Orientalism—A Third Set of Thoughts (Fetishization)

orientalism_cover3I’ve finished reading Said’s Orientalism now, but I’ve still got a small backlog of thoughts to process from the book. Today I’d like to give some attention to the process of fetishization.

Briefly to review, Said’s argument opens with a description of othering, which in Orientalism is a term used to describe the difficult relationship between the Orient and the Occident. When I ‘other’ someone it means that I am perceiving them as different in such a way that the difference reinforces my own sense of identity. I am not examining an ‘other’ to find out more about the other, to discover his or her history, family relationships, culture, sense of self-identity, values, teleology, and so forth. Instead, I view the other through a more rigid lens of my own perception. I identify a ‘them’ so that I can better reinforce my sense of ‘us.’

In the history of Orientalism (as a discipline and mindset) this othering process has resulted in a flattening of “Oriental” culture (a very diverse and large set of data is made to fit within artificial and procrustean structures—I wrote about this last time), and also in a fetishization. Now, there is an obvious sexual component to this term that will factor in shortly, but beneath and behind that I want to highlight something more nuanced. By fetishization, I want to suggest a form of love for the other that is fundamentally self-referential. Fetishized love is a love which is based on what the other is perceived to be able to do for me. With this in mind, it is not hard to see how the Orient has been loved by the West in a way that is self-referential to the West. The Orient is loved on the basis of the West’s idea of the Orient (whether or not the Orient matches that idea), and the Orient is loved for the way that the West’s perception of its differences reinforces Western senses of self, and the Orient is loved because in its plasticity the West can project its desires upon it. Each of these is a fetishizing love. Each of these warps the Orient to Western tastes and perceptions.

Much of this, on the Western side of the scale, can be arguably laid at the feet of what Charles Taylor labelled as the West’s identity crisis. In Sources of the Self he explicitly claims that the West has lost its moorings—a new sense of autonomous self-governed authority dominates the western self and leaves it with few external reference points. Consequently, it is only natural that the West would look outside of itself in the hope of finding out who it really is. One of the richest mines for this outside look has been the Orient, and this connects directly to our fascination with so-called eastern mysticism. Not long ago I re-watched the 1984 film The Karate Kid, and couldn’t help but think about this process. A young, fatherless, displaced boy, finds himself bullied at school (he is a prototype for Taylor’s disorientated Western self). He is taken under wing by an older, Japanese man who coaches him through his bullying problem by providing him with a sense of deeper identity through Karate, bonsai trees, and Japanese culture. And while I loved (and still love!) the movie, I can’t help but reflect on the caricature of the East that it portrays (however lovingly). The east, I am tacitly told, is a place to be consumed, to be borrowed from, to be utilized for my own personal needs. It is a place (extending from this) from which I can collect souvenirs and artefacts, the foreign writing of which I can paint on my body, whose women will provide satisfaction for my carnal desires, and which will ultimately provide me with my much longed-for meaning in life. It is a place I can love selfishly.

Karate Kid_1984_Miyagi and Daniel

Within this dynamic, fetishizing love depends upon a perceived plasticity in the object of love. In other words, it is a suitable object for love precisely because upon it I can project my own desires. It is here that I think the sexualization of Asian women finds its roots. Said, writing about the history of Western pilgrimages to the east, records the following about Flaubert’s experiences with an “Oriental” woman: “…he is entranced by her self-sufficiency, by her emotional carelessness, and also by what, lying next to him, she allows him to think. Less a woman than a display of impressive but verbally inexpressive femininity…” (Orientalism, 187, emphasis added). Because she is different, and exotic, and not like Western women, and because she doesn’t speak English, she becomes a vaguely feminine vessel for Flaubert’s sexual desire. That sexual desire, in turn, and under the influence of fetishizing love, can manifest itself imaginatively. The Oriental woman, under the same flattening process of othering, is thus stripped of her individuality, personality, narrative, and will, and serves as an ideal vessel for Western sexual desire. Said writes elsewhere that “women are usually the creatures of a male power-fantasy. They express unlimited sensuality, they are more or less stupid, and above all they are willing.” (207) In this, she has been fetishized. (It is worth considering—does this process of female fetishization partly explain the emasculated characterization of Asian males? Are they diminished because they stand in the way of a Western sexualized power fantasy?)

Asian Eyes_Vanity_Makeup

It is difficult here to separate the immense danger of fetishizing love from the genuine allure of love for the other. There is, of course, a natural fascination with things that are different, the refreshing appeal of a system and world in which a different set of rules operate, the genuine pleasure of standing ‘outside’ one’s own culture and seeing the world in a fresh way. But this is a natural love that must be carefully cultivated and pruned. Love, to be love, must possess a disinterested quality, and however much I may love the other, no other (whether culture or person!) ever exists purely for the sake of my needs and desires.

The dangers of fetishizing love seem strikingly present when we think of the missionary efforts of the church. When a missionary approaches a non-western culture, does he or she love the people as they are, or are they loved for what they might become? Am I loving my Western idea of the foreign convert, or am I loving the foreign other in all his strange, foreign otherness, so that Christ might be formed in him or her? All too often, is it not the case that short-term missions trips are crafted more for the benefit of the sending nationals than for the people whom they are supposed to benefit? Are we there to save the others, or to make ourselves feel better? It’s a challenging prospect, and discerning between a love that is selfish and one that is godly will require careful and constant diagnoses of our loves.

Orientalism—Othering and the Kingdom of God

Orientalism_Cover2As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’ve been reading through (and benefitting from) Edward Said’s Orientalism, and I’m taking advantage of a few blog posts to think through elements of his book. Today I want to think about certain aspects of the concept of “othering.”

Othering is an idea that Said employs to disentangle the difficult relationship between the Orient and the Occident. As far as I understand, othering is a process of perception in which the ‘other’ is conceived as different in such a way that the difference reinforces my own sense of identity. I am not examining an ‘other’ to find out more about the other, to discover his or her history, family relationships, culture, sense of self-identity, values, teleology, and so forth. Instead, I view the other through a more rigid lens of my own perception. I identify a ‘them’ so that I can better reinforce my sense of ‘us,’ I clearly demarcate ‘outsiders’ so that I can feel more secure in my own insider status. The key, it seems to me, is that the other is viewed not for him or herself, but primarily with reference to my own knowledge, and sense of self, and the security of my own identity. History makes it clear that this kind of process has been at work in the West’s treatment of the Orient.

Within this, Said seems to be well aware that some form of othering is a necessary part of cultural engagement. Discovering a boundary between myself, and my self-perception, and another and that other’s self-perception, is always a self-reflexive activity. David Augsburger, commenting on this reality, once wrote that “He who knows one culture knows no culture.” This is true because culture only becomes visible on the boundaries, in comparison and contrast. There is nothing inherently wrong with seeing more clearly in the ‘other’ where I differ. As a personal example, I learned more about myself as an American by living in Canada, working with Vietnamese and then Chinese churches, than I would have known otherwise. My experience of the other has generated a marked and beneficial increase in my self-awareness. I would say that I’m a better person because of those experiences.


“He who knows one culture knows no culture.” ~ David Augsburger

However, the Western pattern of othering has, historically speaking, reflected a more insidious flavour. Specifically, it would appear that the power dynamic of the West—including, but not limited to, its sense of superiority, manifest destiny, and self-referentiality—has caused this otherwise natural othering relationship to generate distortions. On my read, I see this taking the form of flattening, and of fetishization. In this post I want to focus on the flattening.

The West flattens the Orient in a variety of ways, not least of which is in the absurdly broad categorization that a concept like the “Orient” requires. Orientalism, Said writes with some understatement, “is a field with considerable geographical ambition.” (50) This results in a collapse in specificity—what qualifies as Oriental is as broad as China, Vietnam, Japan, Egypt, Syria, and Afghanistan, to name a few. This begs questions—what kind of food are we eating when we eat “Oriental” food? What kind of person are we speaking to when we speak to an “Oriental” person? What kind of subject are we studying when we read an “Oriental” book? The vagueness is problematic in itself, but it extends to individual persons as well. Many are content to collapse the dizzying variety of eastern races into a single class, “Oriental” (Asians are often flattened in this way to a single category) while at the same time privileging what would be the equivalent western disambiguations (Italian, Irish, German, etc.). In continuity with this, is it not possible that the phrase, “all Asians look alike” speaks more of Western self-perception than it does of actual Asian reality?

Oriental Restaurant

What kind of food is actually being served here?

An important counterpoint to this is to remember that there really is no way to escape stereotyping—it’s hard-wired into how our brains take in new information. We filter new data into categories of known data. It’s how we make sense of things. Consequently, our first steps into the world of the other commonly involves our recourse to what is assumed, or known by reputation. Almost all encounters between cultures (where there is at least some knowledge of the other beforehand) involves basic stereotyping. The problem arises—and this is terribly important—when I don’t allow the new data of the real person sitting in front of me to challenge that type. The problem is when I stop listening and project what I think to be true on the person, rejecting him or her in the process. And this, of course, appears to be very often precisely what the West has done in relation to the East. It has clutched its stereotypes, then demanded that those who have been othered conform to the type. This flattens a foreign culture, reducing it so that it will fit within my perceptions.


Photo by Ridwan Adhami

As I thought about these matters, I began to wonder—is there an othering relationship at play between the Kingdom of God and human culture, whether Oriental or Occidental? There is radical, disjunctive difference between the Kingdom and the world. In that relationship the Kingdom possesses immense power to shape, define, and identify. A crucial difference, however, is that the Kingdom has no need of human culture to self-reflexively know itself. It does not depend upon outsiders to be itself, or, rather, to be more itself. All the same, in its power relationship to the world, the Kingdom defines us, orders us, reshapes us, and sets our aspirations. That is to say, despite its perfect self-knowledge the kingdom is still a genuinely imperialistic force. It approaches the world—East and West alike—with the intention of invasion, interpretation, and reformation. Like the Oriental/Occidental dynamic, it is the Kingdom that gets to tell me who and what I am. It holds all the power.

There are further differences, however. The Kingdom holds this power by right—it deserves it. The West utilizes this power by accident of history. Where the Kingdom by right redefines the world, East and West alike, the West does not possess the authority to redefine the other according to its pleasure. In fact, what may make the particular cultural sins of the West more grim is the appropriation of Kingdom power for its own purposes. The West has done things to the world in the name of the Kingdom, and that corrupted, self-referential use of Godly power has not only done damage to the East, it has poisoned the power of the message the West was privileged to inherit. In presuming to speak with the authority of the Kingdom of God toward the rest of the world, the West has ascribed to itself an undue holiness, an improper destiny. Rather than bringing the Kingdom to the East as a subject of it, the West has often enough presumed itself to be the Kingdom. This has created situations where the West falsely legitimizes its oppression by appeal to the Kingdom.

Dutch East India Company Flag

This is the flag of the Dutch East India Company, which famously (or infamously) married its acceptance of Christian missions to its profit margins. Missionaries, often enough, were reduced to advance agents for empire.

Additionally, where in the hands of the West this othering power has flattened other cultures, the Kingdom of God does not flatten. Yes, it is imperialistic. Yes, it redefines and shapes according to its dictates, but fundamentally the Kingdom is about bringing life to the world in all its variety. Under the effects of the othering of the Kingdom of God, we are not less ourselves, but more ourselves than ever we were before. This is a great mystery.

Rowan Williams, writing about St John of the Cross, said the following: “To be absorbed in the sheer otherness of any created order or beauty is to open the door to God, because it involves that basic displacement of the dominating ego without which there can be no spiritual growth.” (The Wound of Knowledge, 176) To step from this language into our discussion suggests—I think rightly—that in the context of all true othering, we lose ego and gain self, while false, distorted othering causes us to clutch ego and lose our selves.

Rethinking Accountability

I take it as axiomatic that Accountability—the business of caring for and guarding my fellow Christian—is a non-negotiable duty of the Christian life. I do not get to choose whether or not I will be accountable to others. Nor do I get to choose whether or not I am accountable for what happens to others. I am accountable in both directions, and every failure on this front is a serious affront to my faith.

cain-and-abel-1544_TitianThe story of Cain and Abel, of course, is my source material for this. The two brothers are out in the field one day and Cain, out of envy and lack of self-control, murders Abel in cold blood. The Lord then approaches Cain and asks a piercing question: “Where is Abel your brother?” The Lord doesn’t ask, of course, because He needs information—He’s not investigating Cain any more than he investigated Cain’s parents a short chapter earlier. No, God doesn’t ask questions because He needs information; He asks questions in order to give us opportunities to change our hearts. Cain’s response is unfortunate, and seems to echo throughout the rest of the Scriptures: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer, of course, is yes, and as someone else has observed, it seems as if the rest of the Bible from this verse onward is a kind of answer to that question. Yes, you are your brother’s keeper, and you have made a terrible muck of it.

If I am going to steer a path away from the folly of Cain then I must take seriously that I am my brother’s keeper, that we are each other’s keepers, that this business of keeping one another is neither optional nor selective. And we must remember that the neglect of brother keeping—as the first story of this neglect teaches us—is not far from a kind of murder. To refuse to keep my brother or sister in the faith is to either directly or indirectly contribute to his or her destruction. And for that destruction I am accountable.


A lovely retreat spot.

I had occasion to reflect on the significance of this passage recently when I attended, for the second consecutive year, the Men’s Retreat with my church. We had three sessions of teaching together over our weekend. The first was on our identity as sons of the Father, the second on our responsibility as brothers to one another, the third and final on our mission to bless one another after the pattern of the Father. During that second session we held a sustained gaze at this idea of accountability for one another, taking seriously the question of what it means to “keep” our brothers in the faith. Upon reflection, there seemed to be two clear areas where this business of “keeping” takes place. (And please note that while I may speak specifically of brothers here, this responsibility applies to all who are joined together in Christ.)

The first area of brother-keeping is the keeping of my brother’s physical life. This is, perhaps, an area where we are most comfortable keeping one another. Physical problems are relatively easy to fix. Is a brother without food? Feed him. Is a sister without rent money? Take up a collection and solve the problem. Is a brother sick? Gather and pray. Is a sister being harmed? Step in to protect her. When we care for one another in the church—practically speaking—we are keeping our brothers and sisters in Christ.

But the second area of brother-keeping is far more difficult, because not only am I responsible for the physical life of my brothers in Christ, I am also responsible for their spiritual lives. Pause and reflect on that for a moment: as a keeper of my brother I am responsible for the spiritual life of my brothers in Christ. If my brother walks away from his faith, that is my problem. If my brother falls into sin, that is my problem. If my brother neglects his gifts and call in Christ, that is my problem. I am accountable. And so are you.

Jesus_BaptismAs part of our weekend together we attempted to narrow down what this business of spiritual brother-keeping really looks like in practical terms, and it seems clear that the main thing we are keeping—that is, protecting and guarding—is our identity as sons of the Father. This is the gift that God gives us when we accept the sacrifice of His son—to become sons and daughters of God. And to be a son of God is not mere sentimentality—it is a role that comes with responsibility and power. When the Father blesses Jesus the son at his baptism He speaks from heaven, saying, “This is my son, whom I love. With him I am well pleased.” From these short words Jesus gets four profound things. He gets identity. He is the son of the Father, and after the pattern of Psalm 2 this means that he is the designated king of Israel, the one who will bring God’s justice to bear on the world. Second, Jesus gets acceptance. Jesus is loved without condition by the Father, and this means that Jesus will never need to perform to earn the Father’s love—he has it already. Third, Jesus gets a mission. To be the “son of God” means to be commissioned for a task—the task of justice, of kingship, and of representing God in the world. Fourth and finally, Jesus gets an inheritance. The son, we learn in Psalm 2, asks of God and inherits the nations. Jesus will also ask of the Father and inherit the nations, receiving all authority in heaven and earth as the reward for his faithfulness.

When we become sons and daughters of the Father these four factors become ours as well. We get new identities in Christ—identities that give us power and responsibility. We get unconditional acceptance in Christ—we cannot perform to earn God’s love, but He gives it to us freely. We get a mission, participating in the Father’s mission in the world in the image of the son of God, continuing the work of Psalm 2. And we get an inheritance as well, particularly an inheritance of the Spirit, poured out on us who believe, filling us with power and gifts to perform the work, calling us to our future inheritance in Christ.

Above all else, these four factors are those I am called to “keep” in my brothers and sisters in Christ. Over our weekend together we framed a series of questions that we might ask one another as brother-keepers in Christ. They are as follows:

Identity: I am a son of God; Am I living like a son of God?
Am I drawing my identity from the world?
Am I drawing my identity from my own history of sin?

Acceptance: I am beloved by God; Am I living like one who is beloved of God?
Am I performing activities for God that are merit based?
Am I trying to win points with God?
Am I extending God’s acceptance to others?
Am I projecting the need for performance upon others?

Mission: I am called by God; Am I serving the mission of God in my work and service?
Am I seeking to serve Jesus at my workplace/school?
Am I serving the mission of God in Church?

Inheritance: I am an inheritor of God’s gifts; Am I accessing my inheritance?
Am I living in the Spirit’s power?
Am I living by my own power?
Am I using the gifts God has given me?
Am I aware of the gifts God has given me?

Rugby ScrumThese questions, of course, are imperfect, but I think they target an aspect of accountability that has been overlooked. For most men, the word accountability has become strongly associated with sexual purity. And while it is true and imperative that men must pursue and commit in relationship with one another to maintaining their sexual purity, I can’t help but think we’re a little out of order here. Accountability is not primarily about pornography; accountability is about preserving the life of God in my brother in Christ, of which porn may be a part. But to make accountability almost entirely about porn has robbed us of something important—even, perhaps, an important antidote to sexual temptation. If I am being asked tough questions on a regular basis by my brothers in Christ—questions about my identity, my acceptance, my mission, and my inheritance—then if my private sexual life is inhibiting my call to be the son of the Father that I am, then perhaps that sense of greater duty will lend strength to my battle for purity. Remember, purity is not and has never been an end in itself. It is a component of and stepping stone towards a deeper life in Christ. Men-who-don’t-look-at-porn is not the point of the Christian life—men in the image of the Son and in faithful service to the Father is.

Cain turned his back on Abel and left a horrific legacy behind. May we spurn the negligence of Cain. “I am my brother’s keeper.” I am called to keep my brothers and sisters in Christ. I am accountable for their faith. They, also, are accountable for each other’s faith, and also for mine. I have invited the men of my church to ask me any of these questions at any time, in boldness and confidence, so as to mutually secure our identities, our acceptance, our mission, and our inheritance. I am a son of the Father. And you, O reader, my brother or sister in Christ, as your brother I pledge to keep you accountable. Will you do the same for me?