EESE 1/1996

Sabine Schülting (Brighton)

Bringing "this monstrous birth to the world's light":
Colonial mimicry in early modern writing

In The Discoverie of the Large, Rich and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana, Walter Raleigh relates an encounter with the natives of Trinidad:

Far from being mere flattery, this episode has a decisive function for Raleigh's travelogue. Having neither found the legendary El Dorado nor explored more than the fringes of Guyana,2 and considering that he had offended the Queen when he had secretly married one of the Queen's chamber women3, Raleigh is under pressure to emphasize the success of his voyage. His travelogue is a 'gift' which he brings back from Guyana, as a compensation for his disobedience and the missing Guyanese gold. In his text, he offers Elizabeth not only a rich country and the weakening of Spanish colonial power but also colonial subjects who do not have to be subjected. According to him, they have already grasped one of the central tenets of Elizabethan monarchy, that is, the exaltation of Elizabeth as the Virgin Queen, Eliza or Cynthia. However, by thus 'exporting' English monarchy to the 'New World', Raleigh at the same time subverts it, since he turns the English Queen into an 'Indian' cacique. Moreover, it is not Elizabeth as the English monarch the Native Americans adore, but her picture, a representation. In a disturbing way, the fascination of the Trinidadian people recalls Catholic forms of worship, the reverence for holy pictures, against which Protestant iconoclasm was directed.

Not only Walter Raleigh but also Thomas Hariot and Francis Fletcher tell stories of colonial encounters in which the Native Americans seem to adopt Christian and European culture without being able to fully grasp its 'essence'. Similar to Shakespeare's Othello, who is simultaneously constructed as the 'noble Moor' and the 'lascivious Moor', they, too, oscillate between the Same and the Other, thus reinforcing the colonial discourse and, at the same time, subverting it. In my essay, I will describe these phenomena using Homi Bhabha's term "colonial mimicry", which he defines as "the desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite."4 "Almost the same, but not quite" - my assumption is that Homi Bhabha's dictum, which refers to the paradoxical economy of post-Enlightenment colonial discourse, can also be applied to some effects of early modern colonial writing. However, instead of postulating a general continuity of colonial discourse from the sixteenth century up to the present, I will try to discuss these phenomena in their historical context and show that early modern colonial mimicry is related to the circulation of signs, bodies and commodities.


In 1585, Thomas Hariot, mathematician and astronomer, accompanied Richard Grenville to Virginia. In his Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, which he published soon after having returned to England, he recounts an episode which resembles Raleigh's story. In Hariot's text, it is European technology that is displayed to the Native Americans. They are not a little impressed:

Hariot's report reveals the dependency of colonial power on the construction of a superstitious Other. Stephen Greenblatt describes how in Hariot's text the machiavellian concept outlined in Il Principe, the employment of religion by those in power, is actually tried out on the Native Americans: "In the Virginia colony, the radical undermining of Christian order is not the negative limit but the positive condition for the establishment of that order."6 Hariot is representative of many other travellers from Columbus onwards who boast of how they instilled awe into the Native Americans by displaying compasses or guns, thus basing colonial hierarchy on a trick or a conscious fraud. In early modern texts such as Hariot's, European superiority depends on conceding only partial knowledge to the natives. Paradoxically enough, their conversion into subjects of the English monarchy can only be carried out through withholding from them European learning and technology, which is the basis of both collective and individual identity.

An "almost the same but not quite", that is, partial conversion or colonization, is the result of this policy. Being convinced that the 'divine' knowledge which they strive for is materially contained in the Bible, the natives of Virginia literally try to devour the book:

Their supposed inability to grasp the meaning of the Bible seems to corroborate the English travellers' superiority. By emphasizing the mere materiality and corporeality of their cognition, Hariot agrees with most of his contemporaries, who ascribe nakedness, cannibalism and unbridled sexuality to the Native Americans.8 The "hungry desire", Hariot mentions, is an obvious instance of how the phantasm of sexualised cannibalism is brought into play to construct the Native Americans as the Other of a culture which has only recently repressed the senses of taste and touch as 'archaic' forms of perceiving the world.

However, there is more to this episode, since once again it must have reminded late sixteenth-century readers of Catholicism. Hariot's attitude is clearly Protestant and recalls the highlighting of the Word while bestowing a merely representational character to the Eucharist. The Native Americans' "hungry desire" for the Bible, which they want to absorb and devour, evokes the Catholic belief in the transubstantiation of the wafer into the body of Jesus Christ, which the Protestants attacked as cannibalistic. "These signes considered nakedly in and by themselues", William Bradshaw, an English Protestant with Puritan affiliations, writes about the Eucharist in 1609, "are not of any great force to stirre vp any great reuerence to the ordinary then eating of bread, and drinking of wine."9 Hariot's effort to stop the natives cherishing the Bible - "And although I told them the booke materially & of it self was not of anie such vertue" - even anticipates the wording of Bradshaw's Direction for the Weaker Sort of Christians.

Although the Native Americans, as they are constructed in these texts, seem to accept and adopt European signs and science, their 'conversion' is nearly always inappropriate. They either ignore the representational character of the things they see (the picture of Queen Elizabeth) or bestow a supernatural quality to the products of European technology. In short, they are associated with fetishism, which, as William Pietz shows, developed as a (European) concept in the cross-cultural encounters between West African societies and Portuguese merchants in the fifteenth century. Pietz's anthropological discussion of fetishism does not regard the fetish as a form of worship which was indigenous to the African cultures. Instead, he argues that the concept of the fetish, which was later adopted and modified by Marxism and Freudian psychoanalysis, had its origin in cultural difference, that is, the European effort to come to terms with the alienness of African culture. Interestingly, Pietz demonstrates that in early modern travel accounts the attacks against fetishism as a 'pagan' form of worship, the norms of an emerging mercantilist economy, and the pride in European technology are all causally related to each other:

In the later sixteenth and seventeenth century, Protestant travellers added a fourth aspect when they asserted the similarity between non-Christian fetishism and Catholicism. Fetishism was condemned on the basis of "Protestant Christianity's iconoclastic repudiation of any material, earthly agency - whether a small religious object or the Pope in Rome - that claimed to serve as intermediary between the individual believer and his God."11 One of the best examples of this Protestant interpretation of fetishism is the travelogue of Willem Bosman, a Dutch traveller to Africa, who maintains that if "it was possible to convert the Negroes to the Christian Religion, the Roman-Catholicks would succeed better than we should, because they already agree in several particulars, especially in their ridiculous Ceremonies [...]."12 This incidence is structured around the same uncertainty towards the colonial subjects as the passages from Raleigh and Hariot. "If it was possible to convert the Negroes, the Roman-Catholicks would succeed better", fixes the Africans as the ahistorical Others of European Christianity ('their conversion is purely hypothetical') while, at the same time, constructing them as colonial subjects that can be brought to Christianity ('they can be converted to Catholicism').

Stephen Greenblatt discusses the early modern conflict in the understanding of the Eucharist as a debate about the status of the sign. In his words, the change effected by Protestantism is a transmutation from "meat to metonymy" or from "est" to "significat"13. For the Protestants, the consecrated wafer has ceased to be Christ's body, but represents it. This links the religious controversy to a larger historical development, the reorganization of European thought between the sixteenth and the seventeenth century. In The Order of Things, Michel Foucault illustrates that until the sixteenth century the sign and what it indicated were connected by resemblances so that there was no point in differentiating "between the visible marks that God has stamped upon the surface of the earth [...] and the legible words that the Scriptures, or the sages of Antiquity, have set down in the books"14. When, between the sixteenth and the seventeenth century, this organisation of knowledge was disrupted, words and things lost their connection and became separated. The sign now represented the thing and, consequently, told of identities and differences. Language provided the basis for the differentiation between man as analysing subject and the world as his object.15 According to Michel de Certeau, the modern subject was born because the cosmos lost its organizing structure, the Word of God:

Subsequently, this separation of subject (the Cartesian res cogitans) from object (res extensa) leads to an incorporeal notion of language, its "distancing from the living body [...] and thus also of everything which remains, among the people, linked to the earth, to the place, to orality or to non-verbal tasks."17 The early modern preoccupation with fetishism is thus deeply influenced by this "new power". The cross-cultural encounter in which the idea of the fetish emerged according to Pietz is represented and textualized within the framework of European cultural change.

In relating early modern Europe's concept of language to the hierarchy between Robinson and Friday in Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Certeau emphasizes the inextricable link between the organization of writing and colonialism. The 'New World' poses the problem of the 'void' in a disturbingly new way because neither the Bible nor the Ancients ever mentioned America and the Native Americans. Here, text has to be produced rather than read, interpreted or reproduced. This is particularly true of an account by Francis Fletcher who accompanied Francis Drake on his voyage around the world (1577-80). On the south-western coast of North America they are confronted with women who are tearing the flesh from their cheeks and violently throwing themselves down on the ground. At a loss how to make sense of this performance, Drake and his men react with their own show:

The psalms replace and eradicate the unintelligible actions of the American women and hence support the re-establishment of English (discursive) power, which the women threaten with their 'body text'. Although these women, in contrast to the Native Americans Hariot meets, seem to understand the deeper meaning of the psalms, it is the singing they take pleasure in and not the Word of God. What the women are listening to is a voice but not the Voice. In other words, the psalms have become pleasant songs, which are esteemed for their tunefulness and not for the deeper meaning they are supposed to have. They are transformed into secular music, which can be enjoyed but which has lost any transcendental power.

Fletcher's and Hariot's travelogues show how the Europeans' loss of words and 'the Word' in the 'New World' is projected to the Native Americans. Fetishism not only identifies them as the heathen Others of (Protestant) Europe, but, moreover, is the reverse of early modern signifying practice. It simultaneously contains the 'loss' of the Sacred Text and marks the beginning of a new economy of writing. The production of language in and about the 'New World', its dissemination and inscription on the body of the Other was one of the central means of establishing and consolidating colonial power in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.19 Eden's First Three English Books on America (1511-1555) disclose the violence of this writing (on) the body of the Other:

For Homi Bhabha, the "notion of 'origins'"21, that is, the conflict between empire and nation, "the difference between being English and being Anglicized"22, structures post-Enlightenment colonial discourse. It would be a mistake to simply transfer this variant of colonial mimicry, which is informed by the category of 'race', to early modern colonial discourse. Since racial theories were not to emerge before the eighteenth century, the early modern age did not differentiate between human races as the basis of stages of civilization. When in the sixteenth century the term 'race' was introduced into the English language, it was used to designate descent, genealogy or lineage.23 Differences between human beings were not perceived in terms of corporeal (or 'racial') characteristics but by refering to religious and/or cultural attributes. Any belief in natural differences between human beings, in a polygenetic descent of humankind, is as incompatible with Medieval and Renaissance Christianity as the legend of 'the Wild Man' or theories of a 'missing link' between wo/man and animal.

Although human beings were considered to be liable to corruption, they could never really lose that attribute which made them human, that is, the rational soul. "After the Incarnation all men were salvageable in principle, and this meant that whatever the state of physical degeneracy into which a man fell, the soul remained in a state of potential grace."24 Accordingly, the human body was not understood as the basis but the consequence of this specific spiritual or social status, as the example of blacks clearly demonstrates. In the early modern age skin colour was generally explained as the effect of the irradiation of the sun.

As regards the blacks, however, another paradigm was consulted. Classical aestheticism provided a symbolic reading of colour, to which, in Christianity, a religious interpretation was added.25 With reference to the Book of Genesis, the black Africans were regarded as the descendants of Ham, Noah's son, who saw his father when he was lying in his tent, drunk and stark naked. When Ham told his brothers, they, instead, averted their eyes and covered Noah's nakedness. As a punishment for his lack of respect, Ham was cursed and, according to the dominant interpretation, punished with black progeny. In the Hebrew language, this association of black skin colour with sin pervaded even etymology.

The association of blackness with sexuality or fertility, which White obviously finds astonishing, can be easily explained when one takes into account the fundamentally sexual character of Ham's transgression. Sander Gilman concludes that The aesthetic, religious and moral devaluation of the black skin was crossed and reinforced by a strong heterosexual matrix. Ham was cursed because - and that was identified as the reason for the Africans' blackness - he had violated both the cultural taboos of homosexuality and incest.

In the early modern age, blackness was thus regarded as both the sign of and the punishment for Ham's sinfulness. But this also means that skin colour was not (yet) an unchangeable 'racial characteristic', but was read instead as a signifier of the spiritual state of the people. Hence it follows that according to a widely-held belief it was considered possible "to wash the Ethiops white" if they only returned to God, to remove blackness as the sign of sin by baptism.28 In a secularized version, this opinion also informs Ben Jonson's Masque of Blackness (1605). Here, blackness is discussed as an aesthetic (and not religious) category. The 'Daughters of the Niger' appear on stage searching for the land of Britannia, where, as they have been told, they are to lose their 'ugly' skin colour.

In the Masque of Beauty, which was staged twelve years later, this prophecy is fulfilled. The women have really become white and, on the "Throne of Beauty", they are associated with European aesthetic principles such as "Splendour", "Serenitas", "Dignitas", "Perfectio" or "Harmonia". One should not make the mistake of interpreting this 'whitewashing' as merely an erasure of black skin colour. Whiteness in the early modern period was as much a cultural signifier as, from the eighteenth century onwards, it has been a racial one. Consequently, in this masque, the women are subjected to a twofold ritual, in which the body signs indicating another culture are eradicated and simultaneously replaced by European signs.

My initial examples from early modern travelogues disclose the conflicting economy of language, the changing concepts of the sign and of writing, in the 'New World'. In contrast to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century colonial discourse, early modern mimicry was not effected by the simultaneous workings of "the synchronic panoptical vision of domination - the demand for identity, stasis - and the counterpressure of the diachrony of history - change, difference"30. The early modern age did not understand history as an all-embracing concept of the 'origin', causal development and inevitable historical nature of each and every thing and event. It therefore makes sense to discuss colonial mimicry in early modern texts primarily in terms of language and writing. The essentially material character of the fetish is obviously incompatible with the early modern understanding of the representational quality of the sign. However, as I have tried to show, the 'offering' of the English monarchy as well as Christianity is only accepted by the Native Americans when European representations are distorted and converted into fetishes. The phenomenon of mimicry, the "almost the same but not quite" of the colonial subjects, links European economy to its own subversion. In the words of Homi Bhabha: "the discourse of mimicry is constructed around an ambivalence; in order to be effective, mimicry must continually produce its slippage, its excess, its difference."31 A reading of William Shakespeare's Othello will show how the working of this ambivalence finally turns "from mimicry - a difference that is almost nothing but not quite - to menace - a difference that is almost total but not quite." 32


Bestowing on Othello all the religious, moral and aesthetic stereotypes the cultural archive provides for blacks, Brabantio primarily accuses him of having courted Desdemona by employing sorcery. Brabantio's speech is not the only occasion in which Othello is associated with magic. When Desdemona cannot present the handkerchief he gave her, he tells her a story about its origins:

The handkerchief as it is described here, can be regarded as a fetish according to Pietz's definition of the term. For him a fetish is a The handkerchief is also a historical object, the fixation of love, "territorialized" and "reified" in a piece of cloth, which additionally evokes a personal response from those who possess it. Its force, which consists of the power to procure love, is contained in the sheer materiality of the cloth: "there's magic in the web of it" (III.iv.69). When he refers to the Egyptian charmer as someone who "could almost read / the thoughts of people", Othello connects the fetish of their love to (female and non-European) illiteracy. "She could almost read" assumes the Egyptian as a non-European woman who is being taught European knowledge. In an ironic twist this concession is presently repudiated as it turns out that Othello is talking of divination. The Egyptian woman, who only reads "the thoughts of people", becomes a "sybil" who "[i]n her prophetic fury sew'd the work" (III.iv.70-72). Othello thus not only refers to the early modern concept of non-Christian fetishism but also to the medieval notion of female witchcraft, which Pietz identifies as one important source of the concept of fetishism.35 Othello's construction of the Egyptian is an operation of colonial mimicry, since she, as well, is neither Same nor Other. However, in contrast to Othello, who as the "noble Moor" is "almost the same but not quite", the Egyptian woman marks a "difference that is almost total but not quite." Accordingly, Othello's story seems to corroborate Brabantio's earlier accusation of employing magic in his courtship. Yet, in Act V, Othello once again talks of the handkerchief when he tries to justify why he has murdered Desdemona: Here, the handkerchief has lost all its magic; it has turned from a fetish into a "token", a sign which promises or represents love instead of materially containing it.

Othello's contradictory stories of the origin of the handkerchief describe a change from fetish to sign. They can be related to his defence in Act I, the story of how he initially wooed Desdemona:

The 'magic' in Othello's courtship, which Brabantio regards as sorcery and witchcraft, is explained and replaced by Othello's stories: "This only is the witchcraft I have us'd." (I.iii.169) So in contrast to the illiterate Egyptian charmer, Othello is in full command of the early modern art of 'producing language'. He employs language as an instrument for influencing people which is at least as powerful as the occult arts. But paradoxically, his mastery of language only makes him a subject because he simultaneously constructs himself as the Other, the object, of European colonial discourse. If 36, this conflictual encounter takes place within Othello himself. He is the authority and the alien, the 'noble Moor' and the 'lascivious Moor', the Same and the Other. His life story of travels, the 'exotic' lands he visited, the cannibals and monsters he met, reproduce the traditional 'geographical' and 'anthropological' knowledge as it was provided by Pliny's (ca. A.D. 23-79) Naturalis Historia and was repeated, questioned and modified in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century travel writing.37 By adopting the process of European Othering and inscribing himself into this discourse, Othello on the one hand assumes the role of the colonized who has embraced European stereotyping. On the other, however, he deliberately claims the position of the colonizer, who produces a text on the Other and inscribes his law on the body of the Other. His integration into Venetian society thus far exceeds that of a stranger who is tolerated because of his military successes. He is more than "a colonised subject existing on the terms of white Venetian society and trying to internalise its ideology"38, as Ania Loomba puts it. His stories, instead, present him as colonizer and colonized, speaking subject and text at the same time. Othello's narrative, as a form of early modern self-fashioning, is consequently not the story of the "loss of his own origins, an embrace and perpetual reiteration of the norms of another culture"39. In response to this interpretation by Stephen Greenblatt, Karen Newman has correctly emphasized that His re-inscription in early modern colonial discourse is undoubtedly the only possible way of speaking himself as subject, but it also empowers him to court Desdemona. Desdemona, who would "with a greedy ear / Devour up" (I.iii.149-150) Othello's story, recalls the behaviour of the Native Americans Hariot meets, or the women who eagerly listen to Drake's psalms. In Shakespeare's play, it is thus not (only) the colonized who is associated with fetishism but also Desdemona, a "maiden, never bold; / Of spirit so still and quiet that her motion / Blush'd at her self" (I.iii.94-96). For her, Othello becomes the fetish she tries to absorb corporeally (with all the sexual connotations this implies). Her desire can be read against the background of the early modern commodity fetishism attached to the exotic objects which European traders brought back to Europe.41 According to Marx, the commodity is fetishized in capitalist exchange because it acquires a value which lies outside that object.42 The exotic object consequently becomes a fetish because, in the marketplace, it can be equated to other commodities. With regard to Desdemona's love for Othello it is particularly interesting that, as Margaret Ferguson has shown, this desire for foreign or exotic luxuries is explicitly feminized in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century moral and economic writing.43 But Desdemona's self-fashioning as a desiring subject finally leads to her submitting herself to Othello (and, as I will illustrate, her own fetishization). Colonialism and patriarchy or cultural alterity and femininity are obviously linked, but their interrelation is far more complex and contradictory than Newman's simple analogy suggests: "The union of Desdemona and Othello represents a sympathetic identification between femininity and the monstrous which offers a potentially subversive recognition of sexual and racial difference."44 Instead, the intersection of gender and cultural hierarchies could be described as a male 'conquest' or subjugation of a woman who has, previously, colonized that man because he had re-constructed himself as the ex/rotic object of colonial discourse, which had constructed him as the Other.

In re-reading Othello against the background of twentieth-century African adaptations of the text, Jyotsna Singh repudiates traditional 'white' interpretations of the play that either try to repress Othello's blackness45 or simply equate the categories of 'woman' and 'black man'. She maintains that those re-writings remind

If his representation of himself as the exotic Other of early modern travel literature can be read as a deliberate and inevitable mockery of colonialist discourse, then Othello's integration into Venetian society and internalization of its norms and values become dubious as well. I am not thinking of the disruption of a 'civilized surface' which reveals a 'barbarous essence'. Instead, following Singh, I suggest that Othello is neither the 'noble Moor' nor the 'lascivious Moor'. In Homi Bhabha's terminology, he is a "mimic man", an "impossible object", whose presence or identity is not lost or suppressed but denied from the very beginning: "As Lacan reminds us, mimicry is like camouflage, not a harmonization of repression of difference, but a form of resemblance, that differs from or defends presence by displaying it in part, metonymically."47 It is only in his relation to others that he can be fixed: In the war with the Turks he identifies with the Venetian 'centre' whereas, when he talks to Desdemona, he assumes a position on the absolute periphery of the 'civilized world', among the monsters and cannibals. This position of being culturally 'in-between', which is reinforced in his geographic movement between Venice, Cyprus, and the "antres vast, and deserts idle" (I.iii.140), represents a threat for (Venetian) society, which runs the danger of becoming invaded by the Other. Cultural stability depends on safe borders and boundaries, that is, cultural, religious, political, and geographical dividing lines between the Same and the Other.

Self-fashioning and the early modern economy of language could thus be employed for the colonial project, but as colonial mimicry and mockery they could likewise develop into a threat for Eurocentrism. This became evident in Spain, where, in 1492, the Jewish population was expelled or forcefully converted. Neither Jewish nor Muslim conversos, the moriscos, were fully accepted as Christian citizens. Even before the moriscos were 'driven out' between 1609 and 1614, limpieza de sangre- ("purity of blood") statutes barred the former Jews and Muslims from any public offices in politics, administration, religion, and education. From this moment onwards, Christian identity was no longer defined by baptism but was related to the body, to 'blood', in the sense of

This distrust in the conversion, the phantasm of an "almost the same but not quite" whose resemblance is disguise, mimicry, or mockery, not only structures the conflict in Othello but also in Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta. Here again and even more explicitly than in Othello, Barabas lacks any essential identity and allies himself with Christians, Turks, and Jews in accordance with his economic interests.

In order to master this insecurity, the body, 'racial' characteristics or, as in Spain, 'purity of blood' come into play. Othello is referred to as "the thick-lips" (I.i.66), "an old black ram" (I.i.88), or "a Barbary horse" (I.i.111-112). In these allusions to Othello's corporality, which is associated with sexuality and bestiality, the relationship between the body and cultural identity has undergone a decisive change. Whereas until the early modern age skin colour had been read as an indicator of one's spiritual or religious identity, it had now become the basis of social status. Accordingly, Brabantio complains that "if such actions may have passage free, / Bond-slaves and pagans shall our statesmen be." (I.ii.98-99) Just as the moriscos and the converted Jews were excluded from higher social ranks by the liempieza de sangre-rules, Othello is also shut out from at least one important sphere of Venetian society. Interestingly, however, it is not his military position which is questioned. Iago tries to 'blacken' Othello's reputation because Othello has claimed participation in the exchange of women. In contrast to Karen Newman, who like others reads Brabantio's disapproval of the couple as the fear of 'miscegenation'49, I want to discuss it in economic terms which can be related to my initial remarks on the fetish and early modern signifying practices.

When Iago and Roderigo wake Brabantio in the middle of the night, they do not warn him of 'miscegenation' but of theft: "Awake! what ho, Brabantio! thieves, thieves! / Look to your house, your daughter, and your bags!" (I.i.78-80) Iago's speech reveals the early modern conceptualization of women as a "property category", the homology between the female body and the threshold of the house.50 In the eyes of the law, the woman is owned by her father or her husband and, furthermore, she is the representation of his property. Her exchange between men, from father to husband, equals an economic transaction and her defence against other men the protection against theft. Accordingly, since the enactment of a law under the reign of Henry VII in 1486, rape has been punishable as an offence against the father's or husband's property. Brabantio's accusation therefore is to be read literally: "O thou foul thief, where hast thou stow'd my daughter?" (I.ii.62) In the presence of the Duke, he, once again, complains of Desdemona being "abus'd, stol'n from me, and corrupted" (I.iii.60). Abuse and corruption do not mean 'miscegenation' but rape, which means theft, since by deflowering the woman the rapist lessens her value on the marriage market.

If one defines capitalism "as the mode of production which, in fetishizing the commodity, fails to fetishize the object"51, the reification of Desdemona can be discussed as an aspect of capitalist commodity fetishism. She is fetishized because she is regarded as valuable property, as Brabantio's "jewel" (I.iii.195). In trying to prevent the marriage between her and Othello, Brabantio does not want to withhold his daughter from exchange in general. On the contrary, he deplores her being "[s]o opposite to marriage that she shunn'd / The wealthy curled [darlings] of our nation" (I.ii.66-67). Yet, he does not accept Othello as the appropriate partner in this exchange. In contrast to the Native Americans, Othello does not fetishize objects but is fully aware of their exchange value in speech and trade. He submits to the capitalist economy of signs and commodities, which also includes the exchange of women, but in doing so he becomes a competitor who aspires towards white male prerogatives. Although in the end, Brabantio gives Desdemona away, he emphasizes that he is forced to do so against his will: "Come hither, Moor: / I here do give thee that with all my heart / Which but thou hast already, with all my heart / I would keep from thee" (I.iii.192-195). He has to 'transfer' Desdemona because she is already irrevocably lost to him. Yet, this symbolic act is the public and legal acknowledgement of the marriage.

For Brabantio, however, being 'robbed' of his daughter, Desdemona's "match was mortal" (V.ii.205). His death discloses that "[w]hite Racism has been, from its origin, a story about male competition. Thus the black male, imputed competitor for possession of the white male's prerogatives of power, wealth, and the assumed ownership of white females, poses the threat that marks the space where projected racial anathema begins."52 This fear is based on the phantasm of a male parthenogenesis which, in procreation, needs the female body only as the passive vessel. In other words, since the "the female parent's seed is less powerful, less 'informing' than the male parent's"53, cultural signs can only be passed on to the children by the man. This explains why a marriage between a Native American woman and an English man, such as the famous couple Pocahontas and John Rolfe, was not regarded as a threat to European superiority whereas the reversed constellation definitely was. In Shakespeare's The Tempest, for example, the conflict between Prospero and Caliban is structured around this phobia:

Prospero does not fear 'miscegenation' but, instead, he is led by the anxiety that the Other might reverse the colonial project and pass on his patronym, that is, the signs of his cultural identity.

In contrast to Caliban, Othello succeeds in getting a Christian woman. Brabantio's formal acceptance of the marriage includes him in Venetian society while, simultaneously, his death denies this affiliation. Othello's mimicry has become a 'menace' for Venetian patriarchy. In a way, Iago shares Brabantio's fear. His motive to intrigue against Othello is his envy of Cassio, to which in Act I, scene iii, he adds a further aspect: "I hate the Moor, / And it is thought abroad that 'twixt my sheets / [H'as] done my office. I know not if't be true / But I, for mere suspicion in that kind, / Will do as it for surety." (I.iii.386-90) Shortly afterwards, he repeats this suspicion:

Iago regards Othello as his potential rival in the 'traffic' in women. Regardless of whether his suspicion is true, which he obviously doubts himself, he fears for his reputation. Cassio's promotion has undermined his military status, and the rumour additionally marks him a cuckold, raising that male fear of being cheated by a (sexually and economically) more potent competitor. Iago's monologue explicitly combines sexuality and economy as the two pillars of his hatred against Othello. He announces his revenge, to restore the original relationship by 'paying' Othello back or rather returning the (supposed) 'theft' - "wife for wife". Iago tries to exclude him from exchange relations by 'racializing' him in the eyes of Venetian society, but, for the moment, fails.


Othello's mimicry, his in-between position, although enabling, finally leads to Desdemona's murder and his own suicide. In the end, Iago succeeds in instilling in Othello a deep distrust in Desdemona's faithfulness by convincing him of his Otherness and the 'unnaturalness' of their marriage.54 In his discussion with Iago, Othello's identification with the Venetian soldiers against the Turks as the Others (cf. II.iii.170) is disrupted. He begins to reflect on "nature erring from itself" (III.iii.227) and to consider his skin colour: "Haply, for I am black, / And have not those soft parts of conversation / That chamberers have, or for I am declin'd / Into the vale of years (yet that's not much), / She's gone." (III.iii.263-267) In taking for granted (linguistic) signs without realizing that they might not mean what they pretend to, he finally falls victim to the same order of language that had at first enabled him and helped him to win Desdemona. His being discursively constructed as the Other, which initially produced Desdemona's desire, has become the cause for his distrust in her.

Othello's belief in signs becomes fatal when he can be convinced that Desdemona has given away the handkerchief. When Iago objects that "being hers, / She may, I think, bestow't on any man" (IV.i.12-13), Othello replies, "She is protectress of her honor too; / May she give that?" (IV.i.14-15), thus denying her access to exchange relations. While Othello's self-fashioning as a subject of Venetian society depended on being accepted as a partner in economic and symbolic exchange, Desdemona's entrance 'on the market place' would make her a prostitute. The handkerchief which passes from one to another clearly evokes this phantasm: "She gave it him, / and he hath giv'n it his whore." (IV.i.176-77) For Othello, the handkerchief has turned from the "token" of their love to a commodity which can be valued in money. Othello, here, fetishizes the object and tries to prevent it from becoming a commodity in order to protect their love from the rules of capitalist economy. Actually, the same position determines his first handkerchief-story:

The spectre that is haunting Othello is prostitution, which gives any man access to the woman and turns the female body into a commodity. He does not realize that the conceptualization of the woman as "a property category" follows the same logic. Furthermore, he tries to exclude Desdemona from active participation in exchange relations although it was her fetishization of him as an exotic commodity which was the precondition for their love.

Othello thus finally kills Desdemona and commits suicide because he, himself, has fallen victim to colonial mimicry. In his final speech he recognizes that he has been oscillating between Same and Other, the Venetian and the "turban'd Turk":

In his suicide, Othello tries to assume the position of the Venetian who kills (himself as) the Other. His self-fashioning as a member of early modern Christian society depends on extinguishing that which was instrumental in identifying him as Other, that is, his body. His suicide is consequently not only a punishment for his murdering Desdemona and the realization of his final failure in economic exchange ("one whose hand / (Like the base [Indian]) threw a pearl away / Richer than all his tribe"). Moreover, it is the effort to sacrifice and overcome the (racialized) body in order to give way to his 'real' identity: "Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate".

Othello's suicide can be discussed against the background of the rites of the cannibalistic society Michel de Montaigne describes in his essay "Of Cannibals". He constructs the 'natural' New World society in its contrast to 'civilized' European society: "The very words that import lying, falsehood, treason, dissimulation, covetousness, envie, detraction, and pardon, were never heard of amongst them."55. Male courage in a cannibalistic society, their desire to be eaten by their enemies rather than to submit to them, has its female counterpart in the woman's fidelity in a polygamous marriage. According to Certeau, "[t]hese two scandalous elements of supposedly barbarian society in fact constitute an economy of speech, in which the body is the price."56 This is also Othello's aim; he tries to transcend his deceptive corporality and produce 'immortal' and true language.

Yet, it is Desdemona's acceptance of her murder which can be interpreted as constituting this economy of speech. In response to Emilia's pragmatic version of faithfulness she swears, "Beshrew me, if I would do such a wrong / For the whole world." (IV.iii.78-79) Her death is both the price and proof of her faithfulness. To Othello, the 'mimic man', however, this form of speaking himself as "I" is denied. "Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate" - he can only be spoken by others, but the following sentences reveal the impossibility of even that task. What Othello proposes as his true "I", his life story, is, again, a conglomeration of stories taken from the colonial archive, which re-inscribe him in just that tradition. His "of one ... of one ... of one" points to the fact that he is the source and the object of an endless textual production. At the same time, it reveals the interchangeability of "the Moor", "the base Indian", "the Arab", "the turban'd Turk", and the "circumcised dog". So instead of killing the bodily Other and constructing himself as the Same, Othello, in his death, multiplies into all the diverse Others of early modern Christian society. Desdemona's corpse stabilizes the relationship between language and the world; it finally produces truthful language which was subverted by colonial mimicry. Her death, then, is an example of the instrumentalization of the feminine corpse for European representation as Elisabeth Bronfen describes it: "To represent over her dead body signals that the represented feminine body also stands in for concepts other than death, femininity and body - most notably the masculine artist and the community of the survivors."57 Over Othello's dead body, however, this stabilization of individual and collective identity cannot be realized. In contrast, instead of producing 'presence', it perpetuates the "metonymies of presence"58, which are the effect of colonial mimicry. Lodovico's final speech can thus be read as a reference to Iago's discursive production of "monsters". "This is thy work. The object poisons sight, / Let it be hid." (V.ii.364-365) Othello, in deed, is a play about bringing a "monstrous birth to the world's light" (I.iii.404). Othello's corpse, which is the final inscription of the colonial discourse on the body of the Other, cannot be employed for the symbolic order but, on the contrary, discloses its inherent paradoxes. It is a 'discursive monster', produced by the ambivalence of colonial mimicry, an 'object that poisons sight'.


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1 Walter Raleigh, The Discoverie of the Large, Rich, and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana (London 1596, repr. Amsterdam/New York 1968. The English Experience No. 3), 7.

2 Mary Fuller characterizes Raleigh's voyage as a "search for the referent, a place to which can be attached the proper names Manoa and El Dorado." (Mary C. Fuller, "Ralegh's Fugitive Gold: Reference and Deferral in The Discoverie of Guiana", in: Representations 33 (1991), 51.)

3 Louis A. Montrose, "The Work of Gender in the Discourse of Discovery", in: Representations 33 (1991), 11.

4 Homi Bhabha, "Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse", in: The Location of Culture (London/New York 1994), 86.

5 Thomas Hariot, A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (London 1588, repr. Amsterdam/New York 1971. The English Experience No. 349), E4r.

6 Stephen Greenblatt, "Invisible Bullets", in: Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Oxford 1988), 30.

7 Hariot, A Briefe and True Report, E4r-E4v.

8 Cf. Stephen Orgel, "Shakespeare and the Cannibals", in: Marjorie Garber (ed.), Cannibals, Witches, and Divorce: Estranging the Renaissance (Baltimore/London 1987), 41; Peter Hulme, Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean (London/New York 1986), ch. 1: "Columbus and the Cannibals", pp. 13-43; and chapter 2 of my Wilde Frauen - Fremde Welten: Kolonisierungsgeschichten aus Amerika (forthcoming, Reinbek 1997).

9 William Bradshaw, A Direction for the Weaker Sort of Christians, Shewing in What Manner they Ought to Fit Themselves to the Worthy Receiving of the Sacrament (London 1609, 4th ed. 1615), p. 28, quoted in Stephen Greenblatt, "Remnants of the Sacred in Early Modern England", in: Margreta de Grazia, Maureen Quilligan and Peter Stallybrass (eds.), Subject and Object in Renaissance Culture (Cambridge 1996), 339.

10 William Pietz, "The Problem of the Fetish, II", in: Res 13 (1987), 41.

11 Pietz, "The Problem of the Fetish, II", 40.

12 Willem Bosman, A New and Accurate Description of the Coast of Guinea (1704, repr. London 1967), 154; quoted in: Pietz, "The Problem of the Fetish, II", 39.

13 Greenblatt, "Remnants of the Sacred", 342, 340.

14 Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (London 1970), 33.

15 Elsewhere I have demonstrated that the early modern subject is conceptualized as male, whereas the world as object is feminized and, furthermore, woman metonymically represents the object world. Cf. chapter 1 of my Wilde Frauen, fremde Welten.

16 Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Randall (Berkeley etc. 1984), 138-39.

17 Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 138.

18 Francis Fletcher, The World Encompassed by Sir Francis Drake... (London 1628, repr.. Amsterdam/New York 1969. The English Experience No. 103), 72.

19 Cf. Stephen Greenblatt, "Learning to Curse: Aspects of Linguistic Colonialism in the Sixteenth Century", in: Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture (New York/London 1990), 16-39.

20 Richard Eden, The First Three English Books on America (London 1511-1555), ed. Edward Arber (Birmingham 1885, repr. New York 1971), 106.

21 Bhabha, "Of Mimicry and Man", 89.

22 Bhabha, "Of Mimicry and Man", 89-90.

23 Cf. Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker, "Introduction", in: Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker (eds.), Women, 'Race,' and Writing in the Early Modern Period (London/New York 1994), 2.

24 Hayden White, "The Forms of Wildness: Archaeology of an Idea", in: Edward Dudley and Maximillian E. Novack (eds.), The Wild Man Within: An Image in Western Thought from the Renaissance to Romanticism (London 1972), 17.

25 Cf. G.K. Hunter, "Othello and Colour Prejudice", in: Kenneth Muir (ed.), Interpretations of Shakespeare (Oxford 1986), 180-207.

26 White, "The Forms of Wildness", 15.

27 Sander Gilman, Sexuality: An Illustrated History. Representing the Sexual in Medicine and Culture from the Middle Ages to the Age of AIDS (New York etc. 1989), 29.

28 Anthony Gerard Barthelmy, Black Face, Maligned Race: The Representation of Blacks in English Drama from Shakespeare to Southerne (Baton Rouge/London 1987), 11.

29 Ben Jonson, "The Queenes Masques. The First, of Blacknesse", in: Ben Jonson, 11 vols., eds. C.H. Herford, Percy and Evelyn Simpson (Oxford 1925-1952), vol. 7 (Oxford 1941, repr. 1952), 177.

30 Bhabha, "Of Mimicry and Man", 86.

31 Bhabha, "Of Mimicry and Man", 86.

32 Bhabha, "Of Mimicry and Man", 91.

33 All quotations are from The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston etc. 1974).

34 William Pietz, "The Problem of the Fetish, I", in: Res 9 (1985), 12.

35 Cf. Pietz, "The Problem of the Fetish, I", 6; "The Problem of the Fetish, II", 31-36.

36 Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago/London 1980), 9.

37 Cf. Margaret Hodgen, Early Anthropology in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century (Philadelphia 1964).

38 Ania Loomba, Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama (Manchester etc. 1989), 48.

39 Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning, 245.

40 Karen Newman, "'And Wash the Ethiop White': Femininity and the Monstrous in Othello"; in: Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O'Connor (eds.), Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology (New York/London 1987), 150.

41 Cf. Hal Foster, "The Art of Fetishism: Notes on Dutch Still Life", in: Emily Apter and William Pietz (eds.), Fetishism as Cultural Discourse (Ithaca/London 1993), 259.

42 Cf. Karl Marx, "The Fetishism of the Commodity and Its Secret", in: Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. I, trans. Ben Fowkes (London etc. 1976), 163-177.

43 Cf. Margaret Ferguson, "Feathers and Flies: Aphra Behn and the Seventeenth-century Trade in Exotica", in: Grazia, Quilligan and Stallybrass (eds.), Subject and Object in Renaissance Culture, 235-259.

44 Newman, "'And Wash the Ethiop White'", 151-152.

45 The examples are well known; they range from S.T. Coleridge's assertion that Shakespeare did not mean Othello to be a "veritable Negro" to M.R. Ridley's emphasis that at least some black men actually do look like human beings: "There are more races than one in Africa, and that a man is black in colour is no reason why he should, even to European eyes, look subhuman. One of the finest heads I have ever seen on any human being was that of a negro conductor on an American Pullman car." (M.R. Ridley, ed. Othello, Arden edition, London 1958, li.) A survey of Othello's critical history is given by Michael Neill in "Unproper Beds: Race, Adultery, and the Hideous in Othello", in: Shakespeare Quarterly 41:4 (1989), 383-412.

46 Jyotsna Singh, "Othello's Identity", in: Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker (eds.), Women, 'Race,' and Writing in the Early Modern Period (London/New York 1994), 298-299. In contrast to Singh's essay, to which my paper is greatly indebted, I try to discuss Othello in its broader historical context and analyse the specifically early modern processes of colonial discourse and colonial mimicry.

47 Cf. Bhabha, "Of Mimicry and Man", 90.

48 Verena Stolcke, "Invaded Women: Gender, Race and Class in the Formation of Colonial Society", in Hendricks and Parker (eds.), Women, 'Race,' and Writing, 277.

49 "The play is structured around a cultural aporia, miscegenation." (Newman, "'And Wash the Ethiop White'", 145)

50 Cf. Peter Stallybrass, "Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed", in: Margaret Ferguson (ed.), Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourse of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe (Chicago 1986), 126-127.

51 Peter Stallybrass, "Worn Worlds: Clothes and Identity on the Renaissance Stage", in: Grazia, Quilligan and Stallybrass (eds.), Subject and Object in Renaissance Culture, 290.

52 Lynda E. Boose, "'The Getting of a Lawful Race': Racial Discourse in Early Modern England and the Unrepresentable Black Woman", in: Hendricks and Parker (eds.), Women, 'Race,' and Writing in the Early Modern Period, 41.

53 Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, Mass./London 1990), 41.

54 Cf. Neill, "Unproper Beds", 406.

55 Michel de Montaigne, "Of the Caniballes", in: Essays, trans. John Florio (1603), 3 vols. (London/New York 1910, repr. 1946), vol. 1, 220.

56 Michel de Certeau, "Montaigne's 'Of Cannibals': The Savage I", in: Heterologies: Discourse on the Other, trans. Brian Massumi (Manchester 1986), 75.

57 Elisabeth Bronfen, Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic (Manchester 1992), xi.

58 Bhabha, "Of Mimicry and Man", 90.