#17.5 Steampunk and Victorientalism Assessed

The past week has been a flurry of conversation about the use and meaning of “Victorientalism”. As part of this discussion, I wanted to highlight the various opinions expressed over this issue.

“Against Victorientalism” by Dru Pagliasotti in her blog The Mark of Ashen Wings:

Victorientalism, defined at The Gatehouse, is a neologism coined to try to capture steampunk set in non-Western countries (remember, the term “Victorianism” refers to Queen Victoria, titular head of the British Empire). It calls on the term “Orient,” used in English in the 19th century to refer collectively to Asian and Middle-Eastern countries. In particular, it appropriates the word “Orientalism,” the ideological perspective of scholars and artists in the Victorian period (and beyond) that was critiqued in a groundbreaking book by that same name by Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said in the ’70s.

Thus, the term “Victorientalism” accurately alludes to a term in use during the Victorian period (the Orient, Orientals, Orientalists). However, “Oriental” isn’t politically correct; like the use of “Indian” to describe the various indigenous peoples of North and South America, “Oriental” is broad, vague, and laden with stereotypes. Its coinage to describe a particular subgenre of steampunk is, therefore, unfortunate. Instead, Jha suggests “Asian steampunk,” or “Asian-inspired steampunk,” or even more specific terms, such as “Meiji-era steampunk.”

The only defensible purpose to using Victorientalism as a descriptor that I can think of might be in the pejorative sense (”that story was so Victorientalist; doesn’t the author know anything about what was going on in the Punjab in 1845?”) or, perhaps, to describe a story that deliberately sets out to parody or undermine Orientalism within a steampunk framework.

The discussion in comments at SteamPunk Magazine includes some very good critiques of steampunk itself (is it really Victorian? is it, in itself, parodic?) and of phrases such as “white privilege” vs. “cultural privilege,” the purpose of fiction, and so forth. It’s worth reading, if nothing else for the reminder that nothing in human language is innocent of ideology — and we writers must be ready to face that reality and make the best, most well-considered linguistic choices that we can.

Another fascinating academic response from James (from Parliament & Wake), initially made over at Silver Goggles:

The article, “Preface for a post-postcolonial criticism” is by Erin O’Connor and can be found in volume 45, issue 2 (Autmn 2003) of Victorian Studies. In the research for your editorial you probably already came across this; but if not, we believe it is the origin of the term Victorientalism (or at least one origin, it is entirely possible that it arose de novo later and elsewhere) and has some interesting points to make regarding your concerns. To summarize, O’Connor argues that there is a tendency within the scholarly community to look for – and thus, to find – examples of fetishism of the “Orient” within the literary works of the 19th century in order to establish that this literature was not just created within an Imperialist culture, but was Imperialist literature, per se. She argues that this aggressive campaign has been so successful largely because of a desire to find the exotic other within the Victorian canon – and that this results in a fixed obsession on perceived Eastern influences. It is this – the fetishizing not of the Orient by Victorians, but of the Orient within Victorian literature by scholars of Victorian literature – which she names as “Victorientalism.” If you have not read the piece it deserves your attention, but here is one paragraph which nicely reiterates one of her conclusions.

“The rote character of this branch of Victorian studies might be read as an analytical type of the leveling that has been seen to accompany the colonialist spread of Western mass culture, the devastating loss of tradition, ritual, and belief that has become one of the principal preoccupations of postcolonial writing. Cultural imperialism may even be said to find its interpretive analogue in the critical imperialism of postcolonial literary studies, whose profitable investments in the Victorian novel may be read as a textual instance of reverse colonization. As such, the sheer uniformity of this work should alert us to the possibility that something akin to Said’s Orientalism is at work here. Call it Victorientalism-the mining of a distant, exotic, threatening but fascinating literature to produce and establish a singularly self-serving body of knowledge elsewhere, a body of knowledge that ultimately has more to tell us about the needs of its producers than about its ostensible subject matter.” (O’Connor 2003)

Given her neologism’s adoption within the “steampunk community,” we felt that this parallel bears further discussion. In particular, we would argue that many, although certainly not all, of the commodities which are construed as ‘fetishizing’ the Orient within steampunk (e.g., kimonos, belly-dancing, kohl, chopsticks; but should we add porcelain, silk, tea?) have, through a long (a millennium, in some cases) and multifaceted process of globalization, become elements of “World Culture” with no more substantial signification of “Eastern” than the ubiquitous “von” in steampunk aliases is of the “Germanic.” Thus, our discovery of a racist/imperialist agenda with the use of these objects might be construed as a function of our own desire to discover them. In short, it may be those looking for Orientalism within Steampunk who are in fact the Victorientalists.

Subsequent academic analysis of O’Connor’s argument raised an issue with which we agree, in this context and in that of steampunk – namely, that the reprehensible theoretical predilections of literary critics don’t change the sociopolitical reality of 19th century British and European Imperialism. The “post-postcolonial criticism’ called for by O’Connor is subject to the obligations of politically responsible academic discourse. Luckily, steampunk as a literary genre and a form of grassroots amateur theatre performance is situated firmly within such postcolonial discourses. Whether by our continued love of the deft social criticism inextricably soldered among the pistons and clackery of works by Gibson and Sterling, Stephenson or Powers, or by the fact that we are cognizant inhabitants of a globalizing era participating in an ironic pageant of our own culture’s historically insinuated hegemony, we remain conscious of the social issues naturalized by the social institutions (imperial armies, totalitarian regimes, medical bureaucracies) we pantomime.

Both the editor and a couple contributors weigh in on this matter further on the Gatehouse Gazette blog. I find it interesting how divergent their attitudes are in addressing the problematic histories involved in steampunk:

In the editorial follow-up In Defense of Victorientalism by Nick Ottens (editor)

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 that 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.

Craig B. Daniel (contributor)

As a contributor to the issue – in fact, as the person who suggested the theme – I should probably weigh in on this one.

I happen to hold very strongly to Said’s criticisms of orientalism. There *is* something wrong with exoticising the other, since the other often suffers – and, indeed, taking a look what happened to the East at the hands of the West in the nineteenth century reveals some pretty ugly things.

But the West that holds to such views of the Mysterious Orient is complex and fascinating place, and you can’t understand Europe without understanding how it reacts to the rest of the world. Talking about the issue, non-polemically, is an absolute necessity for considering the mores of Western society in the Victorian period, since it was strongly shaped by the imagined East. The purpose of the issue was not to excuse or propagate outdated and frankly ugly views of Asian culture, but to shine a light on a Western culture we all find fascinating – one that, as much as we might like to forget this fact, expanded upon its own cultural landscape through the insidious xenophobia with which it viewed the rest of the world.

In writing about Chung Ling Soo, I could not in good conscious fail to mention the fact that his show was on some level genuinely and irrevocably touched by racism. But to condemn the entire output of one of the greatest entertainers of an era purely on the grounds that his work was rooted in the ideas that pervaded his entire society is a mistake, just as it would be a mistake to discard Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” simply because Shylock is a horribly racist portrayal of Judaism.

Steampunk always walks a tricky line politically, as it hearkens back to an Empire whose problems for the world were massive and best left in the past. But we cannot engage ourselves in a fantastic Victorianism free from these problems if we turn a blind eye to them – and our fantasy of the era will be sorely lacking if we refuse to even consider certain parts of the period’s culture simply because they historically led to unpleasant places. We cannot reject the existence of cultural exchange between East and West in a thoroughly globalized era, despite the sometimes horrific results, anymore than we forget the mechanization that marked the industrial revolution despite the terrible working conditions for many people which resulted. The latter, most Steampunks choose to reenvision in a mostly positive light, celebrating the gears while imagining them taken in a bold new direction. In the modern era, can we remember the former from our vantage point as more culturally sensitive people looking back on an unenlightened past? Can we rehabilitate some of the orientalist content of Victorian society? Perhaps not – but it is better to try to overcome the failings of the past than to sweep them under a rug.

Sjón Refur (contributor)

I won’t speak directly in defence of my fellow contributors, but I do know that my article directly challenges the ethnocentric view of authors such as Fenin and Everson who claim chanbara to be simply a subgenre of the Western, and seem to discredit it as simply the “Eastern Western.” Of course, I also disagree with the extreme reaction against this by Silver, who seems to exist under the misguided concept of what influence is and what it means when something is “influenced” by something else. But perhaps I am jumping the gun a little, as there should be a blog post out soonish where I go over some of this.

I do agree that there are some touchy issues in “Victorientalism,” but I don’t think they are really any worse than in steampunk in general, though they may be admittedly more obvious. I think, though, this is a good aspect of Victorientalism. The issues of colonization and racism are a latent part of steampunk, due to the history around which it is based, and this is admittedly part of the reason I have generally perfered dieselpunk (though it also has it’s own baggage, such as a certain Nazi fetishism and it’s own brand of racist tensions). However, Victorientalism is upfront about this. It doesn’t try to hide it, and as such, it allows debates like the one currently happening to take place.

I guess I just hope people realize that a lot of this debate is not just about Victorientalism but about steampunk and historically-based fiction in general. And for those who can’t deal with the issues of colonialism, I have to wonder why you are a fan of steampunk at all? I went into my interest in these genres aware that it carried its own baggage. That’s also why I wanted to write an article for this issue dealing with an actual historical relationship between Japan and the West, and to discuss both arguing sides of the issue as belying a lack of understanding on the actual relationships between nations and artists. Both seem to suggest that there can be no interaction between nations as equals—that Japan must either be subjugated to the West, or entirely free of its influence. The result is a dangerous “Colonialism v Isolationism” false dichotomy that fosters more racial tension rather than a sense of equality.

And below is my response to Otten’s article, reposted below:

The point that I was arguing against was about the one-sided impressions The Gatehouse made about using terminology that has a complicated history: that it was okay to dismiss concerns and “reject the chains of reality and all the racism and guilt associated with it.” Can marginalized people ever forget their history in the same way? And how do we feel when we’re confronted with messages from the dominant culture that our concerns don’t matter as long as the dominant culture can enjoy it?

What had concerned me the most with this issue was the editorial dismissal of any current social issues as being relevant to steampunk, when steampunk is a very current, very active subculture. Steampunk is about more than “and age that never was”, though that is the source of inspiration; steampunk is actually taking place NOW; it is the act of present creation that all of us are engaging in.  So the hurt cased by misguided ideas and offensive remarks made in the historical past cannot be “imagined away” by people hurt by them.

Moreover, it’s hard for me to believe that an aesthetic and a subculture engaged with in history—a history where people fought, loved, discovered, rebelled, and impacted each others’ lives for better or for worse— that out of all of that we can only look back at a small fraction of that history as being important…and have that fraction fall in line with the majority viewpoint that we get from much of mainstream media and cultural interpretations today.

Secondly, I know that the discussion had mostly been about Said’s Orientalism, but I suggest that you read his follow-up book Culture and Imperialism (1993), which you may find interesting. In this book, Said revisits the arguments he makes in Orientalism and expands upon the nuances and premises for his first work. He argues for the existence of a reinforced image of empire in Western culture, but on the other hand, also spoke of the oppositional forces in response to empire from both the native and the colonizer.  He then concludes by recognizing the give-and-take between the colonizer and the colonized, and presents the idea that the only way to progress past this dynamic is the integration and equal recognition of the two.

What made Orientalism such a revolutionary work was his primary thesis—remember, during the time it was written in 1978, it opened up so many avenues of history that had been disregarded before—but his argument cannot be assessed completely without reading Culture and Imperialism.

For those interested in reading more feedback, Ottens is keeping a record on the Gatehouse forums.


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