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


  1. I admit I haven't dwelt on this issue, but it seems to me that we Occidental types don't see the wonders of western society because we grew up with it. We foolishly assume we're relatively homogeneous and a little dull, so we first look outside for the exotic, and assign qualities that make it the most interesting compared to how we see ourselves.

    We don't mean to be insulting, honest. We just let our imaginations get away from us. We ought to know better than to expect you to live up to our silly notions.

    I don't expect the East to have a perfectly nuanced view of the West, either.

  2. David: Sure, but you really underestimate the power you Occidental types have to re-shape narratives. In the East, we would never assume we were dull, because you Occidentals keep telling us we're not, so we shape ourselves prettily to please you (and get your tourist money). Not only that, but the Occidental experience is the default. Most stories, even set in the East, will be told through the white man's eyes. How many movies can you tick off with non-white protagonists? Compare this to the number of movies with white protagonists. Unless you grew up with HK and Bollywood cinema, I'm guessing the numbers don't even out. And Hollywood has a wider range than either of those two.

    That's where it gets unfairly skewered: only one side gets to dominate the narrative, and the other just acquiesces, self-effaces, assimilates. Sure, I can believe you don't mean it, honest, but how does that matter when damage has been done? Good intentions only take us so far, and good intentions don't take back the hurt.

  3. I'd like to personally apologize for Tom Cruise's "The Last Samurai." I think everyone suffered on that one.

    There's a layer of abstraction in the movie industry that you're not seeing. Hollywood studio moguls believe that the average American needs to see someone just like us up on the screen, so we can identify with him. Since most of us are white, they figure the easiest way to make that connection is to make the hero white too. It's the kind of racism where people assume they're talking to racists and try to fit in. It may be a rotten practice, but short of becoming a movie mogul myself and doing things differently, I don't know how to fix it.

    I can absolutely see why you wouldn't want your entire culture reduced to another culture's theme park. There's nothing saying you have to be what we project onto you. Behave however you like; we'll get the idea eventually.

    I have no idea how to repair the damage done. I don't think we know how not to assimilate The Other, at least in the US. It's part of our national identity.

  4. Yeah, Last Samurai was a stinker. And yes, I'm well aware of how Hollywood works. Short of changing the system from within by having a shitload of money and buying up all the production company, I can't see an easy way out either.

    But you CAN help fix it! You can write letters and public blog posts denouncing the decisions of producers to white-wash movies. You can speak out against racial discrimination when you have the opportunity to. You can vote with your dollar on movies and other media (not that these movies will suffer that much for it). In fact, as a white male, you're in a much better position to be taken seriously by the average person than I am. You wouldn't be alone, either. has a ton of volunteers, many of whom are white allies. It is true that we need more avenues for PoC to speak up, but allies are part of the effort.

    Some assimilation is likely to happen, but diversity is also great. It's great to have new ideas, and it's great to have a different mix of existing ones. But we don't have to polarize ourselves in this way to have it.

  5. All can say wow! I almost misread this post. Though I'm not coming from the same angle as you, we hit the same issues that I see daily. As the a-typical mid westerner I've traveled the world for work and have yet to be pegged to the area where I come from. (kinda of a game for the locals to play) I spent a lot of time in Asia, Europe, Australia, and the UK, and yes, they were all surprised by my acceptance of how they do daily life. Truly we are from this world and if that can't be accepted then those with the issues suffer. I come as I am "SteamPunk" and I accept those from other cultures, for the simple fact, they with further my education!!!!! Really, history has proved, any other outlook is short sited. I'll leave it there for a further debate.

  6. "you damaged yourselves, and by continuing to Other us, you continue to render yourselves incomplete. "

    This entire paradigm strikes me as both forced and flawed. Both "east" and "west" are products of human superimposition. Humans are by nature syncretic. Look at the cultural interplay (what you call Othering) between Japan and China. Each locale and period adapts, borrows, co-opts, reinterprets, innovates. The entire Victorian aesthetic was based on material culture from Asia and India not because it was "other" but because the west controlled the means of transportation to provide inexpensive goods to market. That's only "imperialism" if you slap a label on it after the fact and insist.

    Now this is not to say for a moment that imperialism was not (or is not) happening. Of course it was. But the "Victorientalism" argument is deeply flawed and not rooted in a basic understanding of how humans create culture (in my opinion).

    Steampunk will continue to incorporate the Victorian aesthetic. That means "chinoiserie"; one can't reasonably separate them any more than one can deny the existence of bowler hats during the Meiji Restoration.

  7. I don't think you're quite comprehending the argument against Orientalism (which is the appropriation of forms whilst imposing political control over the regions from which the form is taken, and disadvantaging the peoples from which the forms were taken, whilst constructing them as inferior / Other). It's rather disingenuous, really, to argue that goods were imported because it was inexpensive. After all, even the value of currency is a human construct.

    The concept of Othering occurs within a disparate power dynamic. Japan and China were not unequal, so cultural exchange is expected. Similarly, cultural exchanges occurred throughout trade routes in Asia. However, the British annexed India. It's not an exchange anymore, when one side is so clearly disadvantaged.

    I have nothing against chinoiserie. I have everything against dominant groups determining the narratives of the people belonging to the side of the planet I come from, which is part and parcel of Victorientalism.

    Nonetheless, yes, the paradigm of East/West is very flawed, but it is still a dominant way of understand political geography.

  8. I've been reading here for almost a year now, and love your writing, due in no small part to the fact that I often end up wildly agreeing and enthusiastically disagreeing with you in the space of a single one of your sentences.

    On this one however, I have been with you from the first word straight to the last since the first time I read it, and has been on my mind ever since. I've grown up living in various places in the Bay Area around San Francisco, and have been exposed to a lot of minorities trying to get their fair portrayal in America. I used to be exactly the kind of person you described; to me "other" cultures all seemed so exotic and impressive. I always felt slightly depressed to be checking off that "caucasian" box on forms.

    Finally though, when I was in high school, a teacher of mine made us all do a project involving pretty extensive research into our family tree and our ancestry. I was able to track my cultural history back to the Huns on my father's side, and the Vikings on my mother's. Since then I have begun to do my own personal research into each culture, learn about their beauty and complexity. I proudly wear the symbols of my ancestors, and whenever my usual atheism wavers I turn to their spiritual practices for guidance. As I have dug deeper I found a gaelic line as well, and now my waist-down wardrobe consists almost entirely of various styles of kilts.

    One of the most important things I have gained from this is learning to see the nuance in people's cultural history. It has given me a platform from which to have conversations with people the world over about our cultural heritages. The way I self-identify now has allowed me to strike up dialogue with people who I otherwise would have found a hard time finding a starting point now, usually because the way I now dress attracts their attention and opens the door ^^

    My life is much richer for having learned about, and learned to respect and love, my own unique cultural heritage, and in doing so I have acquired a great respect for those of others as well.

    I'm not sure I actually have a point here, but this entry just struck a chord with me, and I felt compelled to say SOMETHING. I only regret it took me so long to do it >.<

    Never stop doing what you do, you are quite good at it.