As a student at the University of Amsterdam, I was fortunate to have Prof. W. F. Wertheim—renowned for the historical-sociological approach and his emphasis on conflict as the driving force of change (King 2008: 32-5)—as the teacher who initiated me to the study of the East. He taught about the transitions in Indonesian society and the practice of Dutch colonialism. Being the greenhorn I was, I was shocked to hear that racism is the pillar of empire. We, the equable Dutch, racists? More than 50 years later—half of them spent in Southeast Asia—I am less of a greenhorn, yet still preoccupied with how I look at ‘the other’ and with all the things I failed to see and still am not aware of. Only when trying to find shoe polish in Jogjakarta in 1969, I noticed that most persons went barefoot, on sandals cut from old tires, or, luxuriously, on plastic footwear (Mulder 2006: 43). In Bangkok, in 1969, I had the benefit of associating with Buddhist monks, typically recruited from the poor, who taught me to see life from the bottom up, and with their sisters who had fallen to the bottom of the pile and in whose lives my categories were utterly irrelevant. Through their mirrors, I realised that I was more of a privileged bourgeois than I liked to avow (Mulder 2008: 101). The ‘gaze of the West’ is similar to that of the imperious bourgeois and reflects its rootedness in “the privileged intellectual, spiritual, moral and economic locus of the world” (14), even long before this actually was the case. The Western gaze as Orientalism has it, is a “discourse of difference” that “represents the exotic, erotic, strange Orient as a comprehensible, intelligible phenomenon within a network of categories, tables and concepts” by which it is “simultaneously defined and controlled” (Turner 1997: 21; see p. 14).
Meanwhile, the subjugated people being gazed at are developing the converse discourse of Occidentalism. In looking at the West and its colonialism, they have to come to terms with how they understand themselves as post-colonial subjects who have, willy-nilly, been cast into the mould of Western ideas. So, even if the gaze of the West at the East reveals more about the spectator than about the subject of the gaze, it may be expected that the contemporary gaze of Malaysian academics at the Occident reveals their preoccupations, and may be read as a discourse about their situatedness in a world subject to global flows of ideas. As a result, the West, too, is subject to cultural (and other) flows from Asia, known in the book under review as Easternisation. The collection’s starting point is the praxis of Easternisation as cultural change. To this purpose, areas of said praxis are identified that are reflexions of Western narratives about Easternisation from the vantage point of the East as the non-West (5). This being the case, and even as the West as an idea is inescapably everywhere, it is no longer possible to see oriental and occidental cultures as separate, let alone autonomous cultural regimes. Through the commodification of everyday life and the impact of mass consumer culture, distinctions are blurred, and whatever catches the fancy is transposable (37). Before the gaze of the West proper comes under scrutiny, the book’s third chapter, “Imagining the Post-colonial Dislocation”, dwells on the mind-set of the non-Western scholars who examine said gaze, and who are conscious that they cannot escape from its consequences. In order to balance their predicament, the fourth chapter, “Easternisation: Encroachments in the West”, notes the global flows from the East while tentatively evaluating their influences. For instance, was the New Age phenomenon of the 1960s and 1970s a mere fad, an addition to the shelves of a global supermarket, or does the consumption of things Eastern delve deeper? The core idea informing the collection is that “The Gaze of the West” is embodied in the Western consumption of material and cultural influences of the East (235); that the ways they are consumed and talked about reveal inherent attitudes towards the Eastern other. At the same time, the praxis of borrowing and acculturation is an affirmation of Eastern cultural additions and heritage in the ‘life worlds’ of the West (235-6). To deal with this complex of consumption, attitudes and influences in this increasingly interconnected world, ten specific spheres of human life, experience and activity are brought into focus.
Four chapters/authors deal with the non-material nature of the gaze through, firstly, observing the Western gaze in representations of essentially Western philosophy that relegate non-Western eras of civilizational eminence. Secondly, it follows that, whereas the West rapaciously consumes Eastern popular-cultural forms, it has been less avid in imbibing its core philosophical values. Consequently, the impact of Easternisation remains pure acculturation, unlike the impact of Westernisation that is driven by the West’s hegemony. Said hegemony is, needless to say, nicely illustrated through Malaysia’s colonial heritage of indirect rule through which the British shielded themselves by delegating power to the native rajas. After independence, the royal umbrella was thought to protect the various races and distinct groups, as all were equal subjects of the King, while uniting them under a shared—albeit Malay—‘civilizational canopy’. The fourth non-material contribution contains a critical evaluation of the historical narratives of the colonised, and the latter’s awakening to the need to retrieve their history and identity, that clearly illustrate that history as produced by the West is a set of stories of the West as the powerful Self. The six remaining chapters deal with specific spheres, such as management, social and cultural life, tourism, architecture, alternative medicine, and gastronomy. The first of these, co-authored by a European and a Japanese, allow for the mutual gaze on and reciprocal influences in management training, as such providing stimuli for considering the possible implications of the mutuality, and hopefully adumbrating a future of less one-sided hegemony and stereotyping. The latter sort of myth-making abundantly surfaces in the framings of the East evoked by its commodification as a tourist destination. In this, the East and the West compete for the same tourist gaze, with the first not averse of romanticising and orientalising itself. Interestingly, even modern mosque architecture does not escape from Western prescriptions, as Malaysian Muslims appear to have become both victims and perpetrators of ‘the gaze of the West’ by choosing to be imitative spectators. Before finally observing how certain Japanese ideas of dazzling food presentation opened up the traditional fortress of French haute cuisine and gave rise to the innovative and open-ended nouvelle cuisine, we still find a probing investigation of the popularity of a wide range of medicinal practices, from Ayurvedic medicine to acupuncture and Reiki that may realistically reflect the very human tendency to look for the most effective means of minimising personal suffering, in which we are beyond the East-West duality and discover a basic unity of human aspirations.
The Occidentalism of editor and authors steers clear of self-pity, Orientalism, and of being overtly critical of colonialism and the West. As a result, the tone of most of the writings is both invigorating and thought-provoking. As an exploration, the collection opens up new vistas that should fire further imagining. Altogether, a most refreshing exercise in looking at and learning from each other.
King, Victor T. 2008. The Sociology of Southeast Asia; Transformations in a developing region. Copenhagen: NIAS Press.
Mulder, Niels. 2006. Doing Java; An anthropological detective story. Yogyakarta: Kanisius Publishing House.
Mulder, Niels. 2008. Doing Thailand; The anthropologist as a young dog in Bangkok in the 1960s. Bangkok: White Lotus Press.
Turner, B. S. 1997. Orientalism, Postmodernism and Globalism. London: Routledge.