Posts Tagged ‘Orientalism’

Orientalism and the Colonized Mind

November 14, 2011

This post is a more indepth examination of Edward Said’s notion of Orientalism as a discourse and how, post-colonization, the formerly colonized have internalized colonial epistemes, often described in psychological terms. Some (Breckenridge and van der Veer 1993) call this phenomenon the post-colonial predicament in general, and some call the particularly psychological aspect of it the colonized mind. Post-colonial scholars call for a process of de-colonizing the mind in response.

Orientalism, in the sense that I will be using it throughout my analysis, refers to a systemic discursive regime—a way of thinking, speaking and thus acting—that reifies a distinction between East and West, Orient and Occident, that perpetuates a hierarchy privileging the West. This usage of term was conceived by Edward Said in Orientalism.  As Said argues:


Orientalism in the Orient – I

May 3, 2011

Looking through some old photos of mine, I came across one that I was hoping to use in a class but hadn’t gotten around to yet. It is an ad for power switches/light switches. And its marketing angle is the term ‘xen’ which is obviously playing off of the term ‘zen’.

Zen is a term used widely in North American popular culture to evoke the mystical East, or a sense of calm, or whatever its latest referent is. What is interesting is that this picture was taken in Bangalore, India (2006). If this image was used in North America, we might decry it as the appropriation of the “Other” for the capitalist gain of the “Self”. Instead, we have the appropriation of the “Other Asia” by “Our Asia”. The key elements of orientalism that are reproduced here are stereotypes of the Other as exotic (zen is a major signifier of such), as a symbolic commodity to be capitalized on for is semiotic value, and as a moving signifier to meet the needs of the ‘Self’. What does ‘Xen’ mean here? What does it evoke? The clean, calm lines of modernity? Of minimalism and simplicity? Of mystery and exoticism? How does the ‘X’ change the meaning as opposed to the ‘Z’? Does it signify a cool, hip variant?

Another thing to note is that the second sentence under the word ‘Xen’ is as follows: “More Affordable in economy LATINA series”. Here we see the politics of orientalism/race/gender playing out that contributes to the stereotyping of female hispanics as poor or lesser than. It might contradictorily affirm the attractiveness of the hispanic female–that is, why is it LATINA and not LATINO? Again, we can come back to the analysis that sex is the prime signifier of desire in late capitalism, and sex within patriarchy is inhabited by the male gaze.

This seemingly innocuous image of power switches is embedded in a whole intersection of symbolic meaning and utilizes many stereotypes within discourse to market the product as attractive for consumers who are also consuming this symbolic product.

A Short History of Buddhism and Orientalism

July 25, 2010

For the scholarly minded, or those who want to get a good resource for the Orientalist construction of Buddhism, I suggest this source that I just started re-reading: Jorn Borup, “Zen and the Art of Inverting Orientalism: Buddhism, Religious Studies and Interrelated Networks”, in New Approaches to the Study
of Religion, Volume I: Regional, Critical, and Historical Approaches
, edited by Peter Antes, Armin W. Geertz, and Randi R. Warne, 451-487. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2004.

This is a great introduction and summary of quite a few different number of recent scholarly examinations of Buddhism, its construction, and its place within Orientalism and relationship to Orientalism. While, I would have prefered a more robust theoretcal or even critical analysis at the end of the paper, it is still quite good. I think it would have most impact on those scholars who haven’t yet encountered the counter-discourse arising in Buddhist Studies against its own ideolized projections (led by people like Donald Lopez, Almond, and others). Great for a intro to Buddhism course at university.

I’d like to know what others think of this piece.

The Problems with Multi-culturalism

April 18, 2010

In Canada, multiculturalism has become the primary referent for what we like to think of as our pluralistic, accepting, or, at least, tolerant society. And yet, the category itself doesn’t get much critical analysis. In the last few years of my work I have seen a few take-downs of this concept and I am generally convinced that though the term played its part in a more intolerant past, the term today may be holding us back from solving many problems. Over at Restructure! there is a post quoting Dr. Sunera Thobani and her critical stance on multiculturalism:

I think multiculturalism has been a very effective way of silencing anti-racist politics in this country. Multiculturalism has allowed for certain communities—people of colour—to be constructed as cultural communities. Their culture is defined in very Orientalist and colonial ways—as static, they will always be that, they have always been that. And culture has now become the only space from which people of colour can actually have participation in national political life; it’s through this discourse of multiculturalism. And what it has done very successfully is it has displaced an anti-racist discourse.

I have my own critiques as well:

1. Multiculturalism assumes stable, static, cultural boundaries. In its attempt to say different cultures are part and parcel of Canada, it also solidifies these into unwavering essenses.

2. It follows from this that culture becomes policed. It brings in the spectre of “authenticity”, and in practice only serves to contrast them against Canadian society at large–whatever that is.

3. Multiculturalism doesn’t reflect the reality of cultural play. Cultures are constantly shifting and in continual dialogue. Indeed, the category of culture itself is problematic. Where does one culture end and another begin? There is no such thing as cultural borders… rather, what seems to be the case is highly diffuse conglomerates, networks, inroads, borrowings, synchretisms, nostalgias, romanticisms, appropriations and rejections, comparisons, culture-trolling, and so on.

4. Finally, this term doesn’t do justice to the lived experience of Canadians who often have to negotiate multiple complex and dynamic cultural forms and identities.

h/t: Missives from Marx

Chimamanda Adichie

April 18, 2010

Chimamanda Adichie gives a talk on ted called “The Danger of a Single Story”. The single story is, from my point of view, a particular discursive strategy that we name Orientalism.

From the website description:

Our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice — and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.

This is a good talk. What I like most about it is how it makes very accessible the kinds of things I talk about (though I too often use big words and complex theoretical positions). It is very powerful for that. Check it out.

h/t: Feministe

A History of Fair-skin Preference in South Asia

April 14, 2010

Recently, the Vogue India magazine’s cover took head on the well-known preference for lighter or fairer skin as a sign of beauty in the subcontinent. This preference has been commented on before, with many interpretations of the phenomenon. In this case, for example, one interesting insight by the piece linked above talks about the capitalization of this preference by beauty product companies.

Fuelled by the appearance of light-skinned Bollywood stars and models, the demand for skin-whitening creams – from brands including L’Oreal and Unilever – grew 18 per cent last year and is set to increase by a predicted 25 per cent this year, the Times reports.

This is a significant aspect of the phenomenon. There are billboards, magazine ads, and TV commercials throughout South Asia that play on the standard of ‘fairer’ skin being more attractive. This fits a standard post-WWII late-capitalist model of subjectivity construction. A standard of the body is set as either preferred or as undesirable, marketing sets out to construct a narrative with the aim of inducing anxiety about reaching the standard (cover up undesirables, concern to reach desirables), and products are disseminated to temporarily relieve this anxiety. But, of course, there are so many things to be anxious about, late-capitalism aims to make us perpetually anxious consuming subjects. This narrative is pretty standard and is playing out in the particular case of fairer skin in the subcontinent. However, we do have to be attentive to the local conditions that make this particular manifestation play out in the way it does. So, to my mind, any analysis of this phenomenon should take into account a number of historical trajectories that impact light-skin beauty standards in India. (more…)

What is the subaltern?

April 7, 2010

Reading and writing. Today it is about the subaltern. This term is thrown about a lot, but there seems to be some confusion about what it means. There are a number of ways of approaching the subject, so I think I may just ramble a bit here about it.

The subaltern is a technical term for a certain kind of dispossessed person. It is a person who fits within the model of the Oppressor/Oppressed as the being so marginalized as to not even have the ‘voice’ of the oppressed. So, symbolically, we might say that the colonizer is Self, the colonized is Other, and all of those who are invisible to both Self and Other are the subaltern. Gayatri Spivak has the most theoretical look at the subaltern, and her work is still the root text for a discussion of the subaltern, in her article “Can the Subaltern Speak?” The answer to the title of her essay is no. The subaltern does not have a voice. Indeed, technically, once a subaltern has a voice, they are no longer the subaltern. They become Other, merely altern. (more…)

The crux of Dollhouse

April 29, 2009

Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse has been expertly summarized by giandujakiss here. There is a video. It is eloquent in its simplicity.

h/t: Alas, a blog.

‘The East’ in Advertising – Part 1

March 28, 2009

I try to compile advertising media images of Orientalism just to have a visceral representation of how Orientalism plays out in a certain sub-set of media. Perhaps one day I can put together a series of film clips that show the same.

The first video, an ad for a Nomad phone package, shows quite a number of tropes. It is about India, as Other. Let’s Watch.

It opens with a series of romanticized images of India as the exotic, bountiful, Other: full of the treasure we can have access to. Here take note the gaze of the camera: it is a romanticized, colonial gaze. We follow, in the narrative, the exploits of the white woman as she negotiates her journey through the East–hearkening back to 19th century travel journals (many penned by women) that were a part of sparking the imagination towards the East and a contributor to the discourse of colonial Orientalism. The images flash before our eyes and collect to our imagination the semiotics of Orientalism: elephants, gold, saddhu, available wealth, access to elite indigenous power.

But then, the union of East and West poses a threat. The white woman, duped, is now part of the harem. She has lost her Western privilege. She is trapped by the East in a despotic social arrangement. Other threatening tropes rise to our mind: despotism, barbarism, irrational inequality. On the one hand, we might argue that it was her own colonial and Orientalist imaginings that led her to this ‘trap’. Homi Bhabha has argued that the colonial imagination is both of these simultaneously. It is ambivalent: “The menace of mimicry is its double vision which in disclosing the ambivalence of colonial discourse also disrupts its authority. And it is a double vision that is a result of what I’ve described as the partial representation/ recognition of the colonial object.” The trap was set before the curtain even opened on this ad.

On the other hand, the East as both romanticized AND dangerous is a hallmark of Orientalism. It is an ambivalent, contested representation. Orientalism must represent the East as BOTH opportunity and threat. It must call to the desire of the Western Self, but must repel this call at the same time to preserve the essence of the West. The threat is to the very identity of the West as a Self. That is, if Orientalism is a discursive regime that imagines the East as Other in order to define the West as Self, any union is a threat, and necessarily so. So, this ad reinforces and recreates some of the most fundamental tropes of Orientalism.

A final point: It is no coincidence that the protagonist is a white woman. Women as property, tagged by race, insights the fear of the colonial gaze by having a brown, colonized man then possess the true property of White, colonial ownership. Racism, colonialism, misogyny, and Orientalism. All are different, and yet all are intertwined.

And the threat? Encapsulated quite well in the capping statement. In English translation it might be something like: Know what you are getting into before you commit. Reflechissez avant de vous engeger. Before you get with the Other, remember this commercial, where we point out that the mysterious Other can be a dangerous, duplicitous, threat. Remember this, so that you can go with the sure thing, the known. Ironically, I am sure some white women watching, who know the perils of Western Patriarchy, seeing the luxury of the harem, might feel attracted to this idealized image of Eastern Patriarchy rather than the sure thing, which they know so well and must deal with on a daily basis, something that is often no less threatening.