Who’s a Good Boy?: Moonrise Kingdom and Value Judgements

If you have not seen Moonrise Kingdom it is about two children–Sam and Suzy–who fall in love and runaway from their troubled lives together. There is a scene in the movie when the two encounter Sam’s Khaki Scout troop while navigating through the woods. Things turn violent when the Khaki Scouts try and capture Sam and Suzy to bring them back to their families and the Khaki Scout dog, Snoopy, is shot in the neck with an arrow and killed during the altercation. When the Khaki Scouts retreat, Suzy looks over Snoopy and asks, “Was he a good dog?” To which Sam responds, “Who’s to say?” (See clip here.)

This exchange got me thinking about the use of categories like goodness and badness as tools for authorizing one’s personal interests.

Suzy’s impulse to measure the value of Snoopy’s life in terms of “good” or “bad” is a move that reduces a lifetime into a single label, a move that Sam avoids. “Good” is not a universally agreed upon concept. A hunter may believe a dog is good if it is obedient while a family might argue a dog is good if it is loving. Some cultures see dogs as a nuisance rather than pets which would lead to an entirely different approach to the animal’s death. The goodness or badness of the dog’s life may be irrelevant in the moment of death because value judgements are overpowered by the fact that the number of stray dogs in a particular area is causes several problems for the community. The death of the dog may help solve a larger problem of overpopulation.

Sam’s question “Who’s to say?” pushes the viewer to rethink who gets to decide which person, society, or culture gets to define what it means to be good.

Snoopy might be a good dog in the eyes of the Khaki Scouts because he is a faithful companion to the boys all summer, not because his attributes are inherently “good”. If Sam told Suzy that Snoopy was good, Suzy’s idea of Snoopy is influenced even though she never knew him. To acknowledge that he does not have the ability to authorize goodness or badness, Sam avoids marginalizing those who disagree with him. He recognizes the implications that come when one assumes authority over value judgements. To deem Snoopy a good dog ignores the fact that reality is made up of multiple conceptions of goodness. Sam opens the doors for discourse that does not submit to categories, but wrestles with the intricacies of belief, authority, multiplicity, and truth claims.

“Hello, from the children of the planet Earth!” : The Voyager Golden Record and Judith Butler

Before Voyagers 1 and 2 were sent into space in 1977, a golden record was attached to the outside of each. The record includes encoded images, an introduction by the U.N. Secretary at the the time, spoken greetings in many different languages (The title of this post comes from this section.), a compilation of the sounds of Earth, and a musical playlist comprised of twenty-seven songs. It was put together by a small team led by Carl Sagan during the months leading up to the launch and sought to capture the essence of human beings through media created for any form of life that happens to find the record floating in space. (Included in my post are a few of the encoded images on the record.)

This record reminded me of Judith Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself and her claim that accounts given by a subject are tailored around their interests because they are put together in response to a call from the other. Butler asserts that people would not give an account of themselves to themselves. It is only when ‘the other’ requires that we give an account that we are inclined to give one. By ‘other’ she means that-which-is-other-than-ourselves–whether that be another individual or any circumstance that prompts us to reflect on ourselves. An ‘account’ is essentially a narrative given to paint a specific picture for the other, a picture that maintains the interests of the subject giving the account.

 

After passing by Jupiter, the Voyagers are on course to continue their journey into deep space forever (or until they fall apart) which, I believe, acts as the call from the ‘other’. The possibility of a human object venturing into the unknown prompted NASA to try and answer the question, “Who are we?” Looking at the contents of the record, I would argue that the creators wanted anyone who found the record to see humans as peaceful, diverse, and rich in culture. There images are of people eating, human anatomy, objects and beautiful landscapes but none of war, murder, or illness. There are sounds of laughter and heartbeats but none of screaming or weeping (with the exception of a baby crying). Atrocities are left out because, ultimately, accounts are for the people who make them. The account given on the Golden Record was fabricated to satisfy the interests of Carl Sagan and his team: to persuade life in other galaxies to think fondly of us here on Earth.

 

And I am not trying to say the record should never have been created. I love the soundtrack and highly recommend listening to it all the way through. I am only suggesting that it is merely another account that ignores a reality that rests in a slew of experiences and interactions that in no way amount to a single linear, digestible narrative.

First image from Flikr user Ian Burt. CC BY 2.0.                               https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/#

Other images from Flickr user Jerome Gangneux. Public Domain Mark 1.0. https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0/  

True Crime and Truth Claims

portrait drawing of Grace Marks and James McDermottI recently finished watching the Netflix Original series Alias Grace, based on Margaret Atwood’s book by the same name. I haven’t yet read the book (I do plan to), but would I have understood or enjoyed the series differently if I had?

The series is marketed as an historical fiction. It would seem that this term is self-contradictory. If fiction is by definition a falsehood, why pair it with “historical” which elicits ideas of fact and truth? The very ideas of these terms contradict one another. But I would propose a more complex reframing. What if it is not truth, but rather truth claims? Whenever a history is told, it’s always in the form of some type of narrative — be it literary like in the form of a book or in physical sites like the well at Cawnpore or other memorials. Narratives necessarily exclude some information and embellish in certain areas for the sake of comprehension. The term “historical” doesn’t necessarily imply complete truth, but rather truth to the person telling the history. So perhaps the term “historical fiction” makes perfect sense.  And this is precisely what we’re given with Alias Grace, a historical fiction that at once claims truth and falsehood. But why has it been classified as historical fiction and not true crime? And what difference does that classification make?

When I first came across the series, I was hardly familiar. I watched the first episode knowing only that it was set in Canada during the 19th century. And I was hooked. The story itself feels novel and yet familiar. As a casual fan of true crime, I’m familiar with how the story is structured. Something bad happened. We don’t really know what, but we do know who has been blamed. We’re then taken through a serialized journey to discover what happened and who did it. Or maybe we’re left hanging, having to come to our own conclusions. In each episode one major twist and several minor clues are revealed — breadcrumbs on the proverbial path. In Alias Grace episodes two and three seem to divert from the path until connections are made later on that lead to the peak of the narrative hill.

It was around these episodes that I started to google and learn more about the series. This was when I learned the book on which it was based was written by Margaret Atwood. Personally (and I know this is controversial), I’m not that into Atwood. I read The Handmaid’s Tale, set it aside, and didn’t particularly care to return. This is not to say that I don’t recognize its value and contribution to popular culture. I just doubt I would’ve watched Alias Grace if I had known going in about its connection to Atwood. Our own preconceived notions of what a thing is determine how we consume or interact with it. Starting this series with fewer preconceived notions allowed me to give it a fair shake. Later, once I had done more reading, I learned Atwood based her novel on real events, keeping as close to the historical record as possible. This becomes much more complicated in analyzing Atwood’s own understanding of the events. What were her preconceived notions? Why did she interpret the court records in certain ways? These are all important questions to explore.

But this all leads me to wonder, why has Alias Grace been classified as historical fiction rather than true crime? Are true crime narratives somehow not historical fiction? Atwood seemingly adhered tightly to what might be considered the “facts” of the case. Perhaps it has to do with when the murders and trial took place. Perhaps it had to do with (spoiler alert) Mary Whitney’s apparent possession of Grace Marks. Perhaps it even has to do with Atwood’s identification as a fiction writer rather than a reporter or historian. Or perhaps all of these and other factors I haven’t even thought of play a role in this classification. But at the end of the day does the classification of Alias Grace as historical fiction rather than true crime effect how we interact with it? For me (and probably you), the answer is a hard and resounding yes.

 

Photo credit: Special Collections Toronto Public Library via Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Ignatian Yoga?

Recently, while I was sitting on my couch, scrolling through social media with Netflix playing in the background, I came across this post on Facebook. At first I was taken aback. Ignatian spirituality and yoga didn’t seem to make sense together in my immediate reaction. Then I remembered all the other things I had seen like it in recent years — SoulCore and Holy Yoga among them. Ignatian Yoga actually isn’t any different than these other forms of Christian influenced yoga. The only thing that was new to me was seeing something that was both explicitly Catholic and explicitly yoga. So what is Ignatian Yoga anyway? And what were my preconceptions of these terms that contributed to my initial surprise?

First, “Ignatian” refers to a particular type of Catholic spirituality founded by Saint Ignatius of Loyola. St. Ignatius founded the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) which now has more than 16,000 members. One of the Jesuits’ foci is on spiritual direction. It follows, then, that their retreats (including this one for Ignatian Yoga) would feature talks on Ignatian spirituality and spiritual direction. While the Jesuits (like all groups) face opposition to their ideas from time to time, the idea of Ignatian spirituality seems fairly straightforward — at least in concept.

More complicated, however, is the idea of yoga. What is yoga? Is it religious? I vividly remember a yoga instructor once beginning an academic class on the subject by saying, “Before we begin, you all know yoga’s not a religion, right?” For the purposes of teaching yoga as an academic class at a public university in the United States, this claim makes perfect sense. By declaring yoga to not be a religion, the instructor was intentionally creating a barrier between yoga as good exercise and yoga as religious to avoid trouble under the first amendment. But the religiosity of yoga is actually a lot more complicated than that. The history of yoga in the United States is complex, but includes a particular trajectory of secularization — or does it? Andrea Jain has an interesting and concise book about this history. Suffice it to say that “yoga is not religious” is quite a bold claim.* To many (particularly outside of the U.S.), yoga is religious. Some see it as a positive, others see it as a threat to their own religious life. But none of this explains why the words “Ignatian” and “yoga” were put next to each other to describe this retreat.

By putting these two terms together the Jesuits running this particular retreat are making a few implicit claims just in calling it “Ignatian Yoga.” Because Ignatian spirituality and Christianity more generally act exclusively and reject non-Christian religion, “Ignatian yoga” can only exist if yoga is considered to not be religious. In this case, yoga provides the added component of exercise. Therefore, yoga could hardly be religious as Ignatian spirituality already fulfills that role. But beyond the question of whether or not these things are “religious,” we also see a combination of things from two seemingly different cultures.

In New York, the Jesuits ostensibly participate in and produce western and American cultures. On the other hand, yoga’s roots are often placed in Indian culture. From this perspective, how do we wind up with Ignatian Yoga if the two terms come from such different cultures? The answer here lies in how we conceptualize culture. Because of the more modern adaptations of yoga into American culture, the combination of Ignatian spirituality and yoga is actually not all that surprising. Cultures are often defined by their difference. So the idea of Ignatian yoga becomes possible first by the adoption of yoga into American culture itself. Then, after its recreation as non-religious exercise, it can be adopted into the folds of of Ignatian spirituality at this retreat (and other products like it).

The answer to how we wind up with “Ignatian Yoga,” then, seems to say a lot more about the person answering this question than anything else. So at first, I was surprised because this concept was outside of what I am most often exposed to. My preconceived notions of Ignatian spirituality and yoga were exclusive of one another. But as I thought about it more, I realized that this is precisely how culture is continually reproduced and recreated. After this brief pause, I kept scrolling through Facebook.

 

*For a fun introduction to the complications in this claim, I recommend Rough Translation‘s “Om Alone In India.”

Recordings from My Closet

 

Podcasts have become increasingly popular in academia, probably due to the increasing availability of technology across many Universities in the U.S. as well as abroad. For example, I’ve recently been listing to Invisibilia on NPR as well as a variety of podcasts produced by the Religious Studies Project. In my own graduate cohort we are currently in the process of creating our own episode of the department’s podcast Studying Religion. Under the guidance of Dr. Mike Altman, in one of our two foundations courses this Fall, we have begun learning the standard methods for creating a podcast, also benefiting from the advice of a digital expert at the University of Alabama.

Being the only one in our group to have produced podcasts in the past, I had a few pro tips for the others, such as how to save time (and, if you’re not affiliated with a university and lack resources, how to save money too!) in the production of a podcast. Most notably, I mentioned to my colleagues that a closet full of clothes, with the door closed, could function perfectly well as a recording studio, to which the expert at UA replied that while a closet could certainly fulfill that function the recording studio is ideal.

Naturally, the social theorist in me began to wonder what interests go into identifying something as a ‘recording studio’. Could it be the structure of the room itself? I think not, for both my closet and the ‘studio’ are ostensibly identical in structure in that they are rooms with four walls, no windows and a single door. So, could it be the content perhaps? Maybe, although beyond whatever high tech recording equipment it might have, the studio has noise-suppressing padding that is pretty much identical to my clothes, in that they are just objects that to fulfill the same purpose (i.e., suppressing sound). So instead of seeing them as all that different, I would like to suggest that the recording studio is only a recording studio, and my closet is only my closet, because we arbitrarily label them as such.

Sure, the recording studio that we’ve booked at UA may provide a public space that is more comfortable for collaborative podcasts (yes, it’s a little larger than my closet), but I remain convinced that there is no inherent quality or essence to the recording studio that demands that it be labeled as such within our system of language; it is only a ‘recording studio’ because we authorize that particular string of phonemes to create a word that we agree refers to an item in our material reality.

After all, doesn’t Marc Maron record his famous podcast in his garage—err…, his recording studio?

Although language is an established system it is always evolving; it is social and thus collaborative, with no single agent to which it can be traced. Thus, no labels within language – whether recording studio or closet – refer to any static phenomena or natural object outside of language or discourse. Yet, despite claiming this, as scholars we often draw on bits of language as though they have a viable or obvious trans-historical meaning. ‘Religion’ is one such word sometimes taken to have a self-evident meaning that does not require temporal nor contextual elaboration (the old “I know it when I see it” school of thought). But, if we can posit that this word religion – like that other term, recording studio – only appears to refer to something outside of language because we authorize it to, because we use it that way, then perhaps we can begin to understand why it is problematic to make assumptions about the existence of something called ‘World Religions’ within the academic study of religion—as if they’re just out there, somewhere. And perhaps we can also understand how some might want to study how language (and the institutions in which it functions) is used to delineate not only religious from secular but particular factions of religions from one another, as if this one is more authentic, proper, or maybe even ideal, than that one.

But, who am I to tell you what to think about your notion of religion? After all, I’m some grad student who records podcasts in her closet, or should I say her home recording studio…?

 

The Human Tribe

What does it mean to greet someone in a different language? In this video, President Obama does just that, over and over again. The repetitive nature elicited by editing these clips together suggests an effort on his part to learn these greetings. This effort is further emphasized by the moment where he doesn’t get it quite right and admits to having practiced. He later appeals to the human tribe, citing familiarity and likeness across different cultures. Of course, the video produces a reminiscence for Obama’s presidency, but I can’t help but wonder: what is this “human tribe?”

Like The Family of Man, this video evokes feelings of camaraderie and a natural human similarity. This effort to learn a simple aspect of another culture highlights similarity through the difference of speech. These are greetings, after all. The similarity is inherent. The difference lies within expression both in language and in culture. The viewer is expected to feel that these differences are negligible, allowing for this “human tribe” to form.

Learning about each other and finding similarity through our cultural difference is presented as the ideal. But the limitations on adopting other cultures is reinforced. The video does not show Obama wearing non-Western clothing. It does not show him participating in events that would be jarring to an American audience. Rather, Obama remains dressed in a suit and plays with a ball. He sees the sights and pats babies’ heads. After all, that which represents American culture is not undercut by the presentation, at least to some.

Posted on the Facebook page USA New Today, a page that regularly posts content depicting Obama in a favorable manner, this video is presented as a nostalgic piece: something to remind viewers of the good times we all had under our former president. But those who do not remember Obama’s presidency positively may have a hard time getting the same thing out of this video. Obama was often perceived as being too soft on other nations and was often criticized for it. To those who remember Obama’s presidency as largely negative, this video may serve as a reminder of their frustrations. In fact, they may read the opposite of the points I have made above. They may focus on the difference rather than the similarities that the video attempts to highlight. So maybe there isn’t one “human tribe.” Maybe, instead, difference cannot be wiped out by similarity.

Roland Barthes’ Mythologies reads The Family of Man in a similar manner. He concludes that this presentation and assumption of likeness creates an alibi for the actions of man, rendering them harmless. If we are able to focus on the camaraderie and the interactions of cultures presented in this video, we are then able to ignore and dismiss other actions that may be deemed unfavorable.

Returning to the video’s presentation of Obama’s many greetings, the usage of these phrases can be read as a myth. In his concluding essay “Myth Today,” Barthes presents a method of understanding myth as a second-order semiological system. The chart he provides to explain this looks like this:

chart for Myth Today

So when, for example, Obama says “Grüß Gott,” he is saying much more than “God bless.” On the first-order of language, Obama makes the sounds of the phrase, forming the signifier. That which is signified is the meaning “God bless.” Together they form the sign which the audience hears and understands. But beyond its obvious meaning, each greeting demonstrates something else. The sign itself signifies something more. The audience doesn’t just understand the greeting. They understand that Obama has made an effort to be accepted with kindness and open arms. This is something you can almost see on Angela Merkel’s face as she processes the sounds she has just heard.

On the most basic level, we are presented with a video of President Obama greeting audiences in other languages. Beyond that, audiences within the video hear Obama and receive (perhaps to varying degree) his message of commonality. But another point is this: viewers will understand one of two things. Either they will understand that the former president’s era is to be missed for his outreach to other nations (the view encouraged by the video’s producers), or his opponents will see this effort as a symbol of his weakness.

The video may seem inconsequential to many. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if most people saw this in their feed and kept scrolling after less than a second. But videos, images, and texts such as these are doing a great deal of work to produce a particular affect on their audience. While the intent may have been to use the rhetoric in this video to convey a nostalgia for the former president’s affinity towards non-American cultures, there is much more heavy lifting behind the scenes.

Choking Down the Red Pill

In my undergraduate career I was fully convinced something called ‘culture’ existed out in the world, waiting to be delineated and studied if only I could acquire the right tools. As I expanded my methodological repertoire and explored seminars on theory and philosophy, the impossibility of the existence of subjects and objects beyond the systems of discourse and language that call them into being seemed increasingly attractive. For fans of The Matrix, I was taking the red pill and pondering the function and construction of my experience of my own existence.

When bound up in a particular version of reality it can be difficult, and at times feel nearly impossible, to reflect critically on the role of processes that – despite their convenient anonymity –largely determine the version of reality you are exposed to. The structures informing our daily lives often operate undetected because, over millennia, they have been refined to adhere to pre-existing mental structures. It is difficult to reconsider the world you inhabit (and have inhabited for some time now, i.e. your entire life) as highly constructed and inherently contingent. The animated American sitcom Rick and Morty gets at this in one of their episodes in which they face off against aliens, headed by Prince Nebulon, who trap them in an alternate version of reality and even admonish the duo for believing they have escaped only to realize they were in a simulation within a simulation.

The ‘sloppy details’ Rick is attempting to reveal to Morty are difficult to discern because they are those that, when combined, manufacture our individual versions of reality which we falsely assume embody some level of continuity between otherwise disparate elements of our lives. Their anonimity is no accident, societies have become highly successful at indoctirinating their members by eliminating evidence of ‘sloppy details’, though the evidence of these erasure efforts becomes increasingly evident once a member is aware of the utter contingency of their exepriences. In The Evidence of Experience, Joan Scott claims our conceptions of our own experience and assumptions about it  “…preclude examining the relationship between discourse, cognition, and reality.” We believe ourselves to be autonomous beings capable of generating an objective account the world we inhabit and our place in it, Scott posits, only in so far as we validate representational narratives and preclude investigative analysis of their emergence.

My job as an aspiring scholar of religion is to look at the ‘sloppy details’, prod them, and think critically about the constructed nature of our perceptions of reality. The Matrix focuses on a computer hacker under the codename ‘Neo’ as he is approached by a man named Morpheus who offers Neo two options; the infamous red and blue pill. The latter ensures Neo’s life will continue smoothly as it always has while the former will reveal the enigmatic ‘Matrix’ Neo has caught glimpses of during his computer-based exploits. “…You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes,” Morpheus states ominously.

“Why do my eyes hurt?” Neo asks as he awakens in the ‘real world’ for the first time, “Because you’ve never used them,” Morpheus replies. Much like Neo is only able to understand the full force of the Matrix once he is outside of it, as scholars it can be easy to fantasize about a theoretical space where we might discuss discourse outside of discourse itself. In our daily lives we must realize that such an outlook suggests we have not fully digested the consequences of the ‘red pill’, for if we nod to the theory of discourse as the means of situating reality then we may never bracket our interests as ethnographers or researchers in order to find a more real reality in excavating the reality we are presented with. There is no presentation that precedes representation.

Is Foley Fake News?

In the first episode of BBC’s Planet Earth, David Attenborough opens by saying the series will “show you the planet and its wildlife as you have never seen it before.” Each episode focuses on a specific environment (deserts, rainforests, open ocean, etc.) and captures in high definition what most of us will never see during our lifetime. But does it show us the world?

What most viewer’s do not know is that these cameras—while they are revolutionary for film—are unable to capture sound, which means that almost all of what we hear in the documentary is either manufactured by foley artists or comes from a collection of previously recorded sounds. Foley is the art of using everyday objects and materials to mimic other sounds and is used in the sound production of Planet Earth. A fascinating video by “Great Big Story” gives examples of these techniques. For instance, the sound of crunching snow you might see on screen is actually footsteps on sand or corn starch. The sound of large ocean waves is actually one person splashing their hands in a small pool. Dog footsteps are paper clips attached to the end of a glove. These sounds are paired with footage and presented as though they were recorded together.

The implications of foley artists in film reminded me of Hayden White’s account of the construction of historical narrative. He argues that historians present their accounts of history as true and complete when, in fact, they are highly influenced by their word choice and subjective framework. History can be a way of giving us a better understanding of the past, present, future, ourselves, society, and the natural world. However, this comes with inherent limitations. Historical events alone are not sufficient when seeking to give the reader a clear idea of what is going on. The historian is forced to infer, create, explain, analyze, and make connections to form a digestible narrative. But this becomes problematic because the historian is grounded in a framework formed by their own upbringing, race, religion, language, etc. that determines how they organize their narrative, what they choose to include (since we cannot possibly add everything), and their word choice even when they are seeking to be as objective as possible. And the way the reader takes in a particular account influences the way they understand history themselves.

When applying this argument to foley we should first consider the two options the directors of Planet Earth must face when making the documentary. BBC wants to make a series that is true to reality. Just as we cannot go back in time and experience the past, we will probably never hear the sounds of the rainforest canopy so they aim to give us the next best thing. But what is closer to to an authentic experience of the natural world: watching the footage with manufactured sound or with no sound at all? Either way, we are not hearing the world as it truly is. The directors can be compared to historians because they have material and it is up to them to decide how we, the viewers, get to experience it. They edit and select clips to form an interesting narrative that gives us an opportunity to see the world as we “have never seen it before” and, in this case, they chose to go with foley.

It is not an act of deception, but there are implications to this that should be considered. The limitations of the historian’s language and personal framework can be compared to the limited materials of the foley artist and their own beliefs on what something in nature might sound like. This means that no matter how diligent they are in replicating the sounds of earth, it will never be identical to the natural sounds themselves. Because of this, foley artists influence the way the viewer understands nature. An episode of 99% invisible illustrates my point with the example of elephants in nature. In the wild they are almost silent, but in documentaries they are depicted as making noise because the viewer would find it uncomfortable to watch an animal that weighs over two tons tread silently over African plains. The directors are shaping the series to fit the expectations of the viewer just as historians shape their narrative based on what they believe the reader should know or what they consider relevant.

What if we went into nature and experienced it ourselves? Then we would be confronted with the fact that—like historians—we all have our own frameworks by which we experience the world and this framework would determine what aspects of nature we notice, what parts we find interesting, what kind of connections we make, etc.

We are trapped in endless limitations, but this does not mean that we should give up on our quest for a complete truth. When we recognize that history and documentaries—and most every narrative we encounter—are never fully complete, then we are inspired to investigate these representations and their sources further. Knowing that the sounds in Planet Earth do not match the images on screen opened the doors for me to watch the series from a new perspective. Now I am skeptical of each noise and think critically about the director’s vision for the audience’s experience. Now, I won’t be confused when I hear my first elephant.

Image from Flikr user Brian Lauer. CC BY 2.0.

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Viewing (and Dividing) the World through Eclipse Glasses

 

If you, like millions of Americans, took time on August 21st to view the total solar eclipse, you likely adorned the necessary protective eyewear. Immediately following the cosmic spectacle, radio broadcasters, journalists, and other figures of mainstream media began suggesting these glasses be donated, specifically through Astronomers Without Border, a U.S. based organization, to ‘children in South America and Asia’. This seemingly altruistic effort to further scientific knowledge and thus enhance the experience of science by ‘children in South America and Asia’ becomes problematic when we become critical about the social constructions it reinforces and the ways it undermines local agents.

Looking critically at AWB’s developing donation program, and, in a broader sense, the way American news outlets cast foreign countries as distant and distinctively dissimilar to the United States, it becomes obvious that certain complexities are being glossed over for the sake of mass-communication. Sensationalist headlines regarding AWB’s efforts are reaffirming the existence of a distinctly other population who is inherently less developed / has impaired access to resources. References to these Other populations are not just mere references, they are re-presentations of a lived reality. The tendency in Western media to be referential avoids clarity and explicit intentions by being irresponsibly, and randomly, selective about the ways vast geographical spaces are defined. References like this rely on a binary in which individuals either belong to this area or do not, thus creating a hierarchy that places Europe and North America above Asia and South America.

Claiming “children in Asia and South America” as the recipients of their goodwill makes AWB complicit in the Western based worldview, with a Eurocentric history, that further ostracizes the non-Western world. The “goodwill and understanding” AWB claims to foster through its self-insertion into the third world assumes the existence of a certain universal morality, thus subverting local conceptions of morality.

This is a contemporary example of how the construction of space and ability to reference it – such as ‘Asia’– is contingent upon the individual agents and their political positioning in history. Orientalism is a concept that often refers to the representations of the ‘East’ by the ‘West’. It is the basis for distinguishing between populations over there that are inherently different than us over here and, as Edward Said succinctly stated in his book entitled Orientalism, it “…was a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.”

Dipesh Chakrabarty in his book Provincializing Europe, argues that authority held over the past is never limited to the past alone. Claims to authenticity about what has happened are essential in the development of what will happen in our present and future. If we assume time to be singular with linear progression, then the passing of time becomes an instrument for measuring cultural distance and reinforcing this essential difference between those less developed countries over there and the developed countries over here. Representations of places and people accepted uncritically as truthful and objective, such as AWB’s reference to ‘children in Asia and South America’, are one aspect of the autocratic manufacturing of the past that imposes an evolutionary model placing Europe closer to the ‘completion’ of development. According to Chakrabarty, questioning versions of history taken to be normative can restructure habits of thought to be more inclusive.

The colonial encounter created a space in which European explorers could pass judgments about an observed population derived from their linear understanding of progress. ‘Us versus them’, Orientalist mentality was adopted to provide clear criteria for who was to dominate and who was to be dominated in colonialist efforts and, as Chakrabarty highlights, this tendency to view Europe as the original site of modernity has hardly abated.

Beyond AWB, there exists a pattern of individuals, almost invariably men of European descent, employing an Orientalist worldview and gifting foreign children repurposed items and telling them to gaze into the cosmos. Rhetorical reinforcement of an inferior Orient who requires a European savior is evident in neo-colonial attempts at redistributing the knowledge and wealth of entities that, historically, benefitted from colonial exploits. AWB is but one thread of a greater tapestry.

So, certain conditions must be in place for individuals to perceive themselves, and their plight, as unproblematic. The redistribution efforts of AWB serve as one example of the rich data demonstrating how sensationalist headlines imagine the populations they speak of as existing in the periphery while simultaneously authorizing the centrality of groups making claims about said populations.

Social Theory Everywhere

If you have ever had a friend point out an error or plot hole in a movie that you had never noticed despite watching it many times, you understand how you can never watch that movie again without seeing the now obvious issue. That is how social theory works within our REL 501 Social Theory Foundations course. We discuss a range of theories and theorists and employ them to look at society in new ways. As we develop our own set of theories, we see examples around us that we had never noticed before, examples of theory that we can’t avoid seeing now. These theories provide new ways to engage and analyze material all around us and give us new understandings of ways that society functions, insights that enable us to both produce new research and discover different ways of operating within various social environments. Continue reading “Social Theory Everywhere”