Anti-Globalization? What Madness Is This?
This is true Monday Morning Madness, though I never expected to start anyone’s Monday off with a dosage of horror, or as I argue here, the Western elites’ perceived horrors of anti-globalization and resentful localisms. Nowhere, I think, is this sentiment best captured than in a provincialist genre of horror films, most notably in my mind, and most recently in: Wolf Creek (2005), set in Australia, an Australian-made film that directly subverts the happy-go-lucky, tourist-friendly, Mick “Crocodile” Dundee image; Turistas (2006) that exacts priceless punishment on tourists in Brazil; and the psychologically abusive Hostel (2005), set in Slovakia.
All three have certain themes in common: they all feature backpackers as the victims of intense torture by cunning and sinister locals in off-the-beaten track places. They all harbour some resentment as well: the Australian who thinks of tourists as nothing more than kangaroos to be shot; the Brazilian doctor who reverses the flow of traffic in human organs in order to benefit the poor; and, in the case of Hostel the film is too deeply sunk in its own torture porn to express any clearly articulated sentiments other than, for a change, treating us to seeing Westerners turned into meat, as objects of perverse desire exploited by richer tourists, with some cash placed in the hands of impoverished locals languishing in a post-socialist backwater. Finally, all three play against ideas of “cosmopolitanism,” notions of which will become more present in this blog as time passes.
Wolf Creek is exceptional, perhaps the only “horror” film to which I would attach the label “beautiful” — beautiful cinematography, excellent directing, a coherent plot and engaging script, flawless acting, and low on blood while high on psychological impact. Perhaps the epitomizing figure of what I see as this anti-globalization genre is that of “Mick Taylor,” played by the Australian actor John Jarratt. Jarratt is, in my opinion, a superb actor who is too convincing — indeed, there are some (no doubt exaggerated) allegations that his real life persona might not be entirely removed from the one he played on camera. His character, Mick, was succinctly described by an Italian relative as “un burino con l’occhio furbo” — a yokel with a far too clever twinkle in his eye. In a review of the film in TIME, that largely echoes my sentiments about Wolf Creek, Michael Fitzgerald wrote:
Not least of its satisfactions is Wolf Creek’s felling of cultural stereotypes. So when Mick Taylor begins riffing on Paul Hogan’s line, “You call that a knife?” one senses Crocodile Dundee being buried forever in an unmarked grave.
Please watch the Wolf Creek campfire scene (no gory scenes shown) to make better sense of the final note of this post.
Wolf Creek campfire scene
(Note Mick’s reaction to being virtually likened to a care-free, nature-loving, nomad, a Crocodile Dundee. Note also how fast these backpackers went to sleep, even with the “Esky” almost on fire — the cooler — the “rain water from the Top End” had been drugged.)
White Trash Horror: Racist-Classism and the Making of American “Caribs”
The films above are distinct as a group for featuring stories of backpackers traveling abroad. The people they encounter abroad are not “mutants” and “cannibals” but rather deceptive, superficially welcoming locals who betray the promise of an exciting or charming tourist experience, and who mean to get revenge. They meet with the other side of the exotic: the ignoble savage. The movies, at least in the Australian case, play into widespread reports not just of tourists who go missing in Australia, but of specific resentment against young backpackers in some locales, accused (fairly or not) of spreading sexually transmitted diseases, of paying their way through their journeys by prostituting themselves and thereby aiding in the breakup of local families, of dealing in drugs, and the list of allegations goes on.
In some senses, the films above are not entirely novel in specific terms of the horror of the remote local and the danger posed to travelers that we, as cinema goers, are trained to identify with. Think of the now classic American horror films that have emphasized the figure of the white trash, inbred, cannibal. Cannibal is of especial interest to me, given my past research focus, and given that the narrative of “cannibalism” (named as such) first emerged with the European intrusion into the Amerindian Caribbean, the region whose name is derived from the Caribs, the alleged practitioners of cannibalism. Indeed, as Peter Hulme has carefully laid out in his brilliant book, Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean 1492-1797 (London: Methuen, 1986; Routledge, 1992), “Carib” and “Cannibal” were once one and the same, cognate terms, produced by the multiple and varying European copies of copies of transcriptions of what Europeans thought they heard the natives say. Carib/Cannibal shifted from being an island, to being an ethnic name for a people, a people with a distinctive practice of anthropophagy…and then diverged — Carib remaining as an ethnic label, Cannibal as the name of the person who practiced what was previously referred to by Europeans as anthropophagy. The narrative of “cannibalism” was then “globalized” to other regions of European colonial dominance. Otherwise, imagine, there is a whole region today on the world map that is named after “Cannibals.”
None of this is far removed from the development of anthropology itself, one must note. Hulme, quoting anthropologist W. Arens, wrote of the relationship between anthropology and cannibalism:
“anthropology and anthropophagy…have had a comfortable and supportive relationship….one could not exist without the other….Anthropology is…merely the institutional manifestation of a more widespread desire for the existence of some touchstone of the absolutely ‘other’, frequently represented by ‘cannibalism’” (1992: 83).
And now, finally, as happens with many aspects of imperialism, cannibalism has been imported back into the seat of empire. We now have the American equivalent of the Carib, a savage at home, far removed from civilization, an inferior breed that can be gawked at from the safety of the DVD player. Translated back into empire’s home, cannibalism becomes a safe and supposedly entertaining way for the movie industry to cannibalize the American poor, turning the remote poor into a virtual race of sub-human monsters.
In the face of globalization and the shifting terrain of capitalism, agency is shown as monstrosity. In each of the films in this earlier, American genre, the poor are blamed for their own poverty, they are inherently inferior, and as I would argue about all mass media we are meant to be trained by these films, trained into hatred of poverty (equated with remoteness, rurality, and unemployment) and hatred of the poor (associated with incest and cannibalism). What is interesting is that in almost all of the cases below, the people demonized have been abandoned or attacked by “development”: the butchers in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre are unemployed cast offs from a meat packing plant that shut down, so now they capture live humans as their new source of meat; in Wrong Turn we have West Virginian backwoods people, largely disfigured from inbreeding, playing into very popular stereotypes of people from that state, whose alleged penchant for incest was even recently the butt of a public joke by Vice President Dick Cheney — “So I had Cheneys on both sides of the family, and we don’t even live in West Virginia” (the state still voted Republican); and in The Hills Have Eyes miners who refused to leave their homes to make way for nuclear testing are turned into mutants, cannibalistic ones at that.
♫♫ THE HILLS ARE ALIVE WITH THE SOUND OF…MUTANTS ♫♫…
Some of the more prominent films in the white trash/cannibal genre include the following, in reverse chronological order — note the extracts from published synopses of the films:
The Hills Have Eyes (2006)
“A suburban American family is being stalked by a group of psychotic people who live in the desert, far away from civilization.”
Wrong Turn (2003)
“Six people find themselves trapped in the woods of West Virginia, hunted down by cannibalistic mountain men grossly disfigured through generations of in-breeding.”
- “the young college students fall prey to the demented Leatherface and the cannibalistic inbreds“
- “a clan of psychopathic cannibals“
- “stalked and hunted down by a deformed killer with a chainsaw in order to sustain his poor family who can only afford to eat what they kill“
- “Meat’s meat, and a man’s gotta eat”
- “Farmer Vincent kidnaps unsuspecting travellers and is burying them in his garden. Unfortunately for his victims, they are not dead. He feeds his victims to prepare them for his roadside stand. His motto is: ‘It takes all kinds of critters…to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters’.”
- “a family of cannibals who more than make up in power tools what they lack in social skills“
- “cannibal chief father“
Trailer for the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre
I was personally struck by the home decor in this last video — it strongly resembles the descriptions of Caribbean “cannibal huts” written by European conquerors, chroniclers, and missionaries, as late as the early 1900s. Of course the choice of location for the film, Texas, is almost as useful as West Virginia, not bound to offend too many Americans given the all too common lampooning of the state.
But wait! The wise critic will tell us that the idea that the American entertainment industry has regularly cannibalized the poor is an unfair generalization — think of the elite, aristocratic, cosmopolitan, cultured, traveled Dr. Hannibal Lecter the insane criminal cannibal played by Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs and subsequent films. What that perspective misses, however, is that while Hannibal is indeed the cannibal, “white trash” is still very much present. The roles have simply been reversed — the pursued is the cannibal, the pursuer is the white trash, and the two become tied into one another more as collaborators in the end, so the two motifs are never far from each other. Remember what Hannibal tells Agent Starling in Silence of the Lambs (1991):
You’re so-o ambitious, aren’t you? You know what you look like to me, with your good bag and your cheap shoes? You look like a rube. A well-scrubbed, hustling rube, with a little taste. Good nutrition’s given you some length of bone, but you’re not more than one generation from poor white trash, are you, Agent Starling? And that accent you’ve tried so desperately to shed – pure West Virginia. What does your father do? Is he a coal miner? Does he stink of the lamp? You know how quickly the boys found you. All those tedious, sticky fumblings in the back seats of cars, while you could only dream of getting out. Getting anywhere, getting all the way to the F…B…I.
White Trash: Making a race out of class
So far in this post/essay I have been talking about safe racism, socially sanctioned expressions that are not curtailed or even the targets of audible protest. These films provide socially sanctioned means for creating an outlet for desire for the savage, to consume ugly Otherness, without ostensibly offending the people who have normally been the target of such offenses, especially as some of the “formerly” colonized “natives” have now become immigrants, “ethnics” living next door.
But what is “white trash”?
Contributors to Wikipedia claimed, “White trash is a derogatory term with a classist component targeted at white people with low social status, poor prospects and/or low levels of education. To call someone white trash is to accuse a white person of being economically, educationally and culturally bankrupt.” I like this source in this instance especially, since a Wikipedia entry is often the product of negotiated opinion, filtered and reformulated by a number of contributors who, one would expect, are at least somewhat familiar with their own culture.
Poor, white and rural seem to be some of the defining characteristics, but Timothy J. Lockley argues that historically much more was involved, particularly ownership. The “white trash” person was, “too poor to possess land or slaves, and having no means of living in the towns” (quote from 1838 in Lockley, 1997, p. 60). The white trash person was independent, illiterate, and often engaged in illegal activities in order to survive. (See Timothy J. Lockley, “Partners in crime: African-Americans and Non-slaveholding whites in Antebellum Georgia” (57-72), quoted in Matt Wray and Annalee Newitz, eds., White Trash: Race and class in America, New York: Routledge, 1997.)
Where “whiteness” abducts “human-ness” it should not be surprising that the racialized refraction of class, the “white trash,” is not just not fully white but also not fully human. I wonder then if the old talk shows like Ricki Lake and Jerry Springer or the current Steve Wilkos show function(ed) as a contemporary substitute of the old 19th century freak shows featuring empire’s captives, or the old ethnographic exhibitions staged at world fairs that fed the same audience demand for freaks. Are not many if not most of the “white” guests in fact members of the working poor, the unemployed, with their tortured lives put on display for us to moralize against? It is as if liberal America were practicing an imperial ethnography against its own.
Cannibalism and incest, added to the features mentioned above, are now two of the most established ways for cementing a hostile construction of the Other, as so radically and irredeemably inhumane if not inhuman, that one has to be surprised that it has not been overtly employed in “the war on terror.” Not overtly, not yet. In the meantime, allegations of pedophilia, and depictions of decapitation will suffice as stand-ins.
Unfortunately for Shelby Lee Adams, a stupendously talented Appalachian photographer who has documented the lives of his fellow “natives” from a perspective that he deems sympathetic and ethnographic, the weight of cultural prejudice weighs down heavily. He has been accused, unfairly in my view, of feeding common stereotypes of Appalachians, showing them in their “poverty” and in some select instances there is even a hint of possible incest behind the disfigurement of some of the persons he has photographed. The images are stunningly beautiful in my view, engrossing, a testament to lived alterity within the heart of empire, even if forgotten and scorned. Adams says on his blog, “One intention of my photography is to provide a release for you, to free and propel you towards an engagement with another part of humanity,” which is meant to perform what is now seen as a standard anthropological function in training students to become informed and sensitive cosmopolitans. Adams continues: “To know family secrets or taboos, or the absence of them, activates our ideals, projections and defenses.” His very poignant point is to tell us: “Faced with lives that are severe, lives that you would like to change, restrain yourself. To impose your values on others is ultimately to ridicule them.” This is valuable advice at home…and abroad. Accusing the photographer could end up saying much more about the accuser than the accused.
While it is a cosmopolitan reach in terms of references to various national cinemas and consciousness of broad globalizing currents at work that makes the critique presented here possible to begin with, I am asking that we severely question some of the basic tenets of liberal cosmopolitanism itself, with its base of prejudices against otherness, its assimilationist impulses, and its intolerance of different ways of life that it seeks to train us to see as backward and inferior. It does so in the false coin of “inclusivity” which is really a call to some, and a rejection of many.
Today the favourite target, the mutant hick that is the focus of global liberal scorn, is the so-called “Islamic fascist,” a character often no more real than the West Virginian cannibal. Racism is by no means incompatible with a liberal cosmopolitanism that has found a safe haven in the state and transnational capital, not to mention the burgeoning media industry. Nor is liberal cosmopolitanism averse to massive violence, having positioned itself at one end of a struggle cast as cosmopolitanism versus its enemies.
While imperialism may unleash the internal forces of contradiction already existing in the dominated societies, it also manifests the internal social and cultural contradictions of the imperial “mother country,” and provides a vehicle for importing new ones from the zones of conflict abroad. No wonder then that we see a continuing accumulation of conflicts even when the boundaries between actors, and the social borders between the conflicts, often seem to be getting blurrier. Those who are interested in “correcting” the ways of hostile tribals abroad, in “developing” the periphery, in “pacifying” the insurgents, ought to more carefully consider what “applying anthropological sensitivity” really means, and they should start at home and let others elsewhere figure out their own paths to a desirable future.
PS: A Note on Fiction, Ethnography, and Film
I have asked students in my visual anthropology course which type of film they considered to be a more meaningful, life-like, credible ethnographic document: a “fictional” film by Woody Allen or an observational realist film by John Marshall, like The Hunters (shown in class). The overwhelming majority favour Woody Allen. I am never surprised.
David MacDougall, writing in a chapter titled “Beyond Observational Cinema,” in a volume by Paul Hockings (Principles of Visual Anthropology. New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1995, pp. 115-132), stated the following:
Many of us who began applying an observational approach to ethnographic filmmaking found ourselves taking as our model not the documentary film as we had come to know it…but the dramatic fiction film….This paradox resulted from the fact that of the two, the fiction film was the more observational in attitude….The natural voice of the fiction film is the third person: the camera observes the actions of the characters not as a participant but as an invisible presence, capable of assuming a variety of positions (118, 119)
For his part, Jean Rouch sought “cinema truth” not “cinema reality” and he declared that, “Cinéma-vérité is a new type of art; the art of life itself” (Jean Rouch, “The Camera and Man,” p. 32. In Rouch, Jean. 2003. Ciné-ethnography; edited and translated by Steven Feld. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 29-46.)
I ask that, if necessary, you look back again at the Wolf Creek campfire scene at the top of this essay/post. The actors’ consciousness of the camera and their deliberate acting for the camera sets them apart from those who feel intruded upon by the camera, and act evasively, or those filmed from behind by a camera that functions as a spy. The director, camera crew, and writers are familiar with their own culture — they can orchestrate it and act it out in ways that they think is most credible. And is the result not a very credible set of characters, as if we the viewers had been present like ghosts? And is that not what makes the central character, Mick Taylor, all the more chilling, that we can believe in him?
Have a pleasant Monday, free from carnage…except for this scene, the bloodiest one from Wolf Creek featuring both the inversion of Crocodile Dundee and a neat little explanation of the “head on a stick” procedure: