Archive for the ‘orientalism’ Category

Suffering Porn: The Flip-side of The White Savior Industrial Complex

March 25, 2012


As many may have been exposed to, the KONY 2012 kerfuffle has been getting quite a lot of attention lately. There have been many responses critical to this particular “charitable cause” which I will not rehash here. However, I do want to point to an article by Teju Cole entitled “The White Savior Industrial Complex“. It is quite an insightful and careful piece about how contemporary development and privileged concern plays out large-scale. It carefully dissects the effects of a (perhaps) well-meaning but (usually) harmful system of aid towards the “developing world”–otherwise known as the formerly colonized “Other”. Cole says,

One song we hear too often is the one in which Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism. From the colonial project to Out of Africa to The Constant Gardener and Kony 2012, Africa has provided a space onto which white egos can conveniently be projected. It is a liberated space in which the usual rules do not apply: a nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied. Many have done it under the banner of “making a difference.” To state this obvious and well-attested truth does not make me a racist or a Mau Mau.

What Cole is pointing to here is the larger discourse of Orientalism making complicit a racism that allows the superior Westerner a position to “save those who cannot save themselves”–which at once dis-empowers the abject Other and empowers the righteous Self. The problem, that Cole touches on, is that Orientalism is never divorced from global systems of power: be they economic, political or developmental. How do we “save” Africa, India… the developing world? Look to Iraq and Afghanistan for examples. Look to dismal but quite intentional track record of the IMF or the World Bank. The righteous salvation of the West  on the other is almost always allied in ways that empower or enrich the West. To debate how much good is done to the Other is to concede that the West decides what is good or bad for the Other.

This analysis is large, broad, complex and global. And necessary. However, there is a flip-side to this broad global analysis. It is an analysis of the insidious ways that Orientalism and neo- or post-colonial discourse impacts individuals to support the White Savior Industrial Complex. It speaks to the individual psychological payoff that individuals get when they think they are helping the Other and think they are being charitable. It is an analysis that may not itself be charitable. I have called it for a while now “Suffering Porn”.

The Sunday afternoon commercials that show malnourished African children with distended bellies and flies buzzing on their faces is Suffering Porn. The stream of news footage of refugees, or oppressed Muslim women, or whatever may be the Third-World calamity of the day is Suffering Porn. KONY is Suffering Porn.  (more…)

Orientalism and the Colonized Mind

November 14, 2011

This post is a more indepth examination of Edward Said’s notion of Orientalism as a discourse and how, post-colonization, the formerly colonized have internalized colonial epistemes, often described in psychological terms. Some (Breckenridge and van der Veer 1993) call this phenomenon the post-colonial predicament in general, and some call the particularly psychological aspect of it the colonized mind. Post-colonial scholars call for a process of de-colonizing the mind in response.

Orientalism, in the sense that I will be using it throughout my analysis, refers to a systemic discursive regime—a way of thinking, speaking and thus acting—that reifies a distinction between East and West, Orient and Occident, that perpetuates a hierarchy privileging the West. This usage of term was conceived by Edward Said in Orientalism.  As Said argues:


Orientalism in the Orient – I

May 3, 2011

Looking through some old photos of mine, I came across one that I was hoping to use in a class but hadn’t gotten around to yet. It is an ad for power switches/light switches. And its marketing angle is the term ‘xen’ which is obviously playing off of the term ‘zen’.

Zen is a term used widely in North American popular culture to evoke the mystical East, or a sense of calm, or whatever its latest referent is. What is interesting is that this picture was taken in Bangalore, India (2006). If this image was used in North America, we might decry it as the appropriation of the “Other” for the capitalist gain of the “Self”. Instead, we have the appropriation of the “Other Asia” by “Our Asia”. The key elements of orientalism that are reproduced here are stereotypes of the Other as exotic (zen is a major signifier of such), as a symbolic commodity to be capitalized on for is semiotic value, and as a moving signifier to meet the needs of the ‘Self’. What does ‘Xen’ mean here? What does it evoke? The clean, calm lines of modernity? Of minimalism and simplicity? Of mystery and exoticism? How does the ‘X’ change the meaning as opposed to the ‘Z’? Does it signify a cool, hip variant?

Another thing to note is that the second sentence under the word ‘Xen’ is as follows: “More Affordable in economy LATINA series”. Here we see the politics of orientalism/race/gender playing out that contributes to the stereotyping of female hispanics as poor or lesser than. It might contradictorily affirm the attractiveness of the hispanic female–that is, why is it LATINA and not LATINO? Again, we can come back to the analysis that sex is the prime signifier of desire in late capitalism, and sex within patriarchy is inhabited by the male gaze.

This seemingly innocuous image of power switches is embedded in a whole intersection of symbolic meaning and utilizes many stereotypes within discourse to market the product as attractive for consumers who are also consuming this symbolic product.

Homophobia and the Post-colonial Predicament

January 28, 2011

As we mourn the passing of David Kato (h/t: feministing) and imagine how this is the tip of the homophobic iceburg, the whole global issue of homophobia makes me ponder some of the historical and structural issues that come into play with world-wide homophobia.

As some of us know, homosexuality is a recent development. While same-sex love has been around for all of recorded history, its iterations have been many, various and at times even the status quo (I’m looking at you, Ancient Greeks). Homosexuality itself, however, is an invention of a nineteenth-century Europe dedicated to SCIENCE!!!! and the “finding”–pronounced construction–of deviance from a bourgeois, middle-class state-promoted sociology of the nuclear family. This sociology was developed in order to guarantee the subsequent generations of a middle-class educated populace that is the foundation of the modern nation state. For those who like trivia, keep in mind that the term heterosexuality only began to see wide usage in the 1930’s, about 50 years after the invention of the term homosexuality (which, originally meant what we now think of as heterosexuality, with a brief period where it meant what we now think of as bisexuality).

Homosexuality as a term is not some neutral term that just describes the state of affairs of a particular sub-set of people. It is a term that springs from the titillated desire for science to shamelessly catalogue and pruriently search out for hidden deviance with a perverse twinkle in its eye. The term has a complex history that includes its use to discipline and discriminate against those classified as homosexuals. It has also been taken up with pride by those who faced oppression based on the term, and in this strategy there has been some success in the West in ameliorating its rhetorical uses for oppression.

Aside from these elements worthy of note, most important for understanding global homophobia is that at the same time as homosexuality is being constructed as a deviance–not coincidentally–European powers are colonizing the world. The power of Europe to be there (a phrase I take from Edward Said–also note how close this resembles Heidegger’s Dasein, “being-there”) enabled Europe to construct itself as the West, and this in turn affected its own constructions of sexuality. The end product was that most colonial powers brought a new and, for Europeans, important,  legal framework into the colonies: sodomy laws, and laws against homosexuality. For many of these colonized regions (aside from those already impacted by their common connection to Western epistemes, most noteably Islamic regions) these laws criminalizing homosexuality and sodomy were new and entirely innovative procedures of classifying people. For some countries, these laws were minor blips that were paid little attention. For other countries, especially those who were under discursive pressure to fight against the “feminization of the East” that Orientalism so handily lobbed towards them, these laws were quite useful for convincing themselves that they were as masculine as masculine can get.

And here we come up against what is known as the post-colonial predicament. This term was coined by Carol Breckenridge and Van der Veer in their edited volume The Post-Colonial Predicament. What the post-colonial predicament describes is the internalization and naturalization of colonial epistemes, structures and institutions by once colonized peoples. That is, it is when colonized and post-colonized people take once imposed colonial stuctures as if they were their own natural way of doing things.

In order to understand globalized homophobia, we need to understand that in almost all cases (I’m hedging my bets, but note I’ve never seen a counter-example) homophobia in postcolonial regions is precisely an example of the post-colonial predicament. The homophobia of, say Uganda, was a colonial trope that is now coming to fruition as if Uganda has always been against people of alternative sexuality. This is absolutely not the case. And it is not isolated. World-wide, almost every case of homophobia is caused by the remnants of colonialism.

In fact, there is even further transformation of discourse about this. In India, we find a discourse among the right that India has never has same-sex love and that homosexuality is a Western imposition, and that same-sex love is actually Indians pandering to the West as if they are some sort of colonial spy. This makes the right feel good, as it rhetorically situates them as anti-colonial gatekeepers. However, as people like Ruth Vanita and Peter Jackson and others have shown, India has a long long history of alternative sexualities. Indeed, what IS new is the taking up of Western understandings of same-sex love by activists in order to find strategies and global support for fighting DISCRIMINATION. It works both ways. Also note that this discrimination only began because of colonization.

So how do these insights help us? There are many answers to this question, but I would argue that a rhetorical strategy that reversed the Indian right’s strategy would not only hold some element of facticity, but also be quite attractive. I would argue that LGBT activists and the like should start arguing that homophobia is pandering to colonialism. One could even spin it by making material connections between the elites in, say Uganda, and the right of the United States. If homophobic rhetoric in post-colonized countries begins to be associated with colonial cow-towing, the anti-colonial sentiment that still remains a powerful rhetorical device world-wide can be strategically and fruitfully used to shame and counter this homophobic discourse. The key, of course is marketing and the pragmatic concern of being able to penetrate the media etc. with this trope.

Regardless, my sentiments go out to all those globally who have to face oppression based on the convoluted and complex history of homophobia and its rhetorical uses by elites to shore up their own power.

Buddhism Does Not Exist

July 25, 2010

NOTE: This is a comment I posted on this post at feministe, by guest blogger Kloncke. I thought I’d like to save it, because reading it again, I liked parts of it. Especially the first sentence. 🙂

Buddhism does not exist. Buddhism is a figment of our individual and collective imaginations. The “Buddhism” that we know in the “West” has little to do with Early Indian Buddhism, much in the same way that Early Indian Buddhism has little to do with Chinese Buddhism. What Buddhism has become a repository for–since its construction by Europeans as “Buddhism” (say as opposed to buddhasasana or some such), some unitary “world religion”–is all of our desires and dreams. In the early 20th century Early Buddhism was the religion of ‘rationality’ that could replace a corrupt, institutionalized, superstitious, oppressive Christianity. Then it suited our desires for mysticism and existential angst with Zen. Now Tibetan Buddhism is popular for whatever reason. Ironically, in Korea, Buddhism is seen as decadent, and Christianity is a vital, rational religion. So, why Buddhism? I guess the point I am trying to make here, is that all this discussion about what “Buddhism” is, has little to do with Buddhism and everything to do with our own conceits.

Is Buddhism about meditation? Is it a philosophy or a religion? Is it about mindfulness, etc. etc.? The answers to these questions betray our own interests and desires. Why do we get upset when one person says Buddhism is X and another says it is not X? Why take sides?

I think what could be useful is to step back a bit and ask: “are we not becoming problematically attached to ‘Buddhism’ when we want to think Buddhism is a certain way and to argue against the idea that it is another way?” Buddhism is a vast religion, with too many iterations to count. For most ‘buddhists’ throughout history, Buddhism was a complex of gods, rituals, social norms, and platitudes to get through their daily life. Indeed, even meditation was a minority practice among monks! Much of what we think is Buddhism has been a haphazardly constructed Orientalist stereotype that meets the needs and desires of Western audiences. We are spoon-fed a Buddhism that meets certain of our desires. Ironic.

Given all this, the question should not be “what is Buddhism” or even “what does Buddhism say about X”? Rather, the question should be, “since every invocation of Buddhism is used for a certain end, is an appropriation, to what end am I appropriating Buddhism–and what are the consequences of that appropriation?”

A Short History of Buddhism and Orientalism

July 25, 2010

For the scholarly minded, or those who want to get a good resource for the Orientalist construction of Buddhism, I suggest this source that I just started re-reading: Jorn Borup, “Zen and the Art of Inverting Orientalism: Buddhism, Religious Studies and Interrelated Networks”, in New Approaches to the Study
of Religion, Volume I: Regional, Critical, and Historical Approaches
, edited by Peter Antes, Armin W. Geertz, and Randi R. Warne, 451-487. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2004.

This is a great introduction and summary of quite a few different number of recent scholarly examinations of Buddhism, its construction, and its place within Orientalism and relationship to Orientalism. While, I would have prefered a more robust theoretcal or even critical analysis at the end of the paper, it is still quite good. I think it would have most impact on those scholars who haven’t yet encountered the counter-discourse arising in Buddhist Studies against its own ideolized projections (led by people like Donald Lopez, Almond, and others). Great for a intro to Buddhism course at university.

I’d like to know what others think of this piece.

The Problems with Multi-culturalism

April 18, 2010

In Canada, multiculturalism has become the primary referent for what we like to think of as our pluralistic, accepting, or, at least, tolerant society. And yet, the category itself doesn’t get much critical analysis. In the last few years of my work I have seen a few take-downs of this concept and I am generally convinced that though the term played its part in a more intolerant past, the term today may be holding us back from solving many problems. Over at Restructure! there is a post quoting Dr. Sunera Thobani and her critical stance on multiculturalism:

I think multiculturalism has been a very effective way of silencing anti-racist politics in this country. Multiculturalism has allowed for certain communities—people of colour—to be constructed as cultural communities. Their culture is defined in very Orientalist and colonial ways—as static, they will always be that, they have always been that. And culture has now become the only space from which people of colour can actually have participation in national political life; it’s through this discourse of multiculturalism. And what it has done very successfully is it has displaced an anti-racist discourse.

I have my own critiques as well:

1. Multiculturalism assumes stable, static, cultural boundaries. In its attempt to say different cultures are part and parcel of Canada, it also solidifies these into unwavering essenses.

2. It follows from this that culture becomes policed. It brings in the spectre of “authenticity”, and in practice only serves to contrast them against Canadian society at large–whatever that is.

3. Multiculturalism doesn’t reflect the reality of cultural play. Cultures are constantly shifting and in continual dialogue. Indeed, the category of culture itself is problematic. Where does one culture end and another begin? There is no such thing as cultural borders… rather, what seems to be the case is highly diffuse conglomerates, networks, inroads, borrowings, synchretisms, nostalgias, romanticisms, appropriations and rejections, comparisons, culture-trolling, and so on.

4. Finally, this term doesn’t do justice to the lived experience of Canadians who often have to negotiate multiple complex and dynamic cultural forms and identities.

h/t: Missives from Marx

Chimamanda Adichie

April 18, 2010

Chimamanda Adichie gives a talk on ted called “The Danger of a Single Story”. The single story is, from my point of view, a particular discursive strategy that we name Orientalism.

From the website description:

Our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice — and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.

This is a good talk. What I like most about it is how it makes very accessible the kinds of things I talk about (though I too often use big words and complex theoretical positions). It is very powerful for that. Check it out.

h/t: Feministe

A History of Fair-skin Preference in South Asia

April 14, 2010

Recently, the Vogue India magazine’s cover took head on the well-known preference for lighter or fairer skin as a sign of beauty in the subcontinent. This preference has been commented on before, with many interpretations of the phenomenon. In this case, for example, one interesting insight by the piece linked above talks about the capitalization of this preference by beauty product companies.

Fuelled by the appearance of light-skinned Bollywood stars and models, the demand for skin-whitening creams – from brands including L’Oreal and Unilever – grew 18 per cent last year and is set to increase by a predicted 25 per cent this year, the Times reports.

This is a significant aspect of the phenomenon. There are billboards, magazine ads, and TV commercials throughout South Asia that play on the standard of ‘fairer’ skin being more attractive. This fits a standard post-WWII late-capitalist model of subjectivity construction. A standard of the body is set as either preferred or as undesirable, marketing sets out to construct a narrative with the aim of inducing anxiety about reaching the standard (cover up undesirables, concern to reach desirables), and products are disseminated to temporarily relieve this anxiety. But, of course, there are so many things to be anxious about, late-capitalism aims to make us perpetually anxious consuming subjects. This narrative is pretty standard and is playing out in the particular case of fairer skin in the subcontinent. However, we do have to be attentive to the local conditions that make this particular manifestation play out in the way it does. So, to my mind, any analysis of this phenomenon should take into account a number of historical trajectories that impact light-skin beauty standards in India. (more…)

What is the subaltern?

April 7, 2010

Reading and writing. Today it is about the subaltern. This term is thrown about a lot, but there seems to be some confusion about what it means. There are a number of ways of approaching the subject, so I think I may just ramble a bit here about it.

The subaltern is a technical term for a certain kind of dispossessed person. It is a person who fits within the model of the Oppressor/Oppressed as the being so marginalized as to not even have the ‘voice’ of the oppressed. So, symbolically, we might say that the colonizer is Self, the colonized is Other, and all of those who are invisible to both Self and Other are the subaltern. Gayatri Spivak has the most theoretical look at the subaltern, and her work is still the root text for a discussion of the subaltern, in her article “Can the Subaltern Speak?” The answer to the title of her essay is no. The subaltern does not have a voice. Indeed, technically, once a subaltern has a voice, they are no longer the subaltern. They become Other, merely altern. (more…)