Spot Crooks By Their Ears & Other Tall Tales
European colonialism is one of the most recent examples of imperialism — one in a long line of empires throughout human history. All the cultures, languages, people, and social systems that exist today are the result of people’s travels and encounters over many millennia. Cultural critic Mary Louise Pratt (1992) identifies the places where these encounters occur as “contact zones.” These are places where communication first occurs between groups and their subsequent cultural exchanges are negotiated. In a perfect world, the various groups would enjoy equal levels of give and take, each benefiting from the other. But, that’s not how imperialism usually works.
As the Middle Ages came to a close, Europeans wondered what lay beyond their own borders, so they set out to find out. Eighteenth and nineteenth century technological advancements accelerated their geographic expansion as travel and communication over longer and longer distances became feasible. The new industrial economy grew at breakneck speed, and capitalism was the fuel. Capitalism’s greed is voracious, and it wasn’t satiated by the natural resources and human labor available nearby. So, the Europeans set out to get the assets they needed. As their reach extended, so did their impacts on the places and people they encountered.
Gaining control over other lands and other people was key to the colonizing enterprise. In the 1970s, cultural theorists like Louis Althusser (1971) and Michel Foucault (1976) began to unravel mechanisms by which Western power is affirmed. Both theorists propose two types of systems that compel cultural subjects to conform to hegemonic norms. Foucault’s ideas about power structures echo Althusser’s. One is coercive, public, and visible. Althusser identifies these forces as Repressive State Apparatuses (RSA) (143), while Foucault uses the term Sovereign Power (135). I call it the STICK, and it works through blatant intimidation via institutions like governments, police, prisons, corporeal punishment, and war. The stick uses the threat of violence to subjugate individuals into a systematic order.
The second instrument of power is more insidious. It’s nearly invisible and operates under the surface of our everyday lives. I call this the CARROT. Foucault’s word for the carrot is biopower (140), while Althusser’s term is Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA). The carrot works at the level of culture and it lives in the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. These stories are repeated endlessly through institutions like families, education systems, workplaces, and media of all kinds. Althusser argues that we are passively “interpellated” by hegemonic ideological messages that surround us in every aspect of our lives (81). Media critic David Gauntlett (2002) explains, “interpellation occurs when a person connects with a media text: when we enjoy a magazine or TV show… this uncritical consumption means that the text has interpellated us into a certain set of assumptions, and caused us to tacitly accept a particular approach to the world" (27). When a work of art, a song, or a book, for example, resonates with us — when we identify with it — we have unconsciously accepted the values underpinning the stories therein.
Survivor (2000–), one of the most popular reality TV game shows of all time, has been on air for the past 20 years. Each season, an unlikely group of Americans is sent to some exotic locale, where they compete in various ways amidst manufactured drama. Players make alliances and pacts with one another, because they can't advance without support from some of the others. Everything about this show demonstrates — on a micro scale — the machinery of imperial conquest and power consolidation. (1) Strangers meet on a deserted island or some other unfamiliar contact zone. (2) The ideological carrot: They must negotiate and share resources — find allies — to help them advance. If they don’t get along with people and pull their weight, then (3) they could face the punishment stick and get “voted off the island.” Not only do the game’s players literally live out an imperial process, they also underscore and celebrate the dominant culture’s ideals of individualism, competition, and winner takes all.
We digest these and many other cultural values and stories we’re fed as absolute truth, and we mindlessly and endlessly repeat them to each other — which then binds us ever more closely to the hegemonic machine. David Spurr (1993), refers to these stories as texts, or discourses, that justify and allow colonization to become normalized and enacted by one culture over another. He argues that non-fiction narratives adopt conventions of fiction to further colonialist efforts: “Journalism and other forms of nonfiction, . . . depend on the use of myth, symbol, metaphor, and other rhetorical procedures” (3). The generalizing rhetoric of fiction gives nonfiction an ideological undercurrent that implies its stories are universal and reliable (10). This explains how science became the mouthpiece of colonialism.
During the Enlightenment, “objective” science became the magistrate of truth across Western culture [most of the time]. So as long as there’s [the appearance of] supporting data, then its conclusions become, naturally, the way things are. According to Foucault, scientific narratives are often used to confirm notions of Western culture’s superiority, its moral purity, and to sanction colonialism’s oppressive conduct (1976). Phrenology is a classic example of Western scientists using dubious methods to confirm their own biases about the moral character and intellectual ability of people who are different. This dynamic is at work on the cover of a 1932 issue of Popular Science Monthly (pictured), featuring a sensational headline that reads, “Amazing Facts Discovered by a Famous Physician Arm the Police with a Mighty New Weapon Against Crime.” Apparently, the shape of a person's ear can predict their predilection towards deviant behaviors.
The idea of judging a person based on the shape of their ears might seem too ridiculous to be true, but faux-empirical knowledge presented as fact can engender unbelievable cruelty. The North American slave trade relied on such “scientific data” to justify its less-than-human treatment of kidnapped Africans and their descendants in the New World. In 2019, The New York Times Magazine presented a series called “The 1619 Project” about the legacy of slavery. Reporter Linda Villarosa recounts stories of respected White doctors who went to great lengths to find scientific proof of physiological differences between Black people and Whites:
Like many… doctors… in the South, he [Dr. Thomas Hamilton] was also a wealthy plantation owner who tried to use science to prove that differences between black people and white people went beyond culture and were more than skin deep… They believed that black people had large sex organs and small skulls — which translated to promiscuity and a lack of intelligence… These fallacies, presented as fact and legitimzed in medical journals, bolstered society’s view that enslaved people were fit for little outside [of] forced labor and provided support for racist ideology and discriminatory public policies.
Dr. Hamilton’s work was conducted and disseminated in the early 1800s, but Villarosa points out that its consequences are still felt today:
A 2016 survey of 222 white medical students and residents… showed that half of them endorsed at least one myth about physiological differences between black people and white people, including that black people’s nerve endings are less sensitive than white people’s.
Writers, artists, and other producers of cultural artifacts might be tempted to lean on “facts” like these as they interpret their experiences with different people and other places. Literary critic Debbie Lisle accuses these storytellers of willful ignorance and complicity in upholding colonial despotism. She is adamant that authors take responsibility for interrogating their own interactions and relationships with whatever differences they encounter (261). Her critique refers specifically to travel writing, but her points are valid across all forms of cultural production.
Lisle’s judgment of Alain De Botton’s bestseller, The Art of Travel (2004), is particularly harsh. Her problem comes from his seeming refusal to acknowledge his privilege as a Western white man. His lack of self-awareness or critical engagement with systems of hegemonic power is tantamount to further violence against those who are traditionally disadvantaged. Her response to a TV show like Survivor would likely be even more severe.
Cultural creators of all kinds are in a unique position to influence the evolution of a society’s dominant narratives, ideologies, and beliefs. Lisle proposes three fundamental principles that creatives must adopt in order to establish ethical engagement in contact zones. I’ll discuss each of these strategies relative to examples of work by contemporary artists and writers. I’ll finish with a fourth consideration that should be added to the standards Lisle proposes.
Artists/authors must consistently apply pressure to their underlying beliefs and ingrained assumptions, and they should maintain a sense of skepticism about their own work and the work of others.
World-renowned artist William Kentridge was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. His Jewish parents were lawyers and activists in the anti-apartheid movement, so even though he grew up in an affluent, White community, he was always aware that there were other people who were living nearby under much different circumstances. He recounts his first realization that things were not as they appeared. At age five, he went rummaging around in his dad’s desk looking for candy, but what he found instead was a folder full of eight-by-ten photographs of dead Black people. The images were taken after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 during a peaceful protest. Sixty-nine Africans were killed, and another 186 had been shot by police. Kentridge recalls,
“It was… a shock to see the difference between an entry wound, just a dark little hole on the back of someone’s jacket, and the next photo of the person rolled over, with an exit wound that was the whole chest exploded. I never mentioned to my father that I had seen them… That the adult world could be this violent — it didn’t fit any conceivable notion. It was one of those moments when one’s understanding of the world turns a sharp corner” (Thomkins, 2010).
Today, Kentridge is best known for his hand-drawn films that explore the complexities of race and power in post-colonial South Africa. His work is political, but often couched in allegory. The process of making the films is part of the message, too. His charcoal drawings are filmed as the images emerge, are erased, redrawn, and erased again. The hidden past under each drawing’s layers mirrors the ghosts of colonialism that have persisted long after South Africa gained its independence.
Above: William Kentridge interview with Peter Burchett.
Sometimes, Kentridge’s work is compared to Joseph Bueys,’ because they both deal with issues of perpetual change and the inherent incompleteness of the world. Bueys says his “mission… is to identify and eradicate the ills of society” (Danto, J., 1979). But, Kentridge disagrees. He takes issue with Beuys’ superficiality and lack of awareness about the complexities of power differentials amidst social unrest. Kentridge complains, “politics is not spreading honey around the main building at the Documenta art exhibition. It’s putting electrodes on people’s testicles, locking them up, putting them in fear of their lives.” Echoing Lisle’s criticism of De Botton’s work above, Kentridge thinks Beuys is “naive” and doesn’t bother to consider possibilities outside his own privileged experiences (Thomkins). Unlike Beuys however, Kentridge’s practice is steeped in ambiguity, self-doubt, and empathy for those who have suffered under colonialism.
Cultural creators must be transparent about the ways in which they grapple with the consequences of colonial histories.
Scholar and essayist Sarah Sentilles often writes about the ethics of aestheticizing pain — especially in military contexts. Her 2018 essay, “When We See Photographs of Some Dead Bodies and Not Others,” investigates the cultural and ideological impacts of war imagery. Her primary question was, how do we interpret “the fact that we almost never saw images of dead American soldiers in the news media? Dead Iraqis, dead Afghans, dead Syrians — yes, we saw those bodies, blown up and bloodied, buried in rubble, partly covered by sheets, on the floor, on the ground, on a stretcher, in a pile — but not dead Americans.” She and her students debated about this incongruity, and what it means for U.S. culture and its people, and also what it might mean to the cultures whose people were objectified by Western media’s representations of them.
Sentilles (2020) later wrote about a type of combat training in which soldiers create and act out ultra-realistic mock battlefield scenarios. They even hire professional makeup artists from the entertainment industry to simulate severe battle injuries on the bodies of participating soldiers.
Sentilles then introduces Debi Cornwall, a former civil-rights lawyer turned photographer, who captures portraits of these soldiers in full costume as part of her project Necessary Fictions. While we rarely see images of real-life injured or dead American soldiers, Cornwall’s images images allow viewers to imagine what it would be like to see their fellow citizens the way they’re used to seeing wartime photos of dead and injured Black and Brown people in other parts of the world. Cornwall said,
“It made me wonder how one prepares psychologically for the prospect of killing or being killed… reality was stage-managed for public consumption [and] I wanted to look directly at the staging and performance of American power” (Alagiah, 2020).
Clearly, Cornwall is grappling with her position as a subject within the ongoing imperial machinations of U.S. culture. Her work asks us to physically look at and sit with representations of war that include our own friends and neighbors. And it also asks us to acknowledge the damage we inflict upon ourselves in the quest to prove American exceptionalism, American supremacy, and American moralism.
Artists and writers must sabotage violent and unethical belief systems through practices rooted in “myth, imagination, and storytelling” (Lisle, 278).
Words and images (texts) are packed with meaning and make up key elements in the cultural dialectic. So artists, writers, and other makers must keep a critical eye on how their work is perceived by its audiences. Alexandra Bell is a contemporary artist in New York whose “Counternarratives” subvert mainstream narratives of power. She says,
Black communities, gay communities, immigrant communities feel a lot of media representations to be inadequate, biased. There’s a lot of reporting about police violence and Black men. And I realized a lot of the arguments that we were having were about depictions… I’m really trying to see if I can disrupt subliminal messaging about who should be valued” (St. Felix, 2018).
Her most famous piece, A Teenager With Promise: Annotated, unveils the ways in which supposedly unbiased news reports reify particular narratives that underscore existing cultural stereotypes about Black people. This piece deconstructs the front page of the August 25, 2014 issue of The New York Times. That day’s feature was about the death of Michael Brown, a Black young man, in Ferguson, Missouri at the hands of a White police officer. The image on the left documents Bell’s handwritten markup of the article. The middle piece redacts all the biased language that served to humanize the White police officer and villainize Mr. Brown. The third and final revision, the newspaper’s front page is a full-page photo of a young high school graduate wearing his cap and gown, and the headline reads, “A Teenager with Promise.” Through real-world physical evidence, Alexandra Bell underscores Lisle's position on the importance of recognizing and correcting the internal snap judgments we make based on appearances, stereotypes, and assumptions. There are many ways to tell a story — and there are real world consequences when we repeat them uncritically.
Perspectives from different people the contact zone should be taken seriously and included where necessary.
Often, when White people attempt to address issues of colonialism, imperialism, and systems of power, they unconsciously perpetuate the status quo. According to Keith E. Edwards (2006), “Individuals who are supportive of social justice efforts are not always effective in their anti-oppression efforts. Some who genuinely aspire to act as social justice allies are harmful, ultimately, despite their best intentions” (39). Artists and writers of the dominant groups must collaborate with and learn from the oppressed. They must accept the fact that they’ll never completely understand the experiences of those who suffer under systemic injustice, and they can certainly never presume to speak for them.
In 2017, Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, commissioned a new piece for its sculpture garden, titled “Scaffold,” which was a life-size replica of gallows used in seven instances when state-ordered death sentences were carried out. One of the stories represented in the piece recalls the execution of 38 indigenous men from The Great Dakota Nation in Minnesota. The White artist, Sam Durrant, had been making work about whiteness and colonialism in the United States over many years, but this was the first time he was met with resistance and anger. The Dakota people were incensed by the sculpture. They saw it as a glorification of historical abuses they’ve suffered at the hands of the U.S. government. They felt it enacted further violence on their community — one that has suffered immensely under Western imperialism. Indeed, the Walker Art Museum’s sculpture garden is situated on land that had been stolen from them when the U.S. laid claim to territories out west.
Durrant, Dakota elders, and museum representatives met to negotiate an appropriate resolution to the issue, and “Scaffold” was removed from museum grounds. The initial plan was to burn the piece, but the wood was saved and buried in accordance with Dakota customs. Fire is never to be used for the explicit purpose of destroying something (Eldred, 2017). Ultimately, this incident sparked a lot of important discussion in the art world, and those involved publicly acknowledged their lack of proper planning and inadequate engagement with community members. People at all levels of power had unconsciously conspired to perpetuate centuries of harm done to the Dakota people (and Indigenous people across the country). Hyperallergic quotes Dakota filmmaker Sheldon Wolfchild,
“Generational trauma comes directly back into yourself and what our young people face. We have the highest suicide rate for our young people. What are our young children going to say when they see that scaffold? They have no other place to go but to think about killing themselves” (Regan, 2017).
Durrant reflects on what he learned in a self-published essay written three years after the piece was removed. He reaffirms his commitment to making art that forefronts social justice issues and interrogates his own privilege as a white man who chooses to work inside the contact zone. He doesn’t want his experience to dissuade other White artists from tackling issues of race and injustice. He concludes,
The effects of colonialism are not in the past, they play out 24/7, year in and year out, perpetually deforming relations between indigenous and non-indigenous. If the events in Minneapolis have increased the danger for those who work with non-natives, have made it even harder for inter-ethnic collaborations, this is truly a counterproductive result. I believe our species’ survival depends on the ability of non-natives to learn from indigenous knowledge producers in the effort to live together equitably and ecologically.
Privileged people need to stay active and participate in the work of social justice, even when it’s hard. Those in relative positions of power should use their privilege to infiltrate and break down the systems of oppression that divide people of different backgrounds and cultures. Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2009) proposes a strategy for subverting the ideological state apparatuses that invisibly keep us in our “place.” In her 2009 TED Talk, she calls on social justice allies to make a simple shift in how we tell our stories and how we hear stories of the Other. She proclaims, “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and humanize. Stores can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.” As creators, and as humans in the world, we need to take Adichie’s and Lisles’ advice to tell more stories, include more of other people’s stories, and celebrate the complexity and nuance of everyone’s lives. When we do this, we will nullify oppressive, hierarchical, destructive ideologies that thrive on a singular point of view.
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Eldred, S.M. (2017) Dakota Plan to Bury, Not Burn, ‘Scaffold’ Sculpture. The New York Times. Accessed from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/01/arts/design/dakota-plan-to-bury-not-burn-scaffold-sculpture.html
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Sentilles, S. (2020). What Does It Mean to Look at Photos of Imagined Violence? Literary Hub. Accessed from https://lithub.com/what-does-it-mean-to-look-at-photos-of-imagined-violence/
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St. Felix, D. (2018). How Alexandra Bell is Disrupting Racism in Journalism. The New Yorker. Accessed from https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/how-alexandra-bell-is-disrupting-racism-in-journalism
Thomkins, C. (2010). Profiles: Lines of Resistance: William Kentridge’s Rough Magic. The New Yorker, 85(45), 51-59.
Villarosa, L. (2019). Myths About Physical Racial Differences Were Used to Justify Slavery — and Are Still Believed By Doctors Today, in The 1619 Project. New York Times Magazine. Accessed from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/racial-differences-doctors.html