January 28, 2012

Virtual Orientalism.

A Religion and American Studies scholar at USC, Jane Iwamura has a new book out dealing with the icon of the Oriental Monk in Western popular media. Her main three chapters focus on D.T. Suzuki, Maharishi, and Kung Fu (the TV show from the 70s).

Through popular media research, Iwamura makes the case that the mainstream press in the 50s, 60s, and 70s was very extremely skeptical of practices such as transcendental meditation, levying satirical and ironic tones in their coverage of Maharishi and similar figures.

At times, Iwamura’s personal reading of photographs and magazine articles falls short, paralleling other surface-level analysis of Eastern religions’ impact on the West, mostly represented by books in the popular media by journalists. At the same time, she does contextualize the mainstream American viewpoint of the time, and point out that the general reception of these figures was less than glowing, and almost always diminished the impact of their spiritual teachings.

This is a quick, easy read. As far as academic writing goes (it’s published by Oxford), I consider this to be light fare. This would be an interesting read for anyone connected to TM (and timely in light of Oprah’s recent fascination with it), 1960s aficionados, or those with a general interest in Oriental scholarship.

The theme of the Oriental Monk figures as the one prominent thread throughout the book, and the conclusion has a cursory reference to both Kung Fu Panda and the Dalai Lama in nearly the same breath. This trope functions at a very basic level as a rhetorical device. This book is light on theory, and is much more interesting in terms of its historical legwork and archival research (which is by no means exhaustive, but the photographs and magazine references are eye-catching.)

This is a short text (at 157 pages), and would be good for a quick read on the history of both Suzuki and Maharishi’s encounters with the West. There are a lot of fun details and photographs. It would be a suitable assignment for any introductory course in American Studies, Asian American Studies, and media/cinema. I would hesitate to assign this book for a graduate level seminar, but one article might be fine, if accompanied by a theoretical source of appropriate depth.

Judith Butler posted a fulsome review on the book jacket. I do agree with her that more of this work on East-West encounters in modernity should be done, because the objective lens thrown onto popular culture would probably help us spiritual types to think more deeply about how the culture has truly shifted over the past 100 years.

However, I also feel the author projects too much onto her analysis of the images and historical events, and that the book could benefit from more ethnographic support from participants themselves as well as secondary source material. Two pages introducing Deepak Chopra is just hardly enough to get my feet wet. I’d personally like to see Iwamura extend her arguments a bit more and would welcome a full volume on a figure such as the Dalai Lama and the ways in which his image and teachings have been intercepted by various groups around the globe.


Orientalism was a term coined by Edward Said in his 1978 book of the same name. It is to be distinguished from the older term Oriental Studies (historically the modern, academic philology and study of the East, began in India by people such as Dasgupta, in Europe by Max Muller, and in the US at the Ivy League institutions.) Asian Studies is the preferred term today.


P.S. Apparently Dr. Iwamura was denied tenure last summer at USC last year. I’m not sure why she was denied (after ten years of teaching there), but I hope she does get on somewhere, because this type of interdisciplinary research on Eastern religions in the West is more rare than one might assume within the academy.

A petition online asserts that “Dr. Iwamura’s denial of tenure belongs with a consistent pattern of denial of tenure to faculty of color, and especially women of color, at USC. Dr. Iwamura is appealing the denial and she will be undergoing what USC terms a “reconsideration process” this coming academic year.”


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