Monthly Archives: February 2016

To Be Blonde

In today’s lecture, it was interesting how Hitchcock’s obsession for casting female leading roles as blondes (if and when possible) was pointed out.  It was interesting, partly in the fact that Hitchcock loved to make these blonde characters suffer throughout his films and how the stereotype of a gorgeous, ditzy, blonde was used. Of course, this interpretation comes to mind due to modern day (give or take a couple of decades) tropes of a unique and glamorous, Caucasian woman. Either way, the blondes were casted and Hitchcock needed them to become victims as shown in Vertigo.

We can see that in the apartment scene where Scottie interrogates Judy,  the blonde vs. brunette stereotype ironically appears. Scottie needs Judy to become Madeline in every way possible  in order to fulfil his own fetishes and obsessions. This means that the independent, common, rational Judy must disappear. As the scene unfolds, we see that the self-sufficient, brunette Judy breaks under the pressure of Scottie’s interrogation and complies with his will to transform her. Lo and behold, Judy allows herself to become blonde and in doing so, adopts/returns to a submissive and helpless woman.

I’m not saying that Hitchcock had any intentions to symbolize the helpless woman as a blonde and represent the independent one as a brunette, but it is definitely amusing how well this conveyed the blonde as the fetishized object of gaze. If anything, it was more logical for Hitchcock to represent blonde women as objects of the male gaze in the film as the hair color itself draws the audience’s attention. If we look at the previous scene of Scottie viewing both Gavin and “Madeline” in the restaurant this becomes especially apparent. Madeline (Judy) is viewed through the “double frame” by Scottie and Scottie alone; her attire is much brighter in comparison to the rest of the diners who dress in black or obscure colors. For her beauty to be noticed, seen, and acknowledged, she must be different.

Taking this back to present day, I wonder just how relevant the blonde vs. brunette contrast is. Perhaps it is as obvious as the rarity of blonde genetics that makes these individuals physically unique, idealized and empowered (even if they are fetishized) in many advertisements/media we see today.

I mean …

Memes: Fierce and Blonde.

My screenshot of Conan’s interview with Chris Hemsworth (THOREAL: Paris)


… this caught your attention, didn’t it?


(Link to the full interview:

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John Berger and René Magritte

It seems odd that in our many discussions regarding John Berger’s art criticisms in Ways of Seeing, we never discussed the most immediate visual in the book: the cover. It is a painting by the Belgian artist René Magritte, and the fact that Berger chooses a work by Magritte is rather unexpected — given the philosophical beliefs of the artist.

The oil painting The Treachery of Images is arguably Magritte’s most well known painting. The visual depicts a realistic pipe accompanied by the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe). While the painting and the subtitle initially seem to be contradictory, it slowly becomes apparent that it is not: Magritte has created an image of a pipe, and not a physical pipe itself. The relation between visual and text of The Treachery of Images expresses Magritte’s belief that even the most realistic of images would never be able to accurately capture an object.

Berger claims in Ways of Seeing that “what distinguishes oil painting from any other form of painting is its special ability to render tangibility …[and] although its painted images are two-dimensional … [its realism can fill] a space and, by implication, fill the entire world” (89). This claim that oil painting is a medium that allows for close representation of reality is one Magritte would agree with. However, the claim that it can “fill the entire world” with suggestions of physical objects would not be taken well by the Belgian painter (89). In this specific instance, Berger argues that oil painting is a depiction of objects which is realistic to a point of great symbolic value, while the man who created the image on the cover believes that there will always be a significant gap between an image and the object it depicts.

René Magritte's painting The Treachery of Images.

René Magritte’s painting The Treachery of Images.

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The Nude in Non-European Art

In the Way of Seeing, John Berger notes that the artistic convention of the female nude, women exhibiting their unclothed bodies in a way that increases the viewing pleasures of an unknown male spectator, is unique to the European oil painting tradition. To be nude, he contends, is very distinct from simply being naked. Being naked is just the act of not wearing any clothes while being nude is the act of act of totally surrendering the agency of one’s own body to the scrutiny of others. Everything from the posture to expression to the way they are positioned in the painting suggest to the male spectator that they exist only for their pleasure, that they are ready to submit to their every will.

According to Berger, this tradition of presenting women’s bodies in painting for the sake of male strangers is not found in any artistic tradition outside of Europe such as Africa or India, or Mesoamerica. In those cultures, rather than being confined to women, nakedness is always mutual and always active. Rather than a disinterested woman posing for the canvas, in Eastern and African traditions both the men and women are equal participants in the expression of sexual attraction in which “the woman as active as the man, the actions of each absorbing the other” (53).

There exists, however, examples that question Berger’s claim about the depiction of the female body in non-European art. While he says that in “Indian art, Persian art, African art, Pre-Columbian art – nakedness is never supine” (53), the works of the 18th century Japanese woodblock artist Utamaro (1753-1806), for example, often depicts beautiful women posing and exhibiting themselves in ways that were clearly designed to please the male spectator in much the same way as European female nudes. Many of these painting, like Western nudes, also feature the motif of women using mirrors, the purpose of which, according to Berger, “was to make the woman connive in treating herself as, first and foremost, a sight” (51). Utamaro’s paintings were a very popular genre of woodcuts known as Bijin-ga, or “beautiful person pictures”, that thrived from the 17th to 19th centuries.

Utamaro, Bathing Woman, c. 1753


Utamaro, date unknown


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‘Til The Funding Runs Out

In Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus trilogy, the Anthony Quinn-lookalike, Discordian anarchist pirate/lawyer Hagbard Celine (try to fit that on a business card) follows three laws in accordance to his personal philosophy. The first two overlap eerily well with Foucault’s writings, especially considering that the Illuminatus books were published two years before Discipline and Punish.

Celine’s First Law is that ‘public security is the chief cause of public insecurity’. He uses the example of Soviet Russia, wherein the recursive levels of secret policing and rampant paranoia essentially devoured itself. Everybody spies on everybody ‘until the funding runs out’, and a fear of subversive artists dominates despite the fact that they could do little to no more harm than the average citizen in reality. The notion that everybody is being watched means nobody can trust anybody else, and the uncertainty is the greatest fear therein – when is one alone? When is one safe? The fact that the panopticon only requires that inmates think they are being observed, when they may or may not be, is naturally conducive to this state of mind, and this example serves to elaborate on the terms that Foucault established in his view of Bentham’s prison.

Celine’s Second Law relates to the concepts of truth and power. To Foucault, the two fuel each other. Truth informs power, which when exercised creates truth. Celine’s definition is somewhat different: ‘truth is only possible in a non-threatening situation’. As an anarchist, Celine uses a counterpoint to this as an argument against hierarchy, stating that there is always the subtle pressure to tell one’s boss what they want to hear to avoid a loss of security. His example is the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover’s obsession with Communist infiltration led the organization to focus on hunting the Red Menace despite the very low threat it posed compared to, say, organized crime (which Hoover didn’t believe existed on a national scale). Agents who disagreed were at best declined promotions, or at worst branded Communists themselves and fired/blacklisted. The two views of truth seem to mirror each other in a way – Foucault’s belief is that truth is tied to power, and Celine’s is that truth is estranged from power (that said, their definitions of the term are not necessarily identical).

The main thrust of this analysis is that these ideas come from the same place, the Cold War climate that informed Foucault’s writings and The Illuminatus. The former analyses the statements while the latter parodies them. Between the two of them, both works serve the purpose of fleshing out the paranoia and uncertainty therein, with cold logic on one hand and utter absurdity on the other.

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“Out of Love” and for “Our Own Good”

Whilst reading Michel Foucault’s Discipline & Punishment (part 2), discipline is a term that applies to the training of one’s body and mentality that becomes enhanced through rewards or punishment. When I look back on my childhood, or the Asian culture in general, this only really applies to a minimal extent. Obviously, I don’t speak on behalf of the entire Asian population and am not convinced that all Asians enforce discipline through punishment, but in general, the Asian culture does exhibit more discipline, in a stricter degree, than others cultures.

An example of this would be the pressure of entrance exams in South Korea. Students are pressured into taking immense pride for their academic achievements, which has given South Korea its third rank in proficiency in the subjects of math and sciences, but have come at the cost of one of the highest suicide rates (of students ranging from 15-24 years old). The average hours a student is at school ranges from 9am-5pm, however, the reality is that instead of going straight home, many stay behind at school for extra-curricular courses/study sessions. These sessions may take up several hours, which means that students would typically come home around 8pm-10pm or even later. Once home, it is not uncommon for students to continue their study at night throughout the early morning.

Why are they studying this much? Because the entrance exams are believed to be the most successful method of getting into a good university which are almost guaranteed to allow the students to have a stable job after they graduate. To say that the individual’s future relies/depends on the successful performance of the exam is in no way an exaggeration. Typically, the better the university, the better the job prospects are. Therefore there is more competition with others (as with any university, there are a limited amounts of students accepted) that follows with the stress of studying for the exam. In addition to the studying, the numerous amounts of school work causes anxiety which may lead to a poorer performance by the students. As they are constantly suffocated by an intense academic pressure, that has a profound effect on determining the direction of their life, many students are unable to find adequate coping mechanisms for their stress and become depressed or lose their self-esteem.

In grade 5 (when I visited South Korea), I remember my cousin preparing himself to go to school as early as 5am and coming back in the evening at 10pm. Mind you, he is three years older than me. At the time, in Western classifications, he would have been a grade 8 student. As a Korean myself, I was most definitely shocked to learn about the amount of hours students must commit to school. It was even more shocking when my mother and aunt confirmed that this was a normal and standardized practice, as they too, have had to endure the same stress in the past. The fact that these practices have not been changed or improved to a significant degree is both disappointing and heart-wrenching such as when a student council from  KAIST expresses, “Day after day we are cornered into an unrelenting competition that smothers and suffocates us. We couldn’t even spare 30 minutes for our troubled classmates because of all our homework… We no longer have the ability to laugh freely.”

(The above quotation is taken from The New York Times article that can be found here:

But was it really worth it? To what degree does slaving one’s time away by studying for a single chance of “success” (passing the entrance exam) bring any satisfaction? The majority of students who have endured the stress, passed the entrance exam, graduated, and gained a job must nonetheless face the same pressure and stress in the workforce; to maintain their position, workers must work tedious hours, throughout day and night, whilst being obligated to be compliant to the boss (who may assign more work that go beyond the employee’s standard hours). This is no “over-time”. The employees seldom get compensated with extra payment. This is reasoned as a so-called “respect for the superior”, the “discipline” to do so, and become “happy” with the state of these living conditions.

Yes, the students perfect the skill of good work habits. Yes, many students who dedicated their lives to study have gained stable jobs. Yes, doing both these things have, in the generalization of the Korean culture, brought “pride” to their family name. However, the amount of discipline that is necessary to reach these feats are quite excessive and bring strains on the individual both mentally and physically. In fact, discipline in this regard is almost quite cruel.

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Who are the Subaltern?

The post-colonial theory term, subaltern, is often broadly equated with not only those from colonized cultures without a voice in their larger society, but also with all groups that face discrimination – such as women, workers, minority groups in a developed country, etc. Gyatri Spivak, whose seminal work, “Can the Subaltern speak” , helped popularize the term in 1983  argued in a 1992 interview that by so liberally applying that word, there is a risk that the term will lose its initial significance of giving a name to those who are out of the conventional narrative of civilization.

She states “the subaltern is not just a classy word for ‘oppressed’, for [the] Other, for somebody who’s not getting a piece of the pie”, rather “everything that has limited or no access to the cultural imperialism is Subaltern – a space of difference”. She states that while the working class is oppressed, they are not subaltern and neither are members of “a discriminated-against minority on the university campus”. The reason for this is that these people are able to see “the mechanics of discrimination” utilized by the hegemonic forces to deny them equal treatment. Merely by being aware of the instruments of oppression that is applied against, these groups have the possibility of speaking up and making their voices heard by their oppressors. This group includes people like Spivak and Dabydeen who have the power of subverting the mainstream narrative.

The truly Subaltern people however, are voiceless because they are completely excluded the spheres of hegemonic discourse. They are unaware of the extent and true cause of their oppression and lack the means to either fully realize or to disseminate their discontent to a wider audience. They live in isolated areas, use localized speech not easily understood by outsiders and have little contact with the hegemonic forces yet is still intimately affected by their every action.

Subaltern peoples are unable to reach their oppressors because of various obstacles such as being unable to speak the majority language as well as the different ways of seeing, knowing, and thinking about the world by different cultures. In order to reach a wider audience, they must compromise their ways of seeing into a form that is easily understood by the oppressor, thereby making any such effort to portray the voice of the subaltern in an unfiltered and authentic manner by definition impossible.

Anyone capable of articulating the plight of the subaltern and the need of greater representation of these powerless and marginalized people in society are by definition  part of the cultural hegemony, therefore, in response to Gyatri’s initial question: no, the subaltern cannot speak, they can only be spoken for.

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Our Complicity in Manufacturing Cultural Identity

         The seminar discussion regarding hypertext poetry and McLuhan’s  famous quote “The Medium is the Message” links back to Dabydeen’s Slave Song: although the medium of poetry and printed text is a familiar one, his criticisms of colonialism lead one to question his choice of medium. The form of Slave Song can be seen to be just as thematically significant as that of Strickland’s “The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot”. The combination of Creole poetry and critical apparatus create a hypertext of sorts — Dabydeen provides the option to work through his text in any way the reader desires. By allowing readers the freedom to consume the text in any desired manner, each reader of Slave Song unknowingly becomes complicit in the discussed issue of colonialism.

         Based on the order one chooses to read the various components of Slave Song — the Creole poems, the notes, the translations — the reader’s image of Guyanese culture will vary. With the agency to decide how to consume such a work, the reader is complicit in manufacturing that which they wish to see. The criticism of an overly simplistic search for an cultural authenticity is thus exemplified by the very form through which Dabydeen delivers Slave Song.

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Feminist the Explicit

It’s easy to say that Carter’s feminist fairy tales go beyond facile table-turning scenarios—say, princess rescues the prince or maiden trades her magic trinkets for a law degree.
Instead, her heroines—sometimes hapless, often virginal—make weighted decisions in limiting circumstances. Through no fault of their own, these women find themselves with strange men in dark forests or spooky estates with little recourse—eat or be eaten, bed or be bedded. In “The Bloody Chamber,” the title story based on Bluebeard, we can judge the 17-year-old who weds a rich, middle-aged stranger through her own perspective. In “The Tiger’s Wife,” we fear for the Beauty held captive by a lionesque Beast, only to discover she harbors an animalistic appetite of her own.

“She herself is a haunted house. She does not possess herself; her ancestors sometimes come and peer out of the windows of her eyes and that is very frightening.” (17)

Though something more captivating than Carter’s characters is her language. As a fan of gothic romanticism and the short story format, Carter’s text was considered satisfying for some and worrisome for others. Revamping past fairytales and eschewing the well-tread trail for a more serpentine, darker path, Carter addresses female empowerment through bodily autonomy and explicity. This can be seen throughout her work as she details female figures and outlines their pain is relation to her surroundings. Her distinct voice is nothing but dangerous yet it alludes the reader to explore her text and question origins of masculine thought. The most prevalent of stories lies in the title The Bloody Chamber. I can assure everyone that her control of language and voice has left me searching bookshelves for The Sadeian Woman.

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