Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Stereotypes on the Radio

Just listened to one of those highly stereotyped and utterly embarrassing radio moments. Each morning, the radio station I tune in pays the bills of listeners who sent them the respective bills. Today, they picked up a woman with a 'strange' name. Well, strange according to an English-speaking environment because it sounded Russian. So, the anchors keep on rambling about the name; they're not able to pronounce it, so they masquerade what sounds to them as a Russian accent. And they have a very good time with this: hey, it's not everyday you get to make fun of a Russian name.

Now, here's the irony: the lady calls in. "Oh, you have a Russian name" the achors are quick to confirm their stereotypes, anticipating some fun in the air with the name. But, surprise, surprise, the lady answers in a perfect English: "Yes, it is" and she goes on minding her own business. "At least we got the accent right", the anchors reply.

Duh?!? Well, in fact, they didn't; but that's another issue. The point is that, in spite of living in a multicultural society (hey, it's North America!), there still is a mainstream expectation that if your name sounds 'different' (read not Anglo-Saxon), you're not from 'here'. I've blogged in the past about the relation between 'language' and 'dialects' and 'accents' - a relation specific to the age of nationalism, where language becomes homogenized, swallows all other similar languages under the label 'dialects' and, thanks to an intellectual elite, becomes canonical, with a set of 'proper' speaking/ writing rules. It is against this background that accents become problematic (even if it seems they are just funny), as they betray the speaker as an "other", an "alien" in the corpus of the nation.

Photo credits: aloshbennett

Friday, January 23, 2009

Constructing Cultural Boundaries in Academia

The main paradigm in the study of communication remains undoubtedly Western. Perspectives from African (Asante, 1980) and Asian (Chen, 2006; Miike, 2006) worldviews have challenged the underlying Eurocentrism of the values embedded in the main paradigm: control, individualism, linearity, static view.

Chen (2006) talks about the alternative epistemology offered by Asian worldviews. He first goes about the identify the 'essence of Asian Communications', then discusses the 'yin and yang of Asian communication studies' and finally he proposes the 'Tao of Asian communications'.

I have a Western worldview, and that explains why yin and yang, Tao say very little to me. My sense of them is mostly from secondary literature and not first-hand experience. It is easy to mistrust them, because the information I get from such literature is not part of lived communal experience, which heightens my tendency to resist them.

Take for instance the concept of 'harmony' Chen describes as a main feature of "Asian communication". Exactly what is harmony? And how is harmony achieved? I have had this discussion over and over again: there are no human communities which do not have power structures and do not perpetrate violence to some. So, I'm suspicious of what 'harmony', 'whose' harmony, etc. Chen writes harmony is internalized by each individual as an understanding that we all are part of the whole, and this gives us a certain responsibility. Harmony implies "hard work, respect for learning, honesty, self-reliance, self-discipline, and the fulfillment of obligations", as well as "an orderly society, respect for authority, consensus, and official accountability" (2006, p. 298). Well, doesn't it sound exactly like the discourse legitimizing the feudal system? To each their place, that they have to accept.

We are talking generalities here. I am sure there are people living in Asia who are neither accepting of the social order and the status quo, nor eager to self-discipline themselves. Maybe the trouble is the application of 'harmony'. I'm also thinking the silent half of the Western world - women - have been recuperated by feminist literature as the workers of harmony in their family. 'Harmony', as a female value, may not be a visible value in the Western system of thought (hold on, what about feminism?) - but then, just because women were silenced, does it mean their values are not 'Western'? Oh, and to complicate matters: what am I say, there are no 'women' as a homogeneous category! ...

As I go on and read Chen's arguments, I'm resisting the idea of an 'essence of Asian communication'. I take his points that alternative worldviews have different normative universes; but I'm also thinking we do a gross generalization when we speak like this. Chen also recognizes the dilemma: "With such a vast geography and a great variety of cultures, and religions, it is extremely risky to generalize the essence of a so-called 'Asian communication'. However, in addition to the internal variety of Asian communication, evident similarities as well exist in it" (2006, p. 296).

And here is where he makes a choice, a choice based on his values and purposes: to talk about the 'essence of an Asian worldview', even when such an enterprise is problematic because of the internal diversity. Chen has a project - and it is that project which prompts him to draw the boundaries. He criticizes the imperialism of Western knowledge, and to do so, he needs to do two things: 1). to generalize Western knowledge; 2). to oppose to it an equally powerful generalization: Asian knowledge. As much as this is the source of empowerment (the source of the forcefulness and legitimacy of the argument), it is also the demise. The problem lies also in the underlying visions for generalizations: what are the criteria we choose to generalize? Based on what?

We always choose to see the similarities across some borders, across some geographic and linguistic boundaries, and not others. Indeed, the power structures in which we live prohibit us from this: there is a power (im)balance - or rather a power negotiation - between those boundaries Chen invokes (and thus constructs). But the reverse - there is always a reverse - is that we end up placing essentialized entities in opposition and conflict (going precisely against what Chen calls the 'essence' of Asian communication, namely achieving harmony).

Asante, M.K. (1980) "Intercultural Communication: An Inquiry into Research Directions." In D. Nimmo (Ed.) Communication Yearbook 4: 401-410
Chen, G.M. (2006) "Asian Communication Studies: What and Where to Now," The Review of Communication, 6(4): 295-311
Miike, Y. (2006) "Non-Western Theory in Western Research? An asiacentric Agenda for Asian Communication Studies," The Review of Communication 6(1/2): 4-31

Thursday, January 22, 2009

On First Ladies and First Gentlemen

What wore Michelle Obama? Is she:

...ready to assume the role of both first lady and fashion icon... (Globe and Mail, January 21, 2009)

Oh, the joys of being a woman... of having the world looking up to you just to check out the latest fashion trends... That must truly be what all women in the world aspire to: to reach the top and be scrutinized for their sense of fashion.

Quite on the contrary, those boring men whose wives - by some paradoxical twist of nature - end up at the top, are making it clear that they are of "no interest" to the public, as Joachim Sauer (none other than Angela Merker's spouse) pointed out. In fact, Mr. Sauer is an university professor (again, what's Michelle Obama's profession... hm, my brain didn't bother to register that rather useless information, after all, she is a woman...), who - imagine that!:

... is so allergic to publicity that he didn't bother to attend her inauguration in 2005. While she was being sworn in as arguably the world's most powerful woman, he was hunkered down in his chemistry lab in Berlin, though government officials insist he did tune in to watch the ceremony on television. (Washington Post, June 2007)

When in public, Mr. Sauer is 'entertaining' the wives of other EU leaders. Der Spiegel online didn't give us any details of Mr. Sauer's sense of fashion (is he a true fashion icon? is he setting the standards of male fashion in Europe?), but it did emphasize that Mr. Sauer was "an authority in the field of quantum chemistry".

Go, girls, go!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Mixed Feelings

Half of my social network is cheering for Obama. The other half may be paying attention, but goes on with daily life. I, for one, feel ambiguous. Across the ocean, people are feeling less emotional: an historic moment, yes (between us, the owl of Minerva only flies at dusk). But lots of skepticism over the future. In some parts of the world, people left their worries behind to rejoice and fill themselves with hope.

The King is dead. Long live the King!

I've heard this one a lot of times. And history teaches us to be cautious: rulers are embedded in a complex decision-making mechanism which does shape (yet without determining it fully) their vision and action.

I guess what scares me most is the need for mass catharsis. I've always been afraid of masses, and for good reasons, I think. Unlike the dominant scholastic paradigm of 'people's empowerment', I tend to notice the irrational, the violence and the collective hatred that masses for me encapsulate (yes, I do realize it is debatable, but this doesn't make it any less valid). That has been my experience, and the source of my worldview.

Today, I cannot escape my skepticism. Today, I feel the need for critical thinking. Maybe it's because I feel intellectuals should not be enrolled by politics - they should stand against it, warning of its propagandistic and manipulative strategies. This summer, in Barcelona, Philip Schlesinger gave an interesting talk entitled "Intellectuals and the Politics of Cultural Policy", which he summarizes in under a minute here (source: MediaResearch):

Monday, January 19, 2009

Nannies, Mothers and the Career Woman

A long, long time ago (one can say in a different lifetime), a psycho-therapist (pun intended) told me a woman needs to make a choice: either be a submissive Barbie-doll, fully embracing her duties of mother and wife - or be a career woman, with unshaved legs (no kiddin', that's what he said) and no sensitivity whatsoever (cause we all know that true women have to be sensitive).

I still remember pondering the dichotomy: either this, or that. But that's the trouble with dichotomies: if you let yourself caught into them, then you miss the point they insinuate altogether. The whole context of talking about women as either good mothers/ wives or careerists is a patriarchal one, which tries to control women's bodies (and souls) by prescribing categories in which they 'have to' fit.

A few nights ago, the either/or insinuated itself in an after-dinner conversation, when the mother said: "I don't know about this woman and how she takes care of her child! They have a nanny, you know, cause she's all traveling and she's just never there. And the father is working to, so probably he's quite busy. So the child is all alone with the nanny". So what if the child is left with the nanny? Shall I remind you that nannies are a long, long, long tradition (at least for the Western feudal aristocracy)? Shall I mention that in non-Western settings (and even Western ones) the women of the family - or of the community for that matter - all take tuns in taking care of children?

I simply
do not understand why is it that only women are supposed to take care of children - what about the men? Are they exempt from changing the diapers, making soup and answering the endless 'why' questions? Me, I was raised by one mom, so I have to confess how hard it is to understand (and accept) having more than one mom: I remember reading a book written by a guy born in Africa, who talked about the many mothers he had. The whole concept of motherhood was different, yet the child turned out to be just fine and grew up into an inspiring author.

I look at how some of my friends have distributed the burden of child-raising within the family, enrolling not only mother, sister and father, but also neighbors and friends - and it all makes sense! Why wouldn't you rely on cooperation? Yes, you want the right people around your child, but where did this nonsense about a woman needing to give up everything to take care of the child come from?

An acquaintance made the point crystal clear. Reconnecting after many years, I congratulated her on her career. She responded: "Oh, not that much of a career. Unfortunately, when one has children, one has to make sacrifices. But it's all worth it!" Is it? Hold on, I meant, why is it a matter of making sacrifices? At the risk of sounding rather naive, I'd say it is like this because women agree to see child-raising in terms of either being at home/ or being a career woman. I know of women who choose to stay at home, and to work from home at the same time. I know of women who just gave birth, and are traveling across the world. I know of women who went on to pursue their masters and to change the world, while the children are left with their extended families. And I remember my mom was a career woman, something I took great pride in as I grew up.

I've seen that having a child needs not be about giving yourself up. It needs not be about 'making sacrifices'. And it simply does not mean that the child has to be raised by the biological mother: father, siblings, grandparents, and yes, nannies, are there to help out. And there's no harm with that. No harm, unless you cannot escape the patriarchal rule of motherhood: either a good mom and wife, or a career woman...

Photo credits: kevindooley

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Do Nationalists Have a Sense of Humor? Check Out Entropa...

I'd say no, nationalists have no sense of humor when it comes to that abstraction they hold so dear to their heart: the nation. An abstraction, true, but with a hard-to-deny material presence: the nation-state. So, whenever they come across stereotyped images of their beloved nation - negative images, I should stress - nationalists get even more obnoxious. They complain 'the Others' don't understand them (well, how could they, given that they are 'the Others'). They find themselves collectively humiliated and feel the bitter taste of what they do to 'Others': they're lumped together under a label they dislike.

Entropa does just that. A modern art exhibition recently opened in the heart of Europe, it dares to depict Bulgaria through an installation of oriental toilets, France as a continuous complainer, Italy as a collective soccer-obsession and so on, and so forth. Oh, and it dares to skip the UK altogether... My oh my, what courage. Of course, the Bulgarian government gets all offended and presses for an official reaction. Ironically, in so doing, they only play within the boundaries of the stereotype: an oriental (put your Western glasses on, and read 'backward' - apologies for perpetuating the violence yet again) 'nation' with conservative views. Constipated? (Disclaimer: I don't mean to pick on any one in particular, but these are the actors of this story...).

I, for one, would like to congratulate the artist for his resistance, for his wit and for his humor.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Work of Art

Some time ago, I saw an exquisite dance show. "Shadows of Light" is an amazing representation - it left me with the feeling that the dancer controls each and every muscle - better, every cell! - in his body. But during the show, I also felt alienated, unable to comprehend and to relate. In the section in question, the artist dances on the stage; on the background, a multimedia projection follows the naked artist dancing on a white bed. In the beginning, there's only a tiny spot of blood staining the whiteness. As he continues dancing, the spot grows and grows, covering his entire body until everything turns red.

My first reaction was "yuck!". I checked with my party, and they said "yuck" too. I had a feeling the dance had something to do with menstruation. But I couldn't escape the feeling that it also had to do something with giving birth. And maybe also violence.

The juxtaposition of menstruation and violence upsets me. I've written here about menstruation - moon time - as a celebration of being. Trying to make sense of my own reaction, I thought that maybe it is the patriarchal underpinning of seeing menstruation as pain, as violence, as blooding that annoyed me. I cannot say for sure, because all such rationalizations are meant to partly make sense of something embodied and pre-cognitive. My rejection or shut down can also be caused by the association of this blood with giving birth.
I've always wondered why giving birth must be so painful and violent way - and couldn't find any reasonable answer.

I also thought the whole dance could have had something to do with the myth of androgyny; hence the juxtaposition of a male body covered in blood.
While I'm writing this, it hits me that I saw similar images on campus, paraded by the anti-abortion coalition. They were bloody, but that was not what impressed me: the idea of someone else deciding over my body and telling me I cannot have an abortion, that was the most disgusting part. Whenever I see such bloody, fetus-like images, all I can think about is patriarchal control over women's bodies.

I might have missed the significance of the blood. Maybe - as with other forms of modern art - I missed the whole point of the art project: it's not about meaning-making, but about feelings. Maybe it was meant to unsettle and upset. Maybe it was meant to provoke. When art breaks away with convention, frustrating our expectations and violating our sense of 'normalcy', "the audience is frequently offended or outraged by the way an artist has broken artistic convention, in just the same way as they would be if the artist had been socially impolite to them" (Fiske, 1990, p. 15).

But I was left wondering about the things that make us 'click'. A good work of art is, for me, one that leaves you wondering. And even if I didn't like the blood, I am still wondering...

References: Fiske, J. (1990)
Introduction to Communication Studies. 2nd Edition (2004) London, New York: Routledge.

Photo credits: Bogdan I. Stanciu

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Phone Etiquette

Julian Hopkins blogs about being introduced to phone etiquette in Malaysia:

What things were very different for me here?
• Not introducing oneself at the beginning of the call.
• Asking for personal information – what was ‘Mrs Wong’ doing, what’s her handphone number.
• The lack of polite niceties, such as ‘Hello’, ‘please’ and – in particular – putting down the phone without saying goodbye! That one took a lot of getting used to :-O I eventually learnt that conversations usually end with the end of the matter in hand, and a word such as ‘OK’, or ‘Thanks’.

Initially, I would find myself being distinctly disgruntled at such calls, in particular the perceived rudeness of (for me) cutting off a conversation without proper disengagement. I learnt to deal with it, and now often don’t say goodbye, depending on who I’m talking to...
From my own experience, I know it is hard to deal with such 'differences' in everyday life. Since such etiquettes are tied with notions of politeness and proper behavior, the easiest way of dealing with them is to label them as 'improper'/ 'rude'. I remember several instances when I was annoyed - if not irritated - with people on the other side of the phone: some seemed (to me) to 'demand' things. Others would never say 'hi' or 'goodbye'. And yet others sounded harsh and insisted on something that I had already explained was not the case or was not possible.

Writing this post, I'm thinking how all these emotions and reactions have to do with that complex boundary which delimits the norm from the difference. The 'right' ways of doing things are definitely embodied, connected to our emotions as well as our chemical responses (yeah, the rush of adrenaline when I feel pissed off). This only makes the feeling that 'this is right/ wrong' stronger: after all, we 'feel' it.

The hardest thing when moving from one context of practices to another is understanding that yours are by no means the best or the righteous. But I feel there is quite a gap between rational understanding and enacting the consequences of realizing this in everyday life encounters.
Add to Technorati Favorites