Category: Popular Culture

Review of “Cell Yell: Thanks for (Not) Sharing”

In his article “Cell Yell: Thanks for (Not) Sharing”, Eric A. Taub explains how people have become frustrated with inconsiderate cell-phone users. People by and large seem to have forgotten their manners. Unfortunately, we have developed into a society where signs need to be put up to tell people how to behave, for example “no cell phone use”. I believe it is very rude for people to have loud and inappropriate conversations in public places, such as restaurants and while riding public transportation.

We are living in a time when wireless technology has perpetrated all aspects of our society. As a result, the masses have grown to abuse the luxury of a cell phone, for instance while using it to discuss a private subject in public. Taub states “people are very upset when they are forced to hear the results of a strangers medical test, says Coral Page, a Boston public relations consultant and founder of Cell Manner”.  I can understand how this can be of some annoyance.  I know from personal experiences that after a long day, the last thing I want to deal with while taking the bus home to my house has to listen to loud strangers personal issues.  In fact, I almost always look for a quiet spot, which allow me to relax my body and my mind a little bit while I am in the bus.  However, if someone sits down next to you with a cell phone, you don’t have much of a choice but to endure the noise of their conversation.  One day, I remember there was a lady who was talking so loud that she her voice could be heard throughout the bus. In all honesty, no one on the bus cared that her two friends, who were once a couple before, had cheated on one another and as a result of it they were infected by HIV virus.  It is very sad, but nobody’s business but those involved.  I understand that the pulse of the city we live in doesn’t allow us to have much time for our family and friends, but nonetheless we have to keep in mind the importance of having consideration for the feeling of others around us- especially in public places where people like me who’ve already had a tough day don’t deserve to hear the drama of strangers.

The problem is that more people each day are buying cell phones, thus there are more possibilities that this utter lack of manners will grow. It is so obnoxious when rude people walk into a restaurant with their cells attached to their ears. Taub notes that “a bagel shop in Westlake Village, California banned the use of cell phones while ordering last years because customers routinely asked for the wrong food when they were busy jabbering.”  I work in a restaurant as a waitress and oftentimes have to deal with people who are so preoccupied with their conversations on their cell that they are not only boorish but oblivious to how rude they are acting. I have people that walk in with their cell- phone, and for a while I would greet them as I would for any customer, but when I realized they ignored me, I’ve stopped. What’s worst is that they then feel slighted when I walk away from them as if I didn’t want to help them. Later, I’ll return to ask once if they are ready to order. Now I help others customers who really need my attention, and ignore those on the cell phone as they ignore me. However, this cane be problematic because it puts me in the middle of it, where the rude customer starts waiving their hands and screaming claiming that nobody has attended to them. These customers are incredibly annoying and at times all I want to do is kick them out of the restaurant and say “get out and don’t come back here anymore,” but I guess I would be out of a job so I keep my mouth shut. It’s not that I don’t believe people have important issues to resolve by phone, but I feel as if all too often people become so consumed in their conversation on their cell that they neglect how their behavior may be affecting the people around them.

Eric A. Taub paper discusses all these points and sheds light on how the conduct of society has changed with the introduction of cell phones. I very much agree with much of what Taub states in his paper, as I believe that our society has slowly lost respect for one another in order to satisfy their own needs by carrying on a conversation via cell phone.

Threat of the Mainstream Media

The Western mainstream media’s naturalization of stereotypes cements a hegemonic hierarchy that fuels the globalization of capitalism and projects political propaganda.  I absolutely agree with Reena Mistry’s article on Gramsci’s theory of hegemony and the racist images lacing television programs and cinema alike. Disguised by ideological innocence, the reproduction of “harmless” yet distorted ethnic representations in the media appropriates cultural codes and perpetuates prejudice points of view. This cinematic essentialism not only denigrates democratic solidarity, but also supports the socioeconomic interest of the power that be. As the world at large wholeheartedly and naively embraces the ideals and values engendered and exported by the multinational media conglomerates, the spectators subconsciously succumb to the overt racism and veiled dogmas of capitalism that permeates the mainstream, rendering its audiences hostage to the hegemonic influence of the West.

The danger of the media lays not only in the political propaganda and distorted racial representations it projects, but more so in the misconception that it is, in theory, socially harmless. Given that its release paralleled the geopolitical war waged in the Middle East, Walt Disney’s Aladdin serves as a perfect illustration of how films are manipulated to empower hegemonic views and spread political propaganda. Aladdin’s construction of the Orient not only depicts the Arabs as a backwards people, but also represents the Middle East as an anarchistic civilization where cobras are lured from baskets and law has no place. Furthermore, the animation’s geographic depiction of the region is far from accurate as it essentializes the Middle East as a vast desert, audaciously neglecting to recognize the diverse topography of the expansive territory.  In fact, the original version of Aladdin was initially set in the “fictitious” city of Baghdad.  However due to the outbreak of the Gulf War, the name was changed to Aghrabah, which in Arabic translates as “most strange.”  In spite of this revision, the political motivation fueling this film’s production is but thinly veiled.

The cinematic essentialism of the mainstream visual culture is not only ahistoric and moralistic, but supports a social hierarchy rooted in ethnic superiority, constructing a reality wherein human rights and equality prove incapable of transcending the segregating legacies of race. Cultural familiarity with such stereotypes leads one to perceive political issues in a vein that can be traced to individual ethics, unleashing the inclination to judge a person based on their race, religion or nationality. Employing the age-old Manichean allegory, the medias’ objectification and appropriation of minorities is indisputably fueled by the political agenda of the powers that be. But perhaps the greatest danger of television and cinema alike lies namely in the perception that it is socially harmless: as we have seen however, this could not be farther from the truth.

Social Implications of Technology

The Internet and television, among many other technological developments, have been catalyst to the way popular culture is consumed and perceived by society at large. Over the past several decades, great advancements have been made in the field of technology facilitating popular culture’s accessibility to the masses. Email, business, pornography, dating, virtual communities, web-logs, blogging, information such as the weather or traffic and entertainment such as gaming or films are but only a few of the myriad means in which the internet can be employed.  Concurrently, the media has, since its birth, served as a cultural apparatus that educates as well as entertains. In short, the Internet and television have shaped in tandem popular culture and the manner in which it is consumed.

The invention of the World Wide Web has marked a societal shift wherein face-to-face communication has become increasingly supplanted with electronically mediated interaction. The communitarian implications of the Internet are immense insofar as one can keep in touch with loved ones just as easily as merge new friendships with strangers across the world. The cyberspace culture has rendered an electronic proximity that facilitates the transnational flow of media text and information. “The Internet has connected up different parts of the world in a powerful new way: images, words, and so forth can flow across borderlines in more directions and faster than ever before” (230, Rubin & Melnick, Cyberspace). The rapid growth the World Wide Web is experiencing has resulted in the mass distribution of ideas, this facilitates elements of popular culture- such as music, films, styles (etc.), to effortlessly breach cultural boundaries. With the exception of citizens of Cuba, Iran, China, Saudi Arabia and North Korea- where complete access to every domain is restricted, the Internet is accessible to all and thus anyone in theory can participate regardless of age, sexuality, gender, race or nationality. Veiling the true identity of an individual, the Internet shatters the socially constructed barriers of class and reinforces the discourse that popular culture is deteriorating social and taste hierarchies.

Television is yet another tool that has fueled the accessibility and transformation of popular culture in contemporary society.  First off, there is an incredibly broad range of programs available at one’s fingertips, from Soup Operas to Reality Television shows, to news and sports, from comedy to MTV.  The mass media is very much informed by popular culture, offering diverse programs catering to all taste. Yet agency within this context is limited, as consumer choice resides within the programs offered by the multinational media conglomerates.  This drawback fuels the debate concerning structuralism, culturalism and consumer choice.  Yet, it must be noted that consumption patterns have undergone severe transformations as a result of the Internet and mass media. For one, shopping online has redefined consumption in that it is slowly evolving from a social practice into a private one. The relentless advertisements lacing television programs, on the other hand, have the propensity to subliminally implant artificial desires in the minds of the audience who subconsciously succumb to its veiled hegemonic agenda. The manipulative mechanisms of the mainstream media mustn’t be underestimated.

Within the discourse of popular culture, a disparity must be drawn between the two electronic mediums.  In the case of television, an individual merely consumes the ideals visually manufactured by multinational media conglomerates, whereas the Internet is interactive.  This aspect unleashes possibilities never before considered.  For instance, the facile reproduction and distribution of music has led to the accessibility of foreign tunes previously unattainable within one’s habitus.  Recording technology, in addition, has yielded the formation of hybrid sounds. Furthermore, because just about anyone can self publish or produce their own work via blogs, web-logs, website (etc.), the lines between production and consumption have become blurred. Online publications, such as e-zines, have proliferated in the past several years.  This is a godsend for low budget movements, as the financial expenses of ink and paper are no longer of concern and local projects can have a global reach.  The point is that popular culture in the context of the Internet is both collective and interactive. Its democratic nature provides an arena of social mobility and freedom of speech wherein people of similar interest can meet and build virtual subcultures and communities. There is no telling what the years ahead will bring, but this much is sure: within the domains of the technological landscape popular culture has a fertile terrain to thrive.

High Culture/Low Culture/Popular Culture

Although postmodernist theory argues that the distinction between popular and high culture is diminishing and thus the boundaries between classes have blurred, social stratification still subsist due to the social hierarchy of taste that relies on capital rather than accessibility.  This argument is reinforced by the case study of Dutch television conducted by Kuiper.  The stratified audience revealed by the ethnographic research unveils that, despite its’ accessibility and ties to popular culture, “television has not led to homogenization, democratization or fragmentation of taste” (371, Kuiper, Television and Taste hierarchy).  These findings signify that a specific sort of knowledge, or what Bourdieu has coined as capital, is required.

The taste hierarchy is dictated by the economic, cultural and symbolic (etc.) capital of a demographic, thus social class and education often determines an individual’s interests.  However, many other factors can contribute such as age, religion, ethnicity and gender – further complicating the notion of cultural liberalism.   Yet regardless of the accessibility rendered by technological developments and glocalization or the social fragmentation brought on by subcultures, the “taste public'” will always remain socially stratified.  As Kuiper illustrates from her survey:  “people look at the same thing, to which they have equal access, but they don’t have the skills to decode it meaningfully” (371, Kuiper, Television and Taste Hierarchy).

Though popular culture has debatably blurred the boundaries between class and taste in that an individual of high culture may be partial to something of low culture, this appreciation is unilateral. The average ‘joe’ will never to fully comprehend the works of high culture due to the absence of some form of capital. Despite the fact that the conceptual demarcation between high and low culture have slowly deteriorated in the wake of popular culture, there still remains a political and economic dimension that fortifies this distinction. This liberal pluralist view accounts for televisions stratified audience in the context of today’s contemporary popular culture.

“Air Guitar”

Dave Hicky’s essay entitled “Air Guitar” traces his experiences working as an art dealer after graduate school, dissecting the complicities of the art world and the currency of cultural capital.  His gallery “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” sheds light on his academic background, as it is a reference to Ernest Hemingway’s book.  The article aspires to clarify certain aspects of the art world that are under the eye of scrutiny.

To begin, he contradicts the pretext that selling art to those who know nothing about the field is a degenerate act.  As an art dealer, which he differentiates immediately from the work of a curator and a picture merchant, Hickey feels as if art can be appreciated regardless of one’s intellect or class.  The deeply embedded myth that the art world caters solely to those of the upper class has been cannibalized by the onslaught of popular culture and artists like Andy Warhol.

In short, neither money nor power nor social status is necessary in order to understand art.  Although, one can argue that the art world is often times shaped by the taste of the elite as it they are of the few who can afford to participate in the high-end art market. Yet, nevertheless, the transnational flow of media blurs cultural borders and social stratification rendering a democratization of art in the age of post modernity.

The second point Hicky touches upon complicates the notion of the alleged worth given to great works of art. Negating the assumption that the commification of art feeds into a hedonistic practice of consumption, he argues point blank that art is not a commodity.  The value of art is hinged on an abstract cultural worth.  However, he brings up an interesting point claiming, “when you trade a piece of green paper with a picture on it, signed by a bureaucrat, for a piece of white paper with a picture on it, signed by an artist, you haven’t bought anything since neither piece of paper is worth anything” (109).

Thus, investing in works of art can be simplified as a mere translation of capital from the economic sphere to that of the cultural.  Moreover the arguable absence of concrete value extrapolated to art mimics the implicit worth currency’s carry.  Although Marx’s use and exchange value is not applicable, Hicky argues that “art is cheap and priceless” and even more intriguing it is a risk rooted in taste.

Evaluation of CSCS

I came to India without expectations, as such baggage will only burden you with the possibility of disappointment.  Knowing already the madness that laces this culture, I came with half empty suitcase and an open mind.  Over the past few years, I’ve developed what could be best described as a love affair with the country.  I covet the incessant wail of the auto rickshaws, the lingering scent of incense, the ocean of people, the pure spontaneity and organized chaos of the nation.  No indifferent reaction can be had in the face of India, as it is truly a place you either love or disdain.  I first came out East at eighteen.  I was young, naïve and without any explanation as to what the catalyst was behind my decision to come.  Sleeping in the folds of my memory, the fading recollection and desire to return to this beautiful and bizarre country has followed me through the years, like a shadow growing as the sun sets.  I sit now on bus traversing the Mother Country on route to Goa.  As I watch the landscape slip past my window, I realize that India is everything and nothing as I had anticipated it to be throughout my long awaited return.  Groping for the words to describe my time here thus so far I realize I am lost for them.  Yet, in retrospect, it took me years before I felt as if I could fully wrap my mind around my first experience in India.  I expect that same to be true in this case.

In regards to the more formal aspects of the program, such as the academia, I have found the courses to be, by and large, interesting and the professors to present engaging lectures.  As a media and culture student, the opportunity to analyze and dissect Bollywood films within the context of India has been an unparalleled experience.  The great minds lacing the staff of CSCS have opened my mind to conceptual approaches completely outside of those I have come to rely on to make sense of socioeconomic conditions like poverty.  Although our time is short, I feel as if I have already gotten a lot out of the program.  Having never really had any exposure to films generated from Bollywood, Ashish class has provided a great overview of the prolific cinematic production and diverse genres that make up the industry.  On another topic, I also found his argument on how the darkness of the slums cast a shadow on the metropolis to be a particularly intriguing proposition.  Lastly, I like how Sumita’s class provides an overarching framework of the issues at hand. The reading for her course has been difficult, but nonetheless very interesting.

The lectures conducted at Institute of Scientific Research were among my favorite because it gave my fellow peers and I a chance to venture outside to the periphery of the city and have the metropolis reveal yet another side to us.  Although I wasn’t too inspired by the class concerning the proliferation of the IT industry and its economic implications on Bangalore, the screening of Heron Farocki’s work, “Images of the World and the Inscriptions of War” was compelling.  Furthermore, I found the professor of this lecture to be captivating in her critique of the film.  In regards to the course load, the articles and essays have thus so far been interesting, yet its been difficult to juggle a full day of classes with the assigned reading- especially when overwhelmed with the desire to see Bangalore.  My only suggestion would be to utilize the city as a classroom as such an experience is a rarity.  Given that the metropolis is as socially and economically diverse as it is, the city itself renders an unparalleled education.

Cinematic Essentialism, Social Hegemony and Walt Disney’s Aladdin

Walt Disney Picture’s naturalization of stereotypes cements a hegemonic hierarchy that fuels the globalization of capitalism and projects political propaganda. Although quintessential of American popular culture, Disney’s transgression of borders is facilitated and metastasized by the multi-linguistic nature of animation.  Focusing primarily on Walt Disney’s Aladdin, I intend to dissect the manner in which visual metaphors and anthropomorphism are employed to appropriate cultural codes and perpetuate stereotypes.  The animation’s reproduction of “harmless” yet distorted ethnic representations is disguised behind a veil of ideological innocence. Aladdin’s cinematic essentialism not only denigrates democratic solidarity, but supports the socioeconomic interests of the power that be. As the world at large wholeheartedly and naively embraces the ideals and values engendered and exported by the multi-national media conglomerate, the spectators subconsciously succumb to the overt racism, political propaganda and cloaked dogmas of capitalism that permeates the beloved pictures, rendering its audiences hostage to the hegemonic influence of the West.

The threat of Walt Disney’s Aladdin lies in the facility with which the multinational corporation transgresses cultural boundaries.  The term mediascapes is a word coined by Arjun Appadurai to describe not only the distribution of information around the world via the media, but also the “images of the world created by the media” (Appadurai 34).  This idea serves to explicate the unpredictable transnational flow of media text across the borders of countless countries albeit their cultural diversity.  The fabricated narratives and visual repertoires of foreign films provide “strips of reality” (Appadurai 35) out of which a sea of disillusioned spectators can shape “imagined lives”.  This transgression of borders and cinematic construction of fantastical realities is definitive of Disney animations, as Mickey Mouse proves as iconic an image as Jesus.  The multi-national corporation’s pervasive presence on the global stage sheds light on the fact that even outside the context of American popular culture the seductive nature of its films lures an international audience.  Disney’s ability to cross cultural boundaries with a greater facility than other forms of communication can be attributed to the multi-linguistic nature of animation, which maintains its meaning regardless of whether having been dubbed or fitted with sub-titles. Walt Disney himself admitted that “of all of our inventions for mass communication, pictures still speak the most universally understood language.”

The global onslaught of the multinational Disney Corporation threatens however to render Western cultural imperialism, as films such as Aladdin are infused with hegemonic views concerning capitalism and the racial superiority of the Protestant elite.   Furthermore, “the farther the audience is away from the direct experience…the more likely they are to construct imagined worlds” (Appadurai 35), blurring the “lines between the realistic and fictional landscapes” (Appadurai 35).  Through its mediation of images, Disney constructs a skewed social hierarchy rooted in racial superiority wherein its spectators subconsciously come to understand their place in relation to the “Other”.  Hence, the “images involve many complicated inflections, depending on…their audience (local, national, or transnational), and the interest of those who own and control them” (Appadurai 35).  In the case of Walt Disney, its audience is both national and transnational, while its prerogative stems from its own self-interest to promote corporate culture, a hegemonic hierarchy and political propaganda.

Another term that can be employed to better understand the threat of Disney is Ideoscapes, which Arjun Appadurai defines as the political “concatenation of images” (Appadurai 36).  These visual representations relate to the ideologies of the state, serving in the interest of the predominant political and economic power. In Palestine, a clone of the iconic Mickey Mouse preaches Islamic fundamentalism on Hamas TV, urging the Palestinian youth to take up arms against the Israelis.  Subliminally conditioning the general public, this form of media is infused with propaganda and hegemonic views.  Disney animations in the West, disguised by their innocuous nature, promote a doctrine supportive of consumerism, capitalism and racial superiority.  Failing to address the importance of social responsibility, equality and social justice, Disney’s feature films defend an anti-social hyper-individualism that is at odds with democratic theory.  Furthermore, the animation’s ethnic essentialism constructs a reality wherein human rights and equality prove incapable of transcending the segregating legacies of race.

One of the few American films to feature an Arab protagonist, Walt Disney’s Aladdin advocates a doctrine supportive of capitalism, egocentricity and consumerism.  Below the surface of this seemingly charming animation runs an ideology void of democratic benevolence. At the start of the film, Aladdin is portrayed as a poor street urchin, however he lives above the streets of Agrabah where from his window he is level with the sultan’s palace.  This seemingly inconsequential detail constructs a visual metaphor that suggests Aladdin’s social equality with the elite. Upon unearthing the magic lamp and genie within, Aladdin doesn’t hesitate to use the three wishes in his own self-interest. Rather than feed the starving children wasting away on the streets of Agrabah or help the poor and dying, Aladdin wishes for expensive garments and material goods to impress Princess Jasmine with.  Thus, Aladdin’s social mobility relies essentially on greed, materialism and selfishly catering to his own needs: a mentality indicative of the avaricious appetite unleashed by the market economy.  

Walt Disney’s hyper mobility consequently facilitates the widespread transmission of capitalistic views infusing films like Aladdin. However, what proves even more harmful is the animated picture’s cinematic essentialism. Depicting the Arab world as backwards and irrational, the film’s distorted ethnic representations fuel the western world’s fear of alternity and perpetuates dangerous stereotypes.  Defined as the act of imposing assumed characteristics on an individual based on their race, gender or class (etc.), stereotypes are sweeping generalizations that “contain an evaluation that justifies ethnic differences” (Seiter 16).  These simplifications and absurd exaggerations are culpable for breeding blind hatred. Upon dissecting several of the animations produced by Disney in the past few decades, it becomes evident that films like Aladdin indisputably “reproduce ethnic stereotypes” (McMichael 67). The danger of these racial representations lies in the threat of essentialism, which “reduces a complex variety of portrayals to a limited set of reified formulae” (Shohat & Stam 199).

In its wake, essentialism engenders an ahistoric perception that is “static” and thus neglects the “instability of the stereotypes” (Shohat & Stam 199). Therefore behind these racial representations “lies a history that relates both to commonsense understandings of society and to economic determinants” (Seiter 24). By and large, the stereotypes delineated by Walt Disney are swayed by the contemporary socioeconomic circumstances plaguing the country. By lending human characteristics to nonhuman beings via anthropomorphism, Disney can attach certain attributes to animals in order to safely render ethnic stereotypes.  For example, to momentarily stray from the analysis of Aladdin, in The Lion King, the noble King Mufasa has a British accent, whereas the malicious hyenas speak with strong Spanish accents. This anthropomorphic ethnic essentialism conditions its audience to subconsciously equate the Spanish tongue with devious behavior, perpetuating a menacing stereotype of Mexicans whose presence in the States was and still is perceived as a strain on the economy. Thus it is important to scrutinize Disney animations through a lens that puts into consideration the hegemonic motivations and political interest behind its illustrations.

The use of ethnic stereotypes as a “strategy for constructing a mythic other to be relied on for purposes of war, imperialism, national defense and protectionism” (Chow 59) is intrinsic to the operative tactics of political regimes. The pervasive influence of these economically and politically prescribed stereotypes not only proves that they are “cliché, unchanging forms but also- and much more importantly- that stereotypes are capable of engendering realities that don’t exist” (Chow 59). These distorted representations of race, gender and class are constructed and transmitted by a powerful minority in order to protect the status quo. Thus it is imprudent to overlook the “relationship of stereotypes to the legitimate social power” (Seiter 24). The social functionality of the aforementioned demonstrates “that they are not an error of perception but rather a form of social control” (Shohat & Stam 199). Therefore, in considering the nature and origin of an ethnic stereotype, it is crucial to question, “who controls and defines them,” (Dyer in Chow 60) and whose interests are served by their perpetuation.

A pervasive theme frequenting Disney films is the Manichean allegory of good against evil, which is oftentimes employed to cast certain ethnicities in a negative light in order to back a hegemonic agenda. During the Bush and Reagan regimes, the “portrayals of its enemies drew on the ‘Manichean allegories’ of colonization” rendering Saddam Hussein as an instable lunatic through “the intertextual memory of Muslim fanatics and Arab assassins” (Shohat &Stam 201). First released shortly after the Gulf War in 1992, Aladdin assumes the age-old narrative construction of good and evil drawing on ethnic essentialism to underpin the political propaganda of the Bush administration. Although the film is set in the Middle East, only the villainous characters speak Arabic, whereas Aladdin and Princess Jasmine, despite their alleged Arab ethnicity, assume American identities.  Portraying the populace of the Middle East as violent and deceitful people, the Arabic women are depicted as veiled objects of oppression while the men are delineated as bearded barbarians. Cultural familiarity with such stereotypes leads one to perceive political issues in a vein that could be traced to individual ethics, unleashing the inclination to judge a person based on their race, religion or nationality.

Aladdin’s cinematic essentialism elicits disturbing renderings that essentialize, appropriate, objectify and construct the exotic “Other”. This discursive construction laces countless Disney animations, particularly Aladdin.  Edward Said states that all “too often literature and culture are presumed to be politically, even historically innocent; it has regularly seemed otherwise to me, and certainly my study of Orientalism has convinced me … that society and literary culture can only be understood and studied together” (Said 27). Said’s discourse on Orientalism argues that the Western notion of the East as a despotic haven of eunuchs in turbans stems from the Occidental’s desire to control and manipulate the unknown. Convinced that the Orient is incapable of defining itself, the Occident regards the East as a locale clearly in need of Western subjectivity.  The United States thus posit itself in opposition to the Middle East, rendering the Orient as a negative inversion of the Occident and thus justifying the necessity of Western emancipation and reconstruction.

The discourse on Orientalism unveils how Western society’s slanted perception of the East is fueled by a hegemonic agenda mediated by the mass media. Bringing “democracy” to the Middle East serves in Disney’s interest as consumerism, capitalism and multinational corporations trail at the heels of “freedom”.  Recognizing the profitable possibilities in the Mid East, Disney CEO Michael Eisner, like the Bush administration, juxtaposes the West with the despotic Orient to promote egalitarian ideals of freedom and autonomy. In fact, the original version of Aladdin was initially set in the “fictitious” city of Baghdad (Giroux 29).  However as the dust of Gulf War had yet to settle, the name was changed to Aghrabah, which in Arabic translates as “most strange.”  In spite of this revision, the political motivation fueling this film’s production is but thinly veiled.   The animation’s prejudicial portrayal of the Arab world serves as nationalistic propaganda to justify a war needlessly waged by the United States, disguising the imperialistic encroach as a holy war as “religion sounds so absolute, it can be used as a translation for other, more relative, forms of conflict” (Baumann 23).

Visually manipulated to empower hegemonic views, Aladdin’s construction of the Orient not only depicts the Arabs as a backwards people, but also represents the Middle East as an anarchistic civilization where cobras are lured from baskets and law has no place other then to keep women in theirs.  For instance, Princess Jasmine, whose attire resembles that of a belly dancer’s, is required by law to marry a man selected by her father, the Sultan of Agrabah.  Her objection is silenced by his harsh reply: “you are not free to make your own choices”.  The film also sheds light on the injustice of the Quranic laws that threaten to cut off Aladdin’s hand for stealing a piece of bread to survive. Even the opening song cast the Arab world as a locality of barbarianism: “Oh, I come from a land, From a faraway place, Where the caravan camels roam, Where they cut off your ear If they don’t like your face, It’s Barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” Furthermore, the animation’s geographic depiction of the region is far from accurate as it essentializes the Middle East as a vast desert, audaciously neglecting to recognize the diverse topography of the expansive territory.

The danger of Aladdin lays not only in the political propaganda and ethnic essentialism it projects, but more so in the misconception that the animated picture is socially harmless.  As an audience, we are readily “inclined to view a cartoon film as an uncomplicated representation of human ideas” (Moellenhoff 116).  Instead of stereotypes, the skewed representations of the Arabic populace are pawned off as caricatures.  The threat of Disney is rooted in this distinction.  Rey Chow illustrates the disparity, stating that “caricatures, by virtue of being understood definitively as a distorted grotesque imitation, can be safely relegated to the category of the unrealistic and be dismissed as a mere representation,” whereas stereotype carry the “unavoidable implications of realpolitik” (Chow 72).  It is within the safe haven of animation that Disney aggressively employs the “visually and epistemologically pronounced effect of transgression whose power is, significantly, nonverbal” (Chow 81).

Walt Disney films are even more disturbingly aimed towards an audience constituted primarily of children. Thus, at an early age certain preconceived notions regarding race and class are subliminally planted via “harmless” animations into the heads of the generations to come. Disney’s distorted ethnic renderings reinforce the naturalization of specified stereotypes backed by ulterior hegemonic motives and rooted in political interest. For instance, the hero of the animation, Aladdin, is drawn with light skin and anglicized facial features.  Although the audience is led to believe Aladdin is Arab, he speaks with an American accent. The archenemy Jafar, portrayed as having dark skin and exaggerated Arab features, serves as a stark contrast with a large pointed nose, long beard and sunken eyes.  More interesting is the fact that unlike the protagonist of the visual narrative, Jafar speaks with a thick Arab accent.  The benevolent Sultan of Agrabah, on the other hand, is illustrated with a white beard, rosy rounded cheeks, kind eyes and big belly. In truth, the king would practically personify Saint Nick if it weren’t for the British accent with which he speaks despite his alleged Arab roots. His beloved daughter, Princess Jasmine, the heroine of the story, is also depicted without the “characteristic” Arab nose and, like Aladdin, inhabits an American identity.

Upon closer scrutiny of the Manichean allegory and ethnic essentialism that thread through the visual narrative of Walt Disney’s Aladdin, it’s difficult to deny the hegemonic ideologies and political propaganda that run below the surface of its storyline, especially given that its release paralleled the geopolitical war waged in the Middle East.  To take a step back and put on a wider lens, the writing on the wall is explicit.  The Americanized Aladdin along with the British Sultan of Agrabah must save Princess Jasmine, who as a female symbolizes the nation. Ironically, the threat stems from the vizier Jafar whose nefarious conspiracy to bring the world to its knees is advised by an idiotic parrot.  Furthermore, the vizier’s visual delineation renders a shameful stereotype which is propped up as an archetype of the Arab world. As the film unfolds it becomes evident that the city of Agrabah can only return to the order in which it belongs once the threat of Jafar is extinguished.

Infused with hegemonic views, the Disney animation Aladdin plays a prominent role in the naturalization of stereotypes, globalization of capitalism and promotion of political propaganda. Due to the multi-linguistic nature of animation, Disney films effortlessly breach cultural boundaries facilitating the export of perverse values veiled by ideological innocence.  At odds with democratic theory, Disney’s transnational media flow threatens to spread the Western hegemonic views projected by films such as Aladdin.  Furthermore, the animation’s cinematic essentialism is not only ahistoric and moralistic, but supports a social hierarchy rooted in racial superiority. Employing the age-old Manichean allegory, Aladdin’s objectification and appropriation of the Arab world is indisputably fueled by the political agenda of the powers that be.  But perhaps the greatest danger of this animation lies namely in the perception that it is socially harmless: as we have seen however, this could not be farther from the truth.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Modernity At Large – Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press: 27-47.

Baumann, Gerd. 1999. The Multicultural Riddle: Rethinking National, Ethnic and Religious Identities. London: Routledge: 17-27.

Chow, Rey. 2002. The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Columbia University Press: 50-84.

Giroux, H. 1999. The Mouse that Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield: 27-34.

Moellenhoff, Fritz. 1989. Remarks on the Popularity of Mickey Mouse. In American Imago: A Psychoanalytical Journal for the Arts and Sciences, ed. H. Sachs. Boston: Buckram: 46, 105-119.

Said, Edward. 1994. Orientalism. In Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, ed. P William and L. Chrisman. New York: Columbia University Press: 132-149.

Said, Edward. 1981. Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World. New York: Pantheon: 1-30.

Seiter, Ellen. 1986. Stereotypes and the Media: A Re-evaluation. Journal of Communication. 36 (2): 14-26.

Shohat, Ella, and Robert Stam. 1995.  Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media. London: Routledge: 178-188, 191-194, 198-204.

Aura in the Age of Postmodernity

Walter Benjamin’s discourse predicting that the death of the aura will be at the hands of mechanical reproduction needs to be revisited in the age of post-modernity.  The aura, I’d argue, was not lost, but rather reconceptualized.  Although mass production did, to a certain extent, rape art and commodities of their authentic nature, an illusion of scarcity was fabricated so as to sustain the aura in the commodity system.  For instance, sign value is a mechanism used by multinational conglomerates as a catalyst to create an aura around a brand name.  The absence of scarcity has resulted in a society wherein commodities and even celebrities are branded. The thread of this discourse runs through the body of Andy Warhol’s work.  Among the first to shed light on this socioeconomic phenomenon, Warhol visually reinforces the repercussions of mass production unveiling how the rebirth of the aura is rooted in fabricated scarcity and brand names.  He extrapolates this notion to the sphere of celebrities, representing them as commodified icons that derive their alleged auratic value from the reproduction of their images and the inimitability of there existence.  Point is: Walter Benjamin failed to foresee how the social implications of mechanical reproduction would be manipulated in the age of post modernity to revive the aura.

In 1936, Walter Benjamin wrote the essay “Works of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” to survey the social ramifications stemming from the economic development of technological reproduction. Arguing that technology has changed the architecture of society, he believes the onslaught of mechanical reproducibility will result in the loss of what he describes as the ‘aura’ lacing culture and art. Aura is a term Benjamin coined to describe how an object’s worth is hinged on the perceived authenticity and limited accessibility to it.   Oftentimes the societal perception, historical significance and cultural recognition functions as a testimony to a work’s auratic value.  Benjamin predicts that there are three domains of transformation that will manifest in tandem with the age of mechanical reproducibility.  First off, the technological evolution of mass production will inevitably eliminate the scarcity of images and objects rendering in turn the death of the aura. For Benjamin, however, this loss of aura is good in the sense that it overthrows traditions premised on privilege. Thus, the technological development serves as a catalyst to the absolution of ritual.  This shift, he argues, will engender a secularized society and a democratization of the new media.

Given that the accessibility of films, television and photographs is not tied to privilege or ritual, Benjamin’s prediction was correct. Yet, collectively these conditions are said to lead to the disenchantment of the image. I would argue, however, that the aura has been sustained in the age of post-modernity by the proliferation of brand names and the fabrication of artificial scarcity.  Commodities are deemed authentic due to their sign value, films are judged often by their prestigious director and/or the branded celebrities involved. The aura has been transformed in order to adapt to the residual effects of the age of mechanical reproduction through the construction of artificial scarcity in the absence of rarity.

Whereas Benjamin argues that the aura subsists outside of commodity system, Jonathan Beller, in his work ‘Cinema, Capital of the Twentieth Century’, contradicts this point claiming that the aura is, in point of fact, specific to the commodity system.  Furthermore, the dematerialization of artwork renders its authenticity reliant on the experience of the creator and the social recognition of the piece of art.  Thus, in short, value is a question that is no longer tied to the issue of labor, but rather an assumption that is positioned in a realm of varied perspectives. This commodity fetishism renders its spectators incapable of seeing beyond the perceived value of the object.  In other words, we look at images with the preconceived notion of what it must mean within the economy of spectatorship and from this gauge its worth.  The object is thus seen solely through the filter of the commodity system.  It is from this that the concept of sign value arose, countering mass production’s threat to the aura.

Emerging as a consequence of technological developments, the birth of this sign value manifested in tandem to the industrial revolution, which facilitated the mass production of identical objects fabricated for mass distribution.  Although this means of manufacturing proved far more economical and efficient than its predecessor, from this economic development stemmed a paradox: “although capitalist technique of mass-production were very good at making identical product in great volume, economies of scale were less efficient at producing unique and therefore desirable goods”(Parker 361). Thus, with aspirations to surmount the complexities of this predicament, multinational corporations “exploited forms of advertising to construct symbolic virtues for their products”(Parker 361). Thus, in sum, sign value was conceived as a distinctive mechanism of capitalism to compensate for the mass production of identical objects facilitated by the industrial revolution. The same concept of authenticity that Walter Benjamin rooted the aura in can be extrapolated to the constructed scarcity and artificial value that corporations attach to commodities in excess.

The sign value of an object is designated through the aura attached to it by a certain corporate label and is exemplified best by the commercial proliferation of brand names. Brands are, in short, logos, slogans or particular designs that render a product distinctive, and as a result, desirable– the aura of which is oftentimes fueled by its representation in the media through commercials and advertisements. Whereas, Benjamin foresaw the onslaught of mass production as a threat to the aura, his assumption was flawed insofar as the socioeconomic condition actually served as a catalyst to the construction and proliferation of sign value and false commodity fetishism fueled by the illusion of auratic value.  Given that America’s obsession with branding is a relatively new revelation in postmodern society, Andy Warhol’s art emerged as a novel critique on consumerism, art and the aura. He believed that, yes, in copying an image something is lost, but in turn something new of value emerges.  Question is, although the aura alters once mechanically reproduced, does that necessarily suggest that it vanishes into thin air or could its reproducibility render an offspring that perhaps reinforces its value as a trademark image?

“Andy Warhol had an extraordinary awareness of what it means to be an artist in the age of mechanical reproduction” (Du Duve 308).   Blurring the distinction between fine and commercial art and commercial art and commerce, Andy Warhol’s fixation with popular culture situated his work in the mainstream and rendered him, in retrospect, pop art’s seminal icon.  He was the first to commercialize on commercialization, commodify on commodification and shed light on the perverse proliferation of brand names and the aura corporate conglomerates attach to them. The versatile technique of photographic silk-screens allowed Warhol to manipulate and replicate images, enabling him to construct a social critique by visually reproducing products quintessential of popular culture. Even the images he duplicated were often already mass produced pictures found in magazine or off a tin can in the third aisle of the grocery store. He conceptualized auratic commodification through artistic reproduction and appropriation of iconic images.

With mediums ranging from photography to film, printmaking to painting, Warhol contextualizes Benjamin’s discourse on the aura shedding light on the shift in the societal trends of consumption patterns and its relationship with media culture.  The transformation of the aura predicted by Benjamin is revisited in Warhol’s work.  He believed that the aura had not diminished but rather had been redefined, inverted and corporately manufactured. Appropriating commodities of mass culture, he exploited the fetishism of the aura that fueled blind consumption. For Warhol, the aura of an object is rooted in the authentic appeal of an icon, its mass production and circulation bears no consequences other then perhaps reinforcing it’s socially perceived status. Amid the glut of commodities presented by the industrial revolution, Warhol artistically delineates that the auratic value of an object is hinged on the illusion of fabricated scarcity and deceptive uniqueness tied to a brand name.

Conceptually taking it a step further, Warhol’s ironic visual proliferation of celebrities such as the silver-screen goddess and sex-icon Marilyn Monroe unveils the perverse paradox that the constructed aura of brand names can be extrapolated to famous icons- who have been commodified and consumed as products.  For Warhol, Marilyn Monroe was a glamorously packaged product mass distributed to the public.  The multiplication of her flawless image suggested that she, like Campbell Soup, was perceived as a mass-produced commodity, her aura drawing from the fact that there was one and only Marilyn Monroe. This body of work sheds light on the mechanisms of the Hollywood culture industry and how its production of icons fueled the exploitation of individuals simultaneously shackled and socially elevated by the limelight.

In the age of post-modernity, the proliferation of brand names, the emergence of sign value and the commodification of celebrity icons unveil a societal attempt to shield the aura from the residual effects of mechanical reproduction. With the fetishism of the image resulting in the public cannibalizing coveted celebrities and the aura lacing trademarks triggering a societal shift in consumption patterns, it can be concluded that the aura subsist. However, as illustrated by Andy Warhol, what determines a commodity, celebrity or artwork’s auratic value has altered since Benjamin’s time. In response to the glut of commodities, scarcity is constructed and the aura is tied to authenticity of a trademark image or inimitability of a celebrity’s branded flesh.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Benjamin, Walter, (1969) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.’ In Illuminations, New York: Schocken Books) 221.

Beller, Jonathan, ‘Cinema, Capital of the Twentieth Century’http://serials.infomotions.com/pmc/pmc-v4n3-beller-cinema.txt

Du Duve, Thierry (1991) The Definitively Unfinished Marcel Duchamp, Cambridge, MIT Press, 308.

Flatley, Jonathon, (1996) ‘Warhol Gives Good Face: Publicity and the Politics of Prosopopeia.’ POPOUT: Queer Warhol, Jennifer Doyle, et al. (eds.) Durham, Duke University Press, 109.

Parker, K.W. (2003) “Sign consumption in the 19th century department store. An examination of visual merchandising in the grand emporiums (1846-1900)”, Journal of Sociology, Volume 39(4): 353-371.