Keep Appropriating (Deeply)! — The Difference between Fashion and Learning


For the past year or two I have been a part of many conversations among well-read and intelligent students, activists, and academics around questions of cultural appropriation.  While I think that many critics and theorists have answered questions about cultural appropriation thoroughly and well (though undoubtedly some of them made other mistakes), it seems that many of us continue to forget these simple lessons as easily as we first learned them.  Some even cite the insights of theorists (I’m especially thinking of anti/post-colonial theorists like Césaire, Said, and Spivak) as they decry practices like yoga in the United States or feminists in Egypt photographing their naked bodies as a form of protest!  I think that such denouncements sometimes reflect the ways neo-liberal cultural trends have crept into the communities that decry them, and debates about cultural appropriation are one area where this seems incredibly strong.

A few quick examples might be helpful…

  1. When Tucson schools cut a class in Mexican-American Studies, Arizona’s newly elected attorney general Tom Horne described the course as “propagandizing and brainwashing.”  Similarly, student and teacher activists who attempted to defend the program in terms of needing to allow Mexican-Americans access to their culture (see the debate hosted by Democarcy Now!).  The question that did not seem to occur to individuals on either side of the issue was whether we might not all – especially those who live in a part of the country significantly impacted by Chicana/o histories – benefit from reading texts like Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Chicano!: The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement,critical race theory, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
  2. Some have denounced yoga done by white U.S. citizens flatly as cultural appropriation.  The thought here seems to be that, because yoga was formed in India, it should stay Indian or – in another variant of the same kind of argument – if it must come to the U.S., then it should pass to ‘the west’ completely unchanged in some kind of pure form (whatever that might be).  While I think there are legitimate questions about capitalizing on yoga and forgetting aspects of its core to the point where it is no longer yoga, I wonder how some so supposedly committed to ideals about human agency wish to deny others spiritual practices that they feel are beneficial.  (To get a flavor for the debate check out, “The Yoga Debate: An Existentially Challenged Desi Chimes in.”
  3. While I tend to veer away from debates about Muslim women because I think many of the arguments are tired, some of these debates represent the reification of privatization of cultures that I’m attempting to discuss.  The conservative and automatic dismissal of women living in majority Muslim countries as automatically and always oppressed is as rigid as the denouncement of Egyptian feminist Alia el-Mahdi’s circulation of nude self-portraits as too western.  (There is an excellent piece about el-Mahdi’s protests up now on Jadiliyya.)

In all of these examples, there is a forgetting that culture is something constantly in flux and on the move (see Spivak in An Aesthetic Eduction in the Era of Globalization, Ch. 5).  The cause might be a neo-liberal instinct to privatize and solidify cultures into monolithic communities.  Edward Said’s question, posed in Orientalism, “Can one divide human reality […] into clearly different cultures, histories, traditions, societies, even races, and survive the consequences humanely?” might still be relevant.  (As I said above, these lessons were as easy to learn as they seem to be to forget.)

Michael Mohammed Knight, in his recent VICE article, “How Not to Sound Like an Asshole When Talking about Islam,” does a nice job of discussing cultural cross-fertilization in a similar vein as Aimé Césaire does in Discourse on Colonialism.  Knight writes,

“Despite the ‘clash of civilizations’ hype that makes this kind of thinking possible, we still live on the same planet and Muslims do not exist in isolation from the rest of humanity. Muslims have always been influenced by non-Muslims and have also influenced non-Muslims. Muslim thinkers are deeply embedded in the intellectual history of Europe, and vice versa. In the first centuries of Islam, Baghdad became the center of perhaps the greatest translation movement in history, in which Muslim thinkers studied the scientific and philosophical heritages of cultures throughout the known world. In turn, Arabic would become the dominant language of scholarship. There is no such thing as a distinct ‘Islamic science’ or ‘Christian philosophy’ that could be said to have developed without traces of outside influence. Just as a millennia of human migrations and conquests have made any talk of a ‘pure race’ complete and utter porkshit, the notion of a ‘pure culture,’ free from mixture with other cultures, is also fantasy. Likewise, this means that religions are all mixed up, and have always been mixed up. It makes no sense to imagine that religions ‘mature’ in isolation and at standard rates, like human bodies, leaving Islam to always be six centuries behind Christianity at any given point in history.”

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I once met someone in a bar who had a tattoo on his neck in a language I’m by no means fluent in, but which I know well enough to try to read and speak a little.  Puzzled by the meaning of the tattoo, I asked him what it meant.  It turned out that the tattoo wasn’t in another language at all, but merely used another alphabet system to spell out a phrase in English!  Obviously, the tattoo’s wearer had fetishized and commodified another language system he didn’t know to give himself what he thought was a fashionable and “exotic” kind of appeal.

A similar example, that also strikes me in some ways as very different, involves a friend who got a tattoo in another language that he speaks and reads well after having spent more than a year immersed in that language.  The tattoo is an ancient, calligraphic rendering of a language character that would be unrecognizable to most native speakers of the language.  This tattoo is special to its wearer because of the connection to the country he got it in as well as the experience of deep language learning, cultural interchange, and personal transformation that it’s connected with.

I cite these two examples to try to delineate a difference between commodification/fetishizing for presumed fashionable appeal and symbolically marking an experience of deep, cross-cultural appropriation.  Gayatri Spivak has recently argued that it is the task of the humanities to train students to perform across languages and cultures – not in shallow cooption, but in deep appropriation (my words).  This competency in the comparative helps to build the democratic intuition, if my reading is correct (see, again, An Aesthetic Eduction in the Era of Globalization).

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Yoga and feminism, Shakespeare and Freire do not belong – much like language itself – to any cultural group in particular, though it seems there have been attempts – by conservatives, liberals, and radicals alike – to privatize them.  What we might need to remember is the difference between commodification/fetishizing, on the one hand, and deep learning/taking texts seriously, on the other.  When you learn a text deeply, then it becomes your own.  In the end, it might be the difference between deep learning, coercive fetsishizing, and capitalist copyrighting that we’d do well to think through more carefully.  These lessons frequently seem as easy to learn as they are to forget.

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I offer these thoughts as some notes.  I realize that there’s a lot more work here that needs to be done, and I’m grateful, as always, to be engaged in conversation with you if you have thoughts.  I’m especially interested in the ways neo-liberalist cultural trends are working on people – even, and perhaps especially – in academic and activist communities.

I am grateful to Agnieszka Karoluk and Kevin Doherty as two people who have engaged me in thinking about some of the issues mentioned in the notes above.  Though they may or may not agree with things I said, they’ve both been valuable conversation partners on these and other issues.

Image Credit (for title): The Djenne Mosque/Masjid in Mali is a massive structure constructed from mud and chaff.  (Photo from:

Image Credit (for header): Michael Wolf, Night # 7, Skyscraper: Art and Architecture Against Gravity, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago


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Gaga Feminism: Performance without Politics: Critical Notes on J. Jack Halberstam’s Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal

Perhaps to its credit, Gaga Feminism explicitly tries to divorce Gaga’s art from her conservative political pandering to white, gay men and adolescent, white women (exhibited in the artist’s uncritical support of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” repeal, support for marriage equality, and individualistic “Born this Way” styled narratives).  In the end though, this severance – between Gaga’s art and politics – seems too unmanageable to hold Gaga together as the supportive foundation the text strives for.  “Why not Eartha Kitt?” one might ask.

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just a treat (Eartha Kitt talking about love)

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In 1968, the well-known singer, actress, and performer Eartha Kitt, in a now (in)famous moment, performed at the White House before President Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson.  After years of a successful, unruly, and gender-bending career – perhaps not so different in some ways from Lady Gaga’s – Eartha Kitt leveled a stinging challenge at the Johnson administration by challenging U.S. policies that forced parents into back-breaking work that drew them away from their children or sent them to fight in Vietnam.

After her public challenge of the administration, the CIA kept files on Kitt, and she performed almost exclusively in Europe for the next decade because it became impossible for her to find work in the United States.  While Kitt’s unconventional music and performance enjoyed immense popularity, the politics she voiced cost her – unlike Lady Gaga – a significant personal price.  In J. Jack Halberstam’s new text Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal, the author seems to not only miss the difference between the selling the image of politics versus practicing radical politics, he also sets up our contemporary moment as so unique that it cannot hold the longstanding radical feminist histories upon which it stands.

Lamenting the insularity of academic debates that never broke out of the university into the mainstream, Halberstam offers a text that attempts to track and expose the stealthy expansion of an uneven, messy, even “anarchic” feminism into the pop culture.  It also provides the novice with a valuable and strikingly accessible initiation into queer commentary.  As a self-described “quasi-academic” text that takes Lady Gaga as its muse, Gaga Feminism explores the popular representations (either new and enticing ones or those that still peskily refuse to die) of sexuality and gender relations in popular texts (like Spongebob SqarepantsFinding NemoThe Kids are AlrightKnocked Up, Lady Gaga and Beyonce’s music video Telephone) by putting them alongside his own experiences of working as a gender-variant academic, partnership, and parenting.

And indeed, Gaga Feminism, manages to link a wide variety of texts, experiences, and critiques into a largely provocative and enticing narrative geared toward popular consumption.  By providing a readable text unafraid to treat pop cultural narratives, Gaga Feminism might be able to comfortably sit on a bookshelf alongside the excellent work of another critical, popular, and accessible feminist author like bell hooks.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure that it should.  While Gaga Feminism offers many valuable and insightful moments, it packages them in a populist, end-of-gender way that, that doesn’t seem to match up with the work and politics of its muse (Lady Gaga) or the real-world political realities that surround the text’s audience.

In the opening chapters of the text, Halberstam uncritically engages relatively conservative critiques and tropes.  The author establishes this historical moment as an exceptional one through nods to the globalizing power of technology, gay marriage, high divorce rates, the ascendency of heterosexual married women in the workplace (while their deadbeat male partners remain at home), and by curiously stamping our age as “post-capitalist.”  Based on more radical critiques Halberstam raises later, it seems like the deployment of at least some of these tropes attempts to invest the reader in the text’s project early on and stage the text as an incredibly timely and exceptional one with a feel for the populist pulse: “Here and now, our reality is being rescripted, reshot, reimagined,” Halberstam writes, “and if you don’t go gaga soon, you may wake up and find that you have missed the future and become the past.”

The author’s citation of the September 11th attacks and the resulting political responses also try to establish the uniqueness of our time.  While Halberstam argues that 9/11 resulted in state efforts toward “military and cultural wars at home and abroad” which have also “managed to scare people back into conventional sex/gender arrangements,” Jasbir Puar in her important book Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times has argued, to the contrary, that the state response to 9/11 actually led to the absorption of many queers into nationalist state formations from which they had hitherto largely been excluded (through marriage equality, the legalization of sodomy in Lawrence v. Texas [2003], etc.). Simultaneously, the project to include queers (especially white, gay men) in nationalist formations branded and demonized a racialized, queer, terrorist other.  (We might also be able to think about this using a kind of simultaneous inclusion/exclusion model argued by Giorgio Agamben in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Politics and Bare Life, but I won’t go into this here.)

Halberstam seems so intent on arguing a overarching, radical, and contemporary transformation in sex and gender norms that – at least in much of the work – a serious treatment of issues around gay ascendency into the capitalist and racist mainstream seems to be prevented.  Halberstam’s failure to sufficiently deal with the complicity of Lady Gaga’s art and politics with this relatively new gay ascendency helps reveal the major problems that underlie Halberstam’s largely enticing narrative.

Halberstam praises Gaga’s work as a queer, mad, anarchic, and unruly performance that raises critiques about gender, race, and capital.  The author also utilizes the widespread prominence, resonance, and popularity of Gaga’s art (not just music, but Gaga’s whole monstrous, gender-bending, anti-authority performance) to draw conclusions about the supposedly “post-capitalist,” on their way toward post-gender, and utopian desires of Gaga’s audience – desires then projected to represent those of Americans writ-large.

Perhaps to its credit, Gaga Feminism explicitly tries to divorce Gaga’s art from her conservative political pandering to white, gay men and adolescent, white women (exhibited in the artist’s uncritical support of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” repeal, support for marriage equality, and individualistic “Born this Way” styled narratives).  In the end though, this severance – between Gaga’s art and politics – seems too unmanageable to hold Gaga together as the supportive foundation the text strives for.  “Why not Eartha Kitt?” one might ask.

The subtle distinction I think Gaga Feminism misses is the difference between selling the image of a radical, disobedient kind of politics and the actual practice of such politics.  In some ways, Halberstam is right.  Gender transgression, peripheral identities, are – at least in some circles and when practiced by the right “kinds” of people – “in.” What is curious, however, is the automatic association of those appealing or acceptable kinds of transgression with some kind of anarchic, anti-capitalist, and radical project.  By supporting Gaga’s art, audiences are able to buy the image of an unruly gender monstrosity that ushers them not toward radical critiques of gender, capital, violence, imperialism, and race, but rather guides them quite comfortably straight toward marriage equality politics, the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Repeal, and a capitalist vision of individualism as opposed to one of solidarity and mutual aid (which Gaga Feminism endorses toward the end of the text).  How Halberstam attempts to reconcile the vision he sees embedded in Gaga’s art with the practice of politics Gaga promotes is left largely unexplored.

The critique about queer ascendency aside, Gaga Feminism definitely has insightful and pointed moments.  Halberstam’s critique of the globalization of queer identities and globablization’s inability to tolerate other cultural modes of sexual preference and gender expression is nothing new (as an example, see Joseph Massad’s Desiring Arabs), but it makes the critique accessible to a wide audience where this conversation may not be taking place.  Chapter Four, curiously entitled Gaga Relations: The End of Marriage succinctly and clearly compiles queer critiques of marriage in an incredibly valuable, readable way.  The later chapters also attempt to get theorists like Michel Foucault, Gayatri Spivak, J.K. Gibson-Graham, Slavoj Zizek, Lauren Berlant, and Fred Moten out of their sequestered quarantine in the university and into the popular conversations.  The discussion on the Situationists and the Invisible Committee will undoubtedly be valuable for many readers, and the critique of individualism alongside an introduction to the idea of “mutual aid” are also noteworthy.

In the end, Gaga Feminism perhaps offers as much to a widespread audience as it leaves to be desired.  If this text effectively entices devotees of the political mainstream and not-so-critical queers into more critical stances by engaging pop cultural texts, then I suppose it’s worthwhile.  How Gaga became its muse, though, will continue to baffle me.  As queer and inventive, as creative and unruly as Gaga’s music and performance may be, these cannot be cleaved from the politics she endorses and ushers her audience to espouse.

As Eartha Kitt once said: “The thing that hurts, that became anger, was when I realized that if you tell the truth – in a country that says you’re entitled to tell the truth – you get your face slapped and you get put out of work.”  How much things seem to stay the same.  If the shallow and widely praised politics of Gaga feminism is the best contemporary feminism has to offer, one is left to wonder whether the significance of our time isn’t so much in the end of normal, but rather – as Yasmin Nair and other commentators have recently put it – the end of feminism itself.

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Lakeview Panera Comes Under Fire from Residents (for All the Wrong Reasons)

When Panera Cares, a café that would operate on a pay-what-you-can basis, opened in Lakeview a few months ago, it was hailed as a novel and creative experiment.  The fourth such location nation-wide, Panera CEO Robert Shaich reports that the experiment seems to be working.  About 20% of the customers pay above the suggested donation while another 20% pay less.  In the end, the locations break even while responding to crises of food deserts and the normative, institutionalized models of soup kitchens and service provision meant to bandage them.  But now, report CBS Local and the Huffington Post, Panera is coming under fire, but for all the wrong reasons.

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Lakeview residents, whose properties valued, on average, $300,100 in August 2012 according to, have criticized Panera for creating problems in the neighborhood, citing a rise in crime and linking that rise to the clientele Panera attracts by serving food on a pay-what-you can basis.  Apparently some residents have complained to Ald. Tom Tunney and held a meeting with the Chicago Police Department (who say it’s impossible to establish a causal relationship between Panera Cares opening and a rise in Lakeview crime).

These issues aren’t new to anyone who watches Lakeview.  Less than a mile north of Panera, Boystown has been a locus of such rhetoric as well.  After the “Take Back Boystown” campaign began in 2011 (see In Our Words and the Chicago Reader articles), this summer, the North Halstead Business Alliance made a bold and criticized move when they hired a uniformed police force to patrol the streets at night.  Of course, all of these maneuvers have signaled to many activists and observers the extent to which racism, classism, and transphobia are deeply-engrained in the Boystown community, but this is nothing new.  Even in 2003 DePaul University professor and geographer, Heidi Nast included an analysis of Boystown in her widely cited article “Queer Racism, Queer Patriarchies International” (published in Antipode).  She discussed Boystown as a locus of gay white ascendency built on hierarchies of patriarchy, classism, and racism.  Examining the rhetoric coming from Lakeview residents about the Panera shows a similar kind of narrative.

Longtime Lakeview resident Sally Figuolo, according to CBS Local’s reportage (linked above), “feels unsafe:”

“‘It’s just kind of scary,’ she said. ‘A crowd of guys won’t let you through a sidewalk. That’s invasive.'”

While I’m sorry that Ms. Figuolo “feels unsafe,” I think that this rhetoric of “feeling safe” needs to be more closely scrutinized.  After all, different things make different people feel safe or unsafe.  For some, a military or police presence is a sign of security, property protection, and safety while for others it presents a threatening potential for harassment, incursions, delay, profiling, and abuse.  For many, it even invokes memories of such.  I wonder, if the ability to walk undeterred down a sidewalk is an important metric of safety for Figuolo, if she’s ever taken a stroll through Wrigleyville right after a Cubs game or on a weekend, say around 11:00.  Having referred to this time and place before as comparable to one of the outer circles of hell for it’s drunken over-crowding, I’d have to think this experience would be nothing less than horrifying for CBS’ interviewee.  But I don’t think that’s what’s going on…

As the third most segregated city in the U.S., race and class in Chicago are deeply interconnected — this is true everywhere, but Chicago seems to be a particular locus of segregation, income disparities, distribution of violence, and disparities in state policing.  After race couldn’t be written into property deeds (post-Shelley v. Kraemer) and the Civil Rights Movement(s), racial segregation was institutionally maintained and enforced nationwide through disparities in home loan distribution and, in Chicago through racialized “steering“.

The complaints of some upper-class white Lakeview residents and Figuolo’s feeling of unsafety seems to be more about her feeling unsafe around certain kinds of people — poor people and African Americans.  When CBS’ article cites trash piling up in a spot on the street or the business that recently put up a gate, they clearly communicate the kinds of clientele Panera is attracting, and insinuate the problem without ever having to mention race explicitly.  Race is signified without being mentioned.  It’s clear that readers get the message from a quick glance at the comments section where readers made racist and classist comments like, “Wonder if they look like they could be Obama’s sons.” or “Put a birdfeeder on your house and you’ll be covered in s**t.”  Similarly, a commenter (on a report on someone’s iPad being stolen from Caribu yesterday) said, “What’s with all these Trayvons and their hoodies?”  While I hesitate to reproduce these blatantly racist comments here, they express how clearly race and stereotypes can be communicated through class.  The absence of race in some of these articles successfully communicates the “problem” to the audience.

Finally, while the article and the discourse it contributes to posits Lakeview as some apparent hotbed of violence, this seems a difficult claim at a time when Chicago has just reported 400 murders this year and only 3 have been in Lakeview (all of them north of Newport — about a mile north).  In doing so, it privileges white, upper-class narratives of violence while displacing the extreme, everyday violence unfolding elsewhere in Chicago.  While any violence should be considered too much, I doubt that Lakeview residents will be willing to work in city-wide coalitions and organizations to work on building safer communities.  This narrative needs to be read as Lakeview residents wanting to keep away those they consider undesirable and, thus, keep their property values among some of the highest in the city.

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In a talk, given by Panera CEO Ron Shaich at a conference called “Conscious Capitalism”, the executive outlines how Panera has managed to see extreme growth throughout the recession by focusing on its long-term mission and community investment (short-term gains be damned!).  The executive described a planning process wherein Panera tried to observe what the American consumer public wanted and come up with a plan that reflected those desires.  The plan is, in some ways, a brilliant business model.

Panera would serve “real food,” appeal to “feminine” sensibilities (Shaich said Panera serves “chick food” and has a lot of lesbians working for it), create an environment of dining that included relationships of respect, and be invested in the communities in which cafés operated.  Interestingly, Shaich described Panera playing it conservative during the time of rapid expansion that preceded the 2008 recession because Panera executives knew that kind of growth wouldn’t be sustainable.  Instead, Panera focused on the time of the recession itself for growth, and they’ve seen huge gains and expansion throughout the recession.  The executive even went so far as to raise a critique of other business leaders and executives as being complicit in the kinds of behavior that led to economic crisis and emphasized the problems of an extremely polarized and absurdly ineffective political climate.  Finally, he described the Panera Cares, pay-what-you-can cafés as proceeding from a sense that writing checks wasn’t enough and the soup kitchens were a place of negative energy.

I, and many others, were originally interested in the Panera Cares project.  While I’ve been critical of models of “compassionate capitalism” before (as I am of Google’s new international LGBT rights campaign), some aspects of Panera’s plan represented something I couldn’t not want.  In creating a space where people from the community could come together without purchasing power as a condition for entry, and in his critique of dominant models of service provision and economic processes, Panera Cares seemed like a great response.  After learning about the recent rhetoric coming out of Lakeview, I am no longer convinced.

While I’m hesitant to share personal experiences, the Panera Cares story was deeply resonant with me for a particular reason.  I lived and worked in a community in Boston (the South End), in some ways perhaps not so different from Lakeview.  The neighborhood had undergone rapid gentrification since the 80’s and became an extremely upper-class predominantly white neighborhood.  A significant amount of government subsidized housing and affordable SROs (single resident occupancy) were scattered throughout this largely upper class neighborhood.  Very few people had managed to hold on to their properties, but a few remained.  By the time I got there, in 2007-2008 many of the gayz and “artists” (does this ever really mean artists?) had been pushed out by white middle to upper-middle class families (or become white middle to upper-middle class families!). In the midst of this, I lived and worked in a soup kitchen where we welcomed and worked alongside volunteers and guests (many of whom lived on the street or were elderly people living in subsidized housing).

Engagement with the neighbors was a fairly regular process, but we tried to have structures to deal with it.  If a neighbor wanted to complain about a guest or vice-versa, it was ideal to have some kind of interaction and mediation if at all possible.  We held community meetings (mostly attended by our volunteers and guests) to discuss problems in the soup kitchens and to find out how we could work together more effectively. We tried to use concepts of restorative justice to respond to violence, and we also attempted to get guests and neighbors to connect.  The soup kitchen was a small café -like space.  I remember times when passersby would stop in on their way to work thinking it was just some a normal café.  Trying to engage in this way was a process that called all of us — volunteers, community members, guests, and neighbors out of ourselves.  Some even chose to disengage.  While all of the steps we tried to take weren’t successful and we didn’t have a perfect model, we did have one that provided some structures for people to work through differences, interact with one another, and work through our issues together.

What bothers me about Panera’s project, after reading the recent stories, is that it doesn’t provide these structures.  While it sells a trendy image built on personalism and appealing to consumer-citizens perhaps widespread critiques of systemic issues (like capitalist economy), it doesn’t provide a way for people people to actually work on these issues.  Panera offers a comfortable critique.  Consumers can buy personalism without having practice it.  (That critique has, by the way, given Panera wide, laudatory press coverage.)  While Panera might be an interesting tactical move, let’s not kid ourselves into thinking it’s a radical challenge.  What the Panera project seems to give us in the end are separate groups of people — paying customers happy because they supported a “good cause” (thus, perhaps, checking it off their to-do lists); paying-less/non-paying customers who have a place to eat, relax, use the bathroom, etc. (and this is important); and Lakeview residents who are — per usual — pissed.  While I hope the classist and racist outcries from the latter group are ignored, fall on deaf ears, or are, if it becomes necessary, confronted, I also hope this saga also presents us with an opportunity to think and practice the personalist critiques of society and economy that Panera sells.

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Note: The article refers in the first paragraph to ‘food deserts’.  While Panera CEO Ron Shaich has said that Panera Cares was formed, in part, to respond to the crisis of ‘food deserts’, Alex CG (on the In Our Words re-post) rightly points out that none of the four existing Panera Cares locations are actually located in an area considered a ‘food desert’.  Mia Amélie also points out that ‘food deserts’ is a contested term that ignores the sharing of food, circulation of people, etc.  These comments are resonant with the author.

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Image Credit (for title):

Image Credit (for header): Michael Wolf, Night # 7, Skyscraper: Art and Architecture Against Gravity, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

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Looking for Causes Beyond Islamophobic Youtube Clips, Qur’an Burning, or Food Prices: A How-to Guide for Staging Effective Autopsies

I’ve never performed an autopsy, but I imagine it’s tricky business.  The mortician entrusted with the responsibility to accurately tease a cause of death out of a corpse provides an image I find not only provocative, but enticing.  How might we (from the position of bodies singled out for death by all kinds of structures) dissect the dying systems that distribute various forms of oppression and the narratives that propel them?  I’m interested in tracing the causes for their death from the position of those singled out for death by violent structures.  So, I thought this post — about causes —  a good way to begin this new blog.

Recently, uprisings across the “Muslim World” (a false conflation, but an operative one to be kept for now), many with distinct agendas, have been traced back to the causes of rising food prices in the Arab world, a Facebook post of a photo with a burning Qur’an in Bangladesh, and, of course, a cheaply produced video that apparently was attempting to slander the Prophet Mohammad.  Similarly, some tried to trace the cause of the Egyptian uprising to rising food prices, and, in doing so, attempted to erase years of hard, political work undertaken by activists.  All of these things posited as causes should be treated as immediate red flags that invite us to more scrutiny.

The media discourse about the Facebook photo of a Qur’an being burned in Bangladesh is probably skewed by discursive frames that rely too much on national boundaries.  About a month ago, there were many reports (both in the media and from human rights groups) about the ongoing persecution of the Rohingya Muslims by the state in Myanmar/Burma.  According to an article summarizing the findings of a 56-page-long Human Rights Watch report:

“Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law effectively denies Burmese citizenship to the Rohingya population, estimated at 800,000 to 1 million people. On July 12, Burmese President Thein Sein said the “only solution” to the sectarian strife was to expel the Rohingya to other countries or to camps overseen by the United Nations refugee agency.

“’We will send them away if any third [world] country would accept them,’ he said [sic].

“Burmese law and policy discriminate against Rohingya, infringing on their rights to freedom of movement, education, and employment. Burmese government officials typically refer to the Rohingya as ‘Bengali,’ ‘so-called Rohingya,’ or the pejorative ‘Kalar,’ and Rohingya face considerable prejudice from Burmese society generally, including from longtime democracy advocates and ethnic minorities who themselves have long faced oppression from the Burmese state.”

The President’s statement that Burma is willing to send Rohingya’s to any state that will accept them is telling.  One state that has not been willing to accept them is Bagladesh, which engages in similar modes of structural oppression toward the 300,000 Rohingyas who have already managed to enter its borders over the past decades.

With a background that includes this context, the idea that Rohingyas are reacting to an image of a Qur’an burning that someone posted on Facebook erases their status as stateless since 1982 as well as the modes of structural oppression that their statelessness facilitated and catalyzed.  It is an absurdly simplistic, easily-digestible assertion.  Instead of a narrative that helps us understand complex situations of structural oppression that entice, invite, and provoke violent responses, we’re given a well-known narrative and an irresponsible image of the angry and irrational Muslim mob — one that fits nicely into other narratives unfolding in media about the Arab world.

Glenn Greenwald’s column in the Guardian as well as an interview he participated in on Al-Jazeera around the same time are excellent resources.  Greenwald effectively responds to predominant feelings of astonishment among Americans that Arabs aren’t more grateful to the U.S. for helping to liberate them.  Instead, Greenwald cites ongoing drone attacks, interventions, the support of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, and the support the U.S. lent to rulers in the Arab world for years in exchange for the embrace of neo-liberal policy concessions as being contributing factors to the current anti-U.S. activism.  Much like the image of the Qur’an burning on Facebook being linked to the violence of the Rohingya in Bangladesh, dominant narratives that posit a causal relationship between an Islamophobic video posted on YouTube are exposed as bankrupt.  They also contentedly rely on images of Muslim mob engrained in the American psyche since Nightline arose to give nightly reports on the American hostage crisis in Iran (See Edward Said’s Covering Islam).

Tunisia offers yet another set of problems related to people’s widespread displeasure with an incompetent Salafist government.  While in Libya, it seems there is displeasure with neo-liberal U.S. maneuvering in the aftermath of NATO incursions (this point is brought up by Hillary Mann Leverett in the Al-Jazeera interview with Greenwald linked above) as well as at least some displeasure with the NATO intervention.  The particularity voiced in each of these narratives serves to underscore the ways conflating the “Muslim World” into a monolithic entity is an unhelpful mode of analysis, if not one that all but invites violence.  (And, of course, those narratives are oversimplified here.)

There is one other dominant narrative being debated worth addressing here.  A conversation about “free speech” almost immediately arose as a response to reactions that were discursively linked to the YouTube video.  I would argue that this conversation about “free speech” similarly erases issues of structural violence in this context not just because it uncritically accepts the causal argument I’ve attempted to problematize above, but also because it also reproduces Muslim subjects as unable to respond creatively and effectively to hateful narratives and the structures of oppression those narratives help shore up.  These issues are addressed thoughtfully in Hamid Dabashi’s recent piece on Pamela Geller’s ad campaign in San Francisco, New York, and soon (apparently) in Washington, D.C. (which reads, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage support the civilized man.  Support Israel.  Defeat Jihad.”).  These issues are also addressed in “13 Powerful Images of Muslim Rage” gawker published in direct response to the Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Newsweek cover article (that I don’t think is worth the link).

While I find the gawker to be problematic in the ways it attempts to “normalize” Muslims (as I find the ascendency embedded in such attempts at normalization to usually be a problem), I’m also trying to understand how it’s being leveled as a tactic.  (I’m not going to go into detail about this now, because it’s beyond my scope here, but might do another post just look at this issue.)  I’ve also similarly been disappointed by some friends and allies who have criticized the “free speech” argument by saying that the videos should be taken down.  I think Dabashi’s piece (linked above) responds well to these problems.

Instead of a complex picture erased by the simplistic, causal linkages offered by the media (a image of a burning Qur’an, rising food prices, a YouTube clip), we might do well to look at media concessions to already-embedded narratives of the Muslim mob as nothing less than lazy journalism.  Instead, let’s cultivate a mortician’s stance toward the complex (and messy) structures that surround us and in which we find ourselves embedded.

(Image Credit [for header]: Michael Wolf, Night # 7, Skyscraper: Art and Architecture Against Gravity, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago)

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Well, I’ve finally given in to blogging, and I’m just learning how to use the venue, so please bear with me as I get used to it.  😉

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