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From orientalism to ornamentalism

Recently, the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted an exhibit called China Through the Looking Glass. The exhibition’s spectacular and unabashed display of Orientalist commodification and appropriation charmed many and repelled others. The exhibition, extended months beyond its original schedule due to its enormous popularity, reminds us how enduring the so-called Asian fetish still is in western culture and how limited our critical response is to this expansive phenomenon, other than one of moralistic outrage. Is it not time for us to develop a fuller vocabulary to consider the uncomfortable intimacy between cultural appropriation and recognition? We sit down with Anne Anlin Cheng, author of Ornamentalism, to discuss. 

Alyssa Russell: What is “Orientalism”?

Anne Cheng: “Orientalism” is a term used by art historians and literary and cultural studies scholars for the imitation or depiction of aspects of Middle Eastern and Far Eastern Asian cultures by American and European writers, designers, and artists. From chinoiserie to japanoisme, Orientalism is a way of seeing that imagines, emphasizes, exaggerates, and distorts differences of Arab and Asiatic peoples and cultures as compared to that of Europe and the United States. It often involves seeing “the Oriental other” as exotic, backward, uncivilized, and, at times, dangerous. It was the great scholar Edward Said who transformed this term and description into a stringent critique of the West’s attitude toward the East. In his study entitled Orientalism, Said reminds us, “The orient was almost a European invention … a European representation of the Orient, [which was] the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilization and language, its cultural contestation, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other.” 

But Said’s ground breaking critique had its limits. For one thing, it reproduced the dichotomy between the West and the East, with the West being the often masculine, imaginary, and intellectual subject contemplating the East, which was seen as a passive object that is often feminized. Saidean Orientalism does not recognize or account for a dynamic interaction between the East and the West; it also does not address the very gendered aspect of Orientalism. Finally, Orientalism today unfortunately can be so easily co-opted by those it meant to critique. For example, in the Metropolitan show mentioned above, the museum tried to excuse itself from accusations of appropriation by claiming, right off the bat, that this show is not about the real East (though the galleries were also strewn with authentic Asian antiquity owned by the Met), but about the East as imagined by Western designers. In short, the Met happily claims that its exhibition is Orientalism, as if in such recognition, they are thus absolved from political considerations. 

Image credit: Evening dress by Alexander McQueen and Sarah Burton. Cream silk satin embroidered with blue and white porcelain; white silk organza. From China: Through the Looking Glass, 2015, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo by Anne A. Cheng, used with permission.

Lost in this struggle over political correctness, we fail to see what is really arresting about this exhibition and what it can teach us about the force and limits of the contemporary American racial imaginary. How do we understand this conflation between the “Oriental” and the “highly ornamental”—that is, really, a confusion of persons and things? What kind of an idea of “personhood” gets bred out of this kind of confusion? And what function does this peculiar kind of synthetic persons serve for ideals of modern western personhood?

AR: Let’s begin with defining “ornamentalism.” 

AC: For me, the word “ornamentalism” names the enduring conflation between the “oriental” and the “ornamental” in western thought and culture. From Plato to Oscar Wilde to Le Corbusier, the “oriental” has always been associated with excessive ornamentation and femininity. We can see this aesthetic trope in the visual expressions of Art Nouveau, French Symbolism, American Rococo, and all the way up to the quite recent Met exhibit. However, more than identifying this enduring style, at once so racialized and gendered, as a symptom of western Orientalism (after Edward Said), I argue that this conflation between persons and things gives us an unprecedented opportunity to reconceptualize the very notion of “racial embodiment.” 

AR: What do you mean by a different notion of racial embodiment?

AC: The idea of the flesh (corporeal and embodied; jeopardized and redemptive) has been crucial to race and gender studies for the last several decades. But I think the trope of Asiatic femininity-as-ornamentality demands a slightly more counter-intuitive thinking, in order for us to entertain the possibilities and implications of a kind of racialized gender that is built, not on ideas of organic flesh, but on fantasies of animated ornaments and artifice. Confronted by a brutally dehumanizing history of racism, dare we think about a figure whose survival and flourish depends on crushing objecthood?

I say this is a scary question, but one that we must confront. There is, in fact, this very ancient and still animated figure in our world, who generates passions and derisions in almost every sector of our lives, from the boardroom to the bedroom, from the courtroom to the theater to the big screens. This figure who is at once atavistic and futuristic (think of the geisha robots in the recent film Ghost in the Shell), inorganic and yet imbued with sensorial promises, demands that we rethink racial logic as solely indebted to the flesh. 

Instead, let us think differently. Let us work through, rather than shy away from, that intractable intimacy between being a person and being a thing. Let us try to build a different historiography of raced bodies: one constructed through fabrics, ornaments, and “skins” that never enjoyed the fantasy of organicity, one populated by non-subjects who endure as ornamental appendages. Let us substitute ornament for flesh as the germinal matter for the making of racialized gender. Let us, in short, formulate a feminist theory of and for the yellow woman. 

AR: Are you worried about using the phrase “the yellow woman”?

AC: I certainly don’t use the term lightly. Coming to say this phrase constitutes something of a therapeutic process for me. It is an ugly term, but I think our “delicacy” about using this term itself says something about the weird combination of aestheticization and denigration directed at this figure. After all, we say white women, black women, brown women, but we do not say yellow woman. It is not because she is exempt from feminist concerns; far from it. And yet the bulk of feminist theory—French feminism, white feminism, black feminism—has overlooked her beyond granting her a nominal pathology. 

I use the term “yellow woman” rather than “Asian woman in the West” or “Asian American woman” because these more ameliorative, politically acceptable terms do not conjure the queasiness of this inescapably racialized and gendered figure. I am not so much interested in recuperating “yellowness” as a gesture of political defiance as I am intent on grasping the genuine dilemma of its political exception. What does it mean to survive as someone too aestheticized to suffer injury but so aestheticized that she invites injury? 

What makes the yellow woman the exception in the larger category of “women of color” is precisely the precariousness of her injury, a fact that is at once taken for granted and questioned. This figure is so suffused with representation that she is invisible, so encrusted by aesthetic expectations that she need not be present to generate affect, and so well known that she has vanished from the zone of contact. I think it is important and about time that we name the ugly racialization behind her beauty.

Featured image: Woman with a fan. Image by LisaRedfern. CC0 via Pixabay.

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