Below is a lengthy passage (the underlining is mine) about the relationship between the US and Iran.  I’ll paraphrase to save your eyes the workout.  Iran and the US have narratives about themselves and the other, and everything is interpreted through that narrative.  The final part of the passage is the meat.  Beeman explains one of the communicative differences between Iran and the US: a (non)European model of diplomacy.  Given these differences of communicative style there are misunderstandings, which are then filtered through the already operating narratives.  This article does a great job of falling into this pitfall.  Imam details a misunderstanding and provides the Iranian explanation and then the article does the narrative filtration of ‘dem bad, we good’ to try and make a coherent argument.

Many of the conservatives (I do not mean Republicans as there are plenty of Democrats just as, possibly more so, hawkish) dismiss articles like Beeman’s as ivory tower ephemera.  But those people are not reading the bottom portion of Beeman’s passage.  There is a materiality and empiricism to what the (many within) the academy are saying.  If the risks are precisely as catastrophic as conservatives claim, then shouldn’t they pay attention to all commentary?  This myopia in the face of catastrophe either proves their incompetence or the insincerity of their supposed catastrophes.

Beeman, William.  (2003).  Iran and the United States: Postmodern culture conflict in action.  Anthropological Quarterly, 76(4)

For Iran, Iraq, the Taliban of Afghanistan, and terrorist organizations such as Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda, the United States became the “Great Satan,” to borrow Iran’s epithet. The Middle Eastern oppositionists saw America as an external illegitimate force that continually strove to destroy the pure, internal core of the Islamic World. It was also seen as the inheritor of the mantle of colonialism carried out earlier in the 20th Century by Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union. For the United States, the resistant forces of the Middle East took on a demonic form—that of the “crazy outlaw” nations and terrorist groups whose activities were illegal, unpredictable, and irrational. Every president from Ronald Regan to George W. Bush vilified these forces. In Nader’s terminology, they represented disharmony in an extreme form, because they threatened the international social and political order. Each side’s mythology of itself and its role in world affairs complimented this “mythology of the other.” All of the Middle Eastern forces counted their efforts against the United States as proof of modern success in confronting a formidable enemy. For Iran this was the Revolution of 1978-79 and the subsequent 444 day hostage crisis. For Iraq, it was the Gulf war. For Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders, it was a series of aggressive attacks against the United States. These included bombing of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001 on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and Pentagon in Washington. These groups thus become not just revolutionary oppositionists; they become the guardians of justice and equity for the people of the world. For the United States, a more complex structure which I term below the “U.S. Foreign Policy Myth” held sway. As I will explain below, this myth sees the “normal world” as a body of nation-states arranged in a dichotomous structure—for or against the United States and its interests. The oppositional forces of the Middle East confound this model. The United States therefore places them in to a residual category, and tries to eliminate them—to purify the world, as it were. The United States therefore becomes not just the guardian of democracy or freedom, but of world order. These mythologies became ideological filters for transmission (or, more accurately, non-transmission) of messages between the two cultural worlds. Such filtering might be sufficient to create the kind of abortive understanding that took place between the two nations with such relentless regularity. However, the ideological problems were reinforced by a communicational structure that was equally conducive to reinforcing the mutual negative images both nations held of each other. A Problem of Discourse The communicational problems can be thought of as problems of mutual discourse which became more and more severe as time went on. The United States and all of the Middle Eastern opposition forces mentioned above have operated with different, often contradictory notions of how discourse on an international level should be managed. This often caused drastic misreadings of the content of communication between the two cultural worlds, and mutual accusations of deviousness, insincerity and bad faith. The formal study of discourse has seen considerable growth during the past two decades. Discourse analysts posit a set of implicit contextual agreements between parties which allow face-to-face conversation to take place in an unimpeded manner. Critical theorists such as Bourdieu, Derrida and Baudrillard have extended the term discourse to include the culturally contextualized rhetorical practices of governments, scholarly institutions and commercial business. The theoretical relevance of discourse studies for this problem will be discussed in greater detail in the following chapter, but I wish to underscore here the need to understand the contextual factors which underlie disturbed discourse as a key to explaining. The United States government is bureaucratically geared to speaking to foreign powers using a set of communicative routines and principles inherited from eighteenth and nineteenth century European diplomatic practice. The practices emphasize face-to-face communication between elite governmental officials at equivalent levels (head of state to head of state, secretary or minister of foreign affairs to secretary or minister of foreign affairs, etc.). Special protocol rules apply for communication between persons who are of non-equivalent hierarchical position. These principles thus imply a universal hierarchy of bureaucracy, and a universal set of understandings about management of discourse parameters within that hierarchy. The routines are widely used because they are implicitly accepted by the international community who learned them from colonial powers.

Hickey, Dave.  (1997).  Dealing.  Air guitar (102-13).  LA: Art Issues. Press.

This essay reminds me of when I go home for a Thanksgiving with the family.  Lots of grumpy old people sitting around bemoaning the good old days (Hickey’s outline of trends is simple: 70s were about fun, 80s about wealth and 90s about fighting oppression) and explaining to me why I am too concerned with intellectual stuff at the loss of common sense.  This essay makes the same moves: an attempt to make himself feel better about having dropped out of graduate school.

He goes too far, however.  First he makes not an anti-academia argument but instead an anti-intellectual one.  Secondly, his theory is incomplete, probably as a result of his incomplete graduate education.  Notice that he quits in anticipation of a fight with professors (a committee that HE chose, by the way) that are (supposedly) too stubborn to recognize the value of his work.  His academic argument hangs on a preoccupation with intent, however, new approaches, some he even bafflingly names have supplanted that very preoccupation with intent.  These days academia is now often criticized for a lack of choice making subjects.  This is the epitome of a straw-person argument.  Here is some textual slippage showing the object of his actual criticism: anti-intellectualism.  He turns to a discussion of his postman and why Mr. Sparks does not care for certain artists.  Hickey tells Mr. Sparks that he is correct, “that ‘oomph’ is temporarily” (108) out of fashion.  But, Hickey reassures him, it will return.  “So much for education.”  So much for education?  As though educated folk would be able to fix taste and preference forever to a stable identity, and since taste and preference are instead more like a pendulum then education must not be valuable, so argues Hickey anyways.  Whatever.

Now I will deal with my real beef of this essay: its lack of rigor.  Hickey spends the rest of the essay arguing that art is not a commodity, ergo he should not be blamed for taking advantage of the uneducated.  I will not defend the pejorative questions prompting Hickey’s essay, however, Hickey’s defense is weak, at best.

Hickey will respond that I have an overly academic notion of ‘commodity’ and hence am merely splitting hairs.  At least my notion is sound.  Hickey’s commodity is an item with “intrinsic value or stable application” such as corn (natch!) and long-distance service (oh no he didn’t!).  Long distance service has intrinsic value and a stable application?  The essay was written in or before 1997, so maybe it was an easy mistake to make, and I suspect time has made this argument so specious that I will dedicate no more space to it.  But, here’s the thing, Hickey seems to know he made a bad argument so he provides this next clause to justify his examples par excellence of a commodity: “…since the operative difference between bushels of corn and minutes of long-distance service is the price.”  Price is the operative difference?  How about one can be eaten and one cannot?  They both have intrinsic (use) value but long-distance service is a stable application?

Also notice the slippage between long-distance service and minutes of long-distance service.  A commodity for Hickey therefore has the ability to be divided and those dividends are then sellable.  Art lacks those?  Of course not.  Hickey was dealing in art and in a commodity.  Then what for his essay?  This lack of rigor is demonstration of why his academic criticism fails, he cannot even speak the language coherently enough to refute it, which is one of the purposes of the essay.  It also belies a romantic notion of what constitutes value.  My family are rural folk and so it is understandable that things which are not edible are not very valuable to them.  Hickey’s essay smacks of this redneck (although rednecks find the term imbued with virtue) sentimentality.

There is, however, a valuable contribution Hickey makes.  He explains the split between a piece’s social value and social virtue.  This seems like common sense that a piece of art may be offensive, without virtue, and yet still be valuable.  But Hickey’s contribution is showing how the two often move in opposite directions of each other:

[E]ven though it may appear to you that nearly everyone hates Jeff Koon’s work, the critical point is that people take the time and effort to hate it, publicly and at length, and this investment of attention effectively endows Koon’s work with more importance than the work of those artists whose work we like, but not enough to get excited about. (111)

There are plenty of examples that prove the same movement: Mapplethorpe, my grandmother’s dry turkey (oh my, you have got to taste this!), Duchamp’s “fountain” and even nuclear weapons – the more they are touted as the end-all-be-all weapon (i.e. nonproliferation policies) the more they gain value as a status symbol and the greater the belief of their use value.  It is this paradox which makes art a commodity, because it is a bundle of labor and valuations.  A bundle that is constantly shifting in its price and value across society and across time.

Photograph of Marcel Duchamp's

Image via Wikipedia

Despite the above insight, there is an-other reason why his essay fails, because even if he is correct it does not absolve him.  The charge is that he took advantage of people by selling art.  His argument is that art is a gamble (dealing cards) and anyone coming into his gallery (sitting at his table) does so knowing that they will probably lose.  How exactly does this absolve the taking advantage of less educated charge?  It doesn’t (insert my hesitation with ‘consent’).  People sitting at a table can be taken advantage of.  In fact, the art dealer, if Hickey is correct, deals with entirely subjective goods whose value is solely determined by the dealer and other, supposed, experts whereas a 21 always beats the house’s 18.

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