[Disclaimer] Queen B here represents a persona that is trending, a persona of spectacle, an abstract form. In no way do I deny Beyoncé’s agency. What I am critical of here is our attraction to and prioritization of spectacle when considering social justice. Hence, if you’re reading this thinking it was something about Queen B, then you’re probably innocently misled or bemused by your own dedication to “trends.” If you’re more interested, then this is a personal reflection on something I think needs consideration.
In my opinion, sensitive and insensitive are terms that have lost meaning. Essentially, only the “sensational” brims to the surface of recognition but that too is short-lived. We confront uncomfortable images as a brutal reminder of cruel global realities. Yet this occurs at a plane of such alienating distance that it is transient. Our visual “sensitive” memory is perhaps as short-lived as our own switching hypocrisy. This dissociation is perhaps a testament of our neurotic virtual era: Swipe left, swipe right, scores of visual messages, click, delete, like, share, etc. If sensitivity to a problem is short-lived, the insensitive too can be negated. At the same time, we are all the more susceptible to spectacle, to the momentary euphoria of trending.
In such a connected virtual sphere, activism integrates people from everywhere to recognize a cause, a possible societal change. Our virtual reality, our connectedness, allows for this hopeful solidarity. But this very #hashtag activism is a cruel reminder that our virtual lives are less powerful. We find ourselves unaware to mediate our hypocrisy. Perhaps there is hope, that as a globally aware society we are all angry about the lack of social justice. At the same time, it blurs out the hypocrisy evident in our actions.
A case study for this observation is Coldplay and Beyoncé’s recent video for their musical collaboration: “Hymn for the Weekend.” In India it sparked outrage on social-media. The accusation was that it advocated “cultural appropriation.” Here at Clark, I was confronted by a few friends who condemned the video for this very reason as well. “Cultural appropriation” and its inherent call for examinations of power-relations is an important undertaking. In this paradigm, Beyoncé and Coldplay are put in the position of Western cultural producers who take up India’s “culture” as means to produce their own cultural creation. A basic comprehension of “appropriating” occurs, it is a Western production that uses the “other” (here, India) for its cultural production. In post-colonial discourse, Western stereotypes are used to represent the other, thereby “Orientalizing” and objectifying the other. India, as post-colonial nation, is supposedly represented not as it is but from the eyes of the accused Western producers. The reason for anger then is that the other, here India, loses agency in defining its identity. What is lost in this task of relating terminology is the comprehension of both spectacle and our present neurosis. It is easily notable that the very task of considering “appropriation” stakes a claim that India is the victim. In this paradigm, Beyoncé and Coldplay stand as oppressors. If India’s identity is being compromised then there is a need to acknowledge this oppression. But there are obvious dangers to deduction of power into binaries.
Popular culture is culture too. Agreed. In considering any critical method, especially of challenging the status quo of oppression, it needs to be evident that the status quo itself is represented in popular culture. Consider Bollywood, India’s most spectacular and profit-garnering film Industry, which propagates self-exoticization. North-Indian values of family (weeklong weddings, dance, etc) have become immediately associated with India that the rest of India (diverse in its cultural practices and ethnicities) is viewed as the “other” India. It is incredibly hypocritical to view a more dominant culture as hegemonic when one’s own hegemonic prowess is ignored (sometimes denied for nationalistic purposes).
An even more negative deduction of this scenario is the play of spectacle in our choice of social justice. Beyoncé and Coldplay are trending representatives of pop-culture spectacle. For India to be used as a space where these icons enact their creation is obviously attention-grabbing. But it in no way brought attention to the recent student riots in India or the suicide lower caste Dalit-student Rohith Vemula’s. These riots have spawned across Indian universities and stem from the age old systemic “other-ing” of those who do raise voices of dissent against the establishment. Of course, there is also the case of minorities like Vemula, these “others” who are completely eroded from the sphere of cultural production and memory.
So of course, India as exotic, in spite of its multiplicities stands as a singular unit in the cultural paradigm. The truth can be that for urban technocrats who spew virtual hate against the exoticization of India, against Beyoncé and Coldplay, the agency of minorities and human rights is not a trending fad. As this offended entity in the Twittersphere dies out forgetting “Hymn for the Weekend” for Beyoncé’s more “subversive” Superbowl performance, attention has been displaced. Did the technocrats even care about cultural appropriation until everyone else subscribing to the spectacular was riled up?
India is a nation where urban reality exists in a space where poverty cannot be denied, where dissent in spite of Democracy is an anti-national wrongdoing. The realities that exist are: continued caste-ist oppression, military interventions in Kashmir and North East India, of communal hatred, of corruption, and a long list of other things. In focusing on the external “spectacle” India puts out, the danger of our neurosis also plays out, our introspection and desire for social justice is then terrifyingly displaced.