Literary Theory and Dross...

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What if we're the Other?

September 11, 2001 was a day in American history that reinforced many people’s misconceptions of the Far East. Images of senseless violence, savagery, retribution, and religious extremism flooded mainstream media. Networks that are generally considered politically moderate chose to represent people from the Far East as a monolithic group inherently prone to violence. September 11th was not the first time that Westerners demonized the Far East. Historically, the Far East has been characterized as the Other by politicians, newspapers, cinema, visual art, literature, and in academia.
Literary theorist, Edward Said created the concept of Orientalism in order to characterize such misrepresentations. Orientalism is defined as: “A constellation of false assumptions underlying Western attitudes toward the Far East.” Said asserted that historically the West has constructed and perpetuated false and romanticized portrayals of “Arabo-Islamic” people and their culture. Western culture has been presented as the normative and the Far East has been deemed as the Other.
This paper will address how both older and contemporary films reinforce essentialized and deficit views of the Far East. Specifically it will discuss how The Son of the Sheik (1926), The Siege (1998), Rules of Engagement (2000), The Kingdom (2007), and Born into Brothels (2004) depict the Far East and its people as irrational, hypersexual, and violent. In contrast, the films portray the West as rational, democratic, and progressive. In sum, Western films seek to perpetuate the process of creating binaries between the East and West.
The Son of the Sheik reinforces stereotypes of the East as irrational, hypersexual, and violent. Art and film often portray or are inspired by the political climate of the era. The Son of the Sheik was released in 1926—which fell in between the era that England and France were given mandates for the administration of the Middle East by the League of Nations. Thus at the time of the film’s release, the West had heightened interest in Middle Eastern affairs.
England and France’s attempts to establish a permanent role in the region were thwarted by Arab nationalism, which, though poorly defined, was very active. This resistance against Western attempts at colonialism further reinforced an “us” versus “them” (or the Other) ideology. The increasing popularity of film allowed the West to utilize cinema as another medium to spread Orientalism.
The following clip portrays the sheik—a man that occupies a role of leadership in the Far East—as a savage and vengeful rapist. The female character, undoubtedly from the West, is portrayed as a defenseless and innocent victim.
The Sheik comes trotting through the desert on a camel and is dressed in stereotypical attire— with a turban and puffy “genie” pants. The film’s negative visual images were also reinforced with brief text stills. A statement such as, “An eye for an eye—a hate for a hate—that is the law of my father,” further highlights erroneous misconceptions of the Far East as generally ruthless and violent. The sheik also says, “Your gang will not collect from me this time, for once your kisses are free.” Such a statement would evoke hysteria from a Western audience and depicts Easterners as greedy (“collect”) and hypersexual (“free kisses”). Due to a lack of knowledge about issues pertaining to the Far East, the general public, in the 1920s took books and film as truth and would internalize these ideologies. One has to remember that film was a way to acquire both news and entertainment, so films with negative depictions had a greater impact on the general public.
Michel Foucault’s power-knowledge concept can serve as a theoretical framework for interpreting the clip. Foucault asserts: “Power is based on knowledge and makes use of knowledge. On the other hand, power reproduces knowledge by shaping it in accordance with its anonymous intentions. Power [re]creates its own fields of exercise through knowledge”. The West utilizes negative images (in film, media, etc.) to influence the general public’s conscious and subconscious ideas about the Far East. Perhaps this is done in order to justify its intentions of dominance over the Far East.
Over seventy years later, films such as The Siege (1998) and Rules of Engagement (2000) continued to propagate negative perceptions of the Far East, which reflected the fears and misconceptions of a war-ridden era. The last decade of the twentieth century was marked by the Gulf War (1990)—which was supposedly spurred by Westerners’ “heroic” efforts to prevent an Iraqi “dictatorship” from spreading to Kuwait. In 1993, terrorism arrived to America with the explosion of a car bomb in the parking lot underneath the World Trade Center. In 1998, (the same year that The Seige was released) the U.S. embassy in Tanzania was bombed and Islamic factions were blamed.
In the major motion picture, The Siege, the Far East is portrayed as generally violent and characterized by religious extremism. The trailer for the movie highlights the process of how Western films seek to categorize the Far East as the Other.

The trailer begins with an explosion in a major American city. This is followed by images of Islamic men praying on mats. The next clip is devoid of images. Instead, the entire screen is taken up by a black background with white letters that state: “WE NEVER HAD TO QUESTION OUR FREEDOM.” In mere seconds, the filmmakers have established a correlation between the infiltration of the Far East on American soil and “our” freedom. This is followed by images of chaos within the American city and a Far Easterner sitting calmly while praying. Soon after, the screen turns to black and white letters move forward towards the audience to announce, “ BECAUSE WE NEVER HAD A REASON TO.” In setting up such a juxtaposition between the West (peaceful, democratic, orderly) and the Far East (violent, irrational, and disorderly), the film clearly perpetuates the concept of an East/West binary which can never peacefully meld or coexist.
In turn, Rules of Engagement (2000), depicts Americans on Far Eastern soil. The clip depicts the United States’ military officers en route to “save” an ambassador under attack by a crowd of “savage” and “unruly” Far Easterners.

The clip promulgates ideologies of the West as the savior who heroically establishes order in the Far East. The film depicts Far Easterners as primitive (throwing rocks and sticks) but also as capable of utilizing modern forms of violence (guns and bombs). They are on rooftops, holding children as they shoot guns, and ultimately portrayed as incapable of holding a peaceful demonstration. In contrast, the West is presented as diplomatic and calm—even when under siege. Although the embassy is under gunfire, the Westerners (military) are portrayed as rational and this quality enables them to speedily accomplish their mission. The clip ends with the military firing their guns into a crowd, which includes women and children. According to Said, the West’s representations of the East are a conscious and determined effort at subordination.
The Kingdom (2007) continues to promote Orientalism in a post 9/11 perspective. A distinguishing feature of this film is the fact that Far Easterners are complicit in creating an image of the Far East as savage and violent.

Said explains how the Far East will internalize the negative images of themselves and begin to believe this stigma. Orientalism works insidiously to convince the “natives” that Western culture represents universal civilization. In the clip the Saudi officer says, “This is not America, your safety is our concern… It’s not safe down here.” Thus he has internalized the notion of Western superiority.
All of the previous clips were fiction and written to highlight specific messages or themes. Yet, Born into Brothels (2004), is a documentary and unwittingly portrays the Far East in Orientalist terms.

The film uses music, lighting, and setting as a way to contrast the mood. When the children are in the presence of the female photographer’s Western ideology, they seem carefree and happy. This teacher takes them on a field trip to the beach and the filmmaker chooses to place jovial music in the background. The bright sun and the splashing water convey a sense of arrival, accomplishment, and freedom that could only have been possible through a Western “savior.”
In contrast, as soon as the children return home, the mood of the film changes. The music is slow and somber and the lighting is dark. The girl that was highlighted as happiest on the beach trip is now shown despondently walking alone in a dark alley. Furthermore, the film depicts the children’s home life as irrational and violent. We see half-naked mothers (who happen to be prostitutes) yelling profanity to one another and questioning who is a bigger whore. It also depicts a child being beaten and his mother saying matter-of-factly, “Beat that son of a bitch.” Thus the film creates a feeling that hyper-sexuality, violence, primitiveness, and irrational behavior are the norm.
This is followed by a clip of the Western photography teacher going out of her way to get scholarships for the students to attend private schools. In her frustration with the children’s environment, the Westerner exclaims: “I’m not a social worker. I am not a teacher. Without help they’re doomed.” Within the Orientalism framework, the West is established as the rational savior and the East is the violent, irrational society. Ultimately, this creates the idea of the Far East as the Other and creates a hegemonic discourse.
In sum, Orientalism has stretched as far back as when Westerners touched Far Eastern soil. Edward Said states,

"So far as the United States seems to be concerned, it is only a slight overstatement to say that Muslim and Arab are essentially seen as oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Moslem life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. What we have instead is a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression," (Said, 39).

Said wrote this quote about thirty years ago and unfortunately little has changed. Unfortunately, the changes that have taken place are characterized by an intensification of Orientalism. In an era where mass media has increasingly taken precedence over literature and academic research, it is the responsibility of filmmakers to be more conscientious of avoiding the inclusion of clips or images that promote Orientalism. Said asserts that Western culture has a long history of having false and romanticized images of the Far East. Orientalism will remain prevalent without the urgency to complicate the current narrative that essentializes the “Other.” Perhaps we should take the advice of progressive Eastern scholars, such as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and open up the space for the subaltern to speak and explain their views of the West as the Other. This might eventually render the Other as powerless and insignificant.

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, vol. 1. Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1981 (92-102).

Said, Edward. Orientalism.Viking, New York. 1978.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?”.Columbia University Press, New York. 2010: 62-63

Sunday, March 7, 2010

"What's this picture saying?"


Bob: Hey June, wouldn't it be neat to take a ride like the locals?

June: Let's do it. Maybe we can have him search down a Starbucks for us. I can really use a Venti triple shot quad pump caramel frapaccino with extra whip. I'm so thirsty since the water here is unbearable.

Bob: Let's do it! The best part he'll do it for a fortune which is really a nickle to me back home. Haha God bless America. Excuse me little boy, we want a ride to the Starbucks!

Boy: Huh?

June: Starbuck-o comprendo?

Bob: I don't think they speak the espaniolie here honey. I'll just wave about some American greenbacks and that will get'er done.

June: Yea! I'm so excited. Nice to such a people building such a good work habit so young. Do them good, clean this place up, but good for him. Move along now little boy. We want coffee.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Longinus and Blade Runner

Ricardo Alvarez
Professor Wexler
English 436

In analyzing the clip of Blade Runner within Longinus’s view of the sublime, there is a direct correlation to the film. If one were to find what the essential aspect of the clip works within the framework there would have to attention placed on the monologue of the second character. Longinus states, “the ability to form grand conceptions, and the stimulus of powerful and inspired emotion” (Longinus 121). Within this four minute clip the main structure of sublime is fully present.
The very first words that are spoken are, “I’ve seen things you people would never believe,” (Blade Runner). This is creates a “grand conception” with the elucidation of human life knowing so little. The line incites a string of thoughts and allows for the viewer to form a perception based on their own life and experiences. Also, as a society that feels it is the most intelligent creature ever to live, there is a direct call of falsehood to that thought. The line itself provokes the concept of “grand” and allows for the clips to capture the audience one way or another. Such a statement has the weight to demand attention of the audience.
Longinus also speaks of “the stimulus of powerful and inspired emotions” (Longinus 121). Within the clip there is a shift from action to these exact emotions. The character begins to explain what he has seen and how it is unrecognizable to the other character, yet the conviction and raw emotion placed in this speech is so powerful Longinus couldn’t have written this better. After giving a list of all the things he’s seen, he continues to explain that they don’t mean anything. The character states, “All those moments will be lost in time like tears in rain, time to die,” (Blade Runner 2:52). This statement alone inspires some many thought and emotions. Comparing moments in time to tears and time to rain gives this clip the depth needed by Longinus to incite all the key elements of the sublime. Longinus writes, “for a piece is truly great only if it can stand up to repeated examination, and if it is difficult, or, rather, impossible to resist its appeal, and it remains firmly and ineffaceably in the memory” (Longinus 120). Each time one tries to break down this clip there are various interpretations possible. The main reason the clip remain relevant and withstands the test of time is that the words are timeless. They concept is profound and not too specific where it will be lost in time. It also utilizes one key idea that is universal to all— death. The concept of death is one that still bewilders people after thousands of years of existence. By placing death side by side with moments in time allows for the concept to trump all things prior to the statement. When he states that all the moments will fade like tears in rain he is expressing that time will erase all moments. Rain is basically the same as tears, yet the magnitude of rain will overpower tears. Tears seem monumental to individuals, yet rain is so much stronger the tears are insignificant in the grand scheme of life. The same concept is transferred to the moments in time he spoke of in the clip. All moments hold a piece of our memory, yet time is so vast that it will eventually erase all moments. Time is the strongest opponent in life. It never halts or falters.
Longinus believes that the writing has to remain imbedded in the reader’s (viewer’s) memory. Longinus writes, “… it remains firmly and ineffaceably in the memory,” (Longinus 120). There are three huge factors that will play to any human life— moments, time, and death. With the use of these forever-relevant topics to humans, this clip has prompted itself to instant classic due to its progressive concepts.
Longinus seems to have been writing the framework to writing, but there is also a sense of life framework. Like the sublime writing Longinus is calling for life itself should be sublime in those terms. This clip is sublime due to its ability to remain relevant in its concepts, yet like the clip time fades all. 28 years later Blade Runner seems to have lost it’s relevance to the youth of America and is fading like the clip expresses. A sense of foreshadowing or prediction of the film’s fate seem to have played out, but if we refer back to the clip and Longinus, the film “…remains firmly and ineffaceably in [my] memory” yet, it’s only a moment which time will eventually erase.

Works Cited:
Murray, Penelope, & Dorsch, T. (2000). Classical literary criticism. Penguin Classics.

Scott, Ridley. (Artist). (1982). Blade runner. [Web]. Retrieved from

Monday, January 25, 2010

What is theory?

When one asks the question of what theory is or is not, there is a quick reaction to just give the definition.
Well,theory |ˈθēərē; ˈθi(ə)rē|
noun ( pl. -ries)
a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, esp. one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained : Darwin's theory of evolution.
• a set of principles on which the practice of an activity is based : a theory of education | music theory.
• an idea used to account for a situation or justify a course of action : my theory would be that the place has been seriously mismanaged.
• Mathematics a collection of propositions to illustrate the principles of a subject

If one was to base their answer off the definition, there would be a limitation as to what theories can be applied to a subject so pliable as literature. Yet, some of these definitions can be applied in a general sense. Take for example: A system of ideas to explain something then we have to consider Killer's death explanations as theory, correct?

If we have a theory then evidence should follow to give that theory some validation. If the theory is just a group of ideas, then we would have millions of theories and not millions of ideas. I think theory separates itself from the idea with evidence. Such as the definition, theory can be an idea used to account for a situation or justify a course of action. If we were seeking an authors meaning behind a text, then an idea will lead us to find a "situation" that would elucidate the course of action. The theory may not be correct, but at least it has some substance with a clear direction of how the idea prompted the thought process.