Blog #8: Further Reflections on Bollywood, Remediation, and Appropriation

I have in earlier entries addressed the ideas of Walter Benjamin, and I have also explored one of my principal academic interests: cultural appropriation. However, I have managed to avoid fully exploring the intersection of reproduction (in Benjamin’s sense specifically) and appropriation (in a more general cultural sense). It is doubtless that these two concepts do indeed have some conceptual overlap, and so I will attempt to explore that space.
Chelsea Ousey’s blog entry I’m Confused… Is this Insulting? The Recreations of Bollywood in Popular Media gives an excellent synthesis of the problems of cultural imitation (and consequent appropriation) in one mass-media instance. A North American TV show featured a segment where the dancers did a “Bollywood” piece (not “Bollywood-style” or “Bollywood-inspired”). Chelsea explains in her blog that “The general consensus was that the dance and costumes were insulting to Indian culture… The performance was criticized for being a “tourist Bollywood,” too tainted by Western influence.” Power imbalances aside, this is an instance of blatant, unoriginal appropriation, which is very distanced from its source.
Jeff Hart, analyzing the Pussy Cat Dolls’ reinterpretation of Jai Ho in his blog, says that

Firstly, the entire music video – the mock subway and Indian market – has most likely been filmed in an Interscope Records warehouse in Los Angeles. Thus, the aura is altered as I recognize this shift in subject position and context. Secondly, the ‘covert’ insertion of American electronic companies Nokia and Beats headphones into the video manipulates our senses dial in on these commodities.

This is an excellent jumping off point; from this image we can see Benjamin’s concept of aura (or lack thereof) intersecting with the idea of blatant cultural appropriation. Although it seemed to me at first that the two concepts had little to lend one another, I think that we can safely say that where there is problematic cultural appropriation, there is also a diminished aura. This argument is based on the idea that a piece like the Pussycat Dolls’ does not create something new, but instead pulls an “Indian” or “Bollywood” costume over the same (tired, redundantly reproduced) routine of hyper-sexualized consumerism. There is nothing new or original here, and in this way it lacks an aura. A favourite quote from another entry is useful again here: “why try to be original, when you can be exotic?” I think it can be argued that this video shows a lack of originality, and in the same way, a lack of aura.
Maira (1969) utilizes the ideas of Appadurai in a way very relevant to the argument being made by Chelsea, Jeff, and myself:

…Arjun Appadurai argues that when objects are “diverted” from the path they customarily follow in their “social lives” as commodities, this is a “sign of creativity or crisis, whether aesthetic or economic,” and one carrying a “risky or morally ambiguous aura”; it is in this sense that I wish to link cultural and material consumption with the politics of cultural production. (1969:332)

What Appadurai describes is the uncertain space in which cultural remediation occurs. As a precedent to considering the wider implications and context in each scenario, we can consider the degree of originality, (is this something new or an unoriginal reproduction?) or the aura, of what we are witnessing.


Maira, Sunanaina. Henna and Hip Hop: The Politics of Cultural Production and the Work of Cultural Studies

Jeff Hart’s Blog. Process Reproduction – The Pussycat Dolls Analyzed. Accessed March 31st, 2011.

Media and its Discontents. I’m Confused… Is this Insulting? The Recreations of Bollywood in Popular Media Accessed March 31st, 2011.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Blog #7: “Woman in the Dunes” through a Literary Lens

Suno no onna (English: Woman in the Dunes) is based on the 1962 Japanese novel by Kobo Abe. The Japanese film was released only two years later, in 1964 (Abe wrote the screenplay). The film is directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara. It is highly acclaimed, an arresting, dark and sensual piece of cinema.
The fact that it is based on a novel lends itself well to examining the film through literary theory. As Gray states, the development of the novel facilitated the development of literary theory in film (62). Gray also explains that the development of literary theory in film studies relied crucially on conventions for “eliciting, constructing, and manifesting subjectivity, notably in terms of positioning the narrator” (64). But he later adds that what sets literary theory apart from other methods in film analysis is that other analytic methods “do not explain how authors or filmmakers establish the ability to serve as the transmitters of ideology. They do not explain the mechanics by which audiences/readers are persuaded to believe what they are being told.” (65)
Teshigahara certainly makes use of cinematic conventions as a means to various (often symbolism-enabling) ends. The camera is absolutely integral to every interaction; angles and point-of-view heighten the peaks of emotional intensity. Point-of-view angles are used heavily and routinely throughout the film, sometimes to the point of exaggerated drama; close-ups are alternated with more distanced shots. The use of light and darkness, as well, is incredible, as much action takes place at night, inside the shadowy house, and occasionally darting in and out of blinding flashlight beams.
One principle aspect to note is that in contrast many of his film-director counterparts, he frames his scenes not in terms of a whole with the focus on an absent element, but chooses instead to focus more on individual parts present in the scene. He makes clear distinctions between characters, their background, and the other parts that make up the whole in each scene and the narrative. This is not insignificant—it strengthens the ability of each of these parts to serve as a symbol, and this is in itself a crucial tenet of literary analysis.
Symbolism is the dominant technique in all of Abe’s works, and Suno no onna is no exception. Although of Abe’s novels, this one is reliant on plot more than most (which could be argued to lend it well to film as well as to literary analysis, where the narrative is central). Still, Suna no onna is a highly allegorical story. Each scene is packed with symbolic meaning, but here I will mention the one ever-present element: the sand. A constant threat, it constantly drifts downward into the pit where the protagonists are trapped. Various interpretations have been made, but most see the sand as representing the oppressiveness of existence, of time itself, of the futility of finding meaning in life (many see the allegory as an existentialist one). We are all, like the (mostly) nameless protagonists, simply shovelling metaphorical sand, while seeking meaning and survival in a pit where we see only a sliver of the larger world.


Gray, Gordon
2010 Film Theory. In Cinema: A Visual Anthropology, Pp.35-73. Oxford, New York: Berg.

Teshigahara, Hiroshi, dir. 1964 Woman in the Dunes. 123 Minutes. Toho Film (Eiga) Co. Ltd.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Blog #6: Radio, Community and Everyday Life

For three arduous weeks last fall, I was without a computer. As you might imagine, the many functions for which I relied on my PC were snatched out from under me, and I had to make changes to compensate. For one, I began to actually listen to the vintage radio that usually sat gathering dust on my nightstand. Before I knew it, the radio was indispensably integrated into my morning routine. I was reminded of my teenage years, getting dressed each day to DJ Chuy Gomez on 106 KMEL. This time around, it was CBC2 Mornings. I found that radio programs, as part of one’s daily habits, quickly take on very personal associations, due to the repeated routine of listening while performing the same morning rituals.
A similar phenomenon is seen on a community-wide scale in Fort McPherson, NWT. In the documentary CBQM, we can see the way that the radio is woven into their daily habits—or in fact, is one of their habits. We see throughout the documentary residents of Fort McPherson going about their daily lives while listening to the radio. As I learned myself, radio is an especially easily-consumed form of media because all one has to do is listen. It’s hands-free technology at its best.
By integrating their programming into listeners’ lives, the radio stations aim above all else to provide content that is relevant for the communities they serve. That is to say, they provide programming that reflects the community, by using the language(s), music and dialogue that the listening public will respond positively to. Fort McPherson, for example, has bilingualism in the community, and accordingly, on the airwaves. Reflecting and serving the community are one and the same for radio stations like these, for whom the concept imagined community is foundational. . It is also representative as a kind of microcosm—the on-air roles of various people are played out in ways parallel to their real-life roles in the town, one example being the constable.
However, there is a back-and-forth aspect to the creation and reflection of community with these radio stations. The radio station’s content largely represents what is already present in the town, often making it easier to do these activities. In a few scenes, for example, a fiddle player is featured on-air; fiddling is already part of the community’s cultural history. But it might be difficult to say, for example, whether CBQM popularized organized bingo in the town, or whether it was simply reflecting a demand. The latter is more likely, still, it is difficult to draw the line that separates the back-and-forth between the community structure, and the structuring of CBQM radio content. Either way, we see how it reinforces a community routine, and thus strengthens and makes salient the town’s social network.


Allen, Dennis dir. CMQM. 66 min. National Film Board of Canada.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

“You don’t have to be original if you try to be exotic” (Blog #5)

The title quote comes from Melanie Miu, in an excellent article about the blatant essentializing of Asian cultures in three contemporary music videos. She problematizes the way these artists, in an attempt to up their originality, appropriate from other cultures.  Many of her points also apply to the controversial performances of the Heavenly Ten Stems (HTS). From a mainstream perspective, the shtick of the HTS was nothing more than theater, or perhaps personal branding. Many would think the same of the videos Miu criticizes.

However, there are several issues that must be understood. For one, the members of the Heavenly Ten Stems were coming, ostensibly, from a place of greater privilege than the people whose culture they are imitating. Additionally, they were members of a culture that in some ways is still dominant over the cultures they were borrowing from—or, at least, the appropriated-from peoples still suffer from the influence of colonialism. Furthermore, they mixed together various cultures’ attire with no regard for the differences between these cultures, nor the complexity within. It is not clear whether any of the appropriated pieces could be considered sacred, but the real problem is that the members of the band were would not have known either way—ignorance and cultural appropriation go hand in hand.

The offenses not committed by HTS, however, have probably been committed by Ke$ha— the cultural appropriation queen of today’s pop music scene. Please see Your Love Is My Drug and many of her live performances to see brazen appropriation at its worst, especially in its use of essentialized indigenous garb such as feather head dresses.

Cultural appropriation is a multiplex issue. Ke$ha’s wearing a feather head dress offends not only for the aforementioned reasons of problematic power relations, a history of cultural dominance, and ignorance of the people from whom she appropriates—although, it should be said, there is an additional offensiveness in the fact that her appropriations are generic and unrooted. There is the additional issue of erasure—of the origins of the cultural items and hence, the history of their peoples. Cultural appropriation makes “safe” that which is still highly sensitive and hurtful for today’s living descendants of the cultures Ke$sha appropriates from.

In a world brimming with constant remediations, then, where does one draw the line? This question may be to complex to discuss here; there is certainly a grey area where many perspectives can be argued (when does Indian/Asian/Cherokee/Cowichan “-inspired” cross over into appropriation? It may be a question of intent, but many fiercely negate this argument. What if a piece of jewellery is vaguely reminiscent of something sacred to a peoples, but not in fact related?) Can one only acceptably borrow from one’s own culture (and how to define the boundaries there)? All these questions aside, I will present one example of remediation that is doesn’t cause a stir: fan fiction. The blatant re-use of characters, while it may occasionally incense publishers or authors for legal reasons, in most cases does not create the issues created by cross-cultural appropriation. Perhaps what makes fan fiction so much less problematic is its deliberate imitation of its source, rather than any claim to originality and subsequent erasure of origins. Of course, fan fiction could become problematic if the original texts were sacred in some way, but as far as I am aware, we see this much less often than we see Ke$ha “going tribal” and flagrantly disregarding the many offensive messages she inherently sends by doing so.


Miu, Melanie

2010 Cultural Misappropriation: Yep, Still Racist. Accessed April 1st, 2011.

Novak, David

2010   Cosmopolitanism, Remediation, and the Ghost World of Bollywood. Cultural Anthropology 25(1):40-72


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

“The Homeland is Partly Invented” (Blog 3)

Consider this video by the Pussycat Dolls. Although totally unknown to me until now, apparently the song was a #1 worldwide hit. Next, take a look at this live performance by a dance group located in Florida. What I find interesting about the two videos is how divergently the notion of India is constructed in each of them, and the underlying motivations for doing so. Can one of them claim to be more authentic than the other?

Given the audience of the Pussycat Dolls (PD) video, much of the task of constructing “India” is simply constructing the exotic and mysterious. We see exciting flashes of a large drum beaten by a man whose face is obscured by shadows. Silhouettes of ostensibly Indian women sensually arch their backs, creating easily (and instantly, given the fraction of a second we see them) recognizable symbols of India. All singers wear saris and bindis. This is “India” for the (non-Indian) masses.

The Tamil troupe uses costumes to construct their identity as well, but the similarities seem to end here. I would surmise that for the dancers and the audience at this event, India is evoked through some obvious markers, as well as through more subtle, covert ones. There is likely a great deal of meaning that one could miss, lacking the life experiences that create meanings for those at the event. We see in this video  a “deterritorialized group,” as described by Appadurai, as well as what he calls the “changing social, territorial, and cultural reproduction of group identity.” The performance itself doesn’t bely this phenomenon so much as its location—Tampa, Florida, which is a long way from the original territories of the Tamil people.  Through their mediating actions (the performance itself, as well as its recording and internet distribution), the homeland is (re)invented in the minds of viewers and participants.

What does this tell us as far as “authenticity” for each video? The PD video is easy to tear apart as a poor imitation. The fact that the format used by the PD (film) is so condemned for its total lack of “aura” by Benjamin underscores the lack of authenticity, in at least his terms. As a live performance, the Tamil group fits Benjamin’s criteria for having an aura—the crucial existence in time and space. This theory only works, however, if we ignore the fact that what we are watching is a reproduction—ie if we were an audience member, which we are not. We cannot ignore the mediating layer that is this video recording. As with the PD video, then, this video underscores the difficulty in applying Benjamin’s theories in today’s heavily mediated cultural practices.

Novak states that Bollywood films “originate as ‘mash-ups’ of cultural references, of different global voices and bodies, places and times. In other words, they are already remediations, always simultaneously familiar and strange.” Both videos, then, are based on an art form that is inherently remediated.  If we look again to Benjamin’s ideas, specifically that “the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition,” then the possibility of claiming authenticity is worn even thinner, since both are undeniably reproductions. Perhaps along with the ideas of “new media” as described by Novak, we need to conceive of “new authenticities.”


Appadurai, Arjun

1996   Global Ethnoscapes: Notes and Quesries for a Transnational Anthropology. In Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimentions of Globalization, Pp. 48-65. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Benjamin, Walter

1936   The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility. In Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 3: 1995-1938. Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press.

Novak, David

2010   Cosmopolitanism, Remediation, and the Ghost World of Bollywood. Cultural Anthropology 25(1):40-72.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Culture, Globalization, Mediation as explained by Mazarella (Blog 2)

In this article Mazarella expands the colloquial understanding of the term “media,” incorporating human ritual into his definition. He describes media generally as a self-conscious (or potentially self- conscious, if attention is brought to it) culturally determined object or behaviour.  He puts a strong emphasis on cultural reproduction, and how it is done through such media, not only with the outsider view in mind, but with a high self awareness by those who take part. In many instances, his idea of media boils down to the idea of representation and self-representation.

If we can say that use of the internet pre-assumes a globalized context, then there are myriad examples of post-globalized self-representation to be found there. Through social networking, online dating, and various internet communities, many people across the globe have had to reckon with new (to them and the world) ways of, quite literally, representing themselves. The self-representation called for by, for example, online dating websites, is in fact much more overt than the subtle or symbolic self-representation used in most other areas of “modern” society (specifically, those for whom the internet is fully integrated into their lives.) The overtness itself causes many people to feel somewhat uncomfortable creating an online “profile”—“I just don’t know what to put there!” This is in contrast to the other acts of self-representation—choice of clothing, politics, lifestyle, etc—that most people instantly know what is “me” and what is not. This is one of many examples of people’s struggle when faced with new circumstances, requiring a shift in their methods of representing.

Going beyond the individual scope, we can see through the internet how cultural groups negotiate their self-representation in cyber space as well. An example of this is a website such as Jezebel—a feminist community of writers and commenters who write with a certain “voice,” achieved through stylistic choices, certain cultural references, and political sensitivity. The way “Jezzies” write is a clear method of self-representation that affirms community membership and their shared values. Their stylistic practices are in themselves a form of media, in Mazarella’s sense.

As these examples, and countless other similar ones attest, media can take a countless number of ever-shifting shapes in globalized, web-connected society.


Mazarella, William

2004 Culture, Globalization, Mediation. Annual Review of Anthropology 33:345-367.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Layers of Remediation in Two Wheatpaste Pieces (Blog 4)

“To dub is not simply to copy, but to grasp the thing you behold; to name it as your own.” (Novak 2010:54)

This photo was taken in a Gastown alley in downtown Vancouver:

This photo was taken near Metrotown mall:

Both pieces are by the same artist, known as Jerm IX, and are examples of wheatpasting. Both reference pillars of popular culture: Oprah, and Wu-Tang Clan. Oprah is a household name whose words reach North Americans through nearly every mainstream media channel, and the Wu-Tang Clan are hip hop pioneers whose music influenced the genre tremendously. Through referencing these iconic figures, the pieces arguably make a statement of resistance to the powers of society and capitalism.

The C.R.E.A.M. piece could be read as a fairly straightforward anti-capitalist statement. However, it is worth noticing the layers of remediation and of resistance here. Hip hop, after all, has been viewed by many as a resistance movement. Much of the lyrical content of hip hop, especially in its formative years, encouraged political resistance , and the practices associated with it place a strong emphasis on the “underground.” In the original lyrics of C.R.E.A.M., Inspector Deck criticizes the society around him, stating “We got stickup kids, corrupt cops, and crack rocks” and that “Living in the world no different from a [jail] cell.” In sum, there is no shortage of resistant sentiment to be found in hip hop.
In terms of remediation, hip hop, perhaps more than any other genre, is known for its extensive sampling of other music, and for the constant interrupting or “remixing” of existing media. And yet, Jerm IX creates another layer of resistance and remediation through his work, changing the meaning not only by replacing “rules” with “ruins,” but also by his act of reappropriation. This latter point is true of both pieces—these, and other acts of graffiti, are a clear case of the medium being an essential part of the message.

In the case of the first (Oprah) piece, the resistant message is not spelled out so explicitly; the resistance here is more subtle, but again, it is the medium and the fact of reappropriation that are important here. The quotation itself is unmodified, yet the detachment and disparity from its original context is what strikes the viewer (not unlike the effect of contextual detatchment seen in Bollywood films). The placement and isolation of the quotation, i.e., the recontextualization, causes a re-examination of what is being said. We could speculate that, given the fact that Oprah is literally a billionaire, the piece calls into question her statement, along with much of what Oprah stands for—class privilege, and, beyond that, her deceptive pandering to her audience (ostensibly). David Novak states that “to dub is not simply to copy, but to grasp the thing you behold; to name it as your own.” (Novak 2010:54) Jerm IX makes the Oprah quote his own and gives it a new life.

One might take note of a certain irony when comparing these two pieces. The message from Oprah is less subversive, at least by association, as I have explained, than the Wu-Tang Clan lyric, but it remains unmodified by the artist. And yet, the recontextualization is enough to create a message of resistance. The C.R.E.A.M. lyric, though already connoting resistance for those familiar with the reference, is the one that is altered by the artist to assert resistance in his own way.

Both of these pieces use the power of existing cultural emblems, and their associated messages, to create a new meaning. David Novak, paraphrasing Bolter and Grusin, says that “In their sense, remediation transfers content from one format to another, thereby making media new, and making new media.” (Novak 2010:41) The many layers of remediation present in both these pieces point to the endless potential of “new media.”


Novak, David

2010 Cosmopolitanism, Remediation, and the Ghost World of Bollywood. Cultural Anthropology 25(1): 40-72. (Accessed February 9th, 2011)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment