By Mohammad Mazhari

Insulated state of America persists despite being a relatively diverse country: researcher

January 29, 2022 - 18:43
“The benefits of social media have been disastrous for American democracy”

TEHRAN – Pointing to insular and individualistic American ideology, a visual art researcher says that American media represents and reproduces the state of isolation.

Talking to the Tehran Times, Aspen Ballas says, “This insulation can be considered through Edward Said’s reference to the West as an ‘unchallenged centrality’.”

Citing Said’s notion of “America’s centrality,” Aspen notes that “the West, in this case America, was largely birthed from self-aggrandizing narratives which included superiority claims to race, religion, knowledge, culture, and civility as a whole.”

Aspen, who primarily studies film and the intersection of race, class, and gender, also says, “The fusion of politics and entertainment in America is not only insulting but it is disabling and dangerous—not just for Americans but for the entire world.”

 Following is the text of the interview with Aspen Ballas:

Q: How could the American cinema or what is known as Hollywood to represent itself as a superior and leading discourse in global cinema? Is it a matter of technology or ideology?

A: This is a great question and a difficult one because, while I believe America’s role as a leading discourse in global cinema is rooted in technology, this appeal towards technology is ideological. I say this because the conception of America—its very existence—is deeply rooted in the brandishing of such technologies. To relinquish control of these technologies is to relinquish control of the myth that America has relied on for its self-creation. 

Like the technologies of muskets and rifles that attributed to the violent coercion of non-European populations to the ideologies and customs of colonial powers, cinema served as a coercive tool in colonial times. Colonizers were given a unique ability to control narratives and images surrounding themselves and others. So, if we are considering how America is a discursive leader in global cinema, the Western genre serves as a perfect example of this. There is a strong nostalgia for this genre because it upholds America’s legacy as a conquering force over Indigenous peoples and lands. This is also why the Western has been used as a cast for adaptations like the spaghetti Western or Black Westerns; as parody in Kung-Fu Hustle (2004), Sukiyaki Western Django (2007), or The Big Lebowski (1998); or as borrowed iconography to shape a character like Travis Bickle, the vigilante in Taxi Driver (1976). It is worth discussing when these adaptations are subversive or updated renditions of the same American-centric ploys. However, the main point of bringing this genre to the surface is to reiterate the fact that the ideological primacy that America has over global cinema is connected to these early technological uses that produced the American myth of the past.

A film like Sean Baker’s Tangerine () proves that decentered populations can wrest control of their narratives, that it can be done in tasteful, favorable, empathetic, and playful ways and that expensive technology and props are not required for doing so. The film has a leading cast of transgender women, whose personal experiences shaped the film’s narrative. Furthermore, the entirety of the film was shot on three iPhones with augmented lenses and was edited in apps. A film like Tangerine does not solve the issue of representation in American cinema, nor does it mean that everyone who owns an iPhone should go out and make feature-length films, however, it does help to shift discourse away from the dominant Hollywood hegemony and serves as a great example of how ideological and technological restrictions can produce beautiful and world-changing works of art.

Q: Some critics say that American media (including cinema, TV, and newspapers) works to keep people negligent and ignorant about the reality of the world and their own society. It is well known that the American public doesn't care about current politics. Your views, please.

A: As I sat down to write this, I opened my browser and the top news headline amped up a meeting that took place between Kim Kardashian, Hilary and Chelsea Clinton. I avoided clicking on it but even if I did, I doubt that I would have benefited much from the update. Celebrities and entertainment personalities like Donald Trump, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kanye West, Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, and Kaitlyn Jenner, holding political positions or voicing an interest in doing so, is why America looks like, and in fact is, such a freak show. This is a continuation of my aforementioned point: representation and visibility does not equal credentials and value. 

Social media has been an asset in organizing and communicating across borders. People are able to find their voices and join communities through social media. Nonetheless, the benefits of social media have been disastrous for American democracy. In The Need for Roots, Simone Weil explains the need for over-worked societies to receive their news in a clear and concise manner. Instead, we are forced to tirelessly sift through click-bait and gossip columns that posture as news. It is very difficult to find news sources that are not sensationalized or politically biased. In search of the truth, Americans are expected to bounce between media platforms, create spreadsheets, and log the common issues, highlight all the gaps and things not being said to arrive at an inkling of the truth. While my interdisciplinary background has primed me for research of this sort, it is an injustice to put people through so much work to simply stay informed. 

The pseudo-journalist, Tucker Carlson is a prime example of the problem. Not only is he one of the most watched news talk show hosts in America, but the lawyers of Fox News won’t even back Carlson as an ethically informed and fact-based journalist. The tragedy is that people feel emboldened and responsible by watching Carlson because it’s the alternative to news that they absorb from their Facebook feeds or Reddit accounts. Tucker Carlson is as much of a journalist as Tony Soprano is a garbageman, and yes, this is an underlying critique of the manipulative and mob-like moves that the Republican party has been making, especially under Trump’s tyranny. All of this is meant to show that we are already too late. The fusion of politics and entertainment in America is not only insulting but it is disabling and dangerous—not just for Americans but for the entire world.

It should come as no surprise that Americans seek news outlets that they politically align with. There is no news where information is delivered plainly, inviting Americans to think for themselves. Instead, the news functions as a self-affirming tool, where ones pre existing opinions and beliefs will be affirmed—not challenged. American media, whether it is a Hollywood film or the daily news, is no longer a companion but an authority—albeit a gentle, sometimes fun, sometimes affirmative, but always postmodern one. We are given the illusion of freedom but really, American media makes the truth so convoluted and difficult to source that most Americans are more comfortable with knowing partial truths or contesting the truth as a whole. The relationship that Americans have with the media exposes how insular and individualistic American ideology truly is. 

Q: How do you assess the notion of the "other" in America’s cinematic legacy?

A: I mentioned the insulated state of America, which persists despite being a relatively diverse country with access to the world’s leading technology. This insulation can be considered through Edward Said’s reference to the West as an “unchallenged centrality.” America’s centrality is somewhat straightforward: the West, in this case, America, was largely birthed from self-aggrandizing narratives which included superiority claims to race, religion, knowledge, culture, and civility as a whole. The East or the Orient was constructed as a gauge of opposition within this narrative. The fact that this centrality is unchallenged is the interesting part because it would appear to suggest some passivity, some intellectual or political laziness on behalf of the “other,” but for Said, this is far from the case. Having almost nothing to do with the East, this unchallenged centrality has everything to do with the insulated imagination of the West. How could the East challenge a myth that was, for a long time, withheld from them and disseminated at a distance?

“Tucker Carlson (of Fox News) is as much of a journalist as Tony Soprano is a garbageman, and this is an underlying critique of the manipulative and mob-like moves that the Republican party has been making, especially under Trump’s tyranny.”Today, these myths are much easier to access, identify, challenge, and subvert, and this is being done here in the states and overseas. Unfortunately, America has had a tight and unforgiving grip on such narratives, which have now fused with a national identity. Teaching alternative histories becomes a personal assault on white America. Those who have benefited from these ideologies have done so for millennia, and they do not feel that they should be made to apologize or absorb any guilt created from the past, even though they remain beneficiaries of these ideologies today. This is why, in our digital age, challenges to America’s centrality have forced America to move a bit differently. It becomes less about America’s centrality going unchallenged than it becomes about manufacturing consent.

Unfortunately, the first examples that come to mind, when conjuring up representations of the “other,” are those presented in children’s fiction. I’m given fewer opportunities to watch all of the contemporary children’s films, but the Disney classics remain celebrated and parents nostalgically watch these films with their children. The Jungle Book () is a great example of how the “other” is manufactured and presented in ways that are somewhat subliminal to the viewer. A little boy named Mowgli is raised by wolves in a forest of India before he is given over to a black panther, Bagheera, who teaches him discipline, respect, and the etiquette of the forest. Ultimately, Bagheera’s aim is to deliver Mowgli to the human village. However, Mowgli’s childish curiosities get him in trouble along the way. 

For instance, Mowgli is kidnapped by a band of monkeys who are led by King Louie, a minstrel-like orangutan. Louie wants to learn the “life of fire,” to become a man. The apes reside in ancient ruins, crumbling and clad with moss and ivy and they speak in a Black vernacular in contrast to the British English spoken by every other character. Louie is portrayed as lazy and greedy, slumped in his throne eating bananas. When he does make demands, they come with an air of buffoonery—his tongue hangs out of the side of his mouth and his wide eyes wander in different directions. While Mowgli and Louie become friends during Mowgli’s captivity, Louie’s lifestyle of partying and jazz is deleterious. Eventually Mowgli is saved by Bagheera and Mowgli’s original jungle companions, who graciously allow Louie to join them on their continued journey; however, Louie is still portrayed as careless, ungrateful, and greedy, reluctant to carry out favors for others unless there is something in it for him. This is one example of how racialized “otherness” has been historically embedded in narratives that work to socialize young people. Not unlike Mowgli, Blackness exists between two worlds, between animal and human, between nature and man.

This narrative was somewhat repeated, though reversed, in the newest version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). After Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp) has introduced his tourists to his whimsical, edible world of candy, one of the tourists spots an Oompa Loompa (Deep Roy) working in the distance. Members of the group ask, “Is it real?” and “Is it a real person?” to which Wonka responds, “Of course they’re real people. They’re Oompa Loompas, imported from Loompa Land,” which, according to Wonka, is a “terrible country.” Viewers are then shown a flashback of Wonka adventuring through the dark and damp forests of Loompa Land with a machete, “infested” with dangerous beasts and megafauna. The purpose of Wonka’s trip to Loompa Land was to discover new and exotic flavors for his candy creations but he found Oompa Loompas instead, suggesting a fungibility between the two. Before “saving” the Oompa Loompas from their native country, they survived off of caterpillars and tree bark while praising the cocoa bean, which grew sparingly in their land. Wonka offers the Chief of the Oompa Loompas unlimited cocoa beans if they return with him, to work in his factory.

Unlike The Jungle Book, where these racialized fantasies are embedded a bit deeper in the narrative, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory portrays colonial conquest, pillaging resources from “exotic lands,” and acquiring human capital. Cocoa beans speak directly to the racialized economy of European and American trading systems that continue to rely on exploited labor overseas. This narrative, originally written by Roald Dahl, featured the Oompa Loompas as pygmies, a hunter-gatherer society who live in the rainforests of central Africa. After backlash to Dahl’s children’s book, the Oompa Loompas were given white skin and quirky haircuts, however, they stayed dressed in traditional garments of leaves, skins, or nothing at all. In the story, the Oompa Loompas have their own language, which the worldly Willy Wonka is somehow able to speak, but as they become domesticated in their new environment, they learn to speak English. Despite tinkering with the aesthetics, the underlying narrative is sustained. Just like the pygmies, whose complex cultural practices and intelligence are belittled or overlooked, the Oompa Loompas are cast for a diminutive role in the American fantasy, as childlike beings who are saved from their savage lifestyles by a white Western savior.

The closing shot of Wonka’s flashback to Loompa Land shows a close-up shot of his hand and the hand of the Oompa Loompa Chief’s coming in to shake in agreement. In size, the Chief’s hand looks like that of an infant’s, his fingers barely making it around the circumference of Wonka’s pointer finger. This child-like dependency that Wonka has created in the Oompa Loompas is a reenactment of early colonial fantasies, suggesting that America’s paternalistic approach to other nations is ongoing. 

While these examples appear somewhat more innocuous, compared to dramatized threats of the “other” as external contagions or alien invasions, I think it’s an important reminder: the “other’s” autonomy—over their image, resources, land, politics, religion, or economy—is the gravest threat to white America.

Q: How does American cinema and mainstream media represent leftists' thoughts and activists? For a long time, they were labeled as Marxists who are linked to the Soviet Union and were depicted as a threat to American security.

A: Since I spoke of the 2005 version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory above, I’ll continue the trend by briefly invoking the earlier version, titled Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). This film is clearly about class; Charlie lives in poverty. His multi-generational household—who live in a studio apartment—showcases a bed in the middle of the room, in which his four elders sleep head-to-toe. This film is also about consumption; those who win tickets to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory get to go explore an entirely edible world, which ends up testing their gluttony. When Charlie finds the last ticket, he is almost pummeled and suffocated by a herd of over-excited and fetishistic adults, who rush over to simply get a glimpse of the golden and glossed piece of paper.

In this film, the Oompa Loompas are a proletariat collective. Apart from their slight differences in height, they look exactly the same in their white overalls, their skin painted orange, and their green haircuts styled exactly the same. While this representation comes with fictional flare, this is exactly what the American unconscious envisions when faced with concepts of leftism, socialism, communism, or Marxism. This litany represents over-simplified threats to the personal freedoms and individualities of Americans. It is a deep fear and belief that a shift into socialist America will inevitably result in everyone being reduced to the same: same clothes, same food and drink, which will be rationed (if it exists at all) because we will be forced to revert back to an inefficient age of bartering. Laborers will vanish because the government will ensure their welfare without question; the rich, successful, and hardworking people will be forced to take care of the poor, lazy, underachievers. This is the flawed dystopian image that comes to mind for pro-capitalist Americans.

A more recent representation of leftist activism in American media can be found in Joker (2019). The film’s fictional setting of Gotham City corresponds to 1970s New York City. Historically, this was a time of financial collapse in America as a whole but was felt twofold by NYC residents. This is because an influx of African Americans and Puerto Rican immigrants moving into NYC prompted the racially-driven white flight—a term used to capture the white population’s move from NYC to the surrounding suburbs. With them, they took businesses, job opportunities, and therefore, taxes that would go towards public resources and upkeep of the city’s infrastructure. 

Keeping Joker’s thematic history of race and economy in the background, we can foreground the time of the film’s release: in the wake of social movements like Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March, as well as the political scandal that was Donald Trump’s entire presidency. However, this was also a time where Bernie Sanders for president was a real possibility. This means that it was also a prime opportunity for American media to capture leftist activists in a skewed and unforgiving light. 

The strikes and protests presented in Joker stem from the infrastructural, social, and economic decline of Gotham City. Class division and a major distrust of Gotham City’s politicians heightens throughout the film. After constantly being the target of bullying and manipulation, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Pheonix) reaches a breaking point, shooting and killing three businessmen on the subway after making fun of him. Despite the fact that Fleck’s crime has little to do with the social movement, they adopt him and position him as the movement’s icon. The accidental nature of Fleck’s rise to leftist fame is the film’s first red flag, as the success of the left is not only misdirected but it is purely symbolic. This is reinforced during one of Fleck’s therapy sessions following his murdering spree and rise to fame, in which he nihilistically claims, “I don’t care about anything.” I recall Zizek’s commentary of the film following its release, claiming the film lost all revolutionary potential in its climax of blind violence and pure drive.

This critique of nihilism is oftentimes directed towards leftists in the states. In fact, this is shown by the end of Joker, as the city is set aflame, and cops and politicians are murdered. The people of Gotham City celebrate, masked as their hero, who does a creative dance atop a cop car. The crowd celebrates but no work has been done. In The Ethics of Ambiguity, Simone de Beauvoir describes the nihilist as a person that upholds structures just to scoff at them and for those of us living in a capitalist epicenter, it can even begin to feel this way—there is a distrust and opposition to the structure, but it is the structure in which we have to survive. Ultimately, Joker is an unflattering allegory of the left: upset but lacking a real plan of action. While this is not a mirrored image of America’s left, it may as well be an invitation to get organized, have clear political goals, and only then, move boldly. 



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