The new Orientalism is the same old Orientalism: Rana Kabbani’s Imperial Fictions
Kabbani, Rana. Imperial Fictions: Europe’s Myths of Orient Saqi, 2008 Link
Indeed, Orientalist images of the future will not be stylised depictions of milky-white odalisques, held captive by brown, turbaned villains. Rather, they will be grainy photographs of Iraqi men, stripped of clothes and dignity, at the mercy of army dogs and bestial United States soldiers – reduced to being the playthings of the ‘few bad apples’ of the damned, rotting cartload. Anonymous snapshots of torture-porn at Abu Ghraib in Baghdad must stand as the twenty-first century’s depraved answer to ‘Le Bain Turc’ of Ingres.
Kabbani lines up the usual suspects in her case against Orientalism (Burton and Lawrence) and adds a few new ones. However, I don’t think she really goes anywhere that wasn’t already covered by Schick in The Erotic Margin. Kabbani does emphasize that Orientalists strongly influenced each other, each traveler accepting and expanding upon the same body of myths, prejudices and fantasies, over centuries. Imagine a entire tradition of astronomers all using the same flawed telescope.
Among the many themes from the European narration of the Other, two appear most strikingly. The first is the insistent claim that the East was a place of lascivious sensuality, and the second that it was a realm characterised by inherent violence.
Thus, the notional Orient is a perfect backdrop for sadomasochistic fantasies.
This is an old way of thinking (the medieval Romance of Floris and Blauncheflour (pg.39) includes one of the earliest descriptions of a harem, guarded by eunuchs, plus slave merchants selling beautiful women.), but the imperial struggles of the 19th century made this a big issue.
Artists picked up on this. Baudelaire, on his visit to Maruitius, saw a black woman being whipped on the shore and became aroused. Flaubert’s Queen of Sheba is another example.
Kabbani’s book is much more opinionated than Schick’s, and its depressing to see the same old Orientalist BS being passed around. Now that Western nations are involved in major wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we still get the same old crap in 2010.
I saw James Cameron’s Avatar last week, and the colonialist fantasies are alive and well in 2009. The movie’s alien Na’vi (blue cat-like people) fit pretty much every noble savage cliche in the book. My father, who saw the film with me, mistakenly but aptly called them Ewoks. While Return of the Jedi’s Ewoks are designed to be cute and Na’vi are designed to be sexy (in an “exotic” and “ethnic” way, racially charged terms in themselves), they fill the same function in the narrative. They’re attractive, innocent and primitive, yet somehow can overpower a vastly superior technological force, but only with the leadership of white people.
Naturally the first Na’vi the protagonist encounters is a beautiful princess of the tribe, whose resistance he overcomes. Naturally, she’s betrothed to another man of the tribe, setting up a triangle of jealousy, but the resolution of this is inevitable. Naturally, the protagonist masters Na’vi ways, and even surpasses his teachers, taming a dragon-like creature and naming himself leader of the united tribes, yaddah yaddah yaddah. Stripped down, it’s the same romantic primitivism initiation storyline as Dances with Wolves, and Dune, and A Man Called Horse, and the fantasy-overlaid lives of Sir Richard Francis Burton and T.E. Lawrence (and especially for our purposes, Gor). It’s a redemptive, revisionist fantasy, taking the history of colonialism and using it as a backdrop for a self-aggrandizing narrative. In Avatar, when the lead starts proclaiming things like “They [humans from Earth] murdered their mother!” and “This is our land!” (while his human, paraplegic body is lying in a box somewhere), you can tell that the character, and the movie as a whole, seriously needs a reality check. (Some of the deleted scenes address some of these points, but the conclusion of the story is the same.)
This neo-colonialist fantasy might not matter so much and just be James Cameron’s female body-builder fetish/white guy guilt fantasy, were it not for the fact that it is a box office smash and people are still talking about it. Movies like this reproduce centuries-old pre-formulated ideas about other cultures, patterns of thought that blind us to the reality of “the Orient” or “indigenous peoples.”
What does Avatar have to do with the history of BDSM? Basically, it’s a anti-colonialist parable on the surface, but the core is a sexual/romantic fantasy. These are the same patterns of thought that went into BDSM fantasies, but Cameron’s film reproduces these fantasies without any criticism or self-awareness. As I’ve said before, it’s okay if your fantasies aren’t particularly progressive, but you have to own up to that. If your fantasy is being a three-metre tall blue tiger person who can plug his or her hair into other animals, have fun. Just don’t let that influence how you think about other cultures in the real world.