Sunday, July 26, 2009

Mascots: Representation and the Trivialization of Violence

In Thinking Animals, human ecologist, Paul Shepard, argues that animals are core compenents of human cognitive development following Claude Levi-Strauss's famous words, "animals are good to think." Shepard points to the affluence of animal symbology throughout cultures, even within those societies, such as the United States, which is often said to be alienated from nature. While many people find the use of such symbols romantic, spiritual, empowering, closer to nature, etc. often these symbols occlude the historical and representational violence done to particular animals belonging to such categories such as "bear," "bull," "tiger," etc.

To understand this, let's first take a look at how sports mascots appropriate other people's cultures and trivialize the genocide of those people. There has been much controversy over the use of Amerindian mascots, particularly the "Fighting Illini," "The Fighting Sioux," "the Seminoles," the "Cleveland Indians," the "Boston Redskins," etc.

Representation, Appropriation, & The Logic of Genocide
Caricatures can sometimes be very fun and even have a prodound truth to their simplicity--as is evident in the best politicla cartoons--, however they can also trivialize and occlude actual violence. According to Wikipedia, a caricature "exaggerates or distorts the essence of a person or thing to create an easily identifiable visual likeness." In other words, caricatures are representations that signify a "truth" that is truer than truth (the presence of the actual person/group being depicted) itself through distortion. However, these caricatures of Amerindians do not only function as stereotypes, they also appropriate and signify the logic of genocide. In "Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy," Andrea Smith argues that the
[logic of genocide] holds that indigenous people must dissapear...non-native people then become the rightful inheritors of all that was indigenous--land resources, indigenous spirituality, or culture... why would non-Native people need to play Indian--which often includes acts of spiritual appropriation and land theft--if they thought Indians were alive and still capable of being Indian themselves.

Likewise, Brenda Farnell notes that the passionate supporters of such mascots "defend a "White public space" in which any contemporary NativeAmerican presence is positioned as disorderly." Of course, such a White public space can only exist by exlcuding Amerindians, who are majorly opposed to such symbols, from the public shere. As Charles Springwood explains, White people claim "Indianness" "not to realign themselves psychically or sympathetically withNative Americans but rather to obscure, if not dissolve, Native voices." "Demolishing the mascot slot," argues Pauline Strong, "is a prerequisite for full cultural recognition and participatory citizenship for Native Americans."

Because the appropriation and genocide of Amerindians in American culture is a historical "tradition," it is oftena ccepted as "natural" and or valuable as such colonialism is itself proudly part of the American narrative/identity. However, when European people who survived genocide are used as sports mascots, the perversity of such exploitation/appropriation becomes all the more apparent. Take for example the Dutch soccer team the Ajax Juden, or Jews. Lisa @ Sociological Images notes
This brings up some interesting issues about the appropriation of cultural symbols...Critics of American Indian mascots often ask questions along the lines of “What would happen if a team called itself the Fighting Jews?”... but it’s always presented as an unimaginable, completely hypothetical situation. And yet it turns out not to be so hypothetical after all
Just as it is difficult for many Americans to give up their supposed-entitlement to their tradition of characterizing Amerindians so it is the same for Ajax fans. According to a New York Times article "forcing the fans to change their behavior was a daunting task... because it has become part of their identity."

Ajax fans are proud of their "Jewish Club," eventhough they themselves know or care little about Jewish affairs and culture. They adorn themselves with Star of David tatoos and wave Israeli flags (which is itself unessential to Judaism). Meanwhile, their opponents will adorn themselves with swastikas, calling themselves the SS and shout anti-semitic rhetoric such as "we're hunting Jews," "death to the Jews," "Ajax to the gas chamber."
during a game against a German team late last year, a group of Ajax supporters displayed a banner that read “Jews take revenge for ‘40-’45,”
Ssssssssssssssssssssssssss… (the hissing sound of gas)
We’re hunting the Jews!
There is the Ajax train to Auschwitz!
Sieg! Sieg! Sieg! (German for ‘victory’, yelled while performing the Hitler’s Salute)
While such rhetoric may seem more obscene to Americans than rhetoric surrounding Amerindian mascots--painting them as savages--, it is not so different from the "cowboy and indian" games/themes affluent today. In both cases, the "logic of genocide" is in action in which both groups "must always be dissapearing;" both are treated as history despite the oppression of both groups today; both trivialize the very real violence; both stereotype and reduce.

Animal Symbols: Anthropocentrism and the Rhetoric of Genocide
There seems to be a formula for going about token-fying an entire group of individuals as a symbol. First, one must recognise that group as an Other--without doing so, one cannot objectify. If one did belong to that group, the mascot would not be so much a symbol as a marker of one's own identiy, one would be the subject of one's own discourse, thus subjectivity would be rretained. This requires then, secondly, that the Other must be made into an object through the denial/ignorance of their subjectivity--they have no right to signify themselves. Third, the Other preferaly ought to dissapear so that one has the absolute authority to objectify them, as their would be no other subjectivity to challenge such a representation. Further, through their dissapearance, the symbol takes on more truth as it is "alive," the last survivor of the group.

Finally, the objectified, extinguished Other is celebrated. We celebrate everything it stands for not it in and of itself; we hold romanticized views of it an mourn the past, a presense in which we terminated. We love these mascots/symbols because they fit within a romantic narrative about our past orpossibilities that could have been; we relive the past (or rather, a truncated history) by cheerishing these icons and "eat the other" as bell hooks would say. We appropriate that otherness and assimilate it into our own self-project with little if any recognition of the full otherness of those beings. The same process occurs within the ecocide of developers, when, once the habitat is cleared, the developers name the property after the community hthey wiped out: Park Ridge, Redwood falls, etc.

This brings us back to the question of animal representation and symbology. Animals in art and stories tend to be treated as props and symbols rather than characters themselves (for instance, in a creative writing seminar I was told that choosing the right prop for a story is essential and that if a cat doesn't work out, substitute n a dog). In another post at Sociological Images, Lisa explains how, like animals, women are often always representing something for men as allegorical figures:
Male figures appear in these paintings too, but almost always as gods or Biblical figures, people with names. Men are characters, women are symbols...Is it any surprise that women’s bodies are treated as a public concern? The entire culture is accustomed to seeing them used as metonymies for our highest (and lowest) values. The long historical pedigree of anti-woman sentiment means that the fact that women’s bodies contain women’s minds has always been elided, in favor of metaphorical elevation or degradation. We always have to stand for something, and what we stand for is everyone’s business... This is why objectification isn’t just the province of misogynists, by the way. Often you’ll hear Nice Guys protest that they don’t objectify women — no, they worship them! So instead of just being sexual receptacles, women stand for all that is good and beautiful in the world. (my emphasis)

Though animal others are in a sense subjects, they (mostly) are not capable of self-representation through language–at least not to humans. As such, they have often been de-particularized and objectified into tokens for human virtues and vices (much like women’s bodies have). I’ve been wondering whether the Bears and the Bulls (among other animal-named sports teams) are similarly "wrong" as the Red Skins, eventhough they may not offend "animals" themselves. Both de-subjectify and stereotype the category of beings represented.

Such de-subjectification, I think, rationalizes their literal and figural disappearance as equals (whether through genocide, eviction, or cultural marginalization). And of course, Amerindians, women, and animal others don’t produce and distribute these images–they are not in control of their own signification. Rather, the privileged construct and consume these images in a dominating way as discussed by bell hooks in “Eating the Other.”

One objection may be that "animals" are more biologically determined, so they do not vary as much as humans, and thus that such stereotpes about species is justified. I would argue, however, that is stipulated in always already thinking about animals as categories rather than singularities. similarly, just because "animals" may not themselves be subjects the tokenfying gaze's presupossition tiself may be violent, though it does not de-subjectify. For instance, say Amerinidians of jews were no longer in existence; would these macots be honoring them in any true way, or ought we still be disturbed by their token-fied representations of those people, a trace of colonial genocide? I'd say the latter.


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