December 2011 Archives

Racial Formation in the Media Post 9/11

On Friday, December 9th Professor Jigna Desai presented her work-in-progress entitled "Cinema of Exception, Cinema of Insecurity: Race and Terror in Post 9/11 Media." Positioning her work in the context of former President George W. Bush's post 9/11 remarks, which propelled the nation into a "state of exception" she illustrated how the U.S. was able to justify its persecution of "bad" brown bodies (muslim terrorists). Bush's campaign relied on the idea that the surveillance and violence against these "bad" brown bodies must be done to preserve the national security of the U.S. and the international community at large. The former President successfully gathered national and international support for his campaign against terror by laying out a framework for determining what made a "good" and "bad" brown muslim body through his executive actions. More specifically, this exercise of hegemonic power and global violence would be explored in popular films. By examining two Harold and Kumar films Desai argued that these parodies do more than provide a venue to purge the U.S. of the fear of a terrorist attack.

The point I remember the most during her analysis of the films was the role that citizenship played in the stories developing narrative. For instance, in one of the films the ability of the two main characters to access goods or to participate in consumer culture became a major signifier of American citizenship. The fantasy of the American dream and the constant pursuit of inclusion became the basis of almost all the interactions that took place throughout the film.

A question that arose for me relates to the ways that representations of the American dream have shifted alongside the state of exceptions persecution of "bad" brown bodies. More specifically, how do these films disrupt the ideological particularities of the American dream? Why is that important to a parody film that aims to use humor to challenge and disrupt the idea of the "good" and "bad" brown body?

I am have always been particularly interested in the ways that the American dream continues to define, confine and legitimize certain ways of being in the world. I believe a closer examination of its role in tandem with your works established goals could open up your exploration of the role that citizenship plays in contemporary racial formation.

Good Luck!

Jigna Desai's great talk "Cinema of Exception, Cinema of Insecurity: South Asian Diasporic Radical Formations in Post 9/11 Media" ended this semester's GWSS colloquium on a high note. In her talk, Jigna analyzed the two popular Harold and Kumar cinematic depictions of the Post 9/11 U.S. "state of exception" where anxieties around race, (in)security, nation, and death are negotiated. Jigna's work shows how these films in particular exemplify the (white) neoliberal/multiculturalist struggle with the racialized Other that is managed through the recognition of the "good Muslim" and the simultaneous dehumanizing of the "bad Muslim" allowing for validation of violence, death, and unfreedom for some (raced bodies) in the name of security for others (white Americans). Furthermore, the Harold and Kumar films provide a narrative toward citizenship via assimilation for the racialized Other through 1. Consumerism 2. Heternomativity 3. Reproduction & Capital. While providing an incredibly convincing argument regarding the films as popularly (parody) of these socio(cultural)politic negoations, Jigna argues that the films also provide space for subversive ruptures that should not be noted.

As someone considering media analysis as a potential aspect of my dissertation project, Jigna's work provided a great example of what feminist media scholarship can look like and its place in our department. During the question and answer portion of the colloquium I asked Jigna about larger audience reception to the Harold and Kumar films. Though in no way diminishing the intellect of the typical Harold and Kumar viewer/consumer, I wondered how Jigna's readings of the films compare to popular readings. Audience research is quite the contentious topic in critical media studies because of how impossible it is to ever quality how any given media is understood. Any given "text" can have any number of meanings to any number of audiences. The entire "death of the author" bit via Barthes right. However, I do find it an important question to consider. Jigna's work brilliantly outlined many of the larger current cultural negotiations being played out in the films themselves. I wonder how audiences of the films connect these parodies to such negotations, and what impact the films have on audience conceptions of the very poignant issues Jigna's talk raised: (in)security, global injury, recognizability, the racialized Other, "expendable" populations, citizenship, etc. I realize there is no answer or even easy way to find such an answer. Jigna's responded to my question noting that the films are and must be legible in various ways (genre for example) but are able to do so while still providing opportunity for subversive understandings of race, citizenships, and Post-9/11 anxieties. I agree with the necessity of legibility for popularity, but wonder more about these moments of subversion. Kumar marrying a bag of marijuana is surely saying something, but I am interested in more detail regarding other moments of subversion and if/how popular audiences seem them as such.

Overall, Jigna's talk and reading of the films was convincing, intriguing, brilliantly articulated, and quite fun. I will certainly be watching the Harold and Kumar films in the near future. ☺

Response to Desai

Professor Jigna Desai spoke at the final colloquium of the semester about post-9/11 media and film, particularly focusing on the Harold and Kumar series. Spurred by the murder of Balbir Singh, Desai addressed the media's role in producing biopolitical racial formations, delineating (and teaching how to distinguish) between the 'good' immigrant/person of color, and the 'bad'.

In the first of the series, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Desai argued that the film made a critique of white heteromasculinity, making it 'disgusting', while also attempting to show both Harold and Kumar as 'good' racial citizens, creating a queer American Dream that critiques American consumption-as-identity. In the second film, in which they escape from Guantanamo Bay, Kumar becomes the central character, and the two again must prove their 'goodness' as racial citizens.

While Desai argued that satirizing and parodying terrorism lead to a catharsis for the viewer - finally, we can laugh again, therefore we are secure - m y question is about such laughter and what it might do for the viewer. For me it seems that laughter can mean a great many things for an audience, and indeed not everyone will laugh at the same things and for the same reasons. But in this case laughter about prison rape, for example, is to me a de-ethicizing move. Does laughter de-ethicize or absolve the viewer of responsibility? What does it mean when a viewer laughs at a situation that cannot but call to mind the many abuses occurring in Guantanamo, not least the horrifying abuses of Abu Ghraib? I would have liked to hear more discussion about the work that laughter and satire of such terrible conditions does, and what laughter and satire do in relation to ethics.

On Monday, visiting scholar Gundula Ludwig gave a talk entitled, "Thinking Sex as a State Concern: How Turning to State Theory can Stimulate New Directions in Queer Theory and Vice Versa." I am not certain if this colloquium was a part of the GWSS colloquium or another colloquium series, but since Gundula is a visiting member of the GWSS department I thought I would post my response to her talk regardless of its sponsorship.

What I found most exciting about Gundula's work was that it aims to bridge a conversation between fields of thought that typically do not engage with one another. I am intrigued by the ways in which theory and scholarship travel and the ways in which they do not. Specifically how some "fields" regularly engage with work from other "fields" and some do not. Different scholarship is weighted differently in terms of intellectual exchange or currency. Gundula's project stages a conversation between political theory and queer scholarship, showing both what can be gained (and also what limitations still persist) by such engagement. While interdisciplinary scholarship often speak with other interdisciplinary scholarship, it seems as though conversations between interdisciplinary scholars and more traditional scholars are less frequent. Or rather, where interdisciplinary work might include strictly disciplinary scholarship, the engagement does not always happen the other direction. Gundula's talk was inspiring in that she poses that queer theory and political theory can both gain intellectual traction by engaging with the other. More conversations and projects like this need to take place.

My other lasting thought after Gundula's paper was in regard to Naomi Scheman's question during the question and answer portion of the talk. Naomi asked Gundula to comment on two different political responses to the state's investment in identities of gender/sex/desire. Pointing to gay men who claim to be "born this way" and trans-identified individuals who push for a fluid unrestrictive acknowledgement of their gender, Naomi wondered how Gundula accounted for such different responses state power. Although I won't provide an answer for the question, as I am far less versed in political theory than Gundula, I do think the general question speaks to GLBT negotiations with hegemony. This is perhaps obvious. However, I have been thinking about hegemony throughout the semester in Gundula's class and I think understanding these activist responses as two different approaches to hegemonic power helps to contextualize them. Some individuals (gay, white men as Naomi pointed out) benefit in many ways from the hegemonic power structures that are in place, and are perhaps thus more willing to negotiate with hegemony for inclusion. Others, (such as some queer/trans individuals - particularly those who are economically disadvantaged and queers of color) "have nothing [or little] left to loose" and so they are less invested in "sitting at the table" that has never, and will likely never value their presence anyway. Either way, it is significant to note that via Gramsci - and Gundula's talk - hegemony will inevitably find a way incorporate both responses into its larger power structure. Moves and changes within this structure happen incrementally as large changes are foreclosed by such refolding and in ways that also often simultaneously marginalize other bodies as they occur. Thinking about responses by marginalized groups/individuals as varied negotiations with hegemony, in direct correlation to their distance from the benefits of such power structures, allows us to deconstruct such responses in a way that avoids the "transgressive" or " assimilationist" binary that is in fact, not real, and never quite as simplistic as some would like to think.

I thoroughly enjoyed Gundula's talk and extremely grateful for the opportunity to work with her this semester!


  • GWSS Course Blogs: 2009-2010

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