Fear and New Orientalism in CyberpunkPosted by Psychochild
Fellow cyberpunk enthusiast End_User send in this though-provoking article. Enjoy!
‘Modern Japan simply was cyberpunk.’ – William Gibson
‘The Orient […] seems to be, not an unlimited extension beyond the familiar European world, but rather a closed field, a theatrical stage affixed to Europe.’ – Edward Wadie Said, in Orientalism
Cyberpunk is a genre obsessed with the other, the outsider, the strange and the foreign. Whether it be foreign objects that penetrate and augment the human body, foreign beings represented by AI constructs or simply the seemingly eternal concept of the foreigner as ‘that man from elsewhere,’ cyberpunk is saturated with them. Leaving aside for the moment works that actually originate from South East Asian countries, Western cyberpunk is obsessed, just as the citizens of the European empires were during the age of exploration, with the concept of the East as a faraway place where magic resides. In cyberpunk, of course, that magic is technology, but it remains the same.
The East becomes a mysterious place, Gibson’s ‘black clinics of Chiba’ attaining a foreign and horrible resonance in the mind of the Western audience. The Triads and the Yakuza are conglomerated and deliberately blurred together, ‘the Sons of the Neon Chrysthanthemum,’ and become a dominant force in world affairs through their corporate interests. Is this demonstrative of a fear, peculiarly Western, of the growing economic and political power of South-East Asian nations? Or is it merely fetishism, the attraction of this foreign and magical land that was felt by French artists in the 19th Century?
Outside of Gibson’s works, we see indicators that it is fear that dominates this new Orientalism: in Blade Runner we see not the empty and decaying L.A. that Dick had assumed, but an overpopulated, multi-racial, multi-lingual city. And the races portrayed delineate American paranoias that have only been expanded upon since the end of the Cold War; non-integrating Hispanics and Asians flood the screen and the streets in Blade Runner, speaking pidgin languages and bringing their own cultures. Yet, they never ascend beyond the streets, because as Said highlights, Orientalism is ‘a sign of European-Atlantic power over the Orient [rather than] a veridic discourse about the Orient.’ By implanting this fearful racial dystopia, there is a forced realisation of the dominance and therefore superiority of Western cultures.
But what of cyberpunk works that arrive in the East? Japan undoubtedly has produced some of the genres greatest works, and they cannot be accused of fetishising their own culture. Observe, though, the concept of ‘other’ applied through a Japanese scope: in Ghost in the Shell it is always America that is the foreign invading ‘other’ politically, while visual representation of the other comes through blond hair/blue eyes, or in the filmic versions, a stereotyped China (Ghost in the Shell, 1995, is set in New Port based on Hong Kong, characters on signs are Chinese). Indeed, in Stand Alone Complex we see America, China and Russia as the invading outsider multiple times, while films such as Akira and Appleseed doubtless have grounding in memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Visually, Eastern cyberpunk does not rob from other cultures, so why does Western? It rests on a widespread assumption, not entirely unfounded, that Japan is ‘the technology place,’ because of its past record of producing and adopting new technologies at a rate greater than the West. But as the West moves ahead in technological terms, might we not question the reasoning behind always thinking of Japan thusly? It mirrors all too uncomfortably the concept of the East being ‘the spice place,’ and Said’s criticism that there is ‘a distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts.’