Against VictOrientalism

The Terrace of the SeraglioJha’s Silver Goggles/ SteamPunk Magazine article “Countering Victorientalism” (SPM version here), and a related post by Ay-Leen, “The Semantics of Words & the Antics of Fashion: Addressing ‘Victorientalism‘” at Beyond Victoriana, have been the subject of some very interesting and controversial discussion in comments. I’ve already recommended Jha’s articles on this blog with regard to the consideration of steampunk and race.

The challenge, for those of you new to the discussion, is that steampunk, in its classic form, is grounded in Victorianism. While that can make for an interesting aesthetic, it inevitably raises questions about steampunk’s political and ideological assumptions.

Victorientalism, defined at The Gatehouse, is a neologism coined to try to capture steampunk set in non-Western countries (remember, the term “Victorianism” refers to Queen Victoria, titular head of the British Empire). It calls on the term “Orient,” used in English in the 19th century to refer collectively to Asian and Middle-Eastern countries. In particular, it appropriates the word “Orientalism,” the ideological perspective of scholars and artists in the Victorian period (and beyond) that was critiqued in a groundbreaking book by that same name by Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said in the ’70s.

Thus, the term “Victorientalism” accurately alludes to a term in use during the Victorian period (the Orient, Orientals, Orientalists). However, “Oriental” isn’t politically correct; like the use of “Indian” to describe the various indigenous peoples of North and South America, “Oriental” is broad, vague, and laden with stereotypes. Its coinage to describe a particular subgenre of steampunk is, therefore, unfortunate. Instead, Jha suggests “Asian steampunk,” or “Asian-inspired steampunk,” or even more specific terms, such as “Meiji-era steampunk.”

The only defensible purpose to using Victorientalism as a descriptor that I can think of might be in the pejorative sense (“that story was so Victorientalist; doesn’t the author know anything about what was going on in the Punjab in 1845?”) or, perhaps, to describe a story that deliberately sets out to parody or undermine Orientalism within a steampunk framework.

The discussion in comments at SteamPunk Magazine includes some very good critiques of steampunk itself (is it really Victorian? is it, in itself, parodic?) and of phrases such as “white privilege” vs. “cultural privilege,”  the purpose of fiction, and so forth. It’s worth reading, if nothing else for the reminder that nothing in human language is innocent of ideology — and we writers must be ready to face that reality and make the best, most well-considered linguistic choices that we can.

Image Credit: The Terrace of the Seraglio (1898) Jean-Leon Gerome — an Orientalist painting. The role of women in Victorian culture is another post entirely….

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