The anxiety of autonomy and the aesthetics of German orientalism (2017)
in: Studies in German literature, linguistics, and culture
German orientalism has been understood, variously, as a form of latent colonialism, as a quest for academic hegemony in Europe, and as an effort to diagnose and treat the ills of modern Western culture. Nicholas Germana identifies a different impetus for orientalism in German thought, seeing it as an effort to come to grips with the Other within German society at the turn of the nineteenth century and within the dynamics of subjectivity itself. Drawing largely on work by feminist scholars, the book uncovers an anxiety at the core of Kantian and post-Kantian thought, thus shedding light on its derogation (or elevation) of Oriental cultures. Kant's philosophy of freedom is a construction of modern, Western masculinity. Reason, which alone can make freedom possible, subverts and orders chaotic nature and protects the rational subject from the enervating influences of the senses and the imagination. The feminized, sexually charged Orient is a threat to the historical achievement of Western male rationality. Germana's book emphasizes aesthetics in the German orientalist discourse, a subject that has received little attention to date. In this tradition of German thought, aesthetics became a form of spiritual anthropology, ordering and classifying societies, races, and genders in terms of their ability to master the senses and the imagination, forces that undermine rational autonomy, the very source of human (i.e., masculine) dignity. Nicholas A. Germana is Professor of History at Keene State College, New Hampshire.