Monday, May 16, 2011


Orientalism, in ideology, is an “othering” device. To be more clear, in a Hegelian binary, it was a way for “civilized” and “intellectual” Europeans to define themselves through a contradiction of a created lesser being. It defamiliarizes an entire continent into the unprivileged. “Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident’ (Said 1867). In every binary relationship, all the parts are quintessential for the construction of the identity of all the others. Edward Said says “[t]he Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its most recurring images of the Other. In addition, the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience” (Said 1866).

These images and identities that are created in the ideology of Orientalism are found constantly in Western popular culture. A 1919 silent film entitled Broken Blossoms, but also went by names such as The Yellow Man and the Girl, relied heavily on the ideologies that arose within Orientalism. This movie was one of the first to feature yellow-face, which was a Western depiction of a person of Asian descent or at the time, Oriental. Orientals were considered uncivilized, exotic, passive, cheating, feminist, etc. For the most part, they are viewed as being backwards in relations with their Western counterparts. Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is another example of the film industry’s Orientalism. Under scrutiny, the film industry and advertisement industries continue this tradition as well. Take, for example, the film Prince of Persia starred Jake Gyllenhaal, or Rodrigo Santoro portraying Xerxes in the film rendition of Frank Miller’s 300. Both actors are not of Persian (Iranian) descent, yet they both were casted to portray roles of Persians. This might be overanalyzing Hollywood’s casting procedures, but it could be contributed to the idea that the identity of the other is still crafted by the self.

A Westerner portraying a person of Asiatic descent supports Said’s theory that “Orientalism is premised upon exteriority, that is, on the fact that the Orientalist, poet or scholar [or actor], makes the Orient speak, describes the Orient, renders its mysteries plain for and to the West” (Said 1882). This is to say that no person within the Orient actually aids in creating an identity for themselves. In the Occidental/Oriental dialectic, all mediation of the Oriental is overseen and controlled by the Occidental. The film portrayals, when analyzed, could be seen as silencing the voice of the other, restricting the “Oriental” from gaining a place in constructing their own identity. Othering is still a device used throughout all societies and lingers from the days of Imperialism.

Said, Edward W. "Orientalism." The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Second ed. New York: W.W. Norton and, 2010. 1866-888. Print

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Body as a Battleground

Susan Bordo, in passage from Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, states that “[t]he body, as anthropologist Mary Douglas has argued, is a powerful symbolic form, a surface on which the central rules, hierarchies, and even metaphysical commitments of a culture are inscribed and thus reinforced” (Bordo 2240). This uses the idea that the body is a sign, and that its meaning is filled with the ideologies of its contemporary setting. She paraphrases Pierre Bourdieu’s and Michel Foucault’s argument that “[t]he body is not only a text of culture,” but “a practical, direct locus of social control” (2240).

This brings up the idea that image of beauty is perpetuated by the privileged side of the binary relationship between Man/Woman. To Bordo, “the discipline and normalization of the female body – perhaps the only gender oppression that exercises itself, although to different degrees and in different forms, across age, race, class, and sexual orientation – has to be acknowledged as an amazingly durable and flexible strategy of social control” (2241). To Bordo and many other feminist analysts, the beauty myth is a construct of a misogynistic and male dominated society. The man has created an expectation of what the woman should look like, and this has translated into a social aspect of control via beauty.

A person can definitely make this read when seeing certain models in advertisements, although there has been somewhat of a rebellion against a model idea of beauty. The restructuring of the Barbie© to reduce breast size and increase her waist can be seen as a way to remove an impossible standard of beauty among the impressionable minds of younger girls. At the same time companies like Dove have come out with a new campaign that uses full sized, or more “normal” body types to sell a beauty product.

Author Chuck Pahliunuk had a short story in his novel Haunted about a transsexual man who is abused by a room full of women for embodying a male’s view on female beauty. (I do not have the text on hand as I write this, so I am unable to quote from it.) This act could be interpreted as a female’s overt reclamation of their own beauty by attacking the standards imposed on them. It mirrors what Bordo has said about the feminine body with a male mind. Everything from the measurements of certain body parts to the make up styles to body language has all been an effort to appease to the male aspect of society.

The idea of sexism is a very complicated subject. Where is the reclamation of the body by it’s physical and metaphysical owner? This could come down to a reader response and semiotic interpretation of the sign. If the woman abides to the standards of beauty imposed about by the male aspect of the binary, is there any empowerment within that act alone? One can view the realization of the role imposed as a stepping stone to assuming power, or ideally, equality within the binary, although this dialogue will continue for as long as people assume the binary exists.

Bordo, Susan. "Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body." TheNorton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Second ed. New York: W.W. Norton and, 2010. 2240- 254. Print.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A House of Mirrors

The idea of simulacra and the diversion of a reality is something that Jean Baudrillard discusses in his piece The Procession of Simulacra. Baudrillard uses an epigraph in this piece that states, “The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth – it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true” (Baudrillard 1556). This idea is that the legion of copies or simulations does not add depth to the truth of the idea, it becomes the idea. This is a popular belief in post-modern analysis and creation that, in idea, copies something that has already happened but changes the meaning, therefore changing the truth. Television shows such as South Park and Family Guy can be seen as post-modern by relying on pop-culture reference to create comedy.

When the aforementioned shows reference historical or contemporary creations, they broadcast a simulacrum, which I what Baudrillard means when he says that “[t]he real is produced from miniaturised units, from matrices, memory banks and command models” (1557). This real that he mentions is not the original meaning. That original point, or in the case of my analysis, the figure standing that enters a carnivalesque house of mirrors. Each mirror is a one way window with a video camera on the other side. The mirrors consist of a regular mirror and then assorted ones that distort the image. Some reflections become short and stout, others become giants, or like the reflection in a rippled body of water. The camera acts as a public eye, where meaning is created or discussed depending upon what image is seen.

Each of these distorted reflections that a person sees becomes, in essence, a reality despite the original source material. Becky Sharp in William Makepeace Thackery's novel Vanity Fair does a sufficient job acting as a house or mirrors. In the novel, she adjusts her personality by drawing in the “proper” reflections of her surroundings and broadcasting the appropriate image. This act of reflection becomes the truth of Becky Sharp, at least to the reader, while the characters in the book assume the reflection they are shown as the truth.

Back to the television shows, Family Guy, South Park, The Simpsons, and countless other contemporary forms of entertainment reflect/distort an image or idea and create something new. To people unaware of the original state, they will create meaning from what they see as truth. Others that can catch the references will create a new truth from the simulacra depending on what setting the reflections take place in.

The early modernist writers, like Ezra Pound, made an effort to re-craft language and tradition into a new contemporary meaning. To paraphrase Pound, it is only through the knowledge and understanding of the past that a contemporary truth can be revealed. Post modern analysis can challenge that view point to say that truth lies not only within the original, but with the simulation of that original. Or at least the truth evolves with the procession of simulacra.

Baudrillard, Jean. "The Precession of Simulacra." The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton and, 2010. 1556-566. Print.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Zizek get's White-boarded

Public "Illusions" of Private "Realities"

JΓΌrgen Habermas, in The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article, seems to describe the evolution of ideology. Specifically the ideas of the public v. the private. “In the second half of the eighteenth century literary journalism created serious competition for the earlier news sheets which were mere compilations of notices” (Habermas 1574). The piece was written in 1964 and is very relevant today in looking at modern news.

If I were to turn on the television today I would be bombarded with thousands of channels, all vying for an opportunity to inform about or distract from the world today. As a viewer, there is a sense of empowerment, since the remote control is in my hands. Many analysis of popular culture have viewed the potential problem of outlets in both negative and positive ways. The main idea of the news channels is to provide a viewer with complementary views of their own. What the news channels seem to think is that people abide by certain guidelines depending on religious, political, or social ideologies. They, in turn, make these privatized ideas a public mass.

Looking even closer, each of the news channels employ analysts. These people take their own viewpoints and publicize them. A statement by Habermas, “often enough today the process of making public simply serves the arcane policies of special interests” (1576). The special interests could be seen as each individual analysts desire, whether that be to educate or motivate towards their own privatized ideas. This idea of making public for service could be seen in practice when a company goes public, or to some conspirators, the act of voting since they're all rigged anyway.

The act of going public is merely an illusion of an individual's private ideologies, that once bought in to, becomes a reality. People vote for a presidential candidate not by platform, but by party allegiance just like brand loyalty. Publication simply seems to give the closest, most similar outlet of private view.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Chopping at the Capital Infastructure

According to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “It is only by being exchanged that the products of labor acquire, as values, one uniform social status, distinct from their varied forms of existence as objects of utility” (Engels 665). What is presented by both Marx and Engels is that value is created socially. This value is a culmination of all the labor that is invested in to a certain product. Take a stroll down any supermarket aisle and you will find yourself with commodities. The bright colorful packaging of breakfast pastries to the roasted “Fair Trade” coffee beans. Each of these items comes from the work of labor, and this labor is what helps set a value when it comes to the act of purchasing.

The Labor Theory of Value is an interesting way to explore how value is created. There is a structure of labor that flows upwards until it reaches the consumer. Each level of labor is applied to the value in which the consumer then pays for. The end goal is for a manufacturer to provide a commodity to a consumer with a surplus value in order to make profit. Sometimes this surplus value is jacked up according to social standards, which is why the same product, marketed towards different economic groups, have large variations in price. For the most part, the labor defines how much a product will cost. Take for example a clothing item that is produced on American soil in comparison with one that is produced overseas. The value of the laborers is drastically different, according to cost of living, insurance, taxes, etc. This is, in theory, why American made or commodities developed in “first world nations” usually have a much higher market value than those which have been outsourced.

Many multinational companies have moved to outsourcing labor in order to cut production costs, although many times it is in order to increase surplus value. As lightly touched on in the Flight of the Conchords song “Think About It” (found at about 1:26 into the video clip).

“They're turning kids into slaves just to make cheaper sneakers.
But what's the real cost?
'Cause the sneakers don't seem that much cheaper.
Why are we still paying so much for sneakers
When you got them made by little slave kids
What are your overheads?”

Capitalism has driven many businesses into finding a way to lower the cost of labor in the products they produce while offering similar or higher prices. This leaves a giant gap between the laborer and the consumer because the wages paid to create the product no longer effect the value the same way it used to. This is why in some sectors of the labor force there are such large pushes towards a living wage, because as the values of commodities rise with inflation, and the payment of laborers remains stagnant, the entire infrastructure of capitalism will collapse because of its own values.

Works Cited:

Engels, Friedrich. "The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof." The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism. By Karl Marx. 2nd ed. New York, NY: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 663-71. Print.

Monday, March 21, 2011

It's a Free Country and I'll Make My Own Meaning

There are many forms of art in the world for a person to set their eyes upon. As the brain receives signals from the eyes, it begins to analyze and interpret what it is seeing. A consciousness is necessary for this interaction to occur. Jean-Paul Sartre stated that “our perceptions [are] accompanied by the consciousness that human reality is a 'revealer'” and that “man is the means by which things are manifested” (Sartre 1199). Ideas and meanings are manifested within the individuals interaction with an object, “by introducing order where there was none” (1200). Roland Barthes states that “text is not a line of words releasing a single 'theological' meaning (the 'message' of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings […] blend and clash” (Barthes 1324). The idea surrounding this analytical way of thinking is that there is no singular meaning within a piece of art, and that the meaning is found outside of the work itself.

In effort to really look into the reader response style of analysis, I will use examples of a word that is sure to entice controversy but must add that I am in no way attempting to use any of this as a means of offense or hate. Take a sketch by a comedian, Louis CK. In the clip presented, he uses the word “faggot.” Now as the word is presented either in the clip or through the symbols that write the word, the receiver (reader or viewer) will begin to interact. Through this interaction the receiver applies a plethora of catalysts to what is being received. These catalysts range from emotional connections to social ideologies also taking into consideration the context of the situation as well as gauging the tone or manner in which the word is presented. These elements together create an end product, a meaning so to say.

Some receivers will take offense to Louis CK's use of the word “faggot” while others will laugh and still others will have no opinion of the matter. This all boils down to the catalysts the person applies to the word. To some it holds a very negative connotation of anti-homosexuality and hate, while to others it has a completely different meaning as slightly explained by CK himself. South Park also dealt with the meaning of the word in an episode where they labeled loud and obnoxiously intrusive motorcycle riders as being “faggots.” It should be said that the creator of the object of interpretation must know how it may possibly be interpreted by the public before releasing it into the wild. This is why Louis CK explains his use of the word as well as South Park going into detail to attempt to avoid a negative backlash from potential receivers. Although, they have no control once it is exposed to the public. A copper statue begins to oxidize when the metal interacts with the atmosphere, the same may be applied to words interacting with the public consciousness.

Moving beyond the aforementioned word and onto art in general. The piece of art itself goes through different phases. The creator of the piece installs their own meaning to it, but as it enters the public sphere, their meaning is not totally discarded, but set aside. The art enters the public sphere as an empty shell. The public, individually or collectively, then fills that shell with their own meanings and ideas, possibly taking into consideration the meaning placed by the creator, possibly not. Each receiver will apply to the object their own set of catalysts, creating different responses to the exact same object. There technically is no wrong when it comes to analysis of interpretation of a text, and it is purely subjective, making a single word a very powerful thing indeed.

For safety sake I must again apologizes to anyone who may have taken offense to the content posted, I chose this subject merely for the controversy surrounding the aforementioned word and the multiple meanings it that have been applied to it in an effort to analyze a Reader Response theory.

Works Cited:

Barthes, Roland. "The Death of the Author." The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism. Second ed. New York, NY: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 1322-326. Print.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. "What Is Literature." The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism. Second ed. New York, NY: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 1199-213. Print.