Brief thoughts and questions on the Dark Side of the Enlightenment.
|The reading in that part of this course upon "Enlightenment Communication" dealing with colonization and empire helps explain why there has been a modern debate about Enlightenment. The European attempt to "enlighten", convert, and educate other peoples through the settling of colonies and the uplifting of natives, raises questions about whether the project of enlightenment may not have a "dark" side.|
|In reading Behn's Oroonoko and Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, we confront the contradictions in the enlightenment project at the fraught moment of culture encounter: when a member of European culture confronts another culture, and claims priority or dominion over them. This moment puts Behn's narrator and Defoe's Crusoe in a contradictory relationship to Enlightenment.|
|Behn's narrator offers an enlightened critique of racist ideologies that would place Black Africans beneath White Europeans, and of the the institution of slavery which victimizes her hero, Oroonoko. Her novel was turned into a play used to support one of the first Enlightenment reform movements: the British effort to abolish slavery at the end of the 18th century. Yet the narrator is a champion of English colonial expansion, and the action of the novel suggests the many ways she becomes complicit with both the destruction of her hero and defence slavery.|
|Crusoe uses the technological and techniques of Enlightenment England to make improvements to the Island where he is lost. Yet these enlightened improvements are used to justify his claim to ownership over the Island, and his absolute "sovereignty" over the island when others (both native and European) there. Are claims to property, and the assertion of sovereignty an implicit part of the Enlightenment project? Crusoe's enlightened Christian education of Friday entails an erasure of native language, myth, practices and territorial claims. Again, is this kind of destruction and displacement (of the Other culture) a necessary part of Enlightenment education?|
Swift's Gulliver's Travels seems to offer an anti-modern, anti-Enlightenment critique of Enlightenment. Thus, his critique of the founding of the modern colony in chapter 12 of the Fourth Voyage offers a devastating critique of the dark side of the attempt to enlighten native peoples by destroying them. The Houyhnhnms, by offering a social realization of the ideal of rationality, offers a satirical critique of the dream that one can turn social life into a perfectly enlightened process. At the same time, isn't Swift's probing, relentless, and highly independent criticism of his own epoch an outstanding example of Enlightenment thinking in action?