Dogma Formation

20 Jun

“As a final example of the importance of detail and context, consider the belief now deeply entrenched in US cultural studies that ‘Asia’ and ‘the feminine’ are ‘traditionally’ connected in ‘Western discourse’. This claim is empirically insufficient, as checking any string of Australian newspaper cartoons from the 1890s to the 1950s will quickly establish. Yet when I have given lectures on the historical imaginary of ‘White Australia’ in the United States, I have sometimes been rebuked for ‘ignoring’ the ‘fact’ that Asian figures are feminised. A strange process of dogma formation has occurred, possibly as a by-product of pedagogical transmission: subtle analyses of an indeed substantial archive of feminising images of Asian and of Asian men are taught for their ‘content’ rather than their method to a generation of graduate students who go on to teach their students bluntly that ‘Asia is the feminine for the West’. Along the way, a metonymic flip occurs whereby an empirical set of representations in which Asia is feminised becomes itself the ideal representation of representations of Asia. Of course, in Australia popular cultural history (high art is another story), a different image prevails: ‘Australia’ is a beautiful, bountiful woman menaced by predatory, lascivious and vicious ‘Asian’ men. This invasively masculine Asia s also animalised, or borderline human. But so (we should remember) was masculine sexuality itself thought ‘animal’ or ‘demonic’ by powerful strands of the Victorian imagination, as indeed it still is by many Christians around the world today.” (Meaghan Morris, “Participating from a Distance,” in Rogue Flows: Trans-Asian Cultural Traffic, eds. Koichi Iwabuchi, Stephen Muecke and Mandy Thomas. HK: Hong Kong Univ. Press, 2004. 255. 249-261.)

This passage reminds me a good deal of final high-school exams: there was a kind of liberal, politically correct orthodoxy according to which texts and essay questions were assigned in English Lit, such that you feared for your chances at passing if you dared say anything other than that Heart of Darkness depicted Africa as the dark, barbaric Other of the West/Europe or something alone those lines. As Morris has done here though, there are certain ideas that, having become orthodoxy, need to be rethought. I remember once being in a feminism lecture where I mentioned that the kitchen, at first glance a classic symbol of female oppression, is also a symbol of her freedom. During the fifties the kitchen represented, along with space travel and fast food and the rest, the height of modernity, a world of new horizons and convenience, a world that freed the individual, something that those women who still have to spend half a day preparing their meals would no doubt have less trouble understanding.

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