Monthly Archives: October 2009

Said and appropriation art

To me, the most compelling part of Culture and Imperialism so far has been the point at which he finally begins to discuss in depth the nature and practices of “resistance culture.” Understanding what Said calls the second stage of decolonization, “ideological resistance,” (209) is very much the intellectual imperative of our time. While, as Said acknowledges, direct imperialism has largely ended, and with it the need for “primary resistance,” the second stage of decolonization is still very much underway.

The second stage, as Said describes it, is a process of reclamation, “the rediscovery and repatriation of what had been suppressed in the natives’ past by the processes of imperialism.” (210) In many cases, this involves borrowing tropes or works from imperialist cultures in order to reframe their narratives. Post-imperial writers reinscribe their past “as urgently reinterpretable and redeployable experiences, in which the formerly silent native speaks and acts on territory reclaimed as part of a general movement of resistance, from the colonist.” (212) For example, versions of Shakespeare’s The Tempest from former colonies, such as Amie Cesaire’s Une Tempete, highlight the colonial politics of Shakespeare’s narrative. In these versions, the fates of Ariel and Caliban become the focal point of the story, as fellow “natives” who must work with or against invading forces to determine their history and identity.

The products and ideas of culture and nationalism arise from a complex web of interdependence. Said writes: “Culture is never just a matter of ownership, of borrowing and lending with absolute debtors and creditors, but rather of appropriations, common experiences, and interdependencies of all kinds among different cultures.” (217)

This statement, along with Said’s Shakespeare example, got me thinking about artistic practices such as collage in the visual arts or sampling in music. Under current copyright laws, these practices are often framed as forms of theft when exercised freely. What if instead we were to think of them in terms of Said’s notions of cultural resistance? By legislating the ownership of certain cultural products, we may be forcing invaluable forms of cultural resistance out of the picture.

Austen’s production of ideology

The first realization that I came to while reading Said’s Culture and Imperialism was that I had not been exposed to many of the influential writers than he discusses. It was difficult to move through his analysis without having read many of the texts. I have read Mansfield Park, so I will focus my response on Jane Austen.

Said looks at how English writers, through their articulation of England and culture abroad, laid an ideological framework that was manifested through colonialism. Said states that English authors wrote of “positive ideas of home, of a nation of its language, of proper order, good behavior, moral values… [and] positive ideas of this sort do more than validate ‘our’ world. They also tend to devalue other worlds and, perhaps more significantly… they do not prevent of inhibit or give resistance to horrendously unattractive imperialist practices” (81). Said shows the power of subtle representation and its power in creating certain harmful ideologies that can lead to horrendous practices.

Austin’s novels achieve this by expressing an “attainable quality of life, in money and property acquired, more discriminations made, the right choices put into place, [and in] the correct improvements implemented” (84). Austin does this by chronicling the life of Franny Price, a poor young girl, who ends the novel marrying into wealth, becoming a product of a lavish lifestyle – ultimately becoming ‘civilized.’ This becomes apparent to the reader when Fanny returns home to her poor family. Once Fanny has become exposed to the luxurious lifestyle of wealth, as well as knowledge of greater Europe and abroad, she can no longer occupy the space she filled in her ‘previous’ life. This can be seen as a way of advocating for colonial rule abroad in order to bring Austen’s view of a legitimate lifestyle, involving wealth and worldly awareness.

A parallel story Fanny’s is the life of Sir Thomas, the ruling male of the family who is often away in Antigua on plantations. Through Sir Thomas, Austen shows that domestic peace and control is directly related to rule and possession of the imperial estates (87). Through these two characters, Austin is creating a narrative that advocates moral control domestically to parallel physical control abroad. In the end, Austen wants to “restore every body, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest” (91). I see contradictory arguments here: Austen at times seems to advocate for the civilizing of territories that do not have the wealth of Europe. However, it also seems that Austen is showing that to have the wealth that Europe holds, it is necessary to exploit sources abroad. These two systems seem contradictory and unable to function together. Is it possible to bring ‘civility’ abroad while at the same time exploiting resources? Furthermore, what does “to have done with all the rest” entail? Is Austen advocating for civilizing some, and leaving the rest behind?

Said’s critical analysis of literature is important because it shows how subtle references in literature can lead to the production of imperialist ideologies. It is also interesting how most of these references are not readily apparent – Mansfield Park could be read as a tale of a disadvantaged young girl who enters into a world of knowledge and worldliness and wins the hearts of others (very straightforward pleasure fiction). It is only on careful analysis that the production of ideologies becomes apparent.

Edward Said radio show

I came across this radio show that interviewed Edward Said on Culture and Imperialism.

It’s long (one hour) but goes over the main themes of the book and a background on Said.

Revised Project Proposal

I’m not sure much has changed here, in fact I think much of what I will want to talk about with be strengthened by Apple’s latest earnings report (up 47% year-over-year, in a recession…mind you)…

I’m a huge Apple fan and find the entire cultural phenomenon that they’ve pulled off to be absolutely fascinating. I’d love to be able to use this paper as an opportunity to take a step back and try to use what I’ve learned about Media Studies in the past few years to analyze what exactly Apple has achieved and, reflexively, what that tells us about culture and how it’s formed. I plan to focus specifically on the iPhone, the hype surrounding it’s release and the resulting success.

“Kill Bill” as Parable

I have completely changed my paper topic.  Instead of looking at glamour, I am going to look at how certain stories shape our consciousness, “false” and otherwise.  In particular, I will use the “Kill Bill” movies as an example of present-day story that has taken hold on popular culture and public imagination.  This choice is also relevant as a type of cinematic indicator, since Tarantino uses so many references to other films and other styles/genres of filmmaking.

So far, much of my reading has been about the “trickster” figure in mythology.  For example, the protagonist of much Native American lore is a coyote or raven.  Hermes is also an example in Greek mythology.  “Tricksters” share characteristics such as an ability to wriggle their way out of traps, to exist on the edges, to adopt other animals’ ways of survival, to confound polarity (ie trick others into thinking down is up or visa-versa) and to deny their apetite in favor of some other goal.

I am interested in what this figure means about the cultures that tell stories about it.  Stories seem like powerful ways of reading a society because so many values are embedded in them.  This is particularly true for parables, or stories where “good” and “bad” are painted clearly.  The valuative aspect becomes all the more clear in children’s stories, which have a “good” protagonist and a “bad” antagonist who tempts the protagonist to break the rules.  Yet so often the protagonist is a transgressor, and almost always falls for the temptation. Thus it seems clear that the trickster figure still exists in our culture and, despite being a rule-breaker and a boundary-crosser, nevertheless has a great hold on popular imagination.

My argument is that Beatrix Kiddo, the protagonist of “Kill Bill,” is a type of protagonist similar to the trickster in that she can cross boundaries between regular society and the underworld.  Furthermore, a huge part of her character has to do with learning how to discipline herself (ie denying her momentary “apetite” or fatigue in favor of a future conquest).  The entire premise of the film is related to revenge and a search for justice, which is a justification for enormous brutality.  This brutality, in turn, is also culturally indicative.  The movies are told in chapters, which can be treated as distinct episodes dealing with archetypical characters.  The stories have to do with discipline, determination, the Wild West, and the struggle between master and student, to name a few.

My main question, then, is as follows: when analyzed as a sort of parable or legend, what can the themes and characters in the “Kill Bill” films tells us about our culture and consciousness?  How are these (culture and consciousness) related to our economic means of production?

This second question is obviously the link the Marxism, and will have to be expanded upon quite a bit.  There are two approaches to this question.  First of all, how do the figures and concerns raised in the film relate to consumerism, capitalism, and the ways in which Americans exist economically?  Second, how do the behind-the-scenes aspects of the film relate to consumerism, capitalism, etc.?  These questions may turn out to be circular.  In other words, I’m asking how the film’s subject reflects our economy.  I’m also asking how/why the economic realities of Hollywood made this film come about.

Self-help books for depression

The phenomenon of self-help books for depression really breaks down into two phenomena, depression and self-help books, which have distinct relationships to Marxist thought. In looking at the ties between Marxism and depression, I found it necessary to look more broadly at Marxist critiques of the field of psychology. (Is it weird that most of the work I found about this was by Russian intellectuals?) Leont’ev highlights the ways Marx’s idea of consciousness challenges both functionalist and biomedical views of the mind, both of which are currently used (at least in part) to explain and treat depression. Leont’ev writes, “the reflection of reality arises and develops in the process of the development of real ties of cognitive people with the human world surrounding them; it is defined by these ties and, in its turn, has an effect on their development.” Marx’s insistence that man’s understanding/consciousness/mind is tied to reality raises serious problems with the current methods of treating depression which are grounded in the idea that depression is caused by abnormal brain chemicals and/or by the depressed persons misguided perceptions and ideas about themselves and the world around them.
I will explore the ways self-help books propagate an ideology which downplays the idea of an individuals consciousness being tied to reality: what personal qualities/traits is being praised? What is being highlighted as problematic? How do the qualities which are being advocated for in self-help books (such as functionality, productivity etc.) play into larger capitalist values? In what ways do self-help books address (or more likely fail to address) the idea that aspects of reality are the sources of depression and that social, political, economic issued may need to be addressed. I found a fantastic (Foucauldian) article that highlights the way in which the field of psychology is used by liberal governments to influence the individuals in the nation. Self-helps books and psychology offer a means for social institutions to move into and govern the private sphere: the scientific basis of psychology and the idea of experts and facts in Psychology are being increasingly used to normalize subjective experiences (such as depression).
Basically I will be looking at the ways in which the popular conception of depression and the means for treating it and explaining it, as highlighted and propagated in self-help books, is part of a powerful ideological system which attempts to deny individuals of a tie to reality (or consciousness grounded in reality) and which attempts to normalize happiness regardless of (or at least barely acknowledging) the reality of social/personal problems.

***I feel like I’m writing a rather extremist or at least very provocative paper…I would love feedback/criticisms/questions. I’m a little worried I’m going off the deep end although at the moment I’m entirely convinced by all of this…****

Revised Project Proposal: Don’t feel so good about green

In my research so far on green products/the green economy, I have focused more on the production end of the equation, but I am currently thinking that I would like to focus my exploration of this issue on the green-product consumer.  I would like to further explore Josee Johnston’s concepts of the citizen-consumer and consumer activism, particularly as they relate to environmentalism (“The citizen-consumer hybrid: ideological tensions and the case of Whole Foods Market”).  I am struck by the inherent contradiction in the idea that through the conscious re-direction of our money (namely to buying “green” products) we can right the (environmental) wrongs of capitalism.  I will use this contradiction to further analyze the concept of hegemony laid out by Gramsci and Williams, particularly the idea of emergent alternative and oppositional culture.  Green products seem a perfect example of the way new, potentially oppositional trends can be co-opted by the dominant culture.  Even so (in a move typical of cultural studies), I am not yet ready to rule out the potential benefits of this absorption of environmental consciousness.  Can emergent ideas co-opted by the dominant culture in this way further that culture – can this new green consciousness so present in marketing and business have more than a marginal impact on capitalist practices, products, and consumers?

Though I still need to do more research (and I’m trying my best here to let this be an honest exploration and learn from my research – we’ll see how that goes), I am currently rather skeptical.  I am particularly intrigued by Andrew Szasz’s argument that these acts of green consumption are actually motivated by the urge to isolate and protect ourselves (as opposed to a primary concern with the environment), and promote what he calls “political anesthesia,” the feeling that we have done something to solve the environmental problem and thus are required to do nothing more (Shopping Our Way to Safety).  I currently see myself making an argument similar to this one, pulling a Said-esque move to examine the ways our new narrative about ourselves as “environmentally-conscious consumers,” though perhaps producing a superficial awareness of environmental issues, negatively impacts our actions, making us content in our consumption and undermining what is being claimed by many to be a true, world-wide mass movement along the lines of what Marx had dreamed of…

Revised Term Project Proposal

So, after doing some skimming, here are a few things I’ve gathered about what is controversial within American copyright law as it applies to music: The blues tradition has roots, as Muddy Waters stated, “in the cotton fields”. In the first half of the twentieth century, many songs within the blues tradition were very similar, following the same melody and varying perhaps in rhythm and most importantly, style. A song is different if it is sung with a radically different style. As the century progressed, popular artists, starting with Elvis and continuing with almost every rock band in existence, drew heavily upon the blues tradition, following both the form of the blues (which is not copyrightable) and many of the same melodies. Some bands, such as Led Zepplin, borrowed entire songs from artists such as Muddy Waters, without giving him any credit. At the same time, these cross-over bands were much more popular and wealthy than the blues artists had been. The blues artists by and large were unable to take these bands to court because they did not have the legal or financial resources. The next rupture in copyright law came with the proliferation of hip-hop into mainstream culture. Until 1991, hip-hop largely relied upon sampling from other songs in order to provide a beat for the rapper. Sampling, most of the authors I’ve read have claimed, goes along with the tradition within African American music of borrowing from what came before and refiguring it; several of the authors relate all of this with the signifying monkey and African folkloric traditions. Whatever the origin, it was outlawed in 1991, in a ruling that included repeated allusion to the seventh amendment that “thou shalt not steal”. Mark Volman, a member of the Turtles, a 1960’s rock band, went so far as to say “Sampling is just a longer term for theft… Anybody who can honestly say sampling is some sort of creativity has never done anything creative.” Contemporary hip-hop now must make sure its artists have consent (which costs money) from the artists from whom they are sampling. This is a very brief history of copyright law in the United States that I’ll probably put in the beginning of my paper.

The simple interpretation of all of this (which, I think, is partially and sadly true) is that throughout the history, black artists have been exploited to the financial gain of white artists, and, to an even larger extent, record company executives. Why did copyright law become more enforced only after black artists began to reappropriate the work of white artists, such as Led Zepplin? Zepplin themselves borrowed heavily from the blues music and did not have to shell out royalties as the mostly African-American hip-hop artists have had to do more recently. There is a double-standard at the racial level in this history. That quote from Volman, whose band, I am sure, did not invent all, or even most of its chord progressions, lyrics, improvisational styles, harmonies, rhythms, or any other musical aspects, really bothers me within this context.

At the same time, a Marxist perspective might offer this critique: That the only reason copyright law began to have more of an effect upon artists with the proliferation of rap into popular culture was because sampling, an invention of hip-hop, was the first time in American musical history, when it was easy to prove that something was directly taken from a different song. It would be futile to prove that almost every bebop musician “plagiarized” Charlie Parker because of the difference in style of the different musicians, and the different tones, etc. With sampling, however, record company executives saw a clear-cut case of their commodity being used without their profit, and they changed that. Sampling represents a sort of “rupture” in the history of American musical copyright law. I’m interested in a quote by Juan Carlos Thom, a Los Angeles lawyer, musician, playwright, and actor: “Sounds are not ideas, but expressions, and therefore copyrighted works.” The distinction he makes is very important, because before the rupture, sounds were ideas, being reworked, and reformed—ideas so that they couldn’t be “stolen” or “borrowed”, but rather changed within the context of a new feel. With sampling, they became expressions, because it was recognizable where they came from. The quote begs a question: How are ideas not commodities? How do they resist being bought and sold? What constitutes an idea in contrast to an expression? At this point, I’d want to return to Marx and other more contemporary cultural theorists and see what he might say about the extent to which ideas can be traded and marketed…

Silence in Culture and Imperialism

In the introduction and the first eighty pages of the book, I noticed how Said pays special attention to the concept of silence, of who is kept silent, and of what remains unspoken. Said first refers to silence in this context: “Without significant exception the universalizing discourses of modern Europe and the United States assume the silence, willing or otherwise, of the non-European world. There is incorporation; there is inclusion there is direct rule; there is coercion. But there is only infrequently an acknowledgment that the colonized people should be heard from, their ideas known” (50). It is interesting that Said extends this critique of the silence that is forced upon the colonized population all the way to Raymond Williams and contemporary Marxists, who discuss Western cultures without paying specific attention to how these cultures are produced and influenced by their imperialistic concerns. Said pays special attention to the narrative (which I greatly appreciate, being an English major!) because in many ways, it is the way to escape this silence, it is the way for the colonized voice to be heard. At the same time, Said does not celebrate the novel, a Western form of narrative. Instead, the novel is a vehicle of silence, a “cultural artifact of bourgeois society” (70). He continues that the novel “is an incorporative, quasi-encyclopedic cultural form. Packed into it are both a highly regulated plot mechanism and an entire system of social reference that depends on the existing institutions of bourgeois society, their authority and power” (70). Because novels and the criticism surrounding them are silent about the reality of the imperialistic nature of the cultures in which they are situated, silence pervades the novel’s readership as well. As such, reading and writing are both forms of silencing the colonized subject.

Said offers an alternative form of criticism, in which the colonized subject’s voice is also considered. He writes that “contrapuntal reading must take account of both processes, that of imperialism and that of resistance to it, which can be done by extending our reading of the texts to include what was once forcibly excluded” (66-67). As such, the critic has the choice either to remain silent about imperialism, as so many have, or to read contrapuntally, to break the silence.

Revised term paper proposal

Rather than focusing exclusively on the Situationist International, I propose shift my focus to the relationship between Marxism and the evolution of punk culture.

The paper will be structured more or less chronologically, beginning in the 1970s with the first wave of punk in the UK. In this period, there are two major threads I’d like to follow: first, the role of Situationist theory and practice in the formative years of punk, including (but not limited to) Sex Pistols manager Malcom McLaren’s cynical appropriation of Situationist rhetoric in engineering punk as “spectacle.” Second, the emergence in this period of self-proclaimed leftist artists such as the Clash, Billy Bragg, and Gang of Four, and the consequences of, to borrow a line from Bragg, “mixing pop and politics.”

Next, I’d like to look at the development of punk-derived “DIY culture” in the late 80s and early 90s, presenting a more aesthetically diverse, fragmentary, yet distinctly “underground” mode of cultural production, much of which was either indebted to or explicitly aligned with Marxist ideas. Potential artists/figures of interest in this period include the Minutemen, Ian Mackaye and the founding of Dischord Records, Ian Svenonius and the Nation of Ulysses, and Calvin Johnson’s vision of the “International Pop Underground.”

Finally, I’d like to conclude with a broader view of the rise, decline, and reemergence of punk as a means to understand how “alternative” and mainstream cultures engage one another, and how these processes of cultural exchange, appropriation and resistance shape our understanding of culture and cultural studies.

Some questions present throughout: What happens to Marxist rhetoric as it enters the vernacular of pop culture? What issues arose from the contradiction between punk music’s radical politics and its commercial mode of distribution? and, drawing on Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: what is the importance of style in subculture, and how did punk and its derivatives disrupt the symbolic order?