16 March 2010

My final take on Victorientalism

Well, I took a little time tonight to read some more takes on Victorientalism, and I am certainly divided on the matter myself. Let me explain where I currently stand.

In my mind, steampunk is similar to the genre of the Western in the fact that they both glorify and idealize the past to some extent. In this model, let's compare steampunk to the wider genre of Western, and Victorientalism to the smaller subgenre of Westerns that are concerned with the Native Americans ("Indians"). Both of these more specific subgenres deal directly at a group of people that were oppressed by the ruling powers, and both have come under scrutiny for how they portray minorites.

However, they differ in the fact that the original Western explicitly vilified the Native Americans, while Victorientalism (at least as I understand it) idealizes the Victorian perception of Asian cultures. I have italicized "Victorian perception" because that is the primary issue—the worldview is ultimately from the point of white privilege viewing other cultures as "otherwordly."

Of course, the problem with the old Westerns was simple—Native Americans were not really the villains; quite to the contrary, they were the victims. When the tendency to portray natives as "evil savages" faced scrutiny, it was nearly impossible to defend the practice. Numerous Westerns were then produced that sympathised with the natives, and some can be easily seen as "the white man's apology," such as the heavy-handed Dances With Wolves (1990). I do not propose that these Westerns entirely solved the problem, but they at least showed that there was some effort in the film community to re-evaluate the genre and apologize for hurtful representations in the past.

But it seems the problem with Victorientalism is not quite as black and white. First off, many are reacting solely based on the name. This may stem from the fact that those who coined and supported the term may not have been aware of the connotations behind it. I do not know the origin of the word "Victorientalism," but it is quite possibly European. In my talks with some of my fellow members at the Gatehouse, it seems that the negative connotations of the words "Orient," "Oriental," and "Orientalism" are not as keenly felt and perceived in parts of Europe as they are here in America. Language barrier aside, there is still some validity in criticizing the terminology itself, and I hope that there will be an honest attempt at creating a new name for the genre.

Still, I don't see the issue as being purely semantic, either. Some critics have raised additional points during the debates that I think bare some summarizing. The primary prevailing issue seems to be an issue of just how "okay" it is to reference outdated perceptions of foreign cultures, even if one attempts to do some without any negative intentions. The suggestion here is that even an idealized or good-intentioned version of Orientalism is still Orientalism and thus has the quality of "Othering" those cultures being referenced. Others argue this is not the case, and that the subgenre is much more benign, and that to find racism in Victorientalism is to strain race relations without good reason. The issue is therefore murky and subject to great debate, which has been raging (among other places) here. As for myself, I will for the most part continue to avoid the subgenre that is currently known as Victorientalism. I say "continue to" because it has never been particularly intriguing to me anyways, or steampunk for that matter. I myself have always preferred dieselpunk, in part because of my interest in WWII (due to my family history) and because I am a lover of film noir. In particular, I enjoy the "Piecraftian" brand of dieselpunk which does not do away with the negative parts but merely mythologizes them into epic dystopian societies. The nitty-gritty aspects of life is often central, and class-strife figures heavily. If there was admittedly more attempts to subvert the Victorian ideas of class and race and to re-examine such relations in that era, I would probably enjoy the genre more. As it stands, my lack of interest in the Victorientalism subgenre remains generally low, and if asked to take sides, I will concede that the sense of latent racism is a strong detractor for me. At the same time, I will remain interested in the debates surrounding it, as I find them incredibly thought-provoking and am intrigued about what will become of it.

Of course, the question may rise: Why did you write an article for a publication about Victorientalism if you were not really interested in the topic, and are actually somewhat against it? The answer is simple: At the time, I had not fully considered all its implications, and was thus entirely neatral on the subject. Furhermore, I did not write an article because the theme was "Victorientalism," but simply because it was the Gatehouse Gazette, to which I regularly contribute. I enjoy writing about film, and have been happy to find a small publication vaguely related to my interests that will allow me to publish my work to an audience larger than I could hope to attain on my own. When the topic for this issue was set forth, I merely looked for something I was interested in that was tangentially related: chanbara and the relationship between artists in Japan and the West. I wrote my article with my own take on the nature of influence, which I had developed during a course concerning the influence of Japanese art on the Impressionists. In this art history course, called "Japan and the West," we dealt with many of the issues I addressed in my article. I merely applied them to a different period and medium—the genre of chanbara. In particular, I felt that chanbara were frequently misrepresented by genre theorists, particularly those discussing the Western. I applied my personal theory of the nature of influence that I had developed during discussing in "Japan and the West." My theory stated that influence is a complex interrelationship between artists who borrow from one another based on pre-existing similarities. None of this is directly related to Victorientalism or even steampunk, and hence why my article for the Gazette never mentioned these genres at all.

But now that all is said and done, I suppose I must weigh in on the matter of Victorientalism and set forth my particular position in the debate. I am, if forced into polemic extremes, ultimately against Victorientalism, though I can also see some validity to the opposing arguments. It is clear that there are those offended by it, and I think the community needs to listen to those concerns and respond, both by attempting to explain itself more and also to try to better understand what the opponents would like to see handled differently. I think a lot more negotiating needs to occur before the full complexities of the issue can come to light and either be dealt with or at the very least reach an "agree to disagree" resolution. Of course, despite my decided position closer to the "against Victorientalism" side of the debate, I still emotionally support my friends at the Gatehouse who stand in defense of it. I do not think they are truly racist, and I hope that anyone who is about the make that claim will take the time to understand that person. I know that I was often lumped in as "racist" by people who had not bothered to read my article and think about it, and to jump to such presumptions without basis will only hurt the cause. Calling people racist without good reason does not help the fight, it only serves to push away people who might otherwise be inclined to help you, had you taken the time to get to know them and convince them through kindness. (Can you tell that I am a fan of MLK and Ghandi?)

Lastly, I would like to reiterate that the Smoking Lounge is likely the friendliest forum I have been a part of, even if they can be opinionated at times. I will admit that I became frustrated with Ottens when we debated political philosophies on the sides of Rand and Zhuangzi, but in the end I think we decided to "agree to disagree." I have always respected him, and I feel he respects me, despite our differing ideologies. (I still say we've given Capitalism enough chances, Ottens! Can't we give a go at Zhuangzi's system? :þ)

In other news, for those of you visiting to read what I have to say about movies (you know, what this whole blog is supposed to be about), and not some strange subgenre you've never even heard of before that is part of that one genre you thought just meant, "That kid who wears a top hat to class," I will hopefully return to film soon! I will be attending a class tomorrow (Wednesday) in which we will discuss Hrafn Gunnlaugsson's Hrafninn flýgur (1984, The Raven Flies). At my suggestion, it was screened in a Norse mythology course on Monday, which I also attended. I will have a post up of my thoughts on it and, hopefully, some of the student's responses as well.

No comments:

Post a Comment