The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: November, 2013

Persepolis

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Persepolis is a fine and accomplished piece of work, formally outshining the far more ostentatious Habibi. While its drawings are flat, even austere, this attention to simplicity and geometry, in the words of Hillary Chute, “present events with a pointed degree of abstraction in order to call attention to the horror of history.”¹ While Craig Thompson’s vast, mystical, interlocking flora and spiraling shapes created an almost overwhelming spectacle of affect and Orientalist excess, Persepolis recounts its traumatic narrative at a critical remove.

Of course, that separation can only be carried so far in a work of autobiography. However, because it intertwines the general history of Iran with the particular history of Marjane Satrapi, author of Persepolis, it ends up contaminating both forms. As a history of modern Iran it is intensely personal, and its autobiographical narrative is swept up in grander historical events. Abstraction  literally flattens the image (bringing it closer to pure symbol or text) and simultaneously draws the larger and smaller stories closer together. This is because Satrapi’s life as recounted here is inevitably structured by politics, its wildness and trauma often forcibly configured into symmetry. Her images depicting post-revolutionary Iran show how singular personalities are collapsed into sameness by conformity of dress, facial hair, and thought. All the while, however, those individuals are not effaced by this outward conformity, their personalities becoming all the more conspicuous for it.

In the second of two volumes, Satrapi spends several heady years attending a French school in Vienna, rushing between love interests, residences, and political groups. Despite the decadent abundance of food and consumer goods in Austria, the people there seem no happier, especially one nihilistic punk that Satrapi takes great pleasure in tearing down. Nuns come in for another pointed critique, with their depiction drawing inevitable comparisons between two authoritarian religious featuring women in head coverings. So much changes between Iran and Austria, but much stays the same. One definite pleasure of the book comes from recognizing my own Western (tiger) pretensions and just how easy the path of cynicism is compared to trying to enact real social change.

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Imperialism comes to the fore early in the narrative when the author surveys Iranian history in the twentieth century. British intervention is seen as a corrupting influence, shaping Iran into a dictatorship first under Reza Shah and subsequently under his son Mohammed Reza Shah. While the overt domination of the British and Russians is condemned, Satrapi is a child of a Westernized, secular family that enjoys the bounties of Western goods and the pleasures of Western culture. She visits black markets to buy Iron Maiden tapes, dons a Michael Jackson pin on a jacket that says “Punk Is Not Ded” over her more traditional garb, and commits to Marxist revolution under the influence of her kindly Uncle Anoush. Satrapi, who composed this book in French and achieved her greatest success in Europe and the United States, is, though not simply a citizen of a Western metropole, certainly far more Westernized than most Iranians. According to Said’s principles of contrapuntal reading, Persepolis constitutes a response by the dominated territories to the legacy of imperialism. This much is certain, since the work is reckoning not only with the historical fallout of British dominion over Iran and the CIA coup but also the fact of Western manipulation of the Iran-Iraq War and the revolt of many people in the country against the imposition of Western culture and alien values under the shah’s repression.

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From another angle, however, this book can be seen as deeply implicated in the structures of Western culture and capitalism. Like Zahra’s Paradise, this is a work written for and marketed to a Western audience written by an expatriate. Its more rigorous drawings and attention to both personal and global histories make it more formidable as an opponent of imperialism, but it remains the product of Western presses and the padder of Western bank accounts. Additionally, its reception in the West has some troubling aspects to it as well as nobler ones. For instance, the dominant representation of Iran in the American media is one of an implacable enemy to American interests and culture. Tensions between Iran and the global American empire almost led to war before they were somewhat defused by recent negotiations and the election of a less populist and reactionary Iranian president.

Persepolis tells the story of a secular, wealthy Iranian woman who eventually left to live in Europe, the sort of figure with whom Westerners could easily empathize. This is no fault of the author’s, but the success of any book is rarely of the author’s making. We can see the book both as a mostly unqualified artistic triumph and an example of how the West tends to gravitate toward narratives that, while critical of its involvement in the world, are pessimistic about the chances of Middle Eastern countries to work for their own freedom and social progress. In some ways, Marjane Satrapi’s story parallels Edward Said’s own, seeing as both of them were from minority and higher-class social groups in their native countries and found considerable success and wide audiences among liberal Westerners. Though the two people are not perfectly congruent–they are individuals, after all–I think it is fair to take them both as representatives of a certain type. To treat works such as Said’s and Satrapi’s as critical works is to be aware of the class, religious, and geographical contexts within which they were created.

Interestingly, both of them are skeptical of Marxism and revolution in general, which is graphically illustrated in Persepolis as the young girl becomes disillusioned with both revolution and religion, with any universal hopes as both of these noble ideals are sullied by the Ayatollah’s dictatorship. Said’s Culture and Imperialism, written and published as Really Existing Socialism collapsed in Europe and the victory of neoliberal capitalism seemed assured, is equally skeptical of revolutionary action on class lines, preferring to analyze disembodied and free-floating cultural systems. It’s certainly safer that way, but in times of world crisis like this we learn to distinguish despair from realism and understand works of literature from a class perspective.

Persepolis, unlike all of the other works I have reviewed, is a work of nonfiction, which presents certain difficulties in comparing it to the rest. However, I feel as though this is both a good book to end on and probably the best of the graphic novels I have included in my research. It is a wonderful counterpoint to all the American guilt-tripping and propaganda I have encountered, and brings this exploration to an end on a positive note.

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Sunset Rubdown: “Silver Moons”

My previous post on Arcade Fire attracted a considerable audience as well as a number of comments of varying amounts of intelligence. A couple of the comments noted that Arcade Fire’s Reflektor is at least honest, I point I would never dispute. It is also rather revealing, almost confessional, admitting to its own shortcomings. For me, that layer of self-deprecation was only reflective of a narrow-minded view of music history and a lack of imagination and ambition.

Luckily, though, I am not returning to you to rehash old posts, nor to dwell on the negative. This time my tigerly gaze meets that of Spencer Krug, who is almost indisputably the most brilliant individual songwriter and singer to emerge from the Montréal indie rock scene in the last decade (Godspeed You! Black Emperor wins gold for best collective, since their members are all virtually anonymous on the records). Because I am fond of bold, even hyperbolic claims, let me stick this one in the ground and stand by it: Sunset Rubdown’s “Silver Moons” is the only indie rock song you ever need to hear.

Defining the boundaries of “indie” music is of course impossible. The term is less well-defined than which countries belong in the Middle East, but tigers have to make compromises. Such a thing as indie rock exists, and it must have some defining features. To me, contemporary indie rock originated in the collapse of grunge and alternative rock as commercial forces in the mainstream. There is a rich and oft-cited catalogue of imagery associated with indie rock–bearded men, “hipsters” in ironic attire, cheap beer, cigarettes, and awkward dancing are only a selection–but truth be told there aren’t any icons suitable to represent the entire scene. That scene has always been more of a group with shared sensibilities and reading outlets than a genre. However, I think it is safe to say that indie rock has, since the collapse of grunge, been defined by acts of gazing backward and mourning loss. 

This is not to say that every single indie rock song exemplifies this, but these two acts tend to describe most of the moderately popular rock music that I’ve heard for the last decade or so. Indie rock is primarily about memory, about tensions and oppositions that erupt from the passage of time. So here you have MGMT singing about missing “the comfort of my mother and the weight of the world,” the National observing that the lead singer has fallen in love with “everyone I grew up with,” the melancholy past tense of most Beirut songs, the primitivism of Animal Collective, everything about Bon Iver, Arcade Fire’s rumination on Funerals and Reflektions, The White Stripes’ minimalism, the general obsession with the 1980s and 90s, LCD Soundsystem eulogizing a rougher New York City, much of Sufjan Stevens’ three folk albums, Vampire Weekend’s fetishization of college life on its first album, etc. etc. etc.

One could cite numerous counterexamples, but I believe I have covered the most visible and best-known artists in that list. All of these artists tend to be backward-looking both stylistically and lyrically, and though there is a more technologically innovative segment of the indie rock scene, it tends to be dwarfed by that segment that sticks to acoustic instrumentation and avoids technologies like drum machines or sampling (those who do use those tend to use them in a self-consciously nostalgic or ironic way. Or, like Animal Collective, use them so that they sound totally organic and “natural”). Sunset Rubdown does not escape from this scheme. It is profoundly obsessed with the past and with death, with succession, transition, and a sense of loss. Its lyrics are palpably mournful, its parties a distant memory, and all of its inhabitants mere ghosts, Hungry for a more lively time. And for the narrator, there is nothing other than to memorize, to pass on the secrets and fade into the night. He implores us to say:

Maybe these days are over, over now
Maybe these days are over, over now
And I loved it better than anyone else you know
And I believe in growing old with grace
I believe she only loved my face
I believe I acted like a child
Making faces at acquired tastes
And now silver moons belong to you

This song succeeds on the expressive strength of Krug’s imitable voice, its evocative words that flow naturally alongside the song’s shifting rhythms. Moreover, the song keeps itself open-ended, drawn toward the light of the moons, hope in the new generation. This is the constructive role of memory: not a bitter cataloguing of wrongs and sinners but a seeking after truth that has gone before. It is not just an example of the indie rock template, it is the definitive word on the entire scene. The word of the entire scene, which is nothing if not a group of nervous and rapidly aging college graduates attempting to reckon with real responsibility. If most indie rock stops at trying to freeze time in place and mourn or make wry remarks about “these days,” this song takes the next necessary step, acknowledging not only ancestors but progeny or successors. In recognizing a future, albeit not one that we can own, it gives the respect due to both death and the continuation of life afterward. This is the only indie rock song we need right now.

It’s Already Too Late: Akira, The World’s End

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It seems as though it is already too late for the Sumatran tiger. Unfortunately, Mark Twain’s joke about great exaggerations cannot be applied here, nor is there much chance that we striped cats will pull a Tom Sawyer and witness our own funerals. We are not so impish, for one, and our deaths are no contrivance or mistake. Scratch that. Our deaths are most certainly contrived–by human hands. Maybe that’s why there’s a heaven for tigers now but not yet one for humans: your species has to basically be extinct before you can qualify for an afterlife. Fortunately, the same capitalist vigor that drove us into the dust is going to claim all you humans soon enough.

Consider the apocalypses of the Bible. Revelation, for instance:

After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. Around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads. Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God; and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal.

Were this written in our time, it would have taken care to note that the jasper and carnelian and gold and white robes and other riches had been ethically sourced and manufactured. More importantly, notice glory, the resplendent monarchy of God on display. Strange creatures, tigers unfortunately excluded, sing praises to this God: “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.” What comes after, all the pestilence, death, and suffering, all the lamentation and gnashing, is the will of One who transcends, who has planned all of this in advance for some unfathomable reason. Humanity’s final reckoning is assured, and only its time is uncertain. Let me ask you a question: was tiger kind’s extinction foreordained? Was there a grand plan for us, who are arguably nobler creatures, as there seems to be for you? Of course, humans made all the right collective choices if the destruction of we big cats was the goal. However, given that humans are now driving themselves toward the same cliff (regrettably, we won’t have the pleasure of watching you stumble into the abyss, since we’ll already be there) I doubt that our deaths were the result of a rational choice.

Lately, the end of the world has taken on an appropriately human guise in film. Whether the result of human “ingenuity” or human negligence, when these two can be differentiated, humanity ends up fulfilling the old saying “if you want to take all the credit, you get to take all the blame.” In a world where nature itself is a formation of human activity, where no aspect of the planet, even the most remote reaches, is immune from contamination, the old boundaries between human and nature begin to dissolve. Think of the old theological distinction between natural evil and human evil. While a sudden asteroid impact would probably still qualify as an “act of God” in the old sense, we can no longer say the same thing about storms. Were there a just court somewhere in the world, we could probably put the entire United States on trial for the mass murder of the poor all over the world. United States, with carbon dioxide emissions, in the ballroom. So too in our films the organic/synthetic binary is far more uncertain than it has ever been.

Akira places immense power in the hands of human beings. Not just humans, but children. Its end shows the birth of a new universes at the hands of a young man who was, just days before, a street thug. We might joke that his new universe is the Australia of dimensions, a penal colony for delinquents and boat-rockers. What is curious about Akira is that its end of the world and the beginning of a new one is local. It wasn’t even the destruction of Japan, a landmass the size of California, but rather the destruction of a single city. The World’s End spares far fewer, and perhaps we can trace the globalizing of the apocalypse from 1988 to this year. It certainly follows a ruthless capitalist logic. Perhaps we can think of the end of the world as the premier capitalist entrepreneur, rising from mythic and humble beginnings only to spread his (emphatically male) interests around the world like a cancer. Akira allows us to see the failure of a nation rank with decadence, a mass of robotic flesh or fleshly robots (take your pick) who wallow in the filthy streets while the rich command the levers from on high. Of course, the experts buried the source of the original destruction, Akira himself, under the eventual site of the Olympic Stadium, the symbol of the end of reconstruction. In Akira the world is either in a state of decay, destruction, or reconstruction. There is no peace, and it seems the cycle accelerates every time.

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The World’s End has a far more frightening vision of the end of the world. It is all-pervasive, accidental, and inevitable. It was the nihilistic decision of a single drunken man who refused to back down. Of course, we are shown a somewhat idyllic future, a cinematic realm of simple peasants, brigands, and heroes. There is no reconstruction, because the means of rebuilding, namely technology, are alien and oppressive in themselves. They have been transplanted into the human body, which eventually rejects it. Billions of people die and those who are left are consigned to a menial existence. Of course, this is the extreme of calls for “authenticity,” the fervent wishes of those who collect vinyl records and grow gardens for their own amusement, who want to make their photographs look older than they are and fetishize monarchies.

While Akira perceives that, even though technology has united with flesh and decimated the city, some survive and will rebuild. It is, at least, a dynamic cycle. What The World’s End does is to take hopelessness the next step and break the cycle, leave humanity in the state of destruction for all time because that is what is true and free. Technology only enslaves, only alienates. Even as a tiger who has no great aptitude for computers and such (my editor is the one who handles the posting process) I can see that this is perhaps the most sentimentalized apocalypse we can imagine today. It diagnoses with refreshing accuracy the breakdown of community we perceive today, but can think of nothing but annihilation as a solution. It’s Luddism’s most pornographic and exultant fantasy.

In The World’s End we have not the ruptural and surprising technological explosion of Akira nor the meticulously planned providential end of Revelation. It is a rational human choice slurried in alcohol, the noble assertion of humanity’s freedom to fuck up however it wants. I suppose when it is already too late, when we are already in the time of droughts and floods, that might be the only human freedom worth exercising anymore. On the other hand, I prefer to believe that radical destruction, as in Akira, is only a prelude, an opening of the curtain to a new world that can be rebuilt. Technology is going to remain with us, and thank God. For it is only an extension of our bodies when it comes down to it.

The Tyger Extinguished: Film Arts Malaise

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Paul Schrader, director and screenwriter of incendiary films and purveyor of abyssal Calvinist darkness, founded our great organization. He imposed, through this organ, some of his furious will on this staid campus. Blake’s Tyger is a worn and fanciful but appropriate avatar for the organization, considering its role in the history of the college as a site of agitation, its place not merely on the cutting edge but as the cutting edge, slicing through the cold congealed consensus that strangles Calvin College. Now the fire is out, the tiger no longer inspires fear, no longer bears the spears of the stars, no longer strides above the lake of fat in which we are all daily swimming.

I am the general secretary of the Film Arts Committee, at this point more like a coroner or the groundskeeper of a grave than a patriot in some great cause. This causes me some sorrow, but it is more a sobering reality than a nightmare to be confronted. In a Calvin College where the library shelves are lined with films of all kinds, where ubiquitous campus Internet floods hardcore pornography into darkened rooms (we can all have a laugh at the network censorship later), where a showing of A Clockwork Orange or Akira need only be prefaced with a polite disclaimer about their grotesque yet highly truthful and artistic content, there is no place for a burning Tyger. There is no point in trying to keep up Schrader’s legacy, since the nature of our organization is such that we can sway no one and barely raise an eyebrow from students.

Oh, sure, we delight in the occasional concerned letter we receive, which always pays due deference to discernment and all those other despicable pieties. Nonetheless, we are at a point where we can offend no one, can advance no cause, cannot be the straw that broke the camel’s back. That being the case, we can only entertain, give people a proper spectacle inaccessible on their puny laptop screens. Perhaps this is rank cynicism, but it is time to decide the fate of our organization. For those who love to retell old tales, and I confess to being one who fancies myths–see my above invocation of Schrader–we have enough reason to keep this funeral service running a few more years. After all, we have more than other student groups have, namely a proud history. And yet it does us no good, since no one outside our confines knows about it. Before my fiancée Jacqueline revived the group, it was in its grave. It remains there still, only now it has an audience.

What is the role of film as a medium at Calvin College? Should we not aspire to a nobler mission than showing films that appeal to vanishing minorities of people and entertaining them for a few hours a month? Is there no way we can escape from just being another “content provider,” an artsy wing of the Student Activities Office? I doubt that there is. A deep malaise has settled over Calvin College, and we are not immune. Stagnation is the order of the day, and we overburdened debt slaves work feverishly in our classes without the time or motivation or energy to care one whit about the fact that Calvin is decadent and static, much less to rectify the situation. Cinema is a powerful art form, hybrid and impure, popular and subversive all at once, charged with the ready familiarity of kitsch yet capable of a kind of transcendence. It is, in the words of Alain Badiou, “the last place populated by heroes” in a world of commercialized familiarity and smallness. Does that mean there is hope for us, that we can by the sheer power of the product we are offering, recover our dignity and relevance? Sadly, I think that the world of Calvin College is far too small and too commercialized and cold for even the greatest films to pierce.

I fear it will fall to another organization entirely to change this situation. Only a concentrated and determined effort by students to awaken and push away our dizzy complacency will make a difference. We need a real union of students, and perhaps it is in this slim chance that we can find hope for Film Arts. As a provider of respectable entertainment, a pleasant night out for slightly more motivated folks, we are useless. As one organ of a broader movement, we can, with some luck and a tremendous amount of work, galvanize this corpse.

Of course, to create such a movement at such a time, a real union of students that will work hard for change, is like wishing for rain in a desert. We might just be better off becoming the Calvin Circus Committee and learn to dance with a bear. I hear it’s the next big trend in what employers are looking for in students. Surely our résumés will be the talk of the human resources world. Healthy résumé, healthy person.

Hey, there’s an idea. If we want to be helpful and popular, just help people pad their résumés. Sell off administrative titles to raise money! Wait until budget cuts have claimed Chimes as well as Dialogue and start a semaphore club, sending letters to the editor via waving flags on rooftops. At least you can’t do that over the Internet yet.

In all seriousness, we could at least get a tiger mascot. Might be useful for gladiatorial games. Because, barring a miracle of human effort or divine intervention–and I am skeptical of both–we will not live to see our college’s lot improve.

Zahra’s Paradise

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Up to this point, all of the graphic novels I’ve studied have been written by American authors, depicting the Middle East and Middle Easterners from a Western, metropolitan, and ultimately imperialist perspective. The proliferation of these books after the 9/11 attacks could no doubt be explained by those little surges of fear that leap across American vertebrae when the Middle East comes up, as well as both the savvy, political intent, and guilty consciences of the white male authors. While some books have been more conscious of this than others–for good and ill–all of them have participated in established discourses about the Middle East that could broadly be described as imperialist. Zahra’s Paradise, however, is far more complicated in origin.

Though it emerged from the pens of an Iranian expatriate to America, an Algerian illustrator, and a Jewish artist, all of whom have kept strict anonymity for fear of reprisals, it is an American product published in English. Both it and Persepolis, which I am saving for last, are the work of Iranians who have moved or fled to the West and published there. This has obvious critical importance for any attentive reader attempting to figure out how to place these works in the current culture.

The West hovers mainly around the peripheries of the narrative in Zahra’s Paradise, since the plot that drives the story is a largely domestic affair. Beginning in the dusty clamour of the 2009 Green Revolution protests in Iran, the story follows the titular Zahra and her older son Hassan as they search for Mehdi, the younger child of the family, who has gone missing after marching with the protestors. Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was reelected in an election widely believed to be fraudulent–with much cause–triggering mass demonstrations in the capital, Tehran. The authors attempt to use the fictional Mehdi as a figure or symbol representing thousands of lost youth whose fates remain obscure in the aftermath of the protests and subsequent crackdown. Hassan and Zahra, whose name she shares with a large cemetery in Tehran, use every means and connection available to them in a desperate attempt to reconnect to the lost Mehdi, and along the way allowing the authors to issue a blistering attack on the Islamic Republic’s ruling government.

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My analysis of the book will take place in two distinct but overlapping arenas. The first is the book’s relationship to a Western audience as well as the Iranian people themselves. The second is the authors’ clear endorsement of technology (the book was originally a webcomic) as a powerful tool in the hands of ordinary people to bring justice or at least shame on oppressors.

Zahra’s Paradise issued from Western printing presses and was intended for a Western audience, though the original webcomic was also translated into Farsi and Arabic. Though the webcomic was a more cosmopolitan affair, the book was published first in English, and the language of Britain and the United States is the primary vehicle by which Amir, the author, has pursued his political activism. Edward Said writes of the necessity of a contrapuntal reading of cultural works. That is, in his view, a critic must consider both the literary output of the metropole and the response of the formerly occupied or colonized territories–the “distant lands” that are exoticized and oppressed by the Western nations. This book, covered throughout with explanatory notes and including a long glossary of terms and appendix in the back, seems best suited for an American audience with little knowledge about Iranian culture and history.

Critical reception to the book by its American and British audiences has been almost uniformly positive. One finds nary a criticism of the book in the numerous published reviews and news reports, which probably arises from both the book’s actual quality–to which I can attest–and the context of its publication. Zahra’s Paradise is simply too important, too essential to criticize, one suspects. The notice in the New York Review of Books has this as its penultimate paragraph:

Zahra’s despair is well-founded. According to a United Nations report on Iran that was released in late September, over 300 secret executions reportedly took place at Vakilabad Prison in 2010, and a further 146 secret executions have taken place in 2011. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 34 journalists had been detained by the end of 2010. One of them, Mohammad Davari, was sentenced to five years for making a series of videotaped statements by prisoners at the Kahrizak detention center who said they had been abused, tortured and raped.

This review, penned by Haleh Esfandiari, who, according to his bio, was detained in solitary confinement at Evin Prison for 105 days, understandably sees the book as more of a political act than an aesthetic object. No doubt his own experiences played an invaluable role in his essay, though most of it is taken up with synopsis rather than evaluation. Esfandiari’s writing is exemplary of the Western response to the book, which seems to me overly reverent. I am grateful that the book has given more attention to Iranians, who are often melted into a black-clad, menacing grin in the minds of Americans. Like Persepolis, the book draws on ancient Persian poetry and tradition as an indictment of present conditions and the hypocrisy of the authorities. It also reveals its namesake, Zahra, to be a pious Muslim whose faith is a source of empowerment as well as protest, and the final pages of the book proper are covered with her fervent lament. As this is a work of fiction, the author and artist are free to cast their characters as specific types, which they manage to do without effacing the presence of moral ambiguity.

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The reception of the book in the West is also indicative of a popular appetite for stories condemning the regime in Iran. While the book itself takes proper care to emphasize that this is an Iranian struggle and one where the West is unwelcome, Zahra’s Paradise is also catering to a market whose size and flexibility was already established when it made a bestseller of Persepolis and established Joe Sacco’s reputation. Its reverent critical reception and wide media coverage indicates not a fault in the book but a continuing American hunger for images of oppressed Iranians suffering under a totalitarian regime. This in a country where the Iranian ruling class has already been thoroughly demonized by the press, government propaganda, and popular discourse. Zahra’s Paradise furthers this discourse, and also adds another twist to the proceedings, namely that of techno-activism.

Both the Green Revolution and Arab Spring revolts were widely covered in the American news, and one tool of the protestors in particular seemed to hog much of the attention: social media. This article, while it toes the standard line of the West as bringer of democracy and assumes capitalism and liberal values as standard, is a decent introduction to this issue. Unfortunately, many in the West act as though these technologies, often developed in the United States, are more important to the work of protest movements than the people participating in them!

Through the webcomic and various other campaigns, the collaborators behind this project have fully embraced what I call techno-activism, even putting Zahra up for Iran’s presidential election. Though the narrative of the novel itself designates normal Iranians as the heroic ones, its creators have, by targeting the work at a Western audience and using the Web as a publishing vehicle, given a hearty endorsement to techno-activism.

Within the story itself, major plot points revolve around gadgets and devices: Hassan’s computer, the copy machine at a local Internet café, secret discs, hacked files, an online community supporting Mehdi, and more are all crucial or at least play prominent roles in the plot. The destruction of said copy machine is a critical moment for a supporting character, who later exacts violent revenge on those who would dare assail his Japanese Canon machine. Technology, in Zahra’s Paradise, is functions overwhelmingly in support of the people, though space is given over to looking at how the regime itself tightens its grip using those same sophisticated devices. Given that the Web has been the primary means of publicizing and distributing the novel, it should come as no surprise that I believe that this text is surrounded and spilling over with enthusiasm for technology, within the text and in a larger digital culture.

Both the book’s Western reception and its nature as a hub of techno-activism within and surrounding the text show that Zahra’s Paradise cannot be considered a national response to imperial oppression in Said’s sense, at least not without significant complication. Because it was produced in the West and largely for the West and keeps such a cheery view of technological tools for organization, its political importance can be contested. While the images and text themselves make an impassioned plea for Western recognition of Iranian agency, its location in the Western media landscape have compromised this intent somewhat.

This is not to suggest that just because technological tools are of a Western origin that advocating their use constitutes imperialism. Far from it, since ideals of democracy and freedom that originated in the metropolitan states have borne much fruit in national resistance movements throughout the former colonized world. There is no reason technology cannot be the same way. At the same time, however, the extent to which these activists have leaned on the Web and social media in their story and in their promotion thereof should be subject to scrutiny. More analysis needs to be done on the ways that social media often unmasks anonymous users and can play into the hands of authoritarian governments (as well as “democratic” ones) and actually weaken radical political movements.

Robert Glasper Experiment: Black Radio 2

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When I first got into jazz, I bristled at anyone who would dare suggest that the genre I was just discovering was in any way “dead.” After all, there remains a large worldwide following for the music and an at least seemingly strong repertoire of artists, so what’s the problem? Now, though, I might be coming around to something like a theory of the “death of jazz.” Listening to albums from Robert Glasper, Nicholas Payton, and Christian Scott, among others, one notices that though their contributions to jazz (Payton prefers “black American music” or BAM) retain some of the forms of that venerable genre, their success comes from its combination with something new. And I don’t mean that they’re merely being eclectic, creating little postmodern jokes of songs by smashing two genres together–that, if done playfully, can work, but it’s rarely satisfying. I mean that their compositions integrate various streams of music in an almost seamless fashion. One element might be more noticeable than another, but there is less striking contrast and more holistic unity. With Glasper, in particular, the historical aspect of his last two projects has relativized the importance of jazz, “demoting” or reassigning it as just another strand in a vast panoply of African American musical expressions.

Last year, Glasper, an accomplished pianist signed to Blue Note, put out Black Radio, an album that acted as a colorful and musically excellent index of black pop music, from jazz to R&B to rap. Numerous guest stars, including Bilal, Lupe Fiasco, and Erykah Badu brought their best to the album, making it one of the best albums of last year. Now, with Glasper once again at the helm and another star-studded cast of guest musicians coming along, Black Radio 2 sticks to the same formula as its predecessor. With more of an emphasis on R&B than the first record, and Glasper’s gorgeous piano runs sidelined, there is a sense that something has been lost in the transition. Despite that minor complaint, however, this is still both an excellent collection of music and a touching love letter to black music history.

Where the first album focused on creative rewordings of classic songs, Black Radio 2 has only one, a cover of “Jesus Children” by Stevie Wonder. Until that final track, however, the album is solely original compositions by Glasper and his collaborators, with the former also serving as producer. Songs tend to keep to a slow burn, quietly building momentum. After a long intro theme which sets the tone of the album, it transitions into the rousing “I Stand Alone,” featuring both a verse from Chicago rapper Common and a manifesto for the album. Read by Michael Eric Dyson, a sociology professor at Georgetown, it reads, in part, “Thank God we’ve still got musicians and thinkers whose obsession with excellence and whose hunger for greatness remind us that we should all be unsatisfied with mimicking the popular, rather than mining the fertile veins of creativity that God placed deep inside each of us.”

After this, the record settles into a deep and satisfying groove, emphasizing love songs and a sense of warm melancholy throughout. Each of the tracks after “I Stand Alone” highlights the talent of a jazz or R&B singer. So “Calls” features poet and vocalist Jill Scott in one of the more optimistic numbers. “Trust” finds upcoming star Marsha Ambrosius, singing her passionate alto over a bed of snappy programmed beats and slow piano progressions set down by Glasper. Both that song and the Norah Jones-featuring “Let It Ride” run over seven minutes, plenty of time to let their thick atmospheres settle over the listener. The result is cool rather than chilling and taut rather than slack because the songs develop in clear and direct ways even when they run for several minutes.

A track that breaks this pattern is “Persevere,” which features the return of Lupe Fiasco and a surprisingly lucid-sounding Snoop Dogg, who gives his guest verse more effort than anything I’ve heard him do in some time now. Still laid back and bathed in an aura of devil-may-care cool, he nails his rap with his typical suavity. As usual, Lupe Fiasco is armed and ready, injecting a more active and even militant take on the theme. The entire track is built around a strong hook delivered by Luke James, and paves the way for the end of the record.

The entire album, like the first, emerged from a sense among the artists and writers involved that popular music’s brightest lights have gone unappreciated. Considering the formidable alliance of collaborators on display here, I think the gauntlet has been thrown down. Recalling the past but also forward-looking in its execution and the way it plays different genres off of each other while recognizing their historical continuity, Black Radio 2 is a worthy sequel to the first.

Holy Terror

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Didn’t I already talk about Frank Miller? Why am I returning to the battlefield after already taking such a bruising from my encounter with his spirited and vile 300? After all, Holy Terror is, by its author’s own admission, naked propaganda, and in every way oozes with the spirit of the “enlightened” defenders of Western democracy who remind us that our every breath is valuable, our every footstep haunted by the surge of Islamofascism. For them, any concessions to Muslims is like throwing damsels to dragons, and believe me when I say that such casual misogyny (deployed, of course in defense of those poor oppressed Muslim women) is part and parcel to Miller’s schemes as well.

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The cheery opening quotation for Miller’s book.

Holy Terror is dedicated to Theo van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker murdered by an Islamic extremist in Amsterdam. Van Gogh was known for the same kind of “artistic” agitation and propaganda that Miller offers here, so the dedication is perfectly appropriate. His killer was Mohammed Bouyeri, born in the Netherlands to Moroccan parents. Bouyeri was a radicalized Islamist, and attempted to decapitate van Gogh with a knife after shooting and stabbing him repeatedly. Van Gogh’s death was the culmination of a long series of provocations and controversies which he created and was a part of, including his infamous film Submission, about which you can learn more here. His death dramatized and highlighted the tensions in the normally placid Netherlands over immigration and the wider European failure to accommodate or assimilate its recent and not-so-recent waves of Muslim immigration. Suffice to say that the social and economic standing of young Muslims in Europe is far from enviable, all the more so because their presence has sparked a strong racist and reactionary movement against them in their adoptive or (in many cases) native countries.

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Miller’s immediate context, however, is the American one, the falling towers the event to which he is faithful. Holy Terror is a relatively plotless comic, drawn mainly in stark black-and-white, whose main concern is twofold. 1.) To show that the threat to Western society is tightly organized, discipled, and well-supplied as well as spontaneous and unpredictable. 2.) Those who fight against such an organization have no recourse but to violence and their own steely resolve. I could go on to criticize the shallow characters, the exploitation of an overtly sexualized female protagonist, its lead hero who stands, like Miller’s Batman (recall that Holy Terror was begun as a Batman project), a crude but distressingly familiar caricature of burly masculinity. We’ve seen these biceps, splayed legs, and harsh lines before, and despite the beauty of many of Miller’s cityscapes, he still can’t quite manage to make his characters look striking rather than merely ugly.

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A Muslim humanities student sets off the first wave of attacks, decrying the decadence of America.

I have no more rage left in me for Frank Miller, especially for a comic as forthrightly brutal and vile as this one. Drained of that, I can only comment on its sheer absurdity. One problem with Holy Terror’s approach is that the picture of America it offers is rarely more appealing that his depiction of the Spartan ethos in 300. What is there worth protecting in a city whose protective heroes are so forlorn, barely more than criminals themselves? Miller paints such an unflattering and stormy picture of America itself that his violent indulgences throughout feel aimless. The confusing tangle of events, which no doubt was intended to reflect the actual chaos of a terrorist attack and its aftermath, do not help.

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Our heroine infiltrates a mosque–which is both a hive of terrorist activity and a portal to a secret underground city beneath New York. She figures no one will notice her as long as she dresses properly and keep quiet.

The best parts of this book are blank, conveying the sheer number of unknown and faceless victims the terrorists are killing. Unfortunately, the book sentimentalizes too much for these pages to maintain much weight throughout the story. This might seem like a curious statement, given the bleak portrait Miller paints here. However, sentimentality can run in both directions, with the nihilistic and stark every bit as susceptible to oversimplification and romanticism as flowery excess. Here, the terrorists, super”heroes” and landscapes are so flattened and divorced from a realistic context that they take on a nightmarish quality, which is unbecoming even of propaganda. Propaganda can be effective and moving art, but this is not an example of good propaganda. Its sentimentality is warped beyond recognition by hatred, yet still persistent enough to drain all realism and relatability from it.

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I would recommend reading Holy Terror if you have the chance and it doesn’t require you to enrich either Miller or the publisher. It’s mercifully short, like 300, and will certainly sharpen your resolve either for or against Miller’s politics. I would hope that we can use Holy Terror as an example of why it’s a good idea not to make idols out of creators, since it is a sorry piece of work, strident and furious but lacking in almost everything but raw anger. That, unfortunately, makes for neither good propaganda nor good art.

Miller is right in understanding that there are significant tensions at work in our society, and that our current way of accounting for differences between cultural groups only serves to prop up an undesirable status quo. Unfortunately, the books he produces, both this and 300, appear to offer mere cathartic and violent fantasies rather than a vision of a new society. His work, I would argue, is as much the product of despair and envy as much as arrogance or an imperialistic attitude toward “our” enlightenment. His depictions of Muslim terrorists as organized and disciplined are full of admiration as well as disgust, similar to his portrayal of Xerxes in 300. Where imperialism is at work here is more in a lateen fear of being overrun, of civilization, identified solely with the West, as in danger of being submerged in chaos and the dictatorial rule of alien elements. Here, the freedom of the “non-Western” peoples is the source of fear, the sense that these people, these ideologues and terrorists, have no idea what they’re doing. And yet they seem to be winning, using our own weapons against us.

Habibi

Habibi

“As much as an artist I want to strive to create comics as art or as literature, I’m still at my core just a cartoonist. Cartoonists want to make these exaggerated caricatured playful ridiculous irreverent drawings in some ways. I do feel reverent and respectful to elements of Islamic faith, but through the whole book there is a sense of play and self-awareness around the fact it’s still just a comic book. It’s super heroes in some ways. It’s Star Wars. But maybe the energy to focus on Habibi as an academic text is coming from outside the comics medium, where people are surprised to see more mature elements in a comic. In some ways the dialogue should also revolve back to the medium itself, which still has a satiric intent. I hesitate to say that, because I don’t want to say that Habibi is satiric towards any faith or religion. But comics are this sort of a self-deprecating medium inherently.”

–Interview with Craig Thompson

Before I begin, I should note that part of my intense distaste for this book and for Thompson as an artist lies in the fact that, yes, I see in him a resemblance to myself. It is unlikely that I would have gone about this review in the tone I do without recognizing that the rift I see between my and Thompson’s writing is reflective of one within myself. I believe that this in no way negates my critique, only that it means I share, to an extent, his taste for pulp and exploitation in art. On the other hand, I strive in my work to value art that honours humanity instead of denigrating it, and to work hard to appreciate humans as people rather than as stock images one can despoil for personal gain.

I have no affection for Habibi, only an icy and begrudging appreciation, as one might have for the beautiful coloration of a poison arrow frog. To use a convenient metaphor, the art of this voluminous book is a sand dune—shapely and majestic yet unstable and constantly disintegrating into dust. When I first investigated works for my project on cultural imperialism and graphic novels, this one seemed to hold the most promise. Though I knew it would be Orientalist and imperialist in many disturbing ways, there was the sheer skill of its execution to contend with. Yet what I found was such a narrative excursion into overtly exploitative sexualization, mealy-mouthed guilt, and cultural appropriation of the rankest order.

Where Frank Miller tenders his lurid revenge fantasies close to his heart, Thompson offers us a book that every bit reflects the quotation we read above. In seeking to be both a fairy tale, a playful work exploring and attempting to humanize another culture, and a treatise on the ravages of capitalism, aggressive male sexuality, and violence, it negates both. it It is simultaneously leviathan and weightless, delving into horrific subject matter and refusing to confront it because “it’s just a comic.” I had my fill of this constant refrain when I still followed the video game industry’s incessant quest for both artistic legitimacy and immunity from critique. While I try to be a dialectical thinker at my best, there is nothing remotely honest or courageous about such a move. Within his text, Thompson offers us nothing but a “humanist” text that sacrifices its own characters to get its audience to sympathize with an abstract myth, the plaything of comic artists, would-be literati, and genre hacks.

What I mean by this is that the more the book gazes in awe at Islam, that rich mystical and textual tradition from which Habibi draws its impressive style, the more it creates monstrosities of those who practice it. As the abstractions and ornamentations pile up and entangle themselves in ever more compelling and complex ways, the characters and the realities of their culture shrivel up into caricature by comparison. The two principle actors in this story are Zam and Dodola, child slaves who live a precarious existence together and apart through the many decades covered by the plot. Zam is an African child whom Dodola, an Arab woman, adopts and later comes to love. Her body is offered up as a sacrifice to most of the men in the story, as well as to the eyes of the reader. She is not a complex or fully developed character despite being the main focus of the story. Instead, she serves as an aestheticized body, who spends most of the story selling her body for survival and ends up yearning for nothing more or less than being a mother. Zam, meanwhile, is often depicted as the prime sort of African victim the likes of which you’ve seen in those television ads for missionaries and aid organizations. He is by far the more complex and developed of the two protagonists, and bears the largest weight of a the novel’s sickening expedition into male sexual guilt, even emasculating himself at one point in penance for his lust. While the characters manage to escape oblivion and find some kind of life for themselves in the plot of the story, they cannot escape the fact that the story they are in finds them curious and fascinating but not really in a way that identifies them as concrete individuals rather than two more stars in a whole constellation of mystical symbols and thematic structures Thompson clearly found more worthy of his efforts.

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The backgrounds of his panels are peppered with shifty and violent Arab men, poor people scavenging in the trash contrasted with celestial opulence, and nude women. Lots of those. It is exotic Arab fantasy elevated to a sublime spectacle. Men in this universe are bound to sexualize women and desire to rape them, even the good ones. Thompson has made comments that he in fact believes this to be the case. His depictions of harem scenes are self-consciously derivative of racist Orientalist painting from 19th century France, and don’t have any less of an exploitative taste for the exotic despite the thin gauze of irony the book layers on top of them. I am not suggesting that Habibi is unconsciously Orientalist and exploitative despite its author’s intentions. I am suggesting that it attempts to reappropriate the “genre” or thematic and graphic stereotypes of Orientalism for liberal and humanistic political ends. The novel is a critique or satirical gloss on these tropes, that is true. Unfortunately, however, a satire, in order to work, has to present what it is critiquing to the audience (notice that I am using Thompson’s images in my review), with a solemn and implicit pact between author and audience that everyone gets the joke. In this case, however, the joke is decidedly unfunny, beyond the fact that many, many people will not get it. It ends up being a rather uncritical, albeit “playful” summary or index of Arab stereotypes and Western sexual fantasies rather than a scathing indictment of them.

Would a more ethical and polemical bent turned this book into mere propaganda? Perhaps, but considering the literature arrayed on the other side of the spectrum, I think that we are due for some pro-human propaganda in the graphic novel world. Because it is sheltered in its own comfort with disturbing subject matter, because it refuses to be outraged or passionate about its characters, it consigns them to abstraction and, ultimately, negation as human subjects with their own integrity. Removed as it is from the real Middle East and a reckoning with real history, it aspires to be and achieves nothing more than a romp through a fantasy desert. That could have been a fascinating point of distance from which to launch a scathing critique of Islamophobia or imperialism or sexism or environmental degradation or capitalism, but instead it becomes an excuse to bring up those issues but never deal with them in any real way. Ironically, the more it revels in dusty, earthy details the less those seem to matter in light of the vast mystic/religious frameworks the story is elaborating on.

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I am grateful that someone talented in art and writing felt the need, even if only motivated by private guilt, to [literally] draw the explicit connections between the Abrahamic faiths, to remind us that our histories are entwined with myths that belong to other cultures than our own. Habibi is not stupid or without insight. It is, however, devoid of wisdom and compassion on anything other than an abstract level.

That makes sense, though. After all, this is the same man who wrote, “So I’m exploring that contradiction: any man claiming he’s feminist is bullshitting, because your still animalisticly male.” And I suppose that anyone in the West who wants to be sympathetic to the Middle East is bulshitting because it can only be done in the abstract. After all, it’s impossible for us to think of Arabs as real people. So we might as well turn their stories and myths into pseudo-humanistic, guilt-assuaging, exploitative fun times for our audiences. Yes, that sounds about right.

 

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