1. Introduction to Techno-Orientalism
Techno-Orientalism is an idea of using Eastern cultures to represent the near-future. The term is used to describe the the perception that Western world holds about East Asian technology and their cultural identity.
The cultural and literary movement of Techno-Orientalism emerged in the late 20th century during American pop-culture and is associated with the rise of speculative science fiction and cyberpunk genres in a post-modernist literature. It was an MTV era with a man landing on a moon logo; Rambo going to a Vietnam war, yuppies embracing Reagan’s doctrine and baby boomers’ new conservatism in social, economic and political life during the 1980s.
Techno-Orientalist narrative blends traditional Orientalist tropes with technologically advanced elements to predict a threatening future controlled by Asiatic people. It’s the newest form of Orientalism and operates under the same principles as Edward Said’s with stereotype of “othering” at it’s core, but has one striking contrast — others are not backward and uncivilized anymore but highly advanced and technologically superior than the West. And, just as Orientalism was not a mass movement, neither is Techno-Orientalism an intentional endeavor.
Some earlier examples of work associated with Techno-Orientalism include William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, which features a mix of Japanese culture and cybernetics, and Ridley Scotts’ seminal movie Blade Runner (1982), set in a dystopian Los Angles with Japanese influenced cyberpunk aesthetics. More recent works in film genre includes The Matrix (1999), Cloud Atlas (2012), Ex Machanica (2014), Ghost in the Shell (2017), and After Yang (2022).
Historic roots of othering of East Asians:
Western fascination (or xenophobia) with Eastern culture, in particular Japan has existed for ages and is not a recent phenomenon. The earlier form the Techno-Orientalism in speculative genre is understood to be a response of American anxieties about Japan’s growing influence on a global economy and technology boom after World War II, and now with rising China the focus has progressively shifted as evident from the latest Hollywood trends and works of fiction.
So when we investigate the roots of this peculiar interest or fear, most analysts point to the times of US Civil war. Right after slavery was abolished, a door to cheap Asian labor opened up. Large number of Chinese immigrated to the United States. The white counterpart felt threatened by this and ‘othering’ of the Chinese became norm to such an extent that in 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which not only suspended their immigration but unleashed shocking events of hate, violence and economic isolation.
Definition of Techno-Orientalism:
Academically, techno-orientalism examines the phenomenon of imagining Asia and Asians in hypo- or hyper-technological terms in literary, cinematic, and new media representations, as well as the stereotype of Asians as both technologically advanced and intellectually primitive, in desperate need of Western consciousness-raising. Now-a-days, it is quite popular in science fiction and video games.
In this piece, I will discuss the concept of “techno-orientalism” and how it came about in the West. I will also be exploring its representation in cyberpunk cinema.
- Background you need on Orientalism by Edward Said
- Analysis of Orientalism Theory & Postcolonialism
- Various Flaws and Strengths of Said’s Orientalism
Four (4) Stages of Modern Orientalism
Historically, to defend Europe’s role in the changing world, 19th century European scholars started creating a fictional image of East through their works with some kernel of truth in it, and called it Orient. This practice later on reached to America as well. The proposition is that the western desire to fabricate a fictional view of Oriental cultures and ‘othering’ of eastern societies didn’t stop with post-colonialism but has modernized into various stages of Orientalism.
- Orientalism – 19th century
- ‘Yellow Peril’ – Early 20th century
- ‘Japan Panic’ – 1970s-1990s
- Techno-Orientalism – 21st century
2. The Origin & Function of ‘Techno Orientalism’
Techno-Orientalism is essentially a branch of Orientalism that intersects technology and race and it explains how the West’s portrayal of Asia has evolved in light of changes in the global power balance, the global economy, and even cultural globalization.
The framework for techno-orientalism as a research topic was built in the mid-1990s. Kevin Morley and David Robins (1995) originally defined the notion as a cultural logic. However, Toshiya Ueno (2002) characterized techno-Orientalism as a discursive phenomena of post-Fordist globalization and information capitalism.
Techno-orientalism has been actually used to rewrite the legacy of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) since its inception in David Morley and Kevin Robins’ book Spaces of Identity: Global Media, Electronic Landscapes, and Cultural Boundaries (1995), updating and expanding but also inverting the temporal, geographical, and conceptual reach of Said’s discursive framework. Rather than representing the present via the past by isolating the East in a perpetual limbo of immobility in order to serve the West’s quest for self-identification, techno-Orientalism functions by employing technology as Orientalism’s operational mechanism.
Referring back to traditional ‘Orientalism’ is the best way to understand the function and scope of techno-orientalism. The following is the contrast between the two:
2.1. Difference Between ‘Orientalism’ and ‘Techno-Orientalism’
Edward Said originally defined ‘Orientalism’ in his book Orientalism, “as a style of thought based on an ontological and epistemological distinction between the orient and most of the time the occident.” In non-academic term, Orientalism is the perceived prejudice or misrepresentation of Middle Eastern and Asian societies in the western world.
Basically ‘Orientalism’ is a colonial categorization of ideas, items, styles, people and places from the Eastern hemisphere that function as an ideological arm of imperialism by ‘othering’ and grouping together. Techno-orientalism, however, is future oriented and most importantly globalist.
English professors and media scholars David S. Roh, Betsy Wong and Dr. Greta A. Niu, in their book Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History and Media, make the distinction further saying “while orientalism defines a modern west by producing a polar opposite and pre-modern east techno-orientalism symmetrically yet contradictorily completes this project by creating a collective futurized Asia to further affirm the West’s centrality.”
They further say that, “the ‘techno’ of techno-orientalism, then, comes to signal Orientalism’s relationship to economic globalization and to a form of temporal asymmetry: an Asian-ness characterized by the juxtaposition of cultural retrograde with technical hyper-advancement.”
Basically it’s imagining what Asian prejudice looks like in the future, economically and culturally. This colonialist perspective is the bedrock for the prejudice that underlines the genre: a futuristic dystopian world where the dominant economic East serves as an antagonist to the economic West.
3. The Emergence of Techno Orientalism in the West
The emergence of techno-orientalism in the West is a product of the convergence of three factors:
- The rise in globalization and the consequent increase in interest in other cultures.
- The impact of the internet’s expansion on the way information is transmitted.
- The need for a new ideology to justify America’s hegemonic status.
Analysis of these Factors in Detail
The first factor, globalization, has been going on since at least the late 1800s when Europe began to colonize Africa and Asia. It was not until after World War II that globalization really took off with advances in transportation, communication, and trade. These advances made it possible for people from all over the world to interact with each other more easily. This increased interaction led to an increased interest in other cultures.
The growth of the internet has been a second major factor in the dissemination of Orientalism. The internet has enabled people to access information and cultural goods from all over the world, and as such, it has become an important tool for those who propagate Orientalism.
The third factor in the emergence of techno-orientalism is the need for a new ideology to justify America’s hegemonic status since the end of the Cold War. The author, David Shambaugh, argues that America needs a new ideology because it is no longer the sole global superpower. He makes this argument by saying that China and Russia are now major world powers and that America needs a new ideology to justify its hegemonic status. The author also claims that America’s military actions reflect the need for a new ideology, and that techno-orientalism is a result of this need.
The United States has been the global superpower for decades, but now other countries are catching up. This is because America’s “America First” ideology is out of date and no longer reflects global realities. Techno-orientalism is a manifestation of this philosophy, the belief that America’s technical superiority justifies its dominion.
Thus, the need for a new ideology to justify America’s hegemonic status is clear. The world is changing and America needs to change with it.
4. Techno-Orientalism in Cyberpunk Cinema & How to Combat it?
If you’ve ever seen the movies ‘Blade Runner (1982)’, ‘The Matrix (1999)’ or ‘Ex Machina (2014)’ , you have encountered what we generally call cyberpunk cinema. However, in this sci-fi sub-genre there are several tropes and patterns that contribute to a nuanced form of prejudice known as techno-orientalism in western made films.
The awareness of the following tropes is only the first step towards combating this nuanced prejudice:
4.1. Examples and Various Tropes Of Techno-Orientalism in Cyberpunk Cinema
The first trope of techno-orientalism in cyberpunk cinema is a high-tech dystopian vaguely Asian-coded place, usually a city. It isn’t situated in any one nation, nor does it draw on any particular Asian culture. Instead, it creates a collective futurized Asia which serves to affirm western centrality.
Ridley Scott directed Blade Runner (1982) is at the epitome of techno-orientalism. Despite that the movie was dud on box office, it is regarded as one of the all-time best science fiction films due to its unique production and great influence on sci-fi genre. The film presents a futuristic view of the world with Asian background characters in the cityscape, flying cars, sushi as a staple food and a giant moving poster of a geisha in American city.
In Ghost in the Shell (2017), the city skyline features holographic ads with Asian faces and in Cloud Atlas (2012), the capital called ‘Neo Seoul’ also features yellow face characters.
This brings us to the second trope i.e. white protagonist navigating a dystopian landscape. Again you can see this in Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, The Great Wall, The Last Samurai and even in Star Wars: Episode 9: The Rise of Skywalker.
The third trope in cyberpunk cinema is the automaton archetype cyborg character which is almost always played by a vaguely Asian character. Again a lot of generic vagueness happening here. Dr. Danielle Wong, in her essay “Dismembered Asian/American Android Parts in Ex Machina as ‘Inorganic’ Critique”, identifies this trope with the following characteristics:
- the Asian laborer machine which upholds model minority stereotypes.
- the dismemberment of the cyborg which only occurs when the Asian cyborg threatens to breach white superiority.
- and if the cyborg is female a fetishized sexually subservient body that is also, eventually, violently dismembered.
In ‘Ghost in the Shell,’ how is this stereotype turned on its head?
This trope is actually turned on its head in the animated classic, Ghost in the Shell, where our female cyborg protagonist has agency in her decisions and embraces her cybernetic aspects while at the same time contemplating the fine line between machine and human.
Another recent film that subverts the subservient female cyborg narrative is Cake. Anne Hu, a Taiwanese American filmmaker, writer, editor, and actor, directed the film, which had its world debut at the 2017 DC Asian Pacific American Film Festival. In the film, she portrays a high-tech Asian sex robot ordered by a young white couple who want to add spark to their sex life by deploying the stereotype of a racialized sex robot who turns the stigma on its head by forcing the audience to take a look at themselves. The film also forces the audience to question their objectification and fetishization of Asian women.
5. Conclusion and Key Takeaways of Techno-Orientalism Debate
- The ideology of Techno-Orientalism differs from Saidian’s Orientalism where Middle East is seen as an exotic, unrelated and mystic place of danger.
- The rise of Techno-Orientalism reflects a broader shift towards the fusion of technology and culture. It also raises important questions about the implications of this trend for our identities and societies.
- Techno-Orientalism can be seen as a form of cultural resistance to the dominance of Western culture and aesthetics in popular media.
- At the same time, Techno-Orientalism can also reinforce stereotypes and exoticize Asian cultures, leading to problematic and false representation of Asian cultures and beliefs.
1. Which cultural and literary movement is associated with the emergence of Techno-Orientalism?
Techno-Orientalism is influenced by various cultural, art and literary movements including, American Pop-culture, post-modernism, trans-humanism, cyberpunk.
2. What is Techno-populism? Does it have a connection with Techno-Orientalism?
Techno-populism is a political belief that makes use of technology and social media with populist messaging to mobilize supporters and challenge traditional political establishments. While Techno-Orientalism and Techno-populism share the use of technology as a central element, they are distinct movements with different goals and motivations.
3. What is Techno-Futurism? How it differs from Techno-Orientalism?
4. What are examples of Orientalism in pop culture?
Orientalism in pop culture mostly stems from the movies, cartoons and TV shows, that we watch for enjoyment, unconsciously imbues prejudice and biased against Asian people, their culture and identities. Here are some examples of Orientalism in pop culture:
- “Memoirs of a Geisha” – the 2005 movie adaptation of Arthur Golden’s novel perpetuates Orientalist stereotypes of geishas as exotic, submissive, and sexually available women. With fiction like these, West continue to churn misleading screen representation of Asian women and reinforcing the power imbalance between Eastern and Western women.
- “Mulan” – the Disney animated movie, while a positive portrayal of a strong female character, is criticized for its stereotypical portrayal of Asian culture with Mulan too much foreign looking and lack of historical accuracy.
- “Aladdin” – animated movie from 1992 is heavily criticized for vilifying and stereotyping the Middle East by making the villainous characters all dark skinned with Arab English accent and westernizing the main characters Aladdin and jasmine. Aditi Natasha asserts in this article that Aladdin is “a misogynist, xenophobic white fantasy,” in which Jasmine is sexualized and subjected to tropes of “white feminism as written by white dudes.”
Sources of this Article:
- Gong, Chloe. “Techno-Orientalism in Science Fiction.” Chloe Gong, 28 Dec. 2019.
- Lee, Laurie. “Laurie Lee: Against the Linear Temporality of Technophilia and Techno-Nationalism.” Sonic Circulations, 28 Apr. 2020.
- Park, Chi Hyun. “Orientalism in the U. S. Cyberpunk Cinema from Blade Runner to The Matrix”. 2004.
- Roh, David S., et al. “Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media.” Rutgers University Press, 2015.
- Saïd, Edward. “Orientalism”. New York: Vintage Books, 1978.
- Sohn, Stephan Hong. “Introduction: Alien/Asian: Imagining the Racialized Future.” 2021.
- Tseng, Annabelle. “The Artificial Asian Female: Technologized/Racialized/Gendered Other.”
- Wong, Danielle. “Dismembered Asian/American Android Parts in Ex Machina as ‘Inorganic’ Critique.” Transformations Journal, 2017.
- Yang, George. Orientalism, ‘Cyberpunk 2077,’ and Yellow Peril in Science Fiction.