Digital Orientalism: Japan and Electronic Literature

Critical Writing
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Digital Orientalism: Japan and Electronic Literature: Alice Ferrebe
In their 1995 essay ‘Techno-Orientalism: Japan Panic’, David Morley and Kevin Robins examined the contemporary construction of Japan as a potent and threatening Other, inscrutably encroaching upon the West through precocious technological genius and insidious business practices. For Japanophobes, they claimed, ‘the unpalatable reality is that Japan, that most Oriental of Oriental cultures, as it increasingly outperforms the economies of the West, may now have become the most (post)modern of all societies’. Of course, this imagining of Japan as the land of the future (a frequent cyberpunk strategy) stands in contrast to the more traditional Orientalist vision of the nation as a repository for the ancient and exotic – the Japan of an alien, exquisite aesthetic and of arcane martial practices, pre-modern rather than postmodern.

Though his ‘East’ was Middle- rather than Far-, Edward Said has established the way in which the Orient has functioned to define and empower the Occident, its binary opposite. In 1967, Marshall McLuhan proclaimed a shift in this cultural hierarchy of West/East, as ‘electric circuitry is Orientalizing the West. The contained, the distinct, the separate – our Western legacy – are being replaced by the flowing, the unified, the fused’. This valorization of the Orient in relation to the new experiences of digital culture extends well beyond McLuhan’s early messianism. Broadly, the structures, poetics and aesthetics of Japanese literature – multiple, or undefined, viewpoints; epigrammatic verse; pictographic representation; freedom from the necessity of sensing an ending, for example – seem to suggest a far more satisfying critical match with postmodern writing in general, and electronic literature in particular, than the perceivedly linear, ego-centered discourses of the Western canon. If we are to respond to N. Katherine Hayles’s recent plea to ‘understand electronic literature not only as an artistic practice (though it is that, of course), but also as a site for negotiations between diverse constituencies and different kinds of expertise’, then the Japanese literary tradition would seem to offer some potentially invaluable insights.

Yet in Orientalism Said countered any utopian notion that technologically advanced communication systems necessarily enhance inter-cultural relations with the claim that his contemporary media were actually reinforcing the symbolic stereotypes of the East: ‘So far as the Orient is concerned, standardisation and cultural stereotyping have intensified the hold of the nineteenth-century academic and imaginative demonology of the “mysterious Orient”’. This paper will explore the concept of a new Orientalism within digital studies more widely and one particular Japan-inspired work of electronic literature, Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries’s Nippon. Is it a regressive practice, replicating old stereotypes, and effective in mystifying process and agency in an emergent genre that depends upon those very qualities for its specificity? Or does it refigure the Orient/Occident binary in new and potentially liberating ways? (author-submitted abstract)

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Eric Dean Rasmussen