I should be writing something besides a blog post. Seriously. Caliban’s War, the second book of The Expanse, and The King’s Blood, follow-up to The Dragon’s Path are both due June 1st, and I’m paying a little now for kicking back last year. Oh, they’ll be done, but a blog post?
But some recent conversations about escapism and racism and fantasy have got me going. I’ve been thinking about exoticism. And about guilty pleasures. I’m still thinking through all this, so it’s going to be a little rough around the edges. It’s all part of the conversation after all. When I have it all figured out, I’ll stop talking about it, probably.
So here’s what’s on my mind. Exoticism is — rightly — something of a dirty word. It is the commodification of the Other, appropriating the thoughts or clothing or music or food or religion of an unfamiliar culture for the charm of the unfamiliar. The example that always comes to mind for me is Lamont Cranston — The Shadow — who learned the power to cloud men’s minds “while traveling in East Asia.” But there are a thousand other examples. Charlie Chan. The cliche of the magical negro. Even overly racist propaganda like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion have at their heart the impulse — the attraction — of a world outside the familiar. And by familiar, I mean familiar to the audience for whom the works are intended. There are billions of folks who travel in East Asia every day without learning the power to cloud men’s minds. They’re Chinese. And while Jews will find the Protocols unfamiliar, they don’t find ’em exotic.
I want to say up front that I recognize the problem of exoticism in practice. It is dehumanizing for the people whose culture is being appropriated, reinterpreted, *mis*interpreted, and used. It is exclusive by nature.
But here’s the thing, I don’t think the attraction of it is in its exclusivity. When I listen to the old Shadow radio programs, I have that moment of guilt, but I also have the little frission that the writers at the time meant me to have. Lamont Cranston is romantic and mysterious. He knows secrets that we do not, because he’s been outside of the world we know and he has returned changed. I don’t take pleasure from the thought that I have taken the actual cultures of billions of people and changed them into an Alec Baldwin movie. I take pleasure in the intimation that somewhere, somehow, there’s a way out.
Yes, yes, this isn’t about the real Far East. I know lots of folks who traveled to the real Far East, and I’m pretty certain Maureen McHugh doesn’t have the power to cloud men’s minds, or if she does, she uses it sparingly. But it’s as true of Tomb Raider’s Kuala Lumpur or — to be really self-aware about it — John Crowley’s Aegypt. Exoticism is an attempt to take a psychological — maybe even a spiritual — state of mind and place it in the real world. It’s doomed to fail because most of the real world is already filled up with folks who don’t find their struggles to find clean water and food particularly exotic or ennobling. But I have the feeling that, as with most pleasures (and especially pleasures that are hard to give up), there’s something important in it that we shouldn’t turn away from.
The other thing this chimes off in the back of my head is attitudes of men toward women. Specifically the paired strategies of denigrating women or putting them on a pedestal. Again, either choice is the imposition of a different story over a real human being or class of human beings. Again, that’s what makes it toxic. But it’s not what makes it an attractive strategy.
There’s something in at least my psychology that is deeply attracted to the idea of an Other. Of something different than my familiar world. An outside.
There’s a danger in looking for that in the literal world — within history. And it’s something that screws us up whether we’re trying to put God into history or Lamont Cranston into Thailand. But that doesn’t take away from the hunger behind it. For escapism, for exoticism, for the idealized other. I don’t think that desire is in itself pathological, and I don’t want to see it thrown out with the bathwater.
Does that make sense?