Public Lecture: Stéphane van Damme

Things that talk badly?

Collecting Scandalous Antiquities in the Late Eighteenth-Century French Asia

In the last decade, one saw the emergence of a global history of antiquarianism (Miller, 2012; Schnapp, 2016; Bleichmar and Mancall, 2011) based on a comparative history of antiquarian practices in Europe, China, India, and South-America. For India, Sanjay Subrahmaniam pointed in his contribution to World Antiquarianism on the two possible narratives available to us: the ‘imported antiquarianism’ focused on the search for Indian and Iranian culture and the ‘indigeneous antiquarianism’ based on a ‘collaborative and transcontinental enterprise’ working with native agents, downplaying the importance of European encounters. In this paper, I would like to complicate the European narrative by considering the heterogeneity and ambiguities of French antiquarianism in India. If religious Orders or protestant missionaries were attracted by christian antiquities or obsessed by hindouism in South India, other antiquarians were more in favour of collecting scandalous objects and attracted by sexual representations (Mitter, 1977). This renewed interest for Indian antiquities is linked to the development of an Asiatic grand tour at the end of the 18th century but also. In this talk, I will draw the attention on the role played by specific traditions, namely the sceptical, materialist and libertine traditions, between the Seven Years war and the French Revolution. Rather than being anecdotical, I will argue that this libertine culture of antiquarianism repoliticized the economy of global knowledge in French Asia when the loss of territorial possessions after 1763 will force the French to re-invent a imperial project in the region based on scientific endeavors. Collecting Exotic antiquities was not only central to play out an imperial project, it was a way of weaving together the different pieces of the Empire.

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