Asia Ex Machina

Essay by Avery Man

Art by Adri Marcano

In her revolutionary feminist essay A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century, Donna Haraway posits the political myth of the cyborg whose hybridity of machine and organism, and of reality and fiction, blurs the functions of “mind, body, and tool” (165). Adopting a postmodernist approach to identity politics where “orientalism is deconstructed politically and semiotically, [and] the identities of the occident destabilize,” Haraway cites postcolonial theorist Chela Sandoval to name oppositional consciousness—“a hopeful model of political identity . . . born of the skills for reading webs of power by those refused stable membership in the social categories of race, sex, or class . . . [and] a kind of postmodernist identity out of otherness, difference, and specificity” (155)—as the cyborgian woman of color’s radical power “to build an effective unity that does not replicate the imperializing, totalizing revolutionary subjects of previous Marxisms and feminisms” (156). In this essay, I compare Haraway’s racialized cyborg myth to the fictional trope of the techno-Oriental Other, whose varied manifestations fall further into the abstractions of sex and labor as their technological associations grow alongside a twenty-first century (East) Asian presence in all domains of technological production and consumption. By incorporating perspectives from media studies, namely David Roh, Betsy Huang, and Greta Niu’s work on techno-Orientalism, Christopher Patterson on the Asiatic, and Kathryn Allan on the Asian woman in cyberpunk fiction, I examine contemporary appropriations of the techno-Oriental cyborg tradition which predestines women of color to a hybrid existence as both instrument and concept. I argue that techno-Orientalism, largely advanced by the globalized sexual and labor market, serves to perpetuate the false consciousness of an Asian cyborg Other, who ultimately aligns with Haraway’s cyborg in their potential to subvert teleology through a feminist cyberpunk mythos.

Haraway highlights in her essay the crucial breakdown of the “boundary between physical and non-physical” as a subset of the blurred distinction between organism and machine (153). This hybridity becomes a critical consideration in analyzing techno-Orientalist representations in fiction and media. In “Technologizing Orientalism,” Roh et al. introduce the concept of techno-Orientalism as follows: “the phenomenon of imagining Asia and Asians in hypo- or hypertechnological terms in cultural productions and political discourse” (2). First the Japanese, then Chinese and Korean prevalence in tech manufacturing and design post-World War II and into the twenty-first century, across the globalized market, has allowed for an aesthetic export into Western conceptions of the future. Simultaneously, I argue, the Asian (who is often not East Asian at all) homeworker’s reduction to both machine and product but never self is the very rhetoric that underpins the West’s techno-Orientalist propaganda, which in turn aestheticizes fantastical visions of transhumanism in an attempt at Othering marginalized identities.

Roh et al. critique these techno-Oriental speculations of Asianized futurism, which they assert have become “ever more prevalent in the wake of neoliberal trade policies that enabled greater flow of information and capital between the East and the West” (2). In addition, they draw from Japanese director Toshiya Ueno’s identification of techno-Orientalism as a “discursive cultural phenomenon in . . . the ‘post-Fordist social environment of globalization,’” which expands beyond traditional Orientalism as the direct product of globalism, trade, and capital (3).

In his book Open World A.I., which tackles racialized and queer erotics in video games, Christopher B. Patterson argues that theorists Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Eve Sedgwick, in their methods of “untangl[ing] their erotic selves” by confronting the Asian Other, confront the Asiatic (27). Quoting Lisa Nakamura, he describes the Asiatic as “a ‘cybertype’ . . . of a racial form shifting ‘into the realm of the ‘virtual’” (27). This shift into a racialized virtual sphere precariously marks the point where erotic and aesthetic abstractions successfully extract the Asiatic, the symbol, from the Asian, the personal reality. Indeed, I can attest to the fact that the Asian woman, prominently encountered in the virtual sense, rarely exists in Western thought as more than a disembodied mascot of the Oriental monolith—that she is not afforded material mobility or agency, but only exists through service, entertainment, and worker roles. Haraway recognizes this teleological identity in cyborgs insofar as we are modern machines: owing to the virtualization (abstraction) of our bodies, we are “everywhere [and] invisible,” granted “ubiquity and invisibility” by the ether of our being (153).

Likewise the techno-Oriental cyborg, though variable in the degree to which they succeed in “mirror[ing] the self” (Haraway 177), is represented across Western literary, cinematic, and new media fictions as an Other of mystical, faraway origins, and at the same time of no origin story (Haraway 150). Since early cinema, Asiatic men have been depicted as conniving villains, as with Sax Rohmer’s criminal, mad scientist Dr. Fu Manchu, whose cruel characterization produced a lasting archetype of yellow peril in Western media. It is important to note that the tradition of consigning men of color to antagonist roles in Hollywood developed as the mid-century Hays Code prohibited so-called onscreen miscegenation, lending to a racial emasculation I argue engendered the feminization of the mythic East. In recent decades, the initially derisive Western reception of the globalized Hallyu Wave of Korean pop culture, whose male performers don flamboyant stage outfits and makeup, indexing phenotypical femininity to the West, also highlights a correlation between non-white performances of gender and emasculated stereotypes. On the other hand, women of color bear the empire of sexualization fully by virtue of a teleology constructed from “[t]he close ties of sexuality and instrumentality” (Haraway 169).

Where Haraway’s cyborg is “oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence” (151), the techno-Oriental cyborg is submissive, dystopian, and with a tame, at times infantilizing, innocence mapped onto her sexualized body. I observe that fictional representations of these cyborgian bodies, when they do not read outright xenophobic, often indulge in an aesthetic-sexual fetishism. It is particularly alarming that the fetishized cyborg experience should reflect Catherine MacKinnon’s radical theory of experience in which the objectified Other “owes her existence as a woman to sexual appropriation,” revealing that these totalizing Western philosophies remain the conceptual force behind the Asiatic cyborg trope (159).

In response to East Asian efforts to culturally imperialize the West through technology and media, techno-Orientalist representations abound. I attest that when the economic and subsequently cultural ethos of the East ingests this Western fiction, then, for women in the homework economy whose identities are broken down by the new technologies, their disposition as mass laborers destined to underpin “the production and reproduction of daily life and . . . of culture and imagination” results in a false consciousness nested within the manifold social realities of the abstracted East and West (Haraway 165). In other words, techno-Orientalism renders women in the integrated circuit complicit in their domination by structuring the social relationship to science and technology in the East towards a Western construal. Haraway writes, “Young Korean women hired in the sex industry and in electronics assembly are recruited from high schools, educated for the integrated circuit . . . Literacy, especially in English, distinguishes the ‘cheap’ female labour so attractive to the multinationals,” and addresses the “oral primitive” stereotype against women of color (174). The engineering of an exploitable, illiterate labor force echoes Roh et al.’s framing of the techno-Oriental Other as a technologically advanced yet intellectually primitive body, and epitomizes the irony of our cyborgian constitution.

Furthermore, in the context of newly industrialized countries (NICs) such as China and India which serve as scapegoats for cheap hyperproduction jobs outsourced abroad, and which “bear the brunt of the resulting xenophobic antipathies,” Roh et al. argue “techno-Orientalist discourse constructs Asians as mere simulacra and maintains a prevailing sense of the inhumanity of Asian labor—the very antithesis of Western liberal humanism” (5). In the wake of new technologies, they posit that techno-Orientalism provides “an expressive vehicle for [the West’s] aspirations and fears”; Asia’s “threat/value dualism” increases as Asia becomes “a greater consumerist force than the West” (3-4). This dichotomy, I assert, exemplifies the “geometrics of difference and contradiction crucial to women’s cyborg identities”; the deliberate de-intellectualization and dehumanization of women of color through labor represents an attempt to minimize their subjective threat and to maximize their subaltern value, that is, their alienation from said labor (Haraway 170).

Roh et al. surmise that “techno-Orientalism finds some of its most pervasive expressions in SF [speculative fiction] because of the genre’s futurist esprit of contemporary existential, racial, and technological anxieties” (5). Perhaps the most salient techno-Orientalist feat in recent Western media is the 2017 SF film Blade Runner 2049. In the Blade Runner world, one task of the organic transhumans called replicants, genetically-engineered for slave labor, is to simulate regular human qualities—essentially, to mirror the self. Already the parallels to Haraway’s cyborg are apparent. Roh et al. compare this species to “Dickian androids” in Outsourced (2006), creatures “who simulate human behavior and threaten the distinction between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ Americans” (4-5).

Now I focus on one particular character in Blade Runner 2049: the white male protagonist K’s holographic A.I. companion Joi, who exists as a romantic cyborg figment without any true subjectivity beyond her server (not worker, as Haraway notes) purpose. She can shapeshift at her owner’s fancy from a homely Stepford wife to a flamboyant flapper, mother him, and is so selfless as to even hire a sex worker replicant as a body surrogate. Here I argue that while the cyborg’s inorganic nature prohibits her from engaging in sexual reproduction, her very submission to the ideal political, patriarchal order represents the highest “caricature of that masculinist reproductive dream” (152); she excels in the reproduction of labor.

Various other symbolic dog whistles in Joi’s constitution—from her name, servile domesticity, and cyberpunk appearance to the general neo-Tokyo aesthetics of the Blade Runner world—insinuate she is an undeniable techno-Orientalist cyborg caricature. Yet the film attributes to Joi the fictitious ethnicity of “Cuban”; one might argue that this odd detail can be explained away by the fact that actress Ana de Armas, who plays Joi, is Cuban-American. But the seemingly naïve mapping of techno-Oriental subjugation onto other women of color, in the writing of this character and in the casting of the actress, I argue, reveals a sinister implication: the techno-Orientalist conflation of technology, sex, and race in constructing cyborg identities, so invisible and peripheral that scriptwriters do not even care to fact check, damages women of color at large.

Patterson writes of the Asiatic character Mei in the game Overwatch: “Naïve optimism and stereotypical accent become camp, as they function as an innocent stylization of psychological warfare” (66). Psychological warfare via aesthetic stylization (when racial Otherness itself is the aesthetic), then, is the objective of weaponized naïvete in cyborgs like Joi, whose importance in the integrated circuit simultaneously exploits Western fears of foreign cyborg labor replacement; this potential is both her threat and her value. Moreover, modern fears surrounding an android revolt, such as an A.I. robot insurgence (with the various personifications of A.I. reproducing techno-Orientalist tropes), recall the zombie figure originating in Haitian folklore which serves a metaphor for slave uprising to many a Western protagonist. Both enduring villain motifs in horror and speculative fiction, the robot and the zombie engage in an anti-colonial narrative wherein a subjugated but empowered nonhuman Other coalition threatens the pacified social relations of the dominant white order, the order of man and the human Subject.

Adopting Sandoval’s terms, I believe the woman of color’s oppositional consciousness must begin with rejecting the totalizing force of virtuality, and with regenerating identities beyond globalized discursive dualisms, identities that subvert the Western logos. I reason that techno-Orientalism emerges as a permeation of the East/West dualism, and presents its cyborgian Other as the illegitimate child of these domains. Considering “illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins,” this distinction then offers an opportunity for the cyborg to oppose and expose the fictions of East and West (Haraway 151).

In her chapter entitled Reimagining Asian Women in Feminist Post-Cyberpunk Science Fiction, Kathryn Allan points to the hybrid SF genre “feminist post-cyberpunk” which rejects “[cyberpunk’s] white (heterosexual) masculine claims on both the subject and technology” (152-3). This genre, she explains, considers “what it means to be gendered and raced in an age when technology transcends geopolitical borders and exists both outside and inside of the body”, precisely following Haraway’s conception of the cyborg body as both instrument for and concept of technological progress (153). Allan criticizes the “feminized cyberspace matrix” of original cyberpunk fiction (prime techno-Orientalism), the vessel through which male cyberpunk protagonists achieve their heroic aims, and to which I draw parallels with Patterson’s Asiatic virtual realm (152). In these spaces, as Allan quotes Nicola Nixon regarding William Gibson’s Neuromancer, feminist SF’s revolutionary potential is relegated to “scary feminized software,” whose “virtual celebration of a kind of primal masculinity . . . relies on techno-Orientalist tropes to provide the settings and peoples that support this hallucinatory world of male mastery for Western white men and their technological toys” (152). I contend that the feminization of male mastery-upholding work upon the shoulders of the cyborg body compels subjugated women into becoming objects for consumption, a false consciousness we must abandon.

Whereas “the street” in 1980s cyberpunk narrowly referred to a shadowy underground realm within the dominant Western culture, “the street” in today’s post-cyberpunk (PCP) now “​​attempt[s] to bring [Asians, Africans, and Latinos] and their unique concerns to the centre of their stories,” and features marginalized folk “as they directly interact with or literally embody technology” (Allan 153). Following Haraway’s conviction, I assert that to acknowledge our contradictory statuses within Western politics without the need for a totalizing theory of identity, as well as to acknowledge the radical power of the technologies which constitute our fluid, oppositional selves, is to revolutionize techno-Orientalist fictions. Allan herself states, “the techno-Orientalized body . . . is not a static one; like all bodies, it is capable of transformation and agency” (162). In feminist post-cyberpunk works like Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl, Allan maintains that the purposeful “outing” of “the raced, gendered, classed body” exists “to empower that identity position despite attempts to control and diminish it” (153). She concludes, “Asian bodies have no special mastery over virtual environments . . . but they do have real-world presence” (161-2). To “out” one’s self shamelessly rather than submit to mirroring the self, Man, or the Western logos is to radically resist an Othered existence. I affirm that this oppositional consciousness, realized in feminist post-cyberpunk fiction, lays the groundwork to reimagine a cyborg futurity committed to subverting the exploitative, techno-Orientalist politics behind Asian futurism.

Works Cited

Allan, Kathryn. “Reimagining Asian Women in Feminist Post- Cyberpunk Science Fiction.” Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media, edited by David S. Roh, et al., Rutgers University Press, 2015, pp. 151-162. Project MUSE,

Haraway, Donna Jeanne. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, Routledge, 1991, pp. 149-181.

Patterson, Christopher B. Open World Empire: Race, Erotics, and the Global Rise of Video Games. NYU Press, 2020.

“Technologizing Orientalism.” Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media, edited by David S. Roh, et al., Rutgers University Press, 2015, pp. 1-20. Project MUSE,