As skyscrapers spring up at an alarming rate, the tremendous rapidity of New York City’s incessant construction render it an unfinished breeding ground of possibilities. In his work, Le Corbusier unveils the reasons for which he prefers New York to most European cities- particularly Paris. His rationale is rooted in an appreciation for the architecture, infrastructure and cleanliness of New York, not to mention the metropolis’ unpredictability. New York, pregnant with prospect, is unique in that it is “a city in the process of becoming. Today it belongs to the world.” (98) Personified as Janus, the Roman god of beginning, past and future, New York emerges as an epicenter in a crowd of international cities. Yet, “at present, it is like a house-moving, all the furniture in confusion scattered about, unkempt.” (99) It is for this reason that Le Corbusier claims the city has yet to be completed. This volatility, however, leaves the question as to whether it will evolve to be “an ass or a king”(99) unanswered. Perhaps it is this blind anticipation that fuels Le Corbusier’s predilection for New York. Paralleling it with Paris, he dissects the disparity between the two and aspires to distinguish what exactly it is about New York that makes it unlike any other city. First off, he comments on its immaculate conditions, asserting that “cleanliness is a national virtue in America” (99). Moreover, there is a unique style to New York’s cleanliness, which baptizes the city with a revived vibe. European cities, he argues, embrace the faithful abrasion of time as if “to prove that they possess an age-old culture” (100). Yet the dust gathered from several centuries, he finds, elicit the impression of negligence. The dilapidated, old buildings lacing the streets of European cities are not only waging war against steady decay but are also inefficient in that they fail to fully utilize space. In short, the cities of Europe sprawl out rather than up. The skyscrapers of New York mark a “new event in human history” (99). Salvaging each inch of land, such edifices prove to be a genius means of concentrating the masses. The Soviets pawn off the structures as “capitalist” and in a sense they are. The architectural movement is incredibly economical, as is the infrastructure of the city. Le Corbusier argues that the labyrinth of tiny cobblestone streets in Paris is backwards and confusing rendering the composition of the city complicated, rather then charming. The avenues ending with magnificent edifices are superfluous and stem from an age-old traditions rooted in the prior appeasement of royalty. The anatomical simplicity of New York, on the other hand, yields a “Euclidean clearness.” (101) Constructed in the vein of a grid, the metropolis is divided by twelve parallel avenues intersected by several hundred streets, all of which at right angles to one another and numerically named. With such order your “mind is free instead of being given over every minute to the complicated game imposed on it by the puzzle of our European cities.” (100) However, interestingly enough, Le Corbusier refers to this layout as something of the “American way” yet the Romans, Greeks, Egyptians and even the French built many of their cities in a like fashion. The quotation marks perhaps are meant to undermine the statement, as the “American way” is in truth just a cornucopia of countless culturesa
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.
Far ahead of its time, La Jetee was a film produced in 1968. The picture is constituted of a string of striking black and white photographs. There is no dialog, and thus the plot would be difficult to follow if not for the voice of a narrator carrying one through the film, explicating the significance of each image. It opens with a man standing at the edge of a jetee at Orly. There is disturbing calm, an inexplicable stillness that is abruptly broken by the roar of warplanes. As weapons rain down from the sky, the world comes to a sudden halt. Paris is left in ruins after the onslaught of a nuclear holocaust marking the end of world war III. There is a sequence of unsettling pictures illustrating the extent of destruction. Considering this film was produced before the introduction of Photoshop, the directors were incredibly successful in depicting the devastation of Paris in such a realistic fashion.
The scene shifts from the misery aboveground to the desperation underground, where the few to survive have migrated after the contamination of the city rendered it inhabitable. In their struggle to subsist, scientists begin conducting experiments of time travel on several prisoners in the vein hope of determining ways in which mankind can survive. Plagued by desperation, they construct a bizarre contraption that they believe can successfully manipulate the constraints of time; unfortunately its only flaw is rooted in their test subjects. Once witnessing their past, the prisoners return to the present riddled with insanity. However, one man’s obsession with a recurring vision of his childhood renders him a faithful guineas pig. The scientists believe that if he is able to live vicariously through the memories of his past, he perhaps harbors the facility to drift into the future. The film is laced with ambiguity. The main character is referred to incessantly and simply as the Man. As the experiments progress, his memories grow to be increasingly vivid.
The face of a woman sleeps in the folds of his memories. She graces his recollections of the past, each time becoming more tangible, more concrete. “Time builds itself painlessly around them.” There is a stark disparity between the pictures of his past, soft and surreal, and those of his present, which are of harsh contrast and dark shadows. The use of lighting in this film is manipulated to convey the sentiment of each passing scene. What’s left to the darkness is often times more telling than that which is illuminated. The simplicity of several shots stemming from his past unveils the beauty of everyday life. Suspended in time, the Man slowly falls in love with the Woman. The sequence of images epitomizes photography’s ability to immortalize and steal fragments of time. The beautiful black and white photographs are interrupted only once by a fleeting moment of film. This occurs when the woman, lying in bed, opens her eyelids and looks directly into the camera. This is perhaps a symbolic allusion to the truth the man will ultimately arrive at: time is beyond one’s control. However, this is one of many interpretations, I’m sure. The absence of explanation leaves much to one’s imagination.
How will history judge us? Over the past several centuries, humanity has raked the land of its resources, threatening the balance of the natural world. The diversified body of work constituting the ICP Triennial, Ecotopia, renders an array of unique perspectives and different approaches to the repercussions of the aforementioned. It’s interesting to observe how each artist responded differently to the concept of devastation, the environment, and their intrinsic relationship. Mankind faces a time of impending consequence stemming from decades of disregard for the world in which we live. The exposition at the ICP harbors a range of artistic solutions and reactions to this global crisis.
Interestingly enough, I was struck immediately by the disparity dividing those whose images triggered an immediate message and those who fabricated work that could only be appreciated once its meaning, explicated aside, was taken into account. For instance, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s “Forest” series are, in my opinion, not compelling photographs. However, upon realizing that the thousands of pine trees in the picture had been planted over a depopulated Palestinian village, I regarded the work in a much different light. The image, seemingly serene, unveils the bloodshed stemming from the shifting borders of Israel. The photo perverts our predisposed conceptions of the forest, which we are apt to equate with the idea of growth and peacefulness.
Yannick Demmerle’s series, on the other hand, appropriately named “Les Nuits Étranges”, portrays several skeletal trees enveloped with darkness. The image itself expresses his intent without necessitating an explanation. His work stands on its’ own and can be appreciated without a justification of the work’s meaning or purpose. I find that there is a sense of urgency and morbid lost conveyed by his photography, yet his implications are ultimately up for interpretation. The fact that he fails to articulate his artistic aim renders a sea possible rationalization free from constraints.
I’m torn in between the methodology of the two artistic approaches. Visually, I was initially drawn to “Les Nuit Etranges,” however, aside from the composition, it proved to be far less powerful then that of the photograph presented by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin. Although not as aesthetically procatative, the story behind the work sent chills down my spine and moreover usurped my initial reaction.
I was very much inspired by Richard Renaldi’s prolific body of work. The range of portraits stemming from cities throughout the country renders a diversified perspective of American culture. In my opinion, his photography is very much in the vein of August Sandler, a German portrait photographer of the early twenty-first century. However, unlike Sandler who aimed at portraying each facet of the populace, Richard documents those subsisting on the fridge of society. I believe his success as a photographer is ultimately rooted in his ability strip his subjects down to their natural state, lending an inexplicable honesty to his work.
Graduating in 1990 from New York University, he started his career, like many other photographers, developing and printing the photographs of others. However, while towing the line, he was able to afford the time to continue with his own work. The Christopher street pier, a haven of homeless and drunks ten years back, was his first inspiration. For five years he documented the lives of those who frequented the dock. With his 35 mm, Richard accumulated several hundred portraits, which unfortunately went unnoticed by publishers and art critics alike. Although this rejection was discouraging, he believes that the project reinforced a sense of discipline in his photography.
Renaldi then shifted focus towards the wealthier end of society lacing Madison Avenue. These photographs complemented those taken on the pier, and moreover triggered his transition to an eight by ten camera. I noticed an evident progression in the manner in which he structured the composition and also in the sincerity projected by his subjects. It seems as if working with large format redefined his approach towards portraiture, rendering it a more thoughtful process. The production of taking an 8 by 10 photograph is fairly time consuming and not of the same frivolous nature of digital or even 35 mm. His decision to begin shooting with larger format is impart responsible for the evident intimacy between him and his subject. The work stemming from the Upper East Side series landed him a place in the ICP triennial, which in a way dignified his work and fueled his artistic ambition.
From Newark, New Jersey, to Fresno, California, his focused veered towards documenting the individual in the context of the rustic urban environment, unveiling how this intrinsic relationship divulges the circumstances, and even the personality, of the subject. The photographs generated from this series engender a sense of nostalgia and moreover challenges our preconceived perception of beauty by demonstrating its presence in the grotesque. Although his art has elegantly evolved over the course of time, the repetition in his photographic approach distinguishes his work stylistically. His photographs are unmistakable even from the Fall River series, wherein he in theory strayed from his style, shifting to black and white and shooting abandoned building rather then strictly portraits. Given that the camera is an extension of the eye, his photography is ultimately a reaction, or rather a reflection, of life. Richard Renaldi perceives the world around him in a manner unlike any other and it is for this reason that his photography is so unique.
While under the unforgiving sun of India, an opportunity presented itself to attend a silent meditation retreat in Dharmasala, a city flooded with Tibetan refugees. At first hesitant to commit myself to what I was sure was going to be ten days of silent agony, I arrived at the monastery plagued with reservations. The first few days were, in all honesty, as brutal as expected, as never had I gone so long without speaking a word. The days were constituted of meditation, reading and yoga. After the first week, however, I began cultivating an acute awareness of the thoughts that hijacked my mind and kept me so hopelessly distracted while meditating. Eugen Herrigel articulates it best in his work, Zen in the Art of Archery, when he speaks of all the “moods, feelings, desires, worries and even thoughts that incontinently rise up in a meaningless jumble” (36). Herrigel’s reflection of this struggle is an insight into the difficulties that are enviably encountered in one pursuit of spirituality, whether it be through the medium of archery or silent meditation. Eugen Herrigel was a German professor of philosophy. Initially drawn to mysticism, he sought to understand Zen Buddhism through practicing the art of archery. His colleague Soza Komachiya, who had been taking lessons in archery for over 20 years, agreed to introduce him to his former teacher Master Kenzo Awa. Herrigel apprenticed himself to this Zen Master for nearly six years while residing in Japan. His experience serves as the inspiration for this book.
The ‘artless art’ of archery is ultimately a contest between the archer and himself. It is rooted, Herrigel explains, in an aspiration to attain an egoless state and actually has little to do with successfully hitting the target. In fact, the target was not even introduced into Eugen’s instruction until late into the practice. The pursuit is not one of sport, but one of gradual mastery of one’s self. Eugen Herrigel equates archery to “a preparatory school for Zen” (23). In a traditional sense, it is “a religious ritual” in which the skill of an athlete renders irrelevant. Thus, the ‘art’ of archery is fundamentally rooted in an individual’s ability to harness one’s spirituality. It is believed that the sportsman has no control of the fate of the arrow, which will independently pursue it rightful place at the center of the target. Evidently inspired by Zen Buddhism, the idea that the archer must learn to aim at himself, not the target, and in doing so will “succeed in hitting himself” (14) is perhaps most intriguing concept connected with archery. As Herrigel’s book unfolds, the seemingly contradictory statements constituting the fundamentals of Zen and art of archery become increasingly logical.
Zen in the Art of Archery unveils how the relationship between the pupil and the Master is unparalleled. Through his experiences, Eugen Herrigel admits that the “master knows his pupils” (23) often times better then the pupil knows himself and through this understanding the master is able to best instruct his subject. This wisdom is reciprocated by the unwavering devotion of his student, as “the Japanese pupil brings with him three things: good education, passionate love for his chosen art, and uncritical veneration of his teacher” (40). At the commencement of his apprenticeship under Master Awa, Herrigel illustrates the necessity to surrender oneself to the will of the Master. Although at times Herrigel confesses he did not completely understand the significance behind Awa’s instructions, he learned to do as he was told without questioning its purpose. In the initial stages of his lessons, the Master placed a great emphasis on proper breathing and deep concentration, as it is a fundamental principal of Zen Buddhism. At first, Eugen found the breathing exercises not only difficult, but failed to grasp the significance of them. Nonetheless, he devoted himself to the practice, having faith in his Master’s guidance. After several months, he cultivated the ability to breath so effortlessly that at times he felt that it he himself was not who was “breathing but- strange as this may sound- being breathed”. He only began to understand the importance of breathing upon noticing the influence it had on his ability to effortlessly release the arrow. Yet, he admits that the challenges encountered in one’s pursuit of Zen “cannot be overcome by breath-control alone, but only by withdrawing from all attachments whatsoever, by becoming utterly egoless”. This, of course, takes time.
The “Great Doctrine” is not something that can be explained, it can only be understood through experience. This is why whenever Eugen approached his Master with a question, Awa would often reply, “’don’t ask, practice’”(54). After 3 years, Eugen began to worry that his efforts were all in vein, as he was unable to grasp the basic fundamentals of Zen Buddhism through archery. His struggle was partly rooted in his inability to comprehend the concept of “it” loosing the bow, or in other words, the arrow loosing itself. For hours on end, he would try to make sense of the idea that “’It’ shot and ‘It’ made the hit” (59). Despite the Master’s incessant instruction regarding the bowstring’s release, it took Eugen’s several years of diligent practice before he was able to perform the release the arrow both mentally and physically effortlessly. Once able to loose this conscious control of his mind, he mastered the natural release of the arrow. It was only at this point in his instruction that his Master introduced a target into Herrigel’s practice.
In his embrace of “the spirit of the Great Doctrine” (11), it becomes increasingly evident how the art of archery can yield the state of detachment, self-abandonment and purposelessness intrinsic to Zen Buddhism. Eugen Herrigel illustrates through his experience how the archer must first disentangle himself from all the attachments and distractions plaguing the mind before succeeding at the ‘art’ of archery. His Master cultivates this understanding by reprimanding Eugen whenever he sees that, in reaction to his shot, Herrigel surrenders to a sentiment of either rejoice or disappointment. The archer must aspire, instead, to realize a state of utter indifference during shooting and in doing so achieves the desired state of selflessness. It is through this self-abandonment that, Eugen’s Master explains, an archer is no longer present as ‘himself’. The absence of the self and presence of the spirit alone renders an awareness that “shows no trace of egohood and for that reason ranges without limit through all distances and depths, with ‘eyes that hear and with ears that see’” (44). This egoless state yields the ability to become one with the collective consciousness constituting the external environment. No longer confined to the skin that separates him from the rest of the world, the archer becomes unable to differentiate himself from the arrow, the target and the bow. The idea that everything in this world is connected is intrinsic to the fundamentals of Zen Buddhism. In time, Eugen learns that “the hits on the target are only the outward proof and confirmation of your purposelessness at its highest, of your egolessness, your self abandonment” (56). Once you have grown truly egoless, you become indifferent to life or death, failure or success and thus “can break off at anytime” (51). The Master final lesson in detachment arrives at the conclusion of the apprenticeship when he hands over his sword to Eugen, asking that he takes it under the condition that when he has “‘passed beyond it, do not lay it up in remembrance! Destroy it, so that nothing remains but a heap of ashes’” (66). Eugen accepts the sword and returns to Europe a different man.
The mnemonic technology of photographs
Junior Seminar Proposal
This body of work is concerned with how subjectivity is shaped by memory and how the act of remembering is manipulated by the mnemonic medium of photography. Identity formation is hinged on one’s narrative of the past just as memory is inseparable from our perception of the present. A fugitive testimony to a moment lost, a photograph has the visceral and haunting ability to resurrect the past into the present. Although no object is counted on more for it mnemonic technology, a photograph is not inhabited by memory, but rather produces it. The image painted by light counterfeits an instance, it constructs a narrative of the past. The mutability of memories unveil the role the imagination plays in remembering. Thus, the capacity to reframe the past is precarious insofar as one’s identities becomes a construct of the memories you’ve chose to keep and those you’ve chosen to forget. Enveloped with nostalgia, this imagery is done in mimesis of memories, deteriorating the positivist discourse of photography’s relationship with truth. Captivated by the rituals of remembrance, these (post)memories aim to undermine and visually articulate the mnemonic mechanism of the mind and medium.
The emotive technology of photography is triggered by the realization: “that-has been”, even when one’s recollection reconstructs the experience. Resurrecting the forgotten from temporal decay, photographs are “modern relics of nostalgia”. Memories of the past are dictated by the present. Sally Mann’s black & white depictions of the American South tap into this discourse. Exhibited now at the Guggenheim’s Group show “Haunted”, three photographs taken from Sally Mann’s ‘MOTHER LAND’ are on display. For all intents and purposes, I will focus solely on the image “Untitled” (Virginia #6, Nuclear Tree), 1993- a gelatin silver print measuring 32.5 x 40.5 inches.
Sally Mann’s initial inspiration for the series stemmed from a bizarre discovery that she had rummaging through dusty boxes in her attic. Although her search through the cobwebbed storage was geared towards something completely different, her accidental finding proved far more valuable. A cache of thousands of negatives taken by a Civil War veteran was stored away beneath piles of other things left to be forgotten. After dusting off the negatives, Mann was astounded by how little her native town in Lexington, Virginia had changed. Yet, despite being geographically the same, the socio-cultural shift of the present was unparalleled to the past. Mann inspiration drew from the fact that so much had changed since the Civil War, yet the landscape had remained untouched.
With that said, Mann’s body of work is concerned with the notion of resurrecting memories. Ripe with elements of alienation, tension and insight- Sally Mann’s exposures hijack moments that unveil the inscription of human experience and history on the landscape. The faculty of the mind is such that the act of remembering is hinged on the need to forget. History is a fabricated narrative- it is a construct of the collective consciousness. Photographs are relics of the past, a frail testimony of fleeting moments lost in the folds of time. Yet, photography’s problematic relation with truth renders it’s portrayal riddled with the potentiality to distort our perception.
MEIDUM AND APPROACH
In a multitude of ways, Sally Mann’s approach rifts on the “Re-photographic Survey Project” in the nineteen-seventies. Headed by Mark Klett, this series was concerned with revisiting the great landscapes of the American West that were captured a century before by the masters in the medium- like Ansel Adams and Muybridge. In a similar vein, the medium in that Sally Mann shoot this body of work has a unique relationship with the subject matter. In the same tradition of Nadar, Mann shot with a glass-plated large format camera and a diverse selection of antique lenses. The aesthetic achieve by this approach is one of nostalgia and loss. The grainy quality imparts sensibility of faded memories. Halos of light bleed in from the border, the stark scapes are consumed with air of uneasiness. These images of the South transform terrain into portraits of another time and place.
I’m drawn to the notion that the past can be reconfigured, especially in light of the photographic medium’s intervention. Ultimately, what a photograph offers is a departure point from which on can construct a narrative around. How I’ve decided to interpret Sally Mann’s series is through a conceptual framework executed through the use of a pin-hole camera. The antique photographic method captures remnants of a moment in a lightless box. This parallels the soft imprint on the emulsion with the impression an experience leaves in the folds of one’s memory. The vague trace of light cast onto the interior gives an abstract sense of an instance, it’s multiplicity of semiotic meaning can be read in countless way- just as the past can be.
History is told by the victor, our narratives are conflicting. Although the conceptual framework of my project is largely abstract, the content is tied close to home. Given that our memories and imagination determine our identities, the imagery I’ve produced employing pin hole cameras mirrors the mechanisms of the mind to forget. As in the case of the Rorschach cards, each photograph provides the room for interpretation, offering contradictory and complicit narratives stemming from the same image.
Constructed with household paraphernalia, the pin hole camera’s nothing more than a mere light-proof can pierced with a pin prick in lieu of a lens.The technology is simplistic insofar as the shutter is manual, the exposure is lengthy and the size of the aperture determines the image’s sharpness. I experimented with exposures on black & white photographic paper. Furthermore, I built the pin hole with a coffee tin so the images I captured would have a cylindrical perspective. Despite its technological simplicity, (the pin hole has been around since the tenth century), I encountered great difficultly and many weeks of trial and error before finally perfecting the process. My greatest challenge was determining the f-stop ratio in relation to the exposure time to avoid reciprocity failure. The concept underpinning my decision to work with this practically obsolete technique is rooted in the how the process emerges as a praxis of memory function. When light flows through the tiny hole and falls onto the paper within a vague impression of the moment is left. The images that emerge are remnants of an instance lost. The complete story of the moment is absent, so one must build a narrative around it.
DESCRIPTION OF ELEMENTS
The lighting, casting, location and palette differed greatly according to the photographic process utilized. With the pin-hole series, I was temporally and spatially confined to spending evenings in my apartment downtown. Covering all the windows of my tiny bathroom with duck-taped vinyl records, I converted the space into a lightless hole where I could handle the photographic paper. I experimented with different exposures, as well as the intensity of light. The palette varies with black & white to gray-tones. I tried to work with objects rather than people as the lengthy exposures necessitated a motionless subject.
Online dating technologies have transformed traditional modes of relationship formation and intimacy. As the Hallmark version of romance gets reconfigured by the web and attraction becomes a question of algorithms, what impact does mediated romance have on the nature of intimacy? Is this medium of interaction fundamentally altering contemporary dating norms? When the territory changes so does the strategy, thus romance continues to reinvent itself according to the media scape. The code has evolved in tandem to the new mode of communication brought on by the technologies of the web. In the age of postmodernity, the complicity lacing compatibility necessitates an algorithm, or a “flirtation device” like Eharmony, that digitally determines matches through similarities stipulated via surveys. In the words of Marshall McLuhan, ‘the medium is the message’.
The codification of love is one of semantics. However, according to Niklas Luhman, love is destroyed by communication. Technology offers a realm of communication where the high probability of miscommunication renders a mutation in the discourse. A “new sentimental order” (Bawin-Legros 249) emerges from these different textures of longing. “The dominant theoretical frameworks for understanding intimacy in the global era is predicated on a shared belief that we exist in a period of detraditionalization, where socio-cultural traditions are being abandoned or reconfigured” (Gross 287).
“We exist in an era of ‘liquid modernity’, where desire is privileged over intimacy” (Bauman 43). The superficial nature of online relationships is rooted in the interchangeability of identities and relationships based on appearances that cannot be verified. Furthermore, the spatial possibilities of the internet usurps the habitus as the basis to find one’s significant other. Yet, love is always virtual in some respect and not necessarily a question of whether the person is present or absent. If one’s mind is not present, can one argue that the proximity of their physical manifestation is irrelevant? The virtual has obscured communication and rendered identities interchangeable. The perpetual mutability of the code has reconfigured intimacy and reified relationships.
WEB AS MEDIATOR…………………………………………………………………………….
The lie of spontaneous desire is formatted- at the birth of every desire a third mediator is present. To bridge the gap between people, love has always relied on a form of mediation or technology
. Mediators can manifest as friends, magazines, the media or one’s upbringing and habitus. In the case of e-dating, however, it is an algorithm that stipulates a ‘match’ and mediates desire. Although this present phenomenon strays from traditional forms of interactivity, its popularity is growing at an unprecedented rate- approximately forty million Americans currently resort to e-dating sites to meet people (Peters 16). These new patterns of social connectivity and mediation are transforming “socio-cultural norms in the formation, erosion and reformation of intimate relationships” (Barraket 159). “Spies and criminals are invariably among the first to take advantage of new modes of communication. But lovers are never far behind” (Standage 127). The boundaries between physical and virtual has blurred to the point where the ambiguity is best described as neo-sexuality. With that said, could one argue that online dating is “fulfilling the rational choice conditions of the era?” (Bauman)
Love is figured differently in variant cultures and époques. “We would not fall in love if we never heard of it” (Barthes 46). With that said, one must look to the past to understand the present. Every few generations, we recalibrate the notion of love. This discursive deconstruction is best understood through a post-structuralist lens. Michel Foucault divides history into three discontinuous episteme- the Renaissance, the Classical Age, and the modern era- to show how each is a constructed artifact of the era. If to trace it’s historical trajectory, the discourse on love would seem peculiar if decontextualized from its specific episteme. For instance, in this day and age it would be strange to woo a woman with a dove and poem. The rules of engagement are hinged on the socio-cultural norms of the epoch.
The genesis of love can be traced back as early as 385 BC to Plato. Platonic love, as described in “Symposium”, came about after Zeus divided the four legged androgynous person. The blacksmith Hephaestus was called upon to fuse lovers back together. This unnatural intervention unveils how love has relied on technology from its very conception. In tandem, courtly love emerged in the medieval ages where virtue was hinged on nobility and love letters served as mediators. These merits bred romantic love which in the 18th century was codified and subsumed into the discourse of modern love and the semantics of marriage. Ergo, the lover’s discourse is built on backwards compatibility with each model deriving from its predecessor.
The contemporary expression of love is informed not only by the traditions and technologies of platonic, courtly and modern love, but also by the hyper-accelerated experience of the postmodern episteme. The rhythm of socioeconomic exchanges and omnipresent surge of technology has drastically changed the dynamics of communicability and notion of time. The commodification of experience increasingly comes to define contemporary culture. Consumerism, branding and virtual avatars gives an aura to the nonhuman, bringing us to a state of neo-sexuality- which blurs the boundaries of what can be loved and how and how much. The nature of the libido is to connect, yet the digital realm renders this connectivity complicit. “The rapid advancement of information and communication technologies (ICTs) has had significant sociological impacts” (Barraket 149) on how relationships are formed.
CODIFICATION OF LOVE……………………………………………………………………
Love is the catalyst to symbolically express meaning through action. It is a model of behavior acted out, an internalized set of codes within a cultural operating system. Unlike attraction, the semantics of love are not innate- but rather learned through social practice. Simply put, it’s a historical and cultural construction used to interpret attraction. The codification of love is achieved through language. The eighteenth century marked the “end of the technical faith in communication” (Luhmann 125). Communicability and incommunicability structure the social arrangement of marriage and the notion of ‘love’. If people can be conceived as communication devices, than love can be perceived as a “privileged form of communication” (Pettman).
It is said that, “love can be damaged by explicit communication, by discreet questions and answers, because such openness would indicate that something had not been understood as a matter of course” (Luhmann 25). In other words, what is said is just as important as what is not said. “One knows from the outset how things will go and then hesitates to set something in motion that will be difficult to control once part of the communication” (Luhmann 124) . Thus, the role of non-verbal communication is an essential attribute of social connectivity. This is lost in the digital realm, unless of course the relationship grows intimate enough to be experienced on an interface such as Skype. Interestingly enough, e-dating sites attempt to atone for this non-communicative void. The image below is one of many bizarre survey questions that try to compensate for the digital alienation- asking its user to decipher which amalgamation of pixels appears sincere enough to buy a ‘car’ from.
INTERPERSONAL INTERPENETRATION AND MISCOMMUNICATION…………..
Interpersonal interpenetration is based on a coding program of ‘understanding, which is reinforced by the practice and increased communication of the code. With that said, the characteristics of ‘communication’ are being reconfigured by the digital medium. Due to the linguistic limitations of computer mediated communication, the likelihood of being misunderstood is far greater than in the case of other forms of social interaction. Although “the experience of incommunicability is one aspect of the differentiation of social systems of intimacy” (Luhmann 123), it is really mis-communication that dominates the realm of technology. The characteristics of the medium are of greater influence than the content itself. “All communication rests on a clearly localized difference, namely that between information and utterance” (Luhman 122). Meaning is destroyed once made the object of an utterance- which once transcribed into written language it is no longer an utterance, but rather a representation of one. Ultimately the virtual becomes a realm of romantic hermeneutics- if you look for signs you will read meaning into everything.
SELF-REFLEXIVITY: PLAGIARISM OF EMOTIONS……………………………………..
The risk of being misunderstood is further exacerbated by the inability to express one’s emotions virtually. Self-reflexivity relies on signs for emotional representation. There are primal emotions, yet how they are carried out is a matter of mimesis and mediation. What triggers them and how one reacts is internalized through social convention. Emotions are a crystallization of borrowed feelings. The environment give you the cues that elicit a reaction learned through countless years of cultural conditioning. Thus, happiness is a copy-write. Life is a performance insofar as one cries solely to validate one’s grief. Tears are signifiers not emotions, just as crying is a signal to the world rather than an expression. Yet how does this translate in the digital age? When technology enters the equation, the ‘rules of engagement’ are compromised by the fact that one can’t whisper or express emotions. Is it possible for an “arbitrary reconstruction of our programming” (Kidd 12)? What new forms of self-reflexivity have emerged for emotional representation? Has happiness been degraded to “ :)“? If so, is this any less honest than its physical manifestation?
Although there is virtually built into every relationship, technology and social connectivity is mediated in a way that transforms social interaction completely. Disintegrating normative modes of relationship formation, the virtual realm has reconfigured intimacy so that the beloved is determined by an algorithm, rather than innate attraction. The constellation of matches renders the illusion of agency as one surveys the myriad of ‘significant other’ options. As I mentioned before, attraction is an intrinsic trait, whereas love is learned through social practice. It is a cultural construct used to interpret ‘chemistry’, pheromones, an inexplicable inclination towards another. I apologize for fumbling with the term, however attempting to articulate ‘attraction’ is as difficult as trying to nail pudding to the wall. Interpersonal attraction has been framed by discourses in evolution, biology, reproduction and socialization, yet despite all this- it remains an inexplicable impulse that cannot be codified as a technology.
Online dating, however, denies that one decisive moment outside the realm of technology when the love object is- for one fleeting moment- free from mediation. In the traditional paradigm, desire becomes triangular in tandem to attraction. The mediator sweeps in to either confirmed or extinguished the ‘irrational’ lure of another. Once struck by the presence of another, one’s interest can be within an instant swiftly stifled by the disapproval of a family member or friend. Yet, with online dating sites there is an absence of the physical presence, the pheromones, the inexplicable ‘spark‘ we scaffold meaning around. The ‘other’ manifest as a profile page of listed interests and a photograph void of any promised validity. The question of representation becomes increasingly problematic in light of the fact that selfhood is constructed in a realm where the potential for deceit is endless.
Online identities are often beguiling constructions of selfhood. The arbitrary notion of identity manifests as an affect of the spectacle. The architecture of your profile page is scaffolded around the ego-ideal. In a sense, one can parallel the profile paradigm to the Freudian ‘mirror phase’. When a child first recognizes itself in the mirror, there is mistaken identification that links the ego to a reflection. Thus from infancy, identity is perceived as an outside entity- an illusory identification that feeds narcissism. Through transference, we inevitably place the object of our affection in the same position as our ‘ideal-ego’. In short, love can be hypothesized as two mirrors facing each other: both parties seeing their ego-ideal reflected in the other. Being in love is to “to internalize another person’s subjectively systematized view of the world” (Luhmann 26). Given that matches are based on similarities, the assumption that one’s inner experience mirrors that of your lovers reinforces the “reflexivity of reciprocal desire” (Luhmann 28). The frighteningly intelligent poet Ann Carsen once remarked that the “beloved is a forgery of our need”.
Finding your ‘ideal other’ in the virtual realm is facilitated by the disillusions flooding the void of their physical absence. A profile page is a pretension of personal illusion projected out into the world-wide-web with aspirations in finding a prototype of your ideal ego. There are a set of realities that subsist in lover’s mind regarding his or her relatIonship. This image-repertoire is not rooted in truth, but rather the fabricated reality of a lover in reflection of the relationship at hand. Surveying e-dating sites like Eharmony, I came across questions such as :”which one of the following images most closely resembles your right hand?” (eharmory.com) As if having your Index finger shorter than your ring has any implications on compatibility! “Fitting individuals into your erotic template” (Carsen 18), these emerging forms of connectivity reveal a colossal shift in the code. Furthermore, the architecture of these sites invite much room for ambiguity, exaggeration and fantastical deviations from the truth in the construction of one’s online avatar. Thus, the self is subject to endless (re)invention in the realm of the virtual.
The collective constructs of online identities have been swayed and shaped by mass communication technologies and the acceleration of circulating information. The acceleration in the rate people try on new social identities unveils the superficiality lacing the illusion of selfhood. “The construction, deconstruction and reconstruction of the self online have been the focus of significant theoretical debate within sociology” (Barraket 150). Truth be told- in realm of online dating, it’s much better to be interesting than to be true. The disappearance of the face and disembodied selves renders the web a “site for the formation of multiple and heterogeneous online selves” (Barraket 154). As cultural role are assumed and internalized through ‘broken-record’ narratives, the self becomes nothing more than ‘a plagiarized notion of affect’.
Online dating offers new communicative forms of social interaction, which due to its visual and linguistic limitations paves new avenues for romance and semiotics for seduction. Executed through the exchange of gestures and signs, seduction’s a technology that obscures communications. The communicative void of the virtual allows one to construct a fallacious narrative in the absence of information. In the e-dating realm, one could be married with four kids and assume the role of a single good-looking guy in his twenties. Yet, the corrupt politics of identity are, by and large, understood in the virtual realm, which renders intimacy even more impersonal. However, in this respect, virtual relationships are built on a sheer seduction, which is ultimately more honest than love insofar as both parties are agreeing to be dishonest. Seduction is transparent, whereas love is opaque and layered with hypocritical expectations and empty promises. Seduction does not know the territorial jealousy that goes by the name of love – especially in the realm of e-dating where the terrain is virtual and identities are interchangeable.
According to a pervious user of Eharmony , ‘there’s no passion in Internet dating, a lot of the girls on the Internet are very much focused on getting married. There’s nothing personal there. It’s lacking that intimacy’” (Lohnes). Whereas, on the contrary, “Rios has used e-dating for three years and said it’s a good way to meet people,” insofar as “it still leaves something to be desired” (Lohnes). On one hand, the argument could be made that online relationships render the absolute asymptote, on the other it can be said that it’s an explicitly obvious asymptote. Stemming from the Greek term ‘asymptotos’- which means “not falling together, an asymptote basically signifies the inability to merge, to obtain the other. It’s the idea of incessantly approaching but never possessing the beloved. The joy is in the pursuit rather than the realization. Satisfaction is the death of desire, thus love thrives in face of obstacles.
From Plato to Freud, love has since its conception been framed in terms of lack. As if a compartment waiting to be filled, people are psychologically programmed to seek their “other half” in life. Love would not exist without this lack. Yet, paradoxically, disappointment ensues possession and offense is provoked by the recognition of lack in another. Yet given the spatial dynamics of the virtual domain, the physical and tangible manifestation of the ‘other’ is denied. This begs the question as to whether the love object can be usurped by the love vector. Can we be digitally completed? Are online relationships just another form of self-sabotage that prevents us from ever having the “real life” love that we’re conditioned to need? Easing the horror of happily-ever-after, the ‘other’ becomes a generative catalytic presence that cannot be met through anything physical. Could this be the appeal? Is knowingly embracing the unattainable its own form of rapture? After all, the joy is rooted the pursuit rather than the realization.
CONFLATING THE CONTINUUM………………………………………………………….
Love & technology have a paradoxical relationship with the time/space continuum: time is an enemy of love and technology accelerates time. So where does that leave us? To quote Humbert, “the idea of time plays such a magical part in this matter” (Nabokov 17). The rhythm of socioeconomic exchanges has had to adapt to the implications of this omnipresent surge of technological innovation, which has ultimately transformed the dynamics of communicability and notion of time. The “growing pressures of career and time are reducing opportunities for social activity and meeting new people” (Barraket 155). Thus, social networking sites have become the mecca for those who don’t have the spare time to mingle outside work. “Annihilating space and time,” the virtual realm brings “together different parties…as near to each other as though they were in the same room, although actually separated by hundreds of miles” (Standage 133). In the age of postmodernity and technologically mediated relationships, love is e(x)ternal.
USURPING THE HABITUS………………………………………………………………….
Once the beloved was one of a shared history, family, hometown, aspirations and common habitus- yet new patterns of connectivity have emerged in response to societal changes. “Kristin Kelly, senior director of public relations at Match.com in Dallas, said technology has dramatically changed socializing. ‘When you look at our parents and grandparents, the way they met other people was by virtue of the town they grew up in,’ she said. ‘Now we’re much more transient than we used to be. People end up in new cities and places and they’re without a social circle.’ Both Kelly and Benson said today’s singles have much less free time than in the past. “Everything we do with our time is much more compressed,” Kelly said.“ (Lohanes) The commodification of experience increasingly comes to define contemporary culture. “We live in a time that is best described as a limbo of continually deferred expectations and anxieties. Everything is about to happen, or perhaps have already happened without our noticing it” (Mitchell 489).
ACCELERATED NOTION OF TIME………………………………………………………….
In postmodernity, “time is scarce, time can be exchanged for money. Time, an indispensable dimension of pleasure, is cut into fragments that can no longer be enjoyed” (Bifo 5). The onslaught of mass media denies the formation of memories, and thus denies a rooted sense of self. The brevity of online relationships unveil their superficial nature. Another adds that “ it makes everything too easy, rendering everything even more impermanent, relationships even more fragile. It’s just too easy to meet people, too easy to cycle through people, so it kind of accelerates the disintegration of long-term relationships. (33-year-old single straight female)” (Barraket 161). Furthermore, this form of relation emerges as a symptom of the schizophrenic phenomenology of “info-invasion, nervous overload, mass psychopharmacology, sedatives, stimulants and euphoric substances, of fractalization of working and existential time”(Bifo 3).
“In the context of personal relationship formation, some psychological studies (Levine, 2000; Wildermuth, 2001) have suggested that relationships formed online challenge traditional relationship theory, because physical proximity is de-emphasized as a feature of significance in the relationship formation process” (Barraket 154). The spatial possibilities of interconnectivity on world wide web are endless. “The premise of online communication is to bypass physical space…instead of meeting someone in a random way through occupying the same space at the same time (bar, party, train, etc.)” (Barraket 157). Furthermore, the growth of online dating sites is “simultaneously providing opportunities for people to form intimate connections that cut across traditional social and spatial networks, while also facilitating more traditional patterns of relationship formation within specific groups. This suggests that online technologies are concurrently mediating new patterns of interactivity and reinforcing existing socio-cultural norms in the formation, erosion and reformation of intimate relationships” (Barraket 159). Yet, despite these emerging trends in social connectivity, the significance of face-to-face relationship is axiomatic. As the internet usurps the habitus and identities become interchangeable, are reified relationships replacing real ones?
The lover’s discourse has been transformed by cybernetics. The constellation of ‘matches’ determined by an algorithmic formula marks a giant shift in the code. The protocols of engagement have transformed the anatomy social interactivity. Love has become an over-coded form of communication submerged in semiotics. As digital seduction breeds impersonal intimacy, the realm of the virtual is increasingly becoming one of sterilized desire. Bauman views online dating “as fulfilling the rational choice conditions of the era. He suggests the art of loving has been replaced by a commodified imitation, the ‘love experience’, which models ‘other commodities that allure and seduce by brandishing all such features and promise to take the waiting out of wanting, sweat out of effort and effort out of results’” (Bauman 7).
Could this shift towards reified relationships and interchangeability break the hyper ego? Love encourages insecurities, as we are mortified if not elevated to the petal-still of ‘significant other’. The fetish of being the ‘one’ reinforces narcissism, jealousy and possessiveness. The absence of essence in the virtual realm broadens the possibilities for connectivity. Liberated from identity and fixed subjectivity, the self becomes nothing more than a plagiarism of affect. Identity conflicts dissipate with interchangeability . “Love is never directed toward this or that property of the loved one (being blond, being small, being tender, being lame), but neither does it neglect the properties in favor of an insipid generality (universal love): The lover wants the loved one with all of its predicates, its being such as it is” (Agabem 27). With that said, what the age of post-ego calls for is a self-reflexive interchangeability- the ability to perceive oneself as singular, rather than unique. At this point in our evolution, the mind seems to understand interchangeability, but the heart does not. Ergo, the elusive nature of love.
- Arvidsson, A. (2006) “‘Quality Singles’: Internet Dating and the Work of Fantasy”, New Media and Society 8(4): 671–90.
- Barraket, Jo.( 2008) “Getting in online: Sociological perspective on e-dating”. Journal of Sociology. Melbourne, Vol. 44, Iss. 2: 149-165.
- Barthes, Roland. (1979) “A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments”. New York: Hill & Wang,.
- Bauman, Z. (2003) Liquid Love. Cambridge: Polity Press.
- Bawin-Legros, B. (2004) ‘Intimacy and the New Sentimental Order’, Current Sociology 52(2): 241–50.
- Berardi, Franco.( 2005) “Biopolitics and Connective Mutation”. Trans. Tiziana Terranova. Culture Machine, Vol 7. Open Humanities Press.
- Girard, René.(1976) ”Triangular Desire” in Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure”. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.
- Gross, N. (2005) ‘Detraditionalization of Intimacy Reconsidered’, Sociological Theory 23(3): 286–311.
- Hardey, M. (2002) “Life Beyond the Screen: Embodiment and Identity through the Internet”, The Sociological Review 50(4): 570–85.
- Foucault, Michel. (1984) “We Other Victorians & The Repressive Hypothesis”, The Foucault Reader. New York: Vintage.
- Kidd, Dustin. (1999) “How do I Love Thee? No Really, How?: Theory, Literary History, and Theory in Luhmann’’s Love as Passion”. New York, NY: Wiley.
- Kristeva, Julia. (1980) Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, ed. Leon S. Roudiez, trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine and Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press: 136
- Lohnes, Kate. (2005) “E-dating used by singles of all ages”. McAllen, TX: Monitor.
- Luhmann, Niklas. (1998) “Love as a Generalized Symbolic Medium of Communication” & “The Discovery of Incommunicability” in “Love as Passion: The Codification of Intimacy”. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.
- Nabokov, Vladimir(1991) “The Annotated Lolita” (Alfred Appel Jnr., ed.) New York: Vintage.
- Standage, Tom. (1999 ) “Love Over the Wires”, The Victorian Internet. NY: Berkley.
- Pettman, Dominic(2006) “Mind the Gap,” Love and Other Technologies. New York: Fordham University Press.
- Peters, Gretchen (2009) “The dangerous side of online dating” , The National. UAE: Abu Dhabi Media Company.
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.
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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.
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.