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Techno-Orientalism: The Rise of Xenophobia

By Izzy Tseng


Fade in.

White Protagonist looks down from their vantage point.

The skyline is littered with flashing advertisements in Kanji and Chinese.

A mycorrhizal network of fluorescent lights zing across the city.

The faint cacophony of machinery increases in volume as White Protagonist loads a gun.

Fade out.


According to sociologist Edward Said, the notion of the “Orient '' was born out of a modge-podge of various Asian and Middle-Eastern cultures, in an attempt to define the East as a direct antithesis of the West. This conjecture developed directly from anxieties that materialized in the West in response to confrontational power in the East. By creating an imagined sphere for Westerners to justify their global political-economic dominance in order, it allows them to project their fears of a future where they are not the dominant powers. Often in sci-fi, we see this through the framing of the East as the ultimate enemy.


Techno-orientalism , or the phenomenon of imagining the East in “hypo- or hyper technological terms in cultural...and political discourse”, follows this same framework of thinking. It is perhaps the most commonly-used trope in sci-fi. If you’re familiar with movies like Star Wars, Blade Runner andThe Fifth Element, and even Dune–you’ll know exactly what it looks and feels like. Why were there ramen stands and China-towns in Blade Runner and The Fifth Element ? Why were the Sand People of Tatooine portrayed as backward and unrefined? Why were there major Islamic and Arab influences in Dune, a movie set on a primitive, uncultured planet whose economy depends on spice? In all these movies, we can clearly see the underlying message– the West is sophisticated and advanced, and the East is backwards and in need of salvation.


Well, what’s the point of it all? It’s not just about evil Japanese cyborgs and brutish Tusken Raiders. All media has implicit messages embedded in them that can shape the way we perceive reality. While consuming sci-fi is not in itself problematic, it’s important to recognize that certain biases may result in problematic portrayals of certain groups more than others, especially such a notoriously white-centered space as Hollywood.

 

References

  • https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1647cqh

  • https://thechloegong.com/2019/12/28/techno-orientalism-in-science-fiction/

  • https://www.scienceopen.com/hosted-document?doi=10.13169/reorient.6.1.0004

  • https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/10/28/dune-muslim-influences-erased/

  • https://www.vice.com/en/article/mb7yqx/cyberpunk-cities-fetishize-asian-culture-but-have-no-asians-blade-runner

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