This past Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times interviewed anthropologist and author of Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across the Pacific, Christina Yano, on the occasion of a new Hello Kitty exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum. In that interview, Dr. Yano remarked that the creator of Hello Kitty, Sanrio, was emphatic that Hello Kitty is not a cat; rather, she is a girl named Kitty White…. Who knew?!?!…. The next day, the blog-o-sphere was full of attempts at witty rejoinders such as the Huffington Post’s “Hello Kitty Is Not a Cat because Nothing Makes Sense Anymore” and Jezebel’s “Wait, Hello Kitty Isn’t a Cat?” And then the following days, there quickly appeared some humorous responses to those initial responses, such as The New Yorker magazine’s “The Truth about Hello Kitty,” Kotaku East‘s “Don’t Be Silly, Hello Kitty Is a Cat” and a cartoon riffing off the famous “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe) painting by surrealist artist Rene Magritte that inspired a playful meditative essay by the philosopher Michelle Foucault on the nature of language and representation.
But I guess I have a different take on the truth of Hello Kitty’s cattiness. It’s not just about anthropomorphism, personification, fetish, totems, etc., etc. These literary and anthropological terms certainly indicate what Hello Kitty is (the relative truth of her identity), but they don’t really get into what Hello Kitty does – the how and why of the happening, the adorable cuddles, the group-hug of commodified cute, and the truth of becoming a body without organs through the animal.
Here’s the thing: Kitty White has no mouth, and yet her existence is bilingual.
She is both Hello Kitty and haro kiti, an English girl represented by English words within a Japanese world. Her face, resembling a blank wall with two black holes for eyes, seems to utterly lack emotion or expression and yet at the same time also seems to be pure affect, pure emotional attachment. It is nostalgia for a memory of childhood that never existed, a childhood before mouths, before feet, before hands, and most of all before identity and definition. Paradoxically, it is through the identity of the cat that one achieves a a blissful non-identity, transcending the Japanese-ness of the product and the English-ness of the backstory through the truth of Hello Kitty’s reproducibility and potentiality of desire. Children never want just one Hello Kitty product. They want a whole pack of them, and a whole pack of friends who have them too.
Hello Kitty was created in 1974, the same year my sister (who adored Hello Kitty when she was a child) was born, and just one year after Foucault published This Is not a Pipe, and just two years after Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari first theorized the body-without-organs in their critique of psychoanalysis, Anti-Oedipus. And we can easily imagine Foucault, Deleuze, and Guattari drinking wine together, watching their children, and taking a delight in Hello Kitty as a playful image that undoes its own meaning — neither the cat that reveals the cattiness of the human nor the human that reveals the humanity of the cat, but the body without organs that resists signification and opens up the possibility for other, global attachments, ways of configuring our desire, becoming part of a capitalist machinery. In their later book, A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari describe the body without organs as a becoming animal as the human experiments with the possibility of what a body can do not by animalizing their humanity or humanizing the animal, but by becoming an abstract machine with the potential to become… whatever. They also describe the most elementary drawing of a face as a “white wall/black hole system,” and anyone who has ever doodled knows this to be true. Hello Kitty’s face is not a form of Kitty White’s subjectivity or true, inner self-hood (whether a cat or a girl), but rather, just like Magritte’s pipe, it is an abstract signifying machine whose significance is its own redundancy.
Obviously, Hello Kitty is a machine.
After posting this blog post, I began doing my laundry, and doing my laundry always gets me to thinking about what I was doing before I started doing the laundry, and at that moment, I realized that I had forgotten to include in my blog this bit of evidence of the machinic assemblage of desire that is Hello Kitty and other cat-people (e.g., the DC comic book character Catwoman or the Japanese manga character Doraemon, the robot cat) — the recent popularity of Shark Cat.
Yesterday, the ubiquitous “Book of Faces” (FB) and other social media were all atwitter over something the well-known author and theorist bell hooks said at a three-day event about race, gender, and body-image hosted by The New School in New York — everyone’s favorite pop star diva Beyoncé a terrorist? A terrorist?!?! Bloggers from wannabe-hipster gossip sites such as Gawker to fashion magazines such as Elle to feminist sites such as Jezebel immediately jumped on the bandwagon, probably hoping that the provocative headline would gain for them that ever-so-ethereal cyber audience.
Before I had a chance to actually read the blog-o-story, when I first saw the headline, I wrongly assumed that bell hooks was giving Beyoncé a compliment, as I immediately thought of Beyoncé’s video: “Run the World (Girls)“:
One might think of other videos of hot feminist badaaasssery such as Beyoncé’s “Superpower” and M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls” which all present images of women kicking ass and taking names, Pam-Grier style. So, this is what I thought bell hooks was talking about, and I was all, like, “hellz yeah!!!”
But then I started to read the articles, and apparently that’s not at all what bell hooks meant (oops, my bad!) Rather, she was raising questions about Beyoncé’s style of feminism and her tactical deployment of a hyper-sexualized body as potentially damaging to the self-image of young girls (specifically in reference to Time Magazine’s featuring her in a bathing suit on the cover of their issue about the world’s 100 most influential people.) In other words, what I think bell hooks was referring to is the very real “terror” that young girls feel when confronted with bullying from their peers regarding the way they look. I did not finish reading any of the blog posts because they were all so shallow and mean-spirited, and they all reminded me of the SNL skit about the government Beygency that hunts down a poor schmuck for committing the party foul of admitting he didn’t love everything about Beyoncé:
Can I admit that I don’t love everything about her either? But I do think she’s pretty awesome. And I also think bell hooks is awesome. So, given that I think both women are awesome, instead of reading the blog-o-crap any further, I skipped ahead to the video of the actual conversation (the “actual” always being so often remarkably different from what bloggers and journalists say to get a rise out of their audiences), and my wife and I had a very enjoyable evening listening to four awesome women — bell hooks, Janet Mock, Shola Lynch, and Marci Blackman — discuss among themselves and with a very engaged and intelligent audience a variety of complex and personal perspectives about gender, sexuality, race, violence, body image, and “what a body can do” (as the philosopher Judith Butler famously put it, in contrast to the essentializing pigeon-holing approach of traditional philosophy that asked “what a body is.”) You can all watch it too by clicking [here] or below:
The conversation among themselves and with the audience was full of humor and mutual respect as well as serious critical thinking, concern for the well-being of others, and deep personal involvement as they worked toward imagininng an alternative to the sort of media imagery that objectifies black women’s bodies and presents impossible standards of beauty. They discussed the movie 12 Years a Slave, SNL comedy, and — most of importantly — the work of the panelists, such as the movie Free Angela and All the Political Prisoners by Shola Lynch, the memoir Redefining Realness by Janet Mock, and the novel Po’ Man’s Child by Marci Blackman as well as their personal experiences as politically active, queer, transgender, and black women. I was so impressed that I began to imagine my teaching an entire course syllabus around this one panel event. One woman in the audience was in tears sharing her own experience as well as her gratitude to the panel for the support and safe space fostered by the event. Noticeably, in contrast to the blog-o-sphere and social media, not a single person in the audience during the 50 minutes of Q&A seemed the least bit concerned by bell hooks’s comment about Beyoncé. So, considering how her image and her style of feminism was discussed and debated in complex, thoughtful ways among the four panelists and the audience, it is interesting how the safe, supportive space of the panel discussion was transformed into bitchy nonsense by social media.
But beyond the confines of that singular event and its commodification by the blog-o-sphere, the question of Beyoncé’s feminism interests me, in part because as a teacher I find her extremely useful in the classroom for drawing students into debates about feminism, challenging their stereotypes about feminists as man-hating ugly women, and pushing students to think about why they enjoy what they enjoy. For example, because this semester I was teaching the famous Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I played for my class Adichie’s lecture “We Should All Be Feminists” as well as Beyoncé’s song “Flawless” that samples a full minute from that lecture (practically one fourth of the song):
The conversation among my students last month was similar to the one brought up by bell hooks, Janet Mock, and one of the members of the audience: how do we negotiate the positive work we see Beyoncé doing for feminism and women’s empowerment and the negative commodification of her body and debilitatingly impossible standard of beauty it presents to young girls? The “Flawless” music video, it seems to me — rather than being naive or unaware of this dialectic of opposing ideas — very deliberately and self-consciously puts this dialectic in play for us to work out. The song and the video puts the question back on us, for us to imagine ways to be authentically awesome.
But what do you all think? Thoughts?
Two things happened simultaneously on May 1st, both involving the U.S. State Department and its relation to Ethiopia. Thing one was the State Department’s news program, Voice of America, broadcasting its brief account of Ethiopian security forces firing upon student demonstrations the previous day (April 30) at three universities resulting in 17 dead and many wounded. Thing two was the Secretary of State John Kerry in Ethiopia giving a speech full of praise for Ethiopia’s rapid economic development as well as the U.S.-Ethiopia partnership in addressing the violence against civilians in neighboring Sudan and Somalia. Apparently, Kerry was unaware that the day before, just a two-hour’s drive down the road from where he was speaking, America’s supposed partner, the Ethiopian government, had committed acts of violence against its citizens. In fact, thousands of individuals at universities and in cities across the Oromia region of Ethiopia had been protesting for days, and as the journalist Mohammed Ademo’s article for Think Africa pointed out on Tuesday (August 29), what they were protesting was precisely the consequences of the rapid economic development and foreign direct investment that Kerry praised in his speech — the eviction and displacement of tenant farmers and poor people due to the expansion of the capital city Addis Ababa into the Oromia region.
We might observe a contradiction here within the same State Department. While the State Department’s news program laments an event and clearly points to the root cause, the State Department’s secretary appears ignorant of the event and also strangely unable to discern the causes of ethnic unrest across Africa. An Al Jazeera op-ed responding to Kerry’s speech suggests that the United States fails to see the contradiction in its policy that talks about democracy and human rights but in practice emphasizes security for foreign direct investment (as per the State Department’s own report on such investment in Ethiopia published shortly before Kerry’s visit.) Noticeably, two contradictory ideas are coming out of the State Department simultaneously. What do we make of that contradiction?
Before I answer that question, I might add on to this strange state of affairs by pointing out that Kerry did criticize the Ethiopian government for using repressive tactics against its journalists — the famous Zone 9 bloggers — but what strikes me is that at the very moment that Kerry criticizes the state of journalism in Ethiopia, the mainstream American news outlets such as CNN, National Public Radio, and the NY Times have for a long time neglected to give any serious coverage of the issues within Ethiopia and in fact did not report on the student demonstrations. The only American media mention of the recent student demonstrations and deaths is a very brief Associated Press article that appeared the day after Kerry’s speech (May 2) and that article embarrassingly gets its facts wrong about what happened and why. Such poor journalism is increasingly perceived to be the norm of America’s once celebrated media whose many factual inaccuracies and lack of any genuine will to truth arguably contributed to the Iraq War back in 2003. Curiously, the only news organization in America that did its job (the VOA) is the news organization intended to serve communities outside of America. Moreover, the VOA is part of the very same “department” that Kerry heads. The quality of mainstream American media coverage might seem excusable if it weren’t for the fact that BBC covered these tragic events in Ethiopia reasonably well, first on its radio program immediately after the massacre (May 1st) and then more comprehensively on its website the following day. You can listen to the radio report below:
Since this is a theory blog, I want to advance some philosophical hypotheses that we can draw from the U.S. State Department’s conflicted relationship to this tragedy. We might excuse Kerry for just being diplomatic at a diplomatic event, except that this blind spot seems more pervasive and systemic both in U.S. foreign policy and its coverage by its most respected news outlets, CNN, NY Times, and National Public Radio. Rather, what is happening here is a globalized twenty-first century version of what the theorist Stuart Hall, borrowing from Antonio Gramsci, called the “manufacture of consent” — that process whereby rather than through coercive force, hegemony is achieved through cultural means that slyly convinces individuals of their place in the world order. In this case, the role of Voice of America is to provide peoples all over the world (e.g., in Ethiopia) with access to the sort of “free journalism” (or at least, dissenting journalism) that doesn’t exist in their own country. In many ways, Americans should be genuinely proud that the VOA is what it is — relatively free journalism in over fifty languages that is independent of the organization that funds it and can publish dissenting views. Hence, through the VOA, the American government promises a sort of deferred liberalism (democracy and human rights) that the people within countries like Ethiopia aspire to even though at the same time the actual practice of the American government contributes to the very repressive regime that stifles its own civil society. This is why the American government media (e.g., NPR and VOA) sometimes appears more “free” than the private corporate media which is so beholden to the corporate agenda of its stockholders — ironically the same corporate agenda that the State Department is in some ways also beholden to.
Similarly, one could speculate that the rise of global philanthropists and civic organizations staffed by young graduates of peace-studies programs at American liberal arts colleges present the face of American liberalism that unintentionally undermines the very governments of the peoples they purport to help. This is why such philanthropy and civil society has been suggestively been called by some cultural theorists the “Trojan Horse” of global capitalism just as Christianity was once called the Trojan Horse of European imperialism.
But Gramsci and Hall’s theory of hegemony appears unable to fully account for the pervasive and ubiquitous violence and unrest that we see not only in Ethiopia but all over the world. In fact, ethnic conflict and violent expressions of dissent seem to have become the norm, and so I might suggest we revise their theory to point out a “manufacture of dissent” in which such dissent and perpetual crisis is ironically the unintended consequence of America’s global hegemony. Moreover, such local dissent ironically functions in a way that maintains the hegemony of global financial institutions (as was pointed out in Negri and Hardt’s famous book, Empire). We might find the more recent philosophy of Giorgio Agamben about the “state of exception” somewhat useful to explain this. Agemben focuses on how the normal functioning of law depends on an extra-legal assertion to establish the law. A simple and innocent example of this might be somebody writing on the chalk board in a classroom “Do not write on the chalk board.” The initial violation of the rule establishes the rule, and in this sense the rule’s own violation of itself is internal to the structure of the rule but externalized as its opposite. A more terrifying example of when the state of exception becomes the norm (rather than the exception) would be concentration camps, refugee camps, and “indefinite detention centers” (like that at Guantanamo Bay) in which individuals lived in a non-legal state that is organized by the state itself in the name of preserving law and rights.
In this more global context of foreign direct investment, international human rights organizations, and ethnic groups fighting over increasingly scarce land that is dominated by multinational capital, we have a peculiar state of exception — a new and somewhat strange space between competing jurisdictions and competing senses of sovereignty. One example of this state of exception is the troubled border between an Addis Ababa rapidly developing from foreign direct investment secured by global interests and the Oromia State that supposedly represents (constitutionally) the “people” who live in it. Hence, the local ethnic conflict that Americans may imagine to be “outside” their own democratic system is actually structurally inside it, hence the strange disconnect between the two offices of the U.S. State Department. My point here is not to play the blame game and look for the guilty party that we can then chastise and hold responsible. Rather, my point is (with Agamben) that noticing the structural gaps and impasses endemic to the system may enable the various constituencies to better address each other and work towards more ethical solutions.
There is more to say here, and admittedly, I am afraid my theorizing is a bit hard to follow. I am writing fast in order to participate in the very emotional conversation that has emerged about the issue over the past two days and so I have not yet fully worked out what I want to say. I will try to revisit this topic later when I have more time to reflect and work out what I like and dislike about Agamben’s theory. So I hope my readers will generously comment and help me think through this and figure out a way to express it more clearly.
Yesterday around lunchtime, I took a break from reading academic books about eighteenth and nineteenth-century culture at one of my favorite places in New York, the New York Public Library, so that I could attend the March against Monsanto that was about to begin in Bryant Park, the lovely and popular little public park behind the library. This march was actually the second of such protests that took place all over America and across the world. The first was May 25. If you want to see some photos and YouTube clips of this worldwide protest, click [here]. I attended the march for a few reasons, one being simply that it was near where I already was, another being that I support most of its goals, and last but not least, because it closely relates to the book that all the first-year students at my college were asked to read over the summer, Raj Patel’s Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System — a book that most of my students told me they found a little bit difficult and convoluted and therefore a lot boring. In my view, it’s an important and interesting book, so I’m hoping here to make that clear. The main idea of both the march and this book is that our food system is being monopolized by corporate interests in ways that are unhealthy both for the consumer and for the producer. Examples of this problem are the obesity epidemic as well as the high rates of suicide among small farmers struggling to maintain their farms in countries such as India . The march focused on the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that Monsanto creates and actively lobbies governments to promote in their country’s agriculture.
Inexplicably, this world movement has not been covered by the New York Times. It is hard to imagine why the Times doesn’t cover it, since it seems to me to be more interesting and more relevant to the lives of people than the article about the spending habits of a Catholic bishop in Germany or the article about the dentist whose clients sometimes pay her in works of art. In my opinion, something that takes place in more than 500 cities around the world at exactly the same time deserves at least a mention. We could speculate that American journalists are so focused on the supposed conflict between the Democrats and Republicans (e.g., the government shut down) that it doesn’t occur to them to notice that most Americans have political viewpoints and ideas that are neither Democrat nor Republican.
One might raise the question of whether this march was in fact a failure, since the point of such marches is precisely to make the public aware of important issues by organizing an event that would attract media attention. So, since this event did not attract media attention, was it a failure and, if so, why? We might shift the blame to the newspapers themselves and accuse them of not wanting to upset the corporations that advertise in them, and I would agree it is important for the reading public to be critically aware of this potentiality. Since the march was covered by the alternative media, such as the newly formed Al Jazeera America, this may be a reasonable suspicion, though difficult to prove. Or maybe Americans are so focused on the Tea Party opposition to President Obama that they fail to notice the opposition to Obama from the other side of the political spectrum, the so-called “left.” Or maybe the journalists mistakenly thought the march was part of the Comic Convention, since both featured people dressed up in costumes, hahaha. However, in this case, I also wonder about the self-presentation of the march itself. As I listened to the speeches, the march seemed to bring together a diverse array of concerns, including, healthier food in public school cafeterias, the right of us consumers to know what we are eating, the long history of Monsanto’s dangerous and illegal business practices, and even a more spiritually fulfilling relationship to our food. The one thing uniting these diverse agendas was simply the evil of Monsanto which was something of a synecdoche for the world’s problems.
In a sense, the rather long list of various interests and feelings as well as the hatred of Monsanto somewhat obscured the two important issues that are actually before our government right now. The first issue is one that has received very little media attention even though it may revolutionize the world economy — something called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (or TPP) that has been under negotiation among countries from Japan to Chile since 2008. Proponents of the TPP argue that it would boost economic growth by encouraging trade, but critics argue that it would give power to large corporations and undermine any government’s ability to protect its labor force, the environment, and the health and safety of its food supply. Considering that President Obama has been both actively promoting the TPP and keeping the details of the agreement a secret, this could be one of those strange issues about which both the right-wing Tea Party and the left-wing Green Party and socialist parties could actually find common cause. Obama was hoping to fast-track this bill through congress this month and thus avoid any substantive public debate (a hope that may have been derailed by the government shut-down, I don’t know.) My guess is that the reason why the planners of the march long ago planned for mid-October was precisely to bring attention to the issue that they predicted would be rammed through congress (little suspecting how dysfunctional congress would be.) The second is a more local affair, the bill currently before the New York state legislature requiring all GMO food to be labelled for consumers.
My own observation, just listening to the speeches, looking at the signs, and also noticing how students responded to Raj Patel’s book is that the emotional energy and rhetoric revolved around the rights of the consumer and some vague notion of authentic and pure food. In other words, the vague feeling is that GMO food is bad because it is not natural. Some speeches argued that we have a “right to know” what is in our food, thus calling attention to the fact that few of us actually have a clue what we are eating most of the time (despite labeling and the efforts of the Food and Drug Administration.) The problem of this sense of “real food” versus GMO food is that a lot of food that is genetically manipulated is not bad for us. Farmers have for centuries cross-bread plants and live-stock. Thus the problem is not simply GMO; rather it’s the unsafe and aggressive manner in which Monsanto forces small farmers to use its products.
Don’t get me wrong here. As someone who just taught Upton Sinclair’s famous novel The Jungle, published in 1904, that inspired President Teddy Roosevelt to pass the Food and Drug Act in 1906, I certainly care about the role of the FDA and support the regulation of our food supply to ensure that it is healthy and safe. However, Sinclair’s novel was also about the plight of immigrants in Chicago at the end of the nineteenth century and about the exploitation of labor and the monopolization of food production by corporations. It is a somewhat well-known irony among teachers of literature that Sinclair’s intention was so totally misread. In other words, what people noticed in his novel were the long descriptions of the meat-processing factories which were quite gross, and not the long descriptions of the oppression of workers. The book hence inspired the government to regulate the processing of meat to make it safe for consumers, but it did not (as Sinclair actually hoped it would) inspire the government to protect workers. As Sinclair himself joked, “I aimed for the public’s heart, and by accident hit its stomach.”
I suspect the same thing is happening now that happened with The Jungle. The economy and the long-term effects of trade policy such as TPP are hard to understand. Likewise, the argument of Raj Patel’s book is complex in its drawing a connection between obesity in the United States, starvation in India, and migration from Mexico. Ultimately, Patel’s argument is about the political power of multinational corporations that undermines the ability of farmers to make smart decisions and the ability of local communities to do what they think is in their best interests — and that this affects all of us in various ways. However, what many students take away from this book, and what many of the protestors yesterday were focusing on, was some vague, nostalgic attachment to “real” food and some vague idea that we consumers should be able to get “real” food.
The law before the New York legislature right now is precisely the sort of law that focuses on the consumer — the supposed right to know what we are eating. At the rally, the proponents of the law argued that once we have GMO labels on our food, then the public will realize what they are eating and begin to buy non-GMO food, and this would so hurt Monsanto’s profit margin that… hmm… honestly, it wasn’t really clear to me what would be the outcome. I can’t imagine that Monsanto and the global food industry would be hurt so much that they’d change their business model. As the journalist Naomi Klein observed in her famous book, No Logo, such are the limits of political activism that focuses on the rights of the consumer rather than the means of production. Such also are the limits of political activism that focuses so intently on the evils of a single corporation that symbolically represents all that is wrong with the world rather than the trade policy that allows many such corporations to thrive. From the perspective of a literature professor such as myself, both the March against Monsanto and the bill against GMO food have a narrative that is full of symbols and what psychoanalysis calls “displacements” whereby complex political content is reduced to simpler emotional content.
Might the march have been more successful if it focused on the actual issue — either the worldwide concerns about the FPP or the local legislation against GMO, or (since they are related and timely) both?
Note: all the photographs in this post were taken by me, but I deliberately selected certain photos and cropped them so that there would be no faces. My intent is to protect individuals who might not want their face on the internet without their permission (especially considering the politically controversial stakes of the march.) An unintended consequence may be that readers of this blog will get the wrong impression that the march was a bunch of people in funny costumes, but actually, for the most part, it was a large crowd of ordinary people of diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, and ages.
Almost every week since 2011, American news corporations have reported on the non-violent grassroots democratic movements in Egypt and Tunisia and the violent, U.S.-supported movements in Syria and Libya — the so-called “Arab Spring.” However, almost never reported are the conditions for a viable democracy in Ethiopia, and even in those few reports about Ethiopia such as this one, what remains missing is any account of the religious, ethnic, and ideological complexities of that country and the changing multifaceted history of that region. In other words, what remains missing is precisely the information one might need to really understand what is happening. How do we understand human rights and democracy? I’d like to begin with this photography here taken on Thursday, August 8th that quickly circulated on various forms of social media and eventually was posted on Al Jazeera last night along with some earlier photographs and Twitter feeds.
The picture is of a young man in the capital city of Addis Ababa, confronting Ethiopian police non-violently by kneeling in prayer before them. Some conversation began on Facebook and Twitter about the symbolic meaning of the photo, and what I’d like to suggest to the readers of my blog is that, for many Americans, the way “democracy” in other countries is understood is largely through images such as this one. It is worth thinking about such images because they often take on a symbolic significance that may be emotionally moving but also may obscure many of the political details and actual functioning of democratic social movements.
But before I continue to think about my questions about how we understand the images that come to symbolize democratic ideals and social movements, I should provide some context for the photograph. Last week, as the month of fasting for Ramadan came to a close and the feast-day of Eid al Fitre was celebrated across the world, Muslims in Ethiopia were protesting the government’s closing of some mosques and arrest of Muslim community organizers and journalists. The Ethiopian government’s heavy-handed responses to those protests in various towns across the country and in the capital city of Addis Ababa left many dead and more injured. The government’s position is that these are violent Muslim extremists, but against this view, the Muslim community organizers argue that they represent the moderate form of Islam that has existed in Ethiopia for over a thousand years and that their movement that started in 2011 is non-violent. On Thursday, August 8th, in support of the Muslim protesters, Amnesty International filed this complaint against the Ethiopian government for human rights violations. Muslims make up about one third of the population of Ethiopia, but the state government has been dominated by Orthodox Christians since the incorporation of Muslim territory at the end of the nineteenth century. The entire history is a long one, and considering that the protest movement started about two years ago, I don’t want to dwell on all the details in this blog post; you can read or hear more about the past week’s conflict by following these links to OPride, BBC Africa, Reuters, and a United Nations brief. One frustrating thing is that the place where you won’t hear anything about these events is on the major sources of information in the United States: The New York Times and National Public Radio.
Coincidentally, exactly when this conflict started in the Oromia region of Ethiopia, I was listening to Oromo intellectuals at the Oromo Studies Association conference at Howard University in Washington DC who were engaging in a debate about the complex historical relationship between religious organizations (namely Islam and protestant Christianity), cultural self-determination, and democratic movements. One of my students and I were at that conference to give presentations on a panel about international education, media and film along with OPride‘s editor and the Oromo-language journalist for Voice of America.
So, drawing on what I learned at that conference and what I had already learned before going to it, we can deepen the context for this single photo to go so far as to suggest a context of a thousand year history of political involvement from Turkey, Portugal, England, France, Italy, the United States, and most recently Saudi Arabia, China, and India. The cultural divisions in Ethiopia are not merely religious but also ethnic, and this is complicated because the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, the Oromo, are a mix of Christian, Islam, and older forms of religious practice. Earlier this year, on June 25, Al Jazeera became the first global television news network to focus on these issues in a segment that you can watch here. But there are other factors to consider too, not mentioned on that segment of Al Jazeera. From the 1960s to the early 1990s, both Christian and Islamic religious institutions participated with other organizations in a broad-based revolutionary democratic movements that eventually led to the revolutions in 1974 and 1991, but since the 1990s, new forms of Christianity and Islam have emerged that claim to be fundamentalist but whose funding and ideology seem to come from outside the country. We might consider too that for almost a century Ethiopian law prohibits religious practices (such as burial and marriage) that do not fall under the jurisdiction of sanctioned Christian or Muslim institutions (e.g., the Oromo’s traditional Waaqeffannaa), and these new forms of fundamentalism (not only Christian and Muslim fundamentalisms, but also western neoliberal fundamentalism) appear to be suppressing some of the older forms of ethnic culture that predate the adoption of the world religions, including older forms of ethnic culture that give women some important forms of agency in their communities (e.g., addoyyee and siiqqee.)
So, now that I’ve summarized that context, let’s return to the photo. The non-violent gesture of the man engaging in “salat” (prayer) seems to have stopped the police officers. The image might remind us of other champions of non-violent action such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., who argued for the effectiveness of moral persuasion through non-violent action that exposes the hypocrisy of the ruling regime whose excessive use of force undermines the legitimacy of the state. The action of this man engaging in salat is not passive, but firmly active non-violent practice. However, noticeably, other forms of non-violent protest (e.g., marches and assemblies) did not have the same effect on the police. Two things seem special about this photo: first, that it is an act of prayer and second that it is a solitary individual putting his body at risk. This does two things. First, there is a bias in western media that tends to read Islamic practice and liberal human rights in opposition to each other, and indeed, the Ethiopian government’s rhetoric to the outside world seems to deliberately capitalize on that bias in order to discredit their political opponents. But for Muslim Oromos living in the United States, Australia, and elsewhere, the meaning of this photo would seem to suggest that liberal human rights and Islamic practice can function together. Second, it foregrounds the decision of an individual to put himself at risk for the greater good rather than a group identity or mobilized mob. It creates a hero.
Thinking theoretically, and reflecting on this interesting question about the structural relationship between the practices of Islam and the idea of human rights, might all of this illustrate the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai’s inquiry into the nature of globalization? In his book Modernity at Large, he argues that various ethnoscapes, technoscapes, mediascapes, financescapes, and ideoscapes all play a role in social formations and local cultures — sometimes functioning together, but sometimes functioning in contradiction to each other. These global “scapes” are in tense dialectic with the local (i.e., the actual lived experience and social organization of communities.) My presentation at the Oromo Studies Association conference alluded to Appadurai’s theory to argue that today’s international education is very much enmeshed in these different “scapes.” In the case of the photo that is the subject of this blog, we see the ethnic identity of Oromos, the practice of Islam, the ideology of human rights, and the technologies of social media. The photo might seem to fuse these various “scapes” into a singular image that celebrates a global sense of local freedom.
However, what we do not see in this symbolic image, of course, is the economics, and this includes the distribution of wealth and Ethiopia’s GDP that Jawar Mohammed emphasizes in the interview with Al Jazeera, but also the daily labor of individuals that Dr. Ezekiel Gebissa talks about in his book on coffee and khat production, as well as the speculative labor of financial institutions (what Appadurai calls financescapes), and even more basically the home-making of families. What do we make of this absence? Might it be important for how we read the effectiveness of symbolic images that come to represent such ideologically loaded concepts of freedom and democracy for American consumers of media?
We might compare this image to another one, the famous Tiananmen Square demonstration in 1989 when a single individual stopped military tanks from interrupting a public protest.
In fact, Oromos on social media (e.g., here) have explicitly made the comparison between the recent event in Addis Ababa in 2013 and that event in Beijing in 1989, and it is precisely the making of such comparisons between different movements that is the point of my blog post today, because in the media these images can become filtered through a western ideology of human rights that may not be fully attentive to some of the local cultural practices and understandings of what was happening. For instance, the American and European media all understood the Tiananmen Square demonstration to be a pro-democratic and anti-communist demonstration. What the media failed to appreciate is how communism and democracy are not inherently antithetical, and that one could protest the government for other reasons. In an important book written by one of the leaders of the Tiananmen demonstration, Wang Hui, and published by Harvard University Press in 2006, entitled China’s New Order, it is revealed just how incorrectly the western media understood this event when they filtered it through the global ideoscape of human rights and democracy. Wang Hui outlines the variety of economic and social issues that concerned the Chinese people and the demonstrators, and how all these issues did not neatly fit under a single ideological perspective. Importantly, for many of the demonstrators, instead of protesting communism, what they were actually protesting was the capitalist reforms, opening relations to American and European capital markets, and the “financescapes” being dictated by the government that were causing some forms of economic displacement of peoples (e.g., working conditions) and general uncertainty. In other words, in a sense, the movement was actually in some ways a conservative one, exactly the opposite of what the western media assumed.
So, what lessons do we learn from Arjun Appadurai and Wang Hui’s inquiries into the nature of democratic practice in a globalized world order? What further questions might we raise about this photograph of a man kneeling in prayer before police in riot gear? How might we untangle the tangled relationship between the Islamic practice of salat, the local demands of various religious and ethnic institutions, and the international ideology of human rights and non-violent political practice that the photograph seems to symbolically fuse?
One of Appadurai’s points about using the terms “ethnoscape” and “ideoscape” instead of the more ordinary terms “ethnic group” and “ideology” is that the neologistic “scape” alerts us to the ways that the meaning of ideas changes depending on the contexts. For instance, African American civil rights activists in the 1960s, the U.S. government in the 1980s, and leaders of the democracy movement in Tunisia today might all use the same ideas of freedom, democracy, and human rights but mean slightly different things by them. Gandhi’s practice of non-violence is connected to a Hindu tradition whereas Martin Luther King, Jr.’s is to a Christian one. Scholars of the civil rights movement in America have long expressed frustration about the way Martin Luther King, Jr.’s political message has been watered down in the popular media and high school history textbooks and grafted onto the ideology of American patriotism. Likewise, the Ethiopian government’s branding opposition groups as “terrorists” appropriates the inflammatory rhetoric of U.S. president George W. Bush a decade ago, but does so for its own ends, and when Oromo’s speak of genocide and ethnic cleansing, they are using legal terms formulated by the United Nations in the context of the Jewish Holocaust in ways that may or may not be slightly different from the way a UN legal team might use them. Hence, we are dealing not with ideologies, but with ideoscapes whose very signifying power is supposed to be part of a universal language that everyone in the world can understand but is actually quite local and context specific. Similarly, just as ideas are not pure and stable concepts, ethnicity is not a pure identity based merely on territory or authentic culture, because the lived experience of ethnicity and cultural practices have a dialectical relation to the global transformations and movements of peoples due to financial speculation, colonialism, etc. For instance, a little over a century ago, the Oromo were a rather diffuse ethnicity of many tribes, kingdoms, religious practices, and dialects who were forced to unify as a singular political liberation movement only after their rights and their land were threatened by a newly formed Ethiopian imperial state and global capitalism. Notably, an ethnic group’s right to self-determination is usually argued with terminology borrowed the European enlightenment’s discourse on “rights” but applied to local cultures who may have a different language for talking about such things. During the conference, one Oromo feminist community organizer said she preferred to think of women’s empowerment in terms of “social balance” and traditional Oromo culture rather than in terms of “rights” and western ideas. Hence, the lived experience of “ethnicity” changes depending on context and also depending on the “ethnoscapes” relation to other “scapes.”
And so, in the case of this photo, we might need to think harder about what human rights and non-violent protest really mean in the context of Islamic practices within Ethiopia that are themselves undergoing a transformation due to various global forces such as the competing ideoscapes of religious fundamentalism and liberalism and also such as the ways in which finance capital transforms territory, the use of land, and a community’s access to natural resources such as water.
It happens almost like clockwork at the end of the spring semester and beginning of the fall: the New York Times publishes another blog post lamenting something about college English education, usually by someone who only peripherally knows what they are talking about. One of my all time favorites was Stanley Fish complaining about what was wrong with freshman composition classes based on offhand comments he overheard in the hall, and most recently Verlyn Klinkenborg sheds tears at the so-called “Decline and Fall of the English Major.” Since these are opinion pieces, they aren’t required to cite any actual data, but since they parade the veneer of insider expertise, their bitter commentary becomes somewhat dangerous as their misinformation is repeated and magnified so much as to almost seem like actual fact. Fortunately, professor-by-day, superhero-by-night Michael Bérubé is on the scene to correct this misinformation by citing actual numerical data in a recent op-ed to the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Humanities, Declining? Not According to the Numbers.” Unlike Klinkenborg, who only teaches a few classes here and there as a “writer in residence” to various colleges, what might be analogous to having a guest-worker visa, former president of the MLA Michael Bérubé has access to real data. (Actually, all of us have access to this data; it’s just that journalists aren’t always motivated enough to go look at it.)
I pretty much agree with everything Bérubé says here, and love his article, but there are some important things missing — things important enough that I believe attending to them will change the conversation entirely, as you may have guessed from the title of my post. The upshot of Bérubé’s piece is that actually the number of English majors has neither increased nor decreased significantly since the 1970s. He notices that usually the lamentations carry with them an attack on theoretically rigorous scholarship and express some nostalgia for the olden days when we all knew which lines of poetry to quote at cocktail parties. He suggests that the real issue is neither the usefulness of the English major for the job market nor the quality of instruction (all of which are doing just fine); rather, the real issue is funding for education, the casualization of the labor force by hiring more adjunct instructors, etc. And of course, the constant specious attacks on our profession by the media and politicians aren’t so nice either.
So, what do I have to add to this conversation? Four things.
Thing one is is the rise of new interdisciplinary programs. There was a useful study done by the MLA published way back in 2003 about the declining number of English majors. Anyone can see it, though apparently reading something more than a page long is too much work for NY Times bloggers. The strength of this study is that it surveys all colleges and universities (not just a few, as journalists tend to do), and it shows the trends for each and every year (not just the years that support some sort of dramatic conclusion that the journalists prefer to cite.) I’m guessing Bérubé got his information from this, but what he doesn’t mention is some of the findings. There are many, but one of them that I want to draw attention to is the observation of what students started majoring in instead of English. The assumption by many is that they have shifted to business, but although the business major has seen some increase, even more significant was the emergence of entirely new interdisciplinary programs: environmental studies, peace studies, gender studies, ethnic studies, film and media, and most importantly, communications. These programs are never mentioned in the journalistic lamentations, and they are important, because people who once upon a time might have become humanities majors are now opting for these programs, and these are programs that often combine social sciences, humanities, and sometimes even a little technology or hard science. Historically, it’s also not surprising that the creation of these programs happens at about the same time as the number of English majors declines. Moreover, they affect different schools differently, depending on the size of the school. In my view, these are all great programs, and what’s more, they are programs that the English department is often involved in and supports, or even, in some cases, leads. And this is one reason why I title this blog post “The Rise and Change of the English Major,” because often it is the literature professors who have taken leadership roles in creating these new and innovative programs that then later affect the constitution of the English major itself. One of the enduring challenges for English department faculty is how to maintain the traditional major, with all the timeless classics and literary history, at the same time it includes these new programs. It is not uncommon to find professors who have dual appointments in English and something else. In my view, English faculty need to be engaged and take leadership roles in interdisciplinary programs, but they also need to be clear about the expertise they bring.
There’s a lot more to say about this, but for the sake of keeping this blog post short, I will move on to thing two, and thing two is the fundamental importance of communications skills, analytical skills, and critical thinking skills for employers today. These skills were identified in a report made by the National Association of Colleges and Employers about what employers wanted to see in college graduates. Moreover, corporations have been very clear that the kinds of things taught in business departments do not foster much critical thinking and writing which is why a broad-based liberal arts program is important (see [here] and [here], for instance.) Point being, the English major has become even more essential to colleges and universities than ever, and this is in part because of the interdisciplinary nature of the English department that I mentioned in the preceding paragraph. For instance, some schools even require their majors in other subjects to take business writing, tech writing, or something along those lines taught in the English department. Although the traditionalist may lament the fact that students aren’t walking around quoting Shakespeare and Keats on a regular basis (did they ever?), corporations may be happy to have a job candidate who has had the experience of working through the complexity of a poem because this sort of exercise carries with it a lot of transferable skills such as careful reading and original thought. And the inherent use value of English classes is another reason why I mention the rise and change of the English major.
The recent and often cited Report by the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences clearly states the value of a liberal arts curriculum to employers for precisely the reasons I just stated. English majors have the skills that employers want. The report also mentions other important things such as cultural and civic awareness, which are doubly important if one considers the rapid increase in jobs that have to do with civic engagement, social responsibility, and intercultural issues. What is curious is that when NY Times pundits such as Klinkenborg cite this report, they actually say the opposite of what the report says. Klinkenborg says that the humanities faces declining enrollment because students think they can’t get a job with an English major. Actually, the report asserts the value of the humanities for employers, but notes the problem of funding and support for programs. In other words, it’s a political issue. Duh.
Related to thing two is thing three, and thing three is the growth of writing centers. For the skills identified by employers, writing centers have gained a prominent role in the college. Often they have close ties to career centers, since both help student prepare their job application materials, and often they have close ties to English departments. The relationship to English department differs depending on the school, ranging from being directly run by the department to simply having a lot of English majors on staff as tutors. The history of writing centers is long and complex, and recently I’ve done a little reading about them including such books as Neal Lerner’s The Idea of the Writing Laboratory and Michael Pemberton and Joyce Kinkead’s The Center Will Hold: Critical Perspectives on Writing Center Scholarship, so I am reluctant to give a simplified history, but one of the upshots is that the role of writing centers grew considerably after the 1970s, and this was in part because a great number of Americans were now attending college, and more importantly a greater number of these college students spoke English as their second language or were first-generation college students. What this means is two things. First, far from the “decline” that the journalists moan about, English departments are actually more important, because they play a role in supporting the whole school. And second, the English department has changed a bit because scholarship on the teaching of writing has developed considerably since the creation of various journals on writing and writing centers, and much of this growth has tended away from the poetic and toward cultural analysis.
Thing four is the new emphasis in schools on “global citizenship” and leadership, cultural sensitivities, etc., and noticeably, these are all skills that employers value, too. They are also skills that English departments excel at. Afterall, English is where postcolonial studies was invented, way back in the 1970s, to better address the new global situation of newly independent African, Asian, and Caribbean countries. Before college administrations became aware of the “global,” literature departments were already there.
So, in conclusion, my argument is that we have not seen a decline in English, but rather an expansion and a change. Good changes in my opinion, though growing pains are always par for the course. The challenge is how to make our case to administrations and the general public who don’t always seem to understand the importance of English departments or even understand what it is that we do.
Why is this? Why are English departments the discipline that the media loves to cry about, and why are English departments uniquely misunderstood? Now I move from the practical and the factual into the realm of theory. What’s also interesting to me is the ways English professors are represented in Hollywood cinema, either as Shakespeare quoting, bow-tie wearing, obsessive, anti-social freaks or as lazy, lecherous alcoholics who sleep with their students. I’m not saying such colorful characters do not exist at all in real life, but they are the exception, not the rule. One possible explanation for all this misunderstanding and media hype is that unlike other disciplines, everyone thinks they know something about our discipline. I remember going to the doctor because I was sick and finding myself listening to the doctor through a haze of fever and congestion tell me about his favorite books and his view of literature. I was waiting for him to talk to me about my health, but he never did. I can’t imagine the opposite case of me lecturing the doctor about epidemiology if he came to my office to ask my advice about books. The fact is, most people don’t continue to study algebra, chemistry, and sociology after college, but they do continue to read books and even have strong feelings about them. Hence, history and English professors are often in the awkward position of talking to someone who thinks they know as much as we do about what we do, a position rarely experienced by the chemical engineer. This difference creates a psychological tension. Possibly the aspects of pure fantasy and irrational fear that we sometimes notice in the rhetoric about English departments that we find in the mainstream media or in the speeches of politicians is an effect of the uncanny difference.
Note too the clear contradictory nature of the lamentations about English. The same individual might complain first that English departments need to return to the classics by dead white males and stop teaching all this new-fangled theory and politically correct stuff, and then proceed to complain that English departments need to become more relevant to the “real world” (i.e., jobs and whatnot.) That these two desires contradict each other often goes unnoticed. That the English department has for a long time actually been doing both of those things — both the classics and the real world stuff, and continues to do both those things — also goes unnoticed. Sigh.
Still another disconnect is the strange notion that because English professors study metaphor and rhetoric then they must somehow be silly lovers of fanciful idioms rather than practical realists. To my way of thinking, it seems obvious that someone good at analyzing the use of metaphors and symbols would be expert at cutting through bullshit and seeing the facts for what they are. For instance, Bérubé’s article is a perfect example of such skills (as is, I hope, my own blog) in which he cites actual statistics and wonders why journalists keep repeating factually unsupported narratives. An English major would likewise quickly see through the rhetoric of those NY Times celebrity bloggers who seem to follow a rhetorical formula — the author relaying some cute anecdote which is supposed to make them sound like they know what they are talking about and then coming to all sorts of unsupported conclusions. Columns by the NY Times superstar pundit Thomas Friedman are typical in this regard. Reading Friedman talk about the economy is like reading someone who tells about a nice time they had rowing a boat on the pond and then launching into opinions about the chemical composition of various plants he saw there as if the one experience gave him the expertise for the analysis. There is a formal consistency to these op-ed pieces that is rather amusing and isn’t too hard to analyze.
However, I wonder if the fact of the growing importance and expansion of English for employers and colleges might be, paradoxically, the reason why they receive the sort of critical attention in the media. English departments are monstrous and scary — freakishly adaptable — the skills they teach lend themselves to almost every other discipline, since all disciplines require some sort of critical thinking and culturally situated communication. We are monstrous, and that is our strength.
Three weeks ago, on April 24th, a textile factory in Bangladesh collapsed killing 1,127 workers, mostly young women. The horrible event spurred international outrage and the arrest of the factory’s owner and building engineers. Calls for action, however, were followed by speculations on the effects any such action might have on Bangladesh’s struggling economy, not to mention the global business of retail clothing. People around the world wondered what would come of this tragedy. Finally, action seems to have been taken. In today’s New York Times, it was reported that major multinational corporation have signed on to a new “safety plan” and that the government of Bangladesh would revise its labor laws to make it easier for workers to unionize. Today’s news may sound like good news, and daily readers of the newspaper who have been distressed over this for the past two weeks may breathe a sigh of relief and assume the problem has been solved.
But it hasn’t. The New York Times has left out quite a bit of information and common sense. Whether this is because a culture of lazy ignorance and stupidity saturates the profession of journalism or because the Times tends to favor the interests of Wall Street, I don’t know. Maybe both. Maybe neither. In any case, what the Times leaves out is precisely the information that we need if we are to assess whether the new safety plan and national reforms will work. There is no excuse for neglecting this information since global activists such as the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights and the United Students Against Sweatshops have been making a case for global legal reform not just for Bangladesh, but worldwide, since the mid-1990s. In response to activists, the multinational corporations such as Nike, Disney, Wal-Mart, and others have fought tooth and nail against labor and safety standards, though you wouldn’t know that from reading the Times. Here is the first part of a documentary entitled The Hidden Face of Globalization about the garment industry in Bangladesh produced by those activists:
The early years of this conflict was reported by Naomi Klein in her influential book, No Logo, published way back in 2000, which quickly became standard reading for global labor activism around the world. Back in 2000, there seemed to be a ray of hope for college students who were promoting something called “designated suppliers” which would enable colleges and other organizations to select only factories that abide by labor, environmental, safety, and human rights standards to produce the clothing and other items with their college logo on them. In addition to many universities, many Catholic churches also took a leading role in this movement for social justic.
However, the designated supplier programs are difficult because of something called “outsourcing” whereby the retailer outsources the management of production to another company who in turn outsources the actual production to yet another local company. Major retailers claim such designater supplier programs violate anti-trust law on the grounds that it controls supply chains, and hence the big corporate lawyers began to sue the nonprofit educational and religious organizations that attempted them, which of course is ironic considering that Wal-Mart’s entire model of success is based on its very aggressive control of supply chains. The hypocrisy of the corporate world’s position apparently went unnoticed by the American judiciary. At the same time, when local governments in countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Guatemala, among others, try to support their labor force through the regulation of businesses, tax revenue for social programs and education programs, and labor rights standards, they are threatened with a loss of capitalization and financing by the International Monetary Fund and Wall Street brokers.
Much of the debate over globalization has been about how regulation happens — including the question of what laws are made and how they are enforced. So, what is sinister about the new “safety plan” proposed by multinational corporations is that they locate the problem in Bangladesh and pretend that they will now take responsibility for the problem. Related to this political issue, scholars of literature and media such as myself have long noticed how expressions of sympathy over the poor in the so-called “third world” countries actually exacerbates the problem, because these shallow tears assume a paternalistic pity for others rather than an honest assessment of our own complicity. In other words, the cultural representation of sympathy supports the political plan of condescending paternalism that was naively reported by the Times today. We can imagine the Hollywood version of this movie — all tears and pity for the poor foreign country, but no substance and no awareness of the complex economic reality. After all, if we instead take a more global and politically responsible view, then the corporations would have to admit that it was their own practices and belligerent political pressure that created the problem, not just in Bangladesh, but worldwide.
And more to the point, who really believes that corporations will honestly regulate themselves?
Instead, what might be prefered is that the Bangladeshi government be in charge of such regulation, rather than the corporations, even if we worry over government corruption. This preference for the role of national government is part of the tradition of the United States and its Constitution. Such a preference should remind us of the success the labor movement in the United States had after a very similar event on the Lower East Side of New York City a century ago. The infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911 led to the tragic death of 146 workers, mostly young immigrant women. It galvanized labor organizers and caused a shift in public thinking that eventually led to many of the labor standards Americans enjoy today: the right to unionize, minimum wage, overtime pay, and many other laws protecting the rights and safety of the worker. It is the responsibility of state and national government to ensure that the law is followed, that buildings are built to code, and that workers are not exploited. It might seem that Bangladesh is poised to follow this model, and indeed, the event has led to its government revising labor law so as to be less hostile to workers.
However, two things are significantly different. First, in this case, it is not the national government that is enforcing the new so-called safety plan, but rather a loose agreement among multinational corporations to do better in Bangladesh. Is that a viable model? And why not do better everywhere? Second, the question of why not do better everywhere, rather than in just the one country, leads to the troubling economic reality of globalization and the question of global governance. As the sociologist Saskia Sassen in her book Globalization and Its Discontents (1999) and the Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz in his book also titled Globalization and Its Discontents (2002) have both observed, whenever one country starts to improve its labor and environmental standards, then the system of outsourcing and supply chaining simply moves its factories somewhere else. Hence, there is a legitimate fear within Bangladesh that implementing the rule of law in their country could result in multinational corporations moving their business elsewhere and financial institutions punishing the Bangladeshi government by pulling out their investment. The old nation-based model of progress that was so successful in the United States in the 1930s after the Traingle Shirtwaist Fire is a model that struggles today in the face of globalization.
There is a funny essay by the British novelist G. K. Chesterton entitled “Cheese” in his book Alarms and Discursions in which he humorously imagines writing a five-volume scholarly treatise entitled “The Neglect of Cheese in European Literature” because “poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese” even though “cheese is the very soul of song.” One would probably never say that poop is the very soul of song — perhaps it is the very opposite, the material remainder of our fleeting mundane existence — but for several years I have been speculating about what it might be like to write a literary history of poop. To my knowledge, it has never been done, and far more than cheese (which has actually been written about extensively), poets and philosophers tend to avoid talking about their most basic daily function. I have not yet followed through on this project, but today, thanks to George Takei on FaceBook, I saw this hilarious comic of the Zen Kitties, meditating on their kitty litter box, and I was inspired to begin.
The image reminds me of the famous Zen rock gardens of Japan (where I lived for a couple of years), the most famous of which is at the Ryoan-ji Temple in Kyoto. The joke observes the resemblance between these philosophical gardens and kitty litter boxes, and then speculates philosophically about the poop as a metaphor for the impermanence of our own existence, a well-known idea in Zen Buddhism. However, it also seems to enact the basic drama of poop — that we wish it (and all the uncomfortable detritus of our lives) would simply disappear, but actually it doesn’t. The false consciousness of this ideology is discussed by the world’s favorite Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek in several of his books. In the movie Examined Life, which features nine influential contemporary philosophers speaking about the world while paripatetically walking around somewhere in that world, Zizek begins his presentation, significantly, at a dump. By doing so, he is suggesting that philosophy, if it is to be honest and ethical, should begin with our excrement and our trash.
Precisely the things we least want to talk about in polite society is what we must talk about if we are to address the most important problems of our time and if we are to understand ourselves. It is telling that we have constructed such elaborate architecture and political infrastructure for quickly removing our poop as far away from ourselves as possible so that we are able to go about our daily lives ignoring it as best we can. The Zen Kitties speculating on the total erasure of their poop actually mirrors, in an odd way, the way we humans behave towards our poop.
In no way do I want to make the argument that these Zen Kitties have anything to do with actual Zen philosophy and practice, which is very rigorous and tough. But it does have something to do with the popularized, somewhat self-indulgent version of Zen in America that can be found in books such as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. (And obviously, the title of my blog post is a play on Pirsig’s book.)
The popularized mystified version of Western Buddhism and new-age spirituality is also something Zizek has critiqued in various places in his writings, including his article on the new Star Wars movies and his essay “The Prospect of Radical Politics Today.” He jokes that the Western Zen ethos is the perfect articulation for the neoliberal ideology of “late capitalism” and that if Max Weber were alive today, he would have written a sequel to The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (written in 1904-1905) that might better address our twenty-first century world, and this sequel would be thusly titled “The Zen Ethic and the Spirit of Global Capitalism.” Zizek attacks this ideology which he sees as unethical false consciousness: “Western Buddhism is such a fetish: it enables you fully to participate in the frantic pace of the capitalist game, while sustaining the perception that you are not really in it, that you are well aware how worthless this spectacle really is–what really matters to you is the peace of the inner self to which you know you can always withdraw.” This Zen Ethic (by which Zizek means the popularized Zen in Western culture, not actual Zen) pretends to be beyond politics precisely at moments when its practictioner is most enmeshed in a political world. Ironically, the typical mode of withdrawal today is not Zen’s spiritual withdrawal into an ethical selflessness, but hipster irony and an endless play of cultural referentiality.
What I love about the Zen Kitties is their meditation on one of the most profoundly difficult subjects of existence. The philosophical conclusion they draw from the cleaned kitty litter box is the impermanence of life. The more obvious question that they don’t ask, and that Zizek thinks we need to ask, is where did the poop go. However, even though the comic doesn’t ask Zizek’s question, the huge eyes of one of the kitties registers a surprise and an anxiety about the disappeared poop that is the comic counterpoint to the closed, meditative eyes of the other kitty. Both of these responses are two sides of the same condition — not our human condition, but a condition that is both animal and technological at the same time. The Zen Kitties’ imagination of the philosophical meaning of a pristine and stainless litter box, in a bizarre way it seems to me, mirrors our own twenty-first century global culture’s desire for a smooth and seemless world of production and consumption without consequences and without pollution, and it provokes laughter at the strangeness of our own impossible desire. The counterpoint to this desire can be found in one of my favorite children’s books, Everyone Poops by the Japanese author Taro Gomi, that beautifully explores both the naturalness as well as the humorous variety of pooping. It can also be found in one of my favorite essays on Japanese culture, Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, which impishly delights in contrasting the poetic, meditative shadowy qualities of Japanese wooden toilets to the obsessively clean and white, antiseptic European toilets.
Anyways, so begins my critical inquiry into the literary history of poop.
A few years ago, I wrote a post in this blog about how the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace was symptomatic of globalization, and I later expanded that post into a scholarly article entitled “The New James Bond and Globalization Theory, Inside and Out,” for the journal CineAction that was published in the fall of 2009. The text has been put on the internet without my permission by the Free Library [here]. In it, I discussed many of the theorists of twenty-first century globalization who have argued that the old international order of nation states has been superseded by a new global order in which nation states are merely part of a larger network of transnational and local relations that include multinational corporations, finance capital, criminal organizations, non-governmental organizations, social and environmental movements, etc. Whether or not that is actually true, it is a way of thinking about the world that, I argue, is reflected in recent cinema. In my view, Bond was not unique, but rather typical of this paradigm shift within the movie industry in general and spy thrillers in particular, and I later blogged about the movies The International and Duplicity to expand my argument. So, when the 23rd Bond film, Skyfall, was released this year, on the fiftieth anniversary of the first Bond movie, I had to see it. And considering that this is the most profitable Bond film of all time, scoring huge at the box office, I was very curious whether the new movie would confirm my theory about Bond films, and several of my friends and colleagues asked me whether I thought so.
In some ways yes, in some ways, no.
For sure, the actor Daniel Craig continues to play the constantly brooding, angry version of Bond, instead of the pithy, urbane version of Bond performed by Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan, and others. But my point is that the new Bond style is not just Craig’s acting — it’s the whole thing, and it’s a “whole thing” that relates to the history of globalization.
The question that the characters of Skyfall ask over and over again is whether the fictional Bond character, as well as the real British intelligence service MI6, is irrelevant in our globalized, postmodern world. The movie brilliantly layers this idea, as Bond appears to die, but returns, and at various moments in the movie, Britain’s Parliament debates the relevance of MI6 and the double-O agents. In one scene, Bond and Q sit in front of a painting of a “grand old war ship inevitably being hauled off to scrap,” and Eve Moneypenny jokes about Bond being an old dog with new tricks. As the gorgeous theme song by Adele begins, “This is the end,” and later Bond jokes that he specializes in resurrection. (By the way, Bond’s resurrection is not a new theme; consider You Only Live Twice, Never Say Never Again, and GoldenEye.) Amusingly, and not so coincidentally, critics have been asking the same question that the movie itself asks. Is the Bond film a dead genre, or does it have to reinvent itself or resurrect itself to stay current and hip… and… uh… not suck. And there appears to be a general consensus that Skyfall represents something new, some critics celebrating the movie for its innovative new take, and others trashing the film for failing in the attempt. However, I have a slightly different view than the critics. For all the obsessive worry about relevance and newness, the film actually asserts a troubling and ridiculously nostalgic return to the old Bond.
But before I explain what I mean about this nostalgic return to the old Bond, rather than a further elaboration of the new Bond, let’s review how Skyfall repeats some of the stuff I mentioned in my article about Quantum of Solace. Most of the “globalist” ideas appear in a speech that the villain Silva gives when he and Bond first meet. Silva pontificates about all of Bond’s outdated attachments to the nation-state and the old order: “England… empire… MI6… you’re living in a ruin and just don’t know it yet.” (Ironically, they are having this conversation literally within a ruin that Silva himself created.) He goes on to explain how easy it is to destabilize nation states by rigging the stock market and elections. In a sense, Silva’s speech is somewhat similar to the argument I made about globalization and the withering of the nation-state in my article, but with one key and unsurprising difference. What was good about the previous Bond movie Quantum of Solace is its recognition that in the real globalized world of today, it is the U.S. and British governments who are doing all that “rigging” and often collaborating with clandestine and criminal organizations in order to do so. This was the first time in Bond history that the British government was not unequivocally on the side of good. The plot was complicated enough to map out a somewhat complex network of relations, which moved beyond the simplistic good-guys versus bad-guys story that was so typical of the older Bond movies. What’s stupid about Skyfall is the world’s geopolitical complexity is reduced to the character of Silva, whose insanity represents pure evil, and who would be a totally absurd character if it weren’t for the brilliant acting of Javier Barden. What is even more troubling is Bond’s response to Silva, that Bond represents a “resurrection.” But a resurrection of what? Silva has just trashed the British empire, and who would want to resurrect that?
In a sense, the new Bond film reduces the complexity of history to an Oedipal drama. (I’m not the only person to notice the excessively Freudian structure of the plot; for instance, see David Denby’s review in The New Yorker and another in the Atlantic.) Whereas Quantum of Solace traces the return of history in terms of American geopolitical strategies coming back to bite America in the ass, Skyfall is strictly a Freudian fantasy where the injured MI6 agent with mommy issues and a bruised adolescent ego returns to attack his former boss, who is represented as a mother figure. The film is brilliant on this point, especially when Silva shows what the cyanide capsule did to his face when he tried to kill himself in order to protect Great Britain; in that scene, he is both figuratively and literally the monster that MI6 unintentionally created. We might pose an analogy between this monstrosity and the monstrosity of so many militant groups created by the United States and Europe in other countries that backfired — Ronald Reagan’s al Qaeda being the worst. But the movie doesn’t do that. Instead we have two ghosts (or, “the last two rats,” as the movie repeatedly jokes) — the ghost of Bond returning from the dead in order to fight the ghost of Bond’s evil twin. Both of them feel wronged by MI6, and for Silva, M clearly represents the “phallic mother” figure whose love he seeks but whom he also wants to master or destroy. However, unlike Silva who returns from the dead to wage a personal war against M and MI6, Bond returns from “enjoying death” to protect M and MI6 because, he says, “we are under attack.” In this way, the movie projects international politics onto the personalities of individuals, and any geopolitical context that could have been explored or even just alluded to in the background has almost entirely disappeared from view. The movie even attempts to justify its own narrative blindness by means of an odd version of globalization theory’s thesis about the reduced role of the modern nation-state when M tells Parliament that “our enemies are no longer known to us, they are no longer nation states; they are now individuals…. and the shadows is where we do battle.” (Ironically, of course, their enemies are very much “known” to MI6, because apparently the “individuals” are former MI6 agents.)
Three quarters of the way through a very long movie, it appears that Silva’s postmodern, globalized insanity has got Bond and MI6 beat, so how is Bond to fight back? The answer is by going back in time, where, as Bond says, “we have the advantage.” And so we travel to Bond’s childhood home, Skyfall, a mansion in Scotland. To complete this nostalgic image, the old home appears to come with its own endearing old caretaker, Mr. Kincaid, who appears with a shotgun on his arm as if just back from a pheasant hunt. Here, a number of things are completely unique and new about this Bond film. First, this is the only time in Bond history that Bond’s childhood is a major part of the plot. In all other Bond movies, Bond’s life before he became an agent is totally absent, and it’s hard to imagine him anything but, as if he sprang like Minerva, a fully formed agent with tuxedo, martini, and Walther PPK pistol from the brain of Zeus (or, in this case, from the motherly brain of M.) Second, this is the first time that most of the explosions happen inside of Britain. Usually, Bond goes to other countries where he and the villain callously destroy much of that nation’s cultural heritage, but in Skyfall, both MI6 headquarters and Bond’s childhood home are destroyed (and please note the Freudian connection between his childhood home where his parents died and his adult home at MI6 where the life of his new “mum” — his boss M — is threatened.) Lastly, and most importantly, this is the first Bond movie where Bond cries, and over what does he weep so many tears? Yes, the death of his surrogate Oedipal mommy, M.
Since the death of M (mum) is the climax of the movie, we might think back to when Judi Dench was first introduced as the new M — not surprisingly in the last movie to also question Bond’s relevance in a post-soviet era, Golden Eye, when Judi Dench calls Bond a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur.” In the history of Bond films, GoldenEye represented a major turning point for three reasons. First, because it was produced after the longest gap in time between Bond films, as studios really did believe the genre had died with Timothy Dalton. Second, it was the first Bond movie to be produced after the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall, so it very directly raised the question of whether MI6 and Bond were still relevant. Third, GoldenEye replaced the sexist, old-boys-club feel of the earlier Bond movies with more progressive roles for women, including Judi Dench as M, a more outspoken and capable “Bond-Girl” (e.g., Natalya Simonova, played by Izabella Scorupco in GoldenEye). By the time we get the new Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, the pathetic, Bond-worshipping Moneypenny character has also been dropped from the story. Curiously, while in her first movie, Dench as M criticizes the old agents like Bond, in her last movie she defends them, and she defends them just in time to signal a return to the arrangement of the older Cold-War-era Bond movies with a new male M and a doting Moneypenny. What excessively Freudian Skyfall stages is the death of the “phallic mother” (M).
I’d like to pause for a moment to emphasize the paradox and the curious contradiction. On the one hand, critics are saying this is a “new” Bond movie (which of course annoys me, because I argued that it was Quantum of Solace that was the “new Bond.”) But on the other hand, it is a movie that nostalgically gestures back to the older films and performs a wish-fullfillment fantasy of a return to an older world order.
But of course we can’t go back, and what really makes this movie “new” and interesting is the troubling Freudian discovery that it can’t go back. Bond blows up his childhood home, which he says he has always hated, and its image burns like the ghost of history, an uncanny and very un-Bond-like image that haunts the movie’s end. This is wonderful cinema. For a full minute of screen time, everything is dark except for this burning house. In addition, even more important than the destruction of Bond’s two homes (his childhood home and MI6 headquarters), I’d like to suggest that one other aspect of this movie also undermines the desire to return to a simpler time. As some critics have noticed, the “Bond girl” Severine was the victim of sexual abuse and human trafficking when she was just a child. Bond’s discovery of this, and Severine’s self-betrayal, is perhaps, the most interesting moment in the film — the only moment of a troubling Real of globalization in the entire movie which is otherwise little more than a Freudian fantasy. Actress Berenice Marlohe is brilliant here, her whole body trembling with fear, rage, and hate towards the world order that the movie represents. And for both Lacanian and Foucaultian theorists of the Real and of the body, it is important that it is the actress’s body that communicates this. I assume that the horror of this scene is meant to dramatise what a horrible villain Silva is, but the horror is so great it almost overwhelms the whole movie. As dozens of scholarly articles on James Bond have noticed, Bond’s relationship to women is, of course, symptomatic of the fallen British empire’s relationship to the world. We may recall that what was totally unique and unprecedented in Quantum of Solace was the chaste relationship between Bond and the Bond-girl, Camille Montes, with whom he does not even try to have sex, but instead gives a brotherly peck on the cheek. Instead, in Skyfall, what is unprecedented is that the history of Severine’s exploitation is admitted, and the tragedy of her situation more painfully understood. In a way, both the excessively chaste Bond and politically radical Bond-girl in Quantum of Solace and the realization of Severine’s history in Skyfall are two sides of the same coin — the horrible Real of globalization that can no longer be properly sexualized and neutralized by a debonair hero. In truth, it is Severine who is the tragic heroine of globalization in this movie. Bond is not.
Let me explain why not. Traditionally, most Bond films end with both Bond and the Bond-girl together in each other’s arms, but at the end of the new Bond, Severine has died, Moneypenny has been transformed from a badass agent to a cheerful secretary, and the woman in Bond’s arms is his mommy, M. If I may make a joke on Newsweek‘s infamous cover story in 2009 after the government bailed out the auto industry, “We’re all Socialist Now,” we might speculate that if the popularity of the latest Bond movie says anything about our culture today, as it anxiously looks ahead to a troubled brave new world, it says that “We’re all Children Now.” At the beginning of this essay, I promised that I’d say something about why Craig’s brooding style is more appropriate for the new Bond than the adolescent humor of the old Bond — Craig is a lovable, angry child.
A couple of months ago, when I was moving to New York from Minnesota, and doing a lot of cross-country driving, I noticed that two of the most often played pop hits on the radio were Nicki Minaj’s “Starships” and Fun’s “We Are Young.” And I’m not embarrassed to admit that I quite like both songs. At some point during the many hours on the road, I began to ask myself what about these songs were so appealing. What made them so popular? And I began to entertain the notion that they seem to express the way young people today have reacted to the long economic recession. However, after I got to New York and started building my new life. I sort of forgot about the many random speculations I had on my long trip and didn’t think any more about it, until a month later, when a bunch of journalists, e.g., see [here], started asking questions about Nicki Minaj’s politics after a recent performance in which she rapped “I’m a Republican voting for Mitt Romney, you lazy bitches is fucking up the economy.” Personally, I didn’t think that lyric was an indication of a political position one way or the other. Few people would assume from her performance of “Roman Holiday” that Minaj believes herself to be possessed by the devil or is a member of the secret Illuminati order, so why take one line from another song and attempt to construct a partisan position out of it? Nevertheless, the relationship of pop music to political ideologies and economic issues is a question that interests me. The kind of reading of the songs that I am doing here is what cultural and literary theorists, from Louis Althusser to Stuart Hall, call a “symptomatic reading,” and I want to contrast “symptomatic reading” with something the journalists seem to me to be doing and what I will call, for lack of a better phrase, “ideological reading.”
The songs by Fun and Minaj are both about partying and having fun; as is typical of pop songs, the chorus and the verses seem to contain opposite messages. For instance, listening casually to the song “We Are Young,” the chorus that goes “Tonight, we are young, so let’s set the night on fire, we can burn brighter, than the sun” would seem to be a celebration of youthful desire. The driving, anthemic music contributes to this feeling.
However, reading the lyrics of Fun’s “We Are Young” verses tells the opposite story. The song is told from the point of view of a young man who has, apparently, physically abused his girlfriend in the past, probably while intoxicated, and now they are both again so drunk at the bar that they need someone to take them home. Not only does the story the lyrics tell haunt the chorus, but also the anthemic style of the music is beautifully haunting as the music’s notes drop at key moments to create a depressing, dark counterpoint to the hopeful message of youthful desire.
Nicki Minaj’s song is similar in the way its form contains contradictory ideas. The music is club music, with a strong beat for aggressive dancing, and the chorus seems to promote the party at which, we might imagine, the song would be played: “I’m on the floor, I love to dance, so give me more… Starships were meant to fly, Hands up and touch the sky, Can’t stop ’cause we’re so high, Let’s do this one more time.” Brilliantly, these lines seem to tell the music, and therefore also the bodies of the listeners, what to do; put your hands up and dance (and also drink) one more time.
However, like in the song by Fun, a closer reading of Minaj’s lyrics reveals its dark, cynical irony. The character that the song is about is someone who will “blow all my money and don’t give two shits” and “ain’t paying my month’s rent.” Not only does the song make fun of itself, but it is also a perfect synthesis of form and content in which the lyrics and the music seem to be having a conversation. The music, lyrics, and video all express longing for escape, as they fuse drinking, sex, vacations at primitive beaches, and starships. The idea of the starship as a utopian escape from a frustrating reality has a long history, from Parliament’s “Mothership Connection” to Kanye West’s “Spaceship.” My favorite moment is when Nicki Minaj sarcastically quotes the famous children’s song “Twinkle twinkle little star” after the character says you can “fuck who you want” — a juxtaposition of vulgarity and innocence that indicates just how much the song’s character is lost in space, pursuing her childish dreams of fun.
So, what are the politics of their songs? An ideological reading would have a hard time locating any political view, since both songs express the desires, frustrations, and contradictory feelings that people have. Nicki Minaj presents us with a Barbie-doll image but seems to mock it at the same time. How do we begin to analyze the politics of having fun, poking fun, and dropping puns?
In contrast to an ideological reading, a symptomatic reading will put the song in its socio-economic context, observe how the symbolic content of the song expresses the psychologically repressed problems, and observe what about those problems are absent from the song. In other words, both Fun and Minaj’s songs seem wonderful expressions of the frustrations and desires of young people in the midst of an economic recession. Fun’s song focuses on an abusive drunk, but neglects to explain what provokes a man to be abusive and to assert his identity in such a way. Moreover, why do we feel we can relate to this troubled character? Minaj’s song focuses on a party girl who is — as so many Americans discovered in 2008 when the economy crashed — in chronic debt. One effect of this recession is that the “youth unemployment rate” (ages 16 to 24) is very high, and it seems to me that the sort of schizophrenic nature of Fun and Minaj’s songs is an indirect response to these troubled times. In my view, Minaj’s lively wordplay is somewhat more attuned to the broader economic problems than Fun’s more anthemic style, even though it lacks the emotional content that Fun’s song has. Both songs, I believe, are wonderfully symptomatic of the contradictory feelings we have about the current economic recession much in the way that a runny nose and sore throat are symptomatic of the virus that causes them. However, in saying that, I don’t want to suggest that the songs are merely symptoms and therefore naive and stupid, because I actually think the lyrics are quite sophisticated and self-aware enough to draw attention to the problematic of the contradictory feelings we have in our twenty-first century consumer-driven society that demands of us that we all believe we are special despite our lacking the means to be truly special. However, their “diagnosis” of these symptoms (if I may continue the medical metaphor of my mode of reading these songs) merely notes the contradictions at play in the way we live our lives, but not the deeper viral problems that are the root of them. In the end, there is no escape from our pathetic lives except for the fantasy of the escape narrated in the song that is already structurally a part of our lives.
So, what are Nicki Minaj and Fun’s politics? Heck if I know, but this question is an entirely different question than the question of the political problematic of their songs.