In Defense of Victorientalism

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Reactions to the Victoriental issue of the Gatehouse Gazette have been pretty fierce in the wake of its release in early March. The opinions of those provoked by it may best be summarized by Ay-leen who noted that using the phrase “Victorientalism” to imply a “positive, transcultural blend” of cultures is “misguided.” Others have been less nuanced in their renunciations of our supposed position.

To understand the indignation, part of the issue’s editorial deserves reiteration. In it, I opined that steampunk allows the “incorrigible aficionados of Oriental romance […] to reject the chains of reality and all the racism and guilt” associated with the imperial experience. Indeed, I asked, “Isn’t this, after all, steampunk’s very premise? To delve into a past that never really was.”

The concept of “Victorientalism” is only part steampunk however; it borrows heavily from nineteenth century Orientalism — the full spectrum of art, literature and academic studies of “the East” as perpetrated by Westerners during the heydays of empire.

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Modern day scholars of area studies are forever indebted, and forever haunted, by the condemnations of Edward Said who wrote Orientalism in 1978 as a passionate charge against what he described as the invariably racist attitude of Westerns toward the people who formerly inhabited their colonies. According to Said, nineteenth and early twentieth century artists, authors as well as historians and researchers shared a paradigm that stressed Western superiority and engendered all of Asia as the unequivocal representation of otherness. Every European therefore, blasted Said, “in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric.”

In a review of Robert Irwin’s For Lust of Knowing (published in the United States as Dangerous Knowledge, 2006), American scholar Martin Seth Kramer described how Said set out to substantiate his indictment. He “cherry-picked evidence,” said Kramer, “ignored whatever contradicted his thesis, and filled the gaps with conspiracy theories.” Irwin’s work, on the other hand, provides a much more complete, and a much more neutral study. Orientalism may be premised on a terribly flawed approach, and many past Orientalist studies may lack terribly in both facts and analysis, but the concept is not steeped in bigotry, nor was its purpose ever to facilitate the colonial subjugation of non-Western peoples. Irwin amply, indeed, exhaustively, proves the sincerity of nineteenth century Orientalists and how much they were smitten with the East and its cultures. Many of them failed at impartial study, but they were no Great White Hunters.

Jaymee Goh makes a good point when she determines that Orientalism is “really about what Europe thinks about the East,” which means; “it’s all about Europe, not about Asia.” This is precisely so and it is from this perspective that part of issue #11 of the Gatehouse Gazette was written: to redeem, if only for a moment, if only in the space between our computer screens and our imagination, the inaccurate, the imperfect and the improper but the oh so romantic and beguiling fantasy that was Asia before we actually knew it.

Is this disdainful and snobbish and patronizing? Perhaps. But then, isn’t all of steampunk? We blissfully reminiscence about imperial grandeur, shuffling aside the slavery, the segregation, the tyranny and the bloodshed there were also part of it. We are only too willing to recreate, in our writings and in our costuming, the tastes and sensibilities of the Victorian upper class, ignoring, very often, the misery of the poor and the desolation of the oppressed. Is it obnoxious? Probably. Is it offensive? No. Because steampunk is fiction, not research.

As much as the average steampunk enthusiast doesn’t pretend to fully nor faithfully reconstruct the past, Victorientalism makes no claim at objective study of Asian cultures. Ay-leen believes that there would be no problem, “if the political and social effects of Orientalism were dead and gone,” but should we feel embarrassed for telling certain stories and enjoying a distorted nostalgia because there are still plenty of xenophobic imbeciles out there who might think we’re serious? Surely not!

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