Orientalism now

In a piece I wrote with Sanjay Sharma ‘White Paranoia: Orientalism after Empire’ in a special issue on Orientalism for the journal Fashion Theory (2003) we tried to think about the contemporary modalities of Orientalism in relation to ‘multiculturalist neoliberalism’. This I think potentially develops a more complex understanding of cultural difference, Otherness, race and globalization than offered by Zizek or Hardt and Negri. Although I am reworking our arguments through a more explicit reference to the Zizekian economy of Enjoyment and the Real. This is one section from the essay – (interesting also for our take on ‘Western Buddhism’):

‘The mimicry of an idealised Other – which always just eludes the white subject – as the constitutive process of self-valorization, can be seen to be mobilised explicitly in the workings of the globalized fashion industry. The recent popularity in Western fashion for Indian (influenced) clothes, design, bindis, henna and jewellery is not only an act to identify with the Other, nor just to “be” the Other, but rather, to become more than the Other. The practice of the fashion industry as a culture of artifice creates objects for the desires of the consumers and the demands of the market. The presence of “ethnic fashion” does not introduce the entry of novel forms of Asian-produced design; rather, it is the materialization of how Western creative industries manufacture the Oriental for white consumption. As Mina Kim Park highlights in her discussion of the popularity of Chinese fashion in the West:

The Western fashion industry is aggressive, posits itself as active, and more knowledgeable than Asia. Most importantly, the West wills its version of the “truth” about Orientals into being. Chinoiserie is more than a transformation and reinterpretation of the Orient, it is the creation of the Orient that is amenable to imperialist mentality. ….the West has fashioned, so to speak, an Oriental that is emasculated primitive in its timelessness, colonized’ (Kim Park 1997).

Again it is the authentic Other as reified object that is being consumed. The universal empty signifier of Whiteness is in fact ambivalently “marked” at the site of the white body, by ethnic difference. The wearing of an “artificial skin” is not an act of “going native,” but one that mimics the native. The wearing of this “Oriental mask” (an impossible object), attempts to keep the integrity of the omnipotent white subject. In this instance of mimesis, there is still something behind the mask: a white subject maintaining the “proper distance,” while performing a masquerade with no irony or parody. The mimicry of “Asian fashion” keeps intact the dominance of Whiteness, by integrating and stratifying the difference between the West and the Orient. As Kim Park (1997) further remarks, “the fashion spreads emphasise that these models are white models, through the wearing ‘Oriental’ clothing are almost the same, but not Oriental….” She goes on to argue that what is important to sustaining Western hegemony is the authority that the white designers have over “Oriental” creativity:

descriptions of Chinoiserie stress that the Orient merely provides “inspiration” or “flavor,” as if the fashion industry refuses to acknowledge that the Orient could provide a tangible and substantial model for mimicry…the [Western] designer is “always original” even as her entire line mimics Oriental dress, and Calvin Klein is established as the “master of clean” even if he appropriates the stark, Japanese-Zen aesthetic of the subaltern Oriental. There is pride in the articulation that the Chinoiserie is almost the same but not quite, but also implicit is the fearful need to further reify the West’s dominant position. (Kim Park 1997)


The production of the white self through the “double mimesis” of adorning an “artificial skin” draws attention to the centrality of the body in the figuration of white subjectivity. But the embodiment of Whiteness is an ambivalent trope of contemporary Orientalism. As an empty signifier it is without a body, location or particularity, yet in order to maintain its hegemonizing universality it is compelled to create a self through the practice of re-fashioning the body. We would contend that the risky marking of the body as “white,” within the logic of paranoid Orientalism has to be structured through a masochistic displacement. In this respect, the white body feigns a “body without organs” (Deleuze and Guattari 1984) – mobile, deterritorializing, flowing, able to convert and connect to anything, like an all-purpose adapter – a universal cultural assimilator of difference. In this paranoid mode, where it operates through the virtual reterritorializing of all difference, it is not surprising to see how Whiteness (re)turns its gaze to the East for modes of embodied being and knowledge. Buddhism, martial arts, tai-chi, yoga, meditation, Asian religions and spirituality are essentialized for their authenticity, purity, tradition and epistemological truth claims. That which the West supposedly lacks is consumed by a “cannibal culture” (Root 1995) in order to survive and transcend the contemporary capitalist culture of speed and anxiety, where the ego-Self is a limiting blockage to a mobile, ever-expanding Whiteness. The emptiness of Zen and the continuous yin/yang flow of energy is one desired mode of a white ascetic existence in a culture of permanent insecurity, hyper-activity and antagonism. The training and self-mastery of the white body in these corporeal arts assumes the form of purification and conditioning. The Orient as pure abstract knowledge is an object to be consumed, worked with, used and domesticated. Even in more esoteric forms of Indian yoga and Asian religious practices, where there is some attempt to engage with elaborate rituals and modes of thought, this mimicry is undertaken to create an affective and universal spiritual experience for the individuated and alienated white body. Significantly, this re-fashioning of the body reproduces the universal white subject in spite of the philosophical conceit to give up the ego-Self. (Žižek outlines insightfully, “…the difference between Zen proper and its Western version: the greatness of Zen is that it cannot be reduced to an ‘inner journey’ into one’s “true Self”; the aim of Zen meditation is, on the contrary, a total voiding of the Self, the acceptance that there is no true Self, no ‘inner truth’ to be discovered […] What Western Buddhism is not ready to accept is thus that the ultimate victim of the ‘journey into one’s Self’ is the Self itself” (2002: 86-7))

It is unsurprising to note how this “Eastern turn” is almost totally abstracted from diasporic Asians and Asian culture. Even if the teacher is of “Asian origin” they are only valued for the authenticity and spiritual aura that they accord to the knowledge and ascetic practice. The security of Whiteness is never seriously challenged by the incommensurable demands of an alternative knowledge system. The emptiness of the white signifier strives to fill itself in any mode it desires. What is important in this form of mimicry is again the authenticity of the knowledge. The fact that there are so many schools of thought, teachers and traditions, the idea that inauthenticity reigns is disavowed. Isn’t this desire for other knowledge a form of delusional jealousy? The truth is out there and the Other has something I don’t! The white subject in its paranoid state is threatened by the Other’s own veritable agency and mode of enjoyment. This trope of contemporary Orientalism valorises traditional Asian knowledge in an idealised form for the perceived truth it offers outside the mediation of an Imperialist modernity. Again we are faced with the fabrication of an authentic native culture being devoured and lived out as if it is a pure truth beyond the terrors of colonialism. In the last instance, it is a floundering attempt by the contemporary white subject to retain its own authenticity as a natural true self amongst the disembodying virtualization of a mediated technological existence.

The (fascistic) desire for white ascetic Self-perfection is not just about desiring otherness, but by seeking to ultimately transcend the body in its craving to be more other than the Other. The crisis of white universality is being managed by a pathological compulsion to integrate and stratify all Others within Whiteness. The fear, of course, is that there are Others that are unknowable, untranslatable, uncontrollable – they must be domesticated or destroyed. Although the structure of Whiteness is all consuming, for it to sustain its hegemonic position it has to create local, assimilatable forms of ethnic difference and knowledge.

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2 Responses to Orientalism now

  1. Jem says:

    The racial politics of the latter parts of this account are very problematic to me. I’ve known a lot of people involved with yoga and tai chi, and of all of them, the most naively ‘authenticist’ and truth-seeking is a GP from Surrey who’s parents are both Indian: the desire to pursue some ‘pure’ form of knowledge untainted by the messy reality of the social world is attractive to him, as it is to many privileged ‘white’ people now, as it has been for centuries to privileged Asians, because it’s a way to enjoy the luxury of belonging to a highly-privileged social group without having to worry about the conditions of possibility of that privilege.

    The discourse of authenticity and Other-knowledge which so much contempoary New Age reproduces is as much a reproduction and continuation of the mechanisms by which those systems of knowledge have traditionally reproduced and legitimated themselves in Asia as it is a response to some crisis of white Western subjectivity. Of course ‘inauthenticity reigns’ within Asian cultures, but it’s not as if within those cultures, everyone is running around knowingly celebrating the provisionality of their language games: the tradition of appealing to an imagined univocal authenticity as a means to secure certain forms of power is deeply entrenched in both Indian and Chinese cultures, and historically Asian actors have been very active in bringing those traditions to the West. To put this crudely – the West is full of guru-seeking gullible fools, but so is India, and not all of them are white by any means.

    It’s dangerous to ignore the extent to which the circuits of discourse and power by which these relays occur are multi-directional, partly because it risks producing an inverse racism (which imagines a homogenous and sadistic ‘white subject’ encountering a homogenous, passive and wholly innocent ‘Asia’) , partly because it just leads to a very crude analysis of a complex situation.

  2. tabularasa says:

    I agree totally with your critique of the pursuit of authenticity in Asian cultures, but the question I would ask in the context of the piece is whether this is operating within a racialised discourse? The notion of a racialised whiteness that is being posited is one that is effectively an ideological formation which interpellates subjects – this identification is open to all not just to Whites. One needs to be precise here – the argument is that racialised whiteness as constituted by colonial modernity is in crisis – the turn to Asian cultural forms in the west at this historical moment is at once a sign of the unraveling of the universality of whiteness and an attempt to reconfigure white supremacy.

    I agree that the situation is complex but isn’t this complexity the very form in which postmodern racism works – the wager here for us is that ‘race’ – which is constituted through the project of white universality – remains an essential concept in understanding the complexity of contemporary neoliberal power – otherwise we are just left with contingent cultural conflicts, outside of history.

    Of course Asians can be racist but the key issue is how is racism operating now. The multiple circuits of geo-political power is the very logic of postcolonial racism – it presents itself as multicultural, even anti-racist, as it denies its racial power. The analysis attempts to delineate this ideological formation.

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