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The Casual Consumption of the Middle East: The Region's (Re-)Construction in Entertainment

Session X-16, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
In the vast realm of entertainment, projects that focus on representing and (re-)constructing the modern Middle East emblematize the multiplicity of aims media have when attempting to shape audience consumption and engage audience attention. With differing intentions behind the production of the Middle East, these sources of knowledge and information shape how media audiences conceive of the contours of the region. By turning to the perspectives of depictions of Middle Eastern subjects beyond the academic sphere, this panel asks how has the region been imagined and represented for leisurely consumption within the broadly-construed modern entertainment industry, for what purposes, and by attending to particular temporal-spatial contexts. To explore the relationship between spaces of entertainment and constructions of the Middle East as a defined site, four participants will discuss the characteristics, nuances, and implication within four different forms of entertainment: science fiction short stories, porn, magazines, and animation. Together, these inquiries into the multiplicity of ways to consume and construct the Middle East speak to larger questions of humanizing and dehumanizing, portrayals and perversions, and power as it flows through entertainment media regarding the region and its peoples. In a paper focused on urban imaginaries, we delve into the fears and desires represented within both Israeli urban renewal schemes and Palestinian dystopian science fiction. In another paper on the Lebanese radio magazine īdhāʿa, we interrogate the construction of popular culture and the entertainment industry (nightclubs, cinema, cabarets, and recording companies) for a Lebanese and Middle Eastern audience in the mid-twentieth century. In our third paper, we contend with representations of the Middle East in early silent film pornography (the ‘stag film’) to examine how cinematic technologies at the turn of the century engaged in the construction of racial and sexual difference as a means of arousal. In the last paper, we investigate animation as a potential site for the revival of what Walter Benjamin denoted as art’s “aura” in its contending and ever-transforming depictions and de/contextualization of the Orient in various world-building projects. Interrogating the sources of these constructions, from those within the region to large-scale entertainment conglomerates, as well as specific titles like the short story anthology Palestine +100 and the Lebanese radio magazine īdhāʿa, this panel presents competing visions of what the region can, has, and will be.
Architecture & Urban Planning
Media Arts
  • ​​From the utopian imaginations of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacres and Le Corbusier’s Radiant City, planning imaginations of space hinge upon specific conceptions of social, political, and economic organization. However, as Karl Mannheim astutely acknowledged in Ideology and Utopia, there is ease in tipping from utopia to dystopia. This paper puts the questions of and frames behind utopian imagination from the mid-twentieth century into conversation with municipal imaginations of Palestinian cities, as seen in urban renewal schematics, and science fiction urban imaginations, most frequently their dystopian constructions, of Palestine from Saqi Books’ 2019 anthology, Palestine+100. Both the twentieth century utopian imaginations and many urban renewal schemes come out of a critical juncture around the loss of faith in the city’s trajectory, a visceral belief that something has gone wrong, and from this position burst imaginations and projects seeking to “right” society. Using the critical juncture of the Nakba, the authors of Palestine+100 have an open page from which to construct new urban spaces. While untethered to a specific construction of reality, author decisions to root themselves to moments of familiarity, such as Ahmed Masoud’s poignant use of restrictions of Palestinian movement, lend weight to their urban imaginations. Using the logics behind utopian constructions, this paper explores the threads between state-designed urban renewal projects in Palestine with the dystopian imaginations in Palestine+100, bringing to the fore large questions for urban planning as it continues to conceptualize “good” city. One such topic that brings together utopias, dystopias, urban renewal, and current debates in planning is the role of technology. Just as the modernist ideals of technological advancement and capabilities played into how Howard, Wright, and Le Corbusier constructed their utopias, the authors of Palestine+100 each incorporate technology differently with every conceptualization of technology’s role in the urban experience. Technologies that were tools of efficiency harnessed within the Radiant City and Broadacres become objects of domination, restriction, and surveillance in the various stories of Palestine’s imagined future. As Leonie Sandercock explains in “City Songlines,” urban planning must see an expansion of our imagination in the field’s work towards creating a liberatory city. Bridging the conversation between the ideal and unideal urban imaginations opens the practice of broadening the imaginations of what the liberatory city can be.
  • As one-reel, illegally made and exhibited pornographic films, early 20th century American stag films have been the subject of numerous scholarship on the historical and technological developments of moving-image sexual encounter. Authors like Linda Williams (1999) have attended to the visual means by which the technology of porn filmmaking articulated the hidden mechanisms of sexual functioning for audiences at the same time that it provided sexual arousal. While Williams’s intervention is useful for linking the cinematic apparatus to the development of modern discourses around sexuality as delineated by Foucault’s scientia sexualis, simultaneous attention to how racial science and empire were concurrently central to such technological developments reveals a productive set of questions regarding race in/and silent film pornography – especially as we consider the imagined Middle East as the site of sexual encounter. Attending to scholarly claims that the development of cinema cannot be delinked from its colonial and imperial operation in the marking of racial difference (Rony 1996; Behdad 2016), this presentation explores the construction of racial/sexual difference in early U.S. stag films that explicitly center imagined Middle Eastern subjects. By looking to case study films, including the 1920 ​A Country Stud Horse​ (which stars a woman dressed in a costume similar to that of ‘Fatima’ in the World’s Columbian Exposition), early stag films employed varying techniques to emphasize racialized sexual difference that reflected fantasies of imperial contact with the Middle East in the early 20th century. In their use of costume, Orientalist objects, and imagery of the imagined Middle East, I argue that early stag films provide a productive site for analyzing cinema as making simultaneously visible both sexual contact and racial difference through arousing sexual performance onscreen. Attending to the strategies of fantasizing the Middle East in these pornographic productions reveals both how racial difference was marked as a cinematic endeavor in the U.S. at the turn of the century and how it further translates within the realm of racialized sexuality in the product of the stag film. In so doing, I not only bridge scholarship on cinema as a technology of colonial encounter in the Middle East and as an apparatus that intended to make sex visible at the turn of the century, but further posit stag films (and pornography in general) as a useful site of analysis in the study of empire, U.S. fantasies of the Middle East, and racialized sexuality.
  • Animation provides artists with the capacity to present a world entirely their own. The medium is chalk-full of fantastical depictions of earth, space, war, poverty, decadence, history, and the future . As purported by Walter Benjamin in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, the “aura” has historically incensed much of art as a means of establishing a magical foundation for “the cult”. Modernity, however, signaled a mechanization of culture and culture production— leaving little mobility for artists to imbue their work with such aura. In our post-9/11 world—dominated by US hegemony—art has carried on with its particular mechanized role. Animation, however, presents vast, vivid worlds which have been disarmed by the genre’s infantilization and, as a consequence, provided room for artists to meaningfully grapple with the contradiction between the cultic aura and modernity’s mechanization. In this paper, I aim to investigate how we can understand animation as a medium that can uniquely wrestle with art’s hegemonic demand and counter-hegemonic potential by surveying changing depictions of the Orient and its broader context in animated television series and films. One Piece (1999-present) presents the desert country of Alabasta, inching closer and closer to civil war primarily sparked by water scarcity which is revealed to be the manufacturing of a major warlord. Code Geass (2006) presents a world within which the primary force influencing all things is British imperialism, as the series critically interrogates the ways in which such historic international domination serves to underdevelop and present sites such as the Orient to be backwards. The progression of the Avatar world from Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008) and Avatar: The Legend of Korra (2012-2014) depicts a process of global modernization, which necessarily carries implications for changing representations of the Middle East and the rest of the Global South as they advance towards industrialization. Young Justice (2010-present)—particularly the third season—looks at the Middle East as a site of decontextualized violence, one which we understand to be mired in war and poverty although the root is never particularly investigated. By extending Benjamin’s analysis of art in 1930s Nazi Germany to the present, I intend to investigate how animation has served to revive the aura through potentially counter-hegemonic imagery and storytelling while simultaneously clinging to the mechanization of culture by adhering to the foundations of orientalism in its ever-transforming depictions and de/contextualization of the Orient in various world-building projects.
  • In his book “Syria’s Democratic Years. Citizens, Experts, and Media in the 1950s,” Kevin Martin shows how popular culture/radio served as a site for the formulation of postcolonial developmentalism and the edifice of political culture. Similarly, the history of Radio al-Sharq (later al-īdhāʿa al-lubnānia), Lebanon’s first official radio station, provides new pathways into exploring the nexus between political and popular culture in the country’s early stages of national independence. What aspirations and visions of Lebanon and the Middle East underpin popular culture, including songs, films, comedic monologues and advertisements, after independence from French mandate rule? What critiques of politics and society are diffused in popular culture? What role does popular culture play in postcolonial political and cultural developmentalism? These are questions I seek to approach through a close reading of al-īdhāʿa, the official print-outlet of the radio station. The magazine is a prolific source for research of radio and popular culture in the Middle East between the 1930s and 1960s. Advertisements, op-eds, cultural critiques, listeners’/readers’ letters, reports chronicling artistic performances in Beirut, Damascus, Cairo, and portraits of stars fill the pages of the al-īdhāʿa. Drawing on the magazine opens a window into the politics of the radio, a central medium for the production, dissemination, and debate of popular culture. Initially established by French colonial authorities in 1938, Radio al-Sharq was under the administrative purview of the postcolonial Lebanese state (Ministry of Information) after national independence and remained the main radio station broadcasting from Lebanon until the late 1940s; Forming simultaneously an authoritative institution of the postcolonial state and being a cultural agent, the radio station’s print-outlet constitutes a point of crystallization for the production of popular culture, notions of postcolonial developmentalism and the negotiation of what ought to be Lebanon and its role in the Middle East after colonial rule.