chapter  6
16 Pages

Boutique alterity: Southeast Asia’s exotics abroad and at home

ByTAMARA S. WAGNER

Boutique alterity presents a potential dead end of, or threatening counterpart to, otherness (alterity) as an analytical concept. Its depiction in literature showcases the appropriation of critical discourses, or fields of discourses, by popular culture, while it also suggests ways of self-consciously tackling the very impasses that may undermine or typecast these discourses. Part of a current revision in approaches to alterity and specifically Asian alterity, this chapter draws on recent postcolonial and diasporic fiction set in Southeast Asia as a revealing example of both this threatening appropriation and the attendant revisionist potential. In order to develop a counter-discourse to boutique alterity, I shall begin by building on Stanley Fish’s term ‘boutique multiculturalism’, coined in a provocative critique of the multicultural as an easily exploited consumer good: focusing on food, festivals, and food festivals, as the consumable output of neatly stratified cultural diversity, Fish speaks of ‘the multiculturalism of ethnic restaurants, weekend festivals, and high profile flirtations with the other’.1 Since Fish’s 1997 article, pressing issues of self-as well as of neo-orientalization have increasingly attracted the attention of literary and cultural critics as they question the confines of what Graham Huggan pointedly terms ‘the global commodification of cultural difference’2 in his 2002 study, The Postcolonial Exotic. Within this commodification of difference, or otherness, terms like multiculturalism, postcoloniality, or diaspora have been in danger of being entirely reduced to ‘just another buzzword’.3 Most effectively perhaps, in her exploration of ever more divergent forms of Chinese diasporas, Ien Ang has gone further to expose any identity politics as ‘strait-jackets’,4 so that the study of Asian alterity has begun to yield an important critical momentum that may crucially redirect prevalent approaches to issues of ‘identity’ as well as ‘alterity’ (or, more generally, of self and other).