Thursday, June 19, 2014

REEL BAD ARABS and Althusser

Louis Althusser, despite the abominable behavior towards his personal relations at various stages of his life, is still an important thinker today, even if the Marxist-Leninist system he glorified is moribund.  In applying his theories of the Ideological State Apparatuses to the observations of Dr. Jack Shaheen in works like REEL BAD ARABS, a mature and much more refreshing vision of critical thought about demonization of Palestinians in Western media begins to evolve.
Here we are entering a domain which is both very familiar (since Capital Volume Two) and uniquely ignored. The tenacious obviousnesses (ideological obviousnesses of an empiricist type) of the point of view of production alone, or even of that of mere productive practice (itself abstract in relation to the process of production) are so integrated into our everyday ‘consciousness’ that it is extremely hard, not to say almost impossible, to raise oneself to the point of view of reproduction.
What Althusser is beginning with as a point is the notion that all labor and commodities contain within them the seeds for reproduction.  For example, a teacher not only teaches, it is through the labor she manifests through the commodity-service offered, instruction to pupils, that the next generation of teachers are formed.  A white-collar worker about to retire will devote sometimes up to a year to train the replacement for that vacancy.  Althusser's view is that, in this sense, all efforts of the State, the manifestation of Capital in motion, are geared towards the perpetuation of not just the workers who will fill the roles of previous generations but, more importantly, the ideology which will make the workers accept the material conditions of their role in the worldwide capitalist order.  The student is first taught how to think and accept things as a worker before being instructed in how to properly join the labor force.
In Althusser's judgement, the capitalist state is a series of apparatuses that control the way this perpetuation occurs.  There are repressive apparatuses, like the jail, courts, or the military, used to overtly control the population by the state.  As a result of this overt nature, the repressive apparatuses are directly challenged by society from time to time.  A government can be undermined by democracy, court decisions are subject to appellate judges, and, in extreme cases throughout history, the military can mutiny and reverse the allegiance of the troops, such as in Trotsky's ability to turn the Russian troops against the Tsar or Henry Kissinger's subversion of the Allende government in Chile through General Pinochet.
The much more complex form of apparatus to confront, one which is traditionally not as easily subverted by popular revolt, is the ideological state apparatuses.  Churches, schools, libraries, national cinemas, art itself and even architecture, they all are generated so to communicate these ideological coordinates in ways that are not as easily challenged.  One major form of cudgeling dissent is the invocation of a notion of morality and guilt.  If a child questions a teacher's authority, it is rebuked for lacking manners.  The older skeptic is called a heretic, blasphemer, excommunicant, or infidel by the Church.  Libraries can claim funding shortages so to not invest in volumes containing ideas seen as too subversive to the capitalist order.  National cinema funding centers, be it Hollywood or Bollywood, state-funded or studio-backed, are beholden to enforcing norms of alleged morality that more often than not are based around financial concerns as opposed to moral indignation.
Althusser further sub-divides the ideological into imaginary and material manifestations.  By this he means that there is ideology, and then ideology made manifest.  For example, there are the notions of proper Islamic behavior, social codes in societies, and then there are the material manifestations of the ideology that fuel these codes.  In some sense, this can oftentimes seem like a contemplation of whether the chicken or eggs came first, but here is where Althusser turns such a quandary upside down.  Using a Marxist dialectic, he concludes that there simply is no history to ideology, and that any claims otherwise are merely illusory details of that specific ideology.  As such, the purest ideological state apparatus is the imaginary, the socialized norms accepted and understood without being written down, and material ideological state apparatuses are merely put forward by capital so to perpetuate the reproduction of the means of production.
From here, there is a unique insight provided by cinema that helps better illustrate the function of ideology and the capital that produces it.  In one sense, film is material, be it light-chemical reactions on celluloid or DVD computer encoding of cinematic imagery, it always if derived from a material manifestation of the commodity.  But, from the first days of cinema, both theoreticians and film makers have understood what is crudely called the 'magic' of the movies.
In much more precise terms, the camera shutter device, whether projected on screen or by a television, is first and foremost a visual trick of the eye, a nineteenth century penny arcade entertainment where thousands of individual images are flashed in a fashion so quickly before the eye the viewer is tricked into seeing motion where none exists.  This visual trick has been called a form of hypnosis by many thinkers, and it is a valid one.  It is at the movies, when Americans are most vulnerable to suggestion, that the most despicable of anti-Arab stereotypes are successfully planted into the national consciousness.  This practice of instruction is one that is based on a material form, the media of the film, and yet it is also wholly imaginary, in that the entire perpetuation of the ideology is based on a simple trick of the eye, flashing a strobing light on a screen behind pictures moving in a fashion to suggest motion and subliminal thoughts based on the views of the film makers.  And, excepting the world of independent cinema, the ideology of mainstream cinema is overwhelmingly geared towards a certain pro-and-con set of coordinates about modern capitalism.
What then becomes clear, in much more precise terms, is what cinema behaves like, as if it were an animal.  This perhaps would seem fanciful, but how many audiences today bemoan the 'film industry' and its haphazard way of marketing and promoting films?  How many magazines in grocery stores are based around portraying the species filmicus staricus homo sapien in a fashion akin to a National Geographic study of African elephants?  Such a comparison, between fan culture and the colonialist form of anthropology, does seem appropriate in this instance, particularly in consideration of portrayal of colonized female bodies and female actors.
Shaheen presents his findings based around categorical insights as opposed to philosophical ones, and part of this is typical of the gulf between Continental and English philosophy.  However, his categories do warrant acknowledgment, even if they might require several annotations derived from theory.  These stereotypes are as follows:
  • Villain
  • Sheikhs
  • Maidens
  • Egyptians
  • Palestinians
The issue at hand with these categories are they are able to easily combined and mixed into a variety of scenarios.  Shaheen is precise in identifying each manifestation in his film catalogue, but there is an underlying failure to grasp the implications of these categories in a pathological and ideological framework proposed by Edward Said's ORIENTALISM.  Each category, for example, contains within it a unique insight about sexuality and how the Western perpetrators of these libels in fact regulate gender and sex in their own society.  Each category contains a certain notion about money and usury that is quite akin to old anti-Jewish stereotypes.  Karl Marx wrote in his essay ON THE JEWISH QUESTION that this type of hatred of Jews, based around economic differences, was a form of anti-capitalism that the State was able to re-direct in target from the Christian treasury officers to Jewish bankers, even though it was the Christian treasuries at fault for the economic order and not the Jewish bankers, who were merely forced, along with everyone else, into fulfilling their duties under the law.  And finally, each category includes elements of colonial entitlement.  In each case, the stereotype is constructed so to de-legitmate notions of pan-Arabism and the notion of the Arab as capable of managing his own affairs, instead being beholden to the ever-valiant colonizing West.  The Egyptians are defeated and cast into the sea by Moses, allowing the rise of what will someday be the Christian faith as opposed to the religion of the Other.  Palestinians are shown as villains rather than victims, and so the future is delegitimated as much as the past, with the West preserving democracy against the Other.  In this sense, we conclude again with the beginning, the State and how it imposes ideology, but yet more richly annotated and, on the converse, with an understanding of REEL BAD ARABS also given more power.

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