A Dialogue among Genres during the Late Eighteenth Century: Conjectural History and Travellers' Textual and Visual Representations of Cultures of the Near East and India

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Barber, Pamela M.




This dissertation explores the part played by historical frameworks of thought in the interpretation and representation of unfamiliar cultures. Examining works produced by British travellers to the Near East and India during the period of the Scottish Enlightenment, I argue that a significant and reciprocal relationship was found among the genres of historical writing and travellers’ textual and visual representations of distant societies during the late eighteenth century. With social change accompanying rapid growth in commerce and global trade, ideas put forward in the new sub-genre of conjectural history served as a framework in the interpretation of all cultures, whether in Europe or in distant regions of the globe. While conjectural historians used the information provided by travellers in developing a new meta-narrative of history, travellers’ representations in turn reflected the historical frameworks of the time. All aspects of societies could be discussed within the framework of stadial theory, including political structures and systems of jurisprudence, social structures, material culture, and architecture. In addition, I argue that representations of distant societies were framed within the European aesthetic categories of central influence during the period, such as the sublime and the picturesque, while at the same time extending the subject matter typically associated with those categories. Further, an interplay of aesthetic and historical frameworks of thought is evident in late eighteenth-century representations of distant cultures. This dissertation offers a close historicizing of a particular moment in Enlightenment thought in light of the many critiques put forward following the late eighteenth century concerning the assumptions, methodologies, and theories of the conjectural historians. The comparative method explored by conjectural historians, which encompassed observations spanning centuries as well as continents, led to a highly influential body of thought concerning the interconnections among economic, political, and social structures in societies. The differing types and degrees of distance characterizing the genres of historical writing and travellers’ representations played a part in a dialogue of reciprocal reference, in which the close details of lived experience informed a removed, philosophical gaze as British travellers and conjectural historians attempted to mediate cultural distance.


Art History




Carleton University

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Thesis Degree Discipline: 

Cultural Mediations

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Theses and Dissertations

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