Renaissance Primitivism: Old Worlds, New Worlds, and the Origins of Culture in Early Modern England
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CitationPorter, William. 2021. Renaissance Primitivism: Old Worlds, New Worlds, and the Origins of Culture in Early Modern England. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
AbstractNo traffic, no magistrates, no occupation, no property: when Shakespeare lifted a passage from Montaigne’s “Of Cannibals” for Gonzalo’s ideal commonwealth in The Tempest, he was tapping into one of the richest veins opened up during the Renaissance as Europe came into contact with the New World. This dissertation argues that a new conception of “the primitive” as the crux between “nature” and “culture” was at the heart of the Renaissance, and thus played a central role in the epoch-making transformations of the early modern Atlantic World. Primitivism, a fixation with ways of life imagined to be in close proximity to nature, took on a particular and powerful form as New World ethnography was joined to the humanist preoccupation with the alien cultures of antiquity. Its consequences are explored in chapters on the humanist obsession with primitive antiquity in the Italian Renaissance; Thomas More’s New World-inspired ethnographic representation of culture in Utopia; Walter Ralegh’s true ethnography and reflection on the economic upheavals of the sixteenth-century Atlantic in The Discovery of Guiana; and the “myth of the white gods” as it appears throughout sixteenth-century ethnography, from both Indigenous and European perspectives, prompting in Shakespeare and Montaigne a profoundly skeptical, relativist account of human culture that springs from the misapprehensions of New World encounters.
As these authors participate in the ethnographic literature that arose from European contact with the New World, their works offer ways of illuminating the early modern entanglement of cultures. Read in concert with the wider archive of New World histories, from a Lenape oral history of the arrival of Hudson in Manhattan to Indigenous and European accounts of the fall of the Aztec and Inca Empires, these texts embed aspects of cultural encounter vital to understanding not only European fantasies but also the perspectives and realities of the Lenape, Mexica, Inca, Guianans, Algonquians, and Tupinambá who helped to create those histories. In engaging more thoroughly with Indigenous history and anthropology than is typically done in early modern literary studies, I attempt to bring an understanding of an entangled Atlantic World and the mutually-constituted cultures it produced to bear on some texts near the center of the wider transformations of the age.
Throughout these chapters I explore two major developments that grow from the convergence of humanism and New World ethnography: first, the emergence of a certain capacious understanding of human culture, what would later become the culture concept of twentieth-century anthropology, and with it the destabilizing and far-reaching possibilities of cultural relativism; second, the conceptual apparatus of colonial capitalism, the economic regime that emerged haphazardly in the first centuries of the Atlantic World. It was imaginative literature, the sphere of writing most committed to the representation of culture as the totality of life by which humans create meaning, that most fully captured the challenges and possibilities posed by this idea of a crux between nature and culture. This understanding, for More, Ralegh, Montaigne, and Shakespeare, reveals how the variable culture of traffic, titles, property, occupation, and the rest entrenches a certain view of things that is no more anchored in reality, and in all likelihood less so, than a view from somewhere else.
Citable link to this pagehttps://nrs.harvard.edu/URN-3:HUL.INSTREPOS:37370224
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