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.

Breaking Down Victorientalism

To understand why Victorientalism is inaccurate as a label for Asian steampunk, first we must investigate what the roots of the terms are. It is the mixture of two words: Victorian and Orientalism. 

Victorian as an adjective, describes things related to the reign of Queen Victoria. It is often used to refer to the entire time period of her reign, too. 

Orientalism was the study of "The Orient". The term "Orient" referred initially to the Middle-East, and gradually spread out to encompass all of Asia. Orientalism was the study of the Orient, by Europeans. "The Orient", Edward Said explains to us, "is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe's greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other."

However, while the British Empire did extend very far, its reign was not absolute, nor did it encompass all of Asia. 19th century Asia had its own aesthetic, however pillaged and plundered by the Europeans it was. There were other European powers in play besides the British. 

Orientalism as a study was deeply flawed, being based on ideas that Europeans had about the East. Orientalism as a fashion is not only flawed, but deeply racist, as it depended on Europe's position of power to appropriate without complaint from the actual inhabitants of "the East". Orientalism as an idea is really about what Europe thinks about the East, which really means, it's all about Europe, not about Asia. 

Orientalism, Racism, Story Cont'd

In the Gatehouse Gazette's description of Victorientalism, there is an assertion that "we can safely recreate the Orient as it was described and depicted by nineteenth century authors and artists who might never have actually seen it."

Anyone who has ever engaged in examining the hubris of their own privilege will be able to see, straight off, the trainwreck that this quote leads to. 

To begin with, we must assert the reality of this statement: the Orient has already been re-shaped by the very real colonialist politics of history. The effects of colonization have been devastating: Western economies benefitted from the colonies, and continues to do so even after withdrawing from their shores; the imposition of European culture on the East has caused cultural evolutions and revolutions as some countries struggle to re-shape their identities, in ways that are fraught; the Asian identity has been devalued, relegated to being objects of curiousity and exoticism, instead of being respected for being what it is. 

Due to the power invested in Westerners today, borne from the history of colonization, there is no way to safely recreate the Orient, without yet creating more assumptions of stereotypes, without imposition of these stereotypes on actual people. This practice has precedent in the term "The Orient" alone: once a simple term to describe "the East", it has over time become loaded with immediate association to the exotic, the opposite, the Other. 

Today, Westerners continue to consume cultural artifacts from other cultures, many of whom unaware, or unwilling to acknowledge, that cultures are not meant for decoration, nor do they exist for the entertainment of the current hegemony, much like Europeans from the 19th century buying porcelain and silk. 

Limiting Steampunk

To many, steampunk is associated with Victorian Britain. There are some who assert that steampunk stems from Victorian Britain - and end the argument there, leaving behind the implication that steampunk is *only* based in Victorian Britain. 

Exactly why would anybody want to limit steampunk, which is, after all, yet another avenue to exercise the imagination? If a person is referring to their own form of steampunk, of course, one would want to have limits for what one will do. However, it is not only obnoxious, but arrogant to assert that this must be the case for all participants.

After all, life did not end with Britain in the 19th century. Asian and African peoples lived their own lives in their own continents, minding their own business the best they would while dealing with the colonizers. Their lives are as valid as those of 19th century Europeans. They, too, deserve to be recognized; their descendants, too, deserve to the chance to assert this history of theirs which is so often ignored in history books. 

Victorientalism, by its very name, centers around a very specific experience, a very specific history, a very specific idea. That idea is the imposition of a Victorian Orientalist's vision of what Asia should look like. And we all know what a Victorian Orientalist would be in the first place. 

Laying Victorientalism to Rest

The Orient was always meant to provide a foil to the Occident. These two terms, go together, like East and West.

However, few use the term Occident anymore (the few who do use the term unironically have questionable agendas). We use the term Orient because it has specific ideals attached to it that allows us to continue Other-ing the East. It may not be as loaded as the N-word, but for the Asian community, the stereotypes that the term reinforces are exoticising, and the results are the same: the exclusion of Asian people from being counted as default human beings.

In steampunk, many participants claim that they want to claim all that was good of the age, while leaving out the bad. This is rather disingenuous, since many exclusionary attitudes and behaviours today that people are not conscious of stem from that time period. However, we must give participants benefit of doubt, and I will do so through the following suggestion. 

The term "Orient", being exclusionary to actual people of colour, should be resigned. And with it, the term Orientalism, which leaves the term Victorientalism toothless. One might give a concession to the Victorientalists, and allow the term to mean "what Victorians think Asian materials look like". But this is a dangerous game - the term Oriental was so pervasive, not only the colonizers used it, but over time, the colonized took on the term in the auto-exoticism process. The same can all too easily happen with "Victorientalist", as privilege systems are still very much the same and favour the descendants of the colonizers.

There is nothing to redeem in these terms, when there are perfectly good terms available - why call someone an Oriental when they are Asian? Or one can be more specific and go right down to country of origin, or ethnicity. Why use a term so fraught with a history of Other-ing, or rendering real peoples invisible and not-quite-human? 

To insist on using the term is to maintain the status quo that continues to marginalize some peoples to the benefit of others.  


VictOrientalism continues the racist tradition of Orientalism that has historically marginalized those recognized as Easterners. It maintains the East-West dichotomous construct that Others cultures. 

As steampunk grows, so will the variety of people who wish to participate. Steampunk would be all the poorer if it were limited to an Eurocentric focus (and poorer still if we must insist solely on Victorian England). With the benefit of hindsight, we have the opportunity to address the injustices of the past and promote a diverse environment wherein marginalized groups can express themselves.

The world is more than what a single group thinks it to be. In confrontation with injustice, honesty can be found. In honest communication between groups and individuals, differences are discovered. In the chaos filled with differences, understanding is achieved. With understanding, creativity is unfettered. 


  1. Good post. And seconded- what term would be used then?

  2. and is it cultural appropriation, or in some other way offensive, if, for example, one's character is a traveller and one wants to incorporate some indian or middle-eastern elements into one's wardrobe as a signifier thereof?

    it's a pit trap i could easily get sucked into.

  3. Asian steampunk, if done by an actual Asian.

    Asian-inspired steampunk, if you're non-Asian.

    Or, go right down to exact culture/region: Japanese-inspired steampunk, for example. African-American steampunk. Middle-Eastern Ottoman-inspired.

    The vocabulary potential is endless.

    bete-noire: Probably not, but if someone tells you to stop, you should. For example, if someone incorporated Chinese elements into their costume, I'm not likely to take offense. But if they don't know the history of the element and it happens to be significant, it's grating. If they start acting like a Chinese stereotype, that shit is not gonna go down well.

    For me, at least, since steampunk is a performance, it's the whole package I look at: the underlying attitude towards incorporation of said element, the awareness of its significance historically and culturally, and general awareness of the larger context.

    I think we are very fortunate to be living in an age where appropriation (that of taking a cultural artifact and stripping it of its original meaning and making it a decoration for a dominant group at the expense of a marginalized group) appears to have an end in sight.

  4. Further question for discussion. I found your points about using other cultures for decoration very interesting. I just got back from living in China for 7 months (I'm a Caucasian American with no Asian heritage), and I bought things while I was there to signify my trip and the places I'd been, but by no means would I consider myself a part of the Chinese culture - is this cultural appropriation? Souvenir-ing? Legit because I lived and worked there rather than vacationing?

    I'm not being sarcastic; I actually wonder and worry about this a lot as I study and appreciate Chinese culture/history, and I worried about it as I participated in it for seven months. I always felt like I was fluctuating between being immersed in the culture and being a total outsider, so I'd be interested to see what other people think. At what point does your experience become legit and you stop being a colonialist? Or do you ever stop being one?

    I know that one can't ever fully escape one's white privilege (just as one can't ever fully escape one's male privilege), but what steps can you take to do the right thing or appreciate a culture? Should I have gone and observed and not purchased anything (cultural pieces, such as scarves in Tibet and bracelets at Buddhist/Taoist/Muslim places of worship)? At what point is it okay to study/participate in/partake of a culture that's not your own?

    Just curious, adding some points, would love to hear what others have to say.

  5. Seeing as you actually lived there, souvenir-ing. I'm going to work from the assumption that these decorations actually mean something to you. Which is great, I do the same thing, so it's churlish for me to say it's appropriative of you. It's folks who have no connection to a place and just want some pretty things to show they've been somewhere with no true appreciation of the culture - or worse, desire to learn about it - that I have a huge problem with, and who I find commodify cultures at will, with devastating effects.

    I can't tell you where the points are for OKAY and NOT OKAY, though. I mean, I'm gonna work from the position where you will do your damnedest not to step on people's toes, to efface yourself when participating instead of insisting on the center stage. I trust you will be respectful enough to know It's Not All About You and that your experience shouldn't be privileged over another (although, as you've noted, your experience will be privileged over others anyway in some contexts, because that's how the world is set up).

    But you CAN educate yourself (which I'm sure you have!), and you're not the only one fluctuating between being in and out of a culture at the same time.

    But no, souvenir-ing is really normal, and I find it quite meaningful. I do feel that it IS based, in part, in the commodification of cultural artifacts, but I'm leery of calling it an "all or nothing at all" game.

  6. Well, thanks for the thought provoking post, Jha. I'll definitely be back. Kinda' new to "the web" in general, and blogging. Pretty fun, though.

    I guess I'm still figuring out the word steampunk itself means, seeing as other people have created a word to define what I consider as everyday life. And now there are facets of it? Man, I have a lot to learn. Kinda' makes me feel important, actually.

  7. I lived in China as well--and my Chinese students preferred the term Oriental (which they viewed as describing Chinese people specifically) as opposed to Asian, which they viewed as being too vague. Threw me for a loop.

  8. Junar: It's terribly fascinating! The Internet is a big place!

    Rusty: I'm not surprised! Growing up in Malaysia, we used the term "Oriental" to describe ourselves all the time! I also lived under the idea that "Oriental" meant Chinese. Except it sort of breaks down there, because Penang was referred to as the "Pearl of the Orient", which is not necessarily a Chinese place! Ask your Chinese students where they think the term comes from next time - I'm curious to know what they think.

  9. This is very interesting, and I think that the comoditization of culture is something that also applies to the way that we Americans treat many traditional European cultures as well. This has definitely spurred some thought for me, especially about what it means to make traditional crafts for the tourist market. If I buy an Orenburg lace shawl or Estonian mittens, does this mean I am cheapening that culture? Does the fact that I am a knitter make it less so? What about the First Nations people profiled during the Olympics in Vancouver? Does the display of their traditions to outsiders cheapen them like a side-show, or does it give them a venue for teaching their traditions in a time when they are passing out of memory in the face of modern technology and colonial culture? I'm not sure I can wrap my head around all of the different implications without a good deal of further thought.

    Still, I have some comments I would like to make on your discussion of the word "Oriental". I have just come here for the first time from Steampunk Workshop, so I don't know where you are from, though from the "About Silver Goggles" section, I see that you are a person of color, probably of Malaysian descent, at least. I am guessing from your article, and from your use of the term "African-American" that you are American as well. The reason I say this is that it impacts the use of the term "Oriental". I am American, and as such I have been taught that "Oriental" is for rugs and "Asian" is for people. However, when I lived in Scotland, I was told that in Britain, "Asian" refers to South Asian (Indian subcontinent) people and "Oriental" refers to East Asian people. In fact, I am told that "Asian" is considered to be more pejorative and "Oriental" more complimentary, though that compliment does have something of exoticism ingrained in it. I suspect that the difference in esteem has something to do with the contrast between the British Raj and Chinese, who were never ruled by Western colonists, and whom I have seen depicted in period political cartoons as an equal player to the major colonial powers.

    My point is that depending on the context, "Oriental" may not be a derogatory term, but it does continue to have connotations of exoticism and otherness. Certainly, I think we know that "separate but equal" never is, yet I think that many Westerners were and are drawn to what they see and know of eastern culture. If there is reverence associated with it, does that make it acceptable, or is the otherness still degrading? Is it still objectification, and therefor insulting? My African-American roommate in college told me once that our school was almost too color-blind. We were so careful to treat everyone the same that we ignored that there was any distinct cultural difference; she wanted that difference to be acknowledged and respected.

    I am honestly very interested in this topic and what think on it. Also, as a person who is genuinely interested in other cultures and wants to learn more about them, and as someone whose personal beliefs align more with cultures on the other side of the globe than my own, I would really like to know how to approach other cultures sensitively, without seeming to anyone that I think their ceremonies are the living equivalent of some kind of curiosity cabinet.

  10. I know there was a huge controversy around First Nations peoples being showcased during the Olympics, because it seemed to portrayed the First Nations is being treated equally when they simply are not. Similarly, with many depictions of Asians in a lot of media, it gives the illusion that we are treated equally, but when you hand the control of the narrative over to Asians themselves, they show a different story!

    Re: Britain, yes, exactly, it differs from region to region. I've noticed in the above comments that many folks outside of North America do not see anything wrong with using the term "Oriental". I do believe, in fact, that many people think the exoticism within the term is a good idea! (which is great, if you are living in said country and can benefit off gulling tourists, but not so great when you are a minority living in a mostly-white country!) This internalism isn't really a problem if you're not in the minority. It doesn't matter if it's derogatory or not - a positive-sounding stereotype is still a stereotype!

    I, for one, think reverence is part of exoticisation. You're still placing a specific, unequal value on us that can carry over and be internalized. It's great that values can carry over across continents between individuals so easily, and it's great because it benefits cultures when its individuals are various, but remember where you come from! It is every bit as special as whatever it is you admire! (See the post before this one.)

    As I've said, time and again, I can't tell you how to behave, what to do, what not to do. But I can tell you that so long as you are willing to treat people as people, and pay attention to them for themselves (not just because they're Asian or whatever), you'd be on a pretty good track.

  11. As the most works&comments on Steampunk are written in English, a certain Anglocentrism is not only expectable, but also acceptable. The term itself comes from the English-speaking authors (Gibson, Jeter), although the ideas it denotes can be applied to any culture in the early industrial period.

    To apply an approach of Post-Colonialist studies to a genre, which actually imitates the highest period of Imperialism, is in my opinion a misfortunate effort. In so far as Steampunk tries to criticize the remnants of Colonialist and Ethnocentrist thinking, it does exactly in this imitative, mocking way.

    Furthermore, the Steampunk promotes the Subject, his own perceptions and understanding, freedom of an Individual applying the knowledge to overcome the barriers of conservative Reaction and Nature. Subjective values include the ethnicity and differentiation of the out-groups as well.

    Victorientalism is thus in no way a vice to condemn, but rather a commendable step in developing the depth of meaning and sharpness of critical power in the Steampunk genre.

    Thank you for your attention.

  12. That's a truly unfortunate, and marginalizing attitude to take towards the genre.

    Steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy. To say that since most of these works are written in English means it must be Anglo-centric defeats the purpose of writing scifi/fantasy in the first place, which is to expand the imagination.

    The English-speaking world is not limited to the Anglo-Saxon world. By saying that it is, you advocate an imperialistic, privileged viewpoint that refuses to acknowledge minority groups who want to retain their cultural identities whilst co-existing with a larger, white-dominant narrative.

    Which is, sad to say, a pretty racist attitude to have, and could use some adjustment.

    Whilst I agree with you that the issue of imperialism is to be expected within steampunk, it is by no means unquestionable or acceptable. It must always be challenged and analyzed, in order for the genre to be of any true worth. I must therefore direct you to commentary surrounding RaceFail.

  13. Some of the earlier discussion about appropriation have got me thinking about the opposite - assimilation.
    The idea of people moving from one culture to another and trying to fit in, and the repercussions of NOT assimilating and the effect it has on a culture.
    When in Rome, and all that. In the US - Americans require that you follow custom in the American way. Is that appropriation when newcomers adopt those customs.
    I recall having a conversation with a man in Ghana who had visited the US and came home with all these thoughts and ideas that he learned living in Ohio for two years. He was baffled by his parents who rejected what he told them about refrigeration. Where does this fall in the conversation of assimilation and appropriation?

  14. It is definitely assimilation when a newcomer is forced to give up their ways and values, just so they can accepted. Not only that, but it doesn't necessarily have any benefits either - I can act American all I want, but that doesn't stop people from treating me like a constant foreigner.

    There is no way to decisively place that kind of conversation. But it's interesting when people reject what you think is normal as weird and foreign, eh? Now imagine living it all the time.

    Could anybody else wanting to comment generally on appropriation please take it to Intersectionality Dreaming? Thanks.

  15. It seems to me questionable that considering a certain genre as a reflection of a certain (i.e.Victorian English) culture must imply, that the genre is either marginalized, or imperialistically claimed by this culture. It is merely taken as an Object, which is inevitably put into distance by the century.

    While yes, it falls into the category of Fantastic genres, we shouldn't marginalize the characteristics of the Steampunk sub-genre itself - otherwise, its definition as a species inside the Fantastic&Sci-Fi genus would be redundant.

    To re-create an Imperialist worldview, in a form how it could appear in Victorian era, is thus a kind of Steampunk performance - and of course, the means of critique, actualised by our contemporary culture&her own themes.

    Dr.Said, in his vigour and determination, commenced a direct attack on the perverse world-view of Imperialism. However, his targets had been filled with authentic views, not mere imitations. To attack these mocking (and thus highly critical) imitations is to misunderstand them.

    It seems to be similar if we attacked Hašek's Good Soldier Švejk for promoting the idea of loyalty to royal authority.

    Thank you for your attention.

  16. Certainly we can never get away from imperialism in the performance of steampunk. Even as I re-arrange the political geography of the world in my head by re-imagining power differentials in Asia, I cannot escape the fact that somewhere, someone will be oppressed.

    This does not make imperialism acceptable. I use this exercise to critique imperialism. I enjoy the analysis, but recognize the performance is a heinous things.

    Were the majority of people indulging in steampunk to belong to marginalized groups, sure, I can buy the performance of imperialism as mockery. As it stands? White people don't get to play racists and expect non-white people to be okay with it, because racism is still alive and well.

    If you walk into a room and know that three out of ten people have knives, but you didn't know who, and you are most likely to be a target of these knives, you generally end up being suspicious of everyone. The only safe thing to do is remove the knives.

  17. We’ve been reading the recent conversations regarding Orientalism in steampunk with great interest. As upper middle class WASPs, we tend to be hesitant to weigh in too heavily on debates over racialized perception; but did want to bring one article to your attention, along with some thoughts which it inspired.

    The article, “Preface for a post-postcolonial criticism” is by Erin O’Connor and can be found in volume 45, issue 2 (Autmn 2003) of Victorian Studies. In the research for your editorial you probably already came across this; but if not, we believe it is the origin of the term Victorientalism (or at least one origin, it is entirely possible that it arose de novo later and elsewhere) and has some interesting points to make regarding your concerns. To summarize, O’Connor argues that there is a tendency within the scholarly community to look for – and thus, to find – examples of fetishism of the “Orient” within the literary works of the 19th century in order to establish that this literature was not just created within an Imperialist culture, but was Imperialist literature, per se. She argues that this aggressive campaign has been so successful largely because of a desire to find the exotic other within the Victorian canon – and that this results in a fixed obsession on perceived Eastern influences. It is this – the fetishizing not of the Orient by Victorians, but of the Orient within Victorian literature by scholars of Victorian literature – which she names as “Victorientalism.” If you have not read the piece it deserves your attention, but here is one paragraph which nicely reiterates one of her conclusions.

    “The rote character of this branch of Victorian studies might be read as an analytical type of the leveling that has been seen to accompany the colonialist spread of Western mass culture, the devastating loss of tradition, ritual, and belief that has become one of the principal preoccupations of postcolonial writing. Cultural imperialism may even be said to find its interpretive analogue in the critical imperialism of postcolonial literary studies, whose profitable investments in the Victorian novel may be read as a textual instance of reverse colonization. As such, the sheer uniformity of this work should alert us to the possibility that something akin to Said's Orientalism is at work here. Call it Victorientalism-the mining of a distant, exotic, threatening but fascinating literature to produce and establish a singularly self-serving body of knowledge elsewhere, a body of knowledge that ultimately has more to tell us about the needs of its producers than about its ostensible subject matter.” (O'Connor 2003)

  18. Given her neologism’s adoption within the “steampunk community,” we felt that this parallel bears further discussion. In particular, we would argue that many, although certainly not all, of the commodities which are construed as 'fetishizing' the Orient within steampunk (e.g., kimonos, belly-dancing, kohl, chopsticks; but should we add porcelain, silk, tea?) have, through a long (a millennium, in some cases) and multifaceted process of globalization, become elements of “World Culture” with no more substantial signification of “Eastern” than the ubiquitous “von” in steampunk aliases is of the “Germanic.” Thus, our discovery of a racist/imperialist agenda with the use of these objects might be construed as a function of our own desire to discover them. In short, it may be those looking for Orientalism within Steampunk who are in fact the Victorientalists.

    Subsequent academic analysis of O'Connor's argument raised an issue with which we agree, in this context and in that of steampunk – namely, that the reprehensible theoretical predilections of literary critics don't change the sociopolitical reality of 19th century British and European Imperialism. The "post-postcolonial criticism' called for by O'Connor is subject to the obligations of politically responsible academic discourse. Luckily, steampunk as a literary genre and a form of grassroots amateur theatre performance is situated firmly within such postcolonial discourses. Whether by our continued love of the deft social criticism inextricably soldered among the pistons and clackery of works by Gibson and Sterling, Stephenson or Powers, or by the fact that we are cognizant inhabitants of a globalizing era participating in an ironic pageant of our own culture's historically insinuated hegemony, we remain conscious of the social issues naturalized by the social institutions (imperial armies, totalitarian regimes, medical bureaucracies) we pantomime.

    At least that’s one thought. We look forward to reading more of your commentaries and following your thoughts on silver goggles.


    Parliament & Wake

  19. Thank you, James! You are giving me one more reason to ache for academia, which is access to that particular journal!

    I had previously only ever seen "Victorientalism" with the steampunk context, but now I shall have to bug people who have access to journals to find this article for me. Thank you for bringing it to my attention, and welcome to Silver Goggles!

  20. If someone says "Ow, that hurts, please stop doing that," then the moral/respectful person says, "Oh, sorry, I'll stop." They don't say, "It doesn't *really* hurt, you just think it does. Here, let me explain in big words why you are wrong and dumb and oh, yes, oversensitive, too." I'm allowed to admit that I am oversensitive; as a polite and courteous individual (and one thing about Steampunk is the ideal of polite society it upholds and expects from its participants) you aren't allowed to say the same about me. :Pbbblt. (No, really. It's dismissive and patronizing and gets my knickers in a twist.)

    I bellydance, and you have never seen a whiter belly. I went to a workshop recently and it bothered me the number of white women living out this exotic/sexual fantasy there. And I see in Steampunk similar impulses to explore forbidden fruits (Exploration and conquest! Rah! We don't have to be PC because PC hasn't been invented yet! Yea!) and it does make me uncomfortable and I'm really glad other people are thinking about this topic, too. I don't know how one can explore the power dynamics that Imperialist Europe created without offending someone/everyone.

    I *think* that taking personal responsibility for the consequences of one's actions is the first step. Being aware (or at least being open to the idea when someone else takes the time to point out) that your fun could be painful to someone else, and considering what you can or want to do to mitigate, mediate, or moderate your fun so that it is more fun for more people (and less ignorant/hurtful in general) can't be a bad thing... right?


    alia gee (pro-fun candidate for Queen)

  21. Thank you, Alia Gee =) Owning your privilege and your responsibility towards minority groups is such an incredibly hard thing to do, but in the long run, it's worthwhile, because it helps us learn how to get along.

    Welcome to Silver Goggles!

  22. Steampunk and neo-Victorianism aren't historical Victorianism. They are fictional, romanticised views of the British Victorian era through the lens of such authors as Jules Verne and HG Wells. It's about fashion, style, manners and technology that never really existed in the mainstream.

    The true Victorian mindset was racist - and also extremely prudish and sexist. But we ignore those elements because it's not the mindset we're after. So don't stop others from revisiting the styles, manners and other likable elements of the Victorian era just because there are some things about the attitude of the era that you don't like.

  23. Anonymous: Sorry, what do you not understand about this blog? This blog is created specifically to deal with themes of racism and colonialism in steampunk, which takes inspiration from history, and is informed by the biases of today.

    Also, how exactly am I stopping others from revisiting the style? I'm not going to houses and ripping up fabrics and chaining folks. I'm just encouraging them to think about what they're doing, and ask themselves if that's what they really want to do, if it causes harm.


  24. Ooo, but then the hard work is parsing the responsibility part. Because (I think) it can't be the Noblesse Oblige flavor of responsibility, or we're back to patronizing. And (I think) it shouldn't be the My ancestors crushed your ancestors so please let me be your biggest fan/rescue you now... because that gets creepy really fast.

    As far as silk goes, I feel more guilt towards the dead silkworms than the colonialist aspects of it... I guess because the colonial aspects of it are history (AFAIK... oo, look, a chance to educate myself. dammit.), while the worms are dying now. And yet, I still buy and wear it. But I guess that also suggests where my sense of responsibility lies: if a person is hurting in the here and now, I need to change. If invertabrates are being boiled alive... meh. Pass the ketchup.

  25. You say: Orientalism is "a pretty-sounding term, often used by well-meaning white people who don't have any clue just how racist the term is."

    How do you define 'racist' in this sense? A natural curiosity for different things should be celebrated, not condemned. And all but the most insulated cultures do it. The Han and Tang Chinese knew about the Roman and Holy Roman Empires (respectively). Modern Asian societies have grammatically incorrect English plastered all over everything. Am I to throw a similar tantrum about these, because things relating to European/American culture are being used in a different context?


  26. I refuse to engage with that question. If you can't go look for yourself common 101s on what racism comprises of, you should not be here. Articles abound describing power dynamics, historical basis for systemic oppression and how actual people are harmed as a result. Use the power of the Internet to find them. Your belligerence is not welcome here.

  27. By 'belligerance', I suppose that to mean 'disagreement'. I may have posted a broad question, but as a historian, it is something I am curious about. A different perspective.

    Here's what I'm saying. You seem to have something against "white people" using Oriental* style elements in steampunk. I'm confused as to why you see that as racist. If a person uses, say, Chinese style elements, why is that racist, or even offensive? Offense is not by the action, nor the word, but by the intent. If you ask someone not to use a certain word (say, Oriental) and they keep using it in your presence regardless, it goes from simply a word (non-offensive) to intent (offensive).

    I use the term Oriental here because it is the original term. I don't know what to use anymore, as Asian, Oriental, etc all seem to offend one person or another. Unfortunately this leads to the very real phenomenon of overuse and thus watering-down of the idea of "racism".

    Racism - treating differently purely by skin colour - is a very real thing, which, unfortunately, you seem to have experienced living in the US. However, I believe your use of the word racism is used out of context. Victorians were culturally racists - but what I'm asking is: how does applying Asian elements to clothing of that era make a person racist? If they have no ill intent behind it, it makes no sense.

    I am looking forward to your reply.

  28. I am going to give you a chance and assume you are posting in good faith (although, you may want to get an ID since I've disabled Anonymous posting - too many Anonymouses running around confuses me.)

    To be fair, I don't have problems with individuals of European descent using Oriental/Asian style elements in steampunk. Hell, I don't have problems with them doing so in everyday life. It's not my business how people dress themselves in their personal lives. What IS my business is how their individual actions add to larger patterns of commodifying pieces of my cultural identity, and yes, aesthetics, clothing and other such paraphernalia apply.

    It is the commodification of these elements I object to, which (a) profits members of the dominant group, (b) is often done without any true understanding of the source, and (c) does not promote any understanding between individuals on the meanings of these elements in ways that could be used to achieve racial parity.

    Racism is not merely "treating people differently by skin colour". It is a form of systemic oppression which actively favours one group over another - I don't mean this just in a white/non-white context, as it can also occur between groups. It is also manifested in active discrimination wherein a person is not valued as much as another, by virtue of their skin colour. Just as women continue to be dismissed on the basis of their gender (sexism) (but this is a cheap shot because it is the easiest analogy at hand). Orientalism and Asian fetishism contributes to these little discriminations by rendering us as "Other".

    And of course, once these elements become loosely commodified and can be owned by practically anyone, it becomes a bit alienating when members of the minority group would like to own those elements, to code themselves as part of a certain community... and find themselves unable to without exoticising themselves or coding themselves as Other or looking like a stereotype. People who use Asian elements may not mean for this to happen - but it does anyway, because intent doesn't matter in face of what actually happens: these elements being codified as commodities that can be used for the purposes of the dominant group.

    I can accept that this will happen in steampunk, being that it is part of the era, but I don't believe that it should go unquestioned, especially when it continues to happen in modern contexts. Someone's intent (or lack thereof) shouldn't be a reason they get a free pass when they indulge in what is part of a pattern that contributes to systemic racism.

    This is why I want Victorientalism in steampunk to die. I am all for critiquing Orientalism, and I am all for multi-cultural performances of steampunk. But we don't need another tradition of white folks (dominant group) re-imagining Oriental adventures (colonized narratives), especially with no actual Asian people involved in the making. This isn't creativity and it's not original - it's just a repeat of history.

    Hope that helps.

    (And no, replacing the participants with folks who don't have equal power does not elicit an agreeable response from me. Seriously!)

  29. Eloquent and closely reasoned. Thank you.

    Having read Said, my first reaction was "Using 'Orientalism' as praise? OMGWTF?!??!" You did a rigorous job of explaining why not.

  30. "Given her neologism’s adoption within the “steampunk community,” we felt that this parallel bears further discussion. In particular, we would argue that many, although certainly not all, of the commodities which are construed as 'fetishizing' the Orient within steampunk (e.g., kimonos, belly-dancing, kohl, chopsticks; but should we add porcelain, silk, tea?) have, through a long (a millennium, in some cases) and multifaceted process of globalization, become elements of “World Culture” with no more substantial signification of “Eastern” than the ubiquitous “von” in steampunk aliases is of the “Germanic.” Thus, our discovery of a racist/imperialist agenda with the use of these objects might be construed as a function of our own desire to discover them. In short, it may be those looking for Orientalism within Steampunk who are in fact the Victorientalists."

    I call BS on this one. It's a rather wordier "you're the racist for pointing out the racism!" argument, which has been debunked elsewhere. Also, all of the things in that list - kimonos and such - are currently used as Asian signifiers/fetish objects. "Geisha" Halloween costumes are a very telling example. And have they started putting out chopsticks for use in Western restaurants that don't serve Asian food? Let me know when that starts happening.


  31. I lived in China as well--and my Chinese students preferred the term Oriental (which they viewed as describing Chinese people specifically) as opposed to Asian, which they viewed as being too vague.

    Actually, I also like the term Oriental because it sounds more cool. I often use it when referring to things (and people, which can include myself) that are trying to capitalise on the mysterious and wonderful East image.

    This is why I want Victorientalism in steampunk to die. I am all for critiquing Orientalism, and I am all for multi-cultural performances of steampunk. But we don't need another tradition of white folks (dominant group) re-imagining Oriental adventures (colonized narratives), especially with no actual Asian people involved in the making. This isn't creativity and it's not original - it's just a repeat of history.

    Firefly. Serenity.

    Not only are they mind-bogglingly popular, they're lauded as creative and innovative. No one even seems to notice the lack of Chinese people in the cast.

  32. See, I can understand Asian people using the term "Oriental"... to capitalize on what's already been perpetuated.

    Not so much when white people try to use it on me to paint me as mysterious and wonderful. I'm normal.

    And yea, seriously, Firefly, what the hell?

  33. I'm writing a novel around a concept I call Muslim Steampunk - although it is deliberately set in the context of 12th century Norman Sicily, where there was considerably cultural and intellectual contact between different faith groups, counterfactually leading to the invention of turbine steam power based on the Hero engine. I'm Muslim, familiar with the issue surrounding Orientalism, and unapologetically political - the book has an anti-imperial (and anti-authoritarian) agenda. Twelve months into the research so far, just starting with the writing. So here it goes...