An important process of the Liberal Art’s program is the final Grad Project.
Students work with self-selected faculty Advisors, leading up to this important piece, on three Tutorials. This is where they explore different research methods, emerging current topics or questions of interest, to advance into their Grad proposals.
Like mini, single-credit, research projects. Here is a look at my first with one of Capilano’s Sociologist professors, Rita Isola ⇓
The Many Faces of Identity
My tutorial proposal was realized one afternoon when I stopped in a Dollarama to pick up a light bulb. From what I can recall, light bulbs were bought from hardware stores in the recent past- but now I’ve learned that Dollarama sells it for cheaper. Plus, I could pick up other “useful” items at the same time. The idea approached me, head on, when I was too distracted by my podcast to notice a middle-aged woman about to run into me with her shopping cart. I thought to myself “when the hell did Dollarama get shopping carts…” this comes full circle, I swear. This question stayed with me the rest of the evening, and I started to contemplate whether I had been walking around with my eyes closed, and if so, for how long. When did I start shopping at Dollarama? What happened to that run-down one in the mall where you could find unfamiliar Korean candy at the till? I realized that Dollarama had eaten up all the family-run Dollar stores in my area; it was no longer the way to run an inexpensive import business of pencils and year-old candies. This concept of paying a dollar for an item has became an expectation; it resulted in a consumer practice. Why pay $10 for a notebook, when I know someone can sell it to me for a dollar? Dollar stores have exploded across the Western world. Companies just have to overproduce something (that isn’t selling well) to get it in and it can be sold for half its traditional value, but now customers have been normalized to this price, resulting in its inherent value decreased. Dollarama is no longer the dollar store, its consumer paradise. That woman you ran into me, she had a cart full of cookies, cleaning supplies, electronics and clothing. This expansion of singularity, the hegemony of American consumerism, is what cleared the way for Dollarama’s shopping carts, and it is a perfect contemporary illustration of the cultural reaping The West engendered on The East.
Euro-western empires to acquire more territory and political power used the practice of colonization. Euro-imperialism spread Western ideals and practices across the globe, producing a dominant narrative that was used as an effective abstract from the personified ‘East’. Western travelers, who have been accustomed to certain values, morals and practice, conceived the illustrations and explanations regarding the customs of the non-Western communities. These deep-rooted attitudes were used as the objective “normal”, thus, producing ‘The Other’.
This ‘othering’ produced a powerful capacity for exploitive agency by the dominant and reinforced unequal power structures. This tale of ‘East vs. West’ has bled into countless generations. Throughout history, authors from around the world have produced a myriad of anthropological studies and sociological literature exploring the cultural divide. Edward Said remains one of the most influential Western writers in this study with his book Orientalism, published in 1978. Said explains that the West has misrepresented the extensively particular cultures of Eastern societies by attempting to explain their differences by identifying themselves in the ‘alien environment’. This is a failure to affectively understand the uniqueness of these cultures. Edward describes Western scholar’s justification of dominance over the East by regarding The Other’s normative deviance. As a result, cultures are misinterpreted, homelands are lost, hegemony is celebrated and the sub-altern never speaks.
This structure of ‘Us vs. Them’ and ‘Normal vs. Unusual’ establishes a critical point of view, a Western gaze. It is with this gaze that theories “concerning the Orient, its people, customs, ‘mind’, destiny etc” arrive. Attitudes and stereotypes of others are conceived by filtering information through the understanding of one’s own cultural criteria. One of my favorite writers/philosophers describes her maxim “existence precedes essence”, the existential theory that considers the self is constructed by the interaction with one’s environment. The “essence” of the East’s identity, aspects interpreted by the West, are/were falsely envisioned as inherent or absolute.
Teresa Heffernan points out in her work “The Veiled Figure”, that British women, in the imperial era, criticized the conformity of veiling women in The East because it was a symbol of oppression, and a restriction of their freedom. But this sense of ‘public selves’ and ‘private selves’ were conceived within Western biases. They assumed that the same systems of public discourse modeled that of these other women’s lives. I was thrilled to read in the National Post that the sportswear giant, Nike, will be releasing a women’s athletic hijab in the spring of 2017. Although this is a considerate a step towards Muslim female visibility in the sports field, I am skeptical of its motive. Are muslin women only perceived as a new market, that of consumer value, to sell the popular American brand? In my Queer Intersection course this semester we listened to Under The Influence, a CBC podcast segment on “L.G.B.T. Advertising, Chasing the Pink Dollar.” Here O’Reilly comments on the queer community’s benchmark moments in television, and advertising. Acceptance or visibility within American culture seems to be the edifying threshold in the case of ’emancipating’ minority identities.
The discourse of West vs. East has changed its form, in recent generations, with globalization and cosmopolitanism. One of my colleagues is from China, she lived there her whole life (32 years) until just recently when she decided to pursue a new life by moving to Vancouver. She works as a dishwasher, while I may add, she is a certified counselor and translator in China. I asked her what she misses the most about home, and she mulled over her memories, searching for something she can’t receive in Vancouver. She told me she misses donuts. There was a popular donut shop in the city she lived in and it was her favorite place to go after work, they were primarily pink and engulfed with sprinkles- like a perfect Simpsons reproduction. I was conflicted by her longing for Americanese, when I recalled my move to France in high school and how much I would have given for a single California roll- a ‘heritage’ Vancouver staple. These are just a couple cases, in their own context, but what if Western culture is doing more than just urbanizing America but producing a globalized America. When is the cultural appropriation argument appropriate? May we scrutinize a Mexican San Jose student for enjoying their holy Frisco burrito or the Italian kids in Brooklyn looking forward to their deep dish “pizza”. Where does protection of tradition or culture end and innovation start? Is “innovation” than just the consequence of London’s factories, Eddison’s bulb, Ford’s automobile, or our Valley of Silicon code? In the case of veiling, certainly, I believe someone should have to show their face for a passport photo or a driver’s license, but it is important to realize that the nature of these notions of memberships to a state and passes to identify and allow mobility are a product of British systems. Without the expansion of this singular system, these critiques and assumptions would have no foundation.
The World-Systems theory attempts to interpret a system in which one can analyze a cultural’s capital on a global stage, based on their division of labor. This perspective reinforces Western practices of a capitalist economy and imperial culture since the theory itself fosters the strengths of the “core” countries, like the United Stated and the United Kingdom. If there is going to be a scale in which we scale and monitor the entire world, ought it not be flexible or adaptive to the enormous diversity of people around the globe.
In my Citizenship and Belonging course this semester, the complexities of multicultural citizenship and relational feminist citizenship have been discussed and argued at length. In both theories, critiques of citizenhood and identity by contemporary definition have been challenged. Relational feminism, argues the conception of citizenship as a construction of unequal power relations by principle. Since citizenship has become a universally recognized contract, one that holds an individual’s right to participate in public affairs and receive protection, it is extremely important for this document to include every individual. Iris Young wrote that citizenship assumes an abstract autonomous agent that is self-determined in nature, one that has the capacity to choose their relationships and obligations. This ideology reduces an individual’s value to their capacity to function outside of their real environment, in isolation from one another, the Faustian Man. To remove one’s self from their inherent relationships and partnerships is ridiculous since they are universally essential for mankind to operate and progress. How could pregnant women expect to act in complete self-interest when she is physically responsible for another? Why is this individualist perspective of self so inherently tied to the grades of reason and rationality? Western culture has declared itself the global culture, the path to higher self, which has reduced diverse perspectives and imposing a universal American Man filter.
Reduction of information for the purpose of “ease”, whether that be a system of economics or an interpretation of culture, will risk essentializing. It is unfortunate to witness cases of oppression that are later justified because they were ‘lost in translation’. Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis accounts for her experiences as a woman growing up in Iran. She focused on the struggles she faced in her youth to solidify her sense of identity in a culture that felt suppressive. I found her piece emotionally charged, dealing with a number of sensitive personal issues, but most interesting, was her obsession with American culture in her childhood. She idolized the punk artists and Western thinkers for their radical ideologies and absurd practices, while forced to keep her infatuation hidden from the public eye. The teenage stereotype of rebelling is so integral to my Occident upbringing that it was difficult for me to comprehend the real risks she experienced trying to express herself, in a place where there were/are real legal barriers and consequences. Her consumption of western culture was accessible only in fragments, a reduction. While Marjane romanticized metal music and blue jeans, western teens fetishized desert garb for festival fashion status. Neither side could embed themselves in their desired counter-culture but instead, contextualizes those things to their own environments. Marjane’s dichotomy is later challenged when she moves to The West. She smoked cigarettes and freely danced the night away like the other Western girls, but she also experienced alienation, depression, and moral partition. Her story expresses a product of Orientalism, in an era of globalization. People living in The East can internalize and interpret their home culture through the filter of The West, like Marjane, because of massive American exposure. The grass always seems to be greener on the other side, but maybe the real question is, what kind of grass are we looking at?