Final Report Summary - BETWATE (Beyond "the West" and "the East": Occidentalism, Orientalism, and Self-Orientalism in Italy-Japan Relations)
Occidentalism as a constellation of discourses, practices, and institutions based upon the idea of the so-called ‘West’ has played a hegemonic role in the modern age in the configuration of collective identity and alterity. The imagined geography of the ‘West’ as opposed to the ‘East’, or the ‘Rest’, has been one of the most effective in inscribing the whole of humanity along simultaneously hierarchic and fluid lines of inclusion and exclusion, encompassing global relations of power in geopolitical contexts, and spatializing knowledge practices in geocultural spheres (A. Gramsci 1929–35, E. Said 1993, S. Hall 1992).
In contrast to the prevailing studies of Occidentalism carried out in the last decades, the BETWATE research project is based on the assumptions that Occidentalism is not limited to a simple reverse- or counter-Orientalism and that it must be considered more radically as the necessary precondition for Orientalism and self-Orientalism (F. Coronil 1996, G. Dietze 2009). In spite of the pervasive impact of modern Occidentalism, there is still no unified field of systematic academic investigation of the ‘West’ as a concept, and as a result this area of inquiry has become a kind of ‘blind spot’ in the social sciences and humanities (K.M. Heller 2007). Even today the study of Occidentalism continues to take the form of a group of disconnected research projects or works that mainly employ methodological civilizationalism, nationalism, and culturalism. In response, this study is based on the assumption that an insufficient understanding of the complex processuality of modern Occidentalism contributes to its reproduction – even in the absence of direct coercion – as a widespread, self-evident, and naturalized phenomenon (the West without quotation marks), and therefore as an almost invisible hegemony in different historical periods and geographical areas.
In the context of the international friction that has resulted from the increasing economic competitiveness of China and other Asian countries, as well as an increase in Islamic fundamentalism, neo-Occidentalism and neo-Orientalism are becoming more and more widespread. The BETWATE research project suggests that a paradigm shift in the social sciences and humanities that is aimed at overcoming unproblematized notions of the ‘West’ and the ‘East’ is needed now more than ever in order to achieve a critical understanding of the complex challenges globalization creates with respect to issues of identity, culture, and power.
Accordingly, the basic research questions that drove the project were:
1. How and why have the signifying practices shaping modern ideas of the ‘West’ and the ‘East’ become universal, permeating every field of human activity (politics, economics, society, culture, affect, etc.) in almost every part of the world?
2. To what extent do the hierarchic and naturalized legacies of modern Occidentalism still have an impact in the present age of globalization in relation to specific periods, places, and actors?
3. How can critical knowledge contribute to the elaboration of strategies for more polyphonic, dialogical, and inclusive processes of collective interaction?
In order to contribute to a more heterogeneous and nuanced understanding of modern Occidentalism, the BETWATE research project has investigated the entangled history and globalizing present of Italy–Japan relations, a subject which had not previously been examined in a systematic way. Since the 1990s, Japan has been the most popular ‘oriental’ country in Italy, while Italy has turned into the most attractive ‘occidental’ country in Japan, especially among women and youth. The investigation has addressed the reasons for this reciprocal popularity by focusing on mutual discourses and practices regarding ‘Japan’ and the ‘East’ in Italy and regarding ‘Italy’ and the ‘West’ in Japan. In addition, the research project has analyzed some of the most influential moments in Italy–Japan relations from the late nineteenth century to the present in connection with issues of national/regional/global identity, culture, and power.
Firstly, in order to map the imagined geography of the ‘West’ and the ‘East’ as seen from each side, the project investigated the historical genealogy (1860s–1890s), climax (1930s–1940s), and maturation (1960s–1980s) of Italy–Japan relations. Secondly, ethnographic fieldwork was carried out regarding the social practices involved in the present popularity of J-culture (animation, comics, videogames) in Italy, and of the Italy boom (food, fashion, lifestyle) in Japan. Particular attention was paid to the renegotiation of transcultural identity processes as mediated by emergent mediascapes and popular cultures from below, and to institutionalized nation-branding via the rubrics Cool Japan and Made in Italy in the globalized market from the top down.
The BETWATE research project adopted an interdisciplinary approach (theoretical, historiographic, ethnographic) and bore fruit in the form of publications, lectures, and dissemination activities, all of which are listed on the project’s website (http://virgo.unive.it/miyake/betwate/).
One of the BETWATE project’s fundamental outcomes has been the elaboration of a theoretical frame that intertwines three approaches in order to achieve a better understanding of the complex processuality of Occidentalism:
1. applying a relational approach to Occidentalism, Orientalism, and self-Orientalism as mutually constitutive processes, which allows the investigation of Occidentalism’s hegemonic range on a transnational or global level. This means that all perspectives (Euro-American and non-Euro-American) and their separate contributions to the overall process of Occidentalism have to be taken into account, as do their entangled and reciprocal interaction.
2. considering Occidentalism as a cumulative intersection on the intra-national or societal level of heterogeneous axes of identity and alterity, such as nation, race/ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, etc.
3. considering Occidentalism as a space-, time-, and situation-specific positionality of all parts involved. Positionality is considered here as an ambivalent site where actors, discourses, practices, and institutions are both differentially configured by Occidentalism as well as potentially open to change.
The relational, intersectional, and positional approach elaborated by the BETWATE project provides a heuristic frame that is both de-constructive and re-constructive. The long-term goal of the elaboration of this approach is the establishment of a new academic field of Critical Occidentalism Studies. This field will provide a much-needed forum for the scholarly deconstruction of essentialized notions of the ‘West’ and the ‘East’ by pointing to the reciprocal processuality of Occidentalism, Orientalism, and self-Orientalism on an inter-national level, as well as to differentiation and contingency on an intra-national level. In doing so, it will offer greater visibility to the polyphonic, dialogical, and mutually constitutive processes involved in the construction of any collective identity or alterity. This will hopefully help encourage the recognition of mutual understanding as a valid critical and practical method for any institution dealing with issues of international and intercultural policies, and thus help to move past one-sided theories, perceptions, and actions related to other people, cultures, and civilizations.