The Appetence for Alterity
Exoticism is — rightly — something of a dirty word. It is the commodification of the Other, appropriating the thoughts or clothing or music or food or religion of an unfamiliar culture for the charm of the unfamiliar. The example that always comes to mind for me is Lamont Cranston — The Shadow — who learned the power to cloud men’s minds “while traveling in East Asia.”
– Daniel Abraham, A Defence of Exoticism
It’s the other day in the SF Café. I’m sipping a coffee, checking emails, browsing blogs, when I notice, over at his booth, writer Daniel Abraham musing on exoticism. As he takes pains to note, as we can see in the quote above, the stigma of colonialism attaching to that term is not to be dismissed. Still, he admits, he can’t wholly dismiss the appetence for alterity either. It’s less a defence he offers, I’d say, than it’s a consideration of an ambiguous stance that allows for value in the romance with the Other. He’s not denying the toxic outcomes, but suggesting that these aren’t the aim of our attraction, that there’s an impulse here that isn’t pathological for all its ultimate effects.
The appetence for alterity…
The desire for Diversity Victor Segalen called it in his posthumous, fragmentary Essai sur l’exotisme. I prefer my terms, for the sense of affinity versus lust, deviance versus variety. And I’m not one for the pomp of concepts rendered as proper nouns, unless in a metaphor of domain — the ghetto of Genre, the city of Writing. But what Segalen’s suggesting is precisely what Abraham is reaching for — a flensing of what he sees as false exoticism. Writing on the cusp of modernity, Segalen seeks to shred the colonialist muscle and fat, strip back the notion to its skeleton and reconstitute the term:
Clear the field first of all. Throw overboard everything misused or rancid contained in the word exoticism. Strip it of all its cheap finery: palm tree and camel; tropical helmet; black skins and yellow sun; and, at the same time, get rid of all those who used it with an inane loquaciousness.