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Appropriation needs appreciation

16 Apr

One would be hard pressed to argue that Arab influence on American culture is fully appreciated.  Hell, appreciated?  How about realized?  An Arab comedian was quick to point out the existence of a Black History month, Latino heritage month, Irish American heritage month, etc. (granted, these ethnicities have been present in America for a longer period of time, but still..) The dominant idea about the split, and difference, between Arab nations and Western nations is that Western nations broke off with scientific exploration, conquered the rest of the unknown world, and now sit atop a pedestal that clearly and definitively exists.  This notion, of course, is entirely false.

A beautiful thing about American culture is its unprecedented diversity of thought, norms, ethnicity, and culture.  This diversity exists not because of some linear trajectory of Western invention and ingenuity, but is rather due to the timely appropriation of inventions, tools, ideas, and information from co-evolving cultures around the world.  bell hooks, an American author and social activist, has written extensively on the concept of “eating the other“.  Eating the other refers to the cultural commodification and consumption of non-white culture and is a continuation of the power/dominance hierarchy, with subtler mechanisms.  I like to think of this concept as appropriation without appreciation.

In her article Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance, bell hooks analyzes the cultural commodification of non-whites as a continuation of the power/dominance hierarchy and how this behavior is rampant in American culture.  She states: “Cultural appropriation of the Other assuages feelings of deprivation and lack that assault the psyches of radical white youth who choose to be disloyal to western civilization… Masses of young people dissatisfied by U.S. imperialism, unemployment, lack of economic opportunity, afflicted by the post-modern malaise of alienation, no sense of grounding, no redemptive identity, can be manipulated by cultural strategies that offer Otherness as appeasement, particularly through commodification.”

What I wonder is where is the line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation?  How can one enjoy/appreciate a different culture without participating in its commodification?  hooks’ analysis seems to be in search of recognition and reconciliation without consumption, which is valid, but provides a formidable challenge.  What could, say, a western white youth do to approach such a situation?  It seems assuming a leading role in such a movement could be viewed merely as a continuation of the power/dominance hierarchy.

Regardless, the purpose of this post is to show some appreciation for cultural items (goods, inventions, ideas, art, etc.) that I consume frequently that were appropriated from the medieval Islamic world.  Here’s a quick list:

1) Coffee

2) Numbers

3) Algebra

4) Beer

5) Guitar

As a college student studying mathematics, there isn’t a single one of these items that I could presently live without.  This simple list of 5 appropriations consists of things that I haven’t gone a week, much less a day, without in a number of years.  I am thankful for the existence of these items, and appreciate the historical context and cultural context from which these inventions emerged.  I appreciate these appropriations.

Are there things that you utilize frequently that you haven’t fully appreciated?  I encourage you to do this simple exercise, post it below and let me know what you think about how to properly appreciate cultural appropriations.

 

Devin Riley

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Completing the binary?

16 Apr

Binary arguments are ubiquitous in and among modern media outlets, and undoubtedly they create simplified views of complex, adaptive, and interrelated issues.  This is a problem.

A crucial issue is that the way people internally model the social world isn’t an isolated, non-interactive process.  Not only are the issues to be understood complex and adaptive, the agents involved in deciphering such issues are complex and adaptive.  Thus, these internalizations are not only models that attempt to explain how the world works, they create meaning in the world they are attempting to explain through their existence, application, and the construction of ideological discourse (a formalized way of thinking that can be manifested through language; a social boundary defining what can be said about a specific topic or possible truth)and thus self-fulfill their own incorrectness further deepening the illusion that is desired to be maintained.

However, the reality of the situation is that these arguments exist, and they shape the way that millions of people view the world in which they live, and therefore the way the world moves.  Now, inherently there is nothing wrong with a binary argument in and of itself.  In fact, this type of binary opposition can be thought of as an explicit evolutionary strategy for survival (conditional logic, etc.).  But when it is unbalanced, incomplete if you will, the categorization doesn’t allow for more complex arguments, rules, and schemata to be developed over the binary.  These unbalanced binaries are what we call binary oppositions.  More formally, binary oppositions are a cultural logic that constructs meaning through categories that are opposite and hierarchical (think culture vs. nature, mind vs. nature, male vs. female, East vs. West, etc.).  These binary oppositions lead to the creation of the ‘other’, the binary opposite of the normative category.  In effect, one sided arguments are perpetuated, and those with an oppositional model of the world are incapable of understanding conflicts, relationships, and issues in the world today.  From economic globalization, to cultural integration (and consumption), interactions in the world today are to complex, and indeed too sensitive, to be modeled in an oppositional fashion.What I claim in this post is that binary oppositions are what we can call incomplete binary arguments, and the best strategy to eradication of unbalanced, incomplete arguments is the completion of the opposition, rather than fighting to eliminate the other side.

Discussion on the best methods to eliminate binary arguments as the dominant ideological models is an important topic in resolving racial, political, economic and religious conflict today.   In Contesting a racialized regime of representation (an excerpt from Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices), Stuart Hall states that “the problem with the positive/negative strategy is that adding positive images to the largely negative repertoire of the dominant regime of representation increases the diversity of ways in which ‘being black’ is represented, but does not necessarily displace the negative.  Since the binaries remain in place, meaning continues to be framed by them” (p. 274).  It does seem, however, that this type of counter-representation is the most frequent, and, within many forms of media, is the most feasible.  Naturally, if given the choice, as the ultimate purveyor of media, one would chose to eliminate negative stereotypes, but lacking total control, and being one producer in a field of many, it seems the best course of action would to be to create positive images (given that they are true) and let them work against negative images.  The real battle is in altering the manner in which people perceive images (or other forms of media), which is not entirely based on the content of the image (media) itself as we know.  Is this strategy still formalized from the binary argument?  Or, is it that the binary structure can simply be layed over any sort of argument?  Or, given that it is formalized from the binary argument, can the completion of the binary allow the representations in question supersede or transcend its simplified argument?

While Hall seems to be skeptical as to the effectiveness of this strategy, I believe completing unbalanced binary arguments is the most feasible manner in which negative stereotypes, tropes, and poor representations can be diluted and eventually stripped of their meaning.

According to Hall, ‘the marking of “difference” is the basis of that symbolic order which we call culture’. In this context, binary oppositions are crucial for maintaining difference which is fundamental for producing cultural meaning.  This marking of difference is articulated within clear boundaries; it does not tolerate ambiguous or unstable spaces of indeterminacy.  According to Hall:

‘Stable culture requires things to stay in their appointed place. Symbolic boundaries keep the categories ‘pure’, giving cultures their unique meaning and identity. What unsettles culture is “matter out of place”– the breaking of our unwritten rules and codes’ (Hall).

My impression is that the nature of symbolic boundaries is formalization built from an underlying unbalanced (incomplete) binary, and the remedy to the dissolution of these boundaries is a completion of the underlying argument.  Addressing ‘difference’ and ‘difference’-making symbolic boundaries involves addressing the internal models of agents interacting with with predictive strategies in which this difference is implicit and based on pure superiority and imbalance.

Let me know what you think about fighting representation, and the effectiveness of various strategies.  Drop a comment, reply, question, criticism, or whatever.

For some extended discussion on binary oppositional representations of Arabs in Western (U.S. in particular) media, I suggest checking out this brief article by Mohammed Hirchi, a professor of Arabic at Colorado State University.

Citations

http://www.waccglobal.org/en/20072-mediating-the-middle-east/456-Media-representations-of-the-Middle-East.html

Hall, Stuart. Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices.  Sage 1997.

Lecture slides from Evelyn Alsultany, Professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

The three B syndrome

16 Apr

The “3 B Syndrome” is the term frequently used to describe the portrayal of Arabs in the mass media: as bombers, billionaires or belly dancers. The alliteration, humorous in its simplicity, is actually an apt summary for the bulk of stereotypes and illinformed representations of Arabs in news media, film, and daily life.

One person fighting against these stereotypes is Laila Lalami, a Moroccan writer who wrote the sarcastic piece “Arab-bashing for Fun and Profit”, which includes a facetious 12 step guide for how to stereotype Muslims (great piece of counter-hegemonic sarcasm, my personal favorite strategy).  The piece includes tips like, “the villains must all have beards” and “have [the villains] threaten to blow something up.” Published initially in the Los Angeles Times, the piece got a great deal of attention and has been reprinted in many places, and I suggest you check it out.  What Lalami’s post consists of, though she doesn’t refer to them as such, are tropes of empire.  A trope of empire is a familiar and repeated theme, character, narrative, etc., which performs ideological work through the use of language (metaphor, figurative, non-literal) and discourse.  The work done by the perpetuation and ubiquity of these tropes is manifested in the way they essentialize (characterize by unchanging essences), otherize (essentialized characteristics polar opposite of Western characteristics), and create absences (‘other’ is depicted as lacking in positive traits) in the subject.

 

One man who studies the relationship between tropes and the ideological work that they perform is Dr. Jack Shaheen.  Shaheen, is an internationally acclaimed author and media critic who also fights to halt (or progress from) the 3 B Syndrome in American media. His award-winning book and film Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People follows the history of the media’s slander against Arab people and shows how stereotypes have grown in the film history over the years.

Watch this clip from the documentary Reel Bad Arabs, the film translation of Shaheen’s book:

Shaheen’s work also offers solutions for how Hollywood can change their defamation Arabs, and he has consulted for films such as “Three Kings”.

Through work like that of Larami and Shaheen, appealing to humor and logic to reveal the absurdities of Hollywood representation of Arabs, the 3 B Syndrome is slowly disintegrating and tropes of empire are being brought out into the open where they can be dispelled.

 

Devin Riley

Geography and demographics: The basics

16 Apr

I see two frequent lacks in the common knowledge base of many of my fellow Americans.  I myself was (and still am, though to a lesser extent) guilty of them, and have thus participated in the perpetuation of the ignorance.  However, the correction of these very fixable errors is a simple task.  Below I attempt to aid in this correction through discussion and a couple of interactive games.

First, a lack of basic geographical knowledge of the Middle East is rampant.  In speaking with many of my friends (fellow undergraduates at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI, USA, a well-regarded academic institution) I found that while many of them could name over 75% of nations considered to be in the Middle East, when asked to apply this knowledge to a map, they were very limited in accurately placing the names to the shapes and geographical relations.  This lack of geographical understanding, though seemingly trivial, actually produces a significant amount of ideological work by abstracting the Middle Eastern world, limiting a representation of diversity between nations and peoples in the region that from approaching reality.  Ideology is a comprehensive set of beliefs and ideas that operates through our unconscious consent.  Ideological work is defined by James Lull as the winning and securing of hegemony over time.  The ideological work produced by this ignorance is in its abstraction of the geographic region, which is a perpetuation of the Eurocentric idea that the Middle East is the playing field where our battles are fought, our blames placed, and our hegemony secured.  To allow people to gain a better geographic awareness of the Middle East, I have created a game on Sporcle (http://www.sporcle.com).  Try it, pass or fail, and let me know what you think about its effectiveness, your own ability, and other ways that a basic geographic knowledge of the Middle East can be disseminated.

http://www.sporcle.com/games/devinmriley/geography_of_the_middle_east

A second basic issue that is widespread throughout my own social network (and can be seen anywhere at any scale) is the conflation of Arabs and Muslims.  This conflation is the existence of a monolithic representation (lumping distinct groups into categories, generalizing in an inappropriate way), particularly in the Western world, which fails to acknowledge the distinctness of the Arab ethnicity and the Islamic faith.  To challenge this representation, try the following Sporcle quiz:

http://www.sporcle.com/games/devinmriley/top-10-muslim-countries-by-population

How many were you able to get?  If you tried them both you may have realized that the overlap consisted of only three countries (Pakistan, Turkey, and Iran), and not one of these three countries is an Arab nation! In fact, while it is true the vast majority of Arabs are Muslim, only approximately 20% of Muslims are Arabs, and the vast majority of Muslims reside in South-East Asia (Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, etc.).   A quote from The Telegraph lends an insight to the relationship of the distribution of Muslims between other nations as well, stating: Germany has more Muslims than Lebanon, China has more Muslims than Syria, Russia has more Muslims than Jordan and Libya combined, and Ethiopia has nearly as many Muslims as Afghanistan.  The conflation of Muslims and Arabs is clearly a false representation and simplifies the true beauty of the world’s diversity.

Hopefully these games have been informative and illustrated some simple, fixable issues that have implications for the complex web of day-to-day interactions, scaled all the way to international relations, and have proposed some simple, elementary methods for resolution of these issues.

Devin Riley

Arab women active in mitigation of climate change

16 Apr

Enhanced social justice and environmental preservation are frequently linked in the Middle East, a fact that is only recently being acknowledged, at least in mainstream Western culture. As those who often suffer the most from social injustices and environmental degradation in their nations (research reports from around the world confirm that the majority of those affected by climate-related disasters in developing economies have been women http://allafrica.com/stories/200911191053.html), Arab women have long been involved in social protests and are now raising their voices to promote and work towards climate change mitigation in the Middle East. For the most part, this is being done on small scales. Rafi’a Abdul Hamid, a Bedoiun woman from Jordan, was selected by elders in her village to attend a class at Barefoot College in India to learn about solar engineering so she could bring the knowledge back to her village. “We’ve been taught about solar energy and solar panels and how to generate light,” Hamid said. “Hopefully when we return we will be able to teach others everything we learned here in India to improve our village.”

Barefoot College itself is a slightly larger scale example of women working to promote climate change adaptations while improving their plights. It is a non-governmental organization that helps women from poor rural communities become more sustainable. It launched its solar power course for women in 2005 and already more than 150 grandmothers in the Middle East have been trained and together solar electrified over 10,000 homes in more than 100 villages, ultimately saving 1.5 million liters of kerosene.

Naqa’a, an environmental enterprise set up by a small group of young Muslim women in Saudi Arabia was founded with the intention of spreading the environmentally sustainable messages of Islam to all Muslims. The organization targets especially young Arabians in preserving the planet. “We want to be a living example of how young people can be the drivers of change in a country like Saudi Arabia,” said Norah Magraby, one of the founders of Naqa’a. The group delivers environmental workshops in schools, are helping various companies in Saudi Arabia become more green, organizes environmental events in the city of Jeddeh and has implemented a recycling system at Dar Al-Hekma College. “Many Muslim scholars have addressed many verses from the Holy Qur’an and the Prophet PBUH statements that urge us all to save the earth, preserve our water resources and to reduce our general consumptions,” Norah points out. “We are really proud of our Islamic teachings and spreading it in the best way possible is one of our major goals.”

The number of Arabic women working for larger environmental organizations is also on the rise. Recently, Mashael bint Mohammed Saud Abdurrahman of the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) in Saudi Arabia won the United Nations Water for Life Best Practice Award.  Earlier this year, in February, NASA appointed a Saudi woman, Majda Abduras, who has a doctorate degree in environmental studies and biotechnology as its first Arab woman researcher. Muhammad Ibrahim Al-Rashid, president of the NASA affiliate the Gulf American Foundation for Space, Technology and the Environment said that “it was the result of her continues work for the environment to solve its problems” that got Majda Abduras the job.

Devin Riley

Citations

http://www.greenprophet.com/2011/03/bedouin-women-solar-power/
http://www.greenprophet.com/2011/04/arab-women-eco-feminism/
http://www.greenprophet.com/2010/11/interview-with-naqaa/
http://arabnews.com/lifestyle/offbeat/article579671.ece

Queen Rania’s Project

15 Apr

Rania Al Abdullah is the current Queen consort of Jordan, and has become a vocal proponent of many issues both on the domestic (Jordan) and international scale.  Queen Rania has used her position to advocate for various sectors of society in Jordan, focusing largely on the importance of education and the inherent right that each human being has to one.  Her mission statement on her website (http://www.queenrania.jo) states:

“Education = Opportunity.

The opportunity to work. The opportunity to escape poverty. The opportunity to live healthily. The opportunity to live confidently. The opportunity to hope.

I believe you deserve an education. 
Whoever you are. 
It’s your right.

You deserve the chance to make the most of this brief glimpse we call existence. To be all you can be. To help those dear to you. To re-imagine the parameters of possibility.

Because education is transformative.

It can rescue a girl from the burdens of adulthood: early marriage and premature pregnancy.
It can empower a woman to take control of her life: mind, body, and soul.
It can defeat disease and temper intolerance: a shield for both our health and our humanity.

Education is a Titan.

Whole communities and countries lifted from the quicksands of destitution to the plains of progress.

And the power of education lies not in the pages of textbooks, or the recital of facts and figures. 
It resides in the mind of a child who is taught how to think. How to learn. How to navigate the world, avoid whirlpools, climb mountains.

Education isn’t a line I’m spinning. 
It’s a lifeline that’s saving. 
Saving families. Saving futures.”

Queen Rania’s goals begin with the democratization of education, allowing all an equal opportunity to make the most out of the life they have been given.  What she knows and implies through her efforts is that cultural hegemony is the stiffest obstacle to the manifestation of this dream.  Hegemony is the exercise of cultural dominance which operates through the dynamics of force and consent (see our tagline!), where consent is developed through the creation of a common sense logic (Gramsci).  The issue with this dynamic is that the balance between force and consent, the creation of common sense, is determined by those in power and the power dynamic is difficult to approach as it is enforced through implied (economic, social, cultural, etc.) means as opposed to explicit (forceful, violence, military occupation, etc.) means (Foucault).  What Queen Rania has realized, I think, is that the democratization of education and opportunity (ends) cannot be achieved without the development of understanding, truthful knowledge, and tolerance (sub-ends) across cultural lines and that these changes arise in a bottom-up, rather than top down manner.  But what is the best method for initiating change from the bottom up?

Concurrent with the development of numerous social programs and philanthropic endeavors, she has started what I believe to be an effective campaign utilizing social media with the intent of bridging the gap of misunderstandings and misrepresentations of Muslims and Arabs.  Queen Rania was born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents, and has practiced Islam her entire life, and is thus very aware of the struggles occurring in the Arab world, the Muslim religion, and the overlap of these two categorizations.  Her technique for enabling and enacting change on the fronts of education, Arab and Muslim representations, and peace has been to become an active participant in utilizing social media, utilizing online media tools such as YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/user/QueenRania), Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/QueenRania), and Twitter (http://twitter.com/#!/queenrania), and encouraging involvement through her mediums in the global internet community.  She stated in an interview with TechCrunch in 2009 that the motive behind her methods is that “it’s about using social media for social change: creating a community of advocates who can use their voices on behalf of the voiceless, or leverage their talents, skills, knowledge, and resources to put more children into classrooms, or pressure their elected representatives to get global education top of the agenda.”  

It is her YouTube channel in particular that strikes me as an effective counter-hegemonic effort that allows people across the globe to get involved, share their opinions, and expand their understanding of peoples in other parts of the world.  She posts videos, often of herself speaking, that challenge stereotypes and dominant ideologies in relation to discourse on Arabs, Muslims, and the Middle Eastern world.  The channel includes appeals to humor, emotion, and logic that create effective media snippets for spreading awareness, tolerance, and understanding.

In this video, Dean Obeidallah, a Palestinian-American comedian, in efforts with Queen Rania’s YouTube project, speaks with other Arab Americans on the streets of New York to discuss some of the stereotypes they have come across, what that means to them, and what changes they would like to see (all of this in a humorous manner of course).  One of the more interesting things from this clip is the desire from each of the interviewees to bring light to the inventions that the Arab people have introduced to the world that are taken for granted on a day to day basis (from coffee to three course meals; I will expound on this in a later post).  This video utilizes an appeal to humor to shed light of Arab stereotypes, the relationship between Arabs and Islam, and the diversity that exists within the Arab-American community.

A common stereotype that we witness about Arab culture is the oppression of women, and though this has been challenged abundantly, the stereotype still persists, and this, I would imagine, is a particularly frustrating stereotype for Queen Rania, a self-described “mother, wife, boss, and humanitarian.”  Her multi-dimensional lifestyle is first and foremost a contradiction of the common stereotype, and she includes a section on her channel dedicated to increasing the dimensions in which we can understand and relate to Arab women in general.  The video below is a depiction of Arab women in action, exercising their abilities, and challenging the ‘oppression’ stereotypes that are all too pervasive.

This simple 90 second video does a lot to dispel the mass representation of Arab women, displaying them in professional roles from architecture, to CEO, to athlete.  This video, with just under 150,000 views, has reached people all over the globe, and the presence of such counter-hegemonic media (even though they are small) eventually begin to educate, interact, and produce more accurate meanings and representations of people and cultures.

What I think is strategic about Queen Rania’s approach to enacting social change is approaching it from the bottom-up.  The best way to change stereotypes and to challenge dominant ideologies, as evidenced by history, is to appeal to the youth, encourage and enable them to make change and create a better world.  And in a world where we see countless celebrities get behind causes for personal gain, nepotism, and exploitation, I believe that Queen Rania is doing it right, making a genuine effort, and producing media that will appeal to a younger generation to break down the suspicion, mistrust, and intolerance that has served to drive us, as global citizens, apart.

Devin Riley

Citations

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queen_Rania_of_Jordan

http://techcrunch.com/2009/05/19/an-interview-with-queen-rania-of-jordan-on-how-twitter-can-help-change-the-world/

http://www.queenrania.jo/rania/vision

Antonio Gramsci, “The Prison Notebooks” (from AC 235 Theory Study Guide)

Michel Foucault, “Truth and Power” (from Power/Knowledge (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980).

Statement of Purpose

14 Apr

This site was created by Devin Riley, Rahul Ramachandran, Brett Leach, and Rayyan Sami in order to creatively express marginalized points of view and challenge the dominant hierarchy of power that is prevalent in modern media by posting on unorthodox news stories, circulating factual information, and challenging readers to consider their own perspectives, and how their perspectives influence the way they interact in the world around them.  We believe an important aspect of this blog is to present all the traditional non-trivial news stories (war, violence, death, etc.) coming from a less orthodox point of view, and, equally as important, present stories considered more ‘trivial’, day-to-day, and positive (small successes, heartwarming stories, etc.), particularly as they relate to the Arab and Muslim communities, to ensure that a plethora of views are included and that the ideological work being done by the summation of these views is a healthy distribution, rather than uniformly negative or biased.  We know that this is no simple task, and in many regards we may come up short, but we hope to present you with new perspectives, ideas, and inspiration to challenge your world-view and seek to update your own internalizations to be more complex, diverse, and, most importantly, accurate.  We thank you for visiting our site.

 

Sincerely,

Devin Riley

Brett Leach

Rayyan Sami

Rahul Ramachandran