Since the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism, religious scholarship has incorporated postcolonial criticism into its theoretical toolkit. In conjunction with poststructuralist and postmodern scholarship on the politics of difference, orientalism as an analytic framework has aided critical scholarship interrogating western hegemony in the academic study of the religions, cultures, and theologies of the subaltern “Other” (or Denise Ferreira da Silva’s “others of Europe”). Some works engaging postcolonial criticism to deconstruct Orientalist constructions of religious subaltern subjectivities include Charles H. Long’s Significations, David Chidester’s Empire of Religion, and Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions.
It is established that 19th century Orientalist Studies heavily influenced the standardization of methodologies and theoretical interlocutors for the scientific study of religions and comparative theology; however, the question of how contemporary orientalisms—as residual and emergent phenomena—affect contemporary religious and theological scholarship has been underexplored, and/or has had a marginal impact on contemporary comparative religious scholarship beyond the study of Judaism and Christianity. While decolonial approaches to religious and theological studies have challenged Eurocentrism and western hegemony in representing the religiocultural other, they rely on a genealogical and archaeological approach for analyzing the centrality of religion/theology in constructing and sustaining the Colonial Matrix of Power from the early modern period onward. A historicist approach is taken along with the archaeological project of recovering an authentic representation of the religious subaltern subject or a minor transparent indigenous subjectivity.
Resisting the discursive formation of contemporary orientalisms reproduced by overvaluing historicism, Jane Iwamura’s Virtual Orientalism analyzed the figure of the Oriental Monk and examined how media representations of contemporary religious cultures in Asia prime US consumers (and, to a certain extent, religious scholars) to identify, recognize, and internalize certain notions of “authentic” Asian religious subjectivities while promoting the narrative that (white) western converts to Asian religious traditions serve as spiritual successors and protectors of their most pristine authentic forms. This essay builds on Iwamura’s work on Virtual Orientalism by exploring Asian/American and Global Majority scholarship on techno-orientalism. Countering overt and covert orientalisms, Global Majority scholars take both archaeological and futurist approaches to unpack how orientalism is reproduced in literature, film, media, news, social media, and fashion.
Whereas Iwamura tracks the hyperreality of mass mediated images representing the Oriental Monk figure, techno-orientalism emerges in mid-twentieth century US science fiction, taking East Asian cultural artifacts and landscapes as the mise-en-scéne for critiquing the perceived East Asian mastery of Euro-American technology and capitalism. Techno-orientalism was coined by David Morley and Kevin Robins in Spaces of Identity to index representations of the Far East in US media. Central to this representation is Euro-American anxiety over the economic success of East Asian nation-states. Cyberpunk, a science fiction subgenre combining film noir narrative techniques with futuristic technological dystopian contexts, exemplifies this anxiety. William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and the Wachowskis’ Matrix Trilogy are notable examples of cyberpunk. While the genre is hailed for its critiques of capitalism, multinational corporations, and dystopian applications of technology, Asian American literary scholars analyze how it reproduces orientalist representations of Asian bodies and subjectivities found in early 20th century Hollywood productions. In addition, the dystopian future’s imagined location in a futuristic dystopian Japan centers Japanese techno-corporatism and the authoritarian state’s role in undermining western liberal democratic societies. Japan thus serves not only as the historic Yellow Peril of the past (World War II), but also the present/future of threatened white (male) hegemony.
As residual and emergent reproductions of racist Hollywood tropes, techno-orientalist representations of Asian subjectivities and embodiments resonate with Iwamura’s arguments in Virtual Orientalism. Predecessors to the Oriental Monk figure in Hollywood include the benign yet perpetually foreign Charlie Chan alongside gendered yellowface performances of Yellow Peril in Fu Manchu and Dragon Lady. Karen Tei Yamashita argues that the Dragon Lady, tragic Butterfly, and Lotus Blossom Baby figures are Orientalist in the concomitant signification of romanticization/fetishization and disgust/fear on the Asian woman’s body. The Dragon Lady as a femme fatale Yellow Peril that is simultaneously desirable and deceitful proliferates in media such as Battlestar Galactica, Hitman: Agent 47, Deus Ex: Human Revolution and the James Bond series. In all of these portrayals, Asian women are represented as tragic figures that need saving by white agents (see “Can the Subaltern Speak?”) or are deserving of their tragic fate for their duplicity.
Ann May Wong’s performances in typecast roles such as Dragon Lady and Butterfly provided an archetype for the figure of the Asian female cyborg that informs both Donna Harraway’s posthumanist feminist “A Cyborg Manifesto” and techno-orientalist permutations of Yellow Peril in cyberpunk, such as the unfeeling robot archetype. In the former, the gendered posthuman figure’s racialization in the essay’s accompanying visuals is glossed over, sustaining a narrative of white subjectivities’ liberation predicated upon the erasure of racialized difference and racialized subaltern subjects’ material dispossession and suffering. This narrative is also apparent in the juxtaposition of the two cyborgs in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, with Kyoko embodying the subservient Lotus Blossom Baby stereotype and white-passing Ava liberating itself.
The figure of the unfeeling robot is deployed in depictions of Asian laborers and factory workers as unfeeling, dehumanized producers of electronics repressed by authoritarian corporations and governments. Asian philosophies such as Confucianism are cited to justify the perception that Asians are less individualistic and more communitarian. Like western perceptions of Asian commodities such as motorcycles, Asians are perceived as interchangeable replicants who reproduce inferior facsimiles of western ingenuity. The Asian robot as cold and obedient also reinforces the imagination of Yellow Peril as a threatening mass, like Chinese combatants during the Korean War or Japanese kamikaze pilots during World War II. In techno-orientalist fiction, Asian subjects are depicted as unable to exert a critical voice and resist repressive Asian corporate subjugation, unlike their western counterparts who master the essence of Asian philosophies to harmonize it with western transparent subjectivity to overcome future disciplinary apparatuses.
Betsy Huang argues in “Premodern Orientalist Science Fictions” that American science fiction relies on Orientalist representations of the racialized subaltern other. The premodern orientalist trope is figured in the “vocabulary of robots, androids, replicants, and cold, calculating Asian arch-nemeses,” (24). Prior to cyberpunk, premodern or proto techno-orientalism idealized and fetishized “ancient Eastern philosophies and texts” as Virtual Orientalism romanticized a particular notion of Asian religiosity and cultures in the virtual or visual media. Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven romanticized Daoist philosophy and the Yijing, just as the Oriental Monk figure idealized Zen Buddhism and Hindu yogis. Huang argues that techno-orientalism in American science fiction signifies “Asia as technology rather than as designers and wielders of it” (39) and commodifies Asian religiocultural resources “in service of a liberal humanist agenda” (37). Asian subjectivities and religious cultures are instrumentalized to service and refine Euro-America’s hegemonic critical futurist visions. Asian subjects and vistas act as mere window dressing for the white posthuman subject’s deliberations of further self-actualization and liberation in a technologically complex and evolving world.
Whereas cyberpunk and Japonism dominated techno-orientalist representations of Asian subjectivities from the 1970s to early 1990s, the development of post-cyberpunk from the mid-1990s shifted its gaze away from Japan toward China, South Korea, and Southeast Asian nation-states. Techno-orientalist critiques of Cloud Atlas and the western media’s praise of South Korea’s initial response to the pandemic speak to post-cyberpunk Asian subjectivities and national polities. Post-cyberpunk genres reflect more on the effects of globalization and neoliberalism alongside innovations in technology, spawning genres such as nanopunk, fiscal orientalism, and algorithmic orientalism. Japan is central to “Wacky” Orientalism’s fixation on the bizarre, strange, and comical aspects of Japanese Otaku, gaming, and nerd subcultures. Cyberpunk’s revival since the 2010s has birthed an Asian-void future in Blade Runner 2049, interactive techno-orientalist video games like Cyberpunk 2077, and an amalgam of DIY musical genres like vaporwave that are reliant on a retrofuturist aesthetic of Japanese typography, animation, and visuals.
Techno-orientalist representations and narratives run parallel to late 20th century anti-Asian violence and hate crimes. These historic tragedies counter assertions that techno-orientalist studies are merely cultural or ideological critiques abstracted from material realities. The murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American draftsman misidentified as a Japanese auto worker, occurred several days before Blade Runner’s theatrical release. In Anime Wong, Karen Tei Yamashita writes that “Vincent Chin became a victim and casualty of misguided and hostile fears about Asia, about Japanese and the competition for superiority in a global automotive industry…[losing] his life in the technology wars between Asia and the U.S.” (177). Stephen Hong Sohn explains that in the imagined technology war, American subjects “maintain a sense of moralistic superiority…as an embattled but resistant fighter” against Asian technological dominance (9).
Contemporary techno-orientalism shifts the technology wars’ terrain to China. The heavily politicized ban of technological products developed by Chinese tech companies with ties to the Chinese Communist Party, such as Huawei’s 5G infrastructure products and ByteDance’s TikTok, is a continuation of the techno-orientalist anti-Asian racism that motivated the murder of Vincent Chin. Mel Y. Chen highlights how in the mid-2000s, consumer toy products containing heavy metals such as mercury were racialized as Chinese through appeals to the Yellow Peril trope. Sinophobic attitudes already intensified by Fiscal Orientalism’s imagination of US-China conflict in terms of a creditor/debtor relationship reached a new peak last year with the racialization of COVID-19 as “Kung Flu” and the “China Virus.” The murder of Christian Hall and more than 10,000 reported hate incidents against AAPI persons from March 19, 2020 to September 30, 2021 attest to the materiality of techno-orientalism’s contemporary derivatives.
Critiquing political theology through the lens of contemporary orientalisms helps us uncover how political theologians also unwittingly reproduce these orientalisms through both fascination and disgust, romanticization and demonization. In short, some political theology projects perpetuate (neo)colonial extractive practices toward Asian subjectivities and religiocultural resources. Scholars continue to imagine Asian religious subjectivites as violent and uncivilized without carefully examining how Euro-American imperialism and the priming effect of virtual orientalism created the necessary conditions for the growth of right wing religious nationalists such as Hindu nationalist/supremacists via the circulation of capital. Ironically, white scholars appalled by supremacism “out there” lead the charge to decolonize yoga, conforming to the narrative of the Oriental Monk’s white successors who serve as ideological caretakers to an ancient Asian tradition corrupted by “cultural accretions” and decadent modernity.
Positive, romanticized reflections on Asian traditions by white political theologians/theorists place “the Orient…[as] the cognitive estrangement device of choice” to critique and reform western modernity (Huang, “Premodern Orientalist Science Fictions,” 39). Like the techno-orientalism embedded in western science fiction, white theoretical appropriations of Asian religiocultural concepts further western political and ideological interests through archaeological quests searching for ahistorical authenticity that forcibly severs religiocultural traditions from Asian/American practitioners and communities. Discursive formations of contemporary orientalisms in political theology/theory reassert western power, the will to self-definition, or the overrepresentation of white political gendered subjectivities in (post)humanist ecologies. Huang explains, “[A]s useful as the Orient has been in helping the West find its way, evidently—and quite ironically— it does not seem to be as effective in showing Asians the ‘way,’ given the charges of social oppression and human rights violations continually leveled at China, Japan, and other Asian countries by Western politicians and Asian dissidents” (39). Asian/Americans cannot be trusted with their own religiocultural legacies; they can only further white historical progress and development by serving as a critical whetstone for (post)human white subjectivities.
Pledges of solidarity with Asian/Americans in a season where nearly 1 in 5 have experienced anti-Asian racism must be accompanied by an examination of how contemporary orientalist representations and ideologies are embedded in political theological projects interacting with Asian religions, philosophies, and cultures. Politically liberative projects seeking to go beyond Euro-American political theory and Christian theology may inadvertently romanticize Asian religiocultural resources while abstracting them from Asian practitioners and institutions.
Trumpism, the alt-Right, and white nationalism are not the only players invoking Sinophobia to support either liberal humanism or utopian posthumanism centering the white political subject’s self-determination and autonomy. Neither are naïve celebrations of “positive” Asian representations in contemporary media, film, and music to be seen as victories over the Orientalist imagination. Such celebrations merely reproduce the “model minority myth,” lauding successful assimilation by exceptional cosmopolitan ethnic subjects or feeding into the white gaze’s insatiable consumption of subaltern suffering. As seen with vaporwave’s deployment of techno-orientalist retrofuturist aesthetics, ambiguous or satirical takes on popular culture could inadvertently rely on racially reductive tropes and be usurped by neo-fascist alt-right organizers online. Sustained critical analysis of various representations of Asian subjectivities and religious cultures in media and scholarly production is necessary to resist the commodification, fetishization, and objectification of Asian bodies into minor transparent subjects “still subjected to economic exploitation and dispossession, meet[ing] the force of law (juridical universality) almost exclusively in its punitive instantiation, in the policing of immigrants and refugees and the threat of self-righteous neoimperial violence” (Da Silva, Toward a Global Idea of Race, 35).
Political theologies focused on critiquing neoliberal political economies, Euro-American modernity, and repressive kyriarchies inhibiting (post)human self-determination, agency, and performance can invoke or erase the minor Asian transparent subject when 1) extracting Asian religiocultural resources without concern for the material wellbeing and emancipation of Asian bodies, 2) purportedly advocating for the plight of Asian subjectivities by performing the role of the Oriental Monk’s white successor or white savior, 3) wresting away Asian subjectivities’ epistemic power through white hermeneutical excavation of Asian texts, and 4) demonizing Asian religious nationalisms/fundamentalisms/supremacism in modernity by distancing them from Euro-American neocolonial and neoimperialist activity and ideology.
In sum, Asian American literary criticism’s analysis of contemporary orientalisms centered around the figuration of Asian subjectivities reminds political theologians that unconscious (white) fear and fascination with the Orient still guides political and theoretical engagement with the Asian “other.” Whether imagined as a revolutionary multitude during the Umbrella Movement or Arab Spring, or as a repressed, unfeeling mass dehumanized by global capitalist supply chains, the Asian subject is figured predominantly from a white gaze and desire to reproduce its transparent subjectivity. Asian political subjectivities become legible through subsumption into western political categories and interests rather than on their own terms. The Asian politicized subject in political theology/theory thus supports western modernity’s definition of revolution, human rights, liberation, the common good, dignity, or ecological civilization.
I close by reflecting on the recent cultural sensation around the South Korean series, Squid Game. Buzz around the show manifested in star-studded Hollywood parties where guests dressed up and played the sadistic contest games from the show. Squid Game paraphernalia and apparel proliferated in the online marketplace as scammers capitalized on the cryptocurrency craze with Squid Coin. Critics stared aghast at its gratuitous violence, panned it as a Korean “Most Dangerous Game,” or opined about the sadistic nature of the audience as spectator to blood sport. Such panning conforms to contemporary orientalist representations and attitudes of Asian subjectivity, narrative, and bodies. As such, they are unable to see the show’s subtle acknowledgement that a hypercapitalist South Korea is the product of western and Japanese imperialism, modernization, and development that persists as a de facto neocolonial laboratory for neoliberal policies and corporatism. The causalities become nameless, tragic figures that are affective subjects unable to escape their self-chosen misery. Contemporary orientalisms, exemplified by the US reception of Squid Game, implicitly prime consumers and scholars to engage with Asia with the same gaze, desires, and relational frameworks that resubjugate it in speculative futures where white transparent subjectivity remains normative, agential, and liberative.
Morley, David and Kevin Robins. Spaces of Identity: Global Media, Electronic Landscapes, and Cultural Boundaries (New York: Routledge, 1995).
Morley and Robins’ chapter coining techno-orientalism and outlining its relationship to transformations in culture and communication in the digital era is part of this monograph.
Park, Jane Chi Hyun. Yellow Future: Oriental Style in Hollywood Cinema (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).
Park reworks Said’s definition of Orientalism by applying it to popular culture, shifting the geographic focus from Europe and the Atlantic Ocean to the United States and the Pacific Ocean, and analyzing the illegibility of Asian subjectivities for the white gaze through superimposing the technological imaginary on Asia.
Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media. Edited by David S. Roh, Betsy Huang, and Greta A. Niu (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2015).
This is the first major edited volume within Asian American Studies that critically engages techno-orientalism and its role in shaping how Asia is imagined in western popular culture and media.