Edited Transcripts

Orientalism! with Lucien Marenwolf-Brentano

Bookworm Hienrichs steps forward, flipping through her notebook. Welcome to this month’s Aether Salon! Today, we celebrate the anniversaries of both the Salon itself, and the city of Mondrago. The Salon is starting its seventh season. Who knew, when it first started, that we’d still be gathering so many years later? And I thank you all for your support over those years.

Mondrego is… actually, I’m not sure which anniversary we’re celebrating.

The Doctor: The third since its return from the mists.

Bookworm Hienrichs: Ahh. Well, happy third birthday to it!

To celebrate both anniversaries, Magistrate Lucien Brentano will treat us to a discussion on the history and forms of Orientalism in European cultures. Before we proceed, some housekeeping reminders:

1) To ensure you can hear the speaker, stand or sit on the patterned carpet.
2) If you do not have a wearable chair and wish one, please contact Baron Wulfenbach
3) Please remove all lag-feeding whats-its you might be wearing.
4) A tip jar is out for our speaker. Do please show your appreciation!
5) Any tips to help support the establishment will also be welcome – just click on one of the support signs, or on the floating dirigible!
6) If you’re not a member of the AEther Salon group, there are signs that will let you join up. You’ll be most heartily welcome!
7) Edited and unedited transcripts of these proceedings will be posted at aethersalon.blogspot.com.

And now, to introduce our speaker, here is Baron Klaus Wulfenbach.

Baron Klaus Wulfenbach: Danke for your warm welcome to our guest. Magistrate Brentano has been many things. Builder, scripter, RFL captain, Knight of Caledon, Privateer – but then he took on the challenge of national management and has stood up well. Herr Magistrate, the floor is yours.

Lucien Marenwolf-Brentano: Thank you very much, Herr Baron. Halaa and welcome everyone! It’s an honour to be here today. When I was offered the opportunity to present a topic for the Salon, I knew that it would be a perfect opportunity to delve into the (mostly Victorian) concept/movement of Orientalism.

While every culture across the ages has participated in some level of cultural exchange (the prevalence of pyramids and false arch architecture in early Mesoamerica being a shining example), technological advances in “Western” cultures at the end of the 18th Century and accelerating in the 19th Century led to a cultural exchange phenomenon known to us now as “Orientalism.” In order to understand how Orientalism came to be – and why it’s largely seen as a malign chapter in history – we have to take a look at what was happening in the world during the Age of Western Expansion and Empire.

At this time in history, the Middle Class (the band of people between the traditional nobility and the labor class) saw a massive explosion in size, power, and affluence. Owing mostly to the dawning of the Industrial Age, this nascent class enjoyed enormous sociological and economic power. Coupled with the increased leisure time afforded by industrialization, this new group began looking outward from their own lives to explore the world at large – and driving world economies with them. This is the time period of Darwin and his HMS Beagle, of the transformation of “natural philosophers” into the “scientists” of today. The Age of Reason was in full swing. Cargo ships from a hundred nations floated at anchor in the major shipping hubs of Europe.

This Imperial Import and the increase of leisure time across several classes resulted in people looking at these strange and distant lands with a romantic eye, eagerly consuming the imported products of those areas (Particularly Turkey, Egypt, everyone along the Silk Road, China and Japan) and integrating the exotic spice of those areas into artistic and literary works. For this specific time period, we refer to this as “Orientalism.”

While my goal is to discuss the positive aspects of Orientalism, it’s very important to understand why it’s seen in academic circles as something unsavory.

If you’ll recall a few moments ago, I used words like “strange” and “exotic” to describe the cultures and artifacts. I also said “romantic,” often enough a good descriptor but in this case it means sort of the opposite. The Europeans – particularly the English – consuming this cultural stream did so from a very pompous, privileged state. The artifacts were seen as “quaint” and emphasized for their foreignness. “The Orient” as a literary device was a shortcut for “dark, uncivilized place” and the men were almost universally twisted, dark, untrustworthy or inscrutable. They were henchmen or villains – always antagonists and never protagonists. They had alarming and barbarous manners; if they didn’t they were likely a fawning lackey. Women were seen as frail to the point of uselessness – the literal China Doll. The overwhelming Western European Imperialist view of everything “not European” was frequently contemptuous.

We can see echoes of that today, 150 years later. However, it’s my belief that the intervening time has allowed us a measure of self-introspection and blunts a lot of those sharp edges. There are still some issues, yes, but I feel that we’re much better about it now than our forebears.

Having addressed the darker sides of the topic, we can now turn an eye to the ways in which I feel Orientalism helped “Western” culture, the benefits we’ve received – and how we’re playing with Orientalism in constructive ways here in SL.

At the beginning of the talk, I said that every culture has participated in some level of cultural exchange. This is one of the main characteristics of “culture” – trading the “interesting” bits with other cultures. We have evidence of trade and cultural exchange reaching back for thousands of years. Bracelets of seashells have been uncovered in the desert, hundreds of miles from the waters that provided the raw materials.

To me, this is one of the most powerful aspects of humanity. This constant cross-cultural pollination gives us all the opportunity to see and try new ideas – if they suit, they become part of the culture at large. If not, they are discarded in the course of time. Cultures come into being with a certain cultural package. They add bits from other cultures, they drop bits of culture that don’t quite fit and eventually, they transform into something else entirely – the cultural package either continues on, is subsumed or merged with another cultural package, or lost.

With this European Imperial march across the globe, this cultural exchange accelerated to a rate not seen since the height of the Roman Empire – when the import of spices, silks, and other goods needed to sustain a hungry Imperial Rome nearly bankrupted it. Textiles, spices, foodstuffs, and manufactured goods flooded into Europe from abroad. Tea became a fashionable staple. Lush woven carpets and rugs entered many homes. Food traditions were reinvented and remixed – today’s English “curry take-away” and the “steam table” restaurants in the Netherlands are direct descendants of this wholesale cultural import. In fact, lunch today in the Marenwolf-Brentano house is hummus and naan.

Colourful textiles and the cultural garments of the colonial regions had an enormous impact on the fashions of the Imperial states. Indian pyjama kurta became housecoats, which then became smoking jackets with the rise in popularity of smoking tobacco after the Crimean War in the 1850’s. Smoking jackets and smoking caps (an evolution of the Turkish style of fez) were at their core designed to protect the smoker’s hair and clothes from the byproducts of the act.

European textiles themselves were massively influenced by design from abroad. Victorian textile designers went wild for the bright, colourful forms of Indian ornamentation and translated that into the lush, rich, colourful patterns and paisleys so well known from the era, particularly in wallpapers and upholstery fabrics. While the actual fashions of these colonies did not have a serious impact on mainstream fashion at large, it was not uncommon for Imperial citizens living in the colonies to “go native” and keep their adopted cultural stylings when returning to their Imperial homes.

Books and literature were also imported in great numbers. There had always existed a cultural rapport between “West” and “East;” with the rise of the industrialized and affluent Middle Class, this only accelerated and any library worth the name required several texts from exotic Silk Road nations. Imperial authors like Rudyard Kipling brought back stories of these lands that opened them to Western audiences like never before.

Music and dance had less cultural impact during the era, but that has slowly changed in the decades since. Originally, such displays were mostly performed as exhibitions – something to be observed and not the kind of thing that was easily integrated into the dominant culture. It was seen as unseemly and vulgar. “Cabaret” style belly dance (mostly an Egyptian/Syrian style of dance) was performed in gentlemans’ clubs and in vaudeville acts; it was a forbidden thrill. In the modern era, belly dance has lost nearly all of its stigma and is openly practiced by women (and some men) the world over. Cabaret style is still the most popular on the world scale, but a relatively new fusion style called “American Tribal Style” is increasingly more popular in the United States – and gaining a foothold everywhere.

Which brings us to Orientalism and how we approach it in SecondLife. The community of Cala Mondrago was formed with the idea of bringing non-Westernized steampunk to the Grid – a “what-if” sort of place that takes the idea of Age of Steam retrofuturism and presses it onto other cultures. What would Istanbul look like with Tesla coils and Aetherships? We’ve undergone some cultural drift – as all cultures do- but we retain that non-Western idealism.

Perhaps the biggest piece of Orientalism here in SL is the prevalence of bellydance as an art form. There are numerous troupes on the Grid and regular performances. It turns up in a number of burlesque performances as well. The performers are paying homage to a classical art form while remixing it into this new digital culture. I think that’s an awesome and powerful thing.

As we go into the future, it’s important to remember that among everything else, SL is a place for us to learn and explore. Orientalism has some dark ugliness in its roots, but I think that this platform gives us a place to explore those underpinnings and excise them; we have the opportunity to sample many different cultures, to see what we have in common, and hopefully to take those commonalities and help to bring joy and goodness to our worlds.

Wow… apparently, when I get a little nervous, I speechify quickly 🙂 That was much shorter than my (read aloud) practice runs.

One of the things that has been pointed out to me is that the cultural exchange went both ways – the rise of European fashion in Japan during the Meiji period being one of the best examples. That was slightly outside the scope, so I didn’t mention it in the presenation, but I think it’s worth mentioning.

And, thank you all!=^__^=

The Doctor: I noticed turbans seemed to be popular high fashion in 19th Century Europe.
Bookworm Hienrichs: I hope people have questions!
The Doctor: Would that be an example of this concept?
Erehwon is thinking
Stereo Nacht: I do have one, albeit maybe too complex…
Lucien Marenwolf-Brentano: That’s a perfect example, actually.
Erehwon but needs more water, BRB.
Lucien Marenwolf-Brentano: Well, bring it out, Captain Nacht and we’ll see if we can tackle it
Tehanu Marenwolf-Brentano: Turbans or headwraps were pretty prevalent in medieval fashion as early as the 1400s.
Ranma Tardis: so how did China influence the west besides tea?
Lucien Marenwolf-Brentano: Many things fm the British Raj period made their way back from the Indian subcontinent to Mother England and had their day into the soggy London sun
Stereo Nacht: With the rises of accusations of “cultural appropriation”, is there a way, in your opinion, to go get cultural influences while being respectful?
Wulfriðe Blitzen: Well there is the famous Brighton Pavillion for instance.
Tepic Harlequin: kedgery!
Lucien Marenwolf-Brentano: The Capitan has asked the question that I hoped someone would have brought up!
Tehanu Marenwolf-Brentano: In my opinion, a lot of the cries of “cultural appropriation” are based in racism or ignorance – for example, claiming that learning a language not your own or simply eating a food from another culture is appropriation.
Stereo Nacht: Glad to provide! 😉
Tepic Harlequin: mais ca, c;est fou! hehehe
Baron Klaus Wulfenbach: That does seem overly limiting.
Stereo Nacht: Absolument, M. Harlequin! 😉
Tehanu Marenwolf-Brentano: I think the answer is to understand what is sacred and what isn’t, and to listen to members of the actual culture.
Lucien Marenwolf-Brentano: M Tardis, aside from earlier cultural injections like gunpowder, pasta, and tea, China’s influence on “the West” was felt in architecture and textiles.
Liza Veliz: adn porceliane?
Lady Sumoku was going to suggest china.
Forgetful Oubliette: I was thinking about textiles, yes.
Wulfriðe Blitzen thinks of brick tea.
Liza Veliz: and furnitures
Ranma Tardis: was thinking more culture like the British Empire giving us afternoon tea
Tehanu Marenwolf-Brentano: Fans – parasols?
Liza Veliz: Opium?
The Doctor: Heheh.
Stereo Nacht: I would believe that fans have been developed independently in many cultures, but I could be wrong.
Baron Klaus Wulfenbach: Parasols were always sun protection first; who started oiling them against rain?
Tehanu Marenwolf-Brentano: I was thinking specifically of the folding fans.
Erehwon: so, with respect to appropriation, I can make some suggestions?
Andrea Jones: Given the cost of transportation. How much actual materials in the form of finished products were pulled unnecessarily from their homelands?
Stereo Nacht: I would love to hear them, Magistrate-Barista! 🙂
Erehwon: first is to listen to people in SL who are from the cultures we are interested in
Tepic Harlequin: china were packed as balast in ships, don;t cost so much as carried that way…
Lucien Marenwolf-Brentano: An excellent point, Barista. We need to make sure that we’re respecting the cultures as we’re sampling and remixing them.
Erehwon: Chandra Masala of Bilo, who made the kaftan I’m wearing, is Kasmiri/Arabic
Erehwon: one thing she really doesn’t want us, as Westerners doing, is wearing bindi
Tehanu Marenwolf-Brentano: It can be difficult when some people say one thing, and others say another.
Baron Klaus Wulfenbach: Have the two of you ever discussed Mondrago?
Tehanu Marenwolf-Brentano: I’ve seen many people who belong to that culture say that bindis are fine, they are mass-produced fashion.
Erehwon: and I see bindi on sale everywhere, but it really has a specific cultural/religous role
Tehanu Marenwolf-Brentano: There’s a difference between a tikka and a sticker bindi
Erehwon: and Tehanu, that means we have to exercise judgement
Tehanu Marenwolf-Brentano: Of course.
Stereo Nacht: I understand that bindi is a way for Hindu women to show they have done their prayer, but I could be wrong.
Erehwon: I don’t want to get into the position of “shopping” for a favorable ruling
Erehwon: nor do we want someone to use their position to troll
Baron Klaus Wulfenbach: There will be as many opinions among another culture on how it should be shared as the ones attempting to enjoy it from the outside.
Tepic Harlequin: ha! whatever yer do, or don’t do, there is always someone will get offended!
Erehwon: but if i want clothing from the region, I look to Chandra and Zaara Kohime
Erehwon: they know what they are doing!
Lucien Marenwolf-Brentano: The very fact that we can have this conversation is, I think, a very clear sign that we understand the trouble with the original Orientalism – we DO care about such things now.
Lucien Marenwolf-Brentano: And I find that to be completely awesome.
Baron Klaus Wulfenbach: (15 minutes)
Lucien Marenwolf-Brentano: As opposed to the wholesale consumption of “quaint” cultures in previous eras, we’re striving to be careful and conscious of how we do it.
Erehwon: another thing we can do is don’t assume all steampunk comes from Europe.
Tehanu Marenwolf-Brentano: Well, apart from the negative racial assumptions about the cultures, Orientalism was just the continuation of thousands of years of a universal human culture. It’s one of the things that makes us human – being intrigued by things that are different.
Stereo Nacht: Anyway. I formally give all here permissions to use tuques/toques! 😉 (Not that it is really needed!)
Tehanu Marenwolf-Brentano grins
Baron Klaus Wulfenbach: The Chinese had some very clever inventors and were not held back by plagues.
Lucien Marenwolf-Brentano: I hate the attitude of “if it’s not Victorian, it’s not Steampunk” that comes up all too frequently. That’s one of the htings I love about Mondrago – its entire EXISTANCE is non-Western/non-Victorian steampunk and how that might play out.
Erehwon: there’s a lovely, but regretfully titled, collection of steampunk short stories edited by JoSelle Vanderhoof that can give you ideas for non-western steampunk
Lady Sumoku: I think the complaint is more “Victorian-ERA” related.
Wulfriðe Blitzen: I think the west has been collectively fascinated with the Orient since the first silks were exported down the Silk Road 2,000 years ago.
Stereo Nacht: Good point Ms. Barista. I recently read two good novels (one good, the other wonderful) with non-European main characters.
Aodhan: My people exported flimsy green plastic top hats and jokes about alcoholism to the civilised world. You’re welcome.
Baron Klaus Wulfenbach chuckles
Liza Veliz: lol
Wulfriðe Blitzen smiles
Jimmy Branagh: Oy loikes me green top hat!
Stereo Nacht: Considering beer predates history, you may be giving your people too much credential, M Aodha! X-D
Stereo Nacht: Aodhan (I can’t type today…)
Erehwon: and I’ll plug the iOS game 80 Days again as a great example of that
Baron Klaus Wulfenbach: Fraulein Barista, what was the name of the story collection?
Aodhan: 😀
Tepic Harlequin: some of the toys an mechanisms from the Ottaman Empire fit steampunk beautifully
Baron Klaus Wulfenbach: Some brilliant work there, ja.
Stereo Nacht: Agreed, Mr. Harlequin!
Erehwon: okay, I will warn you that the title is salacious and the collection isn’t really eroticia
Erehwon: Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories,
Baron Klaus Wulfenbach chuckles
Erehwon: just that the protagonists in the stories identify as women and many of the stories are set outside of europe
Tepic Harlequin: some in the Mega Steampunk collections on Amazon too….
Baron Klaus Wulfenbach: Hardly a drawback.
Lucien Marenwolf-Brentano: One of the things that’s been going through my mind of late is inverting the Imperial Expansion paradigm for steampunk.. what would Jolly Old England look like if India had decided to play empire and landed Gurkhas and Sikhs in Southampton? How would the world have changed if the Silk Road powers became World powers?
Tehanu Marenwolf-Brentano grins.
Stereo Nacht: That, Magistrate, is worth a dozen novels at least! 🙂
Tehanu Marenwolf-Brentano: Well, I’d really love a tweed salwar kameez with a plaid dupatta.
The Doctor: I read a short Alternate History story on that.
Liza Veliz: well, if we think of today.. China is coming all over the world…implementing everything….
The Doctor: “The English Mutiny”
Lucien Marenwolf-Brentano: To me, one of the powerful things about SL is that here, I CAN explore that in a 3D manner.
The Doctor: About a rebellion in Mughal Britain
Baron Klaus Wulfenbach: Fascinating.
Tepic Harlequin: probably have to go back to an earlier fork in history for that….
Erehwon: http://nkjemisin.com/2010/01/a-story-for-haiti-the-effluent-engine/ this is one of the stories from the collection
Ranma Tardis: how about China turning outward not inward?
The Doctor: Ink From a New Moon, Ms. Tardis.
The Doctor: From the same anthology I was reading
Stereo Nacht: Hm. If they had crushed the Mongols, so not build the Great Wall, and started exploring instead?
The Doctor: Persecuted Buddhist separatists leave the Middle Kingdom, sail east across the Pacific Ocean, find a new set of continents
Ranma Tardis: having roots in the Ryukyu Kingdom have a different perspective
The Doctor: Long story short, trading posts become Chinese colonies, rebel, and become the Unified Sandalwood Autocracies, or USA for short.
Stereo Nacht: 😀
Jimmy Branagh: hehe
The Doctor: The western coast being heavily industrialized, the east being mostly wilderness and referred to as the “Evil East”
Baron Klaus Wulfenbach chuckles
Tehanu Marenwolf-Brentano: Kim Stanley Robinson’s “The Years of Rice and Salt” explores a world where the black plague in Europe had a 95% mortality rate, and the void was filled by China and the Middle East.
Jimmy Branagh: “Go East, Young Man!”
The Doctor: It’s written in the form of a letter home, with references to a great central river akin to the Yangzte, and like the Wall back home keeping out the Mongols to the north, a great wall extends across the southern deserts to ward off vicious Aztecatl raiding parties.
The Doctor: This is the story talking, of course, not me.
The Doctor: I wasn’t there.
Baron Klaus Wulfenbach: We have about four minutes left before you are all likely to scatter to the four winds. Bitte, if you can, show your appreciation to our fine speaker today before you leave.
Bookworm Hienrichs chuckles.
Lady Sumoku claps
Stereo Nacht: *.¸.*´ APPLAUSE.¸.´APPLAUSE `.¸.´
Aodhan: Thank you very much. A most interesting and informative talk and thought-provoking discussion.
Liza Veliz: <<aplausd
Jimmy Branagh applauds
Erehwon: of course you weren’t, Doctor. gives him the “If I catch you messing with time again” look
Liza Veliz: applauds* even
Tehanu Marenwolf-Brentano APPLAUDS!!!
Wulfriðe Blitzen Applauds
Aodhan: Thank you, Mr. Marenwolf-Brentano.
Jimmy Branagh: Great Salon, sir!
The Doctor: There is also mention of the native populations, some interactions less perfect than others, and alot of the tribes converting to Buddhism.
Jan: Applause, it was very good to read this all! 🙂
Lucien Marenwolf-Brentano: Thank you all SO MUCH for coming out today! This was a lot of fun, and I hope somewhat educational!
Erehwon: everyone go read N K Jemisin’s story
Baron Klaus Wulfenbach: The transcript will be posted at http://aethersalon.blogspot.com as soon as Fraulein Hienrichs can manage.
Tepic Harlequin: well, gotta go do me rounds, night all!
Jimmy Branagh: Noight Tep!
Aodhan: Goodnight, everyone.
Liza Veliz: nte^^
Hally Xiang: Good night everyone
Lady Sumoku waves
Wulfriðe Blitzen waves
Jan: Good night everybody, take care 🙂
Bookworm Hienrichs: Transcripts, and hopefully pictures, will be posted tomorrow.
Bookworm Hienrichs smiles.
The Doctor: A wonderful discussion!
Bookworm Hienrichs: Do please join us next month, if you can. November 16th!
Jimmy Branagh: Oy’m off too. Thenks again Mr. Lucien! Noight awl!
Liza Veliz: nite
Jimmy Branagh bows to the Baron and runs off
Baron Klaus Wulfenbach: Danke, Fraulein Bookworm, and gute Nacht, those leaving.

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