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Abstract

Authenticities East and West
March 30 - April 1, 2001


A Philosophical Inquiry into the Logic of Eastern Exemplarity
Chi-ming Yang (yang_chiming@yahoo.com)
Department of English, Cornell University


In this paper, I am interested in exploring Eastern exemplarity as a problematic of historical, cross-cultural comparison and the construction of Western moral authority. I am interested, in other words, in the status of the foreign example in the universalizing logic of model-making. The particular historical moment which will serve as my example is the late 17th-century English concept of heroic virtue, and the pre-Enlightenment turn to China for moral authority. Throughout the 18th century, concrete philosophical, political, and literary representations of China in England are few and far between. In general, anecdotal examples of the 'real' or material China are superfluous to the overarching aim of the text and have been dismissed as merely decorative instances of chinoiserie. The interesting question for me then becomes not whether or not the examples are marginalized, but how this marginalization takes place within a cultural and philosophical system, as a part of rather than merely an exception to its construction.

Theoretically, the relationship between the exemplary and the moral is perhaps best addressed through Kant's Critique of Judgment. Kant formulates aesthetic judgment as a formalizing or cultural process, what David Lloyd has called a "narrative" and ultimately racialized organization of the senses toward an increasing distance from the object; through the formalization of the object's representation it is made to participate in an abstract public sphere in which the particular becomes absorbed or assimilated into the universal. Kant, via Lloyd, and more recently, Spivak, indirectly asks us to consider the colonized status of the example within a civilizing logic a European developmental logic of culture that leaves behind the other, the empirical, and the concrete, for the realm of abstract morality.

The question I will pose is how the East, and China in particular, is morally configured in the 18th century in terms of a logic of exemplarity that posits the past as exemplary concrete yet universal and reflects the underlying temporal or historical structure of moral pedagogy, and East-West comparison. With translations of works like The Morals of Confucius (1691) into English, ancient Chinese wisdom takes its place among the revered canon of Western philosophical antiquity, from Pythagoras to Plato. In his work on Renaissance exemplarity, Timothy Hampton argues that an ideological interpretation of history is inherent in the becoming-public of historically-based models of virtue. How does China fit within the moralizing conceptualization of Western antiquity?

As the father of the 18th-century ancients vs. moderns debate and perhaps the strongest proponent of Chinese exemplarity, the staunch humanist Sir William Temple argues for the moral superiority and authenticity of ancient learning; he contests biblical cosmologists who date China's history as post-deluvian by claiming the 'native force' of China and India to be the source of Greek civilization. Temple in a sense universalizes the notion of heroic virtue, a Restoration code of English honor, by defining it in terms of the great, overlooked empires of the "remote regions of the world." He locates the exemplars of heroic virtue (strength of character) at the world's furthest geographical extremes: China in the East, Peru in the West, Tartary in the North, and Arabia in the South. It is their past glory which constitutes their superior virtue (even as their contemporary economic strength, as we know from recent accounts of the early modern Asian global economy, would render them a different kind of political threat.)

Temple writes his comparative analysis in the midst of the explosion of 18-century print culture and the concurrent debate over the authenticity of, as he brands them, "modernity's mere copies," which are mechanically spawned as weak derivations of the original genius and authority of ancient learning of, as I would argue, China as ancient and thereby authentic.

From a modern-day perspective, the question of Chinese authenticity is perhaps no more elusive and germane than in late 17th and early 18th-century England, where knowledge of China arrives through trade and translations of Continental travel narratives and Jesuit records, and where the likes of the European impostor George Psalmanazar can pass as an exemplary pious native Formosan convert to Christianity. In the 18th-century lexicon, the exemplary figure or text could be typical, extraordinary, or deterrent, but above all, morally forceful. An exemplary narrative would thus operate by exemplification such that the status of the narrative or character takes precedent over its diegesis. What is the relationship between exemplarity and nascent instances of racism as embodied by the contradictory figures of, the converted heathen or the wise empire? Psalmanazar's exemplary hoax and Temple's characterization beg the question of how we might, on the one hand, historicize authenticity, but on the other, re-theorize exemplarity itself in terms of cross-cultural comparison comparison as integral to the universalizing construction of a Western moral public sphere.

Chi-ming Yang (pronounced 'yong') is a 4th-year Ph.D. student in the Department of English at Cornell University. She is currently working on her dissertation at UC Berkeley in the Comparative Literature Department. Her disciplinary field is 18th-century English literature, with minors in Colonial/Postcolonial literature and theory, and Restoration drama. Her dissertation deals with the idea of a non-imitative, morally forceful, and commercially aestheticized Oriental exemplarity in 18th-century England: through the influence of the Oriental fable in 18th-century print culture; philosophical, aesthetic and commercial connections between heroic virtue and exoticism; and fictions of identity and ethnographic fraud. Chi-ming is interested in how the different parts of the East Near, Middle, and in particular, China and the Far East are conceptualized as an Orient in 18th-century European thought.

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