As everyone has probably heard in the news earlier this week, Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke were sued for copyright infringement because their song “Blurred Lines” borrows so heavily from Marvin Gaye’s classic hit “Got to Give It Up.” The court ruled in favor of Gaye’s family. My friend and colleague Leigh over at the ReadMoreWriteMoreThinkMoreBeMore blog quickly and adroitly responded to this event by reflecting on the conditions of popular music. She somewhat disagrees with the court decision and public shaming of Pharrell and Thicke that followed by pointing out that all pop music involves appropriation of some kind or another. Therefore, we should be focusing our attention on the felony crime of piracy rather than wagging our self-righteous fingers at the misdemeanor crime of petty thievery. The more serious question for the courts is how new forms of digital distribution don’t always compensate artists for their work. I encourage you to follow the link to her argument, since I don’t think I’m fully doing justice to Leigh’s nuance and sincere love of music.
And I encourage you to read her argument because I am about to disagree with it, so we’re going to have a bit of a blog-o-sphere throw down.
But before I go on the attack (as is my Scorpio-nature), I want to give some respect and agree with a lot of what she’s saying. I was immediately reminded of Public Enemy’s song “Caught, Can I Get a Witness,” that begins,
Caught, now in court ’cause I stole a beat.
This is a sampling sport, but I’m giving it a new name.
What you hear is mine, PE you know the time…
Like hey, I’m on a mission, I’m talking about conditions….
And he goes on. And of course, what I like about Leigh’s blog post is that — like Chuck D — she is also talking about conditions. I would agree with the point that piracy is the more serious issue and that appropriation is inherent in all pop music. The point is not just valid but also essential. And in the case of hip hop, which is the most innovative form of appropriation and re-articulation, one of the conditions in the 1980s when Public Enemy produced that song was urban poverty, the brutality of Reaganomics, and street music (so who could pay royalties anyway?)
But I think Leigh’s argument is conflating different conditions and missing a key distinction. One of her examples is the many versions of “Mustang Sally,” which she cites to point out how musical innovation occurs, but in this case, everyone knows they are versions of the same song. So, obviously not a case of copyright infringement. Likewise, when hip hop DJs sample, everyone knows they are sampling. That’s why they are called DJs. Hiphop is somewhat of a feedback loop, the new song bringing renewed appreciation for — or even critical thought about — the old song. Similarly, when John Coltrane released his album, My Favorite Things, what was innovative (a term I prefer over the term “original” to describe art) about his jazz was that it changed how we think about older songs. Such is the nature of jazz, which may confirm Leigh’s point about appropriation and innovation, except that Coltrane is open about what and how he is appropriating. As for the case of Sam Smith’s borrowing from Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” for his song “Stay With Me” that has been cited as a case comparable to the Thicke-Williams appropriation of Gaye, it seems to me that there is a lot of manipulation of the audio of that YouTube mash-up in order to make the case (and to my ears, the songs don’t really sound all that similar), but more importantly, Smith openly acknowledged his debt and respected Petty. The important thing about all the examples I just cited is that these artists show respect and acknowledge their debt. And here we might recall Jacque Derrida’s conceptualization of “debt” for philosophy, as I have in previous blog posts about my own professor Marshall Grossman and about the Caribbean poet and philosopher Eduoard Glissant. Derrida points out that we read, write, think, and be through the labor of others, and that we are partially, but always incompletely, constituted by this relation.
The case of Pharrell and Thicke is significantly different from all of Leigh’s examples, because the issue is that they didn’t acknowledge their debt, even though they well knew that they were borrowing the riffs. A key point of evidence legally speaking is that they were fully aware of what they were doing, and Pharrell, of all people, should know better. They didn’t respect the industry and the culture. They blurred the lines. We can even contrast the case of “Blurred Lines” to Pharrell’s other hit song “Get Lucky” which is somewhat derivative of Stevie Wonder’s style (though not of any song in particular.) Hence, the highlight moment of last year’s Grammys was when Pharrell and Stevie played together. Jedi Masters of music both of them, keeping it real, showing due deference and mad respect, and it was glorious. That’s how you get lucky. Not by blurring the lines.
We can broaden this theoretical conversation beyond the legal issue of copyright to think about the music culture more generally. Consider the difference between Vanilla Ice and Eminem. Both white guys, borrowing riffs. What killed Vanilla Ice’s career? Not that he stole a beat without acknowledgement.That wasn’t it. Rather, he didn’t show deference to the black culture he was appropriating. In contrast, Eminem (like the Beastie Boys before him) is always careful to pay his respect to the culture he is working within, even as he worked to radically transform what hip hop could be. And so the older generation of black artists give him respect in return. Similarly, why are people pissed at Iggy Azalea? It’s not because she’s a blond white girl from Australia appropriating African-American culture. Contrary to what the popular media seems to think, her racial identity is not the issue. The issue is that she doesn’t acknowledge her debt and show any respect.
To get even more theoretical, we can look (again) at Michel Foucault’s famous essay, “What is an Author?” where he introduces the term discourse to talk about how the work of “Marx” goes far beyond any authorial intention or originality of Marx and becomes a discourse unto itself, within which other innovators can say and do things that are “Marxist” even if we might imagine the actual human being named Karl Marx disagreeing with those Marxists. (And since Marx tended to disagree with just about everyone around him, I think we can easily imagine that scenario.) More relevant to the case of Pharrell/Thicke/Gaye, I am reminded of an interview with Foucault included in the book Power/Knowledge where he was asked why he doesn’t cite Marx in his many writings. His response was that his work was so totally situated within the tradition of Marxist discourse that he didn’t feel the need to cite him — it would be like citing Newton about gravity. No scientist publishing a paper today would feel the need to put Newton or Einstein in their Works Cited page, because their work is foundational for the whole academic discipline. But there was something a little disingenuous about Foucault’s flip comment when the stakes of the Marxist tradition were so politically fraught at the time he was speaking. His comment in the interview doesn’t quite square with his own analysis of the author function and his conceptualization of discourse, which includes the changing conditions of copyright law, the circumstances of writing, and the institutional structures within which the writing event happens as well as the ideologies and politics of the situation.
All of these things are what Leigh calls in her blog post the “conditions” of artistic and intellectual production. However, to quote Kenny Rogers (or rather, Teddy Hill and the Southern Soul, or rather the writer Mickey Newberry, to give credit where credit is due), as I am kinda dropping in to participate in a conversation that she initiated, “I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in.” Did Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke?
I wonder what it’s like to be a prominent scholar with a name that so lends itself to puns that it almost serves as evidence for his own philosophical innovation. When I say “fish” out loud in the market, one might think “dinner” (and perhaps Friday dinner if one is Catholic), but when I say “Fish” in a class on literary theory, one might think, “Oh, that guy I read for my class, Stanley Fish.” And the avid reader of the New York Times, might even think, “oh, is he the guy who writes those snarky columns about higher education and famously pisses off both the right and the left?” If you’re a reader of my blog, you may recall my own angry reaction to a column he wrote way back in 2009, so for you, Fish might signify “that guy that Steve Thomas both teaches and makes fun of at the same time.” And the fact that the word F/fish might conjure up so many different ideas serves as a somewhat silly illustration of Fish’s philosophical point that all communication happens within specific contexts that guide interpretation. The contexts are social — and actively so — and therefore, he dubs them “interpretive communities.”
But how does this notion of “interpretive communities” in any way affect how we read? I usually wouldn’t waste space on the blog-o-sphere with a discussion of Fish’s theory, but it’s a snow-day, and classes have been cancelled, so I’m putting a few snippets of my usual Fish lecture on this blog today.
We can — and should — begin with hilarity.
The first time I ever taught Fish’s “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One” way back in 2006, the NY Times and other newspapers were giggling over a column published in the right-wing magazine The National Review about the “Top 50 Conservative Songs.” Since the list included songs by rock groups that were well-known to be anything but conservative (e.g., The Who, The Beatles, U2, etc., etc.), the list looks absurd, and many considered the list to be a desperate attempt by the conservatives to reconcile their ideological beliefs with their taste in music. The fall-out in the press reminded many people of Ronald Reagan’s attempt to use Bruce Springsteen in his re-election campaign and the many times liberal and left-leaning rock singers have sued politicians for mis-using their songs for political purposes. Democrats snickered to themselves that Republicans were obviously “bad readers” who didn’t understand the lyrics of the songs they listened to. We might jokingly title a response to The National Review, “How to Recognize a Conservative Song When Nobody Else Sees One.”
But we are begging the question of how one reads a song, so how do we? For example, Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A. ” might seem to be a patriotic song if you only listen to the refrain, which is why it has been used quite often in political campaigns to rally patriotic feeling. However, the rest of the lyrics tell the sad story of a Vietnam War veteran who can’t get a job — a chilling and dark critique of American culture. The meaning of the refrain is obviously ironic (tragically so) in light of the verses, and the juxtaposition of the anthemic chorus with the dark lyrics is the ironic tension that makes the poetry of the song work, the dark lyrics in poetic tension with the anthemic music. One might say the same thing about John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” where he says, “Ain’t that America, home of the free, little pink houses for you and me” in which the sarcastic muttering about pink houses questions the patriotism of the previous line. Hence, if one were to perform such a formalist “new critical” reading of the songs that I have just performed, which focuses entirely on the literary devices that create ironic tension, one would not be reading the poems ideologically. The liberalism or conservatism of the song wouldn’t be the point. But there are other ways of reading. Those who were merely die-hard fans of the artists interpreted the songs in an entirely different way, as part of the biographical record of the artists’ lives, so that each song was read through what the fan knew of the “life and times” of the artist. Knowing the political commitments of the artists means you know the message of the song. Their response to the National Review article was simply “how dare you say that about our beloved… [whoever]… whom we know so well.”
I have questioned the ideological reading of pop songs elsewhere in a blog post a few years ago about Nicki Minaj and Fun, but my real point here is to contrast “new critical reading” that emphasizes the rules of poetry and Fish’s reading that situates them within “interpretive communities” and social contexts. Because, contrary to liberal snickering at Republicans for so totally misunderstanding rather simple rock songs, I’d like to suggest that the “Top 50 Conservative Songs” might have a point if one begins with a different interpretive framework for evaluating songs. In the wake of the New Deal and an increase in government programs for the poor, the definition of conservative would include an opposition to government, taxes, etc. Any song that repeated that political “refrain” (pun intended) was furthering the conservative agenda, and therefore within this interpretive framework, the intentions and biography of the individual artist are irrelevant and so are the subtle ironies of each song conjured up by the dialectical counterpoint between the thesis of the chorus and the antithesis of the verse. The “refrains” of the songs repeat the “refrain” of a conservative political agenda, and in the social context of a party or political rally, that’s good enough. In fact, it might be the liberal attachment to a nostalgia about 60s social movements that interferes with their reading of a specific song’s content, and perhaps they are also ignoring how most people actually experience music (i.e., they experience it in a context.)
I think it’s easy to see different modes of reading when we are talking about pop songs — modes of reading that are new critical, biographical, ideological, and socially situated — and hopefully it’s not too hard to see that similar modes of reading might influence how we read poetry in a classroom. The point of Stanly Fish, however, is not to argue a relativist position where any interpretation of the song is as good as any other. Rather, he is suggesting that each “interpretive community” is using a set of rules for evaluating the poem, and within that community, reasonable people can revise and adjust their position, so that upon hearing further evidence, one might change one’s mind, so long as the new evidence fits the rules of interpretation. For instance, one might easily change one’s mind about Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” being a conservative song (given the sarcastic irony of the lines), but maintain that his other song “Small Town” is conservative, whatever Mellencamp’s intentions may or may not have been. It is important to remember that Fish is allowing for people to realize that they might have been wrong and revise their interpretations in the face of evidence. After all, most conservatives would readily admit the folly of that list of 50 songs in the National Review but still enjoy them.
How does this change our own critical strategies for reading a poem. Recognizing the social context within which poems are written, read, performed, and quoted can help us listen carefully to how a poet might play and tease that context to produce new results. If we agree that interpretive communities carry with them certain expectations and cultural norms, then we can also agree that a poet might intentionally toy with those expectations in order to produce emotional and political transformation. They might actively address and seek to affect “interpretive communities” that are complex and include multiple viewpoints. What is, in fact, missing from Fish’s fishy theory are two things: (1) how the norms of any social situation are possibly self-contradictory and multiple, and (2) how and why change happens (change of culture, change of mind, change of feeling, etc.) As for the first, every college student knows that the expectations of being a college student are to have fun and study hard, and that these two expectations conflict with each other, hence causing all interpretations of daily situations to be a negotiation between such conflicting demands. Thinking about this in a larger social context, a Marxist would note the inherent ideological contradictions within the interpretative strategies of much literary criticism. As for the second, from a historical perspective, Fish never gives us an analytical tool for accounting for why the poetry of the twentieth century looks so different from the nineteenth or the eighteenth (and this is precisely the sort of question that motivates scholars such as Raymond Williams to look for the political, economic, and social realities that push poetry in different directions.)
Let’s come back to Fish’s argument and see how his theory might help us actually read a poem, which is something he doesn’t actually ever do in his essay entitled, “How To Recognize a Poem When You See One.” Instead, he begins with something that’s not a poem but just a list of names on a chalk board, and he is able to get his students to perform a reading of that list as if it is a poem. For him, this proves his point about interpretive communities (which embeds the reading of literature in social contexts — an approach that makes sense to me, since I would agree with Fish that no poem has ever in the history of the world been composed or read outside of such a context.) But what if we began with a poem that kinda-sorta isn’t a poem, except that it is? Let’s take one of the most famous “poems” in American literature by William Carlos Williams that, when you read it out loud, sounds more like a note that your room-mate or spouse left for you on the kitchen table.
This is just to say
I have eaten
that were in the icebox
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
The poem follows no conventions of poetic verse — no rhyme or meter, no condensation of speech onto dense literary devices such as metaphor, synecdoche, allusion, or irony. As scholars have observed, some critics have tried to impose a meaning onto the text through their own idiosyncratic interpretive lens, but in many ways the poem resists such attempts at reading a deeper meaning into it — it’s almost hardly a poem, but rather a statement that is simply arranged on the page to look somewhat like a poem. The total lack of poetic devices and plainness of the language is surprising in its richness. What I might suggest is that what makes this poem so enjoyable is precisely that it playfully pushes us to revise our sense of why we like poetry. The poem also conjures up a somewhat idyllic domestic situation that draws attention to the hidden beauty of ordinary, middle-class life. The almost anti-poetic quality of the lines that seems to belie our expectations for poetry plays with a desire for simplicity. The language mirrors the content. Such desire for the plain and simple could be read in either a political context (i.e., the complexity of class conflict, considering the poem was composed in the midst of the Great Depression) or a classroom context (i.e., students exhaustion with the complex poetic style of modernist poetry at the end of a semester.) My point being, however one might criticize the poem, it is clear that one can only read and appreciate the poem in light of the context of literary history and the socially conditioned practice of reading poems with which the poem plays. My interpretation of the poem in some ways follows the approach of Stanley Fish to attend to the social context in which a poem is read — a social context that includes a consciousness of literary history — but revises Fish’s approach somewhat to focus on the playfulness of writing and the possibility for it to deconstruct itself in a way that is transformative of the interpretive community and our culture. After all, poets are fishing for readers, and the hook that catches us may be precisely the thing that pulls us out of the static that we feel is so much a part of our social context.
Two weeks ago, somewhere up in the air, mid-flight from Sri Lanka to the Philippines, Pope Francis announced his intention to canonize Junipero Serra. You can read a transcript of his in-flight statements on the Pope’s website. As all Californians well know, Father Serra was the Jesuit priest who established the many missions along the west coast, after which many of California’s cities are now named. The purpose of the missions was to evangelize the diverse Native American nations that densely populated the region while, at the same time, Spain conquered the territory. As a child growing up in southern California, I remember visiting the mission at San Juan Capistrano, famous for the many swallows that nest in its quaint and well-preserved colonial-era buildings. I also remember, some time around the third or fourth grade, my entire class had to build little mission models out of playdough. Serra’s legacy is quite controversial, since the European occupation of California meant enslavement, displacement, rape, and death on a mass scale for the indigenous peoples there. The Catholic Church’s official position admits the atrocities committed during the colonial era but maintains that Serra’s role was benevolent. Others argue that the missions were instruments of colonial violence. The Pope’s declaration surprised even Serra supporters, provoking a range of opinions, from the happy response in the Catholic News to the angry response from Native Americans published both in the on-line Native American magazine Indian Country and the Los Angeles Times.
One remark in the Los Angeles Times op-ed struck me, and in this blog I want to think a bit more on its point. The author, Karin Klein, wrote, “Because the missions mixed different Native American groups together and forced all of them to give up much of their cultural identity, many of these groups cannot meet the requirements of continuous cultural and geographical identity required to be federally recognized tribes, with the many benefits such recognition bestows.” The key question here is the politics of identity and the complex legal apparatus that has grown up around it. The Bureau of Indian Affairs insists on the distinctness of separate Indian tribes or nations and the criteria for identity that include blood quantum, but the practice of colonial violence had the opposite effect, either codifying “Indians” all together as a single racial category or attempting their total erasure through genocidal strategies. The situation for some Native Americans is a paradoxical double-bind involving contradictory policies and articulations of cultural identity (e.g., on the one hand racial, but on the other hand tribal/national.) In this context, the question of identity and the politics of Serra’s legacy are very complex.
Coincidentally, about a week or so before the Pope’s announcement, during my winter break, I happened to read two things relevant to the op-ed in the L.A. Times and the debate about Father Serra’s canonization. One is a PhD dissertation in psychology on “Tribal Enrollment, Blood Quantum, and Identity among the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe of Western Montana,” written by Kimberly Nenemay, who is a member of the Salish and a practicing psychologist in New York. The other is a new work of cultural theory, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human, published last August by Alexander Weheliye, a professor of African American studies at Northwestern University.
For her study, Dr. Nenemay interviewed nineteen women, all tribal members and all of them mothers, about how they felt about their families, their tribal affiliation, their fluency in the Salish language, their experience on the reservation, their commitment to both Christian and Native religious practices, and ultimately their feelings about their identity. The interviews and individual stories of these women provide considerable evidence for the point made all too briefly by Klein in the L.A. Times. Significantly, while the study was taking place, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes were in the midst of an intense debate about the criteria for membership, which they put to a formal vote in January of 2003. At that time, and still now, one must demonstrate at lease “one quarter blood quantum” to be legally considered a member. At issue in the debate was families who are “split” — one sibling eligible for membership while another sibling is not. Complicating the issue further was the question of inheritance, since in some cases, the children of the women were not eligible for tribal membership, in spite of how active the individuals may be in the culture of the community. Since membership confers several privileges and benefits such as the ownership of tribal land, access to health care, and participation in tribal governance, individuals often had complex thoughts and feelings not only about their own identities as tribal members but also about the identities of their children. As the study quoted the nineteen women at length and narrated their responses to a variety of questions, it richly illustrated the diversity of views that exist on that reservation and most strikingly the ways in which some women were thoughtful and self-conscious about having contradictory ideas and conflicting emotions. Some women considered “blood quantum” to be in some ways an important and in other ways an unimportant aspect of their identity; some also noted its effect on their relationships with potential husbands and how they raised their children. Almost all had experienced some form of discrimination and questioning of their identity both on and off the reservation as they navigated the various opportunities and challenges presented by their multiple identities. One example of this discrimination that came up repeatedly was the abuse and condescension from the Catholic missionaries and the white teachers at the mission schools. Complicating the question of identity still further were individuals whose ancestry may include different Native American tribes, so while they may be more than half Indian in terms of blood quantum, they are less than a quarter for any specific tribe and consequently do not qualify for membership.
In terms of what all this means both for clinical practice and for public policy, the conclusions Nenemay draws from the study are disappointingly brief and incomplete, but important and deserving of more critical thought. Psychologically, we see that identity is a complex assemblage of legal definitions about blood quantum, access to benefits, cultural practices, and family relationships, so that each individual may have very different experiences of their identity. (The term “assemblage” is mine, not Nenemay’s, but it agrees with her argument about the social construction of identity, and I will explain its implication further in the next paragraph.) Politically, we see the effects not only on individuals but also on the social fabric of the community, and so Nenemay suggests that, however the tribe might ultimately vote on blood quantum, they should also address the psychological and social effects of this ruling, particularly with regard to the feeling of solidarity among both members and non-members as well as to the sense of security and personal options. Historically speaking, we see the contradictions of U.S. government policy, most especially the Dawes Act of 1887. After forcing Native Americans onto reservations, this act both undermined tribal governance and opened up that land to the possibility of white settlement by insisting that plots of land be privately owned by individuals rather than community owned — and therefore, able to be bought and sold. The obvious intent of the Act was to not only to encourage individuals to sell their land to white settlers but also to undermine political solidarity and create the economic conditions of land scarcity. It is this condition of scarcity (later including not just land but also health care and other government-subsidized programs) that is one of the motivating factors behind the “blood quantum” rule. Significantly, before the Dawes act, Native Americans understood their identity primarily in cultural terms, and it was common for tribes to adopt individuals from other tribes (including European, African, and Asian tribes.) But since the 1930s, the federal government has mandated that tribes define their membership in terms of blood.
It seems to me that, in a curious and significant way, the blood-quantum mandate actually correlates with the fungible-property mandate in the Dawes Act by linking blood to soil and by creating a condition that would motivate the confederated tribes to protect their limited assets by limiting membership even as individuals within the tribe might sell their land. From all of this, we can see the contradictions of American ideology and the conflicting demands of its policies. The American ideology of a universal and inclusive democracy of citizens grounded in private property is undermined by a land-grabbing territorialization of Native land that racializes “Indianness” as the antithetical “Other” of its own universal democracy and in doing so strictly defines the tribe in exclusive terms according to blood quantum. As a result, because the integrity of Native communities is threatened (literally “under siege” and in effect deterritorialized from its earlier forms of life), tribes have resorted to blood quantum and other political and cultural tactics to preserve and reterritorialize their identities in new, innovative ways.
Here I want to argue that the racializing assemblage of American policy is not simply something we can address through some sort of sensitivity to cultural difference. Rather, the implications of Nenemay’s study go far beyond what she is willing to say, because what we see between the lines of her many interviews are the ways in which there is a profoundly deep and paradoxical relation between liberal capitalism and the celebration of “cultural difference” that is the hallmark of multiculturalism. At the heart of the conundrum of “blood quantum” and tribal identity, as we see from the effects of the Dawes Act and the machinery of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, is the paradox of capitalist property relations (including the many opportunities for jobs off the reservation as well as the artificial scarcity of resources on the reservation) and the identity politics around which minority populations galvanize in their struggle to survive. In other words, the conquering nation (America) can position itself as (theoretically) inclusive (anyone can be American), but the oppressed peoples invent new forms of exclusivity as a tactic of self defence, and as such, Native culture shifted over the course of the twentieth century from an adoptive, welcoming one to an exclusive blood-line. Beneath this dynamic, we can surmise that both the American and the Indian articulations of cultural identity are in some ways a mystification of the reality of property ownership, power relations, and the commercial expropriation of value from bodies.
Coming back to the Pope’s canonization, the question of whether Junipero Serra was a good guy or a bad guy is clearly too simplistic, but he most definitely was a cog in the violent, territorializing colonial machine and its racializing assemblage. However, his function was not simply vertical (the territorial conquest and deterritorialization of the Indians) but also horizontal (the innovation of new forms of life and community, a reterritorialization of Indian identity, and a hybridized Indian-Catholic culture.) Such horizontal connections are in some ways empowering for some Native Americans, giving them the tools to survive in the new political order, even if such connections are part of the same vertical structure that is oppressive. How might these terms give us a framework for analyzing the Pope’s decision to make Father Serra a member of the canon of saints. Normally a saint is canonized for performing miracles and introducing something new (a new “cult” or culture) to the church, but Father Serra did not perform miracles and is considered in church law to be a case of “equivalent canonization” which means that the Pope is acknowledging in hindsight something that already exists (an enduring “cult” or culture). In Serra’s case, I can only guess, the Pope is acknowledging the long term and lasting cultural effects of his evangelism. It is of course, also precisely these enduring effects that many (including myself) find so troubling.
As you might have guessed already from the words that I am putting in bold italics, I want to make the case in my blog for an engagement with the concepts developed by the professor of philosophy Gilles Deleuze and the practicing psychoanalyst Felix Guattari in their work of creative philosophy, A Thousand Plateaus. This is one of the works of philosophy that Dr. Weheliye both uses and critiques in Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human.
Weheliye’s project in Habeas Viscus is to engage in a full-frontal critique of western philosophy by taking on three of the most influential philosophers for his discipline of cultural studies: Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, and the dynamic duo Deleuze and Guattari. His argument is that the work and methodologies of these philosophers have been adopted by the American academy as if they are universally applicable to all situations. As he glibly remarks, “judging from the writings of Deleuzians, once you’ve had D&G, you never go back” (referencing the well-known sexual joke that once you’ve had black, you never go back.) In contrast, the work by black feminists scholars such as Hortense Spillers and Sylvia Wynter have been viewed as “particular” (rather than universal) and as such have been academically ghettoized as pertaining only to “black studies” or “women’s studies.” Weheliye’s argument is that the “racializing assemblage” is not peripheral or secondary to the work of Foucault, Agamben, and D&G, but actually central to it. What’s more, their work ought to be critically challenged and revised through the work of Spillers and Wynter to better account for the ways in which the marginalized and oppressed have productively engaged in the sort of cultural innovation and politically alternative forms of life called for — but never fully articulated or imagined — by Foucault, Agamben, and D&G. If you want to listen to him talking about his book, click here for the podcast on the Archipelgo Project.
His book is a tough read, and at this point, I don’t have time to work out the sections of his book that critique Foucault’s concept of “biopower” or Agamben’s concepts of “homo sacer” and “bare life,” so I will focus on D&G’s concept of the “assemblage” and how this all relates back to Nenemay’s study and the Pope’s decision to canonize the missionary Junipero Serra. For D&G, in chapter four of Thousand Plateaus that critiques structuralist linguistics, the “assemblage” (or agencement in French) is the relational arrangement of bodies, things, actions, representations, and speech in which different elements coalesce and recede in both productive and destructive ways. From my summary of Nenemay’s study, I think one can see how “identity” is actually an assemblage of legal, familial, cultural, and political structures that manifests itself in multiple ways. But merely pointing out that identity is culturally constructed through such assemblages doesn’t offer much insight into the contradictory ways in which that construction emerges and what effects it produces. D&G further analyze the working of this assemblage. Looking at the “horizontal” (or non-hiearchical and somewhat anarchic) connectivity of such assemblages and how they work in productive ways, D&G invent the phrases “machinic assemblages” (the intermingling of bodies, actions, and desires) and the “collective assemblage of enunciation” (the speech acts and representational communication produced by and yet also a part of the machinic assemblages). Their revision of structuralist linguistics posits language not as a superstructural representation of things via metaphor and metonymy but rather as one segment in a series of other segments and relations. But such assemblages are also subject to “vertical” (hierarchical) orderings and even violence, which they call territorialization, deterritorialization, and reterritorialization. As I aimed to illustrate earlier, one could consider Father Junipero Serra’s evangelism in relation to both the vertical territorial conquest and the horizontal openings of new identities and hybrid forms of culture.
Working from the perspective of black feminism, Weheliye approaches D&G in two ways, first by observing how essential and problematic the question of race is in their work — something that is often overlooked by the academy, he argues — and second by criticizing their all-too-easy celebration of racial mixture and innovative hybrid forms of culture, which doesn’t fully account for the structures of racial violence. (As a side criticism of Weheliye, one thing I want to briefly mention about the chapter of Thousand Plateaus in which D&G analyze the assemblage, which is also the chapter that Weheliye quotes the most from, is that the two primary examples in that chapter are the work of Kafka, a Czech-speaking Jew writing in German, and the ways in which “Black English” has completely transformed mainstream English. It is somewhat strange that Weheliye ignores these examples, since they would seem to be the perfect test cases for his critique of racializing assemblages, but perhaps he leaves those examples out deliberately because acknowledging them might risk deflating the excitement over his rhetorical gesture that his book offers something new and that D&G don’t talk as much about race as they should. Whatever his motivation, the absence is odd.) Hence, by critiquing the “machinic assemblage” concept as a metaphor that is somewhat too fast (and perhaps too sci-fi), as if segments of society can so easily attach and detach from other segments of society like a machine, Weheliye revises D&G’s machinic assemblage to call it a “viscous assemblage” that emphasizes its slow viscosity and its fleshy aspects. The title of his book, Habeas Viscus literally translates as “you shall have the flesh” (in contrast to the legal doctrine of habeas corpus — you shall have the body). The flesh (viscus), its scar tissue that develops from wounds of centuries of racial violence, but also the ways in which flesh organizes itself: for example, the ways in which the mothers interviewed in Nenemay’s study might find meaningful connection with each other and their children that are perhaps more complex and more fleshy (habeas viscus) than the territorializing terms of multiculturalism and even the study itself, which was a series of interviews with individuals, rather than groups, that individualized the subjects and deterritorialized them from their subcultural connectivity and insisted on a territorial mapping of social relations in terms of multicultural identity.
If I had time, I would now try to offer a conclusion or say something clever about a novel or a poem by a Native American, perhaps Sherman Alexie’s famous novel, Reservation Blues, or the critically acclaimed movie based on Alexie’s writings, Smoke Signals (considering that the Spokane Tribe that Alexie belongs to and writes about is also Salish speaking, like Nenemay’s tribe), but my blog post is already a lot longer and more convoluted than I intended it to be, so I will stop here.
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 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.
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.
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.
For the past decade or more, colleges and universities around the country have been revising their curricula to include something that the administration likes to call “intercultural competency” (something I have written about twice before [here] and [here].) The idea is so prevalent that there is even a wikipedia article about it, as well as many textbooks such as this one [here] for majors in Communication, Elementary Education, Business-Management, and so on. The basic idea is that in the pluralistic, multicultural world in which we live today, college graduates are more likely to work with people of other races and people from other countries than ever before, and therefore colleges ought to prepare its students. To put it another way, the administration is catching up to what literature professors have been doing already for the past thirty years and to what the Civil Rights movement campaigned for half a century ago. Different colleges have implemented this requirement differently, some requiring just one class on the appreciation of difference, and others requiring two distinct classes, one on the subject of racial diversity within the United States and the other on international relations and cross-cultural dialogue. Both versions have their strengths and weaknesses, but those will not be the subject of my blog post today. Significantly, one of the most popular television shows of the past decade among the undergraduate population, The Office, devoted its second episode to the subject of intercultural competency. In this satirical comedy, the more the boss tried to be interculturally competent by instituting “diversity day” at the office, the more he exposed how incompetent and culturally insensitive he actually is. The show is more than just a parody of the impotence of badly managed intercultural competency; it is also symptomatic of the psychological anxiety many Americans still have about the issue. As Freud points out in his famous essay on jokes, it is that anxiety that makes the joke culturally resonant and makes us laugh, even though the joke typically displaces that anxiety onto something easier for the audience to deal with emotionally.
As the episode of The Office and Freud’s essay suggest, what might make a class on intercultural competency hard to teach — and even harder to institutionalize — is that it is not simply a set of information that the student must learn. Rather, it asks that the students come to terms with their selves – their biases, desires, privileges — some of which may be conscious, some of which may be unconscious. And as all my students in my introduction to theory are well aware, once the notion of the “self” is posited as an important dimension of the curriculum, then things get tricky. Often the course may enter uncomfortable territory not because the student is encountering a new, foreign culture (as many administrators wrongly believe), but actually because they are encountering uncomfortable things about themselves that they already know but don’t want to think about. For instance, ideally, we have all been taught that an equitable society for men and women of all colors and creeds is desirable, but at the same time we also recognize that this is not in fact the case and that there is a huge gap between the ideals of our society and its realities. Some of us may have privileges, opportunities, and good fortune that others don’t have. Everyone is aware of this gap, but few want to confront it. Notice that this discomfort has to do with a political and sociological difference, not a cultural one. Hence, the very conceptualization of “intercultural competency” is already a problematic displacement of a thorny political question onto a cultural schematic. In my view, the fact that many people naturally gravitate towards the familiar and avoid the unfamiliar isn’t enough to cause discomfort in intercultural competency classes; rather, what’s uncomfortable is the things about ourselves and our world that we are all too familiar with but would prefer not to take responsibility for.
Now, I don’t want to claim that intercultural competency is all about the psychology of the student, or that it’s all about the equally problematic psychology of the institution. Most of it is about the appreciation of different cultures along with the history of race relations and/or international relations, including histories of colonization and imperialism. Such is the manifest content of class work — the stuff one studies. However, the latent content of the class is its meaning for the self. And because I just taught my intro-to-theory class the essays of Freud, Lacan, and Derrida, I am deliberately using terminology from Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams that distinguishes between the “manifest content” (or the stuff in the dream) and the “latent content” (or, what the stuff means.) In other words, the stuff on the syllabus for any class is naturally going to be primarily content about different cultures, ethnicities, races, etc., and there are hundreds of ways to approach this content that reflect political and methodological differences among faculty. However, regardless of the content, the impetus behind the syllabus, or the drive that motivates requiring it, is of course the actual relationship of the student not only to people of other cultures or races, but also the student’s understanding of his or her ethical understanding of self and other. In some ways, then, the latent content of the class is ethics and psychology, even though most of the manifest content may not be either ethics or psychology. There would seem to be a slippage between the manifest content (the study of culture, history, literature, etc.) and the latent content (ethics, psychology, etc.). When the slippage between multiple subjects is considered, it is easy to see why this is a hard curricular requirement to wrap one’s head around. The course slides between the academic subjects of history, literature, culture, psychology, ethics, etc. Moreover, always grounding this linked chain of subjects is another subject — the self or “I” (note the double meaning of “subject” here), what Freud calls the “ego.”
(A brief theoretical joke for those who have read Jacques Lacan’s “Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious.” Please skip this parenthesis if you haven’t. Following the example of Lacan’s joke about the mathematical algorithm for Freudian psychology, we might give the variable subjects in the class a capital letter “S” for “Subject” and the variable stuff in the intercultural class a lower case “s” for stuff. Lacan’s algorithm for the relationship between language and the unconscious is that the function of the Signifier (S) is the relationship between the ego (I) and the signified (s), and we might jokingly say that the function of the Subject (S) is the relationship between the student’s’ ego and the stuff in the class. Consequently, whatever the variable Subjects (S) of the class are, their relationship to its various stuff (s) and therefore its very meaning in society is a function of ego, hahahaha, and this is why the Subject of a class on intercultural competency inevitably slides along a chain of Subjects, from culture to history to literature to political science to ethics to psychology, etc. In other words, in Derrida’s terms, the central point of intercultural competency is by definition absent and decentered along a signifying chain.)
Hence, if there is always a psychological component, whether or not this component is actually on the syllabus, I propose a psychoanalysis via Jacques Lacan. In his seminal essay, “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious,” Lacan argues that many pop psychologists mistakenly understand the unconscious id of Freud’s theory as instinctual drive. However, the unconscious is not instincts at all, but is in fact the aspects of our relationship to our own culture that we suppress and displace through complex symbols. His argument is long and difficult, but for the sake of this blog, I want to boil it down to three versions of the Cartesian cogito that Lacan explores. Following Lacan’s exploration of these three formulations, I will explore three versions of intercultural competency, each based on one of these formulas for the self’s relationship to critical thinking.
- I think therefore I am.
- I think where I am.
- I think where I am not; therefore I am where I do not think.
The first is the famous line “I think therefore I am.” Here the philosopher René Descartes explores our ability to doubt received wisdom and to question our very existence, but ultimately resolves this doubt by positing a thinking subject that exists. There is something wonderfully appealing and universal to this idea, and somewhat radical for his own time since it places the burden of rational and ethical thought on the individual subject rather than on God. The upshot for an intercultural competency class is that the students are given the tools to think critically about their own culture. Hence, the goal is to transcend the arbitrariness and randomness of culture instead of wrongly believing that your own culture is in some way normal or universal. What many philosophers have criticized, however, is the idea of a self-contained individual subject that is doing all this thinking. Most of us are aware that our thoughts respond to external stimuli, are derived from language that we have no control over, etc. Hence, in order to situate the subject in his or her environment or cultural context, Lacan humorously suggests a revision of the statement to “I think where I am.”
What are the implications of this second formulation for intercultural competency? Well, the first version implies that all human beings are rational thinking beings. There is something wonderfully universal about this, and much of the ideology of modern Europe was the believe in the universality of modern science and human rights. However, there are many challenges to this ideology. Most of the “rights” encoded in our Constitution and the United Nations Charter are individual rights. However, people don’t live alone; they live in communities, which has caused the United Nations to add “cultural” and “community” rights to its manifest. We are not just individual thinking subjects; we are also members of specific cultural locations. Hence, Lacan’s second versions of the cogito draws attention to the goals of intercultural competency typically set forth by college administrations: (1) to appreciate other cultures, and (2) to appreciate that one comes from a culture oneself. In other words, one may think that there is a “normal” way of doing things and a “normal” or “universal” way of understanding rights and responsibilities, or one may also think that it’s possible for a rational individual to transcend the arbitrariness of culture, but in fact our very way of thinking is conditioned by the circumstances in which we happen to live. To put it another way, when we think, we think with the various tools for thinking that our culture gives to us. And this is what Lacan means when he suggests that we think where we are. We think through our culture.
However, Lacan is unsatisfied with this for all sorts of reasons. First and foremost, it’s not true. We don’t think where we are. Culture is not so deterministic, and ethical values are not so relativistic. In fact, when we think of ourselves, we always do so in relation to other people and other spaces. For instance, men both desire and fear women. Our imagination of ourselves is always in relation to desires and fears, and an important contribution of psychoanalytic theory is that we don’t simply fear difference; we also desire it. If we think of the earliest examples of classic literature, they are always imagining the self in far-away locations: e.g., Thomas More’s Utopia, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Daniel Defoe’s Robison Crusoe. The more popular example of James Bond movies take this utopian imagination even further as the secret agent Bond always expresses himself by seducing exotic, foreign women. Even the Bible begins by defining humanity in terms of a lost paradise. So, the notion of intercultural competency that suggests we simply appreciate where we come from and where others come from is somewhat impotent and wrongheaded. More dangerously, it is also deterministic as it assumes that a culture determines the way we think. Against such a deterministic understanding of culture, we can appreciate that even though two people may come from the same culture, they may also differ from each other in all sorts of ways. The human imagination is broader and more interesting than simply one’s cultural location. It is not simply a reflection of where one comes from. Those who posit a version of intercultural competency along the lines of “they have a culture and I have a culture and I must appreciate both” are not just factually wrong in really obvious ways; they are wrong in a way that is horribly unethical.
Hence, we have two paradigms: one is Descartes’s individual rational subject who doubts everything but seems unaware of the role cultural difference plays in his or her own thinking, and the other is overly deterministic in its premise that we simply think the way our culture teaches us to. Neither of these are satisfactory, and neither gets us very far. How do we reconcile these two very different iterations of the cogito – of how we think and how we recognize ourselves thinking?
To answer this question, Lacan concludes with this version of the cogito: I think where I am not; therefore, I am where I do not think.
This formula, I believe, provides a more useful and factually accurate understanding of cultural difference. On a very simple level, it helps students discover that stereotypes are not just incorrect understandings of others. Rather, it helps students understand how stereotypes are expressions of the cultural generating the stereotype — its desires, its fears, etc. In other words, we understand ourselves through metaphorical figurations of others. To give you a recent illustration of this, one author has angrily argued against something he calls White Savior Industrial Complex. This is a perfect example of the how Americans feel good about themselves by saving Africans, which is a feel-good situation that first requires that the Americans understand themselves in relation to a stereotype of Africans. For another example, I have written about Oromo ethnic culture in America and in Ethiopia with Lacan’s theory in mind [here]. Another example might be the popularity of “gangsta rap” in mostly white, middle-class suburbs. In addition, on a more fundamental, epistemological level, Lacan anticipates the work of recent philosophers of science and philosophers of mind that question the mind-body dualism of Descartes and assert that our mind thinks not only with our body but also with our body’s physical relationship to the world.
Therefore, if thinking always happens in relation to a world, then in order to understand ourselves, and in order to become ethical individuals, we need to understand the world, and here we come full circle back to the very impetus behind intercultural competency in the first place — the world we live in. In other words, the stuff (lower case “s”). However, it’s not enough simply to study the stuff, because how we imagine the stuff is crucial. In other words, the Subject (upper case “S”) directs our understanding of the stuff (s). If Lacan is right, that we understand ourselves through our rather metaphorical imagination of others, then the question of how to teach the psychological component of intercultural competency is key.
What I think is cool about Lacan’s formula for the relationship between thinking and selfhood is that it opens up the slipperiness of identity, the possibility of change, the role of the imagination, the necessity of self-criticism, and the recognition that we are in essence incomplete beings. Think about it. Why do we both fear and desire others? Because we are at root dissatisfied with ourselves. We are incomplete. Hence the metaphor for marriage “better half” and “she completes me.” Intercultural competency is, in part, a quest for completeness and a meaningful life.
In conclusion, and to return to the episode of The Office about the bumbling attempt to overcome stereotypes, we can see the boss articulating his own identity through various personas — Chris Rock, Martin Luther King, Jr., etc. In other words, he believes he is leading his office to become interculturally competent because he is endorsing black celebrities, but his imagination of himself through them is precisely what is offensive because his starting place is the assumption of difference and the fetishization of specific tropes (metonymies) of that difference. The show clearly indicates that this is foolish, but unfortunately, the show does not give us any positive indication of what might be better. The show does not provide any space for individuals to actually have a real conversation about difference. In order for a class about difference to be meaningful, the starting point needs to be the extent to which we are interdependent, incomplete individuals. On a very basic level, I rely on others for food, clothing, shelter, knowledge, culture, etc. Where does it all come from and how does it move? Why don’t I want to think about the conditions in which my T-shirts were made and the extent to which my identity depends on the teenage girl in Mexico who made it. That’s the starting point.
Turkish Ladies, English Liberty: Toward a Psychoanalysis of Difference in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Letters
In last week’s blog post, I used Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory of signs to analyze the recent internet buzz about women in Iran studying to become ninjas. If you haven’t already seen the video about it, click [here] or check out my earlier post. In that post, I argued that clothing functions like a linguistic signifier of cultural difference. Essentially the Islamic hijab (headscarf or headscarf and veil) are usually understood by Europeans and Americans today not only as a symbol for how Muslims are different, but also as a symbol for how Muslim women are oppressed by Islam. The connotations are so powerful that a simple piece of clothing is overloaded (or “overdetermined” to use Freud’s concept that my class just read about) with all sorts of meaning, some of which, I argue, is prejudicial and symptomatic of American anxieties. We might compare this overdetermination in our culture to the sort of overdetermination that Freud sees in dreams, in which the various metaphors (condensation) and metonymies (displacement) are symptomatic of our daily anxieties, psychological repressions, etc.
Coincidentally, just a few days after writing that post, I happened to read some of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s letters that she wrote three centuries ago in 1717 when her husband was an ambassador to Turkey. This is my first time ever reading her work, and I regret not having read it before. She is very witty and clever, and her published letters about her experiences in Turkey were quite popular at the time and are now usually included in anthologies of English literature. Montagu’s lengthy descriptions of the Turkish baths reveal a fascination with the idea of Muslim women in one of the most powerful empires in the eighteenth century lounging around naked in each other’s company. The image is one of freedom and comfort, and she contrasts this image to the complex stays and corsets of English clothing, which she compares to a “machine” that has her “locked up.” In another letter on “Turkish Dress,” she again contrasts her own uncomfortable clothing to the more comfortable dress. Now, here is what I find fascinating, and I’m going to quote it in full.
‘Tis very easy to see they have more liberty than we have, no woman of what rank soever being permitted to go in the streets without two muslins, one that covers her face all but her eyes and another that hides the whole dress of her head and hangs half way down her back…. You may guess how effectually this disguises them, that there is no distinguishing the great lady from her slave, and ’tis impossible for the most jealous husband to know his wife when he meets her, and no man dare either touch of follow a woman in the street. This perpetual masquerade gives them entire liberty of following their inclinations without danger of discovery…. The great ladies seldom let their gallants know who they are, and ‘its so difficult to find it out that they can very seldom guess at her name they have corresponded with above half a year together…. Neither have they much to apprehend from the resentment of their husbands, those ladies that are rich having all their money in their own hands, which they take with ‘em upon a divorce with an addition which he is obliged to give ‘em. Upon the whole, I look upon the Turkish women as the only free people in the Empire. The very Divan pays a respect to ‘em, and the Grand Signore himself, whenever a Bassa is executed, never violates the privileges of the harem, which remains unsearched entire to the widow.
You can also find the whole passage on [this website]. What is interesting to me is how her eighteenth-century imagination of the hijab is exactly the opposite of the American and European imagination in the twenty-first century. She sees it as liberating, whereas the American media today sees it as oppressive. What do we make of this total reversal of meaning?
Montagu is, I suspect, using the idea of Turkish difference to launch a feminist critique of English society. One may doubt her assessment of how free Turkish women actually were, and she seems to enjoy the scandalousness of the point that she is making. Few Muslims would agree with her sense of freedom in terms of the ability to commit acts of infidelity undetected. But the reality of the daily lives of English or Turkish people is not the purpose of my analysis, nor even, perhaps, of Montagu’s own intention in writing those letters, an intention we can only guess at anyway. (In my view, and in my experience in Japan, the Czech Republic, Kenya, and Ethiopia, people are usually just people, and the hype about cultural difference is generally overblown and potentially dangerous. Freedom and unfreedom, wealth and poverty — these are things that exist in every society I’ve ever encountered, especially my own.) Rather, I am interested in the fantasy and in the use of a rather utopian representation of freedom to critique the oppression of one’s homeland. My own interpretation of Montagu’s letters is that her idea exposes the ways in which English women are not free, considering that they are subject to so much abuse and disrespect. The style of clothing, for Montagu, is a signifier of the abuse and disrespect in English society versus the freedom and respect in Turkish society.
The thing about her eighteenth-century letters that made me think of the twenty-first century video about ninjas in Iran is the notion that the headscarf and veil are instruments of stealth and invisibility, and that this is powerful. After all, ninjitsu is the art of invisibility. What does it mean for both the 18th-century letters and the 21st-century video to understand a woman’s liberty in terms of her ability to be invisible? This is a curious notion indeed. If we think of Freud’s work on dreams and Jacques Lacan’s work on the very language we use to describe our social relations, then we begin to detect the ways in which gender is a product of signifiers — in this case, clothing, but as Saussure and Lacan also argue, signifiers organized by a logic of difference. Hence, the meaning of the signifiers “men” and “women” is the logic of their difference, and this committment to such a difference means that we never actually “see” just the person. We always see the person in terms of these culturally loaded signifiers. A woman is already “invisible” in the sense that her real objective self exists behind a cloud of language and culture. Montagu’s desire is for her own invisibility, but this desire paradoxically is symptomatic of the fact that she actually already feels invisible. It is a curious thing to desire that which you already are, or have, and this is the curious nature of the human psyche. She already feels invisible because English men neither understand nor want to understand her as a person with a brain. This is what Lacan means when he suggests “there is no such thing as woman.” He doesn’t mean that individual women don’t exist. He means that the notion of “woman” is a culturally loaded idea. Ralph Ellison made a similar point about African-Americans in his famous novel Invisible Man, published in 1952, where white people do not really “see” black people. Instead, they only see projected images of their own fears and desires. Likewise, the symbolism of the Turksish baths, harem, and hijab all metaphorically mean a condition of invisibility. Montagu’s celebration of that invisibility displaces her anxiety about feeling invisible and disempowered all the time already onto a more empowering form of invisibility. For her in the eighteenth century, this was the hijab. For us today, it is the ninja, whose clothing style is curiously similar to the hijab in many ways, as I argued in my previous blog post.
This past week, the internet was buzzing with news of Iran’s secret army of “deadly ninja women.” It sounds like something straight out of the plot of a James Bond movie, in which the world’s favorite “global hero” would have to seduce the deadly but also sexy ninja Muslim girl and save the planet from nuclear holocaust. The Washington Post imagined director Quentin Tarantino taking on this seemingly made-for-cinema topos. Of course, Iran has no such “army” of secret sexy soldiers who are experts in the art of invisibility. Rather, this is merely a club sport, like so many club sports for men and women around the world. In the United States today, thousands of women take kickboxing classes, and thousands more take pole dancing. If we can imagine Hollywood making a movie in which James Bond or some other international man of mystery falls in love with an Iranian ninja woman, can we also imagine Iran’s well-regarded movie industry making an action thriller with an Iranian secret agent seducing an American ex-cheerleader in order to prevent the world from another American-instigated war in the Middle East? The producers of the film would be sitting around a table in Tehran debating whether to make that character a kickboxer or a pole dancer.
What I want to argue here, since my theory class is just now beginning its unit on theories about language and signs, is that this video perfectly illustrates Ferdinand de Saussure’s famous point about the relationship between the signifier and the signified being constituted by a logic of difference. In this case, the signifier is the veil that has become such a politically loaded symbol of Islam, but is, of course, also an essential feature of the Japanese art of ninjitsu. Before I go on, please check out the video of Iran’s ninja women that has gone viral on YouTube.
Now that’s badaaassss!!!
There is a lot one can say about this video, but the point I want to make is about the nature of signs. One of the arguments of the structuralist linguistics presented be Ferdinand de Saussure is that language does not merely refer to things. Rather, language is a system constituted by difference. As human subjects, we enter a system of language that we come to understand even if we have never seen the things that the words refer to. Consequently, if the system of language pre-exists our experience of things, and if meaning is derived not from the thing itself but from the principle of difference, then we might begin to suspect that language affects how we see the world.
The particular sign that I want to focus on is the veil and headscarf (hijab) that is a standard feature for Muslim women and for ninjas. In European and American culture, the sign of the veil is typically understood as a symbol of Islam’s oppression of women. In this sense, the veil and headscarf is understood by the West as a sign of difference –how they are different from us. Many connotations are attached to this one symbol, and it is somewhat famously controversial, but the strongest connotation for Europeans and Americans is oppression. What is curious about this symbol is how divorced from any sense of the ordinary, everyday life in the countries where hijab is commonly worn. So, the assumption in the western media is that all Iranian women are oppressed, and the meaning of this article of clothing is oppression. The piece of clothing functions as a sign — a sign overloaded with meaning, kind of like the way the Scarlet Letter A functions as sign for the Puritans in Hawthorne’s famous novel. An example of the western assumption is the rather chauvinistic Atlantic.com article about the women ninjas. This article wrongly assumes that the women ninjas are resisting state sponsored oppression. But this is no underground movement. In fact, the ninja clubs are part of a general state sponsored fitness program, the exact opposite of the Atlantic.com‘s idiotic assumption. What the Atlantic.com also neglects to mention is that 60% of all college graduates in Iran are women, and it has one of the most progressive family medical leave programs in the world. (The United States, in contrast, has one of the least progressive.) Considering that feminists have long been arguing for a more progressive family medical act, why is it so hard for American feminists to appreciate Iran? Why is hijab understood as oppressive and bikinis and pole dancing liberating? Despite the fact that Iranian women play sports, western governments won’t allow them to play in competitions for one reason only — the hijab clothing, simply because of its symbolic meaning.
What I think is so fascinating about the above video is that, when I am watching it, I can’t quite tell which part of the outfit is hijab and which part is the ninja’s outfit, called in Japanese shinobi shozoku. And this is key, because when we think about ninjas in the Japanese context, rather than the Iranian context, we think of that sort of clothing not as a symbol of oppression, but as a symbol of power. Hence, in the imagination of the other culture (always exaggerated according to a logic of difference — of us versus them), this same item of clothing in one context means weakness and in another context means strength. And this is why I think Saussure is correct when he says that the meaning of signs is not so much based on the referent (the thing that you can point to with your index finger — in this case, the clothing), but to the whole system of signs that the one sign is a part of.
And of course, the reason for all this odd fascination in American pop culture with the ninja women in Iran at this particular moment is that the United States happens to be leading an international embargo of Iran’s economy and threatening Iran with the possibility of an attack. Iran, meanwhile, continues to develop its nuclear program. It is not the point of this blog to make a political argument for or against the embargo or to speculate on the likelihood of the United States or Israel attacking Iran. Rather, I just want to point out how strange it is for Americans to be so fascinated by ninja women in Iran at this time. Or maybe it’s not strange at all. Maybe it’s all too predictable. If we read the signs, the contradictory double meaning of the veil says a lot about America’s confused and troubled relationship with this other country. For the western fantasy — the kind of fantasy we see in James Bond movies — the hijab is both a symbol of power and of weakness. It is the image of the woman he desires and the image of the woman he is supposed to scorn or pity, the woman he is both scared of and wants to save. And if you think I’m exaggerating, see this really gross website forum where American men have already posted lewd comments about either submitting to sexy Iranian women or dominating them. In conclusion, the American interpretation of the ninja woman in Iran and the sign of the veil is rife with all sorts of ideological contradictions. One can understand why American pop culture would have so much fun entertaining this contradictory fantasy, but let us hope that our political leaders don’t think and act like adolescent James Bonds.