Monday, May 17, 2010

Harmless Fascination or Judgmental Portrayals?

For centuries, people of western cultures have been traveling to eastern countries after hearing about the wonders that others have encountered there. When European nations began colonization of Asian countries, they took with them their own ideals and moral values and projected them onto the new cultures which they were discovering. Edward Said’s Orientalism, a criticism of literary works which displayed this sort of Eurocentric outlook, has aroused many strong emotions on either side of the debate. Orientalism is perfectly exemplified in such works as Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias. Although some people claim that westerners who write about eastern cultures do so purely out of fascination, the truth is that many of those works paint a very skewed and judgmental portrait of their subjects which has been used to degrade and colonize Asian countries.

Percy Bysshe Shelly derived from an aristocratic family and was sent to the finest schools, but he was not the type of person who liked monotony. By the time he was eighteen, he had collaborated with a friend of his to write a pamphlet about Atheism which eventually led to his expulsion from Oxford University (Greenblatt 1732). With Shelley’s history of rebellion against the norm, it is not hard to believe that he would begin to write poetry about far off and interesting places that he might have only ever heard of. Ozymandias is a poem about a traveler whose story about an Egyptian statue captures the imagination of a British man. The fact that the poem’s name is Ozymandias and not Ramesses is the first indicator of Orientalism, since this is not the actual name of the Pharaoh whose statue he writes about. In an article entitled “Travelers from an Antique Land: Shelley’s Inspiration for ‘Ozymandias,’” John Rodenbeck states that “The name ‘Ozymandias’ is a Greek rendition of ‘User-ma-at-re,’ the first element of the praenomen or throne name of the ancient Egyptian king usually known instead by his Ra-name as Ramesses II.” (123) The change in Ramesses’ name to Ozymandias indicates that the general European population had very little knowledge about Egyptian history or anything else which was Oriental and they therefore felt more comfortable calling places, things, and even ancient people (like the Pharaohs) by the names that others who were more familiar to them had conjured up. This might have been done with no malicious intent, but it began to set the stage for an acceptable practice in which westerners applied their own views and judgments onto eastern cultures. Now that the name of Ozymandias is exposed as a European adaptation of the Egyptian name for Ramesses II, we can move forward to its description in a magical, unknown, and desirable land.

Within the first few lines of the poem, we can begin to see the feeling of mysticism that the author must have felt when hearing of these ruins in a far off and ancient place. “I met a traveler from an Antique land / Who said: ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone / Stand in the desert…’”(1-3). These first few lines not only tell us about the inspiration behind Shelley’s poem, but it places the poem and its reader in a fantastical and out of the norm place. It’s understandable that a group of people who were just discovering new cultures would use and apply the knowledge that they had gained throughout their lives. Everyone else does this very same thing: It’s called intelligence. The definition of intelligence being “the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one’s environment or to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria” (Merriam-Webster), it is not farfetched to say that these western people were simply trying to make sense of what they were then discovering. However, this same innocent attempt to grasp new information about new places and cultures was also used by many others to stigmatize the Orient in a negative light according to Occident values. Napoleon Bonaparte was one of those people from European descent who used the negative lens of Asian cultures to fit his purposes. In an article entitled “Western Middle-East Music Imagery in the Face of Napoleon’s Enterprise in Egypt: From Mere Eurocentric Exoticism, to Very Organized Orientalistic Ears,” the author states that

Bonaparte’s landmark in preparing his Campaign [to invade Egypt] were the texts by the Comte de Volney. He reproposed the set of usual stereotypes… the dream, the >>oriental<<>

Because people such as Napoleon Bonaparte were able to use this misinformation that other Westerners relayed about the exotic and ancient East, it is then easier to see where the dangers lie in writing through an Orientalist lens. For Shelley, this specifically negative description does not begin so much with his account of an antique land, but rather with the characterization of Egyptians as “barbarians” that Leoni spoke of.

It is human nature to look at groups of people who are different than themselves and make them out to be strange and unusual. This same thing happened right before the colonization of Asian countries when the colonizers looked for all the possible evidence that they could find which would support a view of the natives as “barbarians.” By turning people of Asian and Middle-Eastern cultures into the “Other,” the unfamiliar groups of peoples who did not know about civilized ways of living, it was easier for countries looking for new lands to justify the invasion and colonization of those cultures. In Ozymandias, the evidence of viewing the Egyptians as savages lies within the description of the statue’s personality:

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of Cold Command

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed. (4-8)

Describing the Pharaoh’s expression as sneering in cold command adds to the idea that despotism ran rampant in Eastern empires. In 1954, the Music Library Association printed a review of a song by composer Richard Bales entitled Ozymandias which was inspired on Shelley’s poem of the same name. Irving Lowens says about Shelley’s Ozymandias that it is a “well known ironic poem on the vanity and futility of a tyrant’s power.” (448). That is the view that Orientalism brings across to the general audience, even through music. It is fairly well-known these days that Egyptian rulers did whatever they thought was necessary to build empires and monuments which would bear their names. However, why is it that those Westerners chose so much to focus on Eastern cultures’ past tyrannies and not on their own tyrannical methods of controlling Eastern nations? Is it because the popularized view of Asian civilizations as savage or barbarous fit their purposes of alienating or “Othering” their conquests therefore making the average European citizen believe that they were on the right track? Absolutely! Furthermore, adding that those angry or tyrannical passions have been left stamped on those lifeless objects in the desert implies that although the Egyptians of colonial times were no longer living in the same way as the ancient Egyptians, it was still in their blood and at risk of manifesting itself again if those people were not controlled by more “civilized” human beings. Were all of these messages in Shelley’s mind when he wrote Ozymandias? Probably not; but the fact still remains that people outside of the Eastern realm used literature such as this poem to justify their invasions, crusades and other atrocities.

But where did the West’s idea of the East being essentially barbaric and morally deviant come from to begin with? Christianity was the one predominant belief by which a lot of these Western nations abided and the presumption through which they judged everything and everyone else. The peoples of ancient Egypt were not followers of any Judeo-Christian religion but were mainly polytheists, and in the eyes of Christian Westerners, this qualified them as sinners. This little bit of knowledge swept across the European continent and was also reflected in Ozymandias when the poem says, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” (10-11). There are two possible interpretations that might have provoked shock and even anger in the minds of Christian Europeans; and they might have also contributed to their idea that it was imperative to save them from themselves. One of those interpretations is that those ancient Egyptians, like Ramesses II, were worshiping multiple gods and were then elevating themselves to the rank of gods by calling themselves “King of Kings” based upon their mighty works. That in itself is blasphemy enough in the eyes and ears of Christians. However, the second interpretation, the more provocative of the two, is that Ramesses (Ozymandias) was not only saying that he was elevated above other Egyptian gods, but that he was elevating himself above the Hebrew God. Rodenbeck mentions in his article that among western societies, “the name Ramesses would have been recognized only by readers of the Bible…” (123). If the only way that those Western people had ever hear of Ramesses, or Ozymandias, was through their biblical knowledge of the exodus of Hebrew people after their escape from a tyrannical Pharaoh who had allegedly challenged God’s station, then it is unproblematic to see how the presumption of Egyptians as sinners is not implausible and would have contributed a great deal to the Western need to degrade the East. Was it in Shelley’s repertoire to make Egypt sound like a place full of religious transgression? Again, probably not; especially since he was very publically an atheist himself. However, other Western societies have been able to take works such as his to sway people about the hedonistic ways of Eastern people and their need for salvation through colonization.

So what is the West’s ultimate judgment about Eastern and Middle-Eastern cultures as pertaining to their destinies? This is something that might be best explained by a close analysis of the ending lines of the poem in question. “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, / The lone and level sands stretch far away.” (12-14). The entire poem uses a great deal of imagery that describes the statue of Ozymandias as broken or in ruins. However, line twelve specifically refers to it as being in a state of decay. Could this be because, decisively, what the people of Western heritage and Christian background believe to be the unquestionable destiny for an Eastern society is that it should forever remain in decay due to its hedonistic and uncivilized ways? That seems to be the most plausible explanation. And what do we make of the “colossal wreck?” It seems that this is a major judgment of ancient Egyptian civilization, since its Pharaohs were supposed to have been vain and their tyrannical kingships were in the end futile. The only legacy that many of those colonialists might have seen for Egypt and interpreted from this poem is that of a colossal wreck of a society which ended because of its unfortunate existence before the Europeans could intervene and save it. In regard to the endless miles of lone and endless level sands, we can interpret the “level” as the unavoidable downfall of Egyptian civilization, but Derek Gregory also says that Said’s “imaginative geographies” pertained to “place, space and landscape that dramatize distance and difference in such a way that ‘our’ space is divided and demarcated from ‘their’ space.” (29), meaning that the long stretches of sand were written in to make it obvious that Westerners are not only physically far, but also far from ever being the same way as the “others.” Yes, this is a very dangerous and demeaning Orientalist interpretation of such a poem. It was very likely not the intention of Percy Bysshe Shelley, when he wrote Ozymandias, to pass ultimate judgment on the ancient civilization by which he was fascinated enough to write a poem. However, other people of Western societies might have been able to very easily draw from poems such as his to make their cases that these Eastern societies were headed towards doom unless they made their entrance and saved them all.

So is it really so terrible to write about Asian and Middle-Easter cultures through the Western lens? Edward Said’s Orientalism says that literature, art, music, and even film which depict the East can sometimes be demeaning and even dangerous. Although many people say that literature and other works depicting the East are only done with honest and sincere fascination, the truth is that many times those authors and artists can depict the East in a very slanted and negative way. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias is one such poem which, although the author seems to have had no ill motivation, can be interpreted to say that ancient Egyptians, and colonial-period Egyptians by extension, were barbarians, passionate in their anger and lust for power, sinful hedonists, and eventually doomed due to all of their uncivilized ways of life. People may continue to debate the validity of Said’s theory, but in the mean time, the West might do well to try and be sensitive and aware of what and how they express themselves about the East.

Works Cited

Greenblatt, Stephen. "Percy Bysshe Shelley." Ed. M. H. Abrams. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Eighth ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. 1731-734. Print.

Gregory, Derek. "Between the Book and the Lamp; Imaginative Geographies of Egypt, 1849-1850."Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series 20.1 (1995): 29-57.JSTOR. Web. 12 May 2010.

"Intelligence." Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Merriam-Webster. Web. 15 May 2010.

Leoni, Stefano A. E. "Western Middle-East Imagery in the Face of Napoleon's Enterprise in Egypt: From Mere Eurocentric Exoticism, to Very Organized Orientalistic Ears." International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music December 38.2 (2007): 171-96. JSTOR. Web. 12 May 2010.

Lowens, Irving. "Review: Ozymandias by Richard Bales." Music Library Association 11.3 (1954): 448. JSTOR. Web. 12 May 2010.

Rodenbeck, John. "Travelers from an Antique Land: Shelley's Inspiration for "Ozymandias"" Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics Archeology of Literature: Tracing Th Old in the New.24 (2004): 121-48. JSTOR. Web. 11 May 2010.

Shelley, Percy B. "Ozymandias." Ed. Greenblatt Stephen. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Eighth ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. 1741. Print.

On the Down-Low

Homosexuality and its place in society has been very heavily debated over the past few years. Many people from outside the gay community like to pass judgment and claim that there are many fundamental errors in the life styles of anyone who is involved in a homosexual relationship. It seems that this has been the response has been given by the people of religious institutions more than from any other group. Why is doe this seem to be such a problem to them? Michel Foucault poses the question in his History of Sexuality that

All this garrulous attention which has us in a stew over sexuality, is it not motivated by one basic concern: to ensure population, to reproduce labor capacity, to perpetuate the form of social relations: in short, to constitute a sexuality that is economically useful and politically conservative? (892)

It seems to me that this is very much the problem that many religious groups have with homosexuality. They stigmatize it as an “abomination” and make constant references to the Old Testament’s book of Leviticus which supposedly states that men who lie with other men should be put to death. That argument can be debated, as the books of the Bible have been translated from Greek and then to just about every other language in the world and it is not far-fetched to think that some of the messages might have been lost, or mistook, in translation and could be taken up at a later time. However, what Foucault seems to imply is that the main reason for the repression of atypical sexuality is that it does not produce children, nor does it produce workers to tend the family farms.

The main argument that many people make against that sort of mentality is that these are not the times of family farms anymore. Nor do most western societies need to reproduce as many children as possible any more in order to keep the population going. But this does not seem to filter through to many religious conservatives. In a video interview by the Christian Broadcasting Network, Pastor Michael Stevens says that men who live on the “Down Low” are a terrible problem within the African American community. He goes on to say that they are contracting their wives and girlfriends with HIV and AIDS and that they need to come out and proclaim their homosexuality; and maybe he’s right about people being able to be themselves instead of sneaking around. However, it might be easier for them to come out of the closet and accept their sexual orientation if Pastor Stevens didn’t also intermittently add his judgment of homosexuals as sinners who are influenced by demons.

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. "The History of Sexuality." Ed. Julie Rivkin. Literary Theory: An Anthology. Second ed. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2004. 893-99. Print.

TMZ, OMG, and the Panopticon

Michel Foucault’s observations of Western societies and their means of keeping their people in their right place and order lead him to contemplate the similarities between civil vigilance and Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. The Panopticon is a circular-shaped building, which can serve the purposes of a prison because of its separate rooms lining the outsides and a control/watch tower situated in the center of the building. Foucault says in Discipline and Punish, that:

The panoptic mechanism arranges spatial unities that make it possible to see constantly and to recognize immediately. In short, it reverses the principle of the dungeon; or rather of its three functions – to enclose, to deprive of light, and to hide – it preserves only the first and eliminates the other two. (554)

Taking that model into consideration, it is reasonable to say then that media outlets such as TMZ or function in very much the same way as the panopticon for those who are either brave enough or foolish enough to undertake the task of entertaining the masses for profit. Entertainment media sources such as TMZ also reverse the idea of the dungeon in that they provide their “prisoners” with plenty of light (the spotlight and the flashing lights of the paparazzis’ cameras) and they reveal to the general public everything and anything which they can possibly find out about their prey, the celebrities. The only thing that celebrity gossip sites do keep from the “dungeon” is the idea of confinement; Foucault says that “Visibility is a trap.” (554). Unfortunately, the celebrities who see themselves trapped within this societal prison can do nothing but try to brush off all of the unwanted press.

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. "Discipline and Punish." Ed. Julie Rivkin. Literary Theory: An Anthology. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2004. 549-66. Print.

SmartPictures / Rihanna Can Get Away with Wearing Just about Any Outfit ... as Long as It Doesn't Consist of a Purple Metallic Cap, Ill-fitting Sweatshirt, and Terribly Unflattering Trousers. 2010. Photograph. Yahoo, 12 May 2010. Web. 17 May 2010.

Difference, Différance, It's All the Same... Right?

Have you ever sat and listened to someone’s conversation and suddenly find yourself thinking about the nature of what people are vocalizing? How do people know what to say? How is it that people have ever been able to decipher the multitudes of different sounds, pauses, and inflections? How is it that we as human beings can hear a word and automatically make sense of it and derive meaning? Jacques Derrida says that people derive meaning from language according to what each person has experienced about each word and that we communicate through “signifiers” in order to produce “signifieds.” He calls his theoryDifférance due to the fact that is deals with the differentiation between words that are similar to each other and the meanings that people construct (279).

This may all sound interesting, however, it can also be very cryptic. A simple example of Derrida’s signifier-signified is through the use of the word “house.” If one person hears the word “house,” he may automatically think of the building where he lived his childhood which may then bring forth other memories and meanings for “house.” However, someone else may hear the same word and think of Dr. House MD because he is a weekly watcher of the T.V. show by that name. The signifier there would be the word “house” and the “signified” would be the meaning that each man initially thought of when he heard the word, whether it’s a building or a television character. It occurs, then, that Différance functions in very much the same way as Google does: through our conversations, other people may input a signifier such as “house,” and the search engine (our minds) may output what might be the signified for that particular situation.

Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques. "Différance." Ed. Julie Rivkin. Literary Theory: An Anthology. Second ed. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2004. 278-99. Print.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


Surfing through Youtube, I there came across a video of ex U.S. President Bill Clinton at a birthday celebration in 2006 for the President of the state of Israel. It was a video in which an Israeli singer, Liel Kolet, was performing and she spontaneously asked Clinton to join her on stage for a rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” I have to admit that as I saw a former Western ruler and a Middle Eastern teenage girl performing there with “forty Jewish children and forty Arabic children”, I got chills at the thought of the world ever really coming together despite political, economic, or religious reasons. Karl Marx was a German philosopher who, before John lennon, Bill Clinton, or Liel Kolet, imagined a world in which humanity could coexist and everyone’s needs were met. Unfortunately, the world and the human race do not work that way. Applying Marxist ideals to the real world have never worked the way that they are intended to, and will likely never work, because of the simple fact that people will never be happy with being average and having just the basics.

One of the first things that people ask when meeting someone new is “So what do you do?” which is many times followed by “So how did you get involved that field?” But what are people truly looking for when they ask that question? If someone asks “What do you do?” would it be appropriate to respond, “Well, in the morning I wake up, jump in the shower, get dressed, and go to work. Then I…”? That response would leave the other person confused and would make the rest of the meeting very awkward. The reason for that is that the average person understands that being asked about what one does is supposed to be met with an explanation of one’s profession which then gives the other person an idea of where to place him or her in the social order. Karl Marx says in “The German Ideology” that people “begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organization. By producing their means of subsistence [people] are indirectly producing their actual material life.” (653). This type of question, when met by an appropriate response, serves as some sort of validation, for the person being questioned, about their stance in society. The person being interviewed is able to prove that he or she is producing enough work to sustain him or herself and is then also able to show it off through material possessions. However, if people are placed in a society in which everyone is the same, their jobs are the same as everyone else’s, and everyone has the same materials, people would eventually get tired of being just like everyone else and not standing out, as is the case in Communist Cuba where people would rather risk death in the ocean in an attempt to escape than stay in a country and system of government which was supposed to be for their benefit.

There is much propaganda floating around with Marxist ideology; messages about a better world where people can live together in harmony and social, economic, and political equality. Those messages may sometimes help to keep people like myself looking ahead to a brighter future. However, the real chances of such a Eutopia ever existing are slim to none because of the real human need to stand out in their means of providing for themselves and their need to accumulate material wealth to prove their ability to provide.

Works Cited

Marx, Karl. “The German Ideology.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Rivkin, Julie. Ryan, Michael. Malden: Blackwell Publishing. 2004. 653. Print.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Party Must Go On...

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Have you ever noticed that no matter how bad a situation is, no matter how many negative things people have to deal with, there is always time for them to set everything aside and throw a big party? And it always seems to be the people who have the least to celebrate! What is it about a huge party, a carnival atmosphere, which draws so many people in no matter what else is going on? Mikhail Bakhtin says in “Rebelais and His World” that “carnival is the people’s second life, organized on the basis of laughter.” So why is it that “the people’s” second life revolves around laughter? Well, I know that most of us have at one point or another heard that “laughter is the best medicine,” but what is it that people are trying to heal? People, especially those who have been continuously stuck in the lower classes, have much to try to heal; physically, emotionally, and mentally. It is not an easy thing to have to have to work much harder than the upper classes only to earn a fraction of their income. I think that what Bakhtin was trying to say is that people periodically need a break from all of the stresses that abound; a time in which they can feel liberated of the systemic pressures; whether they are sociological, economical, political, or religious. But let us not leave the upper classes to assume the position of all-mighty strong and powerful people. They too have much to deal with (especially during these times of economic crisis) and so they join the festivities. So what carnival does is that it brings all people together in the spirit of fun and laughter. While it elevates the hoi polloi, it also degrades (temporarily) the ruling class. In the video clip posted above, for example, New Orleans’ Mayor Ray Nagin dressed up in costume to the delight of the crowds in New Orleans’ Fat Tuesday celebration, a time in which we can all gather around and laugh at the ridiculousness of our current situations and trade them in for beads, drinks, and maybe (for some) a little drunken debauchery.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Liberated Woman or Woman Trapped??

In looking at a simple painting, a group of people who belong to the same cultural background may see similar characteristics and attribute similar meanings to it. Regardless of individual interpretations, the fact is that cultural background plays a vital role in shaping what each person places significance in and to what degree. However, what if that simple painting was viewed by someone who was from a completely different background as the person who originally created it? Jonathan Culler argues in his Structuralist Poetics that “The cultural meaning of any particular act or object is determined by a whole system of constitutive rules: rules which do not regulate behavior so much as create the possibility of particular forms of behavior” (Rivkin 56). Keeping that in mind, let us now take a second look at the painting for which I previously wrote a poem.

As a westerner woman, when I first looked at this painting I thought of a liberated woman rising above trials and tribulations in order to confront a world full of challenges. I drew this interpretation based on my basic knowledge of symbolism attached to the colors black and white, which are the two major colors in this painting. To me, the black background symbolizes hardships and the evils of the world where as the white in which the woman is painted depicts her true purity despite living in a tainted world. However, when I showed the same painting to a man from a completely different background, a Chinese man, to be specific, he drew a completely different meaning from it. When he looked at this same painting, he said that he thought it was about a woman trying to break away from a place of solitude. When I asked him what it was about the painting that brought about that interpretation, he said that there is a Chinese story about a lonely woman who lives on the moon and is very sad that she cannot come down; the black circle being the moon, the white swirls being the clouds, and the brown and gray lines behind the circle representing the inside of a “box” in which the sad woman on the moon (Chang’e) is trapped.

In looking at a simple painting of a feminine silhouette on a black background, the interpretations between people of differing cultures may be tremendous. Culler proposes that this is because meaning is constructed by the individual based on the true knowledge of each culture’s system of symbols. It is very obvious to me that the main player in the difference in interpretations made by me, a Mexican-American woman (West), and that of a Chinese man (East) was simply our difference in cultural backgrounds. We both saw a woman rising, but from there on, our takes on her story went in completely opposite directions. I derived a somewhat feminist meaning from it and he derived a more tragic meaning based on his knowledge of Chinese legends. Maybe those of us who care to know more about the way that people derive meaning from literature should pay closer attention to Jonathan Culler. Maybe he knows a thing or two about a thing or two.


** Culler, Jonathan. Structuralist Poetics. 1975. Ed. Rivkin, Julie. Ryan, Michael. Literary Theory: An Anthology. Second Edition. Malden: Blackwell Publishing. 2004. Print.