Edward Said and Graphic Novels Part 5: Enter Lenin
Said’s method of ferreting out and analyzing how texts are complicit with American imperial ambitions is a useful, but limited, tool of criticism. As noted above, his definition of culture extends only to what might be called its discursive or ideological content. To reiterate, his critique focuses squarely on texts assuming them to be “relatively autonomous” from political, economic, and social formations. However, as Theodor Adorno noted, mass culture, under which we can include graphic novels, are largely the work not of independent artisans but by large capitalist firms—in other words, “industries.”¹ These texts, therefore, should be considered and criticized not only as meaningful creations of particular authors working from generalized, semi-official narratives that support imperialism, but also as products of capitalist domination and imperialism itself. Each of these books was published by a major corporation through human and machine labour and exported around the world, producing income and profits for Western interests. Thus, even Persepolis and Zahra’s Paradise are co-opted as commodities. While this is not normally the purview of literary criticism, it is not only a relevant historical fact but the cornerstone of a robust analysis of imperialism.
Culture, even if it is “relatively autonomous” from socioeconomic structures, is only “relatively” so, and that products of culture are just as much products as they are culture. Here Vladimir Lenin’s definition of imperialism as “the monopoly stage of capitalism,” which, though it is economic, is no less geographical and does not at all negate the fact that the world is divided into dominating metropolitan nations (e.g. The United States) and the dominated distant territories, and that the former enriches itself at the expense of the latter.² The needs of international finance capital, controlled as they are by Western interests, are not so remote from the world of comics publishing. Lenin’s analysis of the world of industry at the onset of World War I as “free competition…being transformed into monopoly before our eyes…replacing large-scale by still larger-scale industry, and carrying concentration of production and capital to the point where out of it has grown and is growing monopoly”³ is a perfect encapsulation of American media and cultural industries today. Publishing companies and authors are entwined in a cultural apparatus that does not simply exploit and misrepresent the East because that is a fixed aspect of Western culture, but because it is justification for imperialist, capitalist interests. Looked at this way, Zahra’s Paradise and Persepolis appear to have been co-opted by publishers, appealing to an reinforcing American perceptions that the Middle East is unstable and dangerous, full of places where America’s bourgeois “freedom” has yet to take hold. The former, in particular, invests considerable hope that Western commodities and corporate-owned networks will be the salvation of anti-regime forces in Iran. Another potential point is that such narratives become approved discourse because they allow Americans to fixate on oppressive “regimes” overseas while ignoring the repressive nature of their own state and its imperialist nature.
Which books get promoted by publishers—who have their own profit interest must appeal to mass audiences—determines which kinds of stories are propagated and, therefore, which reach the most people. Economic necessities of capitalism, therefore, shape the discourse. These graphic novels, therefore, can be considered not for their content but also the way they appeal to a Western audience, why they were published, and what role their narratives play in a larger global system of class and national oppression. Placing the criticism of literature of a historical, critical, and economic basis restores our sense of graphic novels as a “genre of imperialism” not only as art but as mass industry, caught up in economic and social formations. Though more work needs to be done elaborating on the limits of purely cultural criticisms, this is a positive step toward that end. Graphic novels are becoming more and more critically accepted and have, as this essay has shown, begun to participate in a wider dialogue about history, memory, and the work of the American empire in the world, and formulating a more precise and historically mindful form of critique, that includes the economic and political as well as cultural aspects of imperialism, that accounts for production as well as narrative, is crucial to understanding their place in American relations with the Middle East.
1. Theodor Adorno, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/adorno/1944/culture-industry.htm.
2. Vladimir Lenin, “Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism,” http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/imp-hsc/ch07.htm