‘Difference’ has become marketable. Discuss.’
There are many examples in contemporary culture of how ‘difference’ has become marketable. I will look at examples from Tourist Board imagery, music and club culture, fashion and film. After sketching a theoretical backdrop using work from Edward Said and Bell Hooks, I will go on to look at some case studies in detail. I am particularly interested in representations of the ‘hybrid’ sites at the frontiers of the West so I have focused my analysis on the work and representation of the Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and imagery used by the Cyprus Tourist Board. I will also consider the example of Secousse, a hybridized African music night in the UK. I then want to address the question of whether such marketing of difference can be understood as having any positive potential, so I draw on work by Puwar and others to address this in my conclusion.
Edward Said defined Orientalism as the political and historical discourse vital for the active production of non-Western otherness necessary to produce and maintain the fiction of the Western Imperialist self:
My contention is that Orientalism is fundamentally a political doctrine willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the West, which elided the Orient’s difference with its weakness. (Said, 2003, p.204)
Here, difference is aligned with ‘weakness’, but this ‘otherness’ functions not only as a lack against which the plenitude of its inverse can be affirmed, but also as an exoticised image of desire. As Bell Hooks has argued, the ‘otherness’ of the non-western construction also becomes a highly sexualized object of desire:
The commodification of Otherness has been so successful because it has offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling. Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning, that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture. (Hooks, 1999, p.179)
Against the masculinist normative western subject, the ‘other’, as Nirmal Purwar draws on Gilman, McClintock and Bhattacharyya to argue, is feminised, “all that is seen to be enticing as well as repulsive of ‘other’ cultures is projected onto female bodies” (Puwar, 2002, p.65), acting as a screen to project western fantasies of dominance and self-expansion.
Such representations, in a contemporary context, can productively be explored at the frontiers or border points of the West, where West and East merge and this hybridization itself is marketed as a space of potential newness and transformation. The advertising of the Cyprus Tourist Board for example promotes itself as a liminal hybrid space to be consumed as part of a broader multinationalistic cannibalism of the new:
Cyprus lies at the crossroads of three continents, where East meets West and a new experience awaits for you under the sun every day. (Cyprus Tourist Board, 2009)
Its advertising employs images simultaneous redolent of the exoticised Orient but also Westernised enough to not seem too dangerous. A dark-haired woman lies back, eyes closed as if in some kind of sexual/ spiritual ecstasy in a bed of rose petals, surrounded by candles signifying some kind of fantasized and exotic ritual. Another image shows a Mediterranean-looking woman opening up some ‘local’ looking bread product across her crotch in a thinly veiled mishmash of signifiers of local authenticity and alluring sexual openness. Against an idealized rustic backdrop, her eyes plead outwards to the (assumed male western) viewer, while her low cut top draws attention both to the ‘authentic local’ patterning and design of her dress, and to her breasts. Another shot shows a noose-shaped tie and shoes abandoned on a beach, signifiers of the (temporary, contained and safe) abandonment of masculine Western stuffiness to the desires and pleasures of the Orient. Waiting on the beach is another model who fulfils all the requirements of idealised feminine form, yet is dark enough to suggest otherness but not too dark to distance and spoil the fantasy with an injection of reality. The whole advert functions as a non so subtle packaging of Western masculinist orientalist desire in order to sell the fantasy lifestyle of holiday as a way to get, what Bel Hooks, capturing the interplay of distance, proximity and desire in such representations calls “a bit of the other” (Hooks 1999).
Still from Cyprus Tourist Board Advert, 2009
Still from Cyprus Tourist Board Advert, 2009
Slavoj Zizek has described capital as “effectively an anonymous global machine blindly running its course” (Zizek, 1996, p.37). In this sense, as Puwar argues, it picks up on and incorporates local ‘flavour’ in as much as it will sell, and abandons what won’t sell, “this particular niched ensemble of multicultural lifestyling has emerged with a wider wave of capitalism that accumulates global consumers with attention to the local” (Puwar, 2002, p.67).
On one hand then, to suggest that ‘difference’ has become marketable seems to be stating an obvious point. One need only look around and across various segments of contemporary culture in the UK – from the advertising outlined above, prevalent on billboards around the country, to the Indian influenced clothing in Topshop (Punar, 2002, p.64), to music and club culture drawing on African and South American styles (Secousse, 2009; Laurenson 2009), or films offering exoticised images of non-Western locations as signifiers of authenticity, otherness or ‘arthouse-ness’ for a Western market.
Secousse Club Flyer, 2009
This clubnight for example is described as, “showcasing the most exotic sounds of all continents, the night starts with sweet tropical music, continues with live bands and ends up in a monster worldbeat electronic tribal riot. third world power!” (Secousse, 2009).
Its “sweet” ‘exoticism’ is emphasized along with its hybridizing approach through compound words such as “worldbeat”. The advertising imagery uses a strange mix of tribal African imagery filtered through contemporary design iconography and modernist Art Nouveau typography, and the whole thing uses political language “riot”, to justified itself as somehow ‘empowering’ to the third world.
Such mixing of cultural references, whether read as positive hybridization, productive fusion, appropriation, imperialisation or pure fantasy, has been a dominant feature of UK culture for many years. As Punar proposes:
Multicultural capitalism – capitalism based on the production and consumption of cultural diversity and the marketing of packaged versions of the ‘exotic’ – is at the cutting edge of globalised economic markets. (Punar, 2002, p.71)
The hybridization of east and west, which as Punar argues, is generally the (mis)appropriation and dilution of Eastern styles for a Western market, is highly marketable in different ways for different classes and identities. She gives the contrasting examples of middle-class women wearing pashminas and teenagers covering themselves in bangles from Camden Market. Either way, she describes the frisson that results from these mixes as vital for its marketable effect and part of the affective power of multinational capitalism:
In the world of fashion, the incorporation of the exotic, through chosen fragments…presents an effective way of creating a frisson (a thrill or quiver) (Puwar, 2002, p.65)
It is the mix of imagery and styles in my Seccousse example which causes a frisson through its manipulation of carefully chosen fragments.
On the other hand however, can such marketing of difference be anything more than simple appropriation and exploitation? Puwar suggests that it can. Her research, based on taking into account the perspective of South Asian women who have watched Indian styles become appropriated and part of globalised mainstream culture, proposes a degree of ambivalence. On one hand there is pain at the cultural amnesia involved – How can people wear the clothes of those who only recently they were spitting at and calling ‘paki’ (Puwar 2002). On the other hand however, she detects the potential of other memories and desires in excess of its commodification:
The anger has not extinguished the possibility of another conversation of texture, cut, colour, shape, beauty and sensuousness. In other words the racism and orientalisation of south Asians has not managed to kill or contain an alterity of aesthetics whose very existence has been a (quiet) form of enrichment/resistance in itself, without even consciously being for itself in an overtly political sense (Puwar, 2002, p. 78)
So, although difference has of course become marketable, perhaps this may not be entirely a pessimistic position. ‘Ambivalence’ is important in her argument. While her interviewees may be offended by white western appropriations of their culture, there still exists the potential for a reconstitution of memory from within the boundaries of multinational appropriation.
The Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan is an interesting example. He has achieved great success for his films in Europe. It could be argued that they have been marketed and framed for a Western audience, precisely in terms of their difference, and in particular, as embodiments of the hybrid east meets west position of Turkey, and of Istanbul in particular. In a recent interview with film critic Geoff Andrew for example, Andrew repeatedly came back to an autobiographical reading of Ceylan’s work, “how close is it to your own experience?” (Andrew, 2009), as if the only way to legitimize Ceylan’s presence at the Q and A was for him to act as a stand-in for western conceptions of how growing up in Turkey must have been.
While Ceylan’s earlier films such as Clouds of May (1999) employed signifiers of authenticity and locality such as the use of hand-held cameras, local non-actors and the self-aware use of the director’s own family, it is interesting that it his more recent films that have been more commercially successful in the UK. This suggest perhaps that while conventional signifiers of the primitive in film style have become exhausted as a marketable style through the complete proliferation of Reality TV and YouTube diarycam culture, there still exists a taste for the exoticisation of a supposedly authentic hybrid position, as suggested in Ceylan’s films set in Istanbul and dealing with the clash between tradition and modernity, such as Uzak (2002).
Still from Uzak (2002)
In the film, epic shots of Istanbul landscapes with figures gazing out across the sea, their melancholy reflected in languorous long takes and slow camera movements, become effective Tourist Board adverts for the romantic melancholy of Istanbul (and its clichéd representation as gateway between Europe and Asia). They also, however, offer a highly poetic and textured intensity, which exceeds its appropriation as purely ‘different’. The film itself shows many interesting plays and inversions around notions of difference. The ‘primitive’ and ‘backward’ cousin is shown hopelessly seduced by the modern Westernised Istanbul women, acting as objects for his desire. While a Western audience may uncomfortably laugh at his hopeless and sinister seeming quests, they are equally repelled by the cruelty of his cousin who, in a determination to define himself against his traditional upbringing becomes cold and distant (uzak in Turkish). Watching Tarkovsky at night to get rid of his cousin and present himself as a Westernised intellectual, he flicks back to a pornography channel when the cousin goes to bed, only to be disturbed and have to hastily change the channel when the cousin returns. Constant clashes, self-aware humour and problematisations of lived modernity exist alongside the neat packaging of Ceylan’s work for a Western audience. The position of the viewer is never certain when there is no-one to identify with or neatly fit into easy models of, say, Oriental.
Difference has become incredibly marketable and there are many examples to suggest this across contemporary multinational culture. However, in its marketability there can still exist contradictions and ambivalence. Artists, filmmakers or writers who hybridise language and styles do not necessarily have to be read as abandoning an authentic identity to the market, but also potentially producing a new force which acts back and challenges the whole of the so-called dominant language in which they are situated. Deleuze and Guattari address this interestingly in their definition of a ‘minor language’. The minor is not necessarily something situated in an inferior position to the major, but it is that element within culture, which allows for the whole of culture to be turned upon its head, “a minor literature should deterritorialise the major language” (Deluze and Guattari 1986: 16). It is creative and productive in the sense of speaking to a ‘people yet to come’, or the revolutionary potential within us all. This move away from models of assimilation or appropriation suggests an interesting direction, if combined with the extensive sociological research provided by Puwar for example, for rethinking the marketability of difference in the multinational situation. Difference as ambivalence, contradiction and constant problematisation need not be entirely absorbed into the culture of multinational capitalism that picks it up and drops it at will, but can also suggest the sense of another mode of aesthetics in excess of marketability that can have a powerful, although uncertain, effect.
Andrew, G. (2009) ‘Nuri Bilge Ceylan’, The Guardian, 6th Feb. 2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/feb/06/nuri-bilge-ceylan-interview-transcript
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accessed 8th March 2009
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