Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Popularizing 'Culture': Discussion Summary

Below are some notes and queries from CSEC's discussion, "Popularizing 'Culture': The Marketing of Indigeneity and Cultural Expression."

Cynthia Enloe
1) In “Carmen Miranda On My Mind: International Politics of the Banana,” Cynthia Enloe (1990) exposes the international political system’s reliance on artificial notions of masculinity (e.g. the “manliness” of guns and money), as well as those of femininity (e.g., the feminized worker, the sex object, the consumer, and the supportive wife). How do you think these factor into cultural imaginaries, especially those contrived by popular marketing schemes?

2) Elsewhere in her book (see Ch. 2, “On the Beach: Sexism and Tourism”), Enloe stresses the implications of tourism, and seemingly innocent activities, such as postcard-selecting. The tourist usually strives to find picturesque scenes of Third World people (often women) in the midst of weaving, making pottery, or cooking, instead of the no less real images of factory workers, sex workers and chambermaids at work. What does this suggest about the First World tourist, and about international gendered power relations?

3) The image of Carmen Miranda and United Fruit's portrait of the feminized, Latinized banana has been a useful insignia of popular culture for the Hollywood film industry of the 1930s and 40s, for the exotic fruit-import industry, and for the North American impression of Latin American women. But how exactly did the United Fruit marketing strategy of “Chiquita Banana” borrow from and build upon Hollywood’s marketing strategy of the feisty Latin woman that was embodied in Carmen Miranda? In other words, how was the expressive domain of Latin cultures (e.g., song, dance, visual culture, etc.) exploited in the caricaturing of Carmen Miranda first in Hollywood films, and then in the banana industry? And how did this exoticized image come to fit so comfortably in American popular culture? Did it operate alongside a precedent of sexualization and racialization in American culture?

Rachel Moore
1) Rachel Moore (1992) speaks of the “cooption of indigenous media” in her critique of Ethnographic Film and the Kayapó film project, and the debate between “authenticity” and the “representational characteristics” of film-making (18). She also notes that ideally, an ethnography explores not the “other” culture through the eyes of the dominant observer, but rather explores the relationship between the interacting cultures. Thus, how much of “us” (i.e. the First World) is revealed through the marketing of Third World cultures in commercial products? Note the emphases on “tribes”, “indigenous culture”, and “tradition” that frequently appear in exoticized commercial goods (see Creative Women, Inc.), and most recently in the "fair trade" movement.

2) Does popularizing a “culture” - through marketing, commercialization, media saturation, etc. – effectively galvanize it to navigate in a globalized and exploitative capitalist society?

3) The political successes of the Kayapó were attributed to Indigenous Video, and were the ultimate result of a longstanding relationship between the First World (anthropologists) and indigenous society (Kayapó). This leads us to Bamberger’s “voice” option for the Kayapó, especially with regard to the Brazilian state and the international media. But Moore disagrees with Bamberger and points out that “the emergence of voice is thus part of the project of containment” (20). A western-defined “voice” reduces opportunities for the Kayapó and fits only into the dominant logic of state power and western academic theory. “Voice itself here is thus a construction, predicated on that which it is believed will be listened to, or in some cases quite bluntly, who the Brazilians say they want to talk to” (20).

4) Interestingly, effective political rhetoric of indigenous societies – that which constitutes “voice” – must resemble and reflect modern capitalism. The “authentic” voice also has an economic value, which, although it may support Kayapó interests, also affirms First World authority and informs the nature of Kayapó “voice.”

5) What I found most interesting about Moore’s essay was her mention of the creation of a cultural self-consciousness for indigenous groups that did not previously exist (21-22). She points out that in a globalized, capitalist society, where a premium is placed on indigeneity, and where it literally is given capital value, “culture” is the very grounds for “survival”, and not just the means. Furthermore, “culture” must be reified in visual form, such as in postcards, sales brochures, tourist pamphlets, government websites, etc. The “culture” thus owes its survival to media exposure and First World capitalist marketing techniques. Yet, “a crude hierarchy emerges separating visible people and practices from those that defy visual representation” (23). Focusing on the “other,” just at the point when our own methods appear to be exhausted, not only defers their critique (and thus assures their recycling), but far more importantly, preempts the creativity…required to change them” (24).

6) With the backdrop of commercial marketing and international media in mind, how then does a “culture” become a “culture”? What does it develop towards, especially with the idea of economic capital in mind?

In response to the question of tourism and the "traditional" image of the Third World, one discussant wrote:

Such traditional portaits superimpose a fantasy of authenticity on the realities of exploitation. Enloe discusses the term "the farmer and his wife" and how this disguises the real work of women. Similarly, the indigenous image simultaneously encourages a sense of complacency in the viewer and puts forth a hierarchical divide, placing the First World viewer in a position of power and making the subjugation of others seem natural.

Portia's third question raises some interesting ideas about how expressive culture evolves. It seems like the Latin culture that Americans embraced had nothing to do with the real intricacies of culture and more to do with the invention of an exotic image that would serve as a lucrative marketing ploy. There is an excellent aricle by Kaori O'Connor (2008) called "The Hawaiian Luau: Food as Tradition, Transgression, Transformation and Travel" in
Food, Culture, & Society. She explores how American travel companies invented an image of Hawaii to attract tourists. Sadly, that image effectively came to replace indigenous Hawaiian culture.

Enloe's review of the banana industry reminds me of how similarly structured these private, usually foreign owned agribusiness companies, located in "developing" countries, are to colonial governments. In both cases, the strategy is to group workers according to skill (or as Enloe points out, amenability) and thereby segregating wokers by race, gender, and class. This often exploits fissiparous relationships already evident in a society. Control and authority are thus maintained by dividing a country's people.

The current trend in marketing indigeneity may be seen as another form of colonization as well. The coffee, tea, and other companies that tout fair trade practices are not as regulated as a truly fair system would demand. Consequently, while an image of the people producing a product is circulated, it is without consideration for the realities of those people, or those who are not pictured. The idea of the efficacious image also relates to Rachel Moore's discussion of the constructed visual image of culture. The visual role in commodification defines people without a factual basis. The viewer is left to assume the identity of the pictured individual or construct an identity from small details chosen by the company's marketing department. The idea of culture is thus proffered through the image of indigeneity.

This raises some questions about progressive workers' movements in large-scale industrial settings. How can we think through corporate involvement in workers' emancipation? Is it realistic if it is in the corporation's best interests? Or are enforced government regulations likely to have more of an effect?

CSEC also noted that both Equator Coffee and Creative Women make a point of identifying themselves as "woman-owned" companies. What is the effect of this conflation of "causes"? (i.e. the assumption that American women's rights struggles fit comfortably alongside the struggles of Third World or indigenous peoples, especially indigenous women.) What is wrong with this assumption? This notion, by the way, is addressed thoroughly by Cynthia Enloe in her first chapter of Bananas, Beaches, and Bases, titled "Gender Makes the World Go Round."

In the course of our discussion, we were especially interested in how the construction of a visual representation of culture - through marketing the indigenous in commercial products, or through making visual the expressive elements of an indigenous culture (as in the Kayapó film project, or in Carmen Miranda's film career) is a crucial element in the construction of First World power. For the First World consumer, this both 1) affirms your position of power in relation to the "indigenous" craftsperson or performer, and puts you in the privileged position of being able to "help" the craftsperson and her/his local economy and society through your much-needed foreign money, and 2) assuages post-industrial consumer guilt. Since the mass-produced good now has a matching face - a comfortable, non-threatening, and powerless face - it feels more acceptable than the more realistic probability of a craft that is anonymously produced for an alienated Western market.

Ultimately, the comfort we derive from buying a product with which we can attach a familiar face or story (such as Chido with Equator Coffee) is no different than the comfort that 1940s housewives probably felt from seeing the familiar image of Carmen Miranda on a banana sticker. Many of the issues that we are bringing up are ones that could also fit into a discussion of Orientalism in the 21st century. What is most disappointing about the fervor to help indigenous cultures, though, is the anti-academic turn that has developed. More consideration for post-colonial trends and disjunctures - in an atmosphere that integrates popular movements and academic knowledge - is necessary in order to analyze social movements and establish equitable relationships.

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