Culture of Desire: Orientalism in pop culture

Dublin, Ireland – Today more than ever, we are living in an increasingly globalized world. Not only is business and finance globalized but so is culture. Although people from all nations and cultures have the same basic universal needs and wants, we still live in a world where we can only make sense of it by looking at the world through the lens of our own culture.

When we are faced with a new set of cultural ques that we have not been introduced to, we are often left bewildered and we make sense of this ‘other’ world with the use of our own cultural bias projected onto it. This is what the academic world calls ‘Orientalism’, and it has a lot of relevancy today, not only of the perception of the ‘East’, but also in our pop culture.

The Term ‘Orientalism’ can be simplified down to a fantasizing about going abroad to a new country with new people and reinventing yourself through imitation of the host nations culture. From Native Americans, Arabs and the Japanese, the culture of these people are often envisioned differently by most people in the West than what they really are. One of the best mediums to see this is in film. A good example of this that many people can relate to is Disney’s 1992 Aladdin. At the start of the film, we are greeted with the line

“I come from a land, from a faraway land, where the caravan camels roam. Where they cut off your ear If they don’t like your face. It’s barbaric, but hey it’s home”

Already, the film paints a barbaric image of the people in the Middle-East. Going further through the film, the hero Aladdin and Princess Jasmine have American accents and during their first encounter the Princess Jasmine nearly has her armed cut off for stealing. The character accusing and threatening Princess Jasmine with mutilation has an almost stereotypical Middle-Easterner accent, showing that the civilized rational people are Americanized while locals with foreign accents are evil.

Another good example is The Last Samurai, where a white man is able to adopt the culture of the natives and become more native than the natives themselves, and bring them to victory with his superior knowledge. Tom Cruise, in his part, is an alcoholic former American soldier who adopts Japanese Samurai culture, and through this ‘Eastern Knowledge and land’ he finds some type of spiritual peace. Of course this notion of ‘Eastern’ philosophy and lifestyle are inherently better because they are not tainted by the modern world is in itself a very condescending notion. It is a detrimental world view which portrays other cultures to be irrational and to be beasts of a spiritual nature, even if that beast is barbaric, it is still interesting.

It has to be said for every person who dreams of a journey through India, China or Japan to find their desire, there is an equal and opposite amount of people in those countries who view Europe and America in the same light. It all goes back to a projection of ‘Fantasy’ that strips a culture and people of their humanity, and instead of being accepted for who they are, their image is distorted into the desired image that the person from the outside wants.

Lost in Translation is perhaps one of the best films with blurs the lines of Orientalism in it’s traditional form. Usually the tale of a Westerner going to Asia sounds like the lyrics of Al Stewarts 70s hit ‘The Year of the Cat’. Lost in Translation used Japan as a symbol of the Charlotte and Bob Harris’s confusion of life. Japan to them is the equivalent of being in a constant state of insomnia, both physically and mentally and it is only matched by the oddities that surrounds them. They both eventually find solace in each other and come to terms in some small way with being stuck in life and leave Japan. Although it isn’t a conventional film for the study of Orientalism, the film still uses Japan and the Japanese as little more than props to progress the plot and it cannot be ignored.

A lot of this goes back to fantasy theory by Jaqcues Lacan and is often used by Slavoj Žižek in his lectures and work. Žižek uses the example of a man who decides to cheat on his wife. He thinks by having a mistress he will bring new energy to his life and he desires this woman day and night. Of course his wife finds out and leaves him and now his desire and fantasy of having this woman is a reality, but he finally realizes he never wanted her in the first place. Such an example spells out that it is desirable to have a desire, but it is never desirable to get it. It is an odd catch 22 about being human. This is perhaps why many people find their fantasies and dreams never live up to the hype. Moving to a faraway land of new people and cultures seems like an adventure. At home we may turn the foreign land into an object of desire, devoid of all humanity and truth.

Ultimately when we arrive to this land, there can be either a total rejection of the people and culture which can itself in the traveller becoming irritated and angry by their fantasy not being real, or a traveller will still continue to view their surroundings as their fantasy. It is important to view a culture and people who they are and not what we want them to be. Even in this globalized world, no one culture is superior to another. One that note, remember, cultures are like roads, which split into different directions, but their destination will always be the same, understanding. This understanding is used to make sense of the world around us and where we belong in it.

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