Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Inevitably of Imperialism: On Kyriarchy and How It Factors into Steampunk

When Racialicious first posted Ay-Leen’s “From the Wilds of America”, the accompanying image was a map from Steam Century’s game in which the RPG re-imagines a different political landscape on America’s face, where France and Russia had sizable territories, the British were not quite so hegemonic, and where Native Americans had their own lands marked out.

I remember someone remarked, “I wish that map was real.”

Someone else said, “Actually, us Indians would be better off with *nobody* living off our backs, but that should be obvious.”

Because of the history and current politics of North America, there are certain ideas we take for granted, and most pervasive is that white folk would go out colonizing America no matter what. It is easy to see why; the current default American experience is that of the culturally-Christian white male – all too often, we forget the indigenous peoples who were here way before them.

Many steampunks claim an anti-imperialist agenda. Some American white steampunks imagine that America was still a colony of the British. The thing about this is, if you were anti-imperialist, you wouldn’t be so pro-Colonies! Then again, that leaves only Europe as a playing field (with possible trade routes) (in the sky) which in turn leads to Occidentalism and exoticizing Europe (which already happens, let’s face it), and that isn’t so hot either. (Maybe this is why so many white steampunks don’t want to consider such issues – it’s quite the process of self-displacement, isn’t it?)

But this isn’t a Thou Shouldst Feel Guilty article. History happened. And sometimes, steampunk is about re-arranging history. With the hindsight history gives us, it is good to confront what potential ramifications any re-envisioning of geo-political geography will have.

On the Inevitably of Imperialism

Al-caid commented recently that imperialism - or rather, the performance of it - is to be expected in steampunk. Not only do I accept the veracity of this statement, I shall even qualify this with an explanation. (He also said, in what I suspect is a sentiment confused by translation, that it is acceptable. I take umbrage to this and will explain why.)

     Most of us in the world live in what is called a kyriarchy, a system of oppression that remains in place because we value power, authourity and the means to prove it.* It is because of this value system that when a group gains the wherewithal to impose themselves on others, what happens, as history so displays, is they usually do seek to control other spaces, with various pretexts. This value system is so ingrained to the point of subconsciousness, that revolutions and revolts turn sour since old leaders are disposed and new ones struggle to maintain power without truly changing anything, that liberal movements fail to consider marginalized groups, and that we keep feeling that no matter how much progress we make, we’re still the same ol’, same ol’. It is this value system that leads us to believe that humans are intrinsically predisposed towards perpetrating evil, because “we’re human, what do you expect?” (Here’s a good answer: “More.”)

     When we re-imagine the world, it is inevitable that some of us will shift geo-politics around, especially if we start with grounding in history. Even secondary world imaginers will use some reference to real-world spaces. Power imbalances due to advancements in various fields are bound to occur, especially in such a setting as the 19th century. The prosperity of a country is sadly, often built on the exploitation of another.

     It is good to recognize that marginalization of certain peoples will happen in many re-imaginings of the world.** Because if you don’t, you run the risk of assuming certain defaults which are already causing enough trouble in real life. By refusing to recognize and factor in real-life marginalizations, you condone imperialist narratives and oppressive systems, whether you intended to or not.

On Rejecting Imperialism

     Imperialism, and by extension oppression, is never acceptable, except to supremacists who have investment in maintaining the kyriarchy. It is one thing to switch things up theoretically to see which different results we get, to see how one party might get parity over another; it is irresponsible to ignore or erase those already affected by imperialism for the sake of entertainment.

     Imperialism is a series of actions, of one entity taking control of another entity, with or without the permission of the latter, informed by what we know and meted out through available means. Steampunk is a construct, also informed by what we know and performed using available means. It is easy for these to intersect, and easy for our performance of steampunk to mete out imperialist acts.

     In order to actively reject imperialism, you must be acquainted with what it is. This, if you are part of a dominant group, sadly, involves examining the hubris of your heritage, and how it continues to play out today. If you are part of a minority group, chances are you are well-acquainted with the abuse of your ancestors, and how it echoes in your community.

     When you see history and its modern echoes laid out before you, when you acknowledge the patterns of abuse that pushes people into the margins, underfoot into the cracks in the floor, you’ll know better how to build a world without the guilt, fear and pain.

     Especially those of you who use steampunk as a means for escape. You need to know what you’re escaping from, and acknowledge for who the escape is. (As we like to say, we’d rather deal with someone who’s honestly, vocally a racist, then someone who only says they're anti-racist but behaves otherwise.)

     Oppression-free settings are not impossible. If they were, every step of social progress we have made would be rendered bunk. Feminists, humanists, and all other social justice seekers wouldn’t bother. No one would care about democracy and representation (which, I understand, is what many Western countries are being built upon today, but feel free to correct me).

     They are, however, difficult to achieve, because there are so many human factors to take into account. You know, like, real-life people.

     This is why we have conversations.

An Example

     I don’t know what Steam Century’s map should look like, ideally, because I’m not Native / First Nations / Aboriginal / indigenous to America.

     I can tell you that in my ideal map, the sultans of Nusantara have created a compact of peace and trade with China and work alongside Siam to industrialize the townships whilst still self-sustaining. The Dutch in Java, the Portuguese in Malacca, the English in Penang are absorbed into the workforce and population. Chinese, Arab and Indian scholars interact and debate in coffeeshops on hot lazy days. These capitals in the Malaccan Straits are thriving entreports where traders from all over the world come to haggle and buy and sell and teach and learn, and eat good food.

     That’s a vision solely for myself, because others from my region would re-imagine it differently, and I ignore the huge class differentials that have led us to continual abuse of our immigrants, our refusal to accept the cultural practices of newcomers, our bloody and corrupt history which allowed the sultans to accede to the British and other foreign powers in the first place. This is pure escapism.

     It can’t happen, because this is not a world that values cooperation. We don’t live in a world where I can find any basis for Nusantara. Not only that, but the cultural imprint left behind by the colonizers are so deep, my ideal Nusantara is difficult to imagine, because everyone in it speaks English and I no longer know the difference between East and West, between local and foreign. Sad, but true.

     Based on historical reality, Siam would industrialize first and tussle with the English over Malaya. I could choose to imagine China as dominant, and it would swallow most of Asia (and some of Russia). Chances are, there would be Chinese supremacists. There would be still be clashes between the adherents between Islam and Hinduism. Skirmishes with Japan in the air would leave our rains black and acidic.

     I can’t leave this historical reality behind, because I can’t afford it. It is in no one’s interests but my own to ignore it. Which is fine, and I do, when no one’s watching and I’m on my lonesome, writing little utopic fics (and sappy love stories).


     By now, I’ve probably painted a really bleak picture of imperialism and colonialism in steampunk. Which is fine and all, because imperialism and colonialism are bleak things to begin with: they are defined by the actions of one entity attempting to erase or subjugate another entity.

     It is incredibly difficult to imagine a world without kyriarchy. Therefore, it is important that first, we must believe that dismantling these institutions, for the betterment of everyone, is possible. And it is. I won’t say that it’s the way of progress, and so in the name of progress, these institutions must bend, because progress hasn’t always been good for the social good. But it is the way of kindness and generosity, of cooperation and communication, and everything that makes anything enjoyable to participate in.

     And that, in itself, is worthwhile.

*Marilyn French’s Beyond Power elucidates on this concept to great extent.
** Don’t expect cookies for this.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Countering Victorientalism

Written for Steampunk Magazine's blog, released here as in conjunction with Beyond Victoriana's own addressing of Victorientalism (far more comprehensive this this post; treat this essay as a 101-level article as you will).

ETA: I'm getting a lot of comments on cultural appropriation here. This blog isn't really the space I use to discuss cultural appropriation, although it does play into steampunk as well. I have more general conversations on it at my main blog, Intersectionality Dreaming, and have specific posts on the topic. I'd prefer it if ya'll took that conversation that side. Thanks.

There is a fairly recent term that has sprung in the annals of steampunk: Victorientalism. It is used to refer to steampunk that is inspired by the Orient, the vague, large region that was strange and new to Western explorers back in the day when there was no Internet and travelling took many months of dangerous journeying.

It's a pretty-sounding term, often used by well-meaning white people who don't have any clue just how racist the term is.

I want to nip this in the bud before it takes any more traction and people start using it for Asian steampunk by Asians, because Victorientalism, created by Occidentals, does not truly describe Asian-inspired steampunk, much less steampunk participation by Asians.

Friday, March 5, 2010

On Using the Orient to Orient the West

So I've been thinking about this quote from the Metropolitan Museum of Art website on Orientalism:

Orientalism always challenges the Western mind: it is Orientalism that makes Western culture incomplete and that the West uses to see itself as whole.
And you know what? It's true. I sat down to think about everything that the image of "the Orient" conjures up: exotic and foreign and mystical and spiritual and barbaric and enlightened and magical and child-like and fresh and demure and submissive and old and unknowable and inscrutable and rigid and traditional and and I could go on and on. I even asked on Twitter.

These are supposedly things which detail how the East is the opposite of the West; how the Orient is contrasted against the Occident. What we in the East are, they in the West are not. The Western imagination has constructed the East as something opposite. Edward Said wrote, "the Orient has helped define Europe (Or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience."

This isn't really new: we've seen this sort of thing play out with respects to the concepts of masculinity and femininity. Masculinity is essentially everything that femininity is not. Similarly, this concept carries over to the West/East dichotomy, to the point where the West is characterized as masculine, and the East as feminine, and so the shit hit the fan.

But back to the descriptors for a second - can we honestly say that the West is none of these things?

Because the West is also exotic and foreign, or else you wouldn't get tourists. The West is also mystical and spiritual and fantastical, evident in the churches and the myths and legends and the folktales and the literature. It is magical, or else a ton of pulp fantasy wouldn't be set in European-esque settings with castles and wizards and dragons and other shit that doesn't exist. You are barbaric, if by barbaric we mean not suited to civilizational standards, and you are also enlightened, because you have produced great thinkers whose writings continue to reverberate in literature and philosophy classes today. There are regions which are still fresh and young and demure to the new world of globalization, and which are traditional and old because they are isolated pockets or resistant to the outside world. The West has secrets, too, and it has its own cultures which will forever be truly unknowable to people who do not actually live and learn and breathe and grow there.

We say this about Eastern cultures, and of being a minority group, but the same is true of the West too. I'll never know what it's like to be white in America or Europe.  

So why the fuck do you keep pushing these labels onto us, you little bleeders? Can't you own these for yourselves? Because of this insistence to see the East and West as polar opposites, you have damaged us in the East, using our Other-ness as an excuse to interrogate us, tour us, conquer us, exploit us. You used your position as hegemonic and powerful to force us to accede these terms and names, as though they did not also apply to you. 

Time and again, I hear Westerners, particularly Americans of the US and Canadian flavours, lament cultural impoverishment and instead of digging through to your own wonderful, beautiful cultural roots, you turn to us and raid our cultures to prettify your lives. 

To those who are guilty, I say this: you damaged yourselves, and by continuing to Other us, you continue to render yourselves incomplete