authentic, involving an act of mimicry whose comic potential is easily glazed over. Performances of corroborees and other cultural practices can therefore be staged for tourists while the traditional rituals are on the brink of extinction.
The exotic also notably unleashes the sexual desires of repressed Westerners. Prostitution and the exploitation of countless women, children, and some men are side effects of exoticism’s tendency toward aesthetic abstraction and voyeuristic commodification of its participating actors.
Spaces set aside for expatriate consumption in international four- and five-star hotel chains (such as the Safari Bar in the Hyatt in Muscat, Oman) promise a sanitized encounter with a non-European subject that guarantees the absence of emotional involvement. Westerners, along with a westernized global elite, interact with one another against the background of scenery that refrains from challenging their privileges and supposed superiority.
Exoticism, as a cultural phenomenon, has mainly been examined via related critical concepts. Of special importance is Edward Said’s description of Orientalism as a discursive construction of European fantasies. Said’s study of Europe’s most enduring exotic fantasies about the Middle East set the beginning for other postcolonial interrogations of romanticized projections of the cultural other by which the West continues to assert its superiority. Homi Bhabha and subsequent scholars of hybridity and the encounters between subaltern and dominant cultures, therefore, make every effort to draw attention to exoticism’s parodic dimension in order to empower and render eloquent its latent subversion of oppressive and exploitative fantasies.
- Bhabha, Homi. 2004 (1994). The Location of Culture. London and New York: Routledge.
- Guha, Ranajit, ed. 1997. A Subaltern Studies Reader: 1986–1995. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Huggan, Graham. 2001. The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins. London: Routledge.
- Kabbani, Rana. 1986. Europe’s Myths of Orient: Devise and Rule. London: Macmillan.
- Kiernan, Victor Gordon. 1972. The Lords of Humankind: European Attitudes to the Outside World in the Imperial Age. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin.
- Rousseau, George, and Roy Porter. 1990. Exoticism in the Enlightenment. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press.
- Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
- Young, Robert J. 1995. Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture, and Race. London and New York: Routledge.
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