Monday, December 29, 2008

I want more hunks on TV!

I would really really like to see more hunks on the TV screen. You know the shows:

Me, I'd want less of the 90/60/90 babes and more of the those good-looking guys. I mean, why are most of the TV shows' hosts male, old and ugly yet surrounded by those perfectly build Barbie dolls - especially on RAI channels? And why is it that only curvaceous women dance lasciviously? I'd like to see some hot men with really tight t-shirts and leather-pants lasciviously dancing on the little screen... Then - maybe, just maybe - I'd become a TV fan...

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Man! I feel like a woman!

But not the way Shania intended it. I am violently forced to think of myself as a woman, defined through my body shape and my reproductive abilities. I'm visiting my hometown, where patriarchy still rules. In the first ten minutes of being there, two taxi drivers have already managed to remind me that patriarchal systems are all about oppression. It's the middle of the night, and two women head towards their car, passing by the two taxi drivers. There's no man around the two women, and this absence makes them vulnerable. The taxi drivers start making comments about the women. It doesn't matter to them the women could potentially be paying customers: they are - first and foremost - women. In other words, a prey. A prey to be verbally abused.

This was my entry into my hometown. At first, I felt angry. I'm no longer used to being labeled a 'woman'. I am no longer used with being approached and related to as a 'sexual object'. But can I start a fight with two men in the middle of the night in a parking lot? Maybe I should. Maybe I should tell them to shovel it. But I don't. The men know I won't. And even if I dare say something, they know they hold the upper hand: they'll only start calling me names and become more and more vulgar, reminding me of what I am to them - a sexual object. They'll laugh and make obscene sexual signs to me. And, if I piss them off too much, they may even cross that thin barrier that holds them back and start tossing me around like a toy. Because they can. So I swallow my anger, and I am left empty and humiliated. The only thing that could have saved me would have been the presence of a man around me. Then, and only then, the taxi drivers would show respect - but not to me, to the man to whom I (even if temporarily) belong.

I've been thinking about this incident for the past couple of days. I have been thinking about how this oppressive system rests upon the internalization of our gendered roles. And upon the humiliation of women. Anger giving way to powerlessness giving way to frustration giving way to humiliation giving way to numbness and conformity. There's nothing more powerful than taking away one's dignity. If the only way I am to preserve my dignity is to have a man of my own, then I'll do it, just as the other women before me have done it. That's what I'll tell my daughter, just as my mother has told me. Not because I want her to internalize the patriarchal rules of the game: but because I want her to be safe, to protect her from humiliation. Isn't this a vicious circle?

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Gendered Dilemmas

"I never wanted a girl", the woman sitting in front of me said tonight. "I really, really wanted a boy, cause you know, boys are so great". "Oh, yes, indeed, my husband wanted a boy very much too... Now we have a girl... I guess it's OK with me, but he really really wanted a boy".

As I watched the group of women talking about their pregnancies in one corner, and the group of men talking business in the other corner of the room, I had to ask myself just what kind of mentalities we still carry on into the future. Of course, many things have changed: men are now entering the kitchen, that forbidden territory their mothers inhabited. And occasionally the women are now able to tell them "bring this plate to the dining table, dear". But deep down inside, what do we think of each other? "Boys will always be boys," somebody once told me. "No matter what, when it comes down to gender, the truth is that one is born a boy or a girl, with certain features. A boy will always want the car, a girl will always go for the baby-doll". Will he or she? And is it the boy or the little girl who 'wants' the toy, or is it us, the parents, pushing the car onto the boy, and the pinkie thing onto the girl.

A few days ago I bought some Tylenol for my friend's baby. At the drug store, I was faced with a dilemma: do I buy the cherry-flavored Tylenol with a baby-girl on the box, or do I buy the blueberry-flavored one with a baby-boy on it? Guess what? I bought the 'girlish' one for a baby-girl... I just couldn't help it, I guess... Call it stereotype, call it a habit. The truth is, we routinely divide babies into gender. Each year, I bring a photo of a baby and show it to my students. I tell a third of them the baby is a girl, a third the baby is a boy and I do not provide a gender for the third group. Then I ask them to pick toys for the baby. And guess what! They always pick a doll for the girl and a car for the boy. The third group feels handicapped: they want to know what sex the baby is before they go on with the task. The Baby X experiment never ceases to amaze me; it puzzles my students and yes, it does provoke a vivid discussion. Truth be told, we go on reproducing the same gendered thinking in our everyday life choices and small talks.

And truth be told, the men still congregate in one corner, talking cars, business and sports. The girls are fluent in the language of the household, pregnancy and infant diseases. And why is it that almost all women find all babies 'beautiful', 'cute' and 'absolutely lovely'? It's almost as if there's an unspoken wall that, sooner or later, will divide the party into two genders. Of course, it is heterosexual men and women that fit this picture, but hey, there was no one challenging the gender categories at the party tonight... Maybe just me, an awkward fit, uninterested in the household talk, wishing the kids will stop screaming and not finding them that gorgeous after all...

Seavey, C.A., Katz, P.A., Zalk, S.R. (1975) "Baby X" Sex Roles, 1(2): 103-109

Monday, December 22, 2008

Anthropological Fieldwork in Refugee Camps

Culture Matters has an interview with Dr. Alice Corbet about fieldwork in refugee camps. We know so little about the everyday life of these camps that such accounts are indeed necessary to raise awareness. I especially appreciated the point made about the reasoning behind food rations: avoid making people 'want to stay' in camps. The underlying assumptions of such reasoning are so far away from humanitarian principles and so hypocritical, that it is hard to believe we do nothing to challenge them:

"Dr Corbet has spent over five years performing research with the Sahrawis in refugee camps along the Moroccan/Algerian border. She has faced cholera epidemics, landmines, dehydration, flying sand scorpions, faced slavery and even assisted in births and deaths in the most unsterile of conditions."

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Untitled, Unlabeled

Sabina was a painter. It so happens that she lived in communist Czech republic. The fact that we are born in a place is an accident. We could easily be born somewhere else. Of course, being born somewhere carries some heaviness with it: the places and people you grow accustomed to, the social rules of interaction you come to know, the food your taste buds come to enjoy, all mark you. But they don't define you. It's what you make out of everything around you that comes to define you. And that's the trick most people fail to grasp. It is so much easier to simply stamp people with your ignorant stereotype of what they - a woman, a Czech, an Asian - allegedly should be like, then to take on the burden of paying attention to the individual.

When the Soviet troops invaded Prague, Sabina left for the West. But in the eyes of many Westerners, she was defined by her upbringing in a communist Czech environment. Sabina was first and foremost an oddity, an Other from another country and political regime. When her first exhibition opened in Germany, everyone assumed it was about living under communism. When she protested that, she wasn't heard:

"Do you mean that modern art isn't persecuted under Communism?
'My enemy is kitsch, not Communism!' she replied infuriated.
From that time on, she began to insert mystifications in her biography, and by the time she got to America, she even managed to hide the fact that she was Czech. It was all merely a desparate attempt to escape the kitsch that people wanted to make of her life"

(Milan Kundera: The Unbearable Lightness of Being. 1984/ 2008, First Olive Edition, p. 275)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Should adultery be a crime? In South Korea, it is...

BBC invites readers to post their ideas on the topic "Should adultery be a crime?" ... no, really, should it? In my ignorance, I had no idea that in fact adultery is considered a crime in South Korea. As BBC reported today about the case of a Korean actress accused and sentenced for adultery, I was forced to ruminate - once again - over how gender remains a deeply political matter.

As I teenager, I had read the Bible and was astonished to find that people stoned to death women who had committed adultery. Not that I agreed to adultery, but to stone someone over sleeping around could hardly justify killing them. As a teenager, I've also discovered that it is much more easier for men to get away with sleeping around than for women. One only has to think of poor Madame Bovary... But no, Lord Byron could get away with all his love poems to his many lovers...

But to find out that in some places people may still be imprisoned for this... I mean, this is hard to swallow. I ran a quick search to see where adultery is a crime. According to Wikipedia's entry on adultery, here's where sleeping around can get you in trouble:
- the United States (some states, like Maryland, Pennsylvania and Michigan)
- South Korea

- Taiwan
- Iran
- Pakistan
- Uganda (until 2007)
- In 2004, Turkey tried to pass a law incriminating adultery.

The trick is that sometimes it's the woman who gets punished for adultery, while men are free to do whatever they want. I guess some things are the same as in Madame Bovary's time... Some people point out that adultery should be punished because it is immoral or because it undermines the morals of a society. Well, so do politics and capitalism, but when did morals ever stopped politicians or businesses? Hell, when did it stop priests and churches of all kinds? And exactly who is supposed to be the guardian of morality, who decides what is 'good' and 'bad', and based on what?

Hey, adultery is not the best thing in life. And yes, when your partner is guilty of it, you're not the happiest person on earth. But that's a private matter, not a public one. Each case is different. And each case is differently resolved by the people involved. But not by the state. Not by the police. Not by the court system. Yes, I can see in some situations, when the man decides to leave, the wife remains powerless and sometimes broke. So, there is a need for some mechanisms of support, but this does not in any way call for criminalization of adultery.

Photo credits: Smirnoff Sweetie

HBC: A Survivor, A Nation Builder... of White Canada

I like Ivaylo Ditchev's essays "Machines of Forgetting" because it brilliantly summarizes the violence of remembering and forgetting: "to forget is not only a ritual, a cultural or psychological strategy: we find it at the core of the political. In fact, to act politically means to liberate the present from the past" (Ditchev, 1998).

As I read today's newspaper, an article in the Business section hit me as a machine of institutionalized forgetting. The article in question, entitled "Feting HBC: A survivor, a nation builder" celebrates the wonderful things the company HBC (Hudon's Bay Company) did for the creation of Canada. In fact, the author writes, "Among commercial entreprises, HBC is a very rare thing, a unique thing, a company that turned itself into a country".

Right. And there's more: "In its first hundred years, HBC established a network of forts that would become Canada's most strategic outposts, and some of its principal cities, including Winnipeg and Edmonton". Indeed, how wonderful it is that such enlightened capitalists chose to come and establish wonderful cities in the virgin land of Canada.

Oh, wait a second, I have heard the story before. Was it "Heart of Darkness" that talked about the enlightened capitalists who were modernizing the indigenous savages in Africa, all of course in a very peaceful way? Or was it by destroying lifestyels, taking control of resources and turning people into slaves... gosh, I cannot remember... (sarcasm!). But I do seem to remember I couldn't sleep for weeks after reading the book... I wonder why...

Back to HBC, the cherry on top of the cake was this: not only did HBC helped create a country (presumably out of a virgin territory), but the photo accompanying the article is that of aboriginal people (hey my whitness kicks in, I think they may be Inuits but can't be sure) smiling submissively at the white man, with the caption: "The Hudson's Bay Company's incorporation is the No.1 business event in Canadian history...". No other mention of Aboriginals in the article. But of course, why would you talk about them when it comes to the wonderful act of creation of the Canadian state?

I'm not an expert in Canadian history. But I do have to wonder what the Hudson's Bay's story erases from history. Not to mention, how it played into the subsequent power arrangements between colonists and indigenous populations (hey, Canada wasn't a virgin land after all).

My blog is both male and female!

As I was browsing through Autist's Corner latest posts, I saw one which quickly caught my attention: a software able to identify the gender of the writer. This is not something new, and I could probably guess what type of things the software is trained to identify and classify as male/ female. But I still find it amusing that, in these times and ages, people would sit down and occupy their time with creating this type of software. Ah, the desire to classify, to order things, to create order out of chaos...

Anyway, if interested, I'm 57.9% female and 42.1% male. This says a lot about me, really... (no, it doesn't!). You can also analyze what type of blog you have: this one's an INTP category = the thinkers... (Oh, yes, this does indeed make my heart burst with pride... finally, recognized as such... - in case you had doubts, this is meant to be sarcastic!). And, fair enough, the soft goes on to recommend some books I can purchase from Amazon... Oh, so this has been just a marketing stunt?

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Wonderful Little Book Called Embroideries: A Glimpse behind the "Muslim" Curtain

As other Westerners, all I know about the "Muslim" world is filtered through the Western lens. Yet, I've also learned that it is hard to claim one "Muslim" world, just as it is hard to claim one "Western" lens. Though I do not know much about the historical background of non-Western countries, I've always made a point in telling people that it is hard to think of one "Muslim" world or of one "Muslim" religion. All I had was to do was think of say Christianity, or the debates over what makes the "West" to know that there is no such thing as 'one version' of things or 'one religion'.

Yesterday I found this little gem of a book by Marjane Satrapi. Some of you might know her as the author of the book behind the movie Persepolis, which got a lot of attention back in 2007 at the Cannes Festival. The little book I got yesterday was Embroideries - as I said, a wonderful little book opening up the big black box of women's lives in Iran. And not just any type of lives, but their sexual lives.

It is a delightful easy read which leaves one wondering about the 'difference' between those all too often invoked lines of difference between West and East, North and South, Christian and Muslim, and so on and so forth. An autobiographic book, Embroideries is the story of many stories told by women about their sexual lives, about the power relations which structure their lives but also offer them the opportunity to bypass them and make their own choices.

Here's a short interview (in French) with Marjan Satrapi about her life and writing such a political (yet banal) novel about women's lives in Iran:

Photo credits: Random House

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Creating Reality: What's the deal with Greece these days?

Don't know if you've heard, but there have been quite violent street clashes in Greece over the last days. I've read it first on BBC and I had a hard time understand what was going on. Why were the youths on the street? In what context did the police shoot to death one teenager? The story talked about 'groups of youth' and 'anarchists' and 'rioters', and I couldn't get my heard around that. A few hours later, a friend over in Europe spoke of the situation using yet another label: it's the hooligans. Mind you, I've heard about 'hooligans' taking the streets before in many politically sensitive and complex situations (May 1968 Paris is a good case in point). But it did make me realize that:

1. I do not have all the context information I need to understand what is going on in Greece. I mean, why were young people on the street anyway? Are we talking about 10-20 young people coming from a soccer game, filled with adrenaline and ready to pick a fight? Are we talking about an organized protest? Who were the supporters, why were they on the streets, how come the police resorted to violence? Just what is the context?

2. What I do know from media are in fact labels: depending on my political orientation, 'anarchists' can be good or bad, welcomed or threatening. The label implies an explanation of the situation by appealing to that complicit information between the media outlet and the readers - or, better said, that complicit information that the media outlet assumes readers to share with it, by virtue of reading/ listening to that outlet.

I wish there would be more about the social context in Greece, about the frustration with transnational capitalism, with the 'Great Powers' and their control in/of the European Union, with the economic situation, with the centralist state and so on and so forth. I wish there would be more context about xenophobia in Greece. As a friend put so rightly, should there have been a Roma people killed by the police, nobody would complain about the interventionist, totalitarian police or state. Double standards.

I do not know what's my position. But I do know it is hard to take a position because things are more complex than the media depicts them. And I do know that there are things to which I will agree and support, and things to which I cannot adhere. In the end, it all comes down to one's ethical commitments.

Photo credits: ethanlindsay

Friday, December 5, 2008

Nationalism made in Canada

I'm not an expert on the Canadian political or electoral system. I don't quite understand the fuss over the current political situation. The summary goes like this: Conservative leader and prime-minister Stephen Harper asked for elections. Got them, and Conservatives got a minority government with 143 seats in Parliament (House of Commons). The liberals got only 77, the socialists got 37 and the Bloc Quebecois got some 49 seats.

Now all is good, until the opposition parties decide to form a coalition. No big deal here, I've seen coalition governments in other parts of the world, and there's nothing illegitimate about them. But in Canada, it seems there is. No party can ever claim to fully represent the "NATION", simply because in any elections a number of people do not vote (so they are not represented in any sense). People also vote for different parties, which is, again, the whole point of a DEMOCRACY.

In the case of a minority government or a coalition government, what we have is partial representation. If politicians would really take into consideration their voters, then they would always create governments where all elected parties would be represented - then we can start talking of a fully representative government.

But politicians only care about their own agendas. And politicians know that the citizens are easily manipulable. Politics is not about what is right, it is about who frames the problem more eloquently. And nationalism has always been a very successful way to legitimize speakers: "I am speaking on behalf of the nation". The claim, as shallow as it is (who can speak for millions of people with millions of different opinions?), mobilizes, galvanizes and in/excites.

I've been told over and over again that there is no nationalism in Canada. But all it takes is for opposition parties to form a coalition, and nationalism is being brought back to the public agenda by the prime minister itself: this coalition, he basically says, is treason. It is undermining national unity. The Bloc Quebecois is separatist, and therefore the coalition is going against the Canadian nation. The coalition undermines the will of the Canadian nation, who voted for the Conservative government.

Well, excuse me, since when 46% of a 59% voter turnaround represents the will of the nation???
That politicians have always used nationalism is no news. But one needs to ask exactly where do all those journalists, intellectuals and everyday life people buying into this discourse stand? Is nationalism solely a political question? It is solely a top-down ideology which mesmerizes the masses?

The other day, someone I know received a propaganda email circulated at work which asked people (informally referred to as 'friends and family') to resist the separatists and the undemocratic coalition. What does it say about people spreading such propaganda by forwarding it to their address list? Let me spell it out: a coalition is not undemocratic. It represents a percentage of the votes. And it is legitimate.
And let me ask, once again: how is it possible that nationalism holds such a power over our minds? How can we not see beyond the 'national unity' talk? Why do we buy into it? And what does that say about nationalism as a meaning-making process?

Photo credits: Got the photo from AngryFrenchGuy's blog. Don't know more about its copyright...

Thursday, December 4, 2008

No Ingles aqui: When does language become political?

One of the best things about cities is the bistro. That small bistro, squeezed between a shoes shop and a travel agent, loudly featuring a lunch menu for 9Euros. Last week, we had lunch in one such bistro in a fairly touristic area of Barcelona, right by Placa d'Espanya. I do not speak Spanish (at least not enough to understand the various types of food available), so I asked for an English-language menu. "No Ingles aqui!", the waiter shouted harshly and left the table. Shocked more with the body-language than the actual statement, we started talking. But we didn't speak English among ourselves, and as soon as the waiter in question noticed that, he came back with a big polite smile on his face and handed us the English-language menu.

There's something so 19th century about this... The debate on English as an imperialistic language aside, I kept on wondering just what makes us turn language into a political issue in everyday life encounters. I know we cannot fully divorce this from the power context, but I've always wondered about the irony of trying so hard to create and distinguish languages from each other instead of rejoicing the benefit of being able to communicate. When I was young, I couldn't possibly understand why Serbs and Croats would insist on building two separate languages - Serb and Croat, out of the Serbian-Croat linguistic field. I remember the mix of envy and amazement I felt when my Armenian friend started negotiating the price with the Bulgarian merchant in Plovidv. I couldn't do that; but here were people who shared one or two words or sentences, who were communicating.

But in modern times, language is not about communication. It is about politics. Language authorizes speakers: to be listened to, to be respected, one has to talk in the right language. The clever politician talks in Catalan in Barcelona, in Spanish in Madrid and in English in London. We frown upon 'improper' uses of language. Just what the heck is 'whadda' or 'kinda'? We insist on the 'right' way of talking, on constructing grammatically correct sentences, and, occasionally, on avoiding the use of imported words. Au revoir email, bien venue courrier electronique. Language sets symbolic boundaries and symbolic borders. It differentiates between 'us' and 'them', between 'natives' and 'second-language' speakers. We are taught, from an early age, that our language defines us. That's where you can find the metaphysical connection to your soul: in the language which makes you more profound, more sensitive, more poetic or more rational (depending on the national rhetoric...). Romanian-born and raised writer Emil Cioran refused to speak and write in Romanian after he set his residence in Paris. Maybe he instinctively knew what Bourdieu had to say about language: that it not only confers symbolic power. It becomes the locus of such power, and thus a political issue.

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Friday, November 14, 2008

I cannot read Bertrand Russell...

Since I`m travelling these days, I took Betrand Russell`s book Authority and the Individual (1949) from my bookshelf. I was anticipating an interesting read about the underpinning philosophical debates of social cohesion. So, imagine my disappointment when I got stuck right on the second page.

I have found this a lot with philosophical debates: the generalized statement of how things are. If you do not accept it, if you have some problems with the premises, to use the language of logic, then you`re in trouble.

"In all social animals, including Man, co-operation and the unity of a group has some foundation in instinct. This is most complete in ants and bees, which apparently are never tempted to anti-social actions and never deviate from devotion to the nest or the hive" (p. 12).

What`s going on in this paragraph? The first sentence frames the context: social animals; it further places man (really, what`s meant is human beings...) under the category of "social animals" and it calls for understanding this category in terms of "instincts".

Now, exactly what counts as co-operation and unity is debatable: critical approaches to science (read Donna Harraway for instance) have shown that we tend to see the animal kingdom through the lenses of our social vision. For a long time, the dominant paradigm in seeing sexual practices in the animal kingdom was that of male domination and possession of the passive female. Feminism comes into the picture: scientists start noticing that females are not passive, but in fact make active choices and select male partners.

My point: what we see as unity or co-operation depends on what we take as such. To what extent these are based in instinct - that`s again highly debatable. Instinct is a very good black box: it provides an explanation for a behavior without really explaining it. These things aside, I am not sure ants and bees never ever exhibit anti-social behavior. Nor am I sure their lifestyle is a `devotion` to the hive. Even the use of the word `temptation` here is highly important: anti-social behavior is like a temptation, a deviation from the norm. So really, social cohesion is the norm. Yet, the parallel with the animal kingdom has a specific function in the text: it frames the explanation of social phenomena within the `natural world`, a world which cannot be challenged because, well, it`s natural!

It shouldn`t come as a suprise that a few pages later, Russell furthers the argument of social cohesion and unity are first and foremost visible in the family, the basic social cell (as Lenin was fond to say...). And, like any good nationalist, he continues:

"Social cohesion, which started with loyalty to a group reinforced by the fear of enemies, grew by processes partly natural and partly deliberate until it reached the vast conglomerations that we now know as nations" (p. 16)

The teleological development of human communities, from families to tribes, from tribes to clans, from clans to nations... starting from the premise of cooperation and unity as an instinct. The argument of the need to be part of the whole, the need to belong to a group is very suspicious to me (not to mention there`s no clear reason as to why nations and not, say, cities... but I`m not going to cover this side of the critique here). There`s a functionalist explanation of it which I find important, but incomplete. I`m still not sure cooperation and unity are a natural necessity - nor am I sure what exactly that means. The more I think about it, the more confused I am about "nature" and "instincts".

Thursday, November 13, 2008

What counts as art? Context!

As I walked my way through the museum, I realized I didn`t seem to value the pre-columbian or the chinese exhibits in the same way I did with the Western Renaissance paintings collection. Some time ago, I had the exact same feeling while visiting a North American Native museum: I just couldn`t bring myself to seeing the beauty, the catharsis and the meaning of the collection. It was dry. All I saw were everyday life items, like shoes or belts or wooden sticks, and all of them said to me `mundane`, `banal`, `pragmatic`.

Every now and then, I would notice the craftmanship. I would spend time to look at the detail, trying to appreciate the exquisit skills needed to saw or to sculpt, and yet it was not art to my eyes. A recent conversation made me realized the hierarhical categorization system shaping my vision of things: craftmanship was not art. And why is that, I wonder? Is it the fact that I`ve been taught to draw a very fine distinction between art, High Art, and crafts, folklore? It is not sophisticated enough, I was told. Hierarchies of class were no doubt at play in classifying something as art or craft. Art belongs to museums. Crafts to fairs. Art is exhibited. Crafts are an amusement.

And hierarchies of class melt into nationalism: folk is what the proto-nation does, what the nation`s intellectuals collect and catalogue to prove the persistance of the nation. But art is what the established-nation seeks to create so that it reclaims its place in the cultural Pantheon of the world.

But that was not all: beyond class and national(ist) histories, or maybe together with them, there was something else at play in my classification of something as art versus craft. I looked at the China porcelain and I remembered the ones we had at home. Chinese porcelain was very popular with our grandparents`generation (again, as a sign of social status). I thought of the Western context in which Chinese porcelain became an important signifier of social class, of being of part of aristocracy. But beyond this, there was nothing else I could use or rely upon in making sense of the symbols, the images and the colors.

Show me any Western Renaissance painting or sculpture and I`ll easily talk about it for hours... I`ll see the links with the previous works, with the historical context, with the religious context, with the everyday life context... And that`s the key: CONTEXT. Today, as I looked at the pre-columbian exhibits, I could not make any sense of them. I could not place them within a context, within a network of relations that provides meaning. The only experience they could provide was the one accesible through my senses, and that was not satisfactory enough. I guess I should start reading more about non-Western histories before I can claim myself an intellectual...
Photo Credits: Mark Cartwright

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Where cats undermine the tyranny of nationalist grammar...

Ever thought about why some of us get so annal when it comes to grammar, accents and 'speaking correctly'? After all, who decides what the correct way of spelling or saying something is? And according to what criteria?

There's a nationalist (and sometimes racist) history to this, and it has to do with classifying the 'correct' version against all other versions labeled as 'deviation' or, in this case, 'mistakes' (for instance, making the distinction between language and dialects; or between speaking without/ with an accent). I'll give you a few examples of what I mean by that:

1. The notorious legal attempts in France to prohibit the use of non-french words in public arenas. While it is certainly a form of protest against the hegemony of English language, it is equally a nationalist form of linking who you are, what you can think/say to a language. Au revoir 'email', bien venue 'courrier electronique'.

2. Purging a Romance language of its Slavic elements as part of a state project: take Romania, an Eastern European country priding itself with being 'an oasis of Latin in a Slavic sea'. While Romanian is a Latin language, the influence of the multicultural composition of the region has certainly shaped the language too. After some 50 years of being under the influence of Soviet Russia, which also shaped language too, nationalist intellectuals decided to purge the language of (at least some) Slavic influence by changing the spelling of certain words. And, from one day to another, students in Romania found themselves policed by an army of professors, teachers and intellectuals ready to penalize them if they misspelled a word... So, who decides on the right spelling?

3. Closer to the North American context, a particular type of English predominantly associated with African American or Latino groups has become more and more popular, primarily through music (think rap) and other forms of popular culture. Try writing like this in school...

Well, the only point of this long post was to introduce a short movie about Cats undermining the norms of grammar, spelling, and 'proper speech'. This may well be a literacy project, but in my mind it is a very good example of how everyday life people challenge the dominance of nationally defined languages. An interesting art project which, for me, opens up the space of thinking about language as an organic, everyday life process which disregards national or racial boundaries:

Monday, October 27, 2008

Autism and Difference: Thinking about Another Way of Thinking

I have just followed CBC's documentary "Positively Autistic". I'm posting here a video made by a person living with autism about her way of thinking, communicating and interacting with the world. I have to say it is hard to understand and think about what the author has to say, and most probably the difficulty does come from being educated and thus shaped by a particular idea of what reason, thinking and social interaction is supposed to be. The author wonderfully explains this in the second part of the video, where she translates things for us.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Othering techniques

I have recently asked an audience about the 'ethnic' core of the Canadian nation. Someone whispered: Aboriginals? Right - and wrong! It is certainly an acceptable, politically correct answer - if one does not look at the (not so distant) history of Canada. Then, along with various historians, one realizes the white, Anglo-Saxon, Christian core of the Canadian nation - a vision of an 'imagined community' which has lasted (is still there?) in policy as well as in everyday life stereotypes for a long time (think for instance of the Chinese head-tax).

As I browsed the newspaper, I was reminded not only of this conversation, but also of Billig's argument that the nation is flagged (and thus re-constructed) on a daily basis, in the little things the audience is supposed to share in common. The front page article entitled "Resignation paralyzes residential schools commission" is interestingly placed under the banner "Native Issues" (paper-based version). The long-standing and thorny issue of the residential schools - and the ensuing Apology offered by the Canadian prime minister to Canadian Aboriginals - has a thick context, involving not only institutionalized oppression but more importantly, a longstanding Canadian social imaginary in which the Aboriginal is an internal Other, to which the nation is intrinsically connected. Partly guilt, partly desire to assimilate the Other (the present reminder that this is not 'our' country, but that 'we' have only recently made this territory our own, drawn our national boundaries and took posession of it).

The article presents the problems within the Indian (?!?) Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which culminated yesterday with the demision of the chair. Apparently, the issue at stake is the positioning of the commission as merely truth-seeker (institutionalizing a particular 'official' memory) or as also reconciliatory (which, in my understanding, brings along a new set of responsibilities on both parties for the healing process). Regardless of what is truly at stake, the way in which the story is framed says a lot about who is the intended audience of this article, what is the relation between Canada and Aboriginals. It is definitely not about people's experience (and indeed a previous analysis of Canadian media coverage of the Apology that I undertook together with a colleague of mine shows that Aboriginals are positioned primarily as political subjects, with the result of re-colonizing the group as a national subject and re-assessing its demands, needs and contexts within the frame of the nation-state). It is definitely not about 'our' experience - but about 'theirs', the "Native issues". Most importantly, the article is not about the implications of truth vs. reconciliation, but about decision-making and authority lines.

A good literature review on globalization and culture

If you're looking for a good lit review on globalization and culture, clarifying some of the major trends in looking at the relation between globalization and nations/ nation-states/ national cultures, then you may try Kevin Archer, M. Martin Bosman, M. Mark Amen and Ella Schimdt (Eds.) (2008) Cultures of Globalization. Coherence, Hybridity, Contestation London & New York: Routledge.

In the introduction, the editors lay out the contemporary debates on globalization and culture, which they divide into two major lines of argument:

- culture-of-globalization (also called 'cultural turn'), focusing primarily on how culture is being co-opted and deployed by capitalism.

- globalization-of-culture (also called 'global turn'), focusing on the flow of cultural products (images, symbols, lifestyles etc.) via mass media.

The final recommendation - which I find quite pertinent for anyone interested in the alleged dissolution of the nation-state under global pressures - is to move away from simply looking at the economic and cultural dynamics on macro scale, and to rather focus on "the response - or impact - side of globalization; that is to say, how it is actually understood, interpreted, employed, reshaped, resisted, or even rejected by the targeted consumers of its material and symbolic content" (pp. 9-10).

Monday, October 20, 2008

Michel Maffesoli on the postmodern society

In french, but worth listening to. I've discovered Maffesoli via Mike Featherstone's work, which makes me wonder about some of the academic lines of conceptualizing a subject like globalization.

The difficulty of talking about nationalism

I'm having a hard time talking to an audience about nationalism. I've tried to understand what's the source of my problems: is it that I don't explain what nationalism is? Is it that my explanation and the audience's understanding of nationalism differ? Is it because my expectations on what 'understanding' should be like are misplaced?

Truth be said, defining nationalism is a problem in itself. Worldview, discourse, ideology - exactly what are these terms supposed to refer to? A way of thinking about the world. Seems rather weak, I agree. Bourdieu offers a nice - though still problematic - way of talking about 'isms': a web of statements defining the core term (in this case, 'nation'). So, nationalism could be understood as the words, phrases, ideas, meanings etc. which explain what the nation is.

The problem with this definition is that it doesn't provide any further qualification to the core concept - the nation. In other words, what is it about the nation that makes it so important. We don't talk about house-ism or table-ism; we do talk about national-ism and liberal-ism and race-ism. So what sets these core concepts of nation, liberal, race etc. apart? What is it about them that puts them at the center of a web of statements dealing with their nature, features, implications etc.

The pair nation-nationalism refers to a particular type of community, which has political and moral implications. To put it differently, they talk about groups of people, providing an explanation for a particular form of political organization, which subsequently has moral implications. We still miss here the territorial aspect: this political form of organization predicates a 'natural' link between people, territory and political organization.

I'm not sure how one can easily talk to an audience about these things... Part of the problem seems to stem from their abstraction. To talk about discourses, worldviews, ideologies requires you to talk about the relation between language and reality, a relation which we take for granted in social constructivist oriented environments, but which is far from being a common-sensical view. Trying to define nationalism - or to explain the idea of the nation - requires a discussion of how concepts referring to the social world are necessarily constructed through language, as well as through a material infrastructure which derives from the way in which we come to talk and think about the social world. Grrrr, things are getting complicated again...

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Race and Biology

The last issue (vol.5 issue 38) of Social Studies of Science deals with the complex and disturbing question of race, genetics and disease. I've only went through the introduction to this issue, as I've been ambivalent on this topic and I found others shared my ambivalence. I do understand that, on a macro scale, populations are shaped by their environment: we've seen this from the time white colonists brought the flu to North-American indigenous populations. We can still say today that African Americans, on the whole (and whatever that means), are more affected by certain conditions and diseases. There's also the possibility of tracing down where your genome 'comes from' spatially - like Whoopi Goldberg did.

I'm trying to say that there are certain benefits from thinking of race in terms of genetics. But I'm a scholar (and from the vantage point of not being directly affected by any of those alleged benefits) and I feel deeply disturbed by the whole context of this linkage: genetics is intrinsically linked to racism. Let me put it differently: genetics, searching for the biological proof of races, was developed for - and cannot be easily divorced from - racist purposes. You might say we no longer believe in the hierarchy of races and that our purposes driving our genetics research have nothing to do with eugenics, with creating the 'pure' breed. Maybe. The point is we might no longer believe in the hierarchy of races, but when we believe in - and look for - the biological proof of racial difference, we classify people into races in a way that cannot be contested (not to mention that this way of looking at things already frames the reality that we subsequently investigate). We start from saying each race has particular health problems - and mind you, what the hell does it mean a 'race' in the first place, how does it homogenize us etc. From different races-different health, we come to different diets, different education, different medication... and before you know it, we have DIFFERENCE written all over the place. Now, I'm not sure this is different from racism...

Photo credits: MASH DNArt

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Stuart Hall: Why does 'difference' matter?

As I was re-reading Stuart Hall's work on representation and identity, I came across this discussion about why does 'difference' matter*. It is a rather theoretical discussion, tracing some of the academic reflections on the role of difference in the ways we make sense of things.

Hall outlines four arguments about difference which have something to say about how we perceive and relate to difference.

1. The linguistic argument (made by Ferdinand de Saussure) that difference is central to making sense of things. We make sense of 'white' by comparing it to 'black', of 'male' by comparing it with 'female' and so on. Yet, this way of thinking emphasizes the opposites - there is a range of grays in between black and white. One may choose to see how black turns gradually into white; or one may choose to see black versus white. I'm talking about colors; but one can easily talk about race, ethnicity, gender in the same way.

2. The dialogic argument (made by Mikhail Bakhtin) that difference is central to understanding and communication, because we communicate and make sense of things in a dialogue with another person. It is by participating in this dialogue and by confronting the different ideas we have that we make sense of things. So, difference is seen here as central to understanding.

3. The anthropological argument (made by DuGay and Hall; Mary Douglas) that each culture gives meaning by classifying things. Classification means emphasizing the difference; better said: when you classify something, there is a principle according to which you decide it is different or similar - so it has to go into this class of things (e.g. chairs) or the other (e.g. dogs). The idea here is that difference is created by those principles of classifications (those things which you highlight as central to defining a chair versus a dog). Though it make look like those principles are 'natural', 'logical' and 'immutable', they are in fact social conventions (heavy to swallow, but i won't go into details here).

4. The psychoanalytical argument (made by Sigmund Freud) that the "Other" - different from Self - is central to how we form our identities. Psychologists and psychoanalysts like to point out how, as children, we come to understand ourselves as different from the others in a painful way (e.g. we throw things on the floor and they don't come up to us and thus we form a sense of the Self as different from the world). Furthermore, for Freud, this process of defining the Self from the Other has - yeah, i know, big surprise - a sexual dimension. The drill is well-known: Oedipian complexes for men and identification with mothers for women etc. etc.

I found these insights really interesting: they do influence the general framework through which we come to think of difference - whether racial, gendered or simply the difference between a chair and a dog...

* Stuart Hall (1997) "The Spectacle of the 'Other'," in Stuart Hall (Ed.) Representations. Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: Sage and The Open University, pp. 223-279

Photo credits: KaCey97007

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Racializing crime

I wanted to write about stay-at-home moms and patriarchal systems, but A very Public Sociologist posted an interesting anecdote about racializing crime. I have heard the story of particular ethnic or racial groups being seen as the criminal elements in particular areas over and over again.

The one I know most about is that of Roma in Eastern Europe, which are often being portrayed by the media as organized crime outside and above the law. As a child, I was often told to stay away from Roma, because they are thieves. My grandparents in the countryside hated Roma because poultry disappeared when they were around - and the causality was quite clear to them. And I vividly recall the day when one guy - whom I instantly identified as Roma - inappropriately touched my girlfriend on the street. I hit him with an umbrella, yelling and shouting after him, calling him racialized names that I won't repeat today. I hated 'them' too. I was afraid of 'them'.

Since then, I've heard the stories over and over again. "You don't know what they do to us", the refrain went, "they abuse us, they steal from us, they swear at us, they attack us". Without having a clue about race and racism at that time, these were powerful mechanisms of making sense of the world around me. Of drawing the lines of trust and the boundaries of the community to which I allegedly belonged. It took me a long process of learning and gradual understanding to be able - and most importantly, to be willing - to remove the racial lens I used in interpreting the world around me. While it is true that race relations do shape events and interactions, those are not determined by race.
These being said, I can see what a powerful meaning-making mechanism racism is - and I can also see why, when you are a victim, no amount of critical thinking would deal away with your feelings of loss and trauma.

As I learned more and more about the history of Roma people in Eastern Europe, as I came to think about how we stereotype and how we draw the boundaries of 'our group', I came to understand things differently. But it took me years to realize that I was seeing people first and foremost through their race/ ethnicity, without ever questioning that. It was as if race/ ethnicity defined them. And I knew nothing of their circumstances, I completely disregarded them. I assumed everyone had the same opportunities as I did; and that there's only one right set of values - mine, of course. Not that circumstances or different values might justify criminality, but criminality always signals something else: an inescapable circle of poverty and oppression; a corrupt rule-of-law system; a weak civil society, etc.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The price of love

I've recently watched a documentary I'd warmly recommend: The Great Happiness Space - Tale of an Osaka Love Thief. From a Western perspective, I've always found it interesting how the fashion magazine style has been so embraced - and to quite an extreme - by young people living in Japan. I noticed this first in Hawaii, where the young girls and boys on holiday seemed to have descended from the pages of Vogue or Cosmo. I was told many would sacrifice their own personal lives and bodies to earning enough to pay for the latest Channel jacket or Gucci bag. I was surprised to discover this in the documentary, along the intricate lines of love, social status and money.

And there was something else in this documentary that caught my eye: the question of power. When you'll see the movie, think of who's in control there, who actually has the power. You'll see things shift and maybe, like me, you'll wonder about the ways in which our own feelings of being in control make us - lacking better words - controllable.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Heritage, multiculturalism and religion

It so happens that I've just finished reading the impressive reader Representing the Nation: Histories, heritage and museums* when I came across an interesting article squeezed on the first page of the newspaper: "Heritage department takes aim at religious radicals". In a true stereotyped fashion, I thought to myself: I wonder if this is about Islam, once again. After all, as a Westerner, I have come to expect that any Western voice talking about religious radicals is talking about Islam - unless the person in question is a feminist, then my stereotype says s/he probably refers to anti-abortion extreme right Christians.

Lo and behold, I was right. Still pondering Broken Mystic's discussion of Rudy Giuliani's islamophobic remarks, I started reading the article in question: The Canadian federal government, in an attempt to make multiculturalism meet modern demands, has identified religious fundamentalism (especially among youth) as its main enemy.

To see how my brain works, the first thing I thought about was the series of articles on the trial of the alleged terrorist conspiracy by a bunch of youngsters in Toronto. The youngsters were identified as radical Muslism (somehow ignorant of their own religion and Westernized - they loved going to Tim Hortons - to the point that their radicalism was treated by the media as a bad joke).

I was not an ardent follower of the case, so I had to google it; but this says a lot about how our synapses work, fostered by our media consumption. Interestingly, the book I just finished makes the connection between the role of heritage in the nation-state and its intersections with media consumption and public education. Speaking about museums in India, Arjun Appadurai and Carol Breckenridge see heritage as sites where "spectacle, discipline, and state power become interlinked with questions of entertainment, education, and control" (p. 418). And that is exactly how I would interpret my own connections and reading of the article in question.

Six paragraphs later, the article - and the Heritage department - spells it out: "The slides point out that Islam is, by far, the greatest gorwing religion in Canada..." blah blah blah. I know the drill without reading the rest. But I continue, and true enough, it's about the 'clash of cultures' and how immigrants need to be integrated and religious extremism combated. No more mentioning of Islam, but scholars of critical discourse analysis have long learned that the implicit argument is equally - if not more - important.

"People are not merely legal citizens of a nation - writes Jessica Evans in the book mentioned above - in an important sense a nation is also a symbolic community which creates powerful - and often pathological - allegiance to a cultural ideal" (1991: 1)

Multiculturalism works as an ideal, a discourse of Canadian nationalism. But what is the particular image of what being Canadian means? In this case, we are reminded that immigrants can be Canadian, in a legal sense: they can become citizens, but do they become 'nationals'? The multiculturalism of Canadian society is a difference we love to state, to showcase. But when it comes to living with it, the Department of Heritages spells it out quite clearly: "shifting demographics mean the government must 'adjust multiculturalism programming' in order to 'advance core Canadian values'"

Stuart Hall argued that "The capacity to live with difference is, in my view, the coming question of the twenty-first century" (1991: 42). And I think he's absolutely right. Yet, so far, we lived with difference by asking it to become less threatening by Westernizing and commodifying itself. And we lived with difference by assuming culture is something of the soul, something metaphysical which marks us profoundly and inexorably. It's hard to think of difference in this paradigm.

Reference: Boswell, D., Evans, J. (1999) Representing the Nation: A Reader. Histories, Heritage and Museums. Routledge & The Open University
Photo credits: PhotoFusion

After the virgins, here come the Asians...

Serbian state secretary wants to 'import' some 100,000 Asian women because Serbian men don't have enough women to marry and have strong, little Serbs... Should I laugh or should I take it seriously, and dissect the intricate ways in which nationalism, colonialism and patriarchy work together? To think of Asia as a reservoir of vaginas - or rather a reservoir of submissive female workforce in the household plus a vagina that can be colonized and impregnated with the 'white' male seed - has been the latest colonial fashion at least in North America. I realize there's a lot of generalization here - and I apologize for seemingly putting everyone in the same basket. But my point is that such practices are not so unacceptable as they may seem or relegated to the 'uncivilized' parts of the world (see previous post).I guess the most scary thing is that such practices are still pervasive today, framing our ways of imagining the world and our relation to other human beings.

Photo credits: tanakawho

Friday, September 5, 2008

Feminists and bare-breasted virgins

I came across the story of the 'bare-breasted virgins' dancing for the Swaziland king's attention at a time when I was pondering the questions of agency and empowerment in everyday life. I guess the problem can be trivialized like this: are we, the common people, powerful in our everyday lives or not? Powerful here can be understood in many ways: can we change or affect the political structures in which we live; can we change or challenge labels such as gender, ethnicity, race; can we resist economic or political repression, and so on.

The story of the bare-breasted virgins (and apologies for perpetuating this stereotyped, Westernized vision) is a good case in point. Trivializing: young women present themselves to the king in the hope of being chosen as a wife. There's undoubtedly a very patriarchal picture here: here you have these thousands of young women who offer themselves to the king. But there's also the empowering picture: the young girl who takes control of her life and goes to present herself to the king because this is a way of taking care of herself, of making it into the world of the rich, who do not have to work anymore.

I guess feminists know the story all too well: first there was the 'liberation'. Then there was the painful realization that oppression is not so easy and that some women - oppressed from one point of view - were in fact supporting the oppressive system precisely because that was their way of gaining an advantage, of having access to power - of being in control if you want.

I realize my story is superficial - but I think my dilemma stands: how can we talk about power from a micro level? How can we talk about empowerment - or oppression - from the level of individual people? Some have chosen to get rid of the term 'empowerment' altogether and to acknowledge that our agency is always within the constraints of the social system in which we live. We do have the power to act, to choose for ourselves, to resist those things we feel are oppressive; but this does not mean that we influence the oppression. We cope with it - and this is where our empowerment.

Photo credits: lumkness

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

On Being Cosmopolitan

I've always liked being a 'citizen of the world'. It simply made sense to me that one should be able to go wherever one pleases and call home wherever one chooses, and that this should be the end of it. I subscribed to ubi bene ibi patria.

I guess I felt strongly about this precisely because I was born in a place where one could not just pack and go wherever one wished. Experiences of humiliating lines at embassies and consulates, instances of realizing you are absolutely powerless in front of the bureaucrat behind the glass, moments of simply not understanding why you going somewhere else was such a big deal.

A recent article* by Craig Calhoun brought me back to thinking about feeling cosmopolitan. Cosmopolitanism - the discourse around cosmopolitan places, choices and lifestyles - is not as simple as it looks: it is not a matter of choice, but a matter of having that choice. As Calhoun puts it: "it obscures the issues of inequality that make ethnically unmarked national identities accessible mainly to elites, and make an easy sense of being a citizen of the world contingent on having the right passports, credit cards, and cultural credentials" (2008: 437).

As much as I like cosmopolitanism, I have to agree with Calhoun: it is not a matter of choice. It is a matter of passports, of the institutions regulating our lives and seting the parameters within which we are able to make our choices. It is wishful thinking more than lived reality. And that's why it stirs so much anger: it speaks of a world in which we are equal. But we know for a fact that we are not. We know that not all passports are equal, not to mention that not all people are equal. We know that we need money to go somewhere - and that for some, the cost of a train ticket (not to mention a plane ticket) is simply beyond one's possibilities.

So is cosmpolitanism something like white racism? Where you wonder why people still get bugged by racism, when you yourself are not (and hey, you are white by the way, and have never been part of the margins)? Is it a new form of mainstream dystopia (or myopia for that matter)? I confess I still like cosmpolitanism as an idea, even if I realize it is not a reality. I like the potential of imagining a world where identity and location are not intrinsically linked. But I doubt it is possible.

* Calhoun, C. (2008) "Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism,"
Nations and Nationalism 14(3): 427-448
Photo credits: Mishel Churkin

Thursday, August 28, 2008

On students, revolutions and nationalism...

When I was an undergraduate, I mostly devoted myself to studying really hard so that I can get good grades. Some years later, when I became a graduate student, I understood a lot about the context of my undergraduate years. Among others, it forcefully hit me that I was a nationalist. That I have never really critically engaged with this idea that there is a nation, and I am a part of it, thus sharing its features. Living in a multicultural country, I never registered the signs of multiculturalism. I should have: I would always travel past the Greek cultural center on my way downtown. I have heard a lot about the Gypsies - and would not shy away from calling them Gypsies to their face (not to mention the fear of being 'stolen' by one of 'them' or of having my gold earrings violently pulled from my ears by Gypsies...). And every now and then, stories of mixed ethnicity in my family were retold at family reunions.

Yet, I never registered them with a critical eye. They never told me that there is something else beyond the nation to which I was belonging. Hey, they never told me that my nation was to be questioned, dissected, or interrogated. I was a believer. But then I switched sides, and I 'blame' it all on grad school. My colleagues and professors made me want to look for more, made me think of those things I took for granted. I read, I learned, I started paying attention - first and foremost to myself. And I became convinced that - just as in 1848, students actively stirred the social unrest and participated in the shaping of their cities - students nowadays will once again shape their societies by challenging and deconstructing racism, intolerance, xenophobia, sexism, nationalism and so on. I embraced the May 1968 events with the (somehow bizarre) optimism that universities are the last bastion of critical thinking.

As I'm now doing some reading on nationalism, my own story as a student came back to mind. The article I'm just reading - Jon E. Fox (2006) "Consuming the Nation" - briefly reflects on the role of students in nationalist movements. Students, writes fox, are the "torchbearers of their respective nations". Yes, with the caveat that some of them do change into the critiques and challengers of nations altogether.

Photo credits: Somewhere on the internet...

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The constraints of national identity

I have discussed Wayne Norman's book on Negotiating Nationalism in a previous post. Here I want to talk about national identity - and why I find it so limiting, annoying and unsuitable for a world in which we would like to be mobile, to have our human dignity recognized and to challenge/ change/ sanction physical and systemic violence. In chapter 2, devoted to National Identity, Norman outlines some of the underlying assumptions, beliefs and sentiments that make the national identity. And here is exactly why I think we need to become creative, get rid of national identities and imagine new ways of mobilizing loyalties and justifying the social contract:

National identity, argues Norman, is based on the following sets of:
- beliefs: that there is a nation of which I am a member, which has a homeland. Furthermore, you cannot become a member of the nation just by moving there, although in some situations (certainly not if you are of Turkish background in Germany for instance) being born there out of immigrant parents may qualify you as a national. In other words, one remains eternally (or at least for the duration of one's life) defined by his/ her nation and his/her homeland. One is eternally doomed to be a stranger, should he or she decide to move somewhere else. One cannot never be 'part of us'. Now, I find this not only narrow-minded, but increasingly unsuitable for our contemporary world (read a very interesting article on this by Arash Abizadeh)

- still under the rubric of beliefs, national identity is informative - in that it tells something about yourself to those who do not know you. Now, again, this is not only paternalistic, but also absurd. If I tell you I'm Canadian, you'll feel you know something about me. But what you think you know are stereotypes. You'll make assumptions and you'll place a label onto me - without ever trying to get to know me. How can 33 million people be defined by some common traits?

- last, but not least, national identity means I'm morally obliged to my fellow-nationals - and more so than to non-nationals. This is what I would call a double standard: one cannot be committed to the idea of human rights, of individual dignity and respect derived from one's humanity, and to the idea of the nation. How can one believe in human rights, but apply two different sets of moral principles to co-nationals and 'others'?

- and finally, my favorite: even if I live in another country and become a citizen, I would always be a citizen of my nation.

No, I am not. I beg to differ. I realize I am embedded in a Western system of thinking, but I am who I am. I am not who the group decides for me to be. I may be marked by the things I have lived through, but the way I have experienced them is mine in a way too complex to even start describing. I share experiences, symbols and ideas with my friends, but not with 33 million people. And more likely my belonging to the middle class has marked my tastes and values more than anything else (well, class and the books I've loved to read throughout my life).

Now, before you jump and say: oh, you are so wrong, you are marked by your national identity in ways you cannot even began to grasp, through education and socialization, through being immersed in an universe of meaning and symbols yada yada... let me ask you to think of your own identity:

- You think (assuming you buying into the Western ontology) that you are a distinct human being. Do you think it's legitimate to have one morality for yourself and one for say your brother, your friend, your teacher - who are all 'distinct' and therefore 'others' to you?

- Are you exactly the same as you were 15 years ago? Have you reconsidered some of the things you believed in when you were a child?

- How do you react when others tell you who you are? When they tell you what you believe in, what are your traits, what and how you think?

Then why would you still buy into this national identity thing?

Friday, August 22, 2008

The male gaze

Broken Mystic, via Racialicious, wrote about the first female muslim Xmen character (hm, i just realized they are called 'men'...). She talks about how Dust may bring female muslim presences into the mainstream public sphere, only to quickly realize that it is in fact an object of 'male gaze' (as she puts it, male gaze refers to "female characters being depicted and presented in ways their heterosexual male writers, artists, and audiences would like to see them"). Or rather, a western heterosexual male gaze, where an image of the 'woman-in-burka' is becoming a label for muslim women.

I'm struggling with putting my thoughts together on yet another type of characters, the avatars of Second Life. If you've never heard of it, it's just an online virtual world where you interact with other people through an avatar you build and customize.

There's something very sexual about this world. Everyone is so fit, so sexy and so scantly dressed. Or at least that's how it appears to me. So, I'm torn between wondering how my own system of values and my own fears play into my view of the world. I see the liberating potential: you can feel empowered by building yourself any way you want and by interacting with others without any inhibitions/ constraints you may have in face-to-face communication. But I also see how feeling liberated by fitting into a particular shape of a woman is in fact reintroducing a very patriarchal vision, where women are first and foremost sex objects. Where women come to measure themselves up to this avatar ideal of big boobs, small waists and long legs, of weaving hair and perfect symmetry ...

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

It's not a 'bond', it's nationalism

I'm always surprised by how 'nationalism' does not feature in the North American vocabulary. It is as if the whole critical scholarship on nations and nationalism has been almost absent from the public discourse on this continent, maybe except references to Anderson's 'imagined community' (which I personally think are more a matter of being fashionable and quoting a popular author without really understanding where the author is coming from).

I read an article the other day on the Canadian Chinese diaspora's newly discovered bond with the former homeland. I'd like to challenge this title: it's not about 'fostering a bond' - it is all about plain and simple nationalism. In the article, a radio show host talks about how the Canadian Chinese audience is no longer willing to accept any criticism of China (and in particular things like human rights violation or censorship), accusing those who voice them of being traitors and diminishing the Chinese nation.

Mr. Kwan, who admits to a new-found sense of pride himself, said he worries the sentiments being expressed will be mistaken for "ugly Chinese nationalism" instead of shows of dignity and cultural pride.

I do understand that for some people there is a difference between 'ugly' nationalism (by which they generally refer to violent xenophobia) and patriotism. And I do understand that the latter can be a source of empowerment especially for those relegated to the periphery of the West (read Eastern Europe, 'Third World' countries etc.). But the only difference between the 'ugly' and the 'good' side of nationalism (yes, patriotism does count as nationalism - you are proud of your country, of its implied territorial boundaries, of its assumed common national values, ideas, sensibilities etc.) is the visible violence it may or may not entail.

As long as culture remains a political domain, as long as collective identities are the basis of ethnic politics, as long as we identify with an amorph and unknown mass of people called the 'nation' (with whom we share nothing in common, except we happen to inhabit a common state whose boundaries were arbitrarily drawn) - as long as these things are still there, in the background of feeling proud and feeling 'part of' the nation, then we remain nationalists. We are not 'open' and 'tolerant'. We see the others in terms of 'belonging to a particular group', on a particular territory. We defend our culture against the 'invasion' of the foreign elements (and I'm not saying here we should all accept cultural imperialism, quite on the contrary). We still remain subjugated by a national label which we have to carry with us like Sisif had to carry his stone.
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