Violence: A Discourse Analysis, Part III

This is the final section in a three part essay on violence and the politics of representation. Click here for Part I and Part II.

Framing: Violence by Definition

It is important to first acknowledge that not all processes of framing are violent. Obviously they are not; most are benign. It is only those which are clearly violent that concern this article.

Framing is part of the phenomenological and constructivist approach discussed above. As Lakoff explains, frames are mental structures, metaphors and connotations instilled in words and their usage, that give meaning to the way we process the world around us (Lakoff, 2004). Jabri notes, the guiding force of social interaction is communication. For this process to have meaning, “actors draw upon interpretive schemes which situate or typify actor’s stocks of knowledge and which sustain communication (Jabri, 1996: 82).” At best frames describe distinct social phenomenon and at worst they provide the framing agent with the power to construct the nature and identity of the Other.

Within a given discourse, unchallenged frames present a range of consequences. One example is presented in the following quote from Charles Tilly:

The terms terror, terrorism, and terrorist do not identify causally coherent and distinct social phenomena but strategies that recur across a wide variety of actors and political situations. Social scientists who reify the terms confuse themselves and render a disservice to public discussion (Tilly, 2004: 5).

The problem is this process of reification, as pointed out by Bourdieu above. The reproduction of these frames actually serves to construct a group that is bounded by the exogenous imposition of meaning.

Tilly’s point illustrates the central theme of this paper. Social scientists should be cautious of framing when it refers to undefined or loosely defined forms, such as ‘terrorist.’ Because there is no universal definition or distinct social phenomenon that falls within the frame, the meaning appears to be an organic construction manipulated to serve political and normative ends. This is done the same way as constructivists argue ethnic or other forms of identity can be manipulated for various nefarious ends.

Certain speech acts of framing presupposes that there is a referent meaning to the form to which the object of framing is being compared. However, when this is not the case, the problem of framing becomes considerably complicated when the act of framing is itself also a part of the construction of the referent meaning, as was explained above in terms of identity and boundary formation. This means that certain acts of framing function as forced categorization and construction of a social phenomenon. In this example, to talk about terrorists, or to refer to them, presupposes that there is a distinct terrorist form that exists; otherwise, the agent is given considerable lead-way to define the parameters of the frame and the accompanying legitimization of a violent response.

In this case the act of framing a given individual or group as a terrorist is more than a simple speech act. The violence of such acts of framing comes to light when the object of framing is to be degraded to the status of homo sacer. This designation as ‘ the life that is capable of being killed’ or being stripped of all basic human rights is a concept of ancient Roman law that has resurfaced in the work of Giorgio Agamben. The notion is clear in the case of the object of the terrorist frame within the current master discourse of the ‘war on terror.’ But this paper will divorce itself from the specific treatment of this one frame and discuss the problem in general.

It is not hard to find examples of how framing has lead to the designation of homo sacer. The construction and imposition of group identity and boundaries and the framing of ‘Otherness’ by a more powerful agent lead to the violence of, inter alia, Hutu massacres against the Tutsi in Rwanda and the high levels of disappearances and deaths of indigenous Guatemalans orchestrated by the US backed dictatorship during Guatemala’s long civil war. In the first case we see how local, grievance based framing resulted in extreme atrocities and in the second we see how the global master discourse of the the ‘cold war’ provided for equally violent framing as expedient for political elites. Furthermore, within both cases there were myriad examples of local elites seizing the opportunity of the master cleavage to act on personal vendettas through the reproduction of accepted frames, a phenomenon that has been noted by Duffield.

These events of framing legitimized the excessive use of physical violence against the objects of framing. Such framing amounts to categorical murder, Bauman argues. “In these cases, men, women, and children were exterminated for having been assigned to a category of beings that was meant to be exterminated (Bauman, 2008: 87).” But this only shows that framing is capable of leading to violent acts. It still does not adequately argue that framing can be a violent act. For this we will turn briefly to the philosophy of language.

Austin’s seminal work How To Do Things With Words provides the clearest answer. Here Austin pioneered the concept of the illocutionary utterance. This type of speech act refers to what we do in saying, or writing, something. In the famous example of ‘I promise…,’ the utterer is both doing (promising) and saying (I promise). In his definition of illocutionary acts Austin includes “making an identification or giving a description (Austin, 1962: 98),” which is clearly the most basic function of framing. Therefore, simply put, by Austin’s typology framing is an illocutionary utterance: the framing agent is both saying and doing.

If we accept this, excusing the brevity of the argument for confines of space, we have now established that framing not only can lead to action but is an act. In order to understand the violent element of framing, it is important to further inquire how or why certain frames stick. What conditions are required in order for one set of frames to be adopted and reproduced while others are abandoned? The answer returns to the power politics of Foucault. Indeed, what could demonstrate a greater dominance of biopower than the ability to construct the very identity, and legitimized treatment, of an individual through the forced imposition of meaning.

In order for an act of framing to be successful the agent performing the act of framing must be in a position to perform or carry out the act. Austin states that it often happens that a performative speech act is void because the agent is not in the state or position to perform the act which he or she purports to perform. “…it’s no good my saying ‘I order you’ if I have no authority over you: I can’t order you, my utterance is void, my act is only purported (Austin, 1963: 19).” Therefore one could theoretically argue that successful framing is in most cases one that is produced from within the walls of the powerful, exerting their control over the biopower of the object of the framing. For the act of framing to be successful, that is, to be reproduced as part of the prevailing discourse, implies that the agent doing the framing has some degree of authority or power.

The power disparity is further extended if the act of framing essentially strips any remaining agency from the object, turning her into homo sacer. As with the cases presented above where the referent meaning of the frame is a non-distinct social phenomenon, in such a case of framing the agent doing the framing has all the power. This dynamic falls neatly within an understanding of structural and symbolic violence. This is a modern adaptation of the divine right of kings manifested in the right to define.

Finally, violence, “is that which turns any person subjected to it into a thing… (Simone Weil, 1953: 12-13 in Muller, 2002: 23).” This violence exists in the quite literal sense of physical hurt, in that the thing is a corpse but it also exists in the far more devious way of turning a living person into a thing. In this sense, the act of framing is capable of turning the object of framing into a thing by reducing it to an agentless homo sacer.

The power of framing is one that is not given enough critical attention within mainstream discourses considering the degree of violence it is capable of inflicting on the object of framing and the power of proliferating violent master discourses. By virtue of its ontological and epistemological foundation critical discourse analysis is one of the only, if not the only, analytic tools for thoroughly grasping the potential violence of framing.

Austin, J.L. (1962) How to Do Things With Words. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Baumann, Zygmunt. (2008) Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers?. Cambridge,   Harvard University Press

Jabri, Vivienne, (1996),Discourses on violence: conflict analysis reconsidered, Manchester and New       York: Manchester University Press

Lakoff, George. (2004) Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate–The Essential Guide for Progressives, White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing Company.

Muller, Jean-Marie. (2002) Non-Violence in Education. France, UNESCO.

Tilly,  Charles. (2004) “Terror, Terrorism, Terrorists.” Sociological Theory, 22:1 March 2004.

Violence: A Discourse Analysis, Part II

This is part two in the discussion. To visit part one, see Violence: A Discourse Analysis, Part I

Identities and Boundaries: A Constructivist and Discursive Approach

Group formation is the product of a social process, made and remade using historical context, cultural and mythological structures (Brubaker, 2004; Wimmers, 2008). These myriad ingredients are part of the constructive and constraining forces of identity and boundary formation but Brubaker draws attention to an additional cause. “Certain dramatic events, in particular, can serve to galvanize and crystallize a potential group or to ratchet up preexisting levels of groupness (Brubaker, 2004: 41).”

Let us accept Brubaker’s claim. If we extrapolate this notion that dramatic events crystallize even previously tenuous or non-existent group bonds, then one can present an argument that dramatic framing can serve as a constructive force. This seems to hold true even if the framing agent subsumes previously disconnected and distinct groups or individuals into a single frame. However, such boundaries, lacking strong self-identification, are usually more durable in the eye of the observer/framing agent than in the objectified group. This dichotomy can play out in the protraction of inter and intra-group conflict that is inaccurately understood and framed by an observer, but that discussion is for another time.

Here we see the symbolic violence inherent in the imposition of meaning. If personal and group identities, treated by some as the most sacrosanct component of the human experience, are a constructed social phenomenon, then the forced imposition of a particular framed identity—based  on the constructed reality of the framing agent and not the autonomy of the object of framing—is a violent act. Of course we should not overlook the efforts of certain groups to engage in countervailing tactics in the face of imposed boundaries through such tactics as boundary contraction, expansion or blurring or inversion and resignification (Wimmers, 2008; also see Judith Butler). But this requires an examination of why and how certain groups are capable of extricating themselves from the imposition of meaning and others are not. There is not enough room to develop such an inquiry here.

Within the constructivist school Fearon and Laiton point out three main approaches. These are broad structural forces, discursive processes and individuals acting to produce or reproduce identity and boundaries. Identities are formed by either content, e.g. x cannot live with y, or boundary, e.g. a is part of b but not part of c (Fearon and Laiton, 2000). Actors within this constructivist biosphere are not necessarily free to choose whichever approach they like best. There exists three primary types of constraint: the institutional environment, the distribution of power, and networks of political alliances (Wimmers, 2008). For purposes here I will only focus on the discursive element of identity and boundary construction with obvious special attention on framing and the role of power.

Discourse theory is rooted in phenomenological and constructivist approaches: being concerned with an individual or groups’ reflection and analysis of the phenomenon around them and acknowledging that these phenomena are comprised of a multiplicity of constructed and dynamic realities to which people have ascribed meaning. It is from this milieu of intention, iteration, and interpretation that discourses are produced and reproduced. Discourses are boundary forming because they set normative relationships and expectations between different subjects. They are capable of delineating the border between the acceptable and unacceptable and of legitimizing, no matter how reprehensible the act (Apter, 1997: 3-4).

Discourse fits into the Hegelian dialectic. However, an important constituent of the dialectic process as Habermas points out, if a true synthesis is to be attained, is the intersubjectivity of various participants within the communicative process. This breaks down when the relationship of agents changes from one of subject-to-subject to one of subject-to-object. Discursive relationships become quite negative—and  theoretically violent—when they produce such a subject to object relationship where, in Kantian terms, the subject treats the object as a means to an end.

In this sense, the discursive process is also quite Foucaldian in that it is closely related to power. Agents with power often prevail in determining the dominant discourse. They have the power-to-define, the Symbolic Power elaborated by Pierre Bourdieu. However, it is also worth noting that sometimes discourses can take on an element of power on their own through popular reproduction, or a meaning far from the first intent of the originating agent. For some, like Austin, Searle and Habermas, language is part of social action and reality. Power over language is therefore as important as power over other forms of action. This explains why, as Brass notes, it is often as equally important to ask who has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence as who has a monopoly over the interpretation, framing, of violence (Brass, 1996).

Power over language is therefore as important as power over other forms of action.

Discourse analysis is made more complicated by the fact that the discourse originating agent is often in a position to hide his or her intended effect through a web of sometimes opaque terms. Brass has noted that, “behind such discourses as ‘criminal law and order,’ ‘caste and community,’ ‘faith and sentiment,’ ‘profit,’ and ‘Hindu-Muslim communalism’ is a nexus of power and interest that fools both villagers and outside analysts (Brass, 1997: 96 in Fearon and Laitin, 2000: 864).” We also see this opaqueness in the following forms: the ‘Cold War,’ ‘War on Drugs,’ ‘War on Poverty,’ or ‘War on Terror.’ These vaguely defined but staunchly defended discourses show how easy and convenient it is to frame a war on the immaterial. What is important then is understanding not only how specific frames are used but also to understand the underlying potential of framing.

How do constructivists argue the discursive origin of boundaries? Bourdieu notes, by reifying groups, by treating them as things-in-the-world, framing agents actually, “contribute to producing what they apparently describe or designate (Bourdieu 1991a: 220 in Brubaker, 2004: 37).” This means that if the agent doing the framing is describing or designating an individual, institution or incident, regardless of the actual language used, then they are contributing to the constructive process. If this construction of identity is forced upon the object of framing then it is a case of directed structural and symbolic violence, if we accept that violating the autonomy of the individual is a form of violence. In terms of physical violence, Wimmer synthesizes the above discussion:

Only those in control of the means of violence will be able to force their ethnic scheme of interpretation onto reality by killing “Catholics,” “Shiites,” or “Furs,” or resettling “Tatars” and “Germans” a la Stalin, thus making Catholics, Shiites, Furs, Tatars, and Germans (Wimmers, 2008: 994).

 

Apter, David E., (1997), “Political Violence in Analytical Perspective” in Apter, David E. The Legitimization of Violence, New York, New York University Press, pp 1-32

Brass, Paul R., (1996), “Introduction: Discourses of Ethnicity, Communalism, and Violence” in Paul R. Brass (ed), Riots and Pogroms, New York, New York University Press, pp. 1-55

Brubaker, Rogers, (2004), ‘Ethnicity without Groups’ in Wimmer, Andreas et al (eds.), 2004, Facing Ethnic Conflicts: Toward a New Realism, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 1-20.

Fearon, James D. and David D. Laitin, (2000), “Violence and the Social Construction of Ethnic Identity” International Organization 54, 4, Autumn 2000, pp 845-877.

Wimmer, Andreas, 2008, ‘The Making and Unmaking of Ethnic Boundaries: A Multilevel Process Theory’, American Journal of Sociology, Volume 113, Number 4, pp 970-1022

Perusing Walls in China: Posters and Symbolic Power

This is the third entry in a series on semiotic analysis, Uyghurs, and public space in China. For earlier entries please see, Deconstructing ‘Minzu’, and Museumized Signification, China and Representational Violence. Or visit my index at the top of the page for all previous articles dealing with Symbolic Power, the politics of representation, China, Xinjiang, Uyghurs, and the like. As with other posts on this topic, although the specific point of entry to this conversation deals with the Uyghurs the tactics and artifacts of symbolic violence by the state are the same for other subaltern groups, not only in China but as a transferable model to others such sites. For this reason, an understanding and analysis of a particular phenomena has broader application.

Traveling around Xinjiang one often observes a stark demarcation between Han and minority space and inscription. In Yarkand, for example, Southeast of Kashgar this demarcation is starkly drawn along two streets, with Han exclusively living and working along Xincheng Lu [New City Road] and Uyghurs living along Laocheng Lu [Old City Road]. This is an important observation for two reasons. It relates to the opportunity for Uyghurs to reach out to Han and challenge their signification. Secondly, in predominantly Han neighborhoods there is not the same prevalence of the kind of public inscriptions as in Uyghur neighborhoods.

For example, on every Uyghur house in all the towns and villages in Xinjiang, there is one or a combination of three plaques near the door. These read Wenming Jiating [Civilized Household], Pingan Jiating [Safe Household], and Wuxing [Five Star]. However, I never observed such inscriptions on Han houses. The apparent meaning, a designation of worth conferred by the authority of the state, the state synonymous with a Han majority, coupled with other observations maintains the signification. The following analysis of public inscriptions is based on posters found in what could be considered general public space. While there are kinds of inscriptions that occur only in Uyghur areas, there is another that occurs in public areas with both Han and Uyghur traffic.

General public space in Xinjiang is marked by the ubiquity of banners, slogans and posters, discussed elsewhere. I found, and scholars such as Gardner Bovingdon and Dru Gladney have noted similar restrictions, that Uyghurs in Xinjiang are generally apprehensive to speak about such things but after several conversations on the street a pattern emerged. The majority of Uyghurs I encountered who were willing to discuss them treated them as propaganda. If we apply the same semiotic analysis as in previous posts we will discover another artifact of symbolic power’s domination over Uyghur social space. I observed the following posters in Korla, you can view them in an earlier post.

Jun Ai Min, Min Yong Jun, Junmin Tuanjie Yi Jiaqing [The military loves the people, the people embraces the military, the military and the people united are one family]. In the upper right hand corner, saluting in stoic patriotism, are three Han officers, one from each branch of the military. They are facing toward the red field of the Chinese flag, with its golden stars creased in the wind. In front of the flag are four white doves. At the center of the image, behind the text, are rows of soldiers in camouflage. The bottom of the image shows pictures of the Great Wall and the iconic front of the Forbidden City, Mao’s portrait hangs visibly over the entrance. Compressed at the very bottom left of the image is an old Uyghur man with a white beard and black skull cap. He is handing a red basket of gifts to a phalanx of soldiers.

Jun Min Qing, Jing Min Qing, Chuchu Ningju AiGuo Qing [Civil military sentiment, Civil Police Sentiment, Everywhere a Coherent Patriotic Sentiment]. Sweeping from the lower left corner upward to the top right is a large field of red, the Chinese flag, victoriously splattering the background. At the center of the image are two large white doves. In the top left corner three Uyghurs are facing a Chinese police officer, with two more officers behind him. The Uyghurs’ faces tell of some unknown sorrow or concern as they shake the hand of the Han officer who is smiling confidently. Across the bottom of the poster, two uniformed Han officers are standing, smiling at an old Uyghur man with a small wispy beard and a Hotanese wool hat. The Uyghur man appears sunken and weak while the Han officer is plump and reaching out farther to meet the old man’s slightly withdrawn hands.

Aside from obvious superficial differences, the signification of these two posters is the same. The first observation of note is that the Uyghurs depicted in both images are clearly receiving the support of the Han. The juxtaposition of the elderly, even frail, Uyghur man next to the younger Han officers reinstates the signification we saw above in the museum. The signified is an undeveloped people progressing under the support of the Party. The Uyghur, signifier, here is depicted as weak and in need of assistance. In relationship to the signified concept of provider, given form by the image of the Han officers, the significations are understood in relation to one another. The Uyghur is poor, the Han is strong.

The common image of the doves between the two images plays on the relationship of doves with peace. It encourages a peaceful reliance on the support of the Han. The text itself propels the visual meaning. It speaks of peaceful coexistence under the care of the military, police, and party. The space taken up by the flag in both images and the depiction of the Great Wall and Forbidden City, both powerful nationalistic symbols, further stresses the magnificence of the Party. We see a vibrant symbolic artifact that reinstates the marginalization of Uyghurs, under the Party. The comments below highlight a number of interpretations of these images made after examining photographs taken of the images. It is important to note that the discussion of these images took place outside of China, within the Uyghur diaspora community.

The first and third responses are from Uyghurs who have been living outside of China for four and five years, respectively, and are no longer Chinese citizens. The second response was made by a Uyghur student who has been studying abroad for several years and plans to return to China after completing studies.

Han people are government people but Uyghur people are not government people…. Han people are police but Uyghur people are not police. Han people help Uyghur people. The Government says the Han helps the Uyghur people and also says Chinese government helps Uyghur people. And also, in Chinese news you must say minorities are very happy. Happy! Happy! Happy!

But not every Uyghur knows the real meaning of what the Chinese are doing. This provocation, if many Uyghurs are not so knowledgeable and don’t pay attention to the real meaning, when they see they know it is not reality. One day you are arresting Uyghurs and then you print image to lie. Children maybe don’t realize this.

All the people, for example the young people see this and they will be upset. But little children will see this and they may think something different, so it can change Uyghur’s minds after a long time.

These comments illustrate an immediate perception of domination, one that can be  understood by an application of our analysis. They demonstrate a sentiment that while these posters may be interpreted as false by a number of Uyghurs, they are still capable of affecting others.  Younger residents may be influenced by the messages on the posters. However, according to the three comments, they perceive these posters as empty propaganda that serves to instill a dominant narrative that does not conform to their perceptions of reality, but rather hopes to maintain domination. We begin to understand the power on the walls.

The comments in this section point to a shared perception that the prevalent minority signification of an undeveloped subaltern is as a source of domination. Many appear to equate this representation with either the lack or denial of education. As a few respondents above noted, this signification is perceived as a lie, perpetuated by the regime. But, Camus noted, “you can rebel equally well against a lie as against oppression (Camus, 2008: 13).” Does the rebelling actor target the teller of the lie or the lie itself, i.e. a particular signification or the regime from which it is promulgated? How is the decision to resist either the representation or the regime influenced by perceptions of opportunity? Here is where Judith Butler, and others, offer the valuable concept of resignification, a kind of semiotic resistance. I will touch on this in future posts.

Camus, Albert (1953/2008). The Fastidious Assassins. London: Penguin Books.

Museumized Signification, China and Representational Violence

This is the second post in a brief series on symbolic power and minority representation in China. Although the ethnic group under specific discussion is the Uyghurs, the deconstruction of representations and symbolic power is apropos of other subaltern groups. The previous post dealt with briefly just with the notion of controlling the taxonomy of designating ethnicity in China, drawing its primary influences from the work of Dru Gladney. This post will turn a critical eye to the museumization of ethnicity, here borrowing the concept from Benedict Anderson, and how museums function in the realm of representational repression.

Museumized Signification

The Minzu Wenhua Gong [Cultural Palace of Nationalities] in Beijing is a reasonable place to begin. It houses the officially sanctioned representations of the nation’s 56 different ethnic groups. Here is where the national mythology is solidified in images and exhibits. At the time of my last visit, in 2011, on the ground floor there was a collection of photographs depicting each of China’s 56 official nationalities. Of the 55 minorities, 39 were represented by a young female or predominantly female group. All of the 55 minorities were in a rural setting wearing traditional clothing and mostly engaged in musical or culinary activities. This has been explained as the ‘eroticization’ and ‘exoticization’ of the minority (Gladney: 1994, 2004), conceptually related to Edward Said’s Orientalism.

Pictures speak louder than words, so floats about the trite expression. However, it bears relevance despite the cliche. In the museum the point is all the stronger. Here we observe a single image, frozen in time and signification, the single near apotheosis of a people, passed the censors and inscribed for all to see, memorize, judge, and implement. Depending on the emotional content, the symbolic force behind the image, whether condescending and violent, or lauding and aggrandizing, symbolic violence may translate into structural and material violence. How people come to know and appreciate their neighbors, or fear and dislike them, can be indoctrinated through a series of constant exposure to crafted images, imbued with a certain signification. Below are four images taken from the Minzu Wenhua Gong (民族文华宫) in 2011.

The image in the 1) top left is the official representation for the Uyghur, 2) top right observe the Han, 3) bottom left is the Kazakh image, and 4) the bottom right is the image for Uzbeks. It is not difficult to spot the difference between these four images. And one might inquire of the other 52 ethnic groups of China and how they are represented. It is, as mentioned above, virtually the same for all China’s minority groups, relegated to the bucolic and feminine, the traditional foil to the modern, urban, technologically advanced Han. So, what is the signification of these representations?

Taking just the top two images as our points of analysis we may begin with a cursory semiotic analysis. The signifier is the chromatic form, the bare image of Uyghurs dancing and singing. If the intent of these images is to produce depictions of the nature of China’s nationalities, which one would assume from such a museum, one might wonder why the specific forms were selected. The signified is, presumably in the mind of the regime, the official conceptualization of the depicted group. When we look at the image again, we see how the representation is given meaning in the correlation between the two. The signification of Uyghur as only singer and dancer, living in rural environments without modern science, is signified in relation to the Han whose signification appears to be a strong, masculine, modern force. Minorities are exotic and colorful, to be seen as objects of curiosity or sources of entertainment, while the Han are stoic and the force behind advancement and knowledge.

While Gladney has detailed this representation from an exterior vantage, one is left asking, how has it affected Uyghur life? Some have argued that over-saturation of a particular image or idea will result in numbness or the loss of affect. Considering these significations have been at the center of official Chinese ethnic policies and representations since the 1950s, it should have very little affect on the disparate ethnic groups after prolonged circulation, so claim certain scholars. However, after examining photographs I had taken of these images with several Uyghurs abroad, where it is often easier to discuss such matters, they reported a clear awareness of an ongoing violent representation with potentially material ramifications of marginalization and exploitation. How do the individuals, who share a group identity with the individuals represented in these images, respond to the images? One Uyghur student had this to say:

I don’t agree with these things. We say we also have professor. We also have academic people. Why government, why news don’t give those people pictures. Why only give our singer… why? Maybe Chinese government think in Xinjiang, make Uyghur people think, oh the government helped us. We don’t have academic people or any military. We only have dancer or singer or another thing.

This comment reveals frustration and concern at what appears to be the marginalization of Uyghurs inscribed in official representations. If we continue the analysis we might wonder what exactly this Uyghur informant is critical of. Is he expressing grievance at the bare image, or something deeper?

In China, Uyghurs are good at dance, good at singing. If I am talking to Chinese, the first question is can you sing, can you dance? What’s the fucking idea? Some people is singer not everyone can sing and dance. Also, they discriminate against Uyghurs in Inner China. Yang Rou Chuan, it means kebab, you see many Uyghurs in inner China selling kebab but in Chinese mind every Uyghur selling kebab. The Chinese government does not show our good people, good culture to Han Chinese.

A general pattern of dissatisfaction with these representations emerged when we engage the nature of the signification. Furthermore, comments point toward an understanding of how the signification may be transferred into more material forms of domination. That is, the representation has been enforced by educational prejudices, widely reported elsewhere, thereby serving to partially reify the signification. That critical responses were produced by two images is quite alarming considering the rather ubiquitous nature of such representations. In Xinjiang, I wondered if the representations would be the same. If the representation in Beijing is thus situated, how is it museumized in Xinjiang?

The introductory inscription at the Xinjiang Weiyuer Zizhiqu Bowuguan [Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region Museum] in Urumqi appears to maintain a related signification. It describes Xinjiang as a multi-national homeland since ancient times. It states that:

Covering an area of 1.66 million square kilometers, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region is a treasure land in the Northwestern bordering region in our motherland with vast land and richly endowed resources. The extended Silk Road linked the Eastern and Western civilizations. Being situated deep in the hinterland, it conceals the deep secret of the converged ancient civilizations of the world. Xinjiang has been the multi-national homeland from ancient times. Forty-seven nationalities live here today, among them 13 brother nationalities, such as: Uygur, Han, Uzbek, Daur, Manchu, Tartar, Russian, etc. have lived in Xinjiang for generations. For a long time they have been cooperated as one family to build and safeguard the borderland. Under the glory of the nationality policy of the Party, precious traditional cultures of various nationalities have received effective protection, inheritance and development. In the historical process of the development of Western regions various nationalities are more united to construct together a harmonious society. We hold this exhibition of Display of Xinjiang Nationality Custom to represent the gorgeous conditions and customs of the 12 ethnic minorities of Xinjiang and to show the splendor of the beautiful rarity of treasure house of Chinese national culture.

This inscription relates the official historical narrative, discussed in an earlier post. It should probably be interpreted as the declaration of the Party’s power. It claims sole responsibility for the protection, inheritance, and development of culture. If we continue with our understanding of the signification offered above and apply this to the notion of ‘one family’ then we must ask where Uyghurs are situated in this family, presumably dominated by the Han. In such ways, the policy of recognizing the Uyghur as a minority under Chinese rule is perpetuated.

The displays in these two museums reminded me of Native American history museums in the United States that depict the cultural victims of America’s colonial legacy. I felt that there was a fascination with the past that left no place for questions of conquest. The museum was full of the kind of cultural artifacts one usually finds in such places. The displays presented musical instruments and pottery, textiles and artwork behind glass, and dioramas of colorful minorities engaged in traditional practices, but also a number of photographs of Uyghurs in contemporary clothes participating in cultural activities.

The implication proffered by the representations in both Beijing and Urumqi, I argue, is that contemporary minorities are incapable of transcending their ancestor’s situation and are therefore treated accordingly by the regime or general Han society, in line with Anderson’s analysis. At least, we can extrapolate from the comments above that many Uyghurs perceive a correlation between these representations and domination. Very few Uyghurs visit either museum but they are often aware of symbolic power’s other manifestations in social space.

Museums facilitate an understanding of how symbolic power operates in static locations, but you can avoid visiting a museum if you perceive its message as part of a dominant discourse. However, in line with Foucauldian notions of power, namely: “Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power (1990: 95).” You can never fully escape power; it seeps through the walls so to speak. This is where propaganda posters, unity posters, painted slogans, banners, and the ilk come into the discussion of infiltrating public space.

Anderson, Benedict (1983/2006). Imagined Communities, Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Foucault, Michel (1990). The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books.

Gladney, Dru. (1994). “Representing Nationality in China: Refiguring Majority/ Minority Identities,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 53, No. 1.

Gladney, Dru. (2004). Dislocating China: Reflections on Muslims, Minorities and other Subaltern Subjects. London: C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd.

Two Significations of ‘Sebsi’

This article was inspired by graffiti.

On 7 October Barack Obama welcomed Beji Caid el Sebsi, interim Tunisian Prime Minister, in the Oval Office. During the meeting Obama commented, “The United States has enormous stake in seeing success in Tunisia and the creation of greater opportunity and more business investment in Tunisia.” This focused language on US economic regional involvement echoes recent comments by John McCain who on a visit to Libya at the end of September noted that American investors are eager to invest and do business in Libya. This kind of discourse inevitably produces a cringe from anyone familiar with American neoliberal economic foreign policies. But the meeting between Obama and Sebsi was about more than just economic cooperation. Obama also took the opportunity to hail Tunisia’s progress toward democracy and praise the country as the “inspiration” of the Arab Spring.

Afterwards the Office of the Press Secretary of the White House released The President’s Framework for Investing in Tunisia. The document outlines a myriad of non-security assistance including investments in private sector development; education, culture, and media capacity building; transitional justice; and democracy and civil society. In line with the final two themes Obama commented during the meeting that “Tunisia has been an inspiration to all of us who believe that each individual, man and woman, has certain inalienable rights.” Obama’s vocabulary elicits the language of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Furthermore, the White House praised Tunisia for increasing transparency in governance.

The high level meeting has symbolic force in a number of analyzable trajectories. Namely, by meeting with Sebsi the White House is certifying Sebsi as the referent object of state-based transactions with not only the interim government but the social and political transformations taking place in Tunisia. Certification, explains sociologists Charles Tilly and Sidney Tarrow, is an external authority’s signal of its readiness to recognize and support the existence and claims of a political actor (Tilly and Tarrow, 2007: 215). Certification is important for both domestic and international actors and can have distinct and lasting signification for the evolution of discourse on a given phenomenon, in this case the meaning of Sebsi as a signifier of two distinct signified concepts.

The signification Obama addresses is the legitimate representative of Tunisia to the White House, the Prime Minister of Tunisia. It is that of a bounded political person. The second signification of Sebsi is the social and political significance he has for the people of Tunisia themselves, of course further dissected with the myriad identities and interests of the Tunisian population.

As with other names and symbols, Beji Caid el Sebsi is an abstract assortment of letters that are only given meaning when placed in relationship to other symbols within a given social space. I believe it is important to examine this because it allows us to analyze the language and symbols at work in the evolving reality and political meaning of the current social space under discussion.

When Obama says that Tunisia has been an inspiration to those who believe in inalienable rights, while meeting with the interim political representative of Tunisia, the certification broadcast from the White House is that Sebsi is, in terms of the symbolism of international parlance, the Tunisia being praised. For example we often speak of the Obama White House, the Ben Ali years, the Tony Blair UK, etc. A given country is generally referred to based on the political entity at its helm. Again, the White House is certifying Sebsi as the deserving recipient of praise. We should examine Sebsi in this light.

In a recent New York Times article David Kirkpatrick asks the interim Prime Minister to explain his go-slow approach to addressing popular demands for jobs and political freedoms. The response: “When someone is hungry asking for food, you only give him what he needs. You don’t give him more, or else he might die, so we offer a step-by-step approach.” He continued: “Sometimes the proponents of freedom have demands that go beyond logic and it is more difficult to protect freedom from the proponents of freedom themselves than from the enemies.” Still, his approach has, according to Kirkpatrick, lead to broad support generally but also a number of comparisons with Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. As a former member of Ben Ali’s party, and a long time political figure Sebsi’s position has enraged those who demand a complete rift with the past.

The 84 year old Beji Caid el Sebsi studied law in Paris before returning to pass the bar in Tunis in 1952. He was an early member of Habib Bourguiba’s administration following Tunisia’s independence in 1956. For the next two decades he served in numerous positions including as Defense Minister and ambassador to France from 1970 until 1972. In 1971 and 1972 he is reported to have advocated for greater democracy in Tunisia. In an article he submitted to Le Monde before leaving Paris in January 1972, he attributed his resignation to frustrations over continued democratic deficiencies. He resumed politics in 1981, serving as Minister of Foreign Affairs until 1986. Until 1994, when he apparently retired from politics, he served a number of other key roles within the Constitutional Democratic Party, Rassemblement Constitutionel Démocratique (RCD), Ben Ali’s party. On 27 February Sebsi took over the mantle of interim Prime Minister from Mohamed Ghannouchi who was forced from this position by popular protests to route out all former members of the Ben Ali regime.

It is fascinating to observe that the Beji Caid el Sebsi Facebook page description of his political career ends in 1986, one year before Ben Ali’s Jasmine Revolution swept Habib Bourguiba from power. Of course public figure pages, fan pages and the like are not necessarily affiliated with the individuals themselves but that the designers of the facebook page decided to conclude Sebsi’s political career before the former dictator’s coup is indicative of a trend to distance Sebsi from the ancien regime despite a clear history of eight years of involvement. This distancing is a logical political strategy, considering it was anger over Ghannouchi’s affiliation with the former regime that forced him from office a month after Ben Ali. That Sebsi has remained could be analyzed from a number of perspectives, of which there is not enough room to develop all of here.

Whether Sebsi should be interpreted in relationship to the former RCD party and Ben Ali himself or as a reform minded, advocate of democratic rights, or any other interpretation should be left to the people of Tunisia. But I will present two partial treatments of Beji Caid el Sebsi as a symbol for further discussion. First I will examine Sebsi, as the source of the analogous treatment of spoon feeding the hungry (see quote above) in relation to achieving democracy and human rights.

Human rights are universal. The preamble of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) states that they are derived from the inherent dignity of the human person. They do not originate from the capriciousness of sovereign largess. Article 3 of the ICESCR and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) both state that the States Parties to the covenants undertake to ensure the equal rights of men and women to the enjoyment of all economic, social and cultural rights, and all civil and political rights  set forth in the Covenants. Furthermore, article 50 of the ICCPR and article 28 of the ICESCR reads, “The provisions of the present Covenant shall extend to all parts of federal States without any limitations or exceptions.” Tunisia has both signed and ratified these international human rights treaties and is held legally responsible for them. They are clear in their wording, and there is no mention of sparing the human being by not extending too many human rights at one time when they are not accustomed to being afforded them due to years of oppression.

It is unarguable that within certain state structures these treaties receive varying degrees of compliance. It is furthermore clear that the transition from an oppressive, human rights abusing, dictatorship to a free democratic state that respects the human rights of all its citizens is an arduous task. But the sort of language that Sebsi is employing creates an institutionalized vocabulary for accepting protracted human rights violations masked with the intention of protecting those very people who are being oppressed. Furthermore, when this rhetoric is certified by powerful foreign governments, such as when Obama praises Sebsi for the developments of democracy and freedom, it creates the potential for the entrenchment of this sort of vocabulary, which translates into material social reality. It provides a symbolic force and precedent for a possible “Sebsiism,” or some other such political strategy.

In a situation where many are apathetic or distrustful of politics, the potential of established elites seizing control of the discourse is high. This is among the worst results as it runs the greatest risk of leading to protracted social unrest and anger over the failure to follow through on the hopes of establishing an open and democratic country.

In the hopes of engaging with a diversity of narratives I will conclude with a treatment of an alternative interpretation of Sebsi than the one that has received White House certification. An interpretation that is being positioned within the battleground of public space.

These pieces of graffiti construct a parallel between Beji Caid el Sebsi and Leila (Ben Ali) Trabelsi, the wife of the ousted dictator who in many circles is more despised than Ben Ali himself. She has been compared to Imelda Marcos, the extravagant wife of former Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Trabelsi is a symbol of corruption, nepotism, abuse, and oppression that received certification through the Western dominated double standards of shallow political and economic security, known in other contexts as imperialism (as the graffiti above notes). The parallel signification is potent artistic activism.

Political philosopher Chantal Mouffe encourages us to understand the political character of certain varieties of artistic activism as part of counter-hegemonic interventions with the objective to occupy the public space and disrupt the dominant (Mouffe, 2007). For Mouffe’s Radical Democratic Theory, the political is the public space, the public sphere of discourse.

When individuals feel that political lines are blurred or that their participation is meaningless, alienation and disenchantment occur. When individuals are disaffected with political parties, or feel alienated from traditional forms of political participation they often turn to more exclusionist forms of collective identity such as forms of nationalism, religious fundamentalism or other comprehensive exclusionary identities that only foster antagonistic conceptions of friend/enemy, ‘us’ ‘them’ and perpetuate violent conflict.

Radical democratic theory holds that the more empowered and involved individuals are in the institutions and programs that directly affect their lives the more they become civic spirited and connected to the polity: belief in the viability of discourse severely limits violence as a bargaining tool.

Mouffe’s theory can be partially summarized as, when consensus is sought through public deliberation, by embracing the inherent conflicts of social life individuals become more public spirited, tolerant and knowledgeable of the values of others and often more analytical of their own values and motives. In this sense we can interpret acts of artistic activism as part of a process of opening up a radical space for democratic participation where previously there was none. It affords the agent with a degree of power to engage in counter-discourse formation through inscriptions in the public space. But it must be given an equal chance to contribute to the evolving vocabulary by which social and political transformations are scripted. This artistic activism is part of the process of interpreting a meaning for Beji Caid el Sebsi within not only the domestic social space of Tunisia but also the evolving international narrative on Tunisia.

Mouffe, Chantal (2007). “Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces,” Art and Research: A Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods. Volume 1. No. 2. (http://www.artandresearch.org.uk/v1n2/mouffe.html)

Tilly, Charles and Tarrow, Sidney (2007). Contentious Politics. Boulder and London: Paradigm Publishers

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 115 other followers