Travelogues of difference: IR theory and travel literature.

Author:Guillaume, Xavier
Position:Reprint - Report - Company overview


Influenced especially by Tzvetan Todorov's analysis of early modern European travelogues, travel literature has provided a strong heuristic for comprehending the development of modern and contemporary expressions of the international. This heuristic tends to emphasize the overpowering frameworks of the figure of inversion and the mechanism of othering to make sense of the relation between identity and alterity. This article retains the intuition that travel literature can provide for an heuristic of this relation while exploring an alternative way to decenter the European centeredness and modernist core of contemporary theories of international relations (IR) and calling on a non-European and non-modern travelogue to provide for such heuristic. Specifically, it explores some aspects of classical Greece as offering both a similar and a dissimilar experience to alterity by analyzing Herodotus' travel literature and the ways by which he translates difference into the realm of sameness. Calling upon Herodotus' writing shows that narration of difference does not necessarily imply othering and thus opens up new ways to conceptualize identity and alterity.


travel writing, identity, alterity, Todorov, Herodotus

The discovery of the Americas, and more particularly Tzvetan Todorov's analysis of certain early modern European travelogues, has had considerable influence in the way some theorists of IR have conceptualized the identity/alterity nexus over the past twenty-five years. Whether directly or indirectly, they have used travel writing as one of their central sources for conceptualizing and reflecting on the sociological, political, and normative dimensions of the identity/alterity nexus. More specifically, this literature centers on the discovery, exploration, conquest, and colonization of the Americas, and the travel literature attached to it, because this specific event is believed to help situate Western/ Christian/modern responses to difference. This partly explains the centrality of static and dichotomized modes of representation in the field of international studies despite professed commitments to processes and practices.

Modem European travel literature, and especially its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century incarnation influenced by the process of colonization, has provided IR theory with a strong heuristic for comprehending the development of modem and contemporary expressions of the international. This heuristic, however, emphasizes the overpowering frameworks of the figure of inversion and the mechanism of othering to make sense of identity and alterity. These frameworks are limited and limiting for our ability to conceptualize identity and alterity with social and political theory. (1) This article, while affirming the fundamental intuition that travel literature provides a useful heuristic for the identity/alterity nexus, looks for an alternative way to decenter Eurocentricism and the modernist core of contemporary IR theory. It calls on a non-European and non-modem travelogue to provide for such heuristic.

The analysis starts by identifying the influence of modem European travel literature on IR theory and then contextualizes Todorov's interpretation to show the westem-centeredncss and the modernist assumptions shaping the appropriation that has been made of Todorov's work in IR theory in order to ground a specific understanding of identity and difference at the global level. The counterpoint I propose to explore derives from classical Greece as both a similar--the ancient Greeks' relation to alterity was mediated by travels, voyages and, ultimately, colonization--and a dissimilar--the perception of the self and the foreign was not based on a sense of centeredness but on a culture of the periphery -- experience of alterity. I do so especially by looking at the writings of Herodotus, and the way they translate difference into the realm of sameness. Herodotus shows that the narration of difference does not necessarily imply othering in the modem sense and opens up new ways to conceptualize the identity/alterity nexus.

Travel Literature and IR Theory: A Quest for Origins

One of the most important sources mobilized to think through the identity/alterity nexus in theories of IR has been a specific literary genre set in a specific period: early modem European travel literature. This is clearly a relevant move in that travel writing has been one of the primary modes by which difference has been historically appraised, constructed, and represented in the modem West, both spatially and temporally.(2) Writers such as William Connolly, David Campbell, David Blaney, Naeem Inayatullah, Iver Neumann, Richard Shapcott, and Michael Shapiro (3) --to name just a few who have made use of travel literature while invoking the insights offered by Tzvetan Todorov's La conquete de l'Amerique (4) --have used travel writing as one of their central sources for conceptualizing and reflecting on the sociological, political, and normative dimensions of the identity/alterity nexus. As Connolly has put it, "Todorov introduces a zone of intertextuality between late-medieval Christianity and late-modem secular internationality in order to open the present to an interrogation of itself and its past." (5)

Discussing what he views as paradigmatic sixteenth century's travelogues of the conquest of the Americas, Todorov reads them as best expressing the "direct causality" the conquest of the Americas had on "our present identity."(6) From the sixteenth century to the present, western Europe was largely successful in imposing its way of life and values to the world and in assimilating the other; "as Columbus wished, the colonized have adopted our customs and came to wore clothes." (7)

For Campbell,

The exploration and interpretation of the New World is an historical moment of significant proportions in the development of the modern identity. It is a moment of intertextuality in which traditional modes of representation struggle to make sense of contemporary observations. It is a moment in which (international relations are promulgated between divergent groups. And it is a moment when the intertextual and (inter) national relations are implicated in interracial relations. In the invention of America the confrontation between the European, Spanish, and Christian "self "and the "other" of the indigenous peoples is an encounter of lasting significance for the way in which it brings to the New World the orientations towards difference and otherness of the Old World. (8) Modern European travel literature on the Americas, as the main conveyor of this "moment of intertextuality," is thus considered an important window for understanding not only the institutionalization of a specific form the identity/alterity nexus took in its western experience, most notably through othering and assimilation, but also the institutionalization of the international as such. This interrogation of identity, alterity and the international takes two forms. One is a form of genealogical interrogation on the modem origin and contemporary endurance of othering, what Todorov terms the "double movement" (9) at the heart of the western relation to alterity; this movement transforms alterity into an inferior other while equality is seen through the lenses of sameness. The second form is a normative interrogation of the possibility of moving beyond the " structural temptation" of the double movement; this temptation to other alterity into an inferior difference is not a psychological disposition but reflects the "logic of identity" and "the structural imperatives of social organization." (11) To ground responsibility through an interrogation of this specific historical event is normatively necessary to "imagine a world in which a given field of identities might hope to recognize differences without being internally compelled to define some of them as forms of otherness IT to be conquered, assimilated, or defiled."(12)

Thus in order to demonstrate how "America is the imagined community par excellence," (13) Campbell begins a reconstitution of different key moment of "foreign policy" in relation to alterity between the discovery of the Americas and the early times of the U.S. republic. (14) This reconstitution is set under the aegis of Todorov's analysis of the confrontation between Christian/Spanish conquerors and the American Indians. While acknowledging the limits of tracing a direct link between the discovery and conquest of the Americas and the United States of America, Campbell nonetheless notes that "there can be little doubt that, given its genocidal impact and philosophical resonances, this encounter profoundly though indirectly affected the country that now exercises hegemony over the term 'America.' " (15) This influence essentially lies in the fact that the self is "tempted by the logics of defilement [i.e., othering]" as the self is compelled by the "modernist requirements of order and stability." (16) While going beyond this logic is normatively possible, and necessary, this outcome is but a rare actual possibility.(17)

Similarly, for David Blaney and Naeem Inayatullah, Todorov's idea of "nonviolent communication," along with AshisNandy's notion of "dialogue of visions," are necessary elements to start seeing the "other" as a subject, thus going beyond the mostly Western conception of the other-as-object. (18) Furthermore, Todorov provides an inspiration for their treatment of the modem origin of the practice of othering as they examine several travelogues or thinkers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (19) For Blaney and Inayatullah, "the self comes to know and act toward the other" (20) through the double movement; this highlights the "reflexes" of othering (21) that have to be fought in order to reach a situation of critical dialogue. (22)

Richard Shapcott also employs Todorov's analysis of the European encounter with...

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