How to Read Donald Duck

In class, we did not get the chance to discuss one of the readings that we were assigned after Oscar Wao: the chapter “From the Noble Savage to the Third World” from How to Read Donald Duck by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart. The chapter focuses on the ways in which characters from Disney comics, and specifically Donald Duck, reflected Disney’s capitalist and imperialist ideologies in their dealings with (and exploitation of) figures from “virgin territories of the U.S.,” including Latin America, among others (Dorfman, Mattelart 48). Supposedly the critique was supposed to be of Disney, but it could likely just as well have been attributed to U.S. policy or ideology at large.

What that chapter does not mention, however, was what exactly Dorfman and Mattelart were trying to prove in their studies — so I did a little digging. In the preface, the authors explain that in the wake of U.S. corporations losing their industries to the Chileans “in the middle of the Chilean revolutionary process” in 1971, that the United States government and various American corporations decided “to overthrow the constitutional government of Chile” (9). An embargo on the international sale of Chilean copper ensued, the authors continue, and the U.S. commenced “psychological warfare” through the media it exported to Chile, which focused on “restoring” the “king” and the “businessman”– of which the Disney comics were a part (9-10). Some Chileans partook in a kind of “cultural offensive” by producing a sizable quantity of “liberated” popular culture, including literature, music, and film (9-10).

Dorfman and Mattelart conclude:

“It is in this multi-faceted context, with a people on the march to cultural liberation — a process which also meant criticizing the ‘mass’ cultural merchandise exported so profitably by the U.S. to the Third World — that How to Read Donald Duck was generated. We simply answered a practical need; it was not an academic exercise.”

The third chapter itself begins with an indictment of Walt Disney: specifically, his vehement expectation that various countries and their inhabitants conform, and mold themselves, to his understandings of how they should be — he “built upon them his Disneyland palaces” — as well as the way in which he treats these “underdeveloped peoples” — as if they must “accept this definition of themselves” — in Disney comic books (48). The authors draw a parallel between Donald Duck as the modernized and Westernized “child-adult” and the “noble-savages” he encounters in these fictional lands (although bearing the names of real locations) as the less-developed nations over which the U.S. exerts an obvious influence: like the relationship between “empire and colony, between master and slave” (49).

Discussion then centers around specific instances within Disney comic books wherein U.S. corporate and imperialist agendas are propagated. The analysis focuses on the means by which the worth, intelligence, level of sophistication, civilization, and development — indeed, the humanity — of these so-called “noble-savages” is diminished, as well as on the corruption and tricks by which Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge extract goods from the natives. The text dubs this method “the barter relationship established with the natives by the first conquistadors and colonizers (in Africa, Asia, America and Oceania)” (49).

Disney’s attitudes towards colonies is also criticized: in one comic, Donald tricks the people of Congolia into believing him a magician so he may claim kingship over them (50-51). He then tricks them into doing the bidding of the previous Congolian king, then gets the people to reaccept his legitimacy. The text cites this elaborate scheme as an instance of the ways in which America learns to “ally [itself] with foreigners if [it] wishes to stay in power” (51).

The text is perhaps most vehement in its insistence that stripping these countries of their raw goods and natural resources, their land, and their riches, denies them the “right to build their own future” (52). Donald Duck’s exploits keep these peoples at subsistence-level living, capitalizing upon the fear that natives have of “any phenomenon which disrupts their natural rhythm of life” and acting under the guise of “the impartial judge” who only has their best interests at heart (52-53). Because Disney is able to present these images to the rest of the world, it is able to reinforce the stereotypes not only that America has of other countries, but that other countries have of other countries — thus placing Disney (and the U.S.) in a unique position of power which “justifies the social system on which it is based,” according to the authors (54).

The chapter itself is quite rich, continuing to build off of its own arguments based in comic book episodes towards a grander diagnosis of the culpability of Disney and the U.S. and their imperialist agendas. I remember cringing while reading the article: the subject matter was very hard to stomach because one does not really hear of Disney as promoting popular culture so blatantly suffused with the imperialist and exploitative motivations that the U.S. is often condemned of bearing (This is not to say that it does or does not.). It was eye-opening for me, but I am not entirely certain of how to receive it. I would like more information on the context that it was written in so as to be able to situate it better. I would also like to know how critics received it upon publication: whether, in fact, it was too scathing or just right or something else.

I wonder what everyone else thought of the article. Do you agree with the diagnosis? I wish myself that I had a better knowledge of Latin American history in the 20th century.

The PDF of How to Read Donald Duck can be found here.

-Sarah

America: Umpire or Empire?

In “Midsummer XXVII”, Derek Walcott describes the world of the West Indies as it is transformed by globalizing America. I think the poem is interesting in that, contrarily to the novels we have recently read, America is this pervasive influence that is not embodied into a character, but rather embodied in natural and non-natural processes. Indeed, the speaker of the poem starts off with

Certain things here are quietly American—

that chain-link fence dividing the absent roars

of the beach from the empty ball park, its holes

muttering the word umpire instead of empire (Walcott 486).

The first line seems a paradox in itself; the words “quietly” and “American” are not necessarily what one would use together, especially when it precedes “umpire” and “empire”. However, the silence or absence of sound seems like a recurring theme, as though the Americanization of the place is what quiets it. Indeed, what is American is the “chain link fence”, not “the absent roars/of the beach” (Walcott 486). The fence keeps the noises of the sea from reaching inland, yet the ball park, which can also be considered as American, is empty. This image seems to point out the flaws, the “holes” in the American imperialism; it removes and does not fill, distorts and does not improve. The word “empire” then distorts into “umpire”, yet the words both seem to talk about the United States. ‘Empire’ evokes sovereignty, control and domination, while ‘umpire’ is milder, softer, as it brings about ideas of impartial arbitration, authority and rules implementer. When looking at those two words, it appears that they both represent the United States in a way. The former has become the way the country behaves somewhat on a global level without claiming this title; the United States’ effect on global issues is very empire-like. Yet, the latter might be more of the mission it has giving itself without entirely sticking to it; this noble yet somewhat pretentious role of arbitrator is not the only thing the U.S. does by declaring wars and occupying countries (for example, “the Occupation in the last war” (Walcott 486)). It seems like both words touch at a certain aspect of American foreign politics and effects that are even truer today.

The poem furthers this concept of industrialization and non-natural processes through the lines “[b]ulldozers jerk/and gouge out a hill, but we all know that the dust/is industrial and must be suffered” (Walcotte 486). The speaker seems ironic by saying that the dust is “industrial and must be suffered”, not the industrial machines that cause it, as “[they] all know” (Walcott 486). As though the natives and people living in St. Thomas have been told this by the people responsible for all this “American rain” (Walcott 486). Yet, in the end, the speaker speaks the truth, lifting the veil upon their lack of innocence: “I fear what the migrant envies:/the starry pattern they make—the flag on the post office—/the quality of the dirt, the fealty changing under my foot” (Walcott 486).

Fuguet’s “Missing” and the Limitations of Cosmopolitanism

In Alberto Fuguet’s autobiographical novel Missing: Una Investigacion, he follows the story of his estranged uncle Carlos who, after a jarring move from Chile to the United States when he was 18 years old, eventually decides to abandon his family and “disappear.” Twenty years later, Alberto, who lives in Chile, hires a detective to hunt his uncle down, and is able to find him working in a hotel in Denver, Colorado—poor and overweight, but seemingly happy with his lot in life. Just the continuous movement of the author between Chile and the United States, and his interactions with Latinos, largely Mexican Americans, throughout the novel makes it a transnational work, but especially interesting are the complex and often conflicted relationships to US culture and ideas that Alberto and Carlos profess throughout the novel. Especially in light of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, these ruminations on what it means for something (or someone) to be American are intriguing.

In one scene in the novel, Alberto and his father get into an argument about a certain word: “drifter.” The detective tells Alberto’s father—who has lived in California for thirty years—that Carlos is probably a drifter, and that is why they haven’t been able to find him. Alberto notes that the concept of a “drifter” is distinctly American, then his father berates him for having a negative view of the United States. This scene is interesting on a transnational level for numerous reasons. First of all, the very fact that Alberto thinks a drifter could only be an American seems to relate to our discussion of cosmopolitanism, and the American feeling that borders do not apply. Interestingly, while being a drifter is usually considered a negative attribute, it is also the marking of someone who does not belong—and who does not want to belong—to a specific region, much the same way the cosmopolitans like to assert the fact that they do not belong to any one place, and can traverse borders as they please. This idea of Carlos as a drifter—someone who does not have to pay attention to borders or familial ties, the way Alberto insists a Chilean would have to—is complicated by Carlos’s impetus to leave his family behind. On the one hand, Carlos leaves his family because they will not allow him freedom, another seemingly American desire for independence and self-direction separate from his family. However, Carlos is also fleeing the law—he steals a car and drives to Las Vegas, and so part of the reason he must be a drifter is because he does not want to get caught. Fleeing from the law makes Carlos more of a reluctant cosmopolitan than a cosmopolitan in the sense that he feels that borders do not apply to him. This conflict in Carlos’s reasons for being a drifter mirrors his overall feelings about his lifestyle and his status as an immigrant: he is thankful for where he has ended up, but is not particularly gratified by how he got there.

In another instance, before he has completely left his family behind, Carlos is drafted into the US army and serves at an army base in Texas. On his first free weekend, he and his friends decide to cross the border into Mexico. Upon arriving at a whore house in Mexico, Carlos speaks only English to the prostitute, throughout almost their entire interaction, until the very end when he accidentally speaks to her in Spanish. The prostitute, excited that Carlos is a native speaker, tells him her whole sad story in Spanish, after which Carlos leaves the brothel immediately and returns to Texas, not even waiting for his friends. After this episode, he buys a Big Mac at McDonalds and vows never to cross the border again, feeling for the first time truly American. This instance, in which Carlos is able to flee the poverty that he sees in Mexico, refusing to relate to the prostitute despite their shared language, he feels that he has become truly American—and it seems he has, at least in the sense of an American as a cosmopolitan. For the first time, Carlos has the luxury of crossing the border and returning to the US, effectively negating any ties he might have with the Mexican woman. Unlike her, Carlos has the luxury of a US citizenship, and the possibility to cross borders that are completely inaccessible to the Mexican prostitute. It is fitting, then, that this marks his first identification as an American—it is the first time he is able to take advantage of this particularly American trait. This scene, too, complicates Carlos’s status as an American, and as a cosmopolitan. Even as Carlos is able to take advantage of his privilege to cross the border as he pleases, he is so threatened by what he sees on the other side that he vows never to leave the US again. It is interesting to consider whether Alberto, his nephew would consider this decision as “American” as his status as a drifter.

-Yevanit

Dan West and Heifer International

As addressed in We Need New Names, as well as in multiple class discussions, aid work is one of the many interesting and complicated ways in which America interacts with the rest of the world. Heifer International is one of my favorite organizations (although this may be simply because I haven’t done enough research into potential pitfalls) because it’s designed to solve the problems of developing communities without requiring the continued presence of aid workers.

While he was in charge of a relief program for refugees of the Spanish Civil War, Dan West came up with the idea that it would be better to give the refugees a cow, as opposed to just giving them milk, leading to the creation of Heifer International. Aside from providing the cow’s owners with sustainable access to nutrition, the heifer could produce even more milk-producing cows that could eventually help an entire community, while families with extra milk could sell it. Along with providing livestock, Heifer’s program also ensures that participants receive the proper training in how to care for their animals. Since the first shipments of livestock in the 1940s, this idea of sustainable aid has expanded to include many more types of animals being sent to various countries; in 2013, Heifer projects had helped 20.7 million families.

Along with his efforts in forming Heifer International, West’s work opened up the opportunity for conscientious objectors to WWII to instead volunteer through his church, rather than serve in the military, a program that still exists today. Additionally, West originated the first American college program for peace studies at Manchester University, which, in the words of the university, “continues to explore the frontiers of nonviolent alternatives to conflict.” While this description seems somewhat vague, the major strikes me as an ideological complement to Heifer International: rather than solve the problems created by war (or simply provide food to people in need), preventing war removes the need to alleviate its effects (preventing hunger with sustainable nutrition removes the need to provide food).

There is likely no perfect aid organization that can fully address the potential issues of imperialism and problematic transnational relations associated with providing aid, but the way that Dan West’s program tries to address the needs and contexts of the communities it helps shows a tendency towards long-term progress for encouraging self-sufficiency.

Giant credits to http://www.manchester.edu/danwest/dwflash2.html, http://www.manchester.edu/danwest/#, http://www.heifer.org/ending-hunger/the-heifer-way/lasting-change.html, and http://www.heifer.org/ending-hunger/the-heifer-way/mission-and-cornerstones.html for biographical information about Dan West, as well as data/information about Heifer International’s programs.

Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible: Cultural Misapprehension and Imperial Discourse

If The Heart of Darkness introduces readers to the brutal injustices of white imperialism in the Congo, Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible elaborates on this imperial discourse with a modern day, transnational interpretation. Kingsolver crafts a novel embedded in the global age, presenting the same, time-old “West to the Rest” mentality, which persists even without a formally established empire. Unlike in past histories of imperial control, the new globalized modes of power assert their influence in regions such as the Congo more discretely, through undercover government operations and alliances. Kingsolver alludes to these processes of modern day imperial power in her novel, yet focuses primarily on one family’s transnational experience in the middle of the 20th Century. Through this fictionalized account of an American missionary family in the Belgian Congo, one sees how western ideological and cultural imposition ultimately falls flat in a region torn apart by a long history of imperial devastation.

The book tells the story of the Price family, who travel to the Belgian Congo as Christian missionaries in 1959, in hopes of converting the local people in the village where they are posted.  Instead of a smooth conversion process, however, the Prices are faced with continued resistance and cultural barriers that prove insurmountable. Nathan Price, the strict, severely determined preacher, constructs a church in the village, where he conducts weekly mass despite the meager turn out. His wife and four young daughters all adjust to the harsh jungle life as best they can, longing for the reassuring comforts of their past home in Georgia, yet forced to tough it out for the sake of Nathan’s steadfast mission. What the Prices do not realize, however, is the doomed fate of their attempts, which do not prove effective in this remote pocket of the jungle.

The Prices’ difficulties lie not so much in the effectiveness of their message, but in the barriers of their understanding. From their initial arrival in the Congo, the clashes between cultural backgrounds is clearly evident. The Price daughters are shocked by the local foods, clothing, and seemingly course lifestyles of the villagers, unable to reconcile them with their accustomed way of living. Nathan appears the most resistant to the new culture, refusing to adjust his views or behavior to his new surroundings. He brings only preconceived ideas to the Congo, not becoming any wiser to the ways of the people in this vastly different place. Disregarding the long established agricultural systems used in the jungle, he attempts to introduce his own westernized way of farming, which may be suited to the dry Georgian landscape, but not for the unpredictable jungle climate. Refusing to learn the language or understand the people beyond his cursory impressions, Nathan exhibits an imperialist mentality of cultural misapprehension. His weekly sermons profess to the “uncivilized” people the glories of God, yet Nathan requires a translator to deliver his message. His few attempts to pick up the native language result only in miscommunication, demonstrating his insensitivity to cultural nuances. In proclaiming “Jesus is bengala” in his sermons, he employs this native word to convey that Jesus is “precious and dear,” yet ignores the subtle intonation, which may express the alternate meaning of a deadly poisonwood tree found in the jungle.

In describing this family’s stubborn attempts to interfere in the lives of the native people, Kingsolver illustrates the common perceptions of many western powers that move into foreign regions with imperial agendas and a disregard for the local cultures. On a more basic level, the Price family exhibits a mindset shared by many in the western world, which may often disregard the intricacies of regional cultures in favor of a more western-centric view. Like the “travelers” in the Sheltering Sky, the Prices step foot in a foreign land initially unwilling to adjust to the local surroundings or seek any type of enlightenment other than their own pre-established point of view.

-Audrey

Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods”: Transnational “Thoughtforms” & Lost Faiths

If on the off chance a person has ever wondered “what happens to a deity deferred?” – that is to say, a God or religion abandoned over the course of time, ground to dust under the heel of conquest, or lost in the tumult of migration – they will find an interesting hypothesis in Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods. The answer Gaiman conjures to such an unorthodox question hinges on turning a transnational spotlight onto “religion” in the United States, and acknowledging that any definition of “American-ness” is built comparatively, leaning subconsciously or otherwise on the ideologies that have passed before, and eventually come bubbling up anew as steam radiating from “the melting pot”.

Gaiman writes a dark and fantastical tale, in which warring spiritual beings are brought to life, or back from the brink of complete irrelevance, on sheer belief emanating from any individual American consciousness (a concept known more colloquially as “thoughtform”, adapted from the Tibetan Buddhist theory of “tulpa”, which means “to build” or “to construct”). Upon their (re) awakening, the beings battle each other for supremacy on American soil, each divided by their status as either a “New” or “Old God”; the former a homegrown phantom manifestation of media and technological worship, the latter a figment of American re-imagination, somewhat distorted from its original form after transplantation in the US, occurring over several centuries through immigration, slave trade, and other reluctant migrations.

The narrative follows Shadow, a newly released and newly widowed convict, as he encounters various incarnations of “Old” and “New” Gods. His most notable encounter is with a “Mr. Wednesday”, a reincarnation of the Norse God Odin whose memory was trafficked into the United States through immigrant heritage. Wednesday offers Shadow a position as his bodyguard, and after initial reluctance, Shadow accepts, and becomes slowly folded into a larger and more complex universe of mythical politics. Together, they take a classic American roadtrip, where the typical roadside attraction becomes the Old God’s place of communion – a kind of transnational space where all the mash-ups from various religious orders, eras and geographies come together. In particular, “House on the Rock” (actually the very real site of the world’s largest ferris wheel), becomes comparable to a modern day United Nations, although less (or perhaps more?) cordial.

As a powerful space in the eyes of these beholders, “House on the Rock” elucidates what seems a central theme to the book as a whole: the power of perception, and essentially cultural imagination or re-invention, to construct “America”. Even a disheveled, innocuous or ignorable space to the typical US citizen, like the roadside attraction here deemed a suitable makeshift pantheon, can become a sentinel for foreign travelers, a marker of a – more or less splendid – “American” essence. Everything mundane has the power, through belief, to become spectacular, or at least intriguing, when viewed through an alternative cultural lens. Or through the lens of desperation, one which the “Old Gods”, and many real life migrants, consistently finds themselves staring through.

Gaiman takes the controversial American “melting pot” metaphor a step further in this novel, to include not only various ethnic bodies mingling into one cohesive mass, but their consciousnesses as well. The global comingling of faith based practices is here personified, as remnants of once powerful heeded Gods are brought into America like luggage or dirt lingering in the soles of their shoes. In a sense, this is a representation of its own kind of “Fuku americanus”, as increasing globalization highlights not only ethnoscapes shifting along the ground, or financescapes orbiting in an abstract monetary realm, but a higher dimension of religiosity, where spiritual beings transfer from continent to continent, molded and reshaped as they encounter new mentalities and other spiritual practices, bombarding one another like charged particles in a thundercloud. What results can certainly be categorized as chaos, although admittedly not as “historically grounded” in its effects as Diaz describes, but equally as destructive in the fantastical battle that takes place.

Overall in this work, collective idolization of media figures, the internet, popular entertainment, sports and so on, demonstrates itself to be a powerful force. Belief shows itself to be a powerful force. Capable of sucking even the most aloof or enlightened Americans into its vortex, and almost preying on the new migrant (at least the “happy-go-lucky, oh-so-hopeful” migrant stereotype we are used to seeing). Gaiman seems to be reflecting upon a somewhat unfortunate truth: That even the most ardent of beliefs brought into the US (sometimes themselves the driving forces for migration) will likely die in the US, losing fervor and eventually extinguishing altogether with the passing of time and the pressure to assimilate.

Tayryn Edwards

The new divides of transnationalism

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The above photo was taken  by José Palazón,  of the migrant rights Pro.De.In  group in Morocco on the border between what is officially Morocco and Spain’s enclave of Melilla. This city has been Spanish since its conquest by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand in 1497, and is still acknowledged by the current rulers, who visited in 2007. Morocco, however, has demanded the return of these territories’ as they are a remnant of the colonial past. Spain arguing that since it owned them before Morocco gained independence from France (1956) they are Spanish by right. The region is absent from the UN list of Non-Self-Governing Territories, while other areas in the region, such as Gibraltar (UK-governed, Spanish claim), are.

This image shows migrants from across Africa attempted to enter Europe by climbing the fence marking the border, which on the Spanish side has the Club Campo de Golf en Melilla, a public golf club where a single game can cost nearly $30. The idea of a transnational space that both transcends geographical boundaries and creates new ones is starkly illustrated–as the area is recognised as literally part of Spain, migrants can enter Europe while not only never reaching the continent, but never leaving what, particularly for Moroccan immigrants, is viewed as their own country in the first place. The irony is many Western-centric drivers of an outwardly more transnational approach, such as the EU, often end up with a version that just follows all the historical patterns.

Katie Day