Archive for the ‘representation’ 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.

Differences in Western Sexuality

January 9, 2011

One of the things I’ve talked about on this blog is the construction of modern sexuality and adolescence and the impact of this on our cultural mores. Over the last couple of centuries this has gone through some developments leading to contemporary attitudes about sexuality. Along with the construction of adolescence has blossomed, in the twentieth-century, the category of, and attitudes towards, teenagers. Teenagers occupy a kind of liminal state between adolescent and adult and this creates a complex intersection of discourses all inter-relating that impact our attitudes towards teens and young adults. No where is this more evident than regarding teen sexuality. With this in mind, I found it quite interesting to find my way to an old slate piece (h/t: Feministing). The link takes you to a slide show that shows some of the discursive differences between attitudes about teen sexuality in America (and I would argue Canada) in comparison with European attitudes. I have to say, some of the statistics are quite telling and the explanations they take about the piece are solid.

From my own perspective, I find it interesting to ask the question, while watching the slide-show and reading the analysis, ‘to what end do these different views of teen sexuality aim?” That is, what if we take a methodological stance that assumes a teleology and homogeneity to these discourses and consequently wonder what are the goals of talking about teen sexuality in way that they are talked about? Now, of course, we know that discourses are contradictory and there is no homogeneous force shaping them, but taking this stance might offer interesting insight.

In that light, I would argue that the respective discourse about teen sexuality says something about the different attitudes about about teen sexuality in Europe and North America. We see European attitudes being more practical–focused on strategies that accomplish specific goals and attempting to frame representations to meet these practical goals. In North American attitudes, I find the discourse about teen sexuality has very little to do with teen sexuality in and of itself. The goals are similar, but impacting the discourse is a whole set of idealizations and imaginary fictions imputed on the subject. North American attitudes speak to me of this having much more to do with adult fears and dreams than teens themselves. Unfortunately, it leads me to a kind of psychologism where I come to this insight, and thus its corollary: What kinds of of strange nostalgias has led former teens (adults) to construct these elaborate fear-based narratives about their past?

It all seems a little opaque to me, but I find the question an interesting one that I will continue to ruminate on.

Diagnosing American Politics

October 2, 2010

Jean Baudrillard was somewhat prescient in his analysis of the semiology of America. In his 1983 volume Simulations (which contains excerpts from Simulations and Sumulacra, made famous by its cameo in the Matrix) Baudrillard has this to say about the WTC:

Why are there two towers at New York’s World Trade Center? … The fact that there are two of them signifies the end of all competition, the end of all original reference. … For the sign to be pure, it has to duplicate itself: it is the duplication of the sign which destroys its meaning. This is what Andy Warhol demonstrates also: the multiple replicas of Marilyn’s face are there to show at the same time the death of the original and the end of representation. (135-6)

Here we see the major philosophical point that Baudrillard is making. Signs are representations that infinitely reduplicate an original. In Late Capitalism, or the stage of simulation, signs no longer refer to any original, but rather only to each other. For Baudrillard, this means that we no longer operate, at the level of meaning (and as we saw with the stock market crash, economic meaning is included), with the real. Rather, we are operating within a correlated system of simulations of meaning. Signs no longer refer to or represent anything real. Thus, he could title one of his works: The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. He continues:

[The two towers] and their twin altitude presents no longer any value of transcendence. (137) … power is absolute only if it is capable of diffraction into various equivalents, if it knows how to take off so as to put more on. (134) … You need two superpowers to keep the universe under control… and the equilibrium of terror alone can allow a regulated opposition to be established, for the strategy is structural, never atomic.(134)

His broader point about the Twin Towers is that they stand in for America. (more…)

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 critical underpinings of everyday life

July 21, 2010

I’ve been recently reading about hermeneutics, in specific about Riceour and his interpretation of the Gadamer/Habermas debate found in “Hermeneutics and the Critique of Ideology”. It has made me imagine a new way of thinking of ideology and criticism that incorporates a potentially more robust understanding of the way people interpret the world around them. Keep in mind this is just a hypothesis, or a one-off insight that needs more thought, deliberation and research to reach more fruitful insight.

In short, it is to argue that with the onset of modernity, subjectivity has necessarily entered a critical mode of thought. My critique of the binary of modernity and tradition is comprehensive. These categories are purely ideological or conceptual. There is no modernity other than that which we give a name to and then act or think upon. There is no tradition anymore either, because of the power of the concept of modernity. The two concepts are now inextricably linked. Tradition no longer means the traditio of the Roman period. Tradition is always in critical dialogue with modernity. The two terms are tactics put into the play of discourse for people to construct the world in ways that suit their needs–and these terms are situated now as almost uniquely powerful tools for rhetorical sledgehammers to define reality in certain ways. These terms are, then, in many ways of thinking of the term, ideological. This is true even if we have different meanings of the terms modernity, tradition, and ideology.

That being said, we often have the “common sense” or even “critical” interpretive stance that those who we label conservative or traditionalists are not critical or self-reflexive about their own positions. This is what I would like to challenge. From a hermeneutic perspective, what we call “back-ward thinking” and “critical thought” are produced in subjects in very similar ways. Both are conditioned by upbringing, education, social norms, interpretive frameworks, etc. etc. The process by which subjects are constructed (or to be a little more nuanced, the process by which subjects take the available horizons of meaning to heart in their own self-constructions) are similar, it is rather that the varied inputs of biology, sociology, culture, education etc. on a subject differ for each in such a unique way as to produce very unique, contextually-dependent subjects who are nonetheless all undergoing similar processes of subject- and identity-formation. Whether one is born-again or a freethinker, one is inevitably shaped by one’s context and relates to and constructs oneself in/from that context in the same manner. (more…)

Race and Children

May 17, 2010

Sociological Images has a crazy post up with embedded video that is a much watch. It is a series of videos where children are shown images of children of different colors and asked questions like ‘which of these kids is the dumb one?” and then “why?” after the response. The children are also asked what they think adults think about the children with different skin color. The final video is heartwarming and also shows how some children parse through the issues in simple and refreshing anti-racist ways. The link is here: Children’s Attitudes Towards Skin Color.

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