Annotation: Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s “Orienting Orientalism, or How to Map Cyberspace” (2003)

Peer-Review: 0

This annotation was written in reference on my paper: “The Haunting Realities of Cyberspace in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.” See my prospectus here.

Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. “Orienting Orientalism, or How to Map Cyberspace.” AsianAmerica.Net: Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Cyberspace. Eds. Rachel C. Lee and Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong. New York: Routledge, 2003. 3-36. Print.

In this essay Chun discusses how cyberspace narratives perpetuate Orientalist fantasies. She emphasizes that authors employ Orientalism to make “electronic spaces comprehensive, visualizable and pleasurable” and how conceptions of cyberspace have become deeply intertwined and even inextricable from those Orientalist ideas (4). To explicate her argument she analyzes William’s Gibson’s Neuromancer and Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell.

Chun offers a helpful discussion of how cyberspace functions as a new frontier to be explored and colonized. She asserts, “Like all explorations, charting cyberspace entails uncovering what was always already there and declaring it ‘new.’ It obscures already existing geographies and structures so that space is vacuous yet chartable, unknown yet populated and populatable” (7). Chun suggests that while cyberspace and its real world counterpart, the Internet, appear as a new and untouched terrain to be claimed, this stems from the imperialist fantasy of initial contact. Chun ultimately calls for a more nuanced analysis of cyberspace as not just a “new frontier” but rather technology that is programmed and structured in specific ways. She parallels efforts to spread Internet technology to Third World countries as an extension of imperialist missionary movements, where “spreading the light” in terms of both religious faith and knowledge is disturbingly intertwined with capitalistic endeavors to make profit. Chun’s description of cyberspace as an apparently “new frontier” steeped with “old” imperialistic legacies is characteristic of most cyberpunk narratives, which present futuristic technologies and settings that are hauntingly familiar.

In her essay, Chun discusses how the future portrayed in these fictional works looks Japanese. Yet the images of Japan are highly selective and do not suggest a modernized, hi-tech society but are rather anachronistic, featuring ninjas and samurais “drawn from Japan’s Edo period” before the country’s contact with the West (12). Chun cites Johannes Fabian’s theory of “denial of coeval” as one explanation, where “the native other,” is treated not existing or evolving at the same time and is therefore more primitive and inferior.

In her analysis of Neuromancer, Chun asserts the American hacker “cowboy,” Case, emerges as the imperialistic figure who jacks into cyberspace—the new “Orient.” Chun discusses several scenes where cyberspace is described in exoticized ways that parallels it with an Oriental beauty to be once again penetrated by a white imperialist. She suggests further that the Japanese in the novel are depicted as “mechanical mimics (imitators of technology)” to further reinforce American technological superiority and repress anxieties about Japan as an economic threat.

Chun asserts that Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell employs a similar form of Orientalism, but from Japan to China and where America is associated with bad technology. She suggests that in the film Hong Kong is orientalized “into a flood of information,” just as Japan was in Gibson’s novel, presented a mass of data for the hacker to penetrate. Chun also importantly notes how Hong Kong posed an economic threat to Japan in the same way the country appeared as a dangerous rival to the US. Cyberpunk fiction therefore emerges as a means relieve economic anxieties by depicting the “other” as inferior mimics or “‘soulless’ informatics” (26). Chun additionally cautions the American interest and fascination with anime. She suggests that viewers may take voyeuristic delight in gaining insight into Japanese culture and appropriate it as an American product. But I argue that the Orientalism that Japan perpetuates with respect to Ghost in the Shell demands for a more nuanced examination of the power relations between the East and the West and the recognition that they are not simply unidirectional.

Chun concludes her essay with a discussion of the popularity of Asian porn, which has revealed a flexibility in the definition and category of “oriental.” She notes that on these sites, some Russian and mutilated, disfigured women are represented alongside those females conventionally conceived as “Oriental.” Chun suggests that the interest in this selection of women suggests an association of “Oriental” with “submissive and lacking” (29). She states further that the Communications Decency Act to censor certain violent and disturbing materials from being featured on the Web was passed because of a specific concern about how the Internet encouraged people to cultivate and indulge in “‘excessive’ sexuality” (30). She suggests that the Internet has been often promoted as a vacation or recreational space where individuals feel that they are no longer subject to normal laws or restrictions and can assume secret identities. Chun ultimately leaves readers to contemplate the implications of policing or not policing sexuality on the Internet.

Chun’s essay offers me a helpful understanding of how the Metaverse in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash is not simply a “new frontier” but also embodies old imperialist and Orientalist legacies.