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The Lost Airbender | Notes from New Sodom

July 3
last airbender

Racebending and Lifestyle Theft

“If you go exploring in another culture only as a way of improving yourself and your work, that’s blatantly appropriative. Rose Fox, “A Whiff of Colonialism,” Publishers Weekly

Another day, another shitstorm in the SF Café. A couple of months back, some of you might recall, it was one Young Turk turned Old Guard with an ill-fated article on international SF, a Caesar of dubious pontification that met a Senate of aggravated responses. Others said all that has to be said about the article at the time, and it’s sorta blown over now, so I’m not going to add my dagger; but in a couple of the responses (or responses to responses,) as the entrails slipped to the ground, fingers were pointed and the dread words whispered: cultural appropriation. As in the quote above, the link was made.

Yes. Another day, another shitstorm in the SF Café. Only today it’s a shitstorm about a Hollywood adaptation of a well-loved cartoon series — the film being M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender, the original series being Avatar: The Last Airbender, created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, and aired over Nickelodeon. And the shitstorm? Well, that’s circling around a problem that emerged the moment its cast was announced, with three of the four main characters being utterly whitewashed in the eyes of many fans of the original series. In the world of the show, the three heroes have roots clearly riffing off Buddhist/Shaolin monks (Aaang) and Inuit/Eskimo tribes (Katara and Sokka,) while the antihero/villain Zuko’s culture equally clearly riffs of feudal Japan; and the characters are drawn with appropriate skin tones. In the film, three out of the four are played by lily-white European-American actors. You can guess which one is played by an actor with actual Asian roots, right? Only the antihero/villain has dark skin, funny enough.

Forget airbending, the fans said; this is racebending.

Note that the shitstorm has little to no focus on the fact that the original — a series made by a Western network, by Western creators, which mines Asian cultures for its inspiration — is, by the definition above, “blatantly appropriative.” With DiMartino and Konietzko, and even more so with Nickelodeon, if there’s any grandiose ethical rationale for their exploration of these foreign cultures, it’s not obvious. The crafting of the milieu is intensely skilled and done with integrity, yes, but there’s little evidence of a solemn socio-political agenda at play here; they just, it seems, wanted to craft a really good story, one with a rich setting that was a step beyond the usual fantasyland backdrop. The influence of Hayao Miyazaki is obvious. They have, it seems, gone exploring in the contemporary and historical cultures of Asia simply in the aim of making their cartoon series really fucking good.

(I’m taking that quote out of context, I should add here, in a way that’s unfair to an intelligent article, full of valid and important points. I’m not arguing with Fox or what she has to say there; that sentence simply jumps out as a good springboard for investigation, because if one takes it at face value, as a basic principle, it has some profound ramifications; works like Avatar: The Last Airbender do fall foul of it, and I think it’s worthwhile contrasting this with the issues raised by Shyamalan’s adaptation.)

If this exploration is enough to damn them for cultural appropriation — or to coin a less academic term, which I’ll lay some more foundations for below, lifestyle theft — it seems strange that DiMartino and Konietzko are being held up as worthy of respect, while Shyamalan and Paramount are being pilloried for their racebending. But actually, I don’t think it’s that strange at all. I think the discourse of cultural appropriation, the whole notion of lifestyle theft, is flawed, while the reaction against The Last Airbender‘s whitewashing of characters is spot-on. Largely it’s a matter of perspective, of priorities, so don’t be jumping to the conclusion that I’m sweeping the whole complex question of cultural appropriation aside, either because you want to berate a contention that it doesn’t matter at all, or because you want to shout out an ill-considered agreement with such a contention. Just don’t, OK. That is not my contention.

Rather I want to explore just how representation and figuration can go wrong, ethically speaking, in a number of different ways, with my core contention being that there are very different problems involved, which should not be conflated. Where I need to use academic parlance, I’ll use it. Where I think it simply obscures the reality, I’ll do my best to smash it the fuck out of the way. Ultimately I’m most interested in what I see as the real problem at the heart of the matter — the process of abjection, of making something (or someone,) abject. Wherever concerns about racebending or lifestyle theft are dismissed, it is most often, I’d say, rooted in a blindness to this process; and that’s what I’m really interested in tackling here.

If the term cultural appropriation just gets your hackles up, if you don’t think the term whitewashing really applies to the fabricated worldscape of The Last Airbender, maybe, hopefully, this’ll give you a sense of why some of us really care about shit like this. Because stories have a lot more power than many give them credit for. Every narrative, I’ve said before, is like a water fountain. We thirst for stories because they replenish the soul, invigorate us, make us feel fresh; and by creating a story we provide a supply to any and all who care to come and drink from that fountain. But we can erect signs above those fountains that turn away some for entirely unacceptable reasons. And worse, if we’re not careful, that water may be poisoned with the very hatred that leads to those signs in the first place. And to the very real and physical crimes that go hand-in-hand with them.

So let’s begin.

A Quick Definition

Cultural appropriation. It’s a loaded term. And it’s kinda… Latinate for my liking. That should make it very specific, cause those Latin roots are pretty good for precision, but the artificial gravitas that Latin lends a term can lead to an alienating air of pomp, and that may well undermine it. Many recoil from what they see as simply an academic buzzword, reject it as meaningful. Some, in their use of the term, give these naysayers good reason too, sadly. If you use cultural appropriation when you’re talking about what are really prejudiced representations or figurations of other cultures, you’re not doing the cause any favours, just blurring its meaning in a way doubters will see as vindicating their dismissal.

For the purposes of this column then, given the distinctly negative connotations of the term appropriation, I’m going to bind it to a very specific denotation: to take and use without permission that which belongs to another. This is crucial, I think, because the debate is muddled by every elision or obscuring of this basic common-use meaning. To appropriate is not simply to pick up and use that which one comes across while wandering the streets of New Sodom; if it’s nobody’s, it’s everybody’s. Nor can we really talk of appropriation if that use has been allowed for by the owner; if it’s somebody’s but you’ve got permission from that somebody, well, what’s the dealio? (If you think it’s somebody’s, but it’s really somebody else’s, that’s a different matter; and that still brings it back to taking and using without permission that which belongs to another.)

No, there’s no sense of inequity or iniquity attached to taking and using someone’s property with their blessing, or to taking and using that which isn’t property to begin with. Which is the key point: appropriation, as that prop- root should make clear, is all about ownership. Appropriation is theft.

The cultural part of it is as straightforward to define: lifestyle. We’re not talking about style just in terms of superficial flourishes here, mind; we’re talking style as the approach one takes in doing something — in this case, how one lives. We’re talking the entire system of tools and techniques, concrete or abstract, that one brings to bear in the simple aim of existing, the system of such systems, in fact, which we might well contribute to ourselves in developing our own personal lifestyle, but which we don’t have to build from scratch because we’re born into it. A big part of my individual lifestyle is really the lifestyle of my whole community. My culture.

Filing Off the Serial Numbers

Geography may play a part in a culture, but it’s more about topography than the hard facts of the map — about highland and lowland cultures, island societies or riverside communities, cities and villages. The hard facts of history contribute too, but similarly they are swallowed up and transfigured by time into the more abstract heritage. Many in a culture may not know or care about the hard facts of the battle they’re celebrating with a parade, centuries later. In a story, we might well leave those facts out in a scene portraying that parade, because we’re not trying to represent the history but rather the here-and-now culture born of it. We’re trying to represent that part of a character’s lifestyle that is the lifestyle of their community at large.

Or rather than a representation we might be aiming for a figuration.

An artist exploring New Sodom will come across many such lifestyles in their travels, cultures that are not their own. They might choose to represent them directly, with literal description, but this is not the only way to write the qualities of other cultures into a story. What Avatar: The Last Airbender does is draw on those cultures to create a figuration — a non-literal representation, which does not pretend to give an accurate picture of a particular reality, but nevertheless speaks to that reality in the same terms as metaphors or myths. The creators have clearly striven to build coherent and comprehensive figurations from the cultures they’re drawing on, and to be true to those cultures in doing so — as true as we are with an apt metaphor. That truth is important, for all that the series is a fantasy.

The point is this: the geography and history of that cartoon series is pure fabrication, but in the broad terms of topography and heritage, the fantasyland does function as an analogue of historical Asia. And in terms of the tools and techniques that construct a lifestyle — in terms of clothing and cuisine, combat and communication — Avatar: The Last Airbender is determinedly rooted in Asia. Individual cultures of the worldscape can be traced directly to individual cultures of reality. So even as a figuration it speaks to that reality. It speaks of that reality, fantasy culture mapping to actual culture, just as the vehicle of a metaphor maps to the tenor.

Filing off the serial numbers, the hard facts of history and geography, doesn’t mean you’re not communicating something about the actual culture you’re riffing off. It works exactly as metaphor, as analogy. Fantasy and reality, vehicle and tenor — what you say about one, with respect or disdain, you are saying about the other. One of the most laudable aspects of the cartoon show is that even as it sets one culture up as aggressive and imperialist, it does not demonise it. That matters because it means the show doesn’t demonise the actual feudal Japan that culture is based on.

Some readers deny that such things matter. They will happily shrug off a figuration that demonises one individual culture as rotten to the core. It’s a fantasyland, they might say. Just because the Evil Enemy in the story is a culture of swarthy thieves and swindlers, rapists and murderers, ruled over by a Caliph who is wicked to the core, whose scimitar-wielding minions are constructs of cowardice and brutality, just because the entire lifestyle of this fictive community is portrayed as essentially corrupt at every level, that doesn’t make it an insult to Arabs. They’re not Arabs, at all, a denialist might say; see, they’re called Rahgheds!

Those denialists are talking bollocks. Whether it’s by figuration or representation, the culture such a story is riffing off is still being spat upon with contempt. And given a history of pulp fiction in which Asian culture is all too often painted as a Yellow Peril — with Fu Manchu as the paragon (or nadir) of such demonisation — little wonder that Avatar: The Last Airbender is held in such respect by its fans. The whole worldscape is Asian. The very heroes are Asian. There’s not a shred of demonisation even in the villain.

But the very thing that makes the result of DiMartino’s and Konietzko’s exploration so well-loved points up the difference of problems at play here. Because, wait, isn’t it still “blatantly appropriative”? Clearly, I’d say, we need to understand how a laudable figuration/representation sits in relation to this whole notion of lifestyle theft.

Enculturation, Acculturation, Transculturation, Deculturation

What does it mean to steal a lifestyle? To take up and use, without permission, a lifestyle that belongs to another?

Well, what does it mean to take up and use a lifestyle?

At a base level, what we’re talking about when it comes to taking up and using a lifestyle is enculturation, the learning of lifestyle from one’s own community. Then there’s acculturation, the learning of lifestyle across a border between two communities. This is a little gnarlier, because here we’re talking about a lifestyle that could well be said to belong to another; but note that there’s no sense of absent permission here. Maybe permission is granted. Maybe it’s not required. Let’s say I’m a Scot and you’re a Pole. If I give you a recipe for haggis, and you give me a recipe for bigos, and we go on to cook those on a regular basis, that’s acculturation in action. And those recipes belong to us, right? We’re perfectly entitled to exchange them. It’s not lifestyle theft; it’s just lifestyle sharing.

Except maybe they were family recipes, learned from our mothers, who learned them from their mothers. Does that mean they don’t belong to us as individuals? Even if we’ve put our own twist on them? Do we have to go ask grandma as the Grand Matriarch of Recipes whether it’s OK to pass them on? Is that authority legitimate or, when that recipe is passed down to me, do I have the right to give it to whoever I damn well please? Do I get to give it to my Polish friend regardless of the fact that my grandma objects? Does it matter if she objects because she hates all those “Eastern European immigrants”? Or if she’s simply committed to the Scottishness of this dish, thinks it must remain uniquely Scottish so that being Scottish retains such unique attributes? What if she’s cool with the acculturation, but others aren’t? In the absence of a Great Council of Grand Matriarchs of Recipes invested with decision-making authority, do I have to accept an informal consensus of peers who would deny me the right to decide myself?

These questions are all circling round the core question of cultural appropriation, as I see it: is that notion of lifestyle theft truly legitimate?

To relate it to the case in point, DiMartino and Konietzko turning to Miyazaki for inspiration, learning from him the approaches and styles that make his influence obvious in their work — this can easily be seen as an act of acculturation. It is only one of many, in fact, with Western animation over the last few decades clearly showing a debt to anime. I don’t know any creator, in whatever media, who ever called up another and asked, Do you mind if I’m influenced by you? Is it OK if I take up and use these approaches I’ve gleaned from my appreciation of your work? There is no Great Council of Patriarchs of Anime. If there were even an informal consensus, would that really be authoritative? Can two American animators adopting the approaches of a Japanese animator legitimately be called out for lifestyle theft?

It’s not about the respect they show the cultures they’re figurating, by the way. It’s not about them paying tribute to their influences. If we’re talking about taking and using without permission that which belongs to another, what purpose that something is turned to, good or bad, and whether or not the source of that something is attributed — these are entirely other matters. If a creator pisses on a foreign culture, this matters whether the tools they use to do so are pilfered or not; it’s a different offense. If permission is required to use those tools, a gracious acknowledgement of having nicked them hardly cancels out the transgression of the act.

(Unless maybe, in the ethics of creators, ownership is understood as being on a purely personal level, the community is understood as worldwide, and such non-plagiarising uses across the boundaries of nations and ethnicities are understood as permissible by default… as long as a little nod is given out of good form. In other words, just because you happen to be in the same granfalloon as Creator X doesn’t mean you can deny Creator Y the right to copy Creator X’s approaches just because they’re not. All creators are in an international karass which has its own ethos in such matters.)

No, if respectful use and acknowledgement of debts are solutions, or parts of a solution, to a problem, it’s not one that could be labeled theft. Focusing on them only begs the question of why we’re not focusing on the absence of permission, the ownership issue, the basic criteria that make an act appropriative. It only returns us to the question of whether lifestyle theft is a legitimate charge.

Still, it all gets more gnarly as the acculturation of individuals factors up to the reshaping of communities (and the borders between them) that is transculturation. Because here the large-scale effects of lifestyle sharing play out in the fusion and fission of cultures as a whole. All those individual acts may add up to a profound change. Where before there was your culture and mine, the end-result of mixing it up might be one big ours; or maybe that merged culture will splinter as other acts of lifestyle sharing take place here but not there, there but not here. Such cross-fertilisation and evolution seems inevitable to me, and not essentially a bad thing — I can remember when spaghetti only came in a can, and I’m damn well having proper spaghetti bolognaise for my tea tonight — but I can understand why some are wary of this societal-level lifestyle mutation.

See, it becomes gnarlier still when you look at how power-differentials between communities may mean that this whole process entails the deculturation of one by the other — which is to say cultural annihiliation. Lifestyle destruction. The various native languages of my national culture — Gaelic, Lallans, Doric and Scots English — are spoken less and less. And for me, words like scunner and thrawn carry such meanings that they simply have no equivalents in UK English; they carry a value that will be lost if they die out. And unlike other such tools and techniques that are dying off due to a passive deculturation — simply abandoned by generations that don’t care to keep them going — there’s an extent to which the deculturation here has been active, these native languages discouraged if not outright forbidden in schools, in accordance with policies set in Westminster over the centuries.

And if the Scottish people have been the victim of systematic deculturation as a political strategy on the part of a more powerful culture, that’s nothing in comparison to what’s happened to some. Colonialism isn’t just an academic conceit. Imperialism isn’t just a rallying-call of sophomore poseurs going through a radical phase. Where race enters into it in particular, acculturation has been forced on all too many. People of this ethnicity or that have been driven to it with sticks — literally, if you think of a schoolkid being caned for not speaking the Queen’s English. And where they’ve been drawn toward it by the carrot, when there’s an institutional goal of creating conformity it still comes down to the eradication of a culture, of an ethnic identity.

Lifestyle destruction. Lifestyle elimination. Lifestyle extermination. Part of the reason I’d challenge the notion of lifestyle theft is I think it trivialises an act of erasure better understood as murder than as theft.

Enculturation, acculturation, transculturation, deculturation — if we’re going to adopt poncy academic terms for the learning of lifestyle and what can go wrong with it, I think we do well to use a full toolkit of precisely purposed words rather than swing the monkey wrench of appropriation into use on every nail, screw, rivet and wingnut. Where we talk of appropriation we should, I think, be applying this to the nuts and bolts it’s built to deal with, or else we’re only using this monkey wrench because the Latinate root gives it a nice heft of it in our hand. The precision is the point of such jargon, not the privileged status of Latinate appropriation over Anglo-Saxon theft, not the power one word accrues because of that as a rhetorical bludgeon.

There is good reason then to be concerned with lifestyle sharing. Where does it scale up into lifestyle mutation? Where are the power-differentials between cultures pressuring for lifestyle destruction? But for me Avatar: The Last Airbender points up a weakness in a crude moral dictum against lifestyle theft, one that essentially says DiMartino and Konietzko had no right to pilfer Miyazaki’s approaches, Asia’s heritage. Rather than working as one small step in an ongoing process of erasure, if the outcry against Shyamalan’s racebending is anything to go by, if you look at what is being said by those who care most deeply about it, this example of lifestyle sharing profoundly strengthened the ethnic identity of many Asian-Americans.

That cartoon series was a water-fountain they could drink from, one not poisoned by the bullshit of the Yellow Peril, one with heroes they could identify with. I love that series myself, but as a queer writer thirsting for stories with queer protagonists, knowing how much such stories mean to me, I can imagine exactly how much more it meant to many whose difference lies in ethnicity rather than sexuality, how deeply it replenished other souls, far deeper than it did mine.

Exploring New Sodom

Does that quote at the beginning really hold water in the face of such a work, or is it just too easy, too glib?

It certainly requires some tweaking, I’d say. If I set out to explore the strange culture of this city I call New Sodom, solely on the basis that what I learn will benefit me and my work, is this lifestyle theft in and of itself? Is the act of exploration blatantly appropriative. Well, no. The exploration itself is only travel and observation, and it might well be fruitless. If I walk blindfolded down empty alleyways and return with nothing to show for it, I can hardly be said to have appropriated. If I keep my eyes open and study everything I see, that’s still not appropriation if all I’ve done is cram some sights and sounds into my pointy skull; it’s just learning. A pedantic answer, sure, but with a point: we’re not really talking about the exploration here, nor even about the gleaning of experience, but about the taking and using, the incorporation of my gleanings into my system of tools and techniques, the learning of lifestyle from a community I’m not native to — acculturation.

So, let’s take it further. Let’s say that I arrived in the city of New Sodom at the age of sixteen, a student at the university, living in a small flat in the university district, the Bohemian Quarter. As I had done since childhood, any time I came in to the big city on the airtrain from Nowhere Town, and as I still do today, I hung out at the SF Café in the ghetto of Genre; but now, enthralled by the volcanic glow of halogen streetlights on sandstone, I had a thirst to see more of my new environs. So, at night, I would set out to explore New Sodom, wandering its streets, the neighbourhoods I’d never visited, the neighbourhoods I’d never thought to visit. One night, down by the spacedocks, I got talking with a young street-punk — call him Mouse — who sported a long nail on the pinky finger of one hand, learned from him that this is a common affectation of New Sodomite street-punks. I asked myself a question: if I write a character in a story with that attribute, is this appropriation?

Down in the SF Café, it seems some would answer yes, concerned as they are with the Culture Wars — and not without reason. My answer is an emphatic no. I’m not adopting an element of another culture, not taking it and using it in an act of acculturation. I haven’t grown a long nail on the pinky finger of one hand; I’m simply creating a work of fiction in which a character has that attribute. That’s representation, and while abusive representation is one important weapon in the Culture Wars, it is entirely distinct from abusive acculturation. Forget the pedantry above about exploration. This is where the real crux of the matter lies.

Lifestyle Slander

In writing a character — or painting a portrait, drawing a caricature, whatever — an act of representation may become an act of abjection. Yes, this is, I’m afraid, another poncy academic term — from the work of Julia Kristeva, in this case — but it’s a very useful one, I think, nailing a precise mechanism of abuse. Literally abjection means the state of being cast away; in social/psychological terms though, it specifies a particular process by which we — as individuals or communities — may react with a profound revulsion towards that which was once a part of us, maybe even on a basic level still is. Blood and semen, piss and shit are abjected. Social groups may be abjected on the basis of skin colour, sexuality, physique. In the latter case, it is a self-perpetuating feedback loop: the process by which that revulsion marks out a part of us and renders it abject; the use of revulsion to define the very boundaries on which that revulsion rests.

But an example would be better here, right?

In the media of New Sodom then, it is common for the tabloid fucks of Vox News, say, to use that pinky nail as a signifier of criminality. It is represented as having a nefarious purpose. Originally, some journalist will say, it was for better pickpocketing silk handkerchiefs and suchlike. Now, some novelist will say, it’s for scooping up cocaine to snort. But mostly, some character in a radiovision serial will say, it’s to prove you get by without doing the honest work that would break it. Sooner or later, someone will link it to the culture of the Côte de Cuivre, the copper-skinned immigrants from that region having settled in the docklands area and been subject to the systematic disenfranchisement that turned many of their Nth generation sons into street-punks (as we know from the number of copper-skinned, long-pinky-nailed street-punks shot by Clint Westwood in his kinescopic role as Dirty Larry). If one visits the Côte de Cuivre, in fact, one indeed finds young men sporting that long pinky nail — as a decorative affectation invariably combined with a gold stud in the opposite earlobe. In its origins the pinky nail is simply an adornment. In its representation it has become a focus of abjection, a marker of otherness that fuels the prejudice it’s born of.

This is how abjection works through (mis)representation. It latches on to a marker of difference, often a superficial and arbitrary one — a coppery skin tone or an extra-long pinky nail — and turns it into a mechanism of social exclusion. It reconfigures the meaning of that sign by ascribing prejudicial connotations — and even denotations. It reconfigures the very semiotics of society in respect of that sign, so that any who bear that marker of difference become the subjects of an essentially moralistic rejection as transgressions (not just transgressors, but transgressions in and of themself,) of the “normative” social order. We are all abnormal in some respect or other, deviating from the normative, but only some abnormal attributes become the focus of abjection. This is a weapon of the Culture Wars waged by any seeking to define themselves as normative regardless of, say, their freakishly pale skin or aberrantly low rating on the Kinsey Scale.

This is not lifestyle theft. To crowbar it into the discourse of cultural appropriation on the basis that, say, the control of one’s own image is being stolen… this is a sophistry. Worse, it’s a sophistry that requires us to pretend that we own the notions others have of us, which is all too easily dismissed as nonsense — which means the very real impact of abjection is all too easily dismissed with it. To call it lifestyle theft is to obscure a quite distinct tool of the abusive fucks. This is lifestyle slander, defamation, libel. At its worst, when carried out systematically, ideologised and institutionalised, it is lifestyle agitprop. Lifestyle slander is all too often the blood libel used to justify pogroms and ethnic cleansings.

The term Yellow Peril is a cog in the mechanism of one process of abjection. This is the semiotics of society reconfigured in a simple pairing of words. It is the definition of one skin tone as a marker of deviance from the normative. It is the binding of that sign to prejudicial connotations. It makes “yellow” skin a signifier of a dread threat, a menace to Western society as a whole. In the pulps of the past, the tales of Fu Manchu and other such villains, tales of conniving Orientals with nefarious schemes, it stands as a raised flag over lifestyle slander of the cheapest sort, in which a group is abjected, demonised, simply because demons make for a more sensational story. And who cares about the chinks and nips and gooks who suffer the consequences?

What does it mean if, in the same way that “yellow” is bound to “peril” in that phrase, visual and narrative signifiers are bound together in a movie? If, for example, a film’s villains are all dark-skinned in distinction to its white-skinned heroes? How is the semiotics of society reconfigured if a tale in which the three heroes and the antihero/villain are all various shades of non-white — the colour of Chinese, Inuit or Japanese individuals — becomes one in which the three heroes are all white, while the antihero/villain is dark-skinned?

Hold that thought.

Of Difference and Desire

Let’s say that when I was in my early twenties, I began to spot a curious phenomena in the gay bars of New Sodom — long pinky nails worn by those who were clearly not dockland street-punks. I’m pretty sure I can tell you how and why this happened, because I was one of those who picked up the affectation. Hanging out down by the docks with Mouse, I confess, I saw those street-punks through shades tinted with desire. Some were hustlers, in the grifter sense if not the rentboy sense, and all were invested with the appeal of the exotic — not so much for the copper skin, but for the arms bared by sleeveless t-shirts, the skinny ripped jeans, the bleached spiky hair, the single gold stud in one ear. And, yes, the pinky nail. When those pinky nails started appearing in the gay bars of New Sodom, it was clear to me that this was an attempt to take on the attributes of the fetishised hustlers of the docklands, that certain markers of difference had become markers of desire.

This act of acculturation, it is fair to say, is something more in the nature of appropriation. The decorative affectation taken to oneself is certainly a learning of lifestyle — and one that takes place without permission. On an individual level, none of the gays in the bars thought to ask if they were allowed to wear their pinky nails long. On a cultural level, no delegation was sent from the gay village to the docklands to sign a treaty agreeing this in principle. If challenged, I suspect most gays would have been baffled as to who or what legitimate authority existed that might require such supplication.

Acculturation versus representation. It’s important to make clear the distinction here, because the key point is this: that acculturation — the transmission of the pinky nail from (copper, working-class) street-punk culture to (white, middle-class) gay culture — is a quite different process from the (mis)representation that takes place in an act of abjection. Where the latter is categorically hostile, effectively manifesting prejudice in a way that propagates it, fundamentally agitprop, blood libel, the former is… more complex.

In part, I think it’s fair to say, such fetishising attraction is powered by abjection and has to perpetuate it to exist — which is to say, the other must be kept other in order to function as object as desire. And in adopting the attributes of a street-punk, the gay man might well be said to be bolstering the semiotics of exoticism and transgression by (re)presenting the stereotype in their style. If they reinforce the sense of criminality in playing on the allure of the outlaw, this is all well and good in the war effort of the would-be normative. Funny enough, given the topic at hand, the general term for such fetishising exoticism is Orientalism.

But in part, I think it’s also fair to say, (re)presenting the self in the attributes of the other evidences a desire to become the object of desire, a desire for a union of self and other that abolishes the distinction, a striving to invert abjection. If the ultimate result of that acculturation is not an inversion of abjection, coding desire rather than disgust into the marker of difference, it is at very least a perversion of it, one that ultimately can only fray and blur the boundaries by breaking the binding of the abject and one of the markers of difference on which their abjection rests. The binding of the pinky nail, as signifier, to a sense of criminality is challenged where it might equally well indicate sexuality.

If it is problematic, in fact, is it the acculturation or the fetishisation that’s the problem? Is adopting that long pinky nail wrong as an act of lifestyle theft or is it really the dubious attitude that’s problematic, the fixation that sees only the glamour of a class of individuals, not the individuals themselves? The more fundamental problem seems to me that glamour, which is only a… permutation emerging where the misrepresentation is developed down a certain type of path, from one stereotype loaded with fear and hate to another charged with desire — but still in service to the normative.

The real problem, it seems to me, is of automatically casting a whole class of people as second class citizens in one’s own personal narrative, supporting characters. Sidekicks or sex objects, it’s about being boxed into a compartment set aside for you, a seat at the back of the bus. Like the role Mouse plays in this figuration, an exotic copper-skinned other there to serve a narrative centred on the white-skinned protagonist, yours truly.

(In case you haven’t already spotted it, by the way, Mouse is an act of appropriation of sorts, a set of attributes (name included) lifted straight from Delany’s Nova. Gotta acknowledge my debts, after all. I hope I’m putting my version of his character to good use. Given Delany’s ethnicity, is this cultural appropriation? Or given his sexuality, do he and I share a “gay culture” that makes it OK? Does it matter that the long pinky nail on Delany’s Mouse has its origins in an actual real world culture that’s not his? Me, I think it matters more that my Mouse is a walk-on while Delany’s is at the very heart of his story from beginning to end.)

The Absence of the Abject

There’s a more subtle knock-on of abjection, you see — a sort of fall-out of this weapon in the Culture Wars, which can itself become a weapon. Abjection doesn’t just lead to more misrepresentation in the same malicious manner. Once the abject has been excluded, defined as other, it ceases to truly belong within representations of the community as a whole. Abjection leads to absence, to non-representation. Audiences will not identify with the abject, the makers in the media assume — forgetting of course that the abject is the audience as much as anyone, because for all their abjection they remain, on a basic level, a part of us every bit as much as the normative. How could the audience identify? the makers ask. How could the normative audience identify with those who define their identity by standing for its opposite?

So characters are written as normative by default and the abject suffers erasure. In the media of New Sodom, actors with copper skin get passed over in casting calls for central characters, because protagonists default to normative in the imagination even when this is not specified. Even in a child’s radiovision cartoon that systematically develops its worldscape from the rich cultural tapestry that is the Côte de Cuivre — from the whole continent that Copper Coast is only one small part of — even when that cartoon presents every single character, from the most central to the most subsidiary, as copper-skinned, the live-action kinescope adaptation, The Last Aetherbender, whitewashes its protagonists leaving only the villain in something approximating his original hue. Because, of course, the one standard exemption to the principle of non-representation of the abject is the misrepresentation of the abject as the abject — the hated enemy, the reviled other.

Yes, I’m mixing up my figuration of New Sodom with my representation of reality. You understand that even in the fabricated worldscape, I’m addressing the reality though, right?

But the Culture Wars are not a one way process, or they would not be wars. If New Sodom is not a utopia, but rather a city striving for utopia and always already descending into dystopia, it is, as the city of the queer, a culture predicated upon the restoration of the abject. Founded by those who survived their abjection in the Bible — their sexuality made a signifier of depravity in that ancient act of lifestyle agitprop — it is a city of exiles sworn to welcome all outcasts, one that’s hit on a sneaky way, we think, of frustrating the hostilities of the self-professed normative by defining itself as the community of others. Which is to say any marker of difference used to render one abject is what makes one a citizen of New Sodom. So, even as the normative carry out their abjection, (and we are all normative in some way and so prone to do this,) the culture is in a constant drive to counteract this.

As a citizen of New Sodom one cannot help but identify with those who define the normative by standing for its opposite. We all do in one way or another. As a citizen of New Sodom, when those actors get passed over, when that kinescope adaptation gets whitewashed, one is furious with frustration. If the media is fucked-up in this way, that may only make the creators more determined to create works where this sort of shit don’t play. So some creators might well set out deliberately to craft a work in which the characters are non-normative — and not non-normative in the way those creators are. They might set out to write a child’s radiovision cartoon, for example, in which all the characters are from the Copper Coast, even though they themselves are not.

Hell, because they are citizens of New Sodom, because they automatically identify with any other citizen of New Sodom, they may do this simply because it doesn’t occur to them that there’s a fucking issue.

What, audiences can’t identify with a copper-skinned protagonist, you think? Like, you can’t identify with Ron Weasley because he’s a ginge? Are you fucking shitting me?

Still, if that counteracting drive on the part of creators leads to the odd radiovision cartoon here or there, the prejudice fights back. Even as the abject strive to reclaim their place within the community, as they pressure for a return into the fold, the best they can hope for at first is selective representation. Since the one standard exemption to non-representation is the misrepresentation that sets the abject as the enemy, rather than a simple abolition of the exclusion, what we see is a vast redemption narrative which takes that core misrepresentation at its root, but develops it, branching into a host of permutations that are not wholly negative but… negotiated compromises, and as such tightly bound.

So, in The Last Aetherbender, the dark-skinned villain is a bit more complex than your average outright blackguard, something of an antihero, in fact, bound for redemption if the sequel follows the narrative of the cartoon. If the sequel actually gets made, given the reviews.

So, in other works on the screens of New Sodom, we see the abject sneaking into supporting roles, but always roles of certain shapes. The copper-skinned street-punk becomes the swaggeringly hip informer who helps Harsky and Stutch with their crime-fighting… though he’s always really looking out for himself. He becomes the rookie cop, the kid from the slums who has hauled himself out of the rookery of his native culture to become sidekick to T.J. Hustler. He becomes the police captain whose angry authoritarian bluster, as he tells the white hero he has 24 hours to solve the case, inherits from the macho aggression of the gangster.

Sadly, it is all too easy for the process to grind to a halt at this point, in a set of stereotypes, a scattering of stock roles.

This offers one simple principle in “writing the other,” by the way. To understand the process of abjection is to understand the specific markers of difference, how the semiotics of society have been reconfigured around that sign, how the stereotypes arise as permutations. To do this is to understand how individuals of an abjected group are expected to fit those stock roles, to understand some of what they may be dealing with on a day-to-day basis, and to understand that it is different for each group because each has a different marker, a different semiotics, a different set of stereotypes. There is no lumpen thing called Prejudice that wears the same face to all of us, but a process of abjection that plays out uniquely for each abject.

I say this not to downplay the difference, the uniqueness of each experience, but because I see the absence of the abject as inexcusable, complicity justified by a cowardly “but I might get it wrong” as a cop-out: it’s not that fucking difficult. Someone will always say you got it wrong. I’ve seen some gay writers or readers criticising Richard Morgan’s gay protagonist, Ringil in The Steel Remains, saying it doesn’t ring true to them. I think he got it spot-on. Me, I may have gotten it wrong with Seven and Eli, the black characters in “Escape from Hell!” because I’m deliberately trying to address abjection via stock roles, to speak of how expectations can bind us. I may have gotten it wrong for any number of readers and pissed them the fuck off, but I’d rather that than be too chickenshit to try.

A Second Class Citizen in the Republic of Art

As long as this selective representation is the case, the abject remains at best a second class citizen in the Republic of Art. Developing their own art, of course, those of whatever abjected social group will represent themselves in roles that aren’t bounded by those stereotypes, but all too often these works will be ghettoised into genres defined as by and for the abject alone.

Stepping out of New Sodom for a second, back into our world, we have Gay Cinema, Black Fiction. And what happens if a work could equally well be situated in another genre — High School Movie or Action/Adventure? Smack-dab in the centre of the mainstream in genre terms, we have a Romantic Comedy called “Falling for Grace,” co-written and directed by and starring Fay Ann Lee, that was branded as unsellable as a Romantic Comedy because it had an Asian-American lead. A pure-bred John Hughesian High School Movie like The Curiosity of Chance has to be filmed on a micro-budget in Belgium and played on the queer cinema festival circuit because it has a gay kid as the central character. When it comes to these most popular of genres, you see, the Asians and gays are only allowed to inhabit the stock roles set aside for them in this system of selective representation. They couldn’t be heroes in an Action/Adventure blockbuster. Normativity forbid!

Not that this played any part in the casting calls for Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender, mind, casting calls that invited, to audition for the parts of the main characters, actors who identified as “Caucasian or any other ethnicity.”

Caucasian. Or, you know, any other ethnicity. I guess.

The name for this process whereby the normative is allowed here in these protagonist positions, in these seats at the front of the bus, while the abject is only allowed there in those second class roles, in those seats at the back of the bus — the name for that process is segregation. It’s segregation via the media — segregation in the works themselves and segregation in the audiences.

Blood libel and segregation. These are the effects of abjection via the arts, of lifestyle slander in figuration or representation. Personally, I find these a much deeper concern than a notion of lifestyle theft that I’m not sure is even legitimate, that often seems to crumble under examination to an underlying concern with lifestyle destruction — which comes from lifestyle sharing via lifestyle mutation, may be deliberate and strategic or simply institutionalised, and strikes me as deeply important… but tangential to an argument over whether a community as whole has the ownership required to render an unpermitted usage theft.

The forced acculturation of individuals in colonial territories is nothing to dismiss. Children made to speak English in schools instead of their native language, the way this scales up to a systematic transculturation — all of this plays out as a deliberate deculturation, a gradual elimination of that native language. Think of immigrants entering a community, assigned citizenship tests, required to pledge allegiance, to fit in. Lifestyle imposition and lifestyle annihilation. And there is the deculturation that takes place where acculturation is undergone without such pressure, as individuals assimilate actively or passively, making a conscious effort or simply surrendering to the sway of their environs. Or might we see another pressure at play there, a covert force in the shape of abjection? It seems to me, a steady diet of “Yellow Peril” narratives might well have a certain effect on how comfortable Asian-Americans feel being Asian-Americans rather than just Americans. As defined by WASPs.

I’m undecided on the notion of lifestyle theft, I admit, on the label cultural appropriation as it parses to a meaning for me. If I were Robert Burns, whose poetry has become a core aspect of Scottish culture, with all manner of ritual accreted around Burns Night celebrations, would I accept an argument that an Englishman who hosts a Burns Night is guilty of transgression? Would I accept that claim of exclusive ownership at a community level? I think I’d be inclined to tell anyone making that argument where to get off. Just being Scottish however many hundred years later doesn’t give you a say over who gets to do what with my work, cause you had fuck all to do with creating that work, mate, and I don’t give a fuck where you were born. Oh, I give a fuck about lifestyle destruction, but whether an Englishman hosting a Duncan Night might play a part in that is a whole other question than whether the Scottish people are my literary executors in perpetuity. And what I really give a fuck about is the process of abjection. The blood libel and the segregation.

Ultimately, as I see it, the cartoon series of Avatar: The Last Airbender is a work that functions as a step taken against blood libel and segregation. Shyamalan’s movie manifests the same old “swarthy villain” trope, albeit with a hint of that redemption narrative, and the same old exclusion of people of colour from protagonist status. It is blood libel and segregation.

And the one is evidence that the other didn’t have to be that way. That’s the most frustrating thing about the whole sorry situation. The cartoon series points us to the movie that could have been made, the one that cast actors of at least vaguely appropriate ethnicities, the one that didn’t whitewash, that didn’t racebend, the one where it was entirely insignificant that the antihero/villain was played by Dev Patel because all the main characters were people of colour, where Hollywood showed some balls for once by grabbing a golden opportunity to practice integration in the media, with actors of non-normative ethnicities playing the fucking ass-kicking heroes rather than subsidiary characters in service to the whiter-than-white protagonists. That’s what M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender could have been, and the success of the original cartoon only rams home how few of us who do happen to be white would actually give a flying fuck that the protagonists — shock horror! — weren’t our skin colour. Shit, as if those idiots who would care even deserve a moment of consideration.

No, that’s what could have been, and if you don’t think it matters that it wasn’t… well, I guess you’ve never been turned away from the water fountain of a narrative, pointed at one set aside for your kind. And I guess you’ve never drunk from the water fountain of a narrative and tasted the poison in it, the fear and hatred of abjection. Hell, it’s partly the reality of such obliviousness that makes the movie that could have been matter so much to those of us who do care.

And that’s where the title of this column comes from — the movie that could have been, the one I would have gone to seen, the one I might now be fucking celebrating for the very reasons I’m slamming the reality.

That’s The Lost Airbender.

Only registered users can comment.

  1. Commenting mostly to subscribe to future comments; I’ll be interested to see where this discussion goes.

    I also think the words “only” and “blatantly” in my original quote are pivotal, and they make it clear that this issue deals with such slippery factors as internal motivations and external appearances. Some things may be appropriative and not look it (perhaps the original A:TLA series fits into that category), and some things may appear appropriative despite the creator’s selfless motivations. You could say that Shayamalan, a South Asian, is reclaiming this Asian-influenced world from its white American creators–or even that he’s appropriating Americana, though that would be a difficult assertion to support. There are lots of grey areas here, and the whole issue is a dialogue between creator and consumer.

  2. Thanks for writing this, Hal — I think it’s tremendously clarifying and may help important conversations gain some nuance. “Cultural appropriation” doesn’t seem to me a particularly useful phrase because, as noted here, it limits complex discussions to a discussion of property/ownership. Really, they should be discussions of the engines of representation, the mechanisms of power, and the effects of stereotyping. (And sometimes they are, despite the terminology.)

    Since Delany comes up here, I thought I’d throw in a couple paragraphs from his 1990 essay “The Life of/and Writing”, recently reprinted in L. Timmel Duchamp’s anthology Narrative Power. The entire essay is appropriate to this conversation, since it’s partly about what cliches and stereotypes do in writing, but here’s a little bit: “It’s very important to remind people again and again and again and also to remind the best-intentioned people, because they forget this too — that what makes statements like ‘Blacks are lazy and shiftless,’ ‘Women are lousy drivers,’ or ‘Gays are emotionally unstable,’ racist, sexist, and homophobic is the vast statistical preponderance of these particular statements in the general range of utterances of most people most of the time. That statistical preponderance makes it almost impossible to say anything else about blacks, women, or gays. Again, it’s the silences in the discourse such statements enforce around themselves that give them their ideological contour. …

    “Take the statement, ‘Blue-eyed people are irresponsibly morose.’ That’s not a racist statement because it’s not among the first three things you’ll hear about blue-eyed people in any bar or coffee klatch as soon as the topic of blue-eyed people comes up. It’s not a racist statement because it’s not part of the stabilization system for an economic matrix that assures blue-eye people will average incomes 30% lower than the rest of us. It’s not a racist statement because 80% of all the artistic representations of blue-eyed people, from folk operas to genre paintings to popular novels, do not automatically portray them as mooning away (irresponsibly) while catastrophes bloom around them; nor do the other 20 percent of the representations — the liberal ones — portray them as overcoming that moroseness with a mindless and wholly unbelievable vigor. It’s not a racist statement because it’s not part of a system that encourages three-quarters of the blue-eyed popular, whenever they feel even vaguely down, to search immediately for possible irresponsibility — who feel, if they don’t find it, that that itself is probably proof they’re irresponsible.”

    Now, I might not myself agree entirely with some of the emphases here — I would emphasize part of the problem in the examples Delany cites is a desire to group lots of varied particulars into generalizations, to erase the differences within groups by asserting the meaningfulness of such groups, to insist that physical properties have meaningful and inherent correlations to psychological or behavioral qualities — but that’s a quibble when the primary force of the argument seems clear and powerful: cliched and stereotypical representations harm us all because they limit our ways of thinking and they have an effect on how the world works because they so deeply shape our expectations and assumptions.

    When reading this essay, I thought of a debate that happened in the theatre world some time back — when the white British actor Jonathan Pryce was hired to play an Asian character in Miss Saigon. Some people defending the choice said that it was hypocritical of people who supported the notion of “colorblind casting” (that is, non-white people in traditionally or even explicitly white roles — those of Shakespeare, for instance, or a black actor cast as Willy Loman, or…) to criticize the casting of a white actor in an Asian role. That, though, is to miss a huge point of the idea of colorblind casting, which is about power, opportunity, and assumptions. In the U.S. and U.K., and particularly in expensive musicals, there are far more opportunities for white actors than non-white actors. It’s not even remotely an even playing field. In such an environment, casting a white actor in an Asian role has a whole different meaning (especially given the history of yellowface performing from casting a person of Asian heritage in the role.

    Pryce and the producers of Miss Saigon were not appropriating a culture, they were participating in the ignorant propagation of stereotypes, the denial of opportunities to minority actors, and the strengthening of a system of privilege and erasure. (And this isn’t even to address the representations within the narrative itself!)

    I could go on and on, but I won’t — I’m restraining myself from a long discussion of the idea of “Africa” in the non-African mind, and the representations that created and continue to support that idea.

    The ideas in this column are useful and clarifying, and that’s really all I wanted to say.

  3. Rose: …this issue deals with such slippery factors as internal motivations and external appearances.

    That’s partly why I think the notion of acculturation is a better grounding for the discourse. The term appropriation denotes a violation of property rights such that motives, appearances and even end-results can’t readily be construed as factors to be considered, I’d say, in evaluating the ethicality of an act of acculturation. Appropriation — or as I’d parse it, theft — is always already morally wrong; it’s the action of “taking and using, without permission, that which belongs to another” presented as a moral infringement, irrespective of motives and appearances. In that framework, these factors can only be, at best, counterbalancing existential “goods” to an essential “bad”. And in most moral systems these factors just don’t carry weight — i.e. noble intentions don’t make you any less a thief, and a thief is a thief whether they’re recognised as such or not.

    But as I see it, the motives and end-results are where the more pertinent ethical problems arise — in acts of acculturation that are exploitative, propagating demonisation and/or fetishisation for one’s own benefit (because abjection is coded into the mindset with which one approaches the other culture); or that are corrosive, scaling up to deculturation, as one culture is (possibly forcibly) assimilated into another. These are readily identifiable detrimental effects of acculturation — lifestyle slander and lifestyle murder, othering and erasure.

    The notion of appropriation posits a detrimental effect that’s essentially just an infringement of a community’s ownership rights regarding its lifestyle. Given that me adopting the long pinky nail doesn’t entail the originating culture losing it, the essential harm is simply… a disrespect of boundaries akin to plagiarism. Combine the intangibility of that harm with the fact that the very principle of community ownership is contentious and you have a highly arguable moral dictum. A:TLA is appropriative by that dictum *and* looks it. I agree that you could argue different ways with Shyamalan. Given the very tangible “goods” and “bads” the cartoon and the movie embody and/or manifest, I’m left dubious of the legitimacy of a moral dictum too simplistic in one case and too ambiguous in the other.

  4. [continued from above]

    Basically, I think it’s less a matter of subtleties than it is about a reductionist moral dictum that doesn’t entirely stand up under scrutiny. When we start to talk about slippery factors and grey areas I think that’s symptomatic — that to justify the moral dictum requires recourse to arguments that it’s bad because it could (or even can only) result in misrepresentation, deculturation or this or that other effective wrongness.

    Those arguments are often 100% sound and damn good reasons to ethically critique acts of acculturation; but I think we’re often actually redefining the problem in terms of those readily identifiable detrimental effects — but without really recognising them as the fundamental ethical issues we’re presenting them as. In other words, we’re often saying, it seems, that this act we call (lifestyle) theft is wrong because it leads to (lifestyle) slander and (lifestyle) murder. Then we play the absence of such factors as mitigating “goods” which make it all more complex, more subtle. It’s not always easy, we say, to judge whether a work is “really” theft because we have to consider these slippery factors.

    For all the value of the discourse, I think this can be deeply counter-productive, rendering the truly critical harms as secondary considerations and inviting the ignorant and intransigent to zero in on the contentious notion of community property/ownership, making it all about creative freedom versus social authority.

  5. I somewhat like the way you’ve put this. The notion of ownership that’s inherent in the term cultural appropriation is difficult for me to understand. As an Indian-American, most white-Americans would look to me for cues on how to react to various Western depictions of India. But, I was born in Redwood City…and I do not really feel like I “own” India.

    Furthermore, I feel that, at least in the case of India, it’s possible for Indians to object to a western movie on the basis of their own class and caste prejudices. For instance, there were protests against the movie Slumdog Millionaire for depicting India as a nation of slums and sectarian riots. When, really…there are quite a few slums and sectarian riots in India, and these things don’t really get aired in the Indian media very often. But then am I saying that a western director and a western screenwriter are really in a place to be schooling Indians on “the way things are”? That also seems really problematic to me.

    As an Indian-American, I’ve never found cultural appropriation to be particularly irksome, at least as it relates to the culture I have some tenuous claim of ownership in. While the Western media machine, and the SFF genre in particular, is capable of spewing out all kinds of visions of India that I find inaccurate, or even offensive, I don’t see that it is illegitimate for them to even try to depict Indian lifestyles.

    And that’s just because, well, India makes 500 movies a year. It publishes plenty of books, both in English and in the vernacular. It might not be a powerhouse, but it has more than enough ability to put out whatever visions of itself that it wants. And, even more importantly, I don’t think that it is overly influenced by Hollywood’s depiction of India. I think that Indians get most of their stories about themselves from Indian creators.

    I think that gives me the freedom to not be particularly put out Western projects that utilize Indian settings and props (like the upcoming Ramayana adaptation starring Keanu Reeves). Even if the project horribly reinforces stereotypes, then I feel that the harm won’t really be to any Indians, but to the Americans who watch, and who come away with an inaccurate picture of the world.

  6. I don’t think Michael Dante DiMartino’s and Bryan Konietzko’s original animated series was at all cultural appropriation simply because they obviously and whole-heartedly gave credit to the Asian cultures that inspired them. Some of the voice actors used for the cartoon were Asian Americans and the series itself was boon and great blessing for Asian Americans everywhere!

    But definitely, this live-action debacle that came out in theaters is cultural appropriation since they refuse to cast peoples of Asian/Inuit descent as the main stars with exception of Dev Patel’s character who is the villain! They kept the names, attires, and cultures of the characters the same hired whites to portray them is senseless and ridiculous. As many people have pointed out this is the equivalent of someone making ‘The Lord of the Rings’ movie trilogy casting Asians as the main stars. It matters not if the producers and director of the movie were non-white. But to change the actual ‘race’ or phenotype of the characters is stupid. Seriously, it comes to show that so-called ‘liberal’ Hollywood is not as progressive as they want to think.

  7. Daioshin: Again, a key point is that giving credit to the source doesn’t make an act of theft no longer theft. As long as one parses acculturation in those terms, accepting the principle of community ownership, DiMartino and Konietzko were still utilising those sources in the absence of permission… appropriating. If I steal a toolkit from your house and use it to build something wonderful, a magnanimous admission on my part that I nicked your toolkit to do it doesn’t actually negate my theft.

    What giving credit does is simply acknowledge (rightly) one’s sources, demonstrating the respect due the creative inspirations — individual creators and their culture as a whole. This is ethical, in and of itself, but it simply rests on a principle, I’d say, that respect is due for the use of approaches that have been put out there by others — with an expectation that any creator may be inspired by them. DiMartino and Konietzko show that due respect, show artistic integrity.

    Also in a large part the respect they show Asian culture is not just a matter of credit but of the same integrity applied in representation/figuration. They don’t demonise or exoticise, don’t abject. They pay the best credit they can to their sources, you might argue, simply by the commitment they demonstrate in striving for an authenticity in which the influence is visible on-screen. They cite their sources with every other shot, in the rigour of their detail.

    As for the use of Asian American actors, I think that’s *more* than just… something else that might mitigate an act of theft sufficiently that we can say, “well, that makes this not appropriative.” It’s a practical manifestation of *integration*, an active step against segregation in the media and in the audience. Rather than just passively accepting a moral boundary and thereby being “non-appropriative,” this is actively rejecting the institutionalised inequity and iniquity of segregation.

    Similarly, with the live-action debacle, condemning it as an act of theft actually, I think, trivialises the core ethical failings. Not casting actors of Asian/Inuit descent is segregation in action. Making an exception for the villain makes skin colour a signifier of evil — and that’s ultimately symbolic agitprop. Fundamentally, as I see it, Shyamalan’s movie is a water fountain with a big sign saying “Whites Only,” and a piece of blood libel that huge funds have been poured into, one that will reach every multiplex in the world and be seen by countless viewers — many utterly oblivious to the negative associations being reinforced in their worldview.

    I mean, I think we’re really on the same page in celebrating one and condemning the other, and on why we’re doing so. But I think the way you base this on a judgement of non-theft in one case, theft in the other, with artistic integrity and integration in A:TLA versus segregation and blood libel in TLA being the real deciding factors — this is precisely what I’m talking about above in my response to Rose. It’s not really that these factors add up to “non-appropriative” and “appropriative”; it’s that these are the actual ethical achievements and failings at play, important in and of themselves.

    Like, stepping on people’s toes by not respecting an abstract notion of community ownership might make those people angry, but segregation and blood libel are obscene injustices.

  8. Thanks for introducing me to the concept of abjection.

    I’ve noticed in a number of different social contexts that one thing that bothers me is the demand by the dominant culture person that people who aren’t dominant culture should follow some cliched way of life that requires them to be non-technological or less technological to be “authentic.” I was on an Appalachian mailing list full of the usual left wing college educated agnostic Appalachian people. One of the posters, not from Appalachia, decided that one person was a fake Appalachian because “real” Appalachian people were humble, God-fearing, and conservative and respectful of authority. We pan-fried him.

    The Cherokee were removed not because they were so uncivilized but because they were adapting quicker to some technologies than the average of whites around them (literacy in their own language being a big one).

    I’m moving to Nicaragua and have been reading people from outside the country talk about the wonderful humble campesinos, who are the “real” Nicaragua. I suspect campesino life is more complex and the humbleness is more a shuck and jive than the people hanging out with them realize, but then I come from country people myself on my father’s side.

    The “authentic” other culture seems to be static, unchanging, and by being unchanging, is very vulnerable to becoming esthetic objects for us, raw material for our imaginations. Lafcadio Hearn loved Japan the way it had been, not what it had to become to resist falling to another imperial power. Cherokee get asked if they’re really Cherokee because they’re not running around in deerskins and moccasins. Cherokee in a wonderful touch of irony have a summer job called Chiefing where various men put on Plains Indian garb and sell the right to photograph themselves with the tourist’s children, thus completely subverting the whole concept of “authentic.”

    We see the same thing with the various people who love “authentic blacks” and talk about preserving their culture while not being black themselves.

    I’ve resisted being labeled a Southern writer because that tends to be a box that requires me to live up to various stereotypes about the South more than listen to me as as someone as much influenced by the Lower East Side in the 70s as by rural Virginia in the 90s.

    The people who want those people to live in an “authentic” static culture and be the emblems of what they think Western urban culture lost are not being as kind to the individual living people in those cultures as they imagine. I think the worst abuses of other people’s cultures is the treating of them as being only real, only genuine when they’re participating in an artistic arrangement of people to entertain the outsider.

    I also have heard some good arguments that there is no such thing as Appalachian culture — that the whole concept was invented to be able to exploit the region, and that what’s thought of as Appalachian culture is simply American country life, just in the mountains, and that the region is as ethnically diverse or more than most of the rest of America and never really disconnected from the rest of America and not just one thing. But if people who live in exploitable landscape can be reduced to cliches, the outsider can dismiss as unauthentic the ones who really want to go to Harvard.

    The Masai man who talked his way into Harvard is no less a Masai than the people with spears posing for tourists or the ones building brick ranch houses from money made renting land to agriculturalists.

    Cultures adapt to other cultures. Living cultures change. If country people were spoiled by factory life, nothing is stopping the person protesting the loss of country butter from going off and becoming a sharecropper and making country butter herself.

    The worst misuses of other people’s cultures come from people who just love the culture the way it (supposedly) was. Many countries encourage their tribal remnants to stay colorful for the tourists dollars. It also saves on education expenses.

    Your further point about the blood libel of making only the villain brown-skinned is also excellent, but perhaps that’s the obvious problem and the less obvious problem is using other cultures as art objects, while claiming to just love the authenticity. I want to see Inuit fixing a snowmobile engine.

    Culture is the means, not the end. Technological cultures put a tremendous pressure on other cultures. The answer isn’t becoming authentic entertainment for the dominant culture, I don’t think. I think reducing people in it to stereotypes of authenticity is the problem. Most expropriations of other people’s cultures tend to be along those lines, sort of like discussing life on Roatan without mentioning how fond people are there of the Statler Brothers, or deciding that Hispanic Hip Hop can’t be authentic, or being upset that a Catawba potter reads contemporary ceramic arts magazines and thinks of herself as a potter first, not a Catawba traditional potter. The worst abuses reduce complex humans to things that aren’t us, that can’t speak for themselves, and can’t have any dialogue with us on their own terms (like the man who believed that anyone who didn’t fit his cliches about Appalachian people was faking being from Appalachia rather than expanding his understanding of the region).

    One writer once said that I didn’t need workshops because I was a natural story teller (cliche of Appalachia). He never knew or ignored the years at the St. Marks Poetry Project, the workshops in graduate school, the theory classes in graduate school, or any reading I’d done.

    If the culture is more valuable than the people using it, something ain’t right.

  9. Rebecca: The people who want those people to live in an “authentic” static culture and be the emblems of what they think Western urban culture lost are not being as kind to the individual living people in those cultures as they imagine. I think the worst abuses of other people’s cultures is the treating of them as being only real, only genuine when they’re participating in an artistic arrangement of people to entertain the outsider.

    I might baulk at the “worst” there, thinking of forced deculturation as more actively malicious, but I think you nail an important point I don’t even really touch on, so I’m glad you raise it. Because while I bring up the fetishisation that I reckon you can see arising from abjection, and the way redemption narratives, as I see it, code for less hostile variants of the savage, what you’re describing strikes me as an infantilisation that’s certainly a big part of the picture.

    That the “authentic” way of being Appalachian is “humble, God-fearing, and conservative and respectful of authority” is pretty revealing, I’d say. We have an abjected group here; in terms like hillbilly and the associated hate imagery of inbred xenophobic freaks (c.f. Deliverance) the abjection is obvious. But romanticism has taken the place of redemption, you might say, in redefining the savage as the naive, the innocent. So we end up with a purportedly natural state for people of a culture perceived as essentially less technological and thereby less sophisticated/civilised: as children in relation to parental authority, primitives in relation to natural and divine forces they don’t/can’t challenge with technology. Of course they must be “humble, God-fearing, and conservative and respectful of authority”! Why, how could these simple naifs, blessed to be in that state of innocence we’ve lost, be anything but passive respondents to the forces acting upon them? And isn’t it just *wonderful* to see such innocence still out there in the world? And isn’t it something to be *preserved*? So the logic goes.

    (I can’t help thinking of that other Avatar here, of the Na’vi humble in the face of Nature, devoted to Eywa, and utterly conservative and hierarchised in their tribal social structure.)

    I don’t think it’s hard to see how that ties in to paternalism and colonialism. It’s functionally delegitimising, a refusal to acknowledge full citizenry, enforced by expectations — what you say about being put into a box, required to fit the stereotypes. The infantilised abject is often revered rather than reviled, but as an object of reverence it is just as much denied real agency; in its naivety, it’s not deemed capable of informed decisions. (So, oh look, here comes the Great White Hope to lead those Na’vi!) It’s a subtler mechanism of subjugation, but this sort of infantilisation is as corrosive of individual autonomy as demonisation. It might not lead to hate crimes the way blood libel does, but you might well be right that it’s more pernicious even as it’s less obvious.

    I’m not sure I’d parse it as appropriation — or expropriation — but the examples you give of such paternalism (“discussing life on Roatan without mentioning how fond people are there of the Statler Brothers, or deciding that Hispanic Hip Hop can’t be authentic, or being upset that a Catawba potter reads contemporary ceramic arts magazines and thinks of herself as a potter first, not a Catawba traditional potter”) are certainly a disenfranchising assumption of authority. You could well say there’s an appropriation of voice going on there — c.f. “can’t speak for themselves, and can’t have any dialogue with us on their own terms” — but voice isn’t lifestyle. As I see it, it’s not really a matter of illegitimate acculturation, transgressions of community ownership as regards specific cultural attributes, but rather a wholesale arrogation of a fundamental right — to be treated as the adult one is. Like, it’s the underlying infantilisation involved in “using other cultures as art objects, while claiming to just love the authenticity” that’s ethically ass-backwards. Ass-backwards because I’m sure many of those making the judgements about what is or isn’t “authentic” are doing so from a beneficent paternalistic belief that it’s their duty to preserve the other culture in its essential natural state. But a beneficent impulse isn’t necessarily pointed in the right direction.

  10. Forced deculturalization is generally more physically horrible (I’ve heard about Cherokee kids being chained to beds in BIA boarding schools to keep them from running away). But a lot of subjugation was about keeping technologies out of “native hands.” Black slaves had the double whammy of being forced to give up Africa as it was and to not be allowed literacy (some of them were apparently literate in Arabic).

    Most parts of the world which produce raw materials (mineral, agricultural products, timber) tend to be exploited by non-locals. The fetishization of other cultures is part of the tourist industry (academia anthropology being a very privileged tourism all too often), but the tourist industry, like all other raw material extraction, tends to fail to produce the economic advantages that adding value to raw materials gives. The locals sometimes lie to make the product more salable (Margaret Mead’s informants lied to her; the Cherokee do chiefing; non-locals with ego needs in the Philippines got modern villagers to pretend to be pre-agricultural stone aged tribes people).

    I think most of us can see the physical attacks on the other as obviously problematic, but the attempts to limit people for their own good tends to be harder to see as a form of bigotry rather than helping. We destroy them to save their cultures.

    The very odd thing is that these sorts of people treat our ow culture as something other cultures shouldn’t appropriate. Education would spoil them. (A judge in NC called T.J. Reddy, a black poet with a MA, an “over-educated revolutionary”).

    The Tasaday were one of the more fantastic inventions of the 20th Century.

    I don’t think these impulses are particularly benevolent, but you’re right that they’re impressively paternalistic.

  11. This is an adaptation of an animated drama series to the big screen. You’ve gone way too deep turning it into a personal philosophical, ethnic, and political rant. No doubt, you’re never be satisfied with anything. *shakes head*

  12. Dean: A water fountain on the street, or where you sit on the bus — these are pretty trivial too, until it becomes a matter of people of certain groups being excluded from the water fountains in the centre of town, excluded from the seats at the front of the bus. Then it becomes segregation.

    So here the “seats on the bus” are character roles in an animated series on the tv and a movie in the multiplexes, dig? In one, the seats at the front of the bus — the roles of the heroes — were occupied by Asians, and this was absolutely fine, great in fact because it’s really fucking rare. In the other, suddenly those seats at the front were given over to white actors, and this is absolutely not-fine because it’s standard fucking practice. Hollywood functions on a chickenshit belief that casting Asians in those “front seat” roles makes movies unmarketable; as long as it does so, Hollywood is practicing segregation.

    That it works like this is established fact, openly admitted by the studios that explicitly rejected “Falling for Grace” on that very basis. If you’re openly accepting that only white people get to sit in the seats in the front of the bus because otherwise white people might take their custom elsewhere, you’re openly accepting segregation.

    Dude, if you see segregation in the media as trivial, I find it hard not to imagine you dismissing the Civil Rights struggles of the ’60s: “Pffft! What does it matter *where* you sit on the bus? You’re making a big deal out of nothing. No doubt, you’d never be satisfied with anything.”

    What’s the difference, after all? If it’s only a character role in a movie, it’s only… a seat on a bus.

    I mean, you can’t understand that people who deal with this sort of shit every day might care as much about being turfed out of the foreground action and sent to the background of the movie as about being turfed out of a front seat and sent to the back of the bus? Really?

  13. Hal, a slightly off-topic question.
    What’s your view on the fact that it is a rarity (if it exist at all), that An asian-american male character gets to kiss a girl (of any colour) on screen in a movie? We’re not talking romantic roles, there are plenty of side character roles that have romance too. This is especially strange compare to Asian American female characters that tends to always end up being a love interest of some kind?

    Is it safe to call it racism? Or is it some kind of weird racial construct/framework that I cannot comprehend?

  14. I think that’s completely *on*-topic, N. It fits pretty neatly with the relegation of Asian characters to secondary status — male characters as sidekicks, female characters as sex objects, to paint it in the crudest terms. (There are other stock roles, of course, distinct from those associated with other ethnicities — shop-keepers and mystic mentors rather than angry police chiefs. Abjection takes different paths for different abjects, as I say. But you get my point about the exclusion from central character status, right?)

    So, a kiss in a movie is generally a dramatically purposed key action, a moment that has meaning — usually as a resolution of sexual tension. Obviously if you’ve got a loving couple, you might see the odd “domestic kiss” — a peck on the cheek to say hello or goodbye — that’s not particularly important; but if we’re talking most mainstream Hollywood movies, rom-coms and action/adventures, a kiss is more likely to be a Significant Moment. And it’s the protagonists that get these Significant Moments.

    Thing is, over-use of such a key action will lessen its impact, so if you’re going to have a big “dramatic kiss” in your movie — a liplocking smacker to express desire — you want to give it to the central characters of the A Story. It’s giving those sort of moments to those characters that *make* them central, *make* their story the A Story. Even if you have a sub-plot, a B Story, in which the hero’s Asian buddy has his own love interest, you’re not going to give them a big screen-kiss in case that dissipates the impact when the hero gets *his* girl. You might well signal that they’ve got together, but it’ll be backgrounded, because ultimately their romance is “not important to the [core] story,” to use the phrase so beloved of those who blithely accept segregation.

    Of course, dramatically speaking, it’s perfectly justifiable to not squander screentime and distract from the core story by giving B characters a Significant Moment in which they eat each other’s faces. If you’re not aware of the underlying segregation by which male Asians are almost always B characters rather than A characters (with female Asians largely only getting A status as love interests,) all you see is a “good story,” one in which the writers have wisely focused on what really matters. But if you notice it, that rarity you point at is a palpable absence, a sign of abjection. In such a segregated media, every time a member of the abjected group notices that absence, it’s like a coded message: *you* are not worthy of protagonist status; *you* can never be a hero; *you* can never get the girl.

    And that, as far as I’m concerned, isn’t remotely justifiable.

  15. [continued from above]

    Is it safe to call this racism then? Well, “safe” isn’t the same thing as “fair.”

    In one sense, it’s *not* safe because those who don’t see the segregation, don’t see the message; and they’ll jump to defensive posturings of how you must be “reading too much into it,” because they just loved that “good story” and saw the B characters as perfectly sympathetic, not figures of fear and hate, not loaded with negative sentiments, with prejudice. If there’s an inkling of recognition that you have a point, I suspect that’s when they’re most likely to react with emotionally-loaded denials that they hold even the slightest animosity to the abject. The movie isn’t actively and aggressively prejudiced. *They’re* not actively and aggressively prejudiced. And since that’s what racism is to them, it’ll come out as “not racist.” And that’s when the shitstorm blows up. That’s why it’s not “safe”.

    I think it’s fair though. Segregation is born of abjection, and abjection on the basis of ethnicity is racism. Just like abjection on the basis of homosexuality is homophobia. It may be systemic, institutionalised. It may be manifest in individuals not as an active and aggressive prejudice, but simply as a passive acceptance of the status quo in which the abject is abjected. But it’s still effectively an *essential injustice* in the way people are treated according to markers of deviance such as skin colour. It’s still wired into their/our world-view, a prejudicial filter on how they/we see the world. It manifests in blind spots as much as in bigotries. And on so many levels, it’s complicity that keeps the system going as much as active and aggressive prejudice. I might personally cut people slack for passive acceptance of The Way It Is, but I’m damn well not going to criticise others for blasting an often infuriating ignorance.

    But another question: is it *productive* to call this racism? Me, I worry that the moral judgement loaded into the term makes the defensive posturing inevitable, an automatic response that kicks in before any thought is given to the actual complaints. That’s a large part of why the terms “racist” and “racism” are entirely absent from my column. Rather than try to redefine people’s notion of what these terms mean, to include the systemic mechanisms of injustice that are the nub of the issue in this case — in the face of a knee-jerk “I’ve not done that Evil Bigotry Thing! I’m not that Evil Bigot!” response — I’m aiming to throw this obscure concept at the denialists, trying to explain what it is, how it works, and hoping that the clarity and precision I see in it will make it hit home for them. It’s a flanking maneuver, you could say.

    This is a personal… tactic of discourse though. Ultimately, I have no authority to play expert on how others should treat the sort of aspect of segregation you identify, to deem whether “it’s safe to call it racism,” like my white male opinion is what matters here. If I did, how much would that be the sort of paternalism I was talking about with Rebecca? So I’ll analyse the situation to fuck, be open about my own opinions, but it’s not my call to any greater degree than it’s *yours*.

  16. Thanks Hal, that’s a very insightful response. It’s absolutely refreshing to read an intelligent discussion as oppose to the “You’re being too sensitive!”, “Stop playing the race card” and the most common “Just shut the fuck up” response I seem to see whenever a similar topic is brought up.

    Back to Airbender. I remember getting a bit caught up with argument in relation to M. Night Shyamalan’s casting of Patel and co. as the main characters in the fire nation. I called the act of the casting racist (not M. Night Shyamalan himself) and got some interesting responses.

    While it might be significant to acknowledge that originally the role was given to Jesse McCarthy (or whoever he is), I still have a lot of problem with Patel playing Zuko – while it’s not “racebending”, it’s still “ethnic-bending”. In the original material, the fire nation is distinctively east-asian, with a lot of references to feudal Japan and China. In the movie (from the screenshots/previews I’ve seen), the armor, clothing, background etc. still holds strong reference to the eastern asia references.

    It’s even more frustrating to see M. Night Shyamalan using this as his get-out-of-jail card. Just because South Asians and East Asians are labelled under the same term – “Asian” – in racial discussions, this doesn’t the two are interchangable. Their cultures/appearances are beautiful in their own different ways, but they are not the same thing. For me, it is quite ridiculous to see a South Asia playing a character named Zhao, especially one that’s wearing clothing/armor that is obviously chinese-inspired. (For the record, I will equally be pissed seeing a Korean/Chinese/Japanese actor playing a character called Tendulkar wearing traditional indian clothing)

    It’s even more interesting to consider that M. Night Shyamalan is an Indian-American himself, so one would assume that he would be able to tell the cast differences between the two ethnics and not to treat them as just some sort of quota. (i.e. His argument that Indians are Asian-American too!)

    Don’t get me wrong, I would love to see more South-Asian actors in the cinemas. And even though I do like John Cho, there is little doubt that Kal Penn is the star in the Harold and Kumar series. But I feel that because of the original material, these roles should be played by East-Asian actors, rather than South-Asian actors.

    Reading your response earlier, I started to think that maybe I shouldn’t have used the word ‘racist’ to described the miscasting. However, I’m struggling to find a substitude word as M. Night Shyamalan seem to have a complete disregard in acknowledging the differences of two very different ethnics. Perhaps ‘bigot casting’ is a better term?

    And for the record, our (at least my family and friends) definition of the word ‘racist’ seems to a bit different to the main-stream media understanding of the word. For example we are happy to label a chinese person as a ‘racist’ or havecommitted ‘racism’ when he starts to make derogatory comments against a Japanese person purely because of the past attrocities the Japanese Military had committed in the WWII. For us, any act of unfairness committed due to the ethnicity of person will be considered racism. In fact, it’s quite common for one to commit racism against their own ethnicity.

    So as you (kind of) touched on earlier, maybe the reason that there is such a gap of opinions whenever the notion of ‘racism’ is brought up in a discussion is because people have a different definition of what ‘racism’ is?

  17. N: Yes, I’m with you in regards to Patel’s casting in that respect too. While it’s great to see a young Asian actor get a major role like Zuko… even apart from the symbolic effect of having the one dark-skinned main cast member as villain/antihero, it’s not really any more ethnically apt than if the character was played by a Middle Eastern actor. Like, most of Turkey is in Asia; that doesn’t mean Turkish and, say, Japanese can be lumped together as merely subtly different flavours of a basic “Asian” ethnicity.

    How about “colourblinkered casting” as a term? Because Shyamalan’s approach, as he defends it, is supposed to be “colourblind,” simply casting the best actor for the role, regardless of colour. Functionally though, the willful disregard of ethnicity plays out as a reduction of vision, an inability to see what is in the margins, a refusal to recognise that the margins are even there. Like, the notion of “blinkers” speaks to the problems glossed over (or even created by) the notion of “colourblindness”. Just an off-the-cuff thought sparked by your comment. Intuitively, it feels like there’s something useful in that direction, meanings to be unpacked.

    I’m with you also on that broad definition of racism. A lot of the problems in the discourse I see as emerging from closed definitions that narrow it in different, incompatible ways. The denialists close the definition to exclude unconscious and systemic abjection — all manner of abjection indeed, anything that is not active and aggressive prejudice. Meanwhile there are many who hold to an academic definition in which ethnic-oriented prejudice is not racism unless it’s bound to privilege. Put these two together and… boom.

    Anyway, glad you’re appreciating the discussion. I’m still waiting for the “You’re being too sensitive!” protestations myself, but Dean’s “You’ve gone way too deep” is the nearest we’ve got to that — and even that comment is not dismissing it all as hysterical unreason, to give him due credit. It’s more perhaps what I term the YNSTRILT Fallacy (You’re Not Supposed To Read It Like That). Or maybe the IDSISINT Fallacy (I Don’t See It So It’s Not There). Those are the general types of denial I tend to run into with readers/viewers who appreciate a “good story” and don’t want to have that enjoyment sullied by you pointing to an ethical dubiety in the semiotics, a questionable moral message that may be blatant to members of an abject group but often goes unnoticed by those outside it.

    But yeah. So far, so good; we’ll see where it goes from here.

  18. Hal: “…the willful disregard of ethnicity plays out as a reduction of vision, an inability to see what is in the margins, a refusal to recognise that the margins are even there.”

    But isn’t that how it’s supposed to work? Wasn’t “race doesn’t matter” supposed to be the goal all along?

    There seems to be this weird turning away from race-neutrality in the whole RaceFail debate; an insistence that, in the end, Being Non-White Really IS One Of The Important Things About You. I mean, if completely discounting race is itself an act of racism, then how can anyone act in a non-racist way?

    We’re damned no matter what we do; if we depict Other characters as having identifiably Other traits then we’re accused of cultural appropriation, insensitivity, of using “actors in rubber masks”; if we depict Other characters as being the same as the rest of our characters only with different skin color then it’s “a refusal to accept that the margins are even there”; and if we avoid using Other characters entirely then it’s “looks like your story is a Whites Only club”. Small wonder that so many people get so mad about the debate, or withdraw from it altogether.

    Much of the problem, to me, seems to be coming from the same place as the “homage/ripoff” debate. I liked this, so it’s an homage (or, perhaps, a very effective and respectful use of other cultural elements). I didn’t like that, so it’s a ripoff (or cultural appropriation). You say yourself (when you refer to Richard Morgan) that not everyone agrees on these topics; which, to me, means that it’s as much a matter of interpretation as anything else.

    The fundamental issue is that we’ve all been trained since birth to see racism as The Worst Thing You Can Do, so when we see something that looks like racism it tweaks our conditioned Two Minutes Hate reflexes.

  19. The fundamental issue is that we’ve all been trained since birth to see racism as The Worst Thing You Can Do, so when we see something that looks like racism it tweaks our conditioned Two Minutes Hate reflexes.

    Way I see it, sure, there’s an issue that racism is now a moral transgression. By which I mean, it’s perceived as a cut-and-dry Bad Thing in the way that murder or theft is. Sounds fair enough, right? But the reason I see that as an issue? Because previous Bad Things have included homosexuality and miscegenation. The issue is with mores in general, how they work.

    Seems to me, the conventional ethics that works in terms of moral dicta, defining acts as Bad Things like that, as transgressions of the Natural/Social/Divine Order, is ethically retarded — and I mean “retarded” in its literal sense. It’s what Kohlberg calls the law-and-order mentality, a worldview in which acts can be essentially positioned on a spectrum from forbidden (must not) through permissable (may but should not) via discretional (should but may not) to mandatory (must). In that worldview, Goodness is a matter of not transgressing the moral order — i.e. the system of moral dicta. And of enforcing the moral order indeed; there’s a lynchpin moral dictum that to punish a crime by shaming the perpetrator, by heaping moral outrage upon them, is a Good Thing, a discretional/mandatory act which increases one’s Goodness.

    But here’s the rub. Propagating the system is also, in that system, a Good Thing. So teaching your child not to be racist or homophobic is a Good Thing. Unless, of course, the system has defined miscegenation and homosexuality as Bad Things, in which case teaching your child to react with knee-jerk moral outrage in the face of such pernicious “threats to the fabric of society” is an absolute and unquestionable moral imperative. Shit, half the time that system defines questioning the moral dicta as a Bad Thing.

    This is why I don’t trust that worldview, why I have an issue with “Thou shalt not be racist” as a moral dictum. Sure, the actual dicta often function pretty well as rules-of-thumb. And our current conventional moral order is informed by countless generations of individuals exercising ethical judgement rather than moral dicta, fighting tooth-and-nail to reform the system (translation: getting ethical retards to understand that miscegenation and homosexuality, etc., are not Bad Things.) We’ve scrapped a lot of unjust moral dicta and replaced them with better ones, born of egalitarian principles rather than insane prejudices. But it’s still an infantile mode of ethical thought based on subscribing to, enforcing, propagating and defending moral dicta as essential truths.

    My worry: the moral outrage that erupts to enforce a dictum like “Thou shalt not be racist” may actually, I’d argue, strengthen that system as a whole, reinforcing the idea that Goodness resides in playing by the rules — whatever they are — rather than exercising one’s ethical judgement. And the various mechanisms and results of ethnicity-oriented abjection — psychological, interpersonal and societal — are too complex to all be collapsed into a single crime of racism, I’d say, placed deep into the zone of “must not.” The only way to navigate here is to exercise one’s ethical judgement.

  20. I mean, if completely discounting race is itself an act of racism, then how can anyone act in a non-racist way?

    Thing is, it’s not about acting in a non-racist way. This is to assume that the system of moral dicta is actually consistent and complete, such that by following all the rules we can stay within that system, subsist in a state of Goodness. It’s to assume that there’s a way of acting that is essentially non-racist, one that can be codified in simple moral dicta, a system by which one can live one’s life in the certainty that by doing this and not doing that one will remain Good.

    Or rather, to unpack it properly, to ask this rhetorical question is to protest the inconsistencies that trap us in a double-bind where we’ll inevitably put a foot wrong, lose our Goodness, and end up subject to moral outrage — but to do so with an implicit acceptance that the system is the only choice. But if I try to do Good Things, it says, I can only end up doing Bad Things. Taken as a literal question, it’s a request for a strategy of behaviour by which one can avoid perpetrating the crime of racism, in this situation where following one rule — “Thou shalt not pay attention to race” — inevitably brings us into conflict with another — “Thou shalt not disregard the margins.” Given the “But isn’t that how it’s supposed to work?” you’re kind of asking why we can’t just stick with a simple “Thou shalt not pay attention to race,” as a familiar and established axiom.

    It’s a common response in the discourse, as you say. If you can’t/don’t question the system, seeing it as unworkable just leads to moral panic, a terror/horror of being shamed for the unintentional transgressions. Note that all the options you give in the “damned whatever we do” scenario — and “damned” is a significant term here — set up an action as automatically entailing a response of moral outrage, as infringements of this or that essential rule. Faced with the double-binds wired into the system, fearing (and often resenting) the inevitable condemnation for doing Bad Things, people throw their hands up in the air and walk away, saying, “everything I do is a Bad Thing, far as you’re concerned; nothing I can do will ever constitute a Good Thing for you.” If they stay in the debate, that response is usually reconfigured as an increasingly frustrated request for rules that aren’t inconsistent: “OK, so how do I need to act to not be racist? What Good Things do I need to do, and what Bad Things do I need to not do?”

    Simple answer: exercise your ethical judgement; stop assuming that some set of reductive moral dicta will allow you to subsist in a state of Goodness.

    Unfortunately, in the discourse, these sort of pleas for clarity in the rules are usually going on amid the very moral outrage the angst is focused on, an outrage driven by entirely justified anger at abjection, but bound into a mechanism of social shaming that has all the sophistication of a sledgehammer. (There are arguments that such verbal bludgeoning is necessary to force denialists to see the problems; I see that point, but my own judgement is that they’re counter-productive.) With the moral outrage already rolling, that law-and-order mentality already in action, those sort of questions may well be taken as rhetorical challenges to the system, challenges that need to be met with a vigorous defense. The sledgehammer may be turned on you for undermining the integrity of a moral dictum that’s considered crucial in the struggle for equality, and for doing this when your key concern is with your own Goodness. Some will see this as placing the responsibility on the abject to do your ethical thinking for you, and they’ll respond with… varying degrees of consideration for your situation, shall we say? Maybe they’ll offer some broad principles, strategies for dealing with the minefield, but the specificity of such may allow them to be taken as yet more moral dicta to add to the complexity.

    Me, I say those moral dicta are for children. Forget about “acting in a non-racist way,” and aim to understand the mechanisms of abjection so that you can recognise the subtler inequities and iniquities born of them, in any given context. Then apply empathy and integrity in order to counteract those mechanisms where possible.

    Ultimately, the choice is not between depicting the Other as “having identifiably Other traits” or depicting the Other as “being the same as the rest of our characters only with different skin color.” The choice is between depicting the Other in accordance with received wisdom, not depicting the Other at all because the received wisdom is too hard to follow, and depicting the Other with an understanding of how depictions of the Other work, how they can employ such traits in various ways — some that actively reinforce a state of abjection by playing into a demonising semiotics, some that passively acquiesce to a state of abjection by overlooking the distinct treatment meted out to some on the basis that they have this particular trait. Where abjection persists, the first option is complacency and the second is complicity. The third is the practice by which one employs and thereby improves one’s ethical judgement. If, in doing so, someone slams you for having done a Bad Thing, you should be looking to augment your understanding of how abjection works by making sense of their reaction. You should not be angsting over whether or not this means you’ve fallen from a state of Goodness.

  21. Thanks for the reply! I agree with what you’re saying in these comments, and in your essay.

    “…an outrage driven by entirely justified anger at abjection, but bound into a mechanism of social shaming that has all the sophistication of a sledgehammer. ”

    Exactly. And it seems to me that a lot of the people doing that hammering are entirely too pleased to be swinging the hammer, but that’s a different discussion entirely.

    “The third is the practice by which one employs and thereby improves one’s ethical judgement. If, in doing so, someone slams you for having done a Bad Thing, you should be looking to augment your understanding of how abjection works by making sense of their reaction. You should not be angsting over whether or not this means you’ve fallen from a state of Goodness.”

    This is exactly what I think. Too many people on both sides of the discussion focus more on the words than on the reasons; they insist that the forms are the important thing. (Much the same as the moral dicta discussed earlier.)

  22. To Hal and DensityDuck:

    In regards to DensityDuck’s interpretation of:
    “…an outrage driven by entirely justified anger at abjection, but bound into a mechanism of social shaming that has all the sophistication of a sledgehammer.” which I think is a good example of quoting out of context and seeing things he/she only wanted to see.

    From what I interpretated, Hal is questioning the methodology how a problem is solved, rather than questioning whether the problem exists or not.

    The trouble is that being the minority, how do we get our voices heard in a more finesse way? How can we convince other people that the existing system is hurting us and will continue to hurt us in the near future unless something is done?

    The sad truth is, for the majority of people anyway, ‘discrimination’ can only be seen when blood can be seen or when lives are lost. But ‘discrimination’ occurs at a much higher rate than that.

    While there are many that are more sympathetic (such as Hal), they are sympathetic because they have the ability to empathize and wants to empathize in the first place. However, most people in the majority does not possess the ability to empathize or choose not to.

    Unless we kick and scream, how do we get our messages across when the majority of people are covering their ears (or unknowingly have ear-plugs permanently placed in their ears)?

  23. “However, most people in the majority does not possess the ability to empathize or choose not to.”

    Wow. You go in with this assumption and you wonder you’ve got such trouble getting people to agree with you? I mean, your default assumption is that the people you’re talking to are stupid or evil or both!

    “Unless we kick and scream, how do we get our messages across when the majority of people are covering their ears (or unknowingly have ear-plugs permanently placed in their ears)?”

    Well, but there it is–you’re assuming that because this person did something that “looks wrong”, that they did a wrong thing on purpose for wrong reasons. You start the conversation with that attitude and it’s no wonder that you get so much pushback. Maybe what needs to happen is less of “I’m a morally superior and wiser person who is going to dictate terms to you” and more of “I need to understand why this hurts me and express it to this person and accept the fact that they might not agree with me”.

    Because that last is another big thing about this kind of debate; there’s this attitude that “you hurt me and we aren’t done here until you say you’re sorry and MEAN IT (crosses arms)” Sometimes what happened wasn’t racist–it was just dumb. All those Golden Age SF stories that had rockets doing impossible things weren’t “culturally appropriative” of the concepts behind rocketry, and they weren’t biased against the concept of space travel.

  24. DensityDuck:

    You’re ascribing a moralistic judgement to what N is saying that I don’t see at all. N isn’t talking in terms of Bad Things, far as I can see, people doing a “wrong thing on purpose for the wrong reasons.” N’s comment simply picks up on the point I made about certain styles of arguments being seen as necessary simply to get through to denialists. How does the abject make themself heard if abjection delegitimises their voice? How does the abject make the mechanisms of abjection apparent to the normative, if those mechanisms function partly by creating a state of disacknowledgement of abjection on the part of the normative? Those are the key questions N is asking, with no accusation of Badness.

    And the questions are fair. If you understand the notion of abjection, this process of absenting is part of it. That which was once part of us, and still in reality is, on some level, is segregated out by markers of deviance, excluded as other, absented. The abject is, as the abject, standing outside the town hall, at a sign which reads “No abject allowed,” and the only way to get that sign removed is to raise a motion at the council meeting the abject can’t attend because of that sign. So for many the only option seems to be to stand at the doorway and shout. Angrily and aggressively. As I say, I don’t see a sledgehammer moral outrage approach as the only strategy — I see it as pragmatically flawed, in fact — but the questions N asks of how we get our voices heard are questions that need to be asked.

    See, N’s assumption that obliviousness is a baseline state of the majority isn’t, I think, that unfair. Where N says that for most, discrimination is only recognised when it’s a matter of concrete physical harm — blood seen, lives lost — this is, I think, an accurate representation. At very least, it is a wholly understandable perception on the part of the abject. As a writer, and a queer one to boot, I’m attuned to subtexts that are basically blood libel, absences from narrative positions that constitute segregation; but the sheer popularity of works that are open to critique in that manner speaks of an audience that is overwhelmingly oblivious of those issues. This whole column addresses mechanisms of abjection in mainstream media that the majority of the mainstream audience simply don’t recognise. This does not mean all the individual members of that audience are doing Bad Things. It simply means that a state of abjection persists, and one effect of that state is this obliviousness.

    Put it this way: Where the abject can hardly help but be aware of every water fountain with a sign that says, “Normative Only,” the normative rarely notice those signs at all, because they’re not the ones who have to go to the ghetto to find a water fountain built for them. I watch 300, for example, and I see the boy-loving Spartans painted as red-blooded hetero heros who dismiss Athenians with a homophobic “nation of boy-lovers,” fighting nobly against Persians who are demonised and feminised in the crudest manner. Xerxes is pretty much a monstrous queer. Do the majority see the mechanisms of abjection in that movie? Do the majority taste the poison in the water of that water-fountain? Most of the criticism I’ve seen of that movie have been about the historical spuriousness and/or the puerile wankery of the power-fantasy.

    So, I don’t think N is being unfair in positing obliviousness as the norm.

  25. Well, but there it is–you’re assuming that because this person did something that “looks wrong”, that they did a wrong thing on purpose for wrong reasons.

    Thing is, this is patently not the case; N explicitly, albeit parenthetically, allows for the figurative ear plugs to be there unknowingly. That’s pretty much the opposite of your characterisation. Yes, N takes your reading of my response as an example of selective hearing, but there’s no condemnation of this as a Bad Thing done for malice; this is simply a springboard into a comment that posits a state of denial and asks how we combat it. There is no hint of blaming and shaming. Nothing N says functions as an accusation that the majority, in their obliviousness, are transgressing some moral dictum and thereby losing Goodness. There is not a word in their comment that justifies a reading of “I’m a morally superior and wiser person who is going to dictate terms to you.” N simply asserts that obliviousness is the norm, that this is how it is, that this is the problematic situation we need to figure out how to deal with.

    I mean, your default assumption is that the people you’re talking to are stupid or evil or both!

    No, the default assumption N articulates is that people cannot or will not empathise. This is not a judgement of intellect, just of capacity for empathy. I think the articulation is problematic, but not entirely irrational. Yes, if one takes it as an essentialist statement about human nature in all given contexts, that the majority of people either cannot or will not relate to their fellow human beings with empathy (ever!), it seems like a terribly misanthropic assertion that we’re all functionally psychopathic, either by nature or by choice. And that doesn’t seem terribly realistic. However, if you add a bit of context, in terms of how we tend to react to strangers versus families and tribes, how we apply empathy selectively, how abjecton affects our ability to empathise with the abject, it’s not neccesarily a wholesale dismissal of human benevolence that explains why obviously people aren’t going to pay attention to the crazy talk.

    Abjection is, by its very nature, corrosive of empathy. Again, it is founded on a rejection of the abject as a legitimate part of us, Othering them in order to define identity, the group Self, by negation; the abject is the opposite of simpatico. Abjection is powered, at its heart, by revulsion, by disgust, by an antipathy that defies sympathy. It’s moralistic, defining the abject as an essential transgression of the Natural Order, as something that must be expunged accordingly; to enforce, propagate and defend abjection is a Good Thing in that system of mores; to abjure compassion is a practical requirement of Goodness. Predicated on a denial that the abject is of us, abjection functionally is a reversal of the recognition of similitude that is the very root of empathy. It might well be positioned conceptually as the polar opposite of empathy.

    So, to say that where a state of abjection persists, the majority are incapable of or unwilling to empathise with the abject is reductive, but to say that their/our empathy is limited in very basic, pervasive and sometimes subtle ways, that they/we are consciously or unconsciously participating in a denial of empathy — this is simply to say what abjection is. It’s not a condemnation of people as stupid or evil or both. It’s an interpretation of psychological, interpersonal and societal patterns of behaviour, of mechanisms of intellectual and emotional conduct, of how they scale up to large-scale inequities in society. It’s an attempt to get to the root of these inequities with an analysis that comes to a conclusion: people abject.

    N’s comment does focus on your response, read it as filtered by the mechanisms of abjection, but the point N is making seems to me entirely devoid of the moral judgementalism you’re criticising. The extent to which the law-and-order mentality is powered by self-righteous pride in one’s own Goodness is, as you say, another discussion, and I could easily argue both ways on the application of punitive disapprobation, but I’m not interested in simply replaying the scenario of moral outrage versus moral panic. I hope you can appreciate that, because you’re bristling at an attitude in N’s comment that I don’t see. I see no attempt to set the terms, mete out recriminations or demand apologies, so there’s no need to push back against that here. I see no claim of moral superiority, just a sad awareness that all too often people just don’t get it.

  26. It may well be just me, but when I see someone make a judgemental statement such as “most people in the majority does not possess the ability to empathize or choose not to”, then I interpret that as the judger claiming moral or intellectual or empathetic superiority; after all, if you aren’t superior, then how can you judge well enough claim that someone else is in error?

    I’m not arguing against the notion that someone might have a better ability to express empathy (or I’m not _trying_ to argue against it, at least.) I do think that many of these discussions involve unconscious assumptions of superiority. Indeed, it might be that the biggest problem in a lot of cases is that both sides of the discussion have issues developing empathy with their subject.

    Heck, I think that what’s happening here is exactly what’s been going on in these conversations–just about a different thing. “You look like you’re claiming that you’re superior.” “Well, I didn’t mean to.” “Maybe so, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t!”


    “Again, it is founded on a rejection of the abject as a legitimate part of us, Othering them in order to define identity, the group Self, by negation; the abject is the opposite of simpatico.”

    I certainly agree with you here. I think it’s no mistake that abjection often involves portrayals of the Other as inferior (and there’s that assumption of superiority again.)


    “Abjection is powered, at its heart, by revulsion, by disgust, by an antipathy that defies sympathy. It’s moralistic, defining the abject as an essential transgression of the Natural Order, as something that must be expunged accordingly; to enforce, propagate and defend abjection is a Good Thing in that system of mores; to abjure compassion is a practical requirement of Goodness.”

    I don’t know if I’d go that far. Rousseau and the other primitivists didn’t think that precivilized cultures were inferior wastes that deserved to be exterminated. Abjection can occur even when someone’s motives are to exemplify and uphold an ideal.

  27. … if you aren’t superior, then how can you judge well enough claim that someone else is in error?

    Experience. I mean, I see that quote as basically an empirical reckoning. As a member of one abject group, I don’t have to be any Gooder, smarter or more caring to have experienced the pointy end of selective empathy on the basis of where I stick my dick. So if I say that the majority of us withhold empathy from the abject, consciously or unconsciously, I’m not laying claim to a moral, intellectual or empathetic status by which I’m entitled to look down my nose at the hoi poloi with snootcocking snipewankery. I’m just saying that in my experience the majority of us withhold empathy, consciously or unconsciously, as part of a process of abjection. The relevant experience is that which comes with being a member of an abjected group, living with a general indifference to inequities like blood libel and segregation in the media. The experience is of struggling to make people actually put themselves in the position of the abject, emotionally speaking, and being met with, “You’re reading too much into it.” It’s of seeing people dismiss your bitter mumblings about the straightironing of Achilles in TROY because they don’t afford it any weight, because they’re not really understanding what it is to care. They’re not empathising.

    Founding a judgement on that experience is not claiming an elevated moral, intellectual or empathetic status. Remember, in the column I explictly say that “we’re all normative in some respect and prone to do this.” Which is to say, I’m sure those sneaky mechanisms of abjection are at play in my own psyche. I’m not actually arguing that anyone has a better ability to express empathy. Having the experience of being in one abject group might make you more likely to recognise abjection in general and engage with it, but you might as easily just carry on being a queer white male as indifferent to inequities based on skin colour as the average straight white male. Having that experience might motivate you to aim for a more ethical, intelligent and empathetic approach to life in general — which would largely, I kinda think, require rejecting the unprincipled, foolish and disdainful mentality of self-righteousness — but it might just as well grind you down into a moralistic, sophistic and contemptuous churl. All of that is tangential. The key point: Not having that experience doesn’t mean that when someone makes a judgement on the basis of such experience, they’re saying you’re a lesser person, morally, ethically or empathetically.

    One thing to bear in mind is that part of that experience is of trying to explain the experience, trying to talk about the systemic problems, the subtler inequities, the empathic barriers — and finding that where some dismiss it because they just don’t care, many who do care dismiss it with a protest against the challenge to their moral status. They care so deeply about not being active or complicit participants in such a shameful iniquity that any shadow of a finger pointed in their direction (ironically) raises an empathic barrier — even if the actual finger is pointed elsewhere, at the system. Like, if I say that the majority of us withhold empathy from the abject, consciously or unconsciously, you can almost guarantee that someone will hear it as, “You don’t care about the abject!” and respond with, “How dare you?!” An empirical reckoning is recast as moral judgement and rejected as illegitimate.

    It doesn’t help, I think, that the moment someone does that other fingers will be turned to point at them in moral outrage. Nor does it help that because this functions as a dismissal of experience it becomes part of the experience of abjection, as frustrating as, “You’re reading too much into it.” Nor that the usual terms of the discourse are hard not to take as accusations of personal culpability for the most heinous of Bad Things. Nor that a response protesting a wrongful accusation is in itself an implicit accusation of moral, intellectual or empathic failure. I could go on, but it all comes down to moralistic thought, as far as I’m concerned. Shitstorms are inevitable when you’re dealing with moralists.

    The point is, the empirical reckoning is either accurate or not, regardless of the shitstorm that rages around it. Me, I have no qualms about a statement like that, because it meshes with my own experience. I reckon a fair whack of people will share that experience, and those who do won’t see such a judgement as particularly shocking or presumptuous.

  28. In terms of Rousseau and the primitivists, see my response to Rebecca upthread, in terms of how infantilism redefines the abject. I’d say we’re talking about a base state of abjection characterisable in terms of disgust, antipathy, morality, transgression and ultimately extermination, but that you’ve got processes that complexify it all. Fetishising, infantilising & paternalistic modes of relating to the Other, modes that flip disgust into desire, seek to subjugate rather than exterminate, revere rather than revile. And so on. These are evolutions of the system, like the stock tropes developed out of the wholly negative stereotype by the redemption narrative.

    Thing is, yes, you could say that these are types of abjection occurring “even when someone’s motives are to exemplify and uphold an ideal,” but I don’t think that’s incompatible with my characterisation of basic abjection. Indeed, I’d say that vicious abjection is all about exemplifying and upholding an ideal — an ideal Self defined in the exclusion of the abject.

  29. Great post.

    & by the way:
    N >And for the record, our (at least my family and friends) definition of the word ‘racist’ seems to a bit different to the main-stream media understanding of the word. For example we are happy to label a chinese person as a ‘racist’ or have committed ‘racism’ when he starts to make derogatory comments against a Japanese person purely because of the past attrocities the Japanese Military had committed in the WWII. For us, any act of unfairness committed due to the ethnicity of person will be considered racism.

    Wow. All the derogatory words in the world cannot be weighted against the suffering and horror inflicted on us by your people. You’re right, it isn’t fair, but not in the way you think it is.
    It is my understanding that racism is backed by power; the person without privilege in the situation isn’t racist against the one with privilege.

  30. @W

    I’m confused at what you’re saying. BTW, my ethicity is actually Chinese and yes, I have read about the Rape of Nanjing and stuff and my blood does boil when some asshole Japanese Professor tries to deny it happened or those overly nationalist/supremist idiots (though that applies to every nation/ethnic I suppose)…

    But you actually think it’s okay for a person of chinese ethnicity to be hostile to a person of Japanese ethnicity JUST because he’s Japanese based on what happened then?
    I’m very confused.

    I really don’t see that power is a necessary component to create racism. I have had bums or drunks telling me to “Go back to Fucking China” (Eventhough I’ve never set foot in China myself), so they obviously have no ‘power’ to ‘deport’ me (Back to LA I suppose?). So that’s not racism?

    But I agree that if power is apply to racism (or any form of discrimination, really), it can cause a lot more damage.

    * Hey DensityDuck, see, I’m not very good at empathy myself.

  31. @DensityDuck

    Who said you have to be intelligent to have the ability to have a capacity of empathy? (I certainly haven’t) In fact, most of the people I’ve meet that holds supremist views (which generally is the most extreme in terms of a lack of capacity of empathy) are Ivy-league trained or had gone to very privileged colleges and would generally be considered as very intelligent.

    Another candidate for this Mr. Murdoch and the direction he has given to his wonderfully objective media outlets. Michelle Malkin has a college degree (I think, I never studied her life in detail) and judging from the books that she’ve published, I really doubt empathy is a large component of her pyschological make-up.

    And Hal, I’m guessing I’m less optimistic in relation to human being’s ability to empathize. I like the term you brought up though, it was something I haven’t heard before – Selective Empathy – and that’s the word that matches the intent of my post much more accurately (Thanks Hal, guess I learn something new everyday).

    SO I’m happy to take my words back on that regard, that it’s not that humans does not have the capacity for empathy, it’s just that most are extremely selective about it.

    (Happy now, DensityDuck?)

    But DensityDuck, while you were happy to make accusations at me, you never answered my core question. How do minorities get their messages across and change a system (heck, even a discussion of a change would be nice) that is not working for them? If kicking and screaming isn’t the answer (which I agree is not efficient, but the problem is that it seems to be the most efficient method I can think of!), what is? Praying that the people that doesn’t ‘get it’ (which led to the flawed system in the first place) suddenly just miraculously ‘gets it’?

    I don’t think letting things be will work. Obviously I don’t and I can’t speak for everyone but my generalisation comes from reading the arguments and reactions of the more recent events such as the Arizona immigration laws, Same-sex marriage in the US and The CNN “Dolls” test (Which I used as a bridge to discuss Hollywood). And I recall very heated arguments at a family gathering not long ago about these three issues.

    An uncle supports the Arizona laws. So I asked, “So if there was an influx of illegal Chinese workers in California and Calfornia introduces the same laws. And every second day at lunch you are questioned and have your ID checked, while the rest of your work mates enjoyed their lunch peacefully because of their non-illegal skin colour. Or one day you just happen to forgot your wallet and phone while you’re out and you got locked up with drunks and criminals for a night just because of your skin color. How do you feel?”

    To an Auntie (who is deeply religious, to be fair) who opposes gay-marriages, “Imagine if you’re told that it’s illegal for you and uncle are not allowed to get married because of your skin color?”

    And for the ‘Dolls test’ (Which I tried to tied to the Hollywood whitewashing phenomomen), we have a discussion at the table and I said, “Imagine there was a toy shop that specialises in making very realistic Baby dolls and one that sells them in different shades of skin colors. For promotions, they invited 200 little girls and they could choose whatever dolls they want and can have have it for free. And at the end of day, all the white baby dolls are gone, all the black baby dolls remain and you have a segment of little girls who said they only chose the slighty skin tone dolls because they white dolls have run out. You’re the shop owner and you just picked up an asian-looking baby dolls that had been stepped on as the little girls rushed for the white one. So how do you feel about it.” Then I explain to them that’s the exact situation it has been happened in Hollywood.

    By the end of the day the result of discussion was that for the ones that didn’t care, they still don’t care and these are people that I know well, educated and I tried to used examples where it becomes relevant to them and still it doesn’t work.

    For the record, I don’t pretend to be particularly skilled at being empathetic. I will be honest to say being a straight male, I have no idea what kind of abjection Hal encounters and feels. In order to emphasize, all I could do is substitude the abjections that I have faced and try to get an understanding of it and that’s probably not even 1% of what Hal actually feels. But at least it is easier for me but I know that abjection exists, it’s not the same abjection, but at least I can recognise that the system isn’t perfect.

    Now the trouble is how do we get these people – that had not faced abjection nor know the existence of these abjections – to be aware of the issue? How do we expand their expansion of thinking?

    So DensityDuck, another question to you: “Why can’t Aang be Asian and still save the world?” (Ironically that M. Night Shyamalan changed the pronounciation of the names so they sound more Asian).

    And hopefully one day Asian male characters gets to kiss a girl and a Gay male character gets to kiss a guy in a Hollywood blockbuster. Instead of asking ‘Why?’ hopefully people will be asking ‘Why not?’

    P.S. I’ve typed a lot (for my standard), so I’m bound to have typos, grammar, spelling mistakes, so I apologize in advance for that.

  32. “So DensityDuck, another question to you: “Why can’t Aang be Asian and still save the world?” ”

    Why do you think I’m okay with a non-Asian actor playing Aang in the movie?

    I mean, I know that you’ve got this idea built up in your head of The Person Who Doesn’t Agree, and you’re arguing with *that* person instead of *me*, but seriously–you’re really reaching at this point.

    And, again, you’re doing exactly what you say is bad. Instead of engaging with the person you’re talking to–instead of taking them at face value, without any preconceived notions–you’re letting emotional responses short-circuit intellect and substituting stereotype for introspection.

    “… if you aren’t superior, then how can you judge well enough claim that someone else is in error?”

    So it’s just like porn and you know it when you see it, eh? I guess we’re done, then.

  33. So it’s just like porn and you know it when you see it, eh?

    I’m not sure what “it” you’re saying is just like porn, judged on an “I know it when I see it” basis. Abjection itself? Or an unempathic obliviousness on the part of someone you’re trying to explain it to? And I’m not sure if you’re meaning, by that, that to base a judgement on experience like this is to render it basically subjective opinion. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and all that. Or abjection is in the eye of the beholder, in this case. Yes? No? That’s kind how “we’re done” comes across: it’s just a matter of individual interpretation, so yeah, end of story. Which means I’m definitely not done, I’m afraid.

    I’m wary of that “eye of the beholder” notion, because it underpins the argument that if the majority of readers don’t see the blood libel, that’s the consensus interpretation, the reasonable interpretation of the average joe. Like, looking at the text, taking it on its own terms without filtering it via one’s own personal agenda, on the basis of pure aesthetics, this is the natural, logical interpretation. I’m not saying that this is your implication, not at all, but I think that implication is often at play where people talk about abjection as a matter of interpretation, so I think it needs to be brought to the surface for dissection.

    Like, would it be fair to say that if the majority of viewers at the time didn’t see the blood libel in The Birth of a Nation, that’s fair enough? If the consensus interpretation was that it was just a rollicking good movie with some noble patriotic sentiments… well, fine. That was the reasonable interpretation, and the average joe was perfectly justified in seeing the movie as essentially harmless. I mean if people of colour had a different interpretation that was… as valid as anyone’s subjective opinion, but it was still just a subjective opinion. Cause I see that as ethically unsustainable. And I’d apply the same question to 300. If the majority of viewers now don’t see the blood libel there, is that consensus interpretation the reasonable interpretation? Is the average Joe perfectly justified in saying, “well, OK, your subjective opinion is valid, but mine is equally so. And it’s reasonable, so we’ll just have to agree to disagree.”

    I mean, of course, they have the perfect right to make that judgement and express it — this isn’t about policing thought or limiting freedom of speech — but is it ethically sustainable for the average joe to shrug off a criticism of a work with the idea that the critic’s judgement comes down to “I know it when I see it”? By twisting that, I mean, into “So do I, and I don’t see it here; and your subjective judgement has no more weight than mine. So whatever.” Again, I’m not projecting that onto you, just exploring the reasons I wouldn’t say “it’s just like porn and you know it when see it.” I mean, you can imagine if you were a person of colour back in the day, dealing with a white friend who didn’t see a problem with The Birth of a Nation, right? Someone who could cheer during that scene where the KKK ride in to save the town from the uppity niggers, and not see anything wrong with that because it’s just a movie; and at the end of all your arguments as to why that scene is dodgy, they just say, well, it’s a matter of interpretation. So you argue that they probably don’t get the abjection in there because they don’t live with it; your experience is such that obviously you’re more likely to pick up on it. Experience, they say. So it’s just like porn and you know it when you see it.

    In and of itself, it’s hard to know how to take that. It could be taken as, “OK, so your problem with The Birth of a Nation is that it does something which is hard to define but easy to identify, and I accept your criticism on that basis.” But it could equally be taken as, “Well, you’re not giving me an objective critique of The Birth of a Nation, simply applying a derogatory label on the basis of your over-sensitive reading, and I reject your criticism on that basis.” I’m not assuming either implication on your part here, but the import of these possible readings is worth laying bare.

    Although all of this is something of a tangent, because the actual answer to that question — “So it’s just like porn and you know it when you see it, eh?” — is “No. You’re misconstruing the role of experience. I’m talking about objective judgement.” See the next post for details.

  34. Is abjection in the eye of the beholder? Not in terms of blood libel and segregation.

    With blood libel I’m talking about semiotic associations that are right there in the text, to be pointed to. Dark skin = villain. Hook nose = greed. It’s the stuff of agitprop — and of advertising, actually — so I don’t see that as a matter of “I know it when I see it.” If a text is abjecting in this way, it’s using the mechanisms of language to do so, demonstrably so. It’s as objective as saying that when you photograph a hot chick with a semi-automatic draped over a T-Bird, and turn that into an advert for the weapon in Guns & Ammo, you’re exploiting the way we think in symbols — using semiotics — to sell the gun by coding a message that guns are sexy. Similarly, if you used a photograph of a white guy heroically using that weapon to defend that hot chick from a horde of marauding black guys, again you’d be exploiting semiotics, with a message that guns are empowering — and rightly so, because you need that power to defend hot chicks from the unbridled lust of marauding black guys. This isn’t “I know it when I see it.” You can detail the exact semiotic processes at play here.

    Segregation is even more objectively verifiable. It’s mostly physical, a matter of who is allowed to do what, and when and where they’re not allowed to. You could measure segregation back during the 50s and 60s just by counting the water-fountains, the schools, etc. Now, when it comes to segregation in the media, you can point at the movies. And the segregation there is not simply a disparity that can be rationalised as happenstance. You can point at whitewashing in things like The Last Airbender, and some will still argue happenstance. But you can point at movies like Falling For Grace, where studios have explicitly articulated their segregationist policy as a segregationist policy. The public, they say, will not accept an Asian-American lead in a mainstream Romantic Comedy; we must abide by their wishes and exclude this movie from mainstream RomCom status, put it where it “belongs.” The absence of the abject I’m talking about above — straightironing in 300 or Troy or Alexander — is just one particular facet of segregation. Again, there’s no “I know it when I see it” here. It’s as objective as saying that a night-club has a no-jeans door policy on the basis that its bouncers turn away people in jeans… and freely admit that they do so because they’re wearing jeans.

    Whether people tend to see blood libel and segregation as legitimate problems is also objectively verifiable. It’s just a matter of raising the subject with people, explaining what you mean if their first response is “what the fuck?” and listening to how they respond. Repeat until you have enough data to discern the proportion of those who see these as real issues versus the proportion who don’t. Compare with the findings of others. Make your case in a public space, where you have a decent cross-section of people, and if you can get a sizeable sample, that’s more grist for the mill. We asked a hundred people, “Do you think blood libel and segregation in the media are legitimate problems?” You said, “No.” Our survey said — ding — sixty seven! Sixty seven people said, “No.”

    Yes, experience attunes me to seeing abjection in something like 300, where others might not. But my argument is that this is no more a matter of subjective opinion than if someone allergic to nuts is more attuned to the presence of nuts in processed foods than the majority who are not. The actuality of whether or not nuts are present is still objectively verifiable. They’re there or they’re not, in high quantities or low quantities, this type of nut or that type of nut. It’s not a matter of “I know it when I taste it” — or rather, “when my tongue swells up and chokes me to death.” It’s not a situation where someone else can taste the food, not discern a nutty flavour and declare that their “no nuts here” judgement is equally valid as any other subjective opinion. I have an allergy to the abjection of queers in fiction, and not because it hurts my sensitive feelings, but because it’s agitprop, blood libel, and blood libel shapes opinions which drive people to kick the shit out of faggots. Its an actual health risk.

    And the experience of unempathic obliviousness on the part of someone you’re trying to explain it to? That’s just a gnarlier judgement to verify given that the process here is basically asking that hundred people, “Do you think blood libel and segregation in the media are legitimate problems?” then explaining to the sixty-seven who say “No,” why you think it is, how it affects the abject. And you ask them again, and if they still don’t see it, you keep trying to get through to them, keep trying to make them care, keep trying to spark up an empathic response. That makes it a gnarlier question, because you might just not be explaining it well enough. But ultimately, you can boil it down to another question. We asked a hundred people, “If you don’t think blood libel and segregation are legitimate problems, and someone else does, is that their fuckin problem?” You said, “Yes.” Our survey said — ding — fifty three! Fifty three people said, “Yes.”

    That’s selective empathy, I’d say, and it’s objectively verifiable as far as I’m concerned.

  35. I mean, the experience is data. It’s informally gathered, by no means scientific, and it’s not the presence of something nasty that experience attudes one to, but an absence, a denial of entry. But being attuned to that absence is again no more a matter of subjective opinion than if a dog owner is more attuned than the majority when it comes to the policy of pubs as to whether dogs are allowed in or not. The actuality of whether a pub lets dogs in or not is objectively verifiable. As a dog-owner, you walk in with your dog and either they serve you or they ask you to leave. You go to numerous pubs and you’ll get a sense of the relative ratio of dogs-allowed to dogs-verboten. Hardly surprisingly, the people most knowledgeable here are the dog-owners who not only find out first-hand but share information when they meet in the park. Someone who doesn’t own a dog doesn’t have the raw data that comes from, you know, bringing your dog to the pub and either being served or asked to leave.

    Extending the metaphor, aren’t those who don’t own a dog more likely to notice the presence of dogs in a pub than the absence of them? Might this skew their perception? You can sit in one pub with some folks, with your dog by your side, and tell them the dogs-allowed policy here is the exception to the rule. You’re exaggerating, they say; I see dogs in most pubs these days. No, really, you tell them; the majority of pubs don’t let dogs in. Look, they say; you’re in a pub with your dog right now. And you can try and persuade them, but ultimately they remain convinced that your experience has made you over-sensitive to knockbacks, that your vague sense, your rough estimation, your subjective opinion on the prevalence of dog-verboten pubs is over-stating the reality due to bias. And it’s not like you have a survey to hand, a report on the dog-friendliness of pubs across the country, which seems to be the only thing they’ll accept. And that way they’re treating you? That blithe dismissal of your solid data, gleaned from real experience, as subjective opinion? In favour of their perception of how it is, based on noticing the presence of dogs in pubs but generally not noticing the absence? That’s exactly the sort of unempathic obliviousness I’m talking about as not letting dogs into the pub.

    Of course, to say that such denials of the problem are manifestatiosn of the problem is only to going to spark moral panic. Because then it becomes personal accusation, and this person sitting beside you in the pub, patting your dog, is mortally horrified at the suggestion that they’re dogist. Outright offended, actually. And then we end up in the bullshit blame game yet again. Fuck that shit. I’m not interested in moralistic mumbo jumbo. I’m interested in abjection. We’re talking yes/no questions here, and the numbers that answer either way, whether this or that pub lets dogs in or not. Whether this or that person lets the abject in, empathically speaking, when they try to make the sort of objectively verifiable claims I’m making as regards blood libel and segregation. A widespread selective empathy, as I say, meshes with my experience, and this is a matter of actual reality, so it’s not about who’s judging who and the correct way to navigate a minefield of clashing subjective opinions. It’s about the actual reality, or at least the claim of such.

    Blood libel and segregation, and you can add selective empathy to the list. These are not, I’m more than happy to argue, fuzzy matters of interpretation, of subjective opinion. I’m no more likely to accept that a consensus reading of 300 as not blood libel is reasonable than I’m going to accept that judgement for The Birth of a Nation. I’m not likely to accept that abjection is in the eye of the beholder, because segregation is abjection and segregation is a hard fact. And I reckon I’ve pretty much nailed my colours to the mast as regards the relationship of selective empathy and abjection — as psychological mechanisms scaling up through interpersonal relationships to social structures. This, as far as I’m concerned, is what the thread is about, and if people want to engage on this topic, there’s some fair questions in among the rhetoric and accusations of accusations. So focusing on them…

    “Why can’t Aang be Asian and still save the world?” Already answered — segregation. Next!

    “Why do you think I’m okay with a non-Asian actor playing Aang in the movie?” Mutual hostility and suspicion. Escalating prickliness. Next!

    “How do minorities get their messages across and change a system (heck, even a discussion of a change would be nice) that is not working for them? If kicking and screaming isn’t the answer (which I agree is not efficient, but the problem is that it seems to be the most efficient method I can think of!), what is? Praying that the people that doesn’t ‘get it’ (which led to the flawed system in the first place) suddenly just miraculously ‘gets it’?”

    Assuming one admits of the selective empathy problem, that does seem like the key question.

  36. The air benders were white (except one monk who was black…ish), the water benders were white, the fire benders were Indian (I’m sure Shamalan’s Indian heritage had nothing to do with this), and the earth benders were Asian. The bending looked like dancing, and the names were pronounced “correctly” to people who only came to see the movie because they watched the cartoon.
    However, all this is irrelevant because the movie was so bad it had everyone laughing during the movie at inappropriate times, and cursing after it was over because we had all just spent $9 on a shitty movie.

  37. Well, that’s certainly three big walls’o’text defending the “I know it when I see it” philosophy. I guess that you’re claiming you’d be more properly paraphrased as “I know it when I see it because I’ve seen lots of stuff like it before”.

    “I’m wary of that “eye of the beholder” notion, because it underpins the argument that if the majority of readers don’t see the blood libel, that’s the consensus interpretation, the reasonable interpretation of the average joe.”

    In point of fact, “reasonable person” is an established principle in common law.

  38. No, that’s three big walls o’ text saying that the problems we’re talking about — blood libel, segregation in the media, and selective empathy — are objectively verifiable… versus a glib paraphrase that disacknowledges that precise (and fairly belaboured) point. And an equally glib comment about the legal recognition of a “reasonable person” that actually backs up my case. But hey, I’m nothing if not persistent, so let’s give it another go. Because that “I know it when I see it” philosophy doesn’t come into play at all, no more than if we were talking about anti-black agitprop, segregation in the 1960s, and actual hate-crime-level prejudice.

    Direct question #1, DD: Do you accept that a) a movie presenting black men as sub-human rape-monkeys can function as agitprop, b) denying people of colour the right to ride at the front of the bus is unjust, c) hate-crime-level prejudice is a reality that can be legitimately established in a court of law?

    If you don’t accept those… well, enough said. If you do…

    Direct question #2: Do you accept that those who deny these are objectively wrong, or do you think that their opinion is equally valid, in an “it’s all a matter of interpretation” way, that maybe a) a movie presenting black men as sub-human rape-monkeys can’t function as agitprop, b) denying people of colour the right to ride at the front of the bus isn’t unjust, c) hate-crime-level prejudice isn’t a reality that can be legitimately established in a court of law?

    That’s a simple yes/no. And note that I’m not asking if you actively believe the denials, but rather whether you accept the dubiety. The point is, these are all, as far as I’m concerned, established facts: that blood libel both works and exists; that 1960s segregation was unjust; that the law can and has successfully and legitimately prosecuted hate-crimes. If you want to disagree, go for it. That would probably make you look like a complete wingnut, I have to say, but I don’t doubt some would argue such a position. Many did, back in the day. Some still do.

    Let me just encapsulate that so you don’t have to paraphrase me into a position that’s not mine: blood libel, segregation and hate-crimes are unconscionable realities; to deny them is to deny historical fact.

  39. So, OK, assuming you’re happy to say — along with most, I’d hazard — that denying the very real inequity of anti-black agitprop, segregation in the 1960s, and actual hate-crime-level prejudice is verifiably wrong, what I’m actually saying is not so very different. I’m saying that denying the real inequity of contemporary blood libel, segregation in the media, and selective empathy is also verifiably wrong. I’m saying “I don’t have to know it; it exists.” If I didn’t see blood libel in 300 it would still be there. If I didn’t know about how segregation affected Falling for Grace, it wouldn’t change what happened. If I wasn’t aware of the fact that the majority dismiss such issues, it wouldn’t change the fact that the majority dismiss such issues.

    Direct question #3 then: Do you disagree with those specific assertions? You reject the assumption that you’re cool with the casting of A:TLA, so would it be wrong to assume that you a) don’t accept the criticism of 300, b) don’t accept that Falling for Grace fell foul of unjust segregation, c) don’t accept that the majority are resistant to criticisms of blood libel and segregation in this way?

    Again, it’s a simple yes/no question — albeit in three parts. If you’re inclined to answer, “no,” to any or all of the above, I’m quite happy to argue my case on how agitprop works, how the Hollywood studio system works, and how human social interaction works. I’m making no assumptions about your answer(s) — given you made a point of rejecting N’s assumption that you were offay with the A:TLA casting, that seems only fair — but if you want to dispute the basic thesis of the column and/or the notion of abjection-as-selective-empathy, by all means do so. That’s what I’m defending, and I’m quite ready to do so on the basis of semiotics, statistics and sociology. Seriously, feel free to argue that a) 300 does not lionise homophobic heroes and vilify villains as depraved queers, or does so but with no negative effect, b) Falling for Grace is not hard evidence of segregation, c) kinship selection does not have its inverse, in which “non-kin” are refused recognition as legitimate recipients of empathy.

    I say there are hard realities here, and it doesn’t matter if I notice them or not. If I chose to deny them, I’d be objectively wrong. If someone told me I was wrong, I like to think I’d be open to them presenting me with sound arguments based on semiotics, statistics and sociology. I might disagree, but I hope I’d be ready to debate it.

    Some apparently are not.

    So to encapsulate again: contemporary blood libel is evidenced in 300; segregation in the media is evidenced in Falling for Grace; selective empathy is basic sociology; to deny these is to deny the historical facts as they’re playing out in front of us.

  40. That “reasonable person” is an established principle of common law only makes it more important that the majority recognise these realities. If they don’t, the consensus judgement translates to legislation which reflects the morality of that “reasonable person” in which blood libel, segregation and hate-crimes are A-OK. This is proven by history.

    Some people, back in the day, would have denied that The Birth of a Nation could possibly be harmful, that segregation was unjust, and that lynching a black guy for having sex with a white woman was, like, the opposite of human decency. Those people would, in many areas, have been in the majority. Their viewpoint would have been the consensus. They were wrong, I say. See direct question #1 and direct question #2 again. Are you with me that those people were wrong?

    Direct question #4: Do you agree that, in that sort of situation, the fact that such views are considered reasonable is pretty much the root of the problem?

    Similarly, many today would deny that 300 could possibly be harmful, that segregation in the media is unjust, and that scorning some faggot/nigger/whatever when they get “uppity” is, like, the opposite of human decency. Similarly, those people are, in many areas, in the majority. Similarly, their viewpoints are the consensus. Similarly, they are wrong, I say. See direct question #3 again. Are you with me that these people are wrong?

    Direct question #5: Do you get why, in this sort of situation, the fact that such views are considered reasonable is seen as a problem by uppity faggots like me, and if not, what exactly doesn’t make sense?

    I mean, maybe you’re not with me on that last stretch — again, I make no assumptions — but whatever your position, the point is, we’re dealing with claims of hard realities. Who’s more likely or less likely to notice those hard realities doesn’t matter a jot. All that matters is, if you choose to deny them, whether you’re open to sound arguments based on semiotics, statistics and sociology. Again, I’m happy to debate the soundness of specific arguments vis-a-vis 300, Falling for Grace and kin selection. I’m happy to debate the actuality of blood libel, segregation in the media, and selective empathy. But after challenging N for not engaging, your own responses to me have made no attempt to engage whatsoever. Both simply put a gloss on my position that misreads it completely.

    So again, I can make it crystal clear, so there’s no need for you guess at a proper paraphrase: 300 is blood libel; Falling for Grace is segregation; the majority of people exercise selective empathy; these are actualities, demonstrably so; to deny them is to deny the historical facts as they’re playing out in front of us.

    Direct question #6: When you represent this claim that we’re dealing with genuine inequities — demonstrable by the simple application of basic semiotics, statistics and sociology to reality — as an “I know it when I see it” philosophy, does this constitute a dismissal for you? Where you attempt to characterise my position as based wholly on perception, are we to infer that you see these problems as simply artifacts of misperception?

    Again, that’s a simple yes/no question. I’m not assuming either way, but if that is your basic stance… as I say, I’m happy to expand on the actual arguments.

    (And, yes, that’s three more walls o’ text. I tend to think that in discussions like this, superficial comments of a flippant sentence or two only lead to the sort of shitstorms your earlier post was bemoaning. And isn’t that what LiveJournal is for?)

  41. “So again, I can make it crystal clear, so there’s no need for you guess at a proper paraphrase: 300 is blood libel; Falling for Grace is segregation; the majority of people exercise selective empathy; these are actualities, demonstrably so; to deny them is to deny the historical facts as they’re playing out in front of us.”

    :rolleyes: So I have to agree to accept your basic assumptions before we can have a discussion, and your primary basic assumption is I can’t contest anything you say? What’s next–you’re going to ask me whether I’ve stopped beating my wife?

    Incidentally, I don’t really know why you keep harping on “300”. That film and graphic-novel property has about as much relevance to reality as “The Lord Of The Rings”. Hell, the bad guys are literal faceless minions! I look forward to your lengthy essay on why the Sith Lords from Star Wars are symbols of racist ideology. After all, they wear black!

  42. An epistemic assertion does not constitute a deontic imperative. What you quote is a claim of factuality, not a demand that you accept such a claim. On the contrary, I explicitly tell you that no such agreement is required:

    … if you want to dispute the basic thesis of the column and/or the notion of abjection-as-selective-empathy, by all means do so. That’s what I’m defending, and I’m quite ready to do so on the basis of semiotics, statistics and sociology. Seriously, feel free to argue that a) 300 does not lionise homophobic heroes and vilify villains as depraved queers, or does so but with no negative effect, b) Falling for Grace is not hard evidence of segregation, c) kinship selection does not have its inverse, in which “non-kin” are refused recognition as legitimate recipients of empathy.

    So you don’t have to accept the assumptions. I’m explicitly inviting you to argue with them, in fact. What you quote is simply a statement of my position, offered for you to dispute should you wish to do so. As an attempt to have that discussion I’m asking you directly — via those six questions — whether you accept each stage in my argument, from the most basic premises (question #1) to the end position (question #6); if not, at what stage do you cease to agree?

    Feel free to articulate where and why you disagree with my argument. Answering those questions would be a good start.

  43. Given your comment on 300’s lack of relevance to reality, we can make the first part of #1 fairly specific:

    With a movie like The Birth of a Nation, which presents black men as sub-human rape-monkeys, and which is of direct relevance to reality as a representation of — as the title suggests — American history… do you accept that this can function as agitprop?

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