Defining and Resisting Violence

[This is a paper I was invited to present at the “Cutlural Violence Conference” at George Washington University, in March, 1998]

When I attend conferences such as this, I often find myself generating a list of words that I find overused, essentialized, or simply part of a current economy of jargon that surfaces in almost every academic presentation. Usually the word “other” heads my list.  Yet, what I find most intriguing about the papers in this panel, “Defining and Resisting Violence,” is that the use of the word “other” is as much a critical node for reading textual colonizations of identity as it is for reading the discursive boundaries that are established between recognizing otherness as a “real,” as part of a political and social margin, and otherness as postured by linguistic and visual representations which attempt to evince the subjective textures of these margins.  Clearly, these papers attempt to resolve the synapse dividing the historically constructed “other” of oppression, elision, and invisibility within critical and social spheres, from the other of contemporary cultural politics—an other which, I might add, is consciously brought to the fore, marked, and evoked for the purposes of discussion, analysis, historical re-enactment, or redemption.  These three panelists, in different ways, think through the relationship of identity as constructed in literature, visual media, and cultural criticism in order  to question  whether “understanding” and embracing otherness as cultural difference can be tacitly endorsed as a valid “liberation” of the subject within current cultural politics both within the academy and in mainstream society.  Ultimately, these papers grapple with a Western unconscious of alterity, marking this unconscious as a realm in which the historically displaced, oppressed other  and the current, reinvigorated discursive other are conflated, totemized within culture, and then framed within purely Western contexts of identity.

In his paper  “American Gladiators,” García-Martinez ellucidates how representations of Mexican identity through subtle and vulgar stereotypes coded within cartoons  serve to create an atmosphere of violence and, more dangerously, to defer any reading of these images to what he maintains as “a systematic arrangement of an individual’s response in a pattern where independent analysis is subverted and replaced with instinctive response” (p. 2).  Distinguishing between perception and representation, García-Martinez contends that the “enactment” of the visual and verbal text occurs both on the level of the creator of the image and the interlocutor, to whom the text is addressed, marking these cartoons as socially coded, creating monolithic representations of the “Mexican”.  Through the various cartoons of Speedy Gonzalez to “fiesta” announcements which encode being Mexican (or authentically Mexican) through images of sombreros and margueritas, García-Martinez demonstrates how even seemingly “harmless” representations of the Mexicano are socially embedded within mass media, humor, and commodity such that these representations are not only unquestioned, but quietly make their way into the unconscious of cultural perceptions of Mexican identity in the United States.

What fascinates me most about this paper, however, is the most subtle form of invigorating racist images—humor through stereotypes—that García-Martinez analyzes.  For while it is clear that much of the humor presented in these images is not necessarily universally appealing or “funny”, it is interesting to note how the engagement of humor maintains the legitimacy of these images  for the intended audience of the text, the interlocutor.  It is difficult, I must confess, to look at these images without a sense of disgust; but, to imagine those who do, in fact, view these images with pleasure and maintain a dialogue with such representations surely must be engaged within any analysis of this type.  García-Martinez maintains that the interlocutor of these images is ignorance—the ignorant spectator who forms part of the discourse of racism by assimilating these messages of identity into the traditional understanding of the Mexican.  How then, can identity of the Mexicana emerge given that there is clearly a need to distinguish between the act of reading these texts, of which we are all a part, and the motion of interacting with these texts, as only the interlocutor can do?   Likewise, how can we resist these violent images as nodes of cultural articulation given the pervasiveness and varying degrees of “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” racism, ranging from subtle to blatant representations?   As the violent forces of representation here are evidence of our cultural language for understanding identity, I am not so certain that ignorance is what will necessarily be the ultimate deciding factor of a fair representation—be it in good or bad taste—since politics often rely on this claim of ignorance for those antagonistic articulations which contest certain “truths”.  However, these images do demand our understanding of how we, as a society, address stereotypes of Mexican identity found within cartoon images such as White American Resistance or advertisement copy in a weekly community journal such as The San Francisco Weekly Reader.  For whether or not we are the intended audience of such images, these cartoons force us to view our own history and our assimilation of alterity within the most base and dehumanizing forums.  In fact, I would argue that to elide the specificity of the general reception of such images beyond the scope of ignorance is to wipe our hands clean of the responsibility for acts of violence that have literally turned out court rulings that, for instance, denied a mother the custody of her child in Texas several years ago simply because she would not—nor could not—speak English with her child in the home.  García-Martinez’ examples of representations of the Mexicano, ultimately demonstrate how constructing and marginalizing identity are reciprocal actions maintained within a culture all too receptive to any representation of the Mexican.

In a paper which furthers this idea of representing the other, “Constructing the ‘Intended’ Object of Western Knowledge,”  O’Connor  addresses the polemic of the Third World as “Other” within academe today.  Focussing on Spivak’s notion of “worlding”, O’Connor  maintains that the Third World occupies a specific space in the university such that it is segregated from the rest of literary studies and is thus recolonized today through this institutional quarantine.  Through her analysis of Marlow, who I read as O’Connor’s  analogy to the intellectual today, we see him caught between two narratives, two truths, acting as the agent of knowledge or the purveyor of myth.  Yet, we are forced to tease out the historically constructed other from this hyperconscious other which surfaces today as “identity politics” in the academy as O’Connor states:  “To put ‘identities’ into specialized groups or departments as a subject for study allows many in the mainstream departments to continue to ignore their existence in the institution” (p. 12).  I would argue that O’Connor not only isolates a most problematic element of studying “third world” issues today, but touches upon the very dilemma facing popular culture today in addressing serious issues of “multiculturalism” within the United States.  Thus, worlding for O’Connor not only maintains a separate and distinct position of the “third world”, but insinuates third world identity as identifiable, knowable, and encoded, whereas the center—Western literature and culture—maintains its transparent, seamless position of “core”, of heteroglossia, in which  the “need” to represent the “West” is never put into dialogue with or within the space of the other.

Clearly, O’Connor addresses the question:  how can we speak about the other when alterity is often a style, a keyword within the institution, and when  otherness is—more often than not—a ghettoized slot whose “solutions” may include adding a novel by Achebe to a syllabus full of texts that are obliquely related—if at all?  O’Connor’s analysis of the “Intended” speaks to this designation which I have assigned earlier in reading García-Martinez’ essay, that of the intended audience, the interlocutor.  Who is the interlocutor of “third world” studies, of “third world” texts?  It seems to me that the interlocutor of “third world” issues is all too often a Western agent that mediates identity through perceptions of what is deemed necessary to include and exclude—the interlocutor is a synaptic body which breaches the space of historical alterity and what O’Connor posits as a “hyperconscious” construction of identity.  How then can these two spaces be resolved within the scope of academic language, popular representation, and cultural politics when the latter, this  hyperconsciousness of the other, is generally perceived to be the “solution” to the former, the historical other?  Could it be that this reinvigoration of “other” studies has fomented a false sense of understanding and belonging within cultural paradigms which seek the most banal and superficial forms of inclusion through institutional isolation or tokenized additions to syllabi?  Leila Fawaz, in February’s Middle Eastern Studies Association Newsletter, wrote  an article entitled “Regaining Control”  in which she offers solutions to the downsizing and shifts in departmental structures in the university:


“Become indispensable.  Most of us do not teach in specialized Middle East centers, but in many departments including anthropology, fine arts, history, languages and literature, religion, politics, and sociology.  Let us work with our colleagues in all these ares so that we become indispensable to them, know more about their fields than they know about ours, and use our knowledge about their fields to shame them about their ignorance of ours” (p. 1).

Here, Fawaz envisions the preservation of non-Western studies as orchestrated through a domination of Western issues and texts by scholars of “Third World” studies.  Sadly enough, this approach, like O’Connor’s development of “worlding”, evidences how scholars of non-Western studies must maintain a keen eye toward “First World” issues and ignorance in order to legitimate their own research and teaching.

“(Ex)Posing Muslim Women,” seeks to address most directly this question of interlocution as Amy asks:  “To whom, indeed, do I speak?  And this, speaking, compelled by my desire, risks becoming itself the violent imposition of my desire…How, then, am I to critique Western representations of women I cannot even name without reenacting the violence inherent in that naming” (p. 1).  Cogently argued, Amy’s  essay analyzes Western depictions of Muslim women, contending that these representations are merely symbolic attempts to reinform Western paradigms of “freedom”, occidental somatic articulations of normativity, and Western subjectivity through the superimposed Muslim woman’s body.  Echoed throughout this essay, Amy asks who reads these texts written by Sasson or Brooks and speculates if these audiences are not merely projecting their own feelings of oppression through what they perceive to be Muslim women’s identity.  However, this juncture of what is perceived and what is represented arises in Amy’s argument and it seems to me that the force underlying these two distinctions comes back to her question of audience.  Thus, we are caught within a tautological argument of how representations create perception and how perception creates representation.

For instance, arguments given by scholars of cultural studies, anthropology, women’s studies, and literature vituperate hijab, the veil, as a cultural ill which must be redressed in favor of a Western model of feminist liberation.  This paradigm suggests two obvious problems for reading the Muslim woman’s body that Amy develops:  first, that “freedom” as constructed in the West is an ontology dispelled by traditional modes of dress in much of the Arab world wherein bodily difference, instead of being specifically articulated, is discounted in favor of a homogeneous expression of (non-Muslim) freedom, and secondly, that these modes of corporeal fashion, such as the haik of Algeria, necessarily pose a transnational threat to women’s “freedom” as the Muslim woman’s body has become a model for non-Muslim writers in consolidating a discourse against the traditional views of women as private and sexual agents of society.  In this way, hijab is decontextualized—as very few scholars even attempt to look at its cultural history aside from a few Koranic interpretations—and reduced to a hyperbolic “state of emergency” in which it is popularly believed in the West that all Muslim women’s lives are threatened should they not wear the veil.  Ultimately, hijab is brought into the arena of a Western feminist polemics wherein the Muslim woman is only significant and signifiable at the moment when her body threatens a symbolic order of occidental notions of freedom and democracy.  This violence of Western feminist theory against Muslim women’s identity has not only elided the cultural specificity of their  bodies and experiences within various acts of representation, but the very notion of the Muslim woman has become a neo-colonialist imperative for articulating and enforcing Western women’s experiences as “normative” and notions of liberty as universally conceptualized and accorded.  The presumption of a universal “freedom” applicable to all women in all cultures is obviously fraught with the same dangers of reduction that feminism has previously attributed to male dominated spaces of power, language, and cultural symbols.  Yet examined more closely, the nexus at which Western feminism meets Islamic traditions of dress reveals much more about the structure of visibility, power, and public/private divisions of space upon which many Western values of freedom are constructed and against which Islamic articulations of culture are not so much diametrically opposed as much as they are invested within an ethics of individual choice and  subjectivity.

Amy’s argument consolidates an interpretation of subconscious desire and abjection within the West for reading occidental woman’s bodies as projected onto the Muslim woman’s body.  It is clear that the distinction between the historically orientalized Muslim other and the contemporary Western recuperation of this other through feminism are not at all distinct or diametrically opposed acts of interpretation.  In fact, I would argue that these two venues of representation, although artificially distinguished by temporality or shifts in theoretical foci, are entirely part of the same ethos that has consumed Western thought in its interactions with other cultures, other bodies—that of possession, domination, and coding of “knowledge”—be it epistemological or empirical, be it literary or charicaturized.  Likewise, García-Martinez’ and O’Connor’s essays argue that coterminous to every representation is the subconscious  framework which has already made space for “otherness.”  And this is the rub:  the intended audiences of these representations are the docile, receptive minds who will  likely not question the mechanisms or content of such texts or images since it is a commonly accepted practice to repeat age-old stereotypes and invoke fear of difference  in order to assimilate Western identity as central, progressive, and modern.  So, what we face in examining these three essays is not so much to explore how the Mexican, the postcolonial subject, or the Muslim woman are depicted in Western  forums, but rather to investigate to whom these identities are represented and how these representations function on the level of popular culture.  As I am focussing upon the intended audiences of these “third spaces,” it is clear that not only is the interlocutor of the “Third World” often a Western subject, but may, from what all three essays infer, be the “ignorant” Western subject.  How is it possible, then, to treat problems of “mis”representation when an ideology of “ignorance” is opposed to the “informed” subject and when the focus of Western subjectivity dominates social and academic power structures through a conscious elision, a symbolic inclusion, or an unconscious “ignorance” of alterity?  Moreover, how is resistance to these texts and images possible given that the intended audiences of these representations are implicated within a dialogic continuum of racism, while readers who are aliented by these interpretations are either left idle, outside the dialogic vector, or forced into contesting the “illegitimacy” of these cultural effects such as we are doing right now?   This too is alientating.  For we are certainly defining cultural violence here, but I am not so optomistic about the prospects for resistance unless we begin to understand that the interlocutors of such violent representations are to be found not only in the heart of “White Supremicist Middle America,” but right here in the university, amongst scholars who would hardly consider themselves “ignorant” and who find their ideas about their “other” quite “open-minded”.  And with this, I must to turn to a Moroccan proverb:  “Alesh, alla mish mash wa ma halesh…” which can be read as “speech in itself has no meaning unless linked to power.”  So I ask: how might we begin to find a language sufficient in resisting these textual acts of violence when naming “ignorance” is a closed system which elides the epistemological violence of logically organized and strategically placed enunciations that are evoked, all too often, in the name of knowledge?