Consuming the Orient
Burgeoning exotic consumerism in the eighteenth century supplied British consumers with an increasingly material “Orient,” which never seemed so accessible as when it could be physically consumed, in the form of exotic groceries or ingestible substances like opium. My dissertation investigates how the linguistic representation of foreign, ingestible substances – which I call “exotic ingestants” – problematizes such attempts to access or master the Orient by underscoring the gap between literary trope and material thing. In the writings of Oliver Goldsmith, Thomas Moore, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, and others, exotic ingestion provides a flexible figure through which British authors do not just imagine the Orient, but also critically diagnose the ways in which that Orient functions as a cipher for domestic fears and fantasies. Their texts self-consciously highlight how both consumer practices and discursive representations fetishize, appropriate, or otherwise distort the Oriental “other” in question. A self-reflexive discursive mode, however, does not imply a consistently anti-imperial agenda. The authors in this study interrogate cultural binaries for a range of purposes, but what does remain consistent is that they do so in order to construct, renovate, or re-imagine their own sense of self. Going beyond the models of contamination or domestication that critics usually deploy when considering cultural representations of opium and tea, I investigate scenes of exotic ingestion as dynamic sites of identity formation, where British authors negotiate their national and transnational subjectivities by consciously engaging with constructions of cultural otherness. Each chapter compares two authors to spotlight one distinctive mode of cross-cultural imagination, and the way it plays out through figurations of exotic ingestion. Together, the four chapters trace a historical trajectory. The evolving scene of exotic ingestion offers an exemplary window into Britain’s construction of its own imperial identity, which develops in response to historical events such as the eighteenth-century consumer revolution, the 1851 Great Exhibition, and the Opium Wars with China. The prominently consumerist mode of British imaginations of China explains that rival empire’s particular, though not exclusive, significance to this project. Treating China as a case study but contextualizing it within both Sino-British relations and the Orientalist discursive tradition that emerged out of Britain’s reception of the Arabian Nights, this dissertation contributes to ongoing efforts at relocating British consciousness at the intersection of national, imperial, and global discourses and practices.