Thursday, December 17, 2009

Orientalism In Any Other Form...

 This was originally a Twitter rant and then I realized I'd already made several tweets and still wasn't finished, so I thought I'd bring it on here.

Minh-Ha at Racialicious has an amazing post up on a modern example of Orientalism which everybody should read. She nails it here:

Lagerfeld seems to anticipate this critique when he argues that his short film represents “the idea of China, not the reality. It has the spirit of, and is inspired by, but is unrelated to China.” Without meaning to, Lagerfeld describes precisely one of the core truths of Orientalism (a system of Western knowledge that, as Edward Said explains, “had since antiquity [imagined the Orient as] a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences”). Lagerfeld’s China, like the Orient Said discusses, is a European/American invention.
 It's a brilliant send-up of everything that's wrong with Orientalism, and yes, steampunks are utterly susceptible to this.

The last time I bothered engaging on a discussion of multi-culturalism within steampunk, it ended up being a long discussion on exactly what multiculturalism is, and how nothing is sacred. In fact, there was a lot of "people should feel free to share their culture," which contains the damning implication of "if you're possessive over your culture, then you're selfish, which makes you a bad person."

To which I say, so fucking what? Why the hell should I let the majority take what is already not mine, because of colonization in the past and present, and regurgitate it in their own vision, their own ideals? We have done that for years - taking Western ideals and imagining them to be the best, to be better than us. When Westerners do the same to us, it is without the same respect, but all the idealization and projection of what they think should be our identity.

When I hear, "I would love to see [marginal race] steampunk!" I immediately think, "what for?" For who is this show of multiculturalism? What sacrifices are you willing to make to ensure that the very culture you think should be a part of steampunk has its place? I have never seen anything like that. Instead, it's a bunch of white steampunks coming up with ideas inspired by marginal cultures. Cultural appropriation at its best, which, as said by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, "leaves its living sources on the margin, and pats itself on the back for being so cosmopolitan."

Lagerfield's argument is so very seductive - "we're not hurting anybody", it seems to say. "We're simply re-imagining them in what we would like them to be." It is like taking a human partner and making them do things that they feel doesn't suit them - "I love you and would never hurt you. I just think you should do this and that and this because it would make you even better," even as it erases who they really are. It's seductive because it does not overtly destroy, overtly hate. Instead, it shows a form of love, affection, for this thing which isn't really there, and must be built - must be tamed and civilized before we can trot it out into fine society.
So it is when steampunks try to re-imagine the Orient and re-make it in the image that they want it to be: basically, you just have to create a new map that erases the current map, create new peoples that erase the current peoples, and re-discover these strange savage lands all over again.

Here's the thing, steampunks: when you try to re-create the spirit, and only take the good, of exploration while ignoring the bad of it, and acknowledging that the bad of the colonial past has had truly harmful effects on people today, you betray the anti-racist movement, the same way white people who have taken the helm as white gatekeepers for racialized bodies have, you re-create colonialism, which once again seeks to assert a specific culture, all in the name of fun. You may not do this consciously, but without acknowledging the true past, your "mockery" of the past (and indeed many steampunks claim to want to mock the past by aping historical attitudes) merely becomes a re-creation.


  1. Is it not the same to rewrite ones own culture's past as it is to rewrite someone else's? I mean, both require hefty research in order to 'pull it off'.

    Doesn't an author have equal chance of representing their chosen group of people incorrectly, seeing as in this case, said people are long past dead (what with this genre always based in the past, as far as I'm aware)?

    Thousand kudos to you on this wonderful blog! O_O I've spent many hours reading through steampunk themed / related blogs and this is the first I've ever felt the desire to comment on (small fyi, I see the comment feature of blogs as a powerful thing, the ability to engage reader and author in communication, something which once would take months and can now take as little as a few minutes, a function, I feel, which is normally taken more lightly than it deserves).

    I'm rambling, so basically; thank you muchly for this blog; excuse my ignorance; and answer me if you will; what's the difference with rewriting someone else's culture's past, and rewriting the past culture of one's own (in my eyes, the actions are equally.. for lack of a better word, ignorant)?

  2. Firstly, steampunk is NOT based in such a distant past that "said people are long past dead". The descendants of colonized peoples from the past steampunk draws inspiration from are still alive. Our ancestors may be dead, but we are still living. And we reckon daily with the aftereffects of the colonial past that steampunk derives itself from.

    As to you question on "isn't it the same?" It is not. Orientalism and cultural appropriation are very much issues of power, not just "re-writing culture". Culture is re-written all the time; it is a matter of who gets to write it, how, and whose representation is taken more seriously. White peoples have re-written the histories and mis-represented non-white peoples so much, stereotypes of non-white peoples still permeate prejudices and discriminatory systems today, affecting living POC. (It also happens between non-white cultures, too, on smaller scales.)

    The actions may come from a place of equal ignorance; the consequences are decidedly NOT equal. There're many posts on this topic in my Reading 101 list.

  3. Yeah, I spent most of late last night and this morning making my way through said reading list, and if I could retract that earlier comment, I would in a heartbeat.

    I can't thank you enough, I've learnt more about the relationship between culture and power in the past few hours than I did all through high school. I'm up to I Didn't Dream of Dragons.

    I'm totally new to the concept of cultural appropriation, though I've spent many hours thinking about the realities of the modern world throughout my life, especially with regard to the fact that the clothes on my back, the chips in my computer, the coffee in my cup, ad nauseum, are all commodities wrested out of brutally disadvantaged countries and cultures, but never did it occur to me that the very thoughts in my mind, my own conception of said countries and their peoples, was just as askew as the imbalance of power which I perceive.

    Your link for Unpacking the Invisible Napsack is broken, you can find another version here;
    And what a wonderful essay, it speaks for itself, I'm shocked and totally grateful to have been exposed to such ideas now, and not even later.