February 16, 2015

Techno-orientalism


Annie Manion argues in her master's thesis that popular culture, specifically anime, has surpassed business (economic) interests in motivating students to study Japanese. Moreover, popular culture serves as a kind of cultural "loss-leader," encouraging consumption of more "wholesome" fare:

The fact is that people who like anime, depending on their exposure to Japanese culture, tend to like many aspects of Japanese culture, from popular to traditional, as well, and develop at some point either the desire to learn Japanese or visit Japan.

In her conclusion, Manion describes the reluctance in western academic circles to accept anime as a "legitimate" example of Japanese culture as a reflection of "techno-orientalism," which she defines as a "certain discourse concerning Japan that seems unable to reconcile an image of Japan as traditional with the image of Japan as a modern economic power."

There is on the one hand "exotic" Japan, characterized by "aestheticism, eroticism and idealization," and on the other "alien" Japan, which in the past was associated with "a dehumanized martial culture." But now, thanks to the technological advances and economic strength Japan has gained in the last few decades, has come to be associated with technology and business.

Some scholars, such as Alex Kerr and Donald Richie, directly exhibit a techno-orientalist view of Japan, portraying the advent of modernity and/or technology as slowly destroying or replacing traditional Japan. This basic idea permeates the popular understanding of Japan[.]

This is a highly useful observation, though the "orientalist" label overly complicates the argument. Rather, the underlying ideology revealed here derives from what I call "neo-creationism," the near-universal idea, especially beloved on the academic left, that there existed a point in time when All Was Good, but from which we have since fallen like Adam and Eve.

Kiku Day sums up this mindset in her review of Lost in Translation (2003):

[Ancient Japan] is depicted approvingly, though ancient traditions have very little to do with the contemporary Japanese. The "good Japan," according to this director, is Buddhist monks chanting, ancient temples, flower arrangement; meanwhile she portrays contemporary Japanese as ridiculous people who have lost contact with their own culture.

Or as Milton titled his epic poem on the subject: Paradise Lost.

This belief motivates the Holy Grail-like quest for the Edenic past and Rousseau's Noble Savage (in a primeval rainforest near you). It is as pronounced in environmentalism as it is in orthodox religious movements. It looks back to the past, to a Camelot, when, Douglas Adams writes, "Men were men, women were women and fuzzy blue creatures from Alpha Centuri were fuzzy blue creatures from Alpha Centuri."

Academics who make a career of this nostalgia conveniently find these Edens within their particular academic specialties. And bully for them. There is much value in remembering and preserving the past, if for no other reason than to remind ourselves how lucky we are not to be living there anymore.

But the past is not a This Old House project that can be updated with all the comforts of modern living while preserving the "original" look. The past is the past because our ancestors left it there, and more often than not, good riddance to it.

The added irony is that the modernity seen as so inimical to the past is in fact its best hope of preservation.

Only wealthy, modern, first-world countries can afford to take environmentalism seriously, and can afford to pay people to care about how people were living centuries ago. And can afford to produce (and sit around and watch) shows like Antiques Roadshow (I prefer Salvage Dawgs).

Hence, the place to find the well-preserved artifacts of Chinese history and culture is in one of the world's most technological, post-modern societies--Taiwan--not Mainland China, whose communist government had no use for the past during its many Great Leaps Forward.

Evolution didn't stop when homo sapiens stood up and took a bow. Both speciation and extinction inexorably continue. Culture and language change--evolve--with an equally remorseless momentum. We know this in our bones even if we deny it with our rhetoric. For if there were indeed a unique and privileged past, we could single it out, pack it off to a museum, and dispense with everything else.

But knowing that there isn't induces a pack-rat mentality that instructs us to scamper around saving everything just in case it might come in useful one day.

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