1001 Arabian Plights: On Mediated Resistance

Absolute Reality TV

Absolute Reality TV

In pursuit of authenticity, novel forms of reality television serve to reify the self as the only genuine formulation. Suspicion of, discontentment with, skepticism of, and mistrust for scripted and fictionalized content has rendered the popularity of individuated accounts of “reality.” Absolute reality television, is not simply what Jean Baudrillard (1995) describes as a simulacrum but also an actively-conceived idea that reality both exists and is the frequent subject of distortion. Therefore, responses by an engaged media-savvy public highlight the clear incongruencies between this public’s milieu and that which is depicted in mainstream media.

Darnell Hunt wrote on “audience resistance” in Screening the Los Angeles “Riots”: Race, Seeing and Resistance where he incorporates the case study of the Los Angeles Riots as a situational example to explicate and encourage the idea of “audience resistance” and asserts the contextual properties of his example, thereby avoiding a timeless characterization of “audience resistance.” For Hunt there is an actualization of resistance in the form of compositional agency. So he is adamant about the distinction between audience opposition and resistance, with the later providing a site for “action.”

By juxtaposing media power and audience resistance as contending axioms, he puts the onus on audiences to respond to media. “[F]or some scholars, audience oppositions to the ideologies inscribed in media—critical interpretations, lack of interest, and so on—constitute a form of resistance against ruling power” (p.15). For others, the ruling power assimilates resistance narratives instead allowing them to vent while maintaining the status quo, pseudo-resistance. Hunt then tries to identify the nature of “real” resistance and questions whether we would even know it if we saw it (p. 16).

However, where Hunt leaves off is where a novel form of audience resistance begins, one that goes beyond the interpretive realm of decoding and the sociological contextual reading of media texts. Instead, it exists in the realm of paradigmatic transformation whereby authorship is reevaluated. While I am trying to avoid the characterization of such processes, the blurring of lines between audiences and authors, readers and creators, consumers and distributors becomes the integral characteristic of this new form. This can be seen as upheld by the audience polysemy and manifested through unique and often disjoint forms of mediated intertextuality. So forms of audience resistance embed intertextuality to reduce or coerce the decoding. Some are infused with hyper-inscribed intertextual signification so as to become inundating. These and other characteristics often show the possibility of such audience narratives becoming an inchoate part of the “cacophony of resistance” of hyper-inscribed media texts

In my last column, I tried to zero in on the increasingly visible, although long-standing, phenomenon of racializing Arabs in the American televisual media as an example of such a problematic. While this is too pervasive a condition to chart comprehensively, the few basic exemplars I provided suffice to illustrate it. Beyond what appears to be a holistic and all-consuming rhetoric of demonization, there is an apparent ferment among Arab audiences and publics who have sought alternative modes of communication to both register their dismay at this repertoire of redundant portrayals and to devise an oppositional rhetoric to contest it. These novel forms of mediated audience resistance blur the lines between audiences and media, between message-construction and reception, between encoders and decoders, and between mainstream and alternative media content.

The first form of mediated resistance is performed when an interlocutor confronts the media narrative itself not just the subject matter up for debate. This often incorporates the mainstream discourse itself but is characterized by a de-shrouding of the underlying logic of the medium’s ideological notions. These moments are interruptions of what would otherwise be a contiguous and continuous rational discourse. One example of this is an appearance by British Member of Parliament George Holloway on SkyNews where the politician breaks the stylistic broadcasting mold by shattering the formatting “façade” of the news report, accusing the anchor or bias and collusion, and offering a corrective view of the news event—the summer 2006 Israel-Lebanon (Hezbollah) war.

Besides these critical interventions, which utilize the mainstream medium itself to express dissent, the second form of resistance narratives seeks alternative venues for self-expression. While appropriating elements of discursive construction from mainstream media, the objective of these is focused on the institutions that uphold the political, economic or cultural establishments in their holistic or particular expressions. Nonetheless, these continue to exist within the domain of discursive interpretation.

Take for instance the Palestinian (Israeli Arab) rap group DAM (which spells the word ‘blood’ in Arabic). The group’s first popular track and video, Meen Irhabe? (Who is the terrorist?), where posted on the Internet to popular viewership and referral. The group became an instant sensation among Palestinians and Arabs online with the YouTube video drawing much attention. While DAM may not be the first Arab rap group and hardly innovators in the genre, the visual imagery in the video is unique as it is an edited composite collage of actual mainstream news footage of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The song and the video’s dissident nature are embedded in the discursive argument, which negates the conventional depictions of Palestinians and their conflict with the Israeli state in the Western media. While the band has since become a success among Palestinians and Arabs in the region and the diaspora, they have higher end production value. Nonetheless, the group’s beginnings were firmly rooted in a language and aesthetic of mediated resistance.

Cover of DAM’s latest album

Cover of DAM’s latest album

A third category of mediated resistance falls under the traditional alternative/radical media definitions as described by Downing (2000), Atton (2002) and Couldry & Curran (2007). This is media programming that is entrenched in a political perspective and attempts to construct itself as contrasting to mainstream media. The channel itself prescribes to such a counter-hegemonic discourse and is a center for antagonistic dissident resistance, which at its root is critical not only to the political status quo but accuses the popular media of alignment with it. An example of this vis-à-vis the Arab public is Lebanese Islamic political movement, Hezbollah (‘Party of God’), whose television station Al-Manar is emblematic of such a service. Offering an alternative view of the conflict in the region and representing the often neglected concerns of the country’s significant Shiite population, (Norton, 2007) the station presents an alternative account of news events from the Arab world generally, and Lebanon specifically, offering an alternative account on most regional occurrences.

Aside for its role as a news provider, Al-Manar is also the official voice of Hezbollah’s political and military arms. Various video clearing houses such as YouTube contain simple videos which are edited by Hezbollah supporters with English translations to energize their base, memorialize the summer 2006 war with Israel, and shift mainstream Western media attention from their characterization as terrorist organization to that of a liberation movement. One such video incorporates components from American cable television news as well as Al-Jazeera and Al-Manar footage, the film utilizes mainstream media content to repackage and oppositional narrative to act as a corrective to the source.

The movement and the political party have also recently directed its attention to other media technology to express its ideological and dissident views, recruit adherents, and contest mainstream narratives. One of these is in the area of video gaming where Hezbollah’s computer department designed games for computers and consoles, which emulate and resemble popular warring games.

Hezbollah video game Special Force which was soon followed by a sequel Special Force 2, and two other games including W3DTEK: Al-Wa3d Al Sadek (The Honest Promise). Both allow players to confront Israeli military regiments in both traditional and guerilla warfare. The trailer for Special Forces 2 is complete with actual media components documenting the realities of an ongoing conflict with Israel and listing actual battle sites, original audio from Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s speeches.

Cover of Hezbollah video game Special Forces 1

Cover of Hezbollah video game “Special Forces 1″

Cover of Hezbollah video game Special Forces 2

Cover of Hezbollah video game “Special Forces 2″

Another company based in Syria designs and produces similar games with plots revolving around the Palestinian Intifada such as Under Siege where Palestinian popular resistance confront Israeli occupation. The caption at the beginning of the trailer, which is set against a backdrop of extensive dehumanizing action by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), reads: “When aggression knows no limits. When the arrogance of power suffocates the life in your chest. Then you do not surrender…….you explode!” The dissident message is self-evident and highly affective.

Beyond the prevailing narratives of Orientalism, which cast Arabs and Muslims in a fixed repertory of representations, mediated audience resistance illustrates oppositional narratives, which contest these discourses. These take three predominant forms; interruptive antagonism on mainstream media, constructed messages incorporating elements of conventional media production, and resistance media networks aligned with social movements. From YouTube clips to video game technology, mediated resistance has become an integral aspect of self-identification for many Arabs and Muslims (Hafez, 2006).

Works Cited

Atton, C. (2002). Alternative Media. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

Baudrillard, J. (1995). Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press

Couldry, N. & Curran, J. (2007). Media Power: Alternative Media in a Networked World. London: Rowman & Littlefield.

Downing, J.D. (2000). Radical Media: Rebellious Communication and Social Movements. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Hafez, M.M. (2006). Why Muslims Rebel: Repression and Resistance in the Islamic World. Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner

Hunt, D.M. (1997). Screening the Los Angeles “riots”: Race, Seeing and Resistance. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Norton, A.R. (2007). Hezbollah: A Short History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Image Credits:
1. Absolute Reality TV, archived image
2. Cover of DAM’s latest album
3. Cover of Hezbollah video game “Special Forces 1″
4. Cover of Hezbollah video game “Special Forces 2″

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1001 Arabian Plights: On Persistent Media Denigration

arab.jpg

Cartoon of an Arabic man

In the last few years, I have attended and participated in conferences, workshops, sessions, lectures, and seminars from Austin, Texas to Sydney, Australia dealing with the issue of representation of Arabs, Muslims and Middle Easterners in the US and Western media. Cultural studies theorists, historians, political scientists, visual anthropologists, psychologists and specialists from other disciplines have all delved into this matter, most reaching the same conclusions and offering resolute remedies which prescribe an overhaul of the representational terrain. However, while academics have been embroiled in these discussions for years, little seems to change in the way these media address and redress these recommendations. Most mainstream media reactions to this are minor and insignificant. With little prospect for media development, Arab audiences are forced to engage these institutions directly. In a series of columns entitled 1001 Arabian Plights, I hope to draw attention to a growing phenomena online in which Arab publics are utilizing media and communication technology to develop narratives of self and collective identity as a reaction to the media practices in their societies. In this first essay, and prior to delving into this media content, it is necessary to situate and problematize the mainstream media rituals that precipitated such contrarian expressions.

“Malicious generalizations about Islam have become the last acceptable form of denigration of foreign culture in the West; what is said about the Muslim mind, or character, or religion, or culture as a whole cannot now be said in mainstream discussion about Africans, Jews, other Orientals, or Asians.”
Edward Said,
from Covering Islam (1997)

Said’s words were published in the period preceding the events of September 11, a time of seeming tranquility and an era which many assume was free from Arab and Muslim vilification. Unfortunately this couldn’t be farther from the truth as documented by a numbingly repetitive discourse of demonization of Arabs and Muslims which traversed all media content from blockbuster Hollywood films to news and television programming. It would be challenging to uncover any more than a handful of positive depictions of either an Arab or a Muslim in the hundreds US films produced in the last six decades. For comprehensive treatise on this phenomenon, one need only resort to the encyclopedic work of Jack Shaheen in The TV Arab and Reel Bad Arabs (which became the title of a film on the topic, Trailer) and most recently Lina Khatib’s Filming the Modern Middle East: Politics in the Cinemas of Hollywood and the Arab World. A short film by Jackie Salloum entitled Planet of the Arabs expresses this in an aesthetically startling fashion. Edited out of spliced footage from Hollywood films representing Arabs, it dizzingly and silently narrates a long history of manufactured images of a people whose lives and culture were made worthy of disdain.

planet_of_the_arabs_still.JPG

Planet of the Arabs

While discriminatory imagery and racialized stereotypical representations are endemic problems to which cultural studies have been highly critical, the last two decades have witnessed dramatic changes in the language of misrepresentation as characteristically stereotypical debates about minorities that have taken on more covert forms of essentialization. Instances where pejorative and derogatory terms are used to describe racial and ethnic minorities in the US are met with public outrage, a litany of apologetics, accusations of racism, threats of litigation, and other consequences which render such utterances unacceptable. However, Arabs and Muslims have not witnessed such a renaissance. Commentary in the popular media that would meet the conditions of hate speech if attributed to African Americans, Jews, Latinos, women, and GLBTQ often pass for genuine criticism towards Arabs and Muslims. Perhaps the exceptionalism of admonishment for “Orientals” in today’s American media is supported by a discourse that officially sanctions it, lending it both credibility and immunity from being perceived as morally reprehensible by mainstream standards.

Much of these conditions were exacerbated in the post 9/11 milieu which has thrust the Arab world and its peoples into the limelight of the collective imaginary. Governed by a deeply normative conditionality that forces Arabs and their nation-states into categories of good vs. bad, most American media have found themselves in the inexcusable position of regurgitating some of the most implicitly unacceptable and sometimes explicitly racist intonations about the region, the 22 nations that comprise it, its hundred of millions of inhabitants, and the sizable Arab diasporic community which spans the globe.

This year is the 30th anniversary of the publication of Edward W. Said’s seminal book Orientalism, which helped fracture the cast of immunity surrounding western scholarship on the region, shifted pedagogy on the Arab world, and became a foundational bedrock for post-colonial studies. By meticulously disentangling and demystifying the discursive processes that the colonial enterprises in the Arab world used to build a mutated and exoticized image of the region and its inhabitants, Said was showing the historical continuity that characterized Orientalism. In essence, his arguments rang true for cultural studies scholars who perceived the most diabolical attributes associated with Arabs, their history, culture and social mores as remnants of a colonial lexicon about an ‘othered’ Orient.

One such deprecating technique is by collapsing categories of identification so as to simplify, essentialize and explain the behavior of the other. We see this in the frequent confounding of terms such as Muslim and Arab and their interchangeable usage in modern vernacular circles as well as on American news television. This also makes the attack against both Arab and Muslim subjectivity a single endeavor. Examples of this and other defamatory strategies abound. Just six months ago, FOX News Channel (FNC) carried a story about an Arabic language public school in New York City which lost its principal as a result of accusations of serving as a bastion of terrorism. In this clip, one can see anchor Sean Hannity taking sides against NYC Arabic public school, describing it with the pejoratively-connotated term madrasa, describing the school board as a fatwa-funding agency, making clear evocations connecting the 9/11 attacks to the school, and dismissing every cogent argument from the oppositional speaker. FNC continues to pursue the story and confront a NY Councilman John Liu who defends the school’s premise and pointedly suggests Hannity’s case is preposterous.

The punditry of American news has also provided vocal anti-Arab sentiment a pedestal on which belittling and racist expressions amounting to hate speech can pass for free-wheeling First Amendment-sanctioned public expression. In one such example, the host of MSNBC’s Hardball Chris Matthews entertains firebrand conservative commentator Ann Coulter’s case for military attack on Muslim society. Such discourse has subliminally infiltrated all forms of public expression including political campaigning in which candidates for the 2008 Presidential nomination compete over whom is farther removed from Islam and Arabs. In a recent public campaign to undermine Presidential hopeful for the Democratic Party Barack Obama, a rumor simply had to state that he is a Muslim. This was described by his managers as a “false accusation” orchestrated as a “smear campaign.” Obama dutifully and fully denied any association with Islam and solemnly declared himself a Christian whenever the question was posed. Not once did he respond that his religion should be of no consequence or that being a Muslim is not an “accusation.” So deeply entrenched is the animosity to all things Muslim in America, that to make amends with public and media alarm, Obama had to distance himself entirely from the faith and all its adherents.

This distance which has become a massive gulf in the public psyche between what it means to be Western and American versus Arab and Muslim has precipitated what I believe are novel forms of “mediated dissidence.” While there is only sparse documentation of the media content produced by Arab individuals and communities to influence, combat, respond and transform egregious misrepresentation and disinformation as well as subvert authority, these media both elaborate in their critique of mainstream media and ubiquitous in online fora. In the forthcoming columns, I will explore the realm of YouTube music and alternative news video clips generated with the intent of interrogating mainstream images of Arabs, video game technology and dissidence, and the influential role of blogging in transforming the terrain of news on Arabs.

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Prophet Mohammed Cartoon ((One of the cartoons published by Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten depicting Prophet Mohammed as a sword-wielding malevolent patriarchal persona with an intimidating ruthless, volatile and aggressive disposition. The publication of this and other cartoons of the kind was met by massive protests across the Muslim world in which public expressed their dismay at what they saw as an insult to their faith and prophet.))

Works Cited

Khatib, L. (2006). Filming the Modern Middle East: Politics in the Cinemas of Hollywood and the Arab World. London: I.B. Tauris.

Said, E.W. (1978) Orientalism. New York: Vintage

Said, E.W. (1997). Covering Islam. New York: Pantheon

Shaheen, J.G. (1984) The TV Arab. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.

Shaheen, J.G. (2001). Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. Northampton, MA: Interlink.

Image Credits:

1. Cartoon of an Arabic man

2. Planet of the Arabs

3. Prophet Mohammed Cartoon

Please feel free to comment.