When I finally got around to reading the first book in the historical mystery series featuring amateur Egyptologist Amelia Peabody, I was struck by its overtly imperialist aesthetic. Set in the late 19th century, it parodies and celebrates English archeologists. It also patronizes the local people at every turn. For the White Western reader, it is a tourist romp through both time and place, with all things Egyptian (and Victorian) — the landscape, food, smells, and language — served up for our amusement, condescension, and entertainment. Such a naked, anachronistic display of white European cultural imperialism is jarring, but I can’t help but recall it as I reach for my espadrilles, spritz on my current favorite oud fragrance, and, oh yes, stop off at Chipotle for lunch.
In fact, when I look through my collection of clothes, music, and perfume I find almost nothing — perhaps nothing at all — that would entirely escape the scrutinizing eye of a thoughtful anti-imperialistic critic. Simply surveying the many perfumes explicitly meant to evoke notions of Africa, and the Middle and Far East, is itself quite a task. For example, right in the front row, there is Shalimar, Timbuktu, Une Rose de Kandahar, and Jaipur. The ubiquitous combo of rose and oud alone in contemporary perfumery is enough to underscore the point. The scents are beautifully familiar, but evocative in complicated, sometimes troubling, ways. It isn’t, after all, that they capture the essence of faraway places but, rather, that they express it through a European lens. Most Western versions of scents are, of course, less about authenticity, whatever that might mean, than about fulfilling Eurocentric fantasies of these “exotic” regions.
In the same vein, many of the fashions marketed through Zara, or H & M, or big name designers, are meant to be inspired by far flung local color rather than imitative of it. The fast fashion harem pants sold at the mall perhaps don’t refer so much to actual Middle Eastern dress as to a Disnified version portrayed in Aladdin or I Dream of Jeannie. So, too, the scents created by most big Western perfume and designer houses aren’t meant to capture the actual place, but a version of a place we might imagine from a movie or novel. The result is a spiraling set of self-reflecting mirrors that’s both gorgeous and disturbing. As Ani Difranco so wisely put it some years ago, “Art may imitate life, but life imitates tv.”
Of course, contemporary global capitalism results in a frenzy of cultural exchange — and, too often, one-sided bombardment — so ubiquitous that it is often experienced as a simple force of nature. It is certainly not a phenomenon from which very many of us could fully extricate ourselves even if we wanted to, given its complicated knots. After all, many Middle and Far Eastern families too are steeped in, and fond of, Disneyfied stereotypes of their culture. Further, fast fashion manufactured in Sri Lanka, but based on European designs inspired by Eastern tropes, may eventually end up, second-hand, in Africa, once American bodies have tired of it. We would, then, have to virtually unravel ourselves in order to gain critical distance from what we have been deeply socialized to find stylish and beautiful.
And, of course, most of us have no wish to stem the flow of aesthetic inspiration and delight, especially not those of us who sit on the powerful, Western side of the equation. Cultural exchange, especially when it is grounded in some semblance of parity between the parties — when it is not merely an extension of exploitative tourism — provides rich soil for the flowering of human achievement, at least when measured in Western terms. We can recognize the magic of aesthetic cultural interplay and fusion, though, but still acknowledge that much of what we have taken to be appreciation of the “exotic other” may well be rooted in solipsistic projected fantasy, a kind of exploitation in its own right.
I am reminded of this when I enjoy the incense scent Comme des Garçons Kyoto and feel myself transported to a Japanese Buddhist temple, a place, by the way, that I have actually visited. Though I physically sat in a Kyoto temple’s cool, musty shadows as paper prayers were burned over fragrant wood, any “genuine” scent memories have long since been transmuted and replaced by the CdG fragrance. It is like reflecting on photos of long ago loves, people who once filled every corner of our senses. We relate less to the actual people than to our airbrushed, sanitized fantasies of them. If we are practiced and privileged tourists, we can rely on technological and consumerist resources to keep the real world, so messy and inconvenient, from intruding on our travels through time or place.