West and the Rest
Contemporary media technologies such as satellite television and the Internet have created a constant flow of transnational images that connect audiences worldwide. And through the consumption of these images, new audiences start to demand the lifestyle products of the West. People everywhere seem to want to drink Coca-Cola, wear Nike and eat McDonald’s. But why? In this lesson, we explore the topic of globalisation and Western cultural dominance. Furthermore, we critique the lingering effects of colonial power structures and question the ethics of cultural borrowing.
We live the benefits of globalisation every day. What kind of takeaway will we get? – Mexican, Thai, Japanese? Perhaps you would like some background music while you read:
With the rise of the Internet, the world has become a smorgasbord of cultures. As creative media practitioners, our palette of potential influences has never been wider or more diverse. We have the potential to create a truly global media – a utopian media that exists beyond national borders.
But, who is the Internet for and does it truly represent all nations? According to the data, far from being a democratic representation, the Internet is primarily the purview of the 1st world: the information age has been dominated by the West, and the content online reflects a western sensibility. If you are listening to the playlist above, you will notice it was created by someone called Andy, who provides playlists in any number of music styles – a service for connoisseurs of culture – and the audience is western.
The map below shows the percentage of Internet users by country. The darkest colours show the highest concentrations of Internet use and align with what we would traditionally consider ‘the West’: the USA, the UK, Northern Europe and Australia.
Privilege and Implicit Bias
We ALL have a ‘race/ethnicity’. What is yours? Race is often described as the genetic differences you are born with, while ethnicity describes social or cultural characteristics or practices.
What is clear, is that for some, their race connotes privilege, and for others disadvantage. And, that for the most part, race and ethnicity are invisible for those in privileged positions. This means that when people claim that race is ‘not an issue’ for them, it probably just means that they have never been disadvantaged because of their race. How privileged are you?
💻 ONLINE ACTIVITY
Choose one of the pop quizzes below and complete it. This will help us problematise the issues further and give you some perspective on your own privilege.
Check(list) your privilege.
The Harvard Implicit Bias test measures the amount of unconscious bias in relation to age, gender, race, weight and other categories. You may be surprised by the results – even if you consider yourself to be egalitarian.
Take one of the following Implicit Bias tests:
Psychology tells us that race is one of the first things we notice about a person, but what is race? PBS’s interactive “What is Race” website tells us in no uncertain terms – race is a social construct. This means that we learn ‘race’ and everything that we think characterises race through our upbringing and via media. Furthermore, contemporary theorists have pointed out that there is no genetic basis for race.
What this means is that race is defined along the lines of genetic characteristics that are deemed to be significant by a society. Historically, the colour of someone’s skin has served as a useful signifier to determine whether they should be slaves or masters. We could just as easily claim that eye colour, hair colour, or overbite, were significant genetic differences. In fact, some of these genetic variations might be more significant than the genetic differences between what we have historically considered to be racial differences.
So if race (and gender) are social constructs, what purpose do they serve?… Who needs race?
The idea of race emerged around slavery and determining those who can have, and those who can not. There is evidence to suggest that before then, we were more concerned with linguistic and religious difference than physical appearance. And yet, cultures have maintained racial difference as somehow essential, a visual cue of difference. Is this difference important? While it might be used as the basis for bigotry, we also enjoy encounters with cultural difference – the arts, food, or music of other cultures can be challenging and affirming.
The idea of race became especially relevant with the advent of globalisation brought about by an increased availability of world travel. The Paris world expo in 1899, was a significant turning point, which brought an increased awareness of Other cultures and practices into western consciousness. It was hugely influential on the 20th century’s artists and musicians. It was at the World Fair, that the French composer Debussy came into contact with Javanese Gamelan, Vietnamese and Russian folk songs. The gamelan, in particular, had a huge influence on Debussy’s music, one that would, in turn, be influential on generations of composers.
Project MUSE – Musical Encounters at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair, and: Debussy’s Letters to Inghelbrecht: The Story of a Musical Friendship (review)
In retrospect, the Universal Exhibition of 1889 showed Paris at the crossroads between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and it is to Annegret Fauser’s credit that she has been the first to produce a comprehensive book on the vital role that music played in this transition, both as entertainment and as an invaluable indicator of French socio-political views on Europe and Empire.
Since then we have seen an acceleration of information about Other cultures due to the Internet. Some theorists have referred to this as deterritorialisation –a cultural detachment from place, as some cultures have moved online and are potentially known to us solely in mediated form. These issues are still crucially relevant in the creative arts, where we are constantly exposed to Other’s cultures and want to reflect those inspirations in our work. And, where we are constantly evaluating and re-evaluating the social equity within those interactions.
In this week’s reading, bell hooks examines the strange fascination we have with the Other. The ‘Other’ piques our imagination for the unknown, the foreign, the exotic, reflecting what is perhaps an innate human curiosity for knowing and understanding.
Paul Gauguin’s paintings of French Polynesia (c. 1890-1900) depict a primitive and utopian society. He depicted Native Polynesians living in harmony with the natural world, living off the land, working together in an island paradise. Native Polynesians are therefore essentialised (codified into a certain representation) playing on a European yearning for simpler times and places. There is nothing wrong with the paintings in one sense, but they function in a specific way. In a time before television and the internet they are the only account of Polynesia for those who saw them. Gauguin is a European voyeur and he invites us to become voyeurs. While his subjects are depicted idealistically, the lack of complexity in their representation assures us of the superiority of our own mechanised and complex culture. So, while we might yearn to shed our clothes and eat exotic fruit in Polynesia, we feel that this would be a journey back in time, and furthermore a journey that could not occur in the opposite direction.
The problem with an essentialised and idealised primitive world of course, is that it doesn’t exist. If we expect village life in French Polynesia to be like a Gauguin, or Thailand to be like The King and I, or Japan to be like The Mikado … we might be disappointed.
“…I am presumably not the only Westerner whose conceptions of Japan remain indelibly marked by repeated viewings of, and listenings to excerpts from The Mikado… I fear that if I ever were to visit Japan, I would come back feeling that I still had never encountered the real Japan.” (Bellman, J. In Bove, P. A. (2000). Edward Said and the work of the critic: Speaking truth to power, pp. 280-1)
We might be tempted to think that we have moved beyond such representations, but in a sense we have just become more sophisticated.
A travel poster from the 1950s.
Is overseas travel a kind of cultural voyeurism?
The image below suggests an exotic place Other than home… but which place? International resorts are conceptually a bit like an International Embassy, giving us the opportunity to be in an Other country without ever setting foot on Other soil.
In this ‘exotic’ hotel you can no doubt get a massage from a local person, be served cocktails at the pool by local people and experience exotic local foods at the international buffet. Don’t forget to visit the tourist shop.
Africa wants to add your rhythm to the mix? Actually, Emirates wants you to add Africa to your mix – it is there for you to collect, to add to your list of accomplishments, just as you can add African music to your iPod playlist.
“…the semiotic free-for-all celebrated by some post-modernist theory, does little justice to the complexities of increasingly common ‘multi-cultural’ musical events.”
Stokes, M. (1994). Ethnicity, identity, and music, p. 16
Postmodernism and globalisation are turning points in human history, and there are enormous benefits culturally and socially. However there is potential for postmodernism to be uncritical, or to use Stokes’ words above, postmodernism can become a “semiotic free-for-all” in which the cultural signs of a culture can be freely interpolated in a western context, stripping those signs of their specific cultural meanings – just think of the number of EDM tracks that incorporate Bhangra, tabla, or kemençe. It is worth noting that the economy of these transactions is predominantly in one direction: and the money flows in the direction of western capitalism.
David Fanshawe’s incredibly successful African Sanctus (1972) took field recordings of African musicians as the basis for an orchestral and choral composition set around the Catholic mass, one that continues to be performed all over the world today.
The problems with African Sanctus are many. The musicians were recorded for little or no money, the purpose of the recording was not made clear to them, their names were not recorded (so they were not given any attribution and therefore no royalties), and they were not consulted on the final product. Because they were not listed as contributors, David Fanshawe (and his estate) remain the sole beneficiaries of the royalties for performance and recordings. His website does however, claim to give significant amounts of money back to unspecified African communities.
Quite apart from the unethical engagement with the musicians, there is the problem of using traditional folk musics, many of which celebrate local religious practices, as a way of spicing up a Christian mass.
We do have to remember that this is 1972, and that Fanshawe was actually, as he claimed, a ‘musical explorer’ entering into territories that few had entered previously. What strikes us however, is the conceptual distance between Fanshawe as the sophisticated-white-Christian-European and the natives that he is investigating, who for him, are simply a musical resource. It is also clear that Fanshawe, like many of the time, viewed Other musics as being primitive, less complicated shadows of the great European tradition (a myth that anyone truly familiar with Other musics will dispel).
These excerpts are from the documentary African Sanctus Revisited:
[To the muezzin regarding his ‘call to prayer’]: “Do you have your fingers in your ears? Is that because you can’t stand the noise?” (Laughs).
“..the hippo man represents a dying myth of Africa, I mean everything I dreamt of as a boy, perhaps what Africa ought to be, perhaps what it once was…”
Here we see the problem of appropriation and essentialism aptly demonstrated – Fanshawe is attracted to and fascinated by the African Other. At the same time, he is upset that the essential and mythologised version of Africa that he knows via authors like Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad and the accounts of famous explorers, seems to be ‘disappearing’. The ‘dying myth of Africa’ is the Africa described in accounts by white explorers, a hostile and unknowable mystery. It has nothing to do with Africa as lived – the African continent as a collection of peoples and practices, and a variety of complex and rich cultural forms.
For more contemporary and balanced accounts of music in Africa see for example Stephen Feld’s Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra; or Louise Meintjes’ Sound of Africa.
📢 HAVE YOUR SAY
The problem is the same one that we encountered when talking about gender. When we represent races and ethnicities, are we giving them agency to represent themselves?
How are different races represented in the media you consume?
Do the depicted Others have agency?
Colonialism and Postcolonialism
The peculiar way that the West simultaneously exoticises and subjugates its “Others” could be seen as a legacy of Colonialism. From the 15th to the mid-20th century Europe established colonial rule as a way of gaining political control over the rest of the world.
Colonialism is built on a failure to recognise indigenous people as self-possessed and possessing subjects (Schlunke, 2008). For those who are colonised it means a loss of self-determination and political influence . Often the control that colonial powers exert are enforced through violent exchanges.
On the other hand, colonial rule brought many benefits for those that were colonised including often improved governance and services, and sometimes unification of disparate states, along with increased opportunities to participate in global economic flows. And yet the primary purpose of a colony is above all to increase the material wealth of the motherland, so any increased capacity comes with real restrictions.
Frequently during colonial rule native cultural practices are suppressed, leading to forms of creative resistance (not dissimilar to the emergence of subculture and culture jamming practices, where culture that does not support the hegemony finds voice). And, when countries regain autonomy, post-colonial rule, there is a profound process of re-discovery of cultural practices and meanings and even the emergence of new cultural practices and meanings.
Historically, colonial power has justified its existence by pointing out the ways in which it benefits the country it is occupying. The argument goes: the natives did not have a central government before they were colonised, and they continue to demonstrate that they are ill-equipped to deal with the contemporary world. We might think of this is relation to Australia and its treatment of Aboriginal people.
There are two prevailing stereotypes of indigenous Australians which serve to justify to white Australians their continued Othering: those that are living a traditional life that is incomprehensible to us; and those who are failing in their attempts to integrate into the modern world and falling to substance abuse. We are taught that Indigenous people are less capable when we continue to be exposed to news about the difficulty they are having adapting to colonial rule / contemporary society. In turn this means that we can reaffirm the notion that rule is necessary, that we can sleep soundly knowing that we are helping those who need to be helped. Of course this does not mean that removing assistance is the answer, but that in order to make effective change we need to better understand cultural difference and to explore ways of coexisting that do not require assimilation (which requires people to sacrifice culture) or subjugation.
“A number of reports in the early 60s emphasised, as if surprised that such success was possible, how much Jimmy [Little] earned… and how ‘normal’ he and his family were, living in suburban Sydney and going about their business without causing major disruptions, as if they were aliens… “Proud of his ancestry, Jimmy is a three-quarter caste”, TV Times asserted in February 1962. “Unlike many Aboriginals, he doesn’t stress the white blood in him, but neither does he make special capital of being Aboriginal.” [Walker, C. (2014). Buried country: The story of aboriginal country music. Portland: VCP].
📝 CRITICAL REFLECTION TASK
▶ If we agree that the media coverage on Jimmy Little above demonstrates a view of Aboriginality that is dated, does that mean we have changed, or simply that we use different language now?
▶ Does media have a race? (Schlunke, 2008).
▶ Historically racial discrimination benefitted those in power by denying Other peoples’ agency. If institutional racisim persists now, who does it benefit?
▶ As creative media practitioners, what can we do to change perceptions of race? Is making and sharing a YouTube playlist of other cultures an effective method?
When we realise how white privilege operates, it is common for us to feel helpless. What can we do?… But feeling powerless is a good first step – our powerlessness is an illusion. In the face of this feeling, Aileen Moreton-Robinson (2000) asks us rather, “what are the limits to what you would do?”
📚 READING TASK
Please choose at least one of the prescribed readings below.
hooks, b. (2009). Eating the Other: Desire and resistance. In M.G. Durham & D.M. Kellner (eds.), Media and Cultural Studies (pp. 366-380). London: John Wiley & Sons.
Hall, S. (1997). Spectacle of the ‘Other’. In S. Hall (Ed.), Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (pp. 223-276). London: Sage.
📌 VERY PINTERESTING
Be sure to make use of the resources on the SAE Media and Cultural Studies Pinterest board. Here you will find links to texts, images, audio, video and other media that help you make more sense of the subject.