Human-Object Relations and the Invention of the Noble Savage

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 10:50 AM
Maryland Suite A (Marriott Wardman Park)
Surekha Davies, Western Connecticut State University
During the early modern period, technology would overtake religion as the cultural characteristic by which Europeans considered themselves superior to others. At the same time, the notion of the noble savage, noble and yet lacking the material trappings of civilization, came to function as an uncomfortable foil with which to critique European civilization. European encounters with overseas artifacts – the material portion of technology – thus provide an opportunity to examine an interpretative seam between two contrasting, even opposing, modes of cultural comparison. One mode perceived cultures living in a state of nature without technology or urban communities as people who nonetheless possessed reason, and who were morally superior to Europeans. In the opposite mode, the lack of ‘European’-style technology signaled moral turpitude and mental weakness. The concept of the noble savage helps us to think through the construction of Europe and the global West as a space emblematized by its people’s capacities to transform nature.

This paper analyzes early modern inventories of cabinets of curiosities alongside first-hand travel accounts to show how the Arctic and Amazonia – two regions whose climates were thought to preclude civility – challenged ideas about the human-object relationship and about the superiority of European civilization. It argues that, for Europeans, a people was composed not just by the sum of corporeal bodies and institutions (or lack thereof), but also by the things made by its members. From the biologists’ notion of the microbiome – human as macro-organism plus miscellaneous microscopic assistants such as gut bacteria – we might usefully coin the technobiome – humans plus tools – as the unit of a people. The persistence of the noble savage concept in the present, under the guise of the indigenous, urges an examination of human-object ontologies and the imperial project.