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.

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.

What do you believe?

November 11, 2010

A significant proportion of discursive debate comes down to two fundamental perspectives that people have about the world:

A. The exception proves the rule.
or,
B. The exception disproves the rule.

If you believe A. then you can be accused of totalitarian, tyrannical rhetoric.

If you believe B. you can be accused of moral relativism.

Both of these positions are fundamental epistemic ways of experiencing the world around us, and their rebuttals fall within set strategies of discursive resistance. My question is, what makes both A and B possible? What other ways of approaching the world might there be?

Passion, Desire

October 18, 2010

Desire. The impulse to liberate our desires is a carefully camouflaged trap. Our desires are not singularly unique manifestations of some inner spirit. They are but the machinations of historical processes and guided interests that we internalize. Letting loose our desires atrophies our subjectivity, enslaving us.

Passion frees us from our own limitations and it transforms us. We must be wary of these mutations. Desire takes our passions and shapes us to its own will. Tempering passion, however, risks tainting it; a manageable passion may not be passion at all. Or indeed, it may only be wishful thinking that we can manage passions. Rationalizations atrophy spontaneity–and may be a more firm a cage than our entangling desires.

Instead of all this concern about desires, passions, CONTROL–we should be artisans who are concerned to shape and reshape our prisons. Denial about our own imprisonment is the most sinister trap of all. It is a bolder freedom to step in a trap of our choosing and to tool it into the shape we desire. All other choices mean that we leave other forces to guide our imprisonment. We become beholden to their manufacturing. Let us prefer our own, and decorate them well.

Crushed by Idols

October 18, 2010

I really like this excerpt from Nietzsche. It inspires me.  Psht. Whatever, read Ecce Homo.

BAM:

One repays a teacher badly if one always remains only a pupil. And why, then, should you not pluck at my laurels?

You revere me; but what if your reverence tumbles one day? Beware that a statue does not strike you dead!

You say you believe in Zarathustra? But of what importance is Zarathustra? You are my believers: but of what importance are all believers?

You had not yet sought yourselves: then you found me. Thus do all believers; therefore all faith amounts to so little.

Now I bid you lose me and find yourselves; and only when you have all denied me will I return to you.

– Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

The Female Character Flowchart

October 12, 2010

While Smurfing, I came across this awesome flowchart from Overthinking it, which, after this post I will delve into to see how much I love it. Just sit back and enjoy the pop-culture sexism decoded in this flowchart:

As the commenter on the site I found the link through (Jezebel) says, this is even before we start applying the Bechdel test.

Our Sexuality

October 11, 2010

I’m teaching a class on sexuality and I thought I should collect all of my preliminary thoughts about it into one place and, hey, that’s what this blog is for!

So, to begin, I’d like to say that my perspective on sexuality is quite Foucaultian. I think taking into account the insights (whether one agrees or not) of Foucault’s History of Sexuality is necessary for an understanding of our contemporary sexuality. Not only does he provide a very interesting account of where our sexual mores and proclivities belong in a historical continuum, he provides a very interesting methodological perspective about how to think about sexuality. It is not whether we possess in some essential way a certain sexuality, rather it is that we should question where sexuality comes from and what effect certain discourses on sexuality have on producing that sexuality. It is less important, for example, to determine whether or not we possess a repressed sexuality: it is rather to ask what does the very idea that we have a repressed sexuality do? How does thinking we are repressed effect the way we think and act about sexuality.

So, the first insight of The History of Sexuality and probably the most famous is that:

1) Whether or not we are actually repressed, the very idea that we are repressed (which we buy into a lot) impacts us. It makes us want to be liberated from this repression. It allows for a whole swath of discourse and activities open up that make us more and more concerned about sexuality. Because we think we are repressed we intensify our concern with sexuality. The idea of Repression actually produces more and more discourse about sexuality. Read the rest of this entry »

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. Read the rest of this entry »

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?”