Orientalism, Culture and Appropriation: Part 3

May 17, 2009

Re-Constituting the Orient: Punks, Muslims and harem pants

Farah

The Orient exists, and is created, to be used and consumed through cultural artefacts of mass culture. I’m sure everyone’s noticed the alarming trend of the keffiyeh as a fashion accessory. Now the same thing is happening with harem pants. Its everywhere.

These women think they are fashionable.

These women think they are fashionable.

Like I said in a previous post I’m all for trends but this is out of hand. Kader Konuk identifies the replication of an ethnic identity through the imitation of clothes, appearance, language or other components of culture as “ethnomasquerade”. It is through ethnomasquerade that mass culture simultaneously exercises and hides its hegemony over the colonised Other.

The idea of ethnomasquerade is closely related to Bhabha’s concept of mimicry. Bhabha identifies a certain phenomenon of identity construction in the colonial context. Mimicry is an imitation that is “almost, but not quite” the same as the original. Colonial mimicry is the desire for a reconstituted, recognizable Other. Harem pants are a perfect example. The modern ‘harem pant’ as marketed to the modern consumer doesn’t actually exist anywhere. It is constructed solely by mass culture to appropriate groups and cultures who threaten its hegemony. Fashion magazines market ‘exotic’ harem pants made by Western fashion brands, and modelled by white women. There is enough ‘exotic’ in the magazine to hint at the Orient, but the context and construction of the representation place it firmly within the colonizers subjectifying construction. The West therefore creates its own version of the “truth” about the Other. Further, the term harem pant is the colonizers creation to label its “interpretations” of the Orient. It is almost, but not quite the same as the original. The Other and representations of it are therefore incorporated into mass culture. The Other is, if not controlled, then at least contained within mass culture’s totalizing sphere of influence.

So consumer capitalism has adapted the most challenging propositions of the Other’s culture and reconstituted it as an empty, fashion shell. But since Dick Hebdidge in Subculture, the Meaning of Style in 1979 it was clear that contemporary audiences use and can subvert mass culture for their ends. Representations can be excorporated into the marginal. The oppressed have always resisted, have ‘poached’ on the domains of the powerful and reworked the dominant culture for their own ends. Popular culture (rather than mass) is always a culture of conflict, it always involves the struggle to make social meanings that are in the interests of the subordinate and that are not those preferred by the dominant ideology. Popular culture is the culture of the subordinate who resent their subordination.

This approach allows us to look for evidence of counter hegemonic or subaltern voices that may contest and to varying extents transform the power relations of hegemonic discourse. A notion of the Ottoman subject as an agent capable of negotiating different subject positions is seen in the example of painter Osman Bedi’s art. He spent 12 years in France studying art under Jean-Léon Gérôme, but then later moved back to Turkey. On his return he chose not to reproduce nude women in imaginative harems or Arab men about to ravage women, but rather depicted academics, views of the home, and in certain scenes a country coming to grips with Western influence, you know, actual things and people which actually existed. His work was, in effect, a way of “speaking back” to Western artists intent on portraying the Orient in their own image. In “Theologian” Osman Hamdi, "Theologian" c.1900 there are no naked women, no tribal conflicts, and no sheesha pipes or black slaves. It is merely a scene of a man in quiet study, reading the Qur’an. The man neither engages the audience and nor would he want to. The stillness of the scene suggests it is the audience who is intruding on his time. While the painting is done in the Oriental style Bedi re-casts the Orient man into a realistic setting. Osman Hamdi, "Young Girl Reading the Qur'an" c. 1900 Similarly in “Young Girl Reading the Qur’an” Bedi shows us a girl (like the man in the Theologian) sitting (fully clothed strangely enough) reading the Qur’an. In such a simple scene Bedi gives the girl back her thinking and intellectual life which has been erased by the Orientalist painters.

So cultural production and appropriation of artefacts exists more on a continuum rather than being a zero sum game. Later arguments by Fiske and Strinati again show that there are multiple sites of resistance to mass culture which excorporate mass cultural artefacts and imbue them with a different meaning. In the 1970s punk was one of the new and emerging subcultures. Of punk Hebdidge said “no subculture has sought with more grim determination than the punks to detach itself from the taken for granted landscape of normalised forms, nor to bring down upon itself such vehement disapproval.” However since writing in 1979 punk these days has largely been incorporated into mass culture and its aesthetic is more fashion then a subculture. Anyone with black skinny leg jeans (rips optional), heavy black eyeliner and faux-hawk hair can now look ‘punk’. But to a certain extent the punk aesthetic has been excorporated by a number of people, including The Taqwacores, an emerging group of young Muslims who have built a subculture on the re-appropriation of the puck aesthetic. They have re-discovered the elements which made it popular in the 1970s and 80s; and have excorporated a style thus further challenging hegemonic constructs of power and representation of Muslim youth in society.

So what now for harem pants? Mass culture will soon move on, and incorporate something else which challenges its hegemonic control over representations of the Other. Now, I’m not suggesting that we don’t have to do anything about it, or that the appropriation of the Orient isn’t a serious (but slightly inevitable) occurrence. The key is that challenge actually needs to be mounted by us for mass culture to change. There are always objections and contradictions which obstruct the closing of the circuit between sign and meaning. Subcultures provide that hindrance. They challenge and displace hegemony. Osman Bedi consciously decided to challenge dominant constructions of the Orient through his art. Actual people excorporate the punk aesthetic. While the Orient is still a major sight of cultural appropriation it becomes important for us to challenge the use and abuse of such imagery. In the words of Hebdidge, “humble objects can be magically appropriated; stolen by subordinate groups and made to carry secret meanings: meanings which express, in code, a form of resistance to the order which guarantees their continued subordination.”

EDIT: Racialicious has a new series on cultural appropriation available here. There is also a specific post on fashion.

8 Responses to “Orientalism, Culture and Appropriation: Part 3”


  1. Quite interesting.

    Would you mind cross posting these to Racialicious?

  2. Farah Says:

    Latoya, you can post them on Racialicious just link back to Nuseiba (and keep the links and photos in the post as well).
    Thanks
    Farah


  3. [...] Orientalism, Culture and Appropriation: Part 3 « Nuseiba So consumer capitalism has adapted the most challenging propositions of the Other’s culture and reconstituted it as an empty, fashion shell. But since Dick Hebdidge in Subculture, the Meaning of Style in 1979 it was clear that contemporary audiences use and can subvert mass culture for their ends. Representations can be excorporated into the marginal. The oppressed have always resisted, have ‘poached’ on the domains of the powerful and reworked the dominant culture for their own ends. Popular culture (rather than mass) is always a culture of conflict, it always involves the struggle to make social meanings that are in the interests of the subordinate and that are not those preferred by the dominant ideology. Popular culture is the culture of the subordinate who resent their subordination. [...]


  4. [...] a long and detailed entry called Orientalism, Culture, and Appropriation, Part 3, Farah at Nuseiba calls the Western fascination with the harem pant a form of ethnomasquerade, [...]


  5. [...] Orientalism, Culture and Appropriation: Part 3 « Nuseiba Kader Konuk identifies the replication of an ethnic identity through the imitation of clothes, appearance, language or other components of culture as “ethnomasquerade”. It is through ethnomasquerade that mass culture simultaneously exercises and hides its hegemony over the colonised Other. (tags: clothes appropriation middleeast race colonialism) [...]


  6. [...] and photography, he is making a strong statement about identity. By partaking in a witty form of ethnomasquerade, he dresses up in Victorian British clothing and plays with ideas of identity, assimilation, and [...]


  7. [...] a long and detailed entry called Orientalism, Culture, and Appropriation, Part 3, Farah at Nuseiba calls the Western fascination with the harem pant a form of ethnomasquerade, [...]


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