Title

Marketing Identity: Consumer Society, Ethnic Sectarianism, and the Commodification of the Orient in Little Syria, America

Presentation Type

Presentation

Abstract

From 1870-1920, Syrians—primarily but not entirely Christian—emigrated to the United States for a suitably modern reason: the devastation of the Lebanese silk industry due to the opening of the Suez Canal and, with it, the Chinese silk market. After stepping off the boat, they found themselves in an America industrializing and urbanizing. As their diasporic economy increased in sophistication, Syrians embraced the growing consumer society. Peddlers went from door-to-door, town-to-town, selling ‘Oriental’ kimonos (scarves) and rugs, illustrating the commodification of the ‘Orient’ in American consumer culture. Their economic success impressed many Americans, but it did not translate into widespread acceptance. Mainstream newspapers often depicted them as spiritually timeless, yet intellectually primitive. Leaders of the community mobilized to prove the whiteness of the Syrians by advancing an argument that partially relied on tropes about the Orient. The mediums and style of their discourse—books, Arabic-language newspapers, and civic associations—showed that race had become commodified in the new market economy. Ideas about race, religion, and their associated privileges had entered the marketplace, and constructing and marketing them became a crucial new aspect of identity politics in America. Much critical work has been done concerning the ways in which Syrians experienced their ethnicization, but this scholarship has not been connected to a wider discourse about broader social forces such as the rise of American consumerism. This paper contributes to a large body of scholarship founded by Edward Said’s seminal work Orientalism. He places the genesis of the American Orientalism immediately after WWII. It joins Naomi Rosenblatt and antedates Said by placing the onset of Orientalism within the swirling onset of consumer society in modernizing America. It contributes by interrogating the how Syrians employed racial and religious constructs to assert their identity within both America and the Syrian/Lebanese nation.

Category

Humanities

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Marketing Identity: Consumer Society, Ethnic Sectarianism, and the Commodification of the Orient in Little Syria, America

UC 332

From 1870-1920, Syrians—primarily but not entirely Christian—emigrated to the United States for a suitably modern reason: the devastation of the Lebanese silk industry due to the opening of the Suez Canal and, with it, the Chinese silk market. After stepping off the boat, they found themselves in an America industrializing and urbanizing. As their diasporic economy increased in sophistication, Syrians embraced the growing consumer society. Peddlers went from door-to-door, town-to-town, selling ‘Oriental’ kimonos (scarves) and rugs, illustrating the commodification of the ‘Orient’ in American consumer culture. Their economic success impressed many Americans, but it did not translate into widespread acceptance. Mainstream newspapers often depicted them as spiritually timeless, yet intellectually primitive. Leaders of the community mobilized to prove the whiteness of the Syrians by advancing an argument that partially relied on tropes about the Orient. The mediums and style of their discourse—books, Arabic-language newspapers, and civic associations—showed that race had become commodified in the new market economy. Ideas about race, religion, and their associated privileges had entered the marketplace, and constructing and marketing them became a crucial new aspect of identity politics in America. Much critical work has been done concerning the ways in which Syrians experienced their ethnicization, but this scholarship has not been connected to a wider discourse about broader social forces such as the rise of American consumerism. This paper contributes to a large body of scholarship founded by Edward Said’s seminal work Orientalism. He places the genesis of the American Orientalism immediately after WWII. It joins Naomi Rosenblatt and antedates Said by placing the onset of Orientalism within the swirling onset of consumer society in modernizing America. It contributes by interrogating the how Syrians employed racial and religious constructs to assert their identity within both America and the Syrian/Lebanese nation.