the naked gaze

politics, theory, and cultural critique

carlos rojas

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Obscene Images (2)

In 2001, there was a small scandal when images appearing to depict a Chinese man eating a human fetus began circulating on the internet. The excitement surrounding the images—shocking enough in their own right—was further fueled by claims that they depicted a cannibalistic delicacy served in certain Taiwanese restaurants. Eventually, the furor died down, in part because it was ultimately revealed that the images had been taken out of context—that they actually depicted a performance art work by Beijing-based avant-garde artist Zhu Yu 朱昱 (of course, Zhu Yu’s claim that he was consuming an actual human fetus for the piece is just as shocking as the original claim that human flesh was being served in Taiwan restaurants, but it does not appear to have received the same international attention). (For further discussion, see here and here.

A similar scandal unfolded recently after John Dower’s and Shigeru Miyagawa’s course page and research project “Visualizing Cultures” was featured on the MIT home page on April 23rd. A vociferous protest developed among some Chinese groups on campus (protests which quickly spread, via the internet, far beyond the physical campus itself) about the use of these images, focusing in particular on the inclusion of a woodblock print of a war-time decapitation of Chinese soldiers by the Japanese during the Sino-Japanese War.

The original image (which appeared with the caption “Illustration of the Decapitation of Violent Chinese Soldiers”) was accompanied by a detailed explanation by John Dower specifying its historical context (a pdf copy of the original page is reproduced here):
The subject itself, however, and the severed heads on the ground, made this an unusually frightful scene…Even today, over a century later, this contempt remains shocking. Simply as racial stereotyping alone, it was as disdainful of the Chinese as anything that can be found in anti-Oriental racism in the United States and Europe at the time – as if the process of Westernization had entailed, for Japanese, adopting the white man’s imagery while excluding themselves from it. This poisonous seed, already planted in violence in 1894-95, would burst into full atrocious flower four decades later, when the emperor’s soldiers and sailors once again launched war against China.
Nevertheless, this detailed explanation would not necessarily have been obvious to more casual viewers—particularly among readers whose first language was not English (for discussions of this image among overseas Chinese language newspapers, see , for example, Chinese News Net, Ta Kung Pao and World Journal).

For instance, in very measured and reasonable early (April 25th) letter to the MIT administration, the Chinese Student and Scholar Association (CSSA) drew attention to these issues of contextualization:
In particular, the vivid images of the wartime atrocities inflicted on the Chinese conjured up haunting emotions of loss and rage, not unlike those emotions people around the world feel toward the much better-known and more talked-about events of the Holocaust. Already, the outcry from MIT's Chinese community has been thunderous, and the distress levels severe. We do understand the historical significance of these wood prints, and respect the authors' academic freedom to purse this study. However, we are appalled at the lack of accessible explanations and the proper historical context that ought to accompany these images.
Phrases featured prominently at the top of the page under Old China, New Japan include "Still, predictable patterns give order to this chaos. Discipline (the Japanese side) prevails over disarray (the Chinese)," and "In short, the Chinese are riotous in every way—disgracefully so in their behavior, and delightfully so in their accoutrements." The only circumstance under which these very racially-charged statements might be possibly acceptable is if they are being used to describe the depictions of the images. Yet at first glance, that purpose is far from obvious; instead, the text seems to suggest that it is reporting history itself. The issue of the blatant racism so prominently exhibited in these images and descriptions is not addressed until much further down the page, almost at the end of the article.
The CSSA’s claim in this letter (corrected four days later) that the events in question derived from an “art exhibit” (term used in the CSSA’s second open letter; the first refers to it as simply an “exhibit”) further illustrates the point of how even careful viewers might separate powerful images from their detailed textual commentary.

This problem of context was, of course, further compounded when the image started circulating (in e-mails, blogs, etc.) completely independently of its original “Visualizing Cultures” commentary. These issues of the global circulation of disturbing images mirrors the case of Zhu Yu’s cannibalism photo five years earlier. Another important parallel between the two cases concerns the issue of different epistemological orders. That is to say, in both cases an implicit distinction is drawn between how images are perceived and understood within the aesthetic context of an art exhibit vs. the more empirical context of a news article or a history project (though, curiously, while in the case of the cannibalism photograph, the revelation that it was part of an art performance apparently functioned as a mitigating factor, in the case of the decapitation print it was the inverse clarification that it was not part of an art exhibit which helped to calm some of the initial furor).

These questions of epistemological orders come to the fore in a somewhat different way in another exchange a few days later. On April 27th, CSSA published a second open letter to “CSSA Members and Other Members of the Chinese Community Worldwide” following its meeting with “MIT administration,” in which they announced, among other things, that it had been agreed that,
The Visualizing Cultures research team will address how it contextualizes sensitive content by providing appropriate language to prepare users for the graphic material depicted. The research team is looking to CSSA for feedback and future dialogue.
As stated previously, CSSA is strongly opposed to any irrational behavior. Any feedback from individuals on this issue is welcome.
Precisely one day later, however, MIT History professor Peter Perdue published a lengthy “Open Letter to Chinese Students at MIT,” in which he made a number of forceful and cogent arguments about the importance of intellectual autonomy. At several points in the letter, Prof. Purdue addresses his intended audience directly:
You are some of the best and brightest young people of China, who have come to MIT in order to pursue education mainly in scientific and technological subjects with the leading researchers in the world. Many of you, I am sure, plan to return to China to use the skills you learn here to help China become a truly modern country. […]

You, despite your passion, are not specialists in East Asian history. Like any field in the sciences or engineering, historical study requires intensive concentration, acquisition of essential research skills, careful study of documents, and thoughtful, clear, writing. Those of you who think that you know the history of East Asian better than these distinguished scholars lack the authority to make this claim. No one so far has presented any evidence that the materials presented on the Visualizing Cultures are mistaken or biased. It is disrespectful of the dedication of serious scholars to make such emotional charges based on no evidence.
What strikes me as interesting about these statements is that that they appear to blur two different epistemological orders. Purdue posits a contrast between the students’ “passion” and the scholars’ “essential research skills, careful study of documents, and thoughtful, clear, writing,” and clearly valorizes the “thoughtful” approach” over the more “passion[ate]” one. He concludes that “No one so far has presented any evidence that the materials presented on the Visualizing Cultures are mistaken or biased.” Perhaps, however, that is precisely the point—the controversy does not seem to be about empirical issues of “mistake[s]” in the first place, but rather the claim that the images are, by their very nature, disturbing to many viewers, regardless of the historical accuracy of the discussion in which they are embedded.

Stepping away for a second from the details of the MIT controversy itself, I would like to point out that, although the CSSA in this case is merely requesting more clearly contextualiztion, it would perhaps not be unreasonable to argue that certain types of images might, by their very nature be inherently unsuitable for reproduction on a nationally or globally visible forum such as the MIT web site.

In fact, there are actually many examples of images which one might reasonably teach in an academic context, but which many might object to their being distributed on a globally visible forum such as the MIT homepage (regardless of how much context is provided). To take an obvious example, Constance Penley teaches a famous course at UCSB called “Porn 101,” in which the students view and analyze an array of hard-core porn flicks (she also has guests speakers, such as director, writer and actor John Stagliano—otherwise known by his screen name of “Buttman”—whom Penley notes is actually more thorough and organized as a guest lecturer than many of her more “academic guests”). While this controversial course is very popular and well-received (she, Linda Williams, and Susie Bright are even working on a textbook), I suspect that many advocates of free speech within academia (including not only the participants in the current debate, as well as those who were critical of American newspapers’ general refusal to reprint the anti-Islamic Danish cartoons a few months ago) would be apoplectic if some of the images from Penley’s course (say, stills and clips from Stagliano’s most recent opus, Buttman’s Ass Adoro; or images from Zhu Yu's "Eating people" performance) were to be directly linked to their own university’s home page, irrespective of how much contextual explication were to accompany them.

To conclude by citing another open letter by MIT literature and culture professor Jing Wang:
The most important issue neglected in this debate is the questions regarding public access to educational and research materials posted online. OCW is a global medium and a global classroom. But is there such a thing as a singular "global" or "universal" audience for digitally delivered open content? What kind of room do we (or should we) allow technologically enabled audiences (of different ethnic cultures and nationalities) to partake in knowledge production? Do professors have the sole monopoly over knowledge production and dissemination in the age where knowledge is collectively produced?
[On May 2nd, the same day as Wang’s letter, it was announced that the page would be reposted, but even now, a week later, the original “Visualizing Cultures” link on MIT’s “opencourseware” site simply redirects to a page containing a number of official statements about the controversy by the MIT administration and others.]
(Part 2 of 3)

4 Comments:

Blogger Jodi said...

Interesting post--but I'm surprised that you think many or some academics would be shocked or outraged if such images were linked to from their university's home page. Let's say that there were images part of a course packet, the packet was free and virtual and linked to from the course syllabus, the syllabus could be found on the faculty member's homepage and the homepage could be reached from the university's main search directory. I find it unlikely that such a thing would create an outcry.

7:36 PM  
Blogger crojas said...

Thanks Jodi.
Perhaps you are right that I have an overly pessimistic perspective on the limits of even liberal faculty members' tolerance for free speech.

To respond to your example, however, I would specify that part of what made the MIT case so controversial is that the "visualizing cultures" site was explicitly featured on the main page of the MIT home page itself, and not buried somewhere deep within the site where most visitors would find it only after concerted effort (indeed, the site had been up for a while, but the controversy did not begin until it was singled out on the MIT page). Do you not think that if a web site featuring graphic images of, say, anal intercourse were on a site one link away from the university's home page (and therefore very stumble-on-able by casual visitors), that there would be considerable protest even from the faculty? (Or, to take another example you touch on in a recent post, and which I will discuss in much more detail in my next one, if the images in question were of the sort used by abortion opponents--even if the images were carefully contextualized, I suspect that even many leftist faculty would be discomfited at the very least to have them posted in a forum linked so proximately to the university's home page).

8:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading this, but isn't it a leap between rumors of cannibalism and porn on one hand, and late nineteenth century war propaganda on the other? As I see it, the tragedy of the uproar is that many gifted graduate students at MIT and elsewhere are unable to see the pictures historically and jump on their guns at the slightest perceived provocation. I can't help but thinking of African engineering students studying in the PRC who have to put up with much worse provocations, both in cyberspace and in reality. Yet they don't have the privileges to organize and protest like this.

11:43 AM  
Blogger crojas said...

Anonymous,
Thank you for your comments. I am not suggesting that the three examples (viz., performance art photos, erotic film, and late nineteenth century woodblock prints) are precisely parallel, but I do feel that the comparison is instructive. What is arguably lacking in some of the MIT discussions is an acknowledgement that there are some images which are emotionally disturbing by their very nature , irrespective of how much context is provided. I would suggest that, for many viewers, the pornographic film material or some examples of avant-garde art would fall into that category. The fact that the images are inherently disturbing for many viewers does not, of course, mean that they should be completely kept from view (and, indeed, both of the examples I cite can, and are, taught in university courses), but that care should be used in dessiminating those images ina public forum where they may be casually glimpsed by a potentially vast global audience.

Whether or not the decapitation image in question necessarily falls into this category may, of course, be debated (and, furthermore, it is quite likely that different individuals or groups will respond to the images differently), but I think that the possibility that issues raised in this debate might transcend a simple issue of contextualization should be acknowledged.

Secondly, you mention the apparent inability of the grad. students at MIT and elsewhere to view pictures historically. I have not been following the debates closely enought to know whether or not this is true (though the CSSA open letters struck me as quite sensitive to the historical significance of the images). One important issues which has been raised in these debates, nevertheless, is precisely the question of global audience, and that regardless of how the MIT grad. students do or do not (or should or should not) perceive the images, the fact remains that these images, by their position as a featured site on the MIT home page, would be easily accessible to a wide range of viewers from throughout the world--and there is certainly no guarantee that all of them would have the linguistic or educational resources to appreciate the contextualization that has been provided.

1:25 PM  

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