A Timeless Disgrace, by Modern Standards

14 November 2017

By Nick Schmitz - When Jules Verne wrote Le Tour du Monde en Quatre-Vingts Jours, he produced a child of its time. It became an adventure novel which glorified and romanticised the white man’s world’s colossal technological advancements in the past decades – which made him able to travel around the world in a mere eighty days, an achievement unheard of in the early 1870’s. Verne solidified the idea that white men had shortened time. This is cleverly symbolised in the book’s ending, when the protagonist is convinced that he arrived too late, but then realises that he has crossed the International Date Line, thus gaining a day.

This sentiment of Western superiority was also very present at the world exhibitions that were quite common in the same era. This article will therefore reflect how the 1889 Exposition Universelle de Paris reflected the globalising historical culture and the expansion of time and space and its use for painting a picture of national prowess and superiority.

As the second half of the nineteenth century progressed, ever more technological progress was made in Western empires, such as France and the United Kingdom. This made it possible for these empires to expand rapidly and quickly colonise large portions of the world. Technological advancement and conquest were a source of both internal and external national prestige that was showcased at the popular world exhibitions. Empires used these occasions to educate their Western citizens in history from a globalising historical perspective, with their own nation as the centre of civilisation and progress.

At the 1889 Paris Exposition, there were two main attractions: the new, spectacular Eiffel Tower as a symbol of technological advancement, and Javanese dancers from the Dutch Indies. This marked a distinction between French national prestige and the colonial dancers as a live exhibit of what lay in the “backward,” far-flung fringes of Western empires. The American historian Patrick Young phrases this as a collapse of geographic distance between two, while the cultural differences are paradoxically underscored. The colonial dancers are an example of “anachronistic space,” a situation in which a historical plot is created by Western imperialists about colonised peoples. Colonised human beings were portrayed as though they lived in a temporally permanent prehistorical time, while spatially they lived at the outskirts of the modern Western empires. Not only was their living environment hereby configured as backward, but they themselves were also objectified and portrayed as anachronistic, irrational, and outright primitive people.

The creation of the distinction between “the West and the rest” is further exemplified by the French colonial section of the Exposition. The public eye was actively trained to divide the world between civilised and primitive, as the pavilions of colonial possessions such as Algeria and French Indochina were built alongside the Esplanade des Invalides. Not coincidentally, this was the place where buildings that reminded of French military prowess, such as the Hôtel des Invalides and the Ministry of War, were located. The anachronistic space in which colonial possessions and their peoples were placed allowed for the organisers of the Exposition, and specifically its colonial section, to present the world as an exhibition – presenting the public with a panoptic birds-eye view of the world, albeit from an imperialistic perspective. The-world-as-an-exhibition is a specific term which applies here and in many more World Fairs of the epoch, but should be explained further. It signifies that this kind of exhibitions presented the public with purposefully created temporal experiences. These narratives were usually national views on society and the rest of the world, often presented to the visitors through time-reconfiguring explanatory tours or written guides of the exposition’s different areas, which were made up by carefully (time-)configured rooms, halls, pavilions, and gardens.

What, then, could be the use for this complex primitive portrayal of France’s colonies? The end to these means is ultimately the bridging of the created time gap between France, the central power and modern nation-state, and its colonies. The bridge over this time gap was the perceived white man’s burden to civilise the world, to “help the conquered territories advance from their primitive, paradoxically a-temporal time.” The complex narrative of the exhibition is no more than a justification for imperialism.

The Javanese dancers, as well as the colonial pavilions at the 1889 Exposition Universelle de Paris radically compressed time and space by bringing together very distant lands and cultures in a narrative of backwardness, while the pièce de résistance, the Eiffel Tower, glorified French modernity. The contrast between these two narratives consists of an artificial time gap, bridged by the overarching and artificial bridge of the justification of imperialism: the white man’s burden to “civilise” distant lands according to Western standards of modernity.

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