In his influential work Orientalism Said propagated a discourse concerning itself with the way the West sees the East. While Said’s argument focused on the aspects of artistic expressions employed by Western writers, designers and artists to depict Eastern Cultures, it also gave us a context from which to understand our fixation with constructing identities.

The imperialist approach that the West has often brought into play when dealing with other cultures has necessitated a manipulative methodology in which the construct of one’s identity would come at the expenses of the other. For example, in Orientalist terms the Oriental is effeminate, lazy, untrustworthy, ungrateful, dangerous, and so forth. That is because the white guy (I’m purposely using the masculine because in the context of ‘otherness’ paternalism plays a key role), is strong, energetic, committed, appreciative, prudent and laborious.

Those adjectives must sound familiar to anybody who has travelled, worked or discussed the Orient.  They are certainly familiar to me as I have been hearing them ad nauseum from many members of different expat communities I have encountered in my travels. In this sense, Said was scathing in his assessment of whom may be an Orientalist—if you talk about the East, depict it in any way, shape of form which validates your identity, you are an Orientalist and what you are doing is Orientalism.

In my rantings below I want to share an experience which has opened a tiny window from which to look at the issues of pornography in a way that I had not considered before, despite the conversations, deliberations and pondering I have had with friends, like-minded people, or even not compatible viewpoints on the subject.

At present I work in Asia, I have been a frequent visitors of Asian countries, and aside from a few minor inconveniences, I have always felt safe, happy and welcome in Asia. I also admit of the privileged treatment I often receive because Occidentalists see me as an Orientalist.

Circumstantials aside, I was exploring my new place of work a few days ago and my curiosity took me to the roof of the building. On the flat rooftop there was a small room that could function as storage space, but in this case it looked more like an occasional den for someone to sleep in, or given the presence of a prayer mat, it could serve as a Musholla—the small prayer room found in many work places to accommodate workers’ need to observe their prayer times.

The room was opened, it was basically a thoroughfare connecting the two sides of the rooftop, and thus I didn’t feel I was invading anyone’s particular private space. As I walked through to see the other side, I noticed behind the door a box full of pornographic magazines and cut-outs, not disguised or concealed in any way, but innocently stored away  in full view, as the likelihood of anyone else getting up there was minimal. The material was from Western sources, with white people in the pictures, written in English and what could be categorised as hard porn.

My immediate thoughts went to the incongruity of the pornographic material and the Musholla—the clash between misdemeanours and rectitude, so to speak. The scene, however, reminded me of something pubescent boys would do when they naively conceal, perhaps in embarrassment, the beginning of their exploration into particular aspects of sexuality—investigate taboos, delve into a world they are perceived not to belong to, at least not yet. With that in mind, I started to recollect all the Orientalist and paternalistic signs, attitudes and behaviours that surround me in a post-colonial, middle income, but still heavily patronised environment.

Most people I know have maids, who are referred to as maids, perhaps because their names are too hard to remember, or may be because they are seen as less than humans deserving a name, but identifiable more conveniently by their functions.

Most offices have office boys—a throng of men who take on all and every task that their masters won’t do—cleaning, delivering mail, picking up lunch, even if it is next door, but it is too hot to walk outside, fetching items, tools and sundry, getting the newspapers, turning on the air conditioners, refilling the water dispenser. Mindless tasks performed by men who are viewed not to be skilled enough or capable of undertaking anything more complex.

I began to realise (better later than never, I hear you say), that this infantilisation of perfectly capable people, this dumbing down of their gifts is typical of power plays and ways to control subordinates. Keeping individuals from growing, treating them as classrooms of youngsters, irresponsible and untrustworthy, thus rising their masters’ stocks as dependable and reliable, but most importantly, needed protagonists of activities in these societies, because if left to the local, or the ‘other’, nothing would get done. Does this sound familiar?

This is paternalism at its rawest, because if there are two precepts to paternalism, they are 1) that some people always need someone else to look after them—enter big daddy, and 2) the beneficiaries of help are not capable of looking after themselves—enter the construction of the superior identity.

What also came to mind were the ways I coped as a youngster with the shadow of ‘big daddy’ looming large over my capacities to deal with my world, the right to take risks and the opportunity to grow at my own pace. As I pondered over that it was much clearer to me why infantilised grown men often reach for phallic objects to deal with their repression—sometimes the closest thing at their arm reach—their penis, sometimes something stiffer—a weapon, sometimes both.

Foto: The master and the subject; Jakarta ’10

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