Incorporating the imagined body

Since I watched controversial Russian ice dancers Domnina’s and Shabalin‘s faux Australian aboriginal folk routine earlier this week during the 2010 Olympics “original” ice dance competition, I have been thinking about how the cultural “other” is imagined and enacted to reproduce notions of cultural authority and power.

More specifically, I have addressed in other essays on my blog the importance of the culturally imagined/defined body as a site of colonization and imperial control.  Indeed, the body as an experienced reality is simultaneously a metaphor that is ideologically mapped with value and power in cultural, economic, and political/ideological terms.  It would be difficult to dispute the assertion that fundamental to any examination of social and ideological relations of power, bodies and the way they are imagined would be at its center implicitly, if not explicitly.

The histories of territorial colonization, economic imperial expansion, and cultural appropriation are about defining specific subordinate cultural groups, their histories, practices, and values as fundamentally simple, ahistorical, instinctual, primitive/immature, playful, artful, exotic, wild, dark, wet, sexualized, irrational, and grotesque.

These are the brown people, the women, the children, the queer, the disabled, the “folk” whose customs and “nature” are never imagined or allowed to evolve out of or beyond the boundaries of the physical body.  It is this physicality, this grounded, earthly, maternal, open fecundity that has been imagined as transgressive and limited in its ability and powers to achieve self-definition, mastery, and the simple sublime beauty and rationality at the heart of almost any notion of the civilized.  In fact, it is this relationship to the physical in the Cartesian dualistic perspective that rationalizes these specific cultural and historical bodies as ripe for ongoing control and exploitation as if they are simply resources for increasing masculine surplus value, i.e. profit => power.

(A current series in the Salt Lake Tribune examining the perpetrators and victims of child pornography in Utah serves as a horrific example of this largely masculine cultural imaginary at work that has only intensified with the access to internet sharing networks.)

I did not sympathise with the Russian pair’s attempts to mollify indigenous and media critics who took them to task for their racially insensitive stereotyping by changing from the earlier “darker” outfits in earlier World championships to the supposedly less offensive lighter tan body suits,—with more foliage and less wild striping—worn in their original performance at the ongoing Olympics.

I was actually interested at the lack of any discussion of the seemingly less controversial “Indian” representation of the American pair Davis and White.  (Supposedly they had a real Indian advising their preparation and costume design so that made their performance acceptable?  A more detailed examination of the racial hierarchies—e.g., relative whitening or assimilation–among the groups represented in the original “folk” ice dances,including Australian aborigines, Indian, Greek, Israeli/Jewish, Russian, might account for the dearth of critiques beyond the crude “interpretation” of Domnina and Shabalin.)

Indeed, the subtle power of racial constructions of others’ wild, exotic bodies deployed and performed by dominant white cultural performers (imaginers) was displayed especially powerfully by the American team’s Bollywood characterization and the refined embodiment of hand gestures and body positioning of, especially, Davis.

Her asianized eyes—expert make-up giving them a slightly slanted look–and Indian attire enhanced the seeming authenticity of the performance with the intent of capturing the essence of the Asian other, a heightened irony given the prevalence of Asian dominance of figure skating for many recent Olympic events and their dominant presence at the current one.

Only by simultaneously imagining the invisibility of the indigenous or Asian and their implicit imperialist right and power to inhabit, represent, and interpret the essence of the “folk” by incorporating it in movement and dress could these white performers perform as they did. (Imperialist imaginations of the other must effect figurative and literal disappearances in order to perpetuate the magical, fantastic cultural enactments of the other: controlling the story is central to the institutionalization, structures, and seeming invisibility of racial prejudice.)

Just as bodies of the other have been defined as soulless or without the capacity for rational thought and action during more explicitly colonizing periods in world history, these transcendental white bodies transgressed their imaginative limits in order to consume their imagination of a non-first world body much as they would a fetishized commodity, as an idea without a defining soul or mind that could be used for their artistic, performative purposes.

It was not just a figurative incorporation, but a material example of ongoing white supremacist cultural practices that utilizes these imagined notions of primitive, wild, instinctual, exotic bodies to give “body” to whiteness—since the idea of whiteness is that of spirit, mind, soul that necessarily is always in search for new bodies to inhabit and reimagine in Star Trekkian Borg-like fashion, i.e. we will assimilate you–in ways they could not naturally imagine or act for themselves.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *