Josh Bricker – New Orientalism: my grand tour of duty

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New Orientalism: my grand tour of duty uses in-game photography to explore issues of post-colonialism and cultural representation. Edward Said’s critique of the West’s historical and social perceptions, as well as its visual depictions of the East, is used as provocation to examine the role video games, such as Call of Duty, play in perpetuating notions of the East as “other”. In Orientalism, Said was able to show how western scholarship and Orientalist paintings – a largely European tradition – was inherently biased by its own imperialist perceptions, producing and propagating stereotypes of the East as exotic, savage and inferior. The visual arts played a significant role in crystalizing this patronizing account of the East in the minds of many Europeans. Often functioning as state sponsored propaganda, Orientalist works traditionally depicted the East as a land of lawlessness, enlightened or tamed only through European rule. The works were largely the product of Western imagination: unbelievably, many of the artists associated with Orientalism, such as Ingres, and Antoine-Jean Gros – who was employed by Napoleon – never visited the near East themselves.

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New Orientalism contends that depictions of the East in contemporary video games, particularly Call of Duty, are a continuation of the historical narrative of Orientalism and its aesthetics of domination. Like the Orientalist paintings before them, these games are vehicles for the dissemination of western exceptionalism, normalizing western military dominance, and notions of the East as a lawless cultural backwater in need of western aid. And just like with Orientalist paintings we view the East through a prism that is entirely of a western (American) construction; there is a direct parallel between the Orientalist painters’ and contemporary video game artists who rarely if ever visited the regions they depict. Representations of eastern life center on aesthetics of collapse – bullet riddled and bombed out buildings stretch out in every direction as far as the eye can see. Streets are devoid of life; instead dread and feelings of danger are elicited in the form of thick black clouds of smoke billowing ominously in the distance – a theme shared with Orientalist paintings – evidence of some violent unseen episode presumably perpetrated by the savage “other”. The west’s role in this catastrophe is never examined during game play; instead realist narratives that favor immediate military action and devalue prudent intellectual analysis and political discourse are normalized through artistic renderings and play. Games like Call of Duty are the apotheosis of weaponized art, tacitly reinforcing the validity of state sponsored violence, while ignoring questions of jurisprudence and international law, not to mention questions of morality and ethics that come with killing.

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The title suggests that contemporary video games like Call of Duty constitute a new strain of Orientalism while also referencing Said’s seminal text. The subtitle, my grand tour of duty, alludes to the European tradition known as the Grand Tour, which was a right of passage of sorts for young, wealthy European men. With almost unlimited funds these burgeoning aristocrats travelled continental Europe in search of the roots of Western civilization, studying art, languages and history. Placed within the context of Call of Duty, I am suggesting that players go on a similar tour, albeit virtual, and focused on American military adventurism, and find not the roots of Western civilization but verification of the prevailing ethos of American exceptionalism.

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[text and images by Josh Bricker]

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