Sustainable Orientalism. I have explored this concept since 2011. It has helped me to identify and expose discourses, representations, and institutions that separate the notion of Sustainable Development in ‘advanced’ (Western Europe, North America) and ‘less advanced’ (Latin America, Africa, South Asia) regions. To counter this, I advocate the construction of hybrid cartographic systems of representation (multi-layered, multidimensional maps) in non-Western habitats (human and non-human). Somewhere else I have explored examples in the African Continent, India, and Brazil. In this post, I would like to display the characteristics of Sustainable Orientalism in my home country. Here is one example:
The subtle portrayal of Mexico by the United States and the United Kingdom over the last 35 years (1982-2017) indicates an interest in shaping its economic and social development. Edward Said notes that all cultures tend to make representations of foreign cultures the better to master or in some way control them, yet not all cultures make representations of foreign cultures and in fact master or control them. Said believes that this is the distinction of modern Western cultures. He considers that the study and knowledge of non-Western environments do not merely reproduce the outlying territories: it works them out, or animate them, using narrative techniques, and historical and exploratory attitudes of scientific ideas generated in the West.
Two magazines, Time (from the United States) and The Economist (from the United Kingdom) have dedicated some of their front covers to the analysis of the Mexican reality for the last four decades (80’s, 90’s, 00’s, 2010’s). Two covers of the Time magazine in 1982 and 1984 illustrate a sense of desperation in the Mexican panorama. Both covers depict an idea of the Mexican landscape and its industry. These two examples contain caricature-like hordes of Mexicans stereotypes, depressed, surrounded by industry pollution and cars, influenced by pre-Hispanic past and devastated by economic crises. Poverty, slums, and apocalypse-like depiction of Mexico City (the biggest settlement of the country) were considered as representations of environmental and social disasters. The chaotic sentiment of this national state was described in the covers of the magazine. In both depictions the racialized and environmental knowledge of the Other (Orientalism) is tangible, a method that is deeply implicated in the operations of power.
Let’s jump to this century. In November 2012, the British magazine The Economist designed a cover depicting sombreros taking off from a desert inhabited by cactus. The landscape is represented again, as in the issues of the 1980s; the biosphere depicted here is a desert, despite the fact that Mexico’s flora and fauna is one of the most varied on Earth. The essence of this representation was to celebrate the promising economic present and future of the country. In 2014, Time magazine published an issue with the Mexican president in the cover. Its main description was ‘Saving Mexico’. The magazine greeted the economic reforms of the administration. Back to The Economists, in 2015 the title was ‘The Two Mexicos’, an issue that analyzed the contrast in the development of different parts of the country. The representation includes the pre-Hispanic heritage of the country and the Narco-infused narrative that has permeated its cities and villages. In less than 35 years, the depiction of Mexico passed from the eternal crisis and apocalypse environment to a promising land, yet full of contrasts. Four covers depict dry, deserted, polluted landscapes. The notion of Mexicans as subjects to be saved is latent in the recent imageries of these international magazines.
The portrayals develop degrees of facts (economic crisis, environmental degradation, uneven development throughout the territory) but also distortions and fantasies about the daily lives within the national borders, within its geography. As Edward Said notes, just as none of us is beyond geography, none of us is completely free from the struggle over geography. This struggle “is not only about soldiers and cannons but also ideas, about forms, about images and imagining”. One excuse more to construct Sustainable Cartographies.
Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism, London: Chatto & Windus, 1993.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. England: Penguin, 1978.
Valero Thomas, E. (2015). Sustainable Orientalism: Hegemonic Discourses of Environmental Sustainability and their Transmission to non-Western Urban Habitats. Critical Planning, 22. Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/7ww6h030