Category Archives: Culture

The Only Way is Essex meets bell hooks. Yes, really. #TOWIE

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The Essex girl and her commercial manifestation in the ‘structured reality’ show The Only Way is Essex, subverts notions of subcultures as ‘cool’. Rather, her middle class comfort and extravagantly ‘bad’ taste, represents a new kind of “semantic disorder” (Hebdige 1979, 90). Boundaries of money, class and taste are transgressed by the Essex girl; The Only Way is Essex serves to redraw these old distinctions. This essay establishes the Essex girl as a subcultural category, evidencing the markers of subcultural status: bricolage, identification, and perceived deviance. The Essex girl will be shown to have been incorporated by the dominant culture in two ways: the commodity form (The Only Way is Essex as a cultural product), and the ideological form (the situation of the show’s ‘characters’ within traditional family structures, and the sexual naturalization). Parallels will be drawn between bell hooks’ essay “Eating the Other” (1992), and the gender and class issues raised by the cultural incorporation of the Essex girl.

Germaine Greer offers a floral analogy for the outward appearance of the Essex girl, saying “the poppy is a real Essex girl of a flower, too loud, too bright, with too much eye-make-up “ (Greer 2006). But Chris Irvine of The Telegraph describes ‘Essex girl’ as a pejorative term, saying that the group can be identified by “significant amounts of fake tan”, giving them an orange appearance (2010). De Certeau may have attributed off-label use of a cultural product to the process of bricolage, a form of cultural subversion. He states that “users make (bricolent) innumerable and infinitesimal transformations of and within the dominant cultural economy in order to adapt it to their own interests and their own rules” (De Certeau 1998, xiv). The Essex girl’s bodily manipulation (Botox, implants), and the Bindi-like phenomenon of ‘Vajazzling’, could be considered forms of “sociocultural production” (De Certeau 1998, xiv) and as such, empowering acts of resistance (Hall 1981, 228-9).

Dick Hebdige describes subculture “not only as a metaphor for potential anarchy ‘out there’ but as an actual mechanism of semantic disorder: a kind of temporary blockage in the system of representation” (Hebdige 1979, 90). Irvine’s article “What is an Essex girl?” summarises the many derisive conceptions of the Essex girl as a threat to good taste. He describes her as wearing “low-cut tops and a short skirt, complemented with white stilettos, and can often be seeing (sic) dancing round a handbag at a club with their friends, usually enjoying alcohol”, as though their transgression of sartorial codes” and deviant behaviours are semantically linked (Hebdige 1979, 93). While bell hooks’ essay is concerned mainly with the concerns of Black America, her arguments can be applied to the incorporation of the Essex-girl-as-‘Other’.

Hebdige describes two strategies for dealing with the ideological “threat” of the subculture. He says

First, the Other can be trivialized, naturalized, domesticated. Here, the difference is simply denied (‘Other- ness is reduced to sameness’). Alternatively, the Other can be transformed into meaningless exotica, a ‘pure object, a spectacle, a clown’ (Barthes, 1972) (Hebdige 1979, 97).

The Only Way is Essex provides much evidence of normalization by way of situating the Essex girl in the family; The show features numerous appearances of an accepting and approving ‘Nanny Pat’, recurring inclusions of mothers in protective roles as various dramas unfold, and cousin ‘Chloe’ in an educational and protective role in relation to young and naive ‘Joey’). This normalization removes the group’s subversive power, presenting the girls as ‘one of us’. However, hooks’ essay provides a structure for addressing the trivialization of the Essex girl. Their TV representation, with its focus on cosmetic procedures and beauty, reduces Essex girls to sexual objects. The ostensible intimacy of the ‘reality’ TV format, the in-home access to intimate conversations enables a kind of vicarious sexual relationship, such as that described by hooks. She says

the culture of specific groups, as well as the bodies of individuals, can be seen as constituting an alternative playground where members of dominating races, genders, (and here I would include ‘classes’) sexual practices affirm their power-over in intimate relations with the Other (hooks 1992, 25).

hooks’s views on sexual and symbolic incorporation cross in an interesting way with the consumption of the Essex girl as a mediated product. hooks describes sexual naturalization and incorporation as placing an “emphasis on seduction and longing where the desire is not to make the Other over in one’s image but to become the Other” (1992, 25). While hooks is speaking about race tourism, the proximity of the Essex girl in the viewer’s living space allows the consumer to temporarily transgress both geography and class, stripping the Essex girl of that which gives her subcultural uniqueness.

At first the show seems to be a fairy tale come true for the Essex girl. Appearing to go from insignificance to fame and fortune, she provides ideological support for the capitalist dream (hooks 1992, 26).  However, the cast have voiced similar annoyances regarding exploitation, to those voiced by Greg Tate in his denunciation of the appropriation of Black culture, ‘Nigs R Us, or How Blackfolk Became Fetish Objects’ (2003). The ‘TOWIE’ cast received no payment for the first series, and were hit with a ‘tax’ payable to the show’s producers, for subsequent endorsement deals (Gould 2012). Again, hooks points out the ideological ‘cost’ of this kind of commercial recognition:

whatever difference the Other inhabits is eradicated, via exchange, by a consumer cannibalism that not only displaces the Other but denies the significance of that Other’s history through a process of decontextualization (hooks 1992, 31).

Germaine Greer published a celebration of the Essex girl in The Observer, denouncing essentialism and acknowledging the socio-cultural geography which unites the group. She states

Essex girls, who turn middle-class notions of distinction on their heads, are anti-celebrities. No matter how much cash might be sloshing through her household, she is working-class and means to stay that way. She is not only not interested in social climbing, she doesn’t know there’s anywhere to climb to. Essex isn’t full of country clubs that she can’t join (Greer 2006).

The Only Way is Essex gives consumers a product edited to reflect their ideologies, and serves as a barrier, erected to protect the ‘hip’ from the new middle class. hooks says that “by eating the Other . . . one asserts power and privilege” (hooks 1992, 36) and this product certainly aims to demonstrate that ‘taste’ is not one of the guarantees of capitalism. Vicarious sexual consumption, and the incorporation of an ‘essential’ Essex girl into mainstream culture is an attempt to disable her transgressive power and independence. However, the fighting words of Essex girl Greer indicate that the place and its subculture will remain, for now, a site of struggle, resistance and transformation (Hall 1981, 228).

References

De Certeau, Michel. 1988. “General introduction” in Practice of Everyday Life translated by Steven Rendall. xi-xxiv. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gould, Lara. 2012. “TOWIE stars in tax revolt: TV bosses tell stars to hand over 15 per cent of earnings … and Shuttup!”. Daily Mail Online. Accessed March 17.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2096644/TOWIE-stars-revolt-fame-tax-TV-boss-tell-stars-hand-15-earnings—Shuttup.html

Greer, Germaine. 2006. “Essex girls” We’re the best”. The Observer. Accessed March 17. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2006/feb/05/britishidentity.gender

Hall, Stuart. 1981. “Notes on deconstructing the popular” in People’s History and Socialist Theory edited by Raphael Samuel. 227-240. Boston: Routledge.

Hebdige, Dick. 1979. “Subculture: The unnatural break” in Subculture: The Meaning of Style. 90-99. New York: Methuen.

hooks, bell. 1992. “Eating the other: Desire and resistance.” In Black Looks: Race and Representation. 21-39. Boston: South End Press.

Irvine, Chris. 2010. “What is an Essex Girl?” The Telegraph. Accessed March 17. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/7368909/What-is-an-Essex-Girl.html

Lime Pictures. 2010. The Only Way is Essex. Accessed March 17. http://www.youtube.com/user/TOWIEtv

Tate, Greg. 2003. “Nigs r us, or how blackfolk become fetish objects” in Everything But The Burden: What White People are Taking from Black Culture. 1-14. New York: Broadway Books.

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It’s time to notice the Elephant. Again.

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Gus Van Sant, in his film Elephant, combines steadicam tracking shots with long takes to create ethically sympathetic characters. The technique also allows him to use multiple framing devices and points of view in the one shot. The following analysis focuses on the shot of the character Nathan, from 10”45’ to 13”32’, which can be viewed by clicking this link (Van Sant 2003). The film is a fictional recreation of the Columbine Massacre of 1999. David Edelstein of Slate Magazine argues that Van Sant employs formalist, minimalist technique to engender detachment (Edelstein 2003). I question whether Edelstein is confusing authorial morality with filmmaking ethics, an expectation that Van Sant’s personal moral standing on such events should be evident (Anderson 2012, 2). I will argue that Van Sant’s formal choices create a definite air of foreboding, senselessness and loss.

The tracking of the character, Nathan, frames his journey through the school in mostly medium close up, from behind; the viewer sees what Nathan sees, and sees Nathan himself. The mundanity of the surroundings, conversations and people included in the frame give him an ‘every-teen’ quality, while the proximity of the viewer to the subject gives Nathan a distinct identity. The effect is that the impending loss of life is both societal (a loss of innocence) and specific (the loss of the loved individual). The tracking is slow and smooth, mirroring the lazy meandering of a carefree, teen life, and “forc(ing) the viewer to dwell” on its impending loss (Bordwell and Thompson 2008, 203).

The long take (almost two minutes) has the effect of pronouncing variations to framing. Viewers witness contrasting scopophilia (Nicholls 2000, 35), achieved by transition to a medium shot of a group of girls from Nathan’s point of view; through the frame of Freudian psychoanalytic theory, we may read this choice as signifying reproductive loss (Nicholls 2000, 36). Bordwell and Thompson note the contrast between the use of long takes and the “disorienting” elliptical cuts in the film, where Van Sant presents the killers’ home lives (Bordwell and Thompson, 2008, 203). Edelstein expressed frustration that the characters were crafted to be “totally unmemorable”, however my experience of Van Sant’s formal choices made apparent the universal qualities of teenaged experience, and made the killer’s contrasting abandonment and extinguishment of this life appear all the more senseless.

References

Anderson, Nicole. 2012. ‘Week 8: Film and Ethics’. CLT120 Vision, Visuality and Everyday Life. Macquarie University Lecture. Accessed January 13. http://ilearn.mq.edu.au/pluginfile.php/1654234/mod_resource/content/1/Week%208%20Film%20and%20Ethics%20PDF.pdf

Bordwell, David, and Kristin Thompson. 2008. Film Art. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Edelstein, David. 2003. ‘The Kids in the Hall’. Slate. Accessed January 13.  http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/movies/2003/10/the_kids_in_the_hall.html

Nichols, Bill. 2000. ‘Film theory and the revolt against master narratives’ in Reinventing Film Studies, edited by Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams, 35-52. London: Arnold.

Van Sant, Gus. 2003. Elephant. Accessed January 13. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yr0mcWY0YBU

Auratic Withering. Yes, that’s a thing.

Walter Benjamin lamented the advent of mass reproduction, saying that it ‘withered’ the aura of an original artwork (Schirato and Webb 2004, 123). However, context and use value are what fundamentally separate the forms; reproduction can actually “revalue” an original work by contradistinction to a mass produced object (Pugliese 2013, 6). A ‘Mona Lisa’ coffee mug is not ‘The’ Mona Lisa – it is a coffee mug with an image of the Mona Lisa on it (Fig. 1-2). The reproduction is mass homage: people want to drink hot beverages from her, and as such, mass reproduction increases the aura of the original work exponentially.
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Fig. 1. Not the Mona Lisa.                                          Fig. 2. Not a pipe.

If anything, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa suffers from ‘auratic withering’ (Benjamin in Schirato and Webb 2004, 123) because the very ‘craft’ viewers come to The Louvre to see has become something of the order of spectacle (Gentleman 2004), which Benjamin would no doubt find ironic, the term ‘spectacle’ being more traditionally associated with popular culture (Schirato and Webb 2004, 115). It is hard to imagine the aura of authenticity reaching the viewer from behind bulletproof glass, in a crowd of hundreds being shuffled through by security. Schirato and Webb talk about the cult value of art (Schirato and Webb 2004, 118); the Mona Lisa combines this abstract quality with the more popularly accessible quality of ‘pricelessness’, rendering art fetishism, in her case, somewhat of an extreme sport.

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Fig. 3. The ‘spectacle’ of the Mona Lisa

The work of Mark Rothko, to me, exemplifies the distinction between the sacredness of the original and the reproduction: I don’t believe a Rothko is reproducible without losing most of its communicative value. Critics like Harold Rosenberg believed that Minimalist works were a communication direct from the artist’s’ subconscious, the purity of the meaning defying language (Wolf 2013). Rothko’s work has paradoxically taken on what Schirato and Webb term “quasi-religious significance” (2004, 119). As testament, Houston philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil founded The Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, an all-faith meditative space established to “inspire people to action through art and contemplation.”

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Fig 4. The Rothko Chapel.    Fig. 5. The chapel is non-denominational

I at once value the original and the copy. For example, I have in my home a poster of a Fischli and Weiss installation from their retrospective at Tate Modern in 2007. In a characteristically postmodern way, I experience the memory of the pleasure of high art through my mass produced poster: it inspires ‘lowbrow’ sentimentality in me! The copy is evidence of the aura of the original. Viewer engagement with reproductions is even more vivid if one has actually seen an original. For those with little knowledge of ‘high art’, an apron printed with Michelangelo’s David might just be a guilty giggle.

Without reproduction, many great works would be unseen by the world and that would be a pity; art would have inevitably become more elitist (Schirato and Webb 2004, 128). ‘Value’ is highly subjective and can only be assessed by examining what is present in an original and what is enabled by a copy, then contemplating the personal satisfaction derived from each, or indeed both. Denouncing reproductions as kitsch is a class judgement in disguise, and is culturally limiting – after all, if we didn’t embrace kitsch, we wouldn’t have John Waters.

References

Gentleman, Amelia. 2004. ‘Smile, please’. The Guardian. Accessed January 6. http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2004/oct/19/art.france

Schirato, Tony, and Jen Webb. 2004. Reading the Visual. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin.

Pugliese, Joseph. 2012. ‘Week 5: Technologies of Visual Reproduction’. CLT120 Vision, Visuality and Everyday Life. Macquarie University Lecture. Accessed December 14.  http://ilearn.mq.edu.au/pluginfile.php/1654238/mod_resource/content/1/Week%205%20Technologies%20of%20Visual%20Reproduction%20PDF.pdf

Rothko Chapel. 2013. ‘About the chapel’. Accessed January 6. http://www.rothkochapel.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3&Itemid=31

Wolf, Justin. ‘Modern Art Concept: Media Purity’. The Art Story. Accessed January 6. http://www.theartstory.org/definition-media-purity.htm

Selling normality – racialized healthcare in visual culture

all together smokes layered blog

A cursory reading of the Give Up Smokes for Good awareness campaign by South Australian Drug and Alcohol Services shows strong, successful, overtly Aboriginal sporting and acting celebrities, confronting Indigenous youth about the futility of smoking. This paper, however, is an attempt to invoke a less docile reading. Elements such as framing, context and casting, facial characteristics, design, and the presentation and subtext of type layers, will be analyzed in relation to the terms ‘normalization’ and ‘the gaze’. The creators of this campaign have applied a visual strategy traditionally associated with marketing and consumption, to an awareness campaign designed to change behaviour. The following analysis supports the theory that the participants’ gaze, while an attempt at ‘cut-through’ via “subject-to-subject recognition” (Kaplan in Hawthorn 2004, 139), is complicated by the forces of global, normative culture.

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Foucault’s use of them term ‘the gaze’ describes the power relationship between the viewer and the subject (Sturken and Cartwright 2009, 442). For women as subjects in film, the male gaze would infer objectification of a female subject (Hawthorn 2004, 138); surveillance cameras denote a controlling gaze (Sturken and Cartwright 2009, 108); ethnic typological photography exerts a colonial gaze (Pugliese 2012, 6). Schirato and Webb explain that “while the notion of the scientific gaze refers to a set of operations that help produce the visual world, the concept of normalization extends this operation to take into account how the effects of that gaze are manifested socially, culturally and politically” (Schirato and Webb 2004, 140). An initial reading of the Give Up Smokes for Good campaign suggests an authorial intent to establish a mutual gaze, however further investigation reveals oppositional elements (hooks in Hawthorn 2004, 139).

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Rejecting the passivity of the colonial gaze (Pugliese 2012, 8), the subject confronts the viewer from within the image, interpellating their young, Indigenous intended-audience. However, the campaign creators have asked subjects to ‘oppositionally gaze-on-demand’. In contemporary artist Tracey Moffatt’s Nice Coloured Girls, the gaze is directed onto lewd, white Australian males hoping to indulge in some Indigenous exoticism (Moffatt 1987). But while Moffatt creates a self-authored representational corrective of female Indigeneity, the creators of this campaign do not hail from a culture equipped to enable Indigenous self-management of the gaze. The portraits are compositionally reminiscent of iconic images of oppression, like the film rendition of George Orwell’s Big Brother and Shepard Fairey’s OBEY street posters featuring Andre the Giant. The omnipotence of their eye contact surveils the viewer. The effect, however, is that the normalising authorial intent undermines the potency of the gaze, mostly empowering institutions with vested interests in normalization.

Schirato and Webb explain normalisation as “the ways in which discourses, ideas and practices associated mostly with the government and other sites of power . . . establish norms against which people are measured (and measure themselves) to determine whether they are ‘normal’. (2004, 196). This concept is linked closely with what Foucault called biopower. Foucault believed that administering health care, the labour market, and the military, were all more controllable if people managed their own health and behaviour (in Sturken and Cartwright 2009, 109-110). People outside ‘norms’ pose control issues, are potentially unproductive and costly; Self-surveillance is an extremely economical way for societies and the powers which control them to manage bodies. Not only is the notion of a racialized healthcare campaign in and of itself normalising, the visual analysis of this campaign reflects the roots of normalization in science, and provides clues about the ways in which biopower is catalysed by contemporary aspirational culture.

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The full face close-up portraits of “hand-picked” (Campaign Brief 2012) subjects suggest an authorial intent to establish a kind of confrontational intimacy with the intended audience: young Indigenous smokers. The photographs, with their high level of detail and lack of context, have “evidentiary status”, providing ‘scientific’ proof of the good health of the subjects (Pugliese 2012, 3). The cropping of contextual elements and the stylised design also create the effect of stripping the subjects of individual identity and diversity. Skin tones are suspiciously homogenous (as a result of post-production or careful casting, the viewer cannot be sure), and the set appears to be lit to darken already-serious eyes. Pores and hair are visible, suggesting ‘authenticity’, however these details give the images an equally ethnographic quality, reminiscent of American frontier photographer Edward S. Curtis’ cataloguing of ‘Indian-ness’ (Vizenor 2000). The ethnographic documentary recording of the subject has a dehumanising effect, further eroding the intended power of the gaze.

Celebrity plays an overt and covert role in normalization (Schirato and Webb 2004, 147): celebrities play a crucial role in capitalist hegemony when they are paid to endorse products, but in this example, they have been co-opted to encourage self-surveillance. As such, these subjects are complicit in marketing ‘normality’ to their cultural group. The advertisements use ‘aspirational’ subjects, with campaign credits placed at the bottom of a ‘hero’ image; The layout is suggestive of film poster design, creating an intertextual link between the campaign’s message and stardom. The messages inherently associate being smoke-free with super-normal success, with the text of the messages inseparable (graphically and symbolically) from the subjects: The subjects live through the message. It is interesting to note the lighter coloured skin of the message’s transparent text layer – a Derrida devotee might read the skin as being symbolically ‘purified’ by the text, light (as binarily opposed to dark) being morally the privileged tone.

Kriger posits that Indigenous health inequalities are actually “biological expressions of race relations” (in Patychuk 2011, 8). Diane Patychuk’s report on (American) Indigenous health equality places much emphasis on recognising diversity in the creation and implementation of racialized health promotion programs (Patychuk 2011). She cites racism, poverty and food security as just some of the factors at the core of health inequality for Indigenous people (Patychuk 2011, 6). As such, celebrity-surveillance and the simplistic conflation of fame, success and good health seem like dangerously wasted time and resources. Analysis of these images, with their omnipotent gaze following the intended subject, hail an Indigenous panopticon, employing Aboriginal eyes in the hope of recruiting yet more “docile bodies” (Sturken and Cartwright 2009, 110).

References

Campaign Brief. 2012. ‘Drug & Alcohol Services SA targets indigenous youth in anti-smoking campaign via Jamshop’. Campaign Brief. Accessed December 14.

Hawthorn, Jeremy. 2004. A Glossary of Contemporary Literary Theory. London: Arnold.

Moffatt, Tracey. 1987. Nice Coloured Girls. Accessed December 14.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fjj5uVr3PBs

Patychuk, Diane. 2011. ‘Health Equity and Racialized Groups: A Literature Review.’ Health Nexus. Accessed December 14. http://www.healthnexus.ca/projects/building_capacity/HealthEquityRacializedGrps_Literature_Review.pdf

Pugliese, Joseph. 2012. ‘Week 3 Scientific Visuality and the other’. CLT120 Vision, Visuality and Everyday Life. Macquarie University Lecture. Accessed December 14.  http://ilearn.mq.edu.au/pluginfile.php/1654228/mod_resource/content/1/Week%203%20Scientific%20Visuality%20and%20the%20other%20PDF.pdf

Schirato, Tony, and Jen Webb. 2004. Reading the Visual. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin.

Sturken, Marita  and Lisa Cartwright. 2009. Practices of Looking. New York: Oxford University Press. http://www.campaignbrief.com/2012/04/drug-alcohol-services-sa-targe.html

Vizenor, Gerald. 2000. ‘Edward Curtis: Pictorialist and Ethnographic Adventurist’. Accessed December 14. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/award98/ienhtml/essay3.html

#itriedtobeauthenticbut

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“I would love to think that a highly traditional Australian Aboriginal, who is nevertheless charismatic and inspirational in modern Australia as well, might enter the Federal Parliament.” – Tony Abbott (ABC News 2012)

Statements like this are easy targets for critical analysis. However, global modes of dissent have made it possible to address such statements as ultimately dialogic, with media like Twitter enabling timely and highly visible oppositional responses. This paper demonstrates how the politics of Tony Abbott’s statements, and the subsequent creation of the hashtag #itriedtobeauthenticbut, can be understood using whiteness theory. Tony Abbott’s comments will be framed as a product of Australia’s culture of ‘tolerance’. Tweets in response will be examined with reference to key issues in whiteness theory, namely invisibility, whiteness as property and issues of power in representation. The ‘conversation’ shall be treated as a single cultural text, or dialogue, but ‘politics’ will be shown to be multifaceted, that is, not only concerned with governance, but infiltrating power structures in media and popular culture.

Tony Abbott’s statements, as reported by ABC News, represent an ill-received attempt at token ethnic engineering (2012). Apparently Abbott underestimated the diversity of Indigenous identity, delineating Aboriginal politicians as being exclusively “urban” or “authentic”. His comments fit perfectly into Hage’s theory of tolerant, multicultural Australia as White fantasy (1998). Hage believes that tolerance, as the central tenet of multiculturalism, is founded on a racist power imbalance. Hage cites Preston King: “Where we empower an agent to be tolerant, we empower him equally to be intolerant” (in Hage 1998, 9). Abbott beneficently ‘invites’ more ‘authentic’ Indigenous politicians into his space, namely parliament. As Hage’s paper makes clear, Abbott’s comments “confirm an image of the White Australian as a manager of national space” (1998, 91).

Ten years ago there may have been quiet and personal outrage on the parts of Indigenous individuals. However last week’s participatory response via Twitter sparked a national debate, with traditional media stoushing against individuals taking collective action, and even a well-known Indigenous academic attacking dissenters (Robinson, Kelly and Burns 2012). The hashtag backlash quickly trended, albeit only in urban areas (Pearson 2012b). The instigator of the Twitter response, who goes by the handle @Ebswearspink, quipped that “The days of marching in the street for indigenous rights are over…But change is happening when people aren’t looking” (in Harmer 2012). The statement seems at best simplistic: As Hardt and Negri posit, global participatory media contains its own politics and power imbalances: the language of dissent is available only to participants in the dominant culture, in this case Indigenous players on the right/white side of the global digital divide (in Schlunke 2008).

According to Cheryl Harris, whiteness is intrinsically linked to entitlement (1993). She explains the roots of whiteness in law in the USA, saying:

“According whiteness actual legal status converted an aspect of identity to a vested interest. The Law’s construction of whiteness defined and affirmed critical aspects of identity (who is white); of privilege (what benefits accrue to that status); and, of property (what legal entitlements arise from that status)” (Harris 1993, 1725).

Whiteness is also characterised by invisibility. O’Connell elaborates, saying that whiteness is “unspoken”, and that “A condition of privilege is the capacity to have one’s identity left uninterrogated” (2007, 36). But Audrey Thompson points out that if the privileges of the white are threatened, their whiteness becomes hypervisible (2001). This was exemplified in Andrew Bolt’s opinion piece “White is the New Black” (2009). Bolt’s position was that those he named were attempting to benefit materially from both white privilege, as a result of their lighter skin, and their Aboriginality, simultaneously; his tone implied that this was akin to rorting. Bolt’s piece also singled out land rights activists, a perceived direct threat to white material entitlement and power in Australia. Twitter user Hannah Donnelly appears to recognise this threatened white status, and its opposing reality, reflecting with acute irony “#itriedtobeauthenticbut the local council won’t recognise our shared custodianship & I do actually have to pay all those parking fines” (2012).

While most of the #itriedtobeauthenticbut dialogue was by unknowns getting hard-won satisfaction from laughing in the face of absurdity, stakeholders like academic and writer Dr Anita Heiss added weight to the critical debate. Her tweet “#Itriedtobeauthenticbut I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to join the dots…. Just paint them!” was an intertextual statement demonstrating a theoretical and lived understanding of whiteness theory (2012). The actual – not just the metaphorical – Indigenous culture industry is awash with complications as a result of its binary ‘positioning’ as either ethnographic or Art. Laura Fisher explains that “Ethnography is usually associated with colonialism, primitivism and regarded as circumscribing the art, while Art is posited as unequivocally progressive and good” (Fisher 2012, 2). In art world politics, as in politics generally, the white dominant culture is usually doing the “positing”.

Hage and hooks talk about the Other being defined in terms of its value to whites, for Hage in terms of cultural and economic contribution (Hage 1998), and hooks in terms of the extent to which Otherness can be onsold or commodified (hooks 1992). This is certainly evident in Philip Batty’s “Saluting the dot-spangled banner”, where he claims sacred Indigenous iconography has become white Australia’s cultural property. Its ‘utility value’ is its ostensible usefulness in representing a happy, whole, multicultural Australia (1998). He cites not only events such as the Atlanta Olympics closing ceremony, but cultural appropriation by multinationals like QANTAS, aiming at once to define and cash-in on ‘Australianness’. Fiona Nicoll cites numerous examples of white Australia’s possessive relationship to Indigenous people (2008). In these examples, possession and use-value mark Indigeneity as something to be valued and packaged by the dominant white culture.

Twitter user Olivia Slater joked “#itriedtobeauthenticbut I prefer my toes painted hot pink instead of caked in red ochre” (2012). Luke Pearson wise-cracked “#Itriedtobeauthenticbut the security guards at Coles get REALLY shitty when you walk around the meat aisle spearing roo steaks” (2012). Their irony reveals a desire for Indigenous self-representation. Barthes speaks of “myths” of representation (in Hall 1997) which often reveal nationalist fantasies of harmony, and the above tweets certainly indicate opposition to such unilateral mythmaking. The politics of media in Australia reflect the power imbalances of mainstream politics, with ideas of what Indigeneity should look like defined by industry power brokers, like casting agents and producers. The agendas of the powerful feed into these representations, which then feed into mainstream culture in a kind of limiting stereotype-loop.

Casey and Siron track the representation of, and representation by Indigenous actors in Australian popular culture. They summarise the paradoxes of Indigeneity as represented by entertainment media, speaking of the “implicit demand that the Indigenous actor not only be ‘black’ as the ‘Aboriginal character’, but also white, fulfilling the invisible norm of the ideal white actor in a context in which they and their stories are marked as white Australia’s Other” (2005, 111). Their paper echoes Hage’s writing on space as property when they say that “Implicit in the framing of Indigenous actors as the racialized other, and the benevolent inclusion of these actors on these terms, is the unspoken claiming of the professional theatrical space by the dominant white group as a form of property which they are choosing to share” (2005, 111).

The examined Twitter responses to Tony Abbott’s gaffe demonstrate an embodied everyday experience of whiteness theory. Responses reflect structures of whiteness as uninterrogated identity, whiteness as entitlement, and whites as managers of space. Social media enables ‘global’ participation in such political struggles, however new media ironically excludes many from this circumscribed democracy: the coloniser has been replaced by an also-colonising and domineering global culture. While the origin of this debate is in conventional Australian politics, this paper has demonstrated how inequities infiltrate the politics of culture industries, complicating even those with the most potential for furthering Indigenous self-determination.

For full reference list, click here.

Image by the contemporary artist I would most love to own right now, John Citizen.

What do cannibalism, Phil Beadle and Indigenous law have in common?

In her essay “Eating the other: Deconstructing the ‘ethics’ of Cannibalism”, Nicole Anderson explores ways in which cultural studies theory helps us to understand what cultural practitioners do in the real world (Anderson 2008b). Anderson draws specifically on Derrida’s theories of deconstruction, binary opposition and différance to explore the ethics of cultural cannibalisation. She makes strong instructive links between the real life legal case and the ethics of consensual cannibalism, and Derrida’s deconstruction of cultural appropriation. This paper summarises and evaluates Anderson’s own deconstruction and finds that the chapter clearly illustrates how cultural theory is essential for understanding what cultural practitioners do. While Anderson does not fully explore how binaries impact her ‘real world’ cannibalism case, and while some pragmatic aspects of the case are ignored, the author does stimulate important debate about how societies may come to mitigate homogenisation while still preserving the law.

Anderson uses Jacques Derrida’s process of deconstruction to explore the case of German cannibal Armin Meiwes. While this particular ‘cultural practice’ is not part of most people’s experience of the ‘real world’, the ethics employed by lawmakers and society is. As Nick Mansfield states in lecture five, “Cultural studies believes that behind all cultural practices … lie un-interrogated assumptions about the nature of reality” (Mansfield 2013, 2). Deconstruction interrogates those assumptions in an attempt to make sense of cultural practice. The case illustrates the mismatch in views on the “nature of reality” and the application of the law; Meiwes, despite consensual cannibalism not being a recognisable offence, was sentenced to life in prison (Anderson 2008b, 69). Anderson draws on Jacques Derrida’s interview, “Eating Well: or the Calculation of the Subject’, explaining the theories needed to understand the subjectivity of experience, and how it applies to society, identity and the law.

Anderson explains how Derrida’s theory of différance reveals the fluidity of boundaries of oppositions. In an earlier chapter, Anderson explains the origins of différance; the word ‘difference’ comes with its own meanings, so Derrida created a custom term, which “incorporates two significations” (Anderson 2008c, 55) those of ‘deferral’ and ‘difference’. The first term refers to the deferral of time and space between the word and the concept: for example, the word ‘happiness’ stands in for the feeling. The second term, ‘difference’, indicates that the word ‘happiness’ will never feel the same to any two people, and the experience is not identical to the word itself. In this way, Anderson explains that the way we understand cultural practice, through language, in the real world, is unstable, and experience is subjective. Anderson proceeds to deconstruct the Meiwes case, along with Derrida’s deconstruction of ‘eating’, using this theory.

The reduction of Meiwes’ ‘victim’ to the status of ‘animal’ is exposed by Anderson to present logical problems. Meiwes’ consenting victim, Bernd Brandes, was painted by media and legal teams, as an animal, ostensibly “because at the heart of the ‘rational subject’ is … self-preservation” (Anderson 2008b, 71). However, as Anderson explains, Merleau Ponty’s theory of embodiment posits that there is no fixed relationship between biology and identity (Anderson 2008a, 6-8); rather than being separate, we live and think through the body” (Anderson 2008b, 71). Thus the binary delineation between rational man, and vulnerable animal, is arbitrary. The corresponding ethical issues Derrida’s work raises complicate the Brandes/Meiwes case: if Brandes is an animal, and humans eat animals without compunction, does this not provide Meiwes with justification (Anderson 2008b, 73)? By linking Derrida’s everyday example and theory with an extreme case, Anderson warns of the “subtle and insidious danger” of applying a “singular morality” to cultural practice (Anderson 2008a, 6).

While Anderson makes an impactful case for the interrogation of real world cultural practice using cultural theory, some of aspects of the theory have not been fully applied, and some elements of the case have been downplayed. Anderson’s earlier discussion outlines the ways in which binaries are hierarchical, meaning that usually only one of the opposing positions are privileged; for example, men are privileged over women, and white skin is privileged over black. And while this works to explain Brandes’ position as animal/victim and Meiwes as human/attacker, the implications of Meiwes’ position in several binary oppositions is unexplored. Meiwes occupies a middle class, white, male position, calling into question the extent to which embodied issues like class, gender and inequality have played into this phenomenon.

On initial investigation, the chapter builds a strong case for reviewing Meiwes’ actions in light of his marginalisation; however, in doing so, Anderson downplays the subjectivities influencing Brandes’ decision to allow Meiwes to kill him. Brandes was suffering from a severe psychiatric disorder, was under the influence of sedatives, and was bleeding heavily when he gave consent (Harding 2003). Anderson cites morality, not illegality, as the impetus for the discursive construction of Meiwes as active hunter and Brandes as passive victim. She further posits that Meiwes’ life sentence is, like Derrida writes, a symbolic cannibalisation of Otherness: that society feels safer with deviants – though not technically outside the law – behind bars (Anderson 2008b). So while this case serves an illustrative purpose, and calls for balance and recognition of blurred binary lines, the generosity that deconstruction can provide errs on the side of Meiwes.

Using deconstruction, and the collapsing of binaries that différance can illuminate, less extreme examples can be explored. A recent podcast with UK secondary teacher of the year, Phil Beadle, reveals that working class boys are burdened with the stigma of being perceived as uncultured and lazy as a result of their position in the class binary. Beadle draws attention to school discipline systems which do not honour working class cultural values, explaining that boys caught fighting are both punished, when clearly one party has instigated violence (Beadle 2012). He points to the success of Launcelot primary, where rather than the symbolic cannibalisation of working class values, local culture is celebrated: pictures of successful local citizens adorn the school’s walls, replacing symbols of middle class success (Beadle 2007). Here, an acknowledgement of the multitude of aspirations present in British society reveals how questioning binaries can improve real world outcomes.

Parallels can be drawn between Anderson’s concern regarding consent and the recent recommendations in Australia regarding Indigenous customary law. A key recommendation of the discussion paper was that

“A partial customary law defence … should be introduced that would reduce a charge of murder to manslaughter in those cases where an accused acted in the well-founded belief that the customary laws of his or her Indigenous community required the act constituting the offence” (Australian Law Reform Commission 2010).

It could be argued that Meiwes was also acting in the belief that he was operating within the laws of his culture. In the case of Indigenous Australians, concessions have been made to allow for subjectivity when meting punishment. A similar concession was initially made for Meiwes (Anderson 2008b, 68) but charges escalated to murder. Deconstructive approaches failed Meiwes and Brandes in practice, but the theory nonetheless has important and promising real world applications.

The discourse emerging from the case, and Nicole Anderson’s instructive deconstruction of Derrida’s interview, exposes the serious and concrete applications of cultural theory. In this case, the autonomy of Brandes is posthumously retracted as a result of adherence to a logically questionable humanist rationale. Meiwes is caught in the ethical crossfire: the act of literal cannibalism, while technically legal, is so outside the realm of ‘decency’ that his Otherness must be cannibalised to preserve moral order: Anderson describes Foucault’s ‘genealogy’ as “The attempt to reveal the contradictory and non-linear aspects of historical events, in order to show the influence power has on subjects and bodies” (Anderson 2008a, 9). While cultural studies does not claim to be able to provide all the answers, it does disrupt and question, giving fresh – and perhaps more just – perspectives on what people, even cannibals, practice in the real world.

A full reference list can be found here.

Image by the incredible Mario Hugo.