Starbucks in the Middle East

It’s interesting how many McDonald’s, KFC, and Starbucks signs we see in the Iraqi streets in Shooting War.  This focus on American food outlets says something about economic globalization and “international integration” in the Middle East.  I won’t delve into this much, but a quick note on the attitudes towards globalization the Middle East: although some Middle Eastern intellectuals welcome the idea and note the benefits of economic globalization for its offering better job opportunities, others have expressed negative attitudes toward globalization in general, and cultural globalization in particular.  It’s been considered an equivalent to “Westernization” and also as a form of imperialism, since the ideas, cultures and institutions that are being spread around the globe are largely originated in the western part of the world.

Starbucks has large presence in Shooting War (after all, it is the “Frappucino” note that saves the day). The story opens with an explosion inside Starbucks in Brooklyn city by a Syrian named Al-Taheri.  Golden seems to have made a deliberate choice of making Starbucks the target of the bombing, considering the demonstrations against Starbucks coffee company held in some Middle Eastern countries.

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I remember a few summers ago in Beirut, I was walking back to my hotel as I bumped into an Iraqi/Kurdish girl that I’ve gotten to know during my stay.  When she saw what was a tall Caramel Frappacino in my hand she was infuriated and went on a long rant about Starbucks supporting Israel and donating a part of its profit to US troops in Iraq, and explained that by merely buying this Frappucino I was contributing in the killing of innocent civilians.  That was when I learned about the campaign against Starbucks that called for boycotting its products. It was a reaction to what Starbucks chairman Howard Schulz had said to a crowd of American Jews on Seattle’s Capitol Hill that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is fueled by anti-Semitism:

“What is going on in the Middle East is not an isolated part of the world. The rise of anti-Semitism is at an all time high since the 1930’s,” “The Palestinians aren’t doing their job they’re not stopping terrorism.”

This was the response of Yousef Al-Yousef, chairman of Global Peace:

“We are concerned that his [Schultz’s] statements exude Islamophobia and only seek to maintain the myth that the Palestinian struggle is against the Jewish people as opposed to being against an illegal occupation of land and an onslaught of aggression.”

http://www.muslimtents.com/aminahsworld/boycott_starbucks.htm

After sales dropped in Arab countries because of its pro-Israel rep, all six outlets in Israel were closed in April of 2003, while it continued to operate in other Middle Eastern countries. Starbucks spokesperson states that the decision was due to “operational challenges” and was not for political reasons.  This is the link to the full Starbucks article:

http://www.starbucks.com/aboutus/pressdesc.asp?id=976

Escaping Their Thoughts

     When I first began reading The People of Paper, I had no idea what the book would turn out to be about.  While I was reading the prologue, I was envisioning a trailer of a quirky computer-animated film based on this book.  It turns out this book is not a childproof story, as the title, cover and prologue may have indicated to me; it is in fact a story full of paper cuts, scars and emotional suffering.  The novel opens up in heartbreak and feelings of loss and abandonment that afflicts almost all the major characters.  Self-inflicted pain is a subsequent and recurrent motif in the book that is initiated as a mode of escapism by most of these miserable characters. While I was searching for a topic for my research paper, I came across a few texts that talk about psychological detachment and disassociation as a way of protecting oneself from a horrific experience/reality, and I started to pick up on how the characters in People of Paper are severely traumatized.  Even some of the minor characters that we only get a glimpse of, such as Sandra and Merced, show signs of emotional torment through nightmares and addictions.  These characters are willing to endure physical pain in replacement of the emotional, and this act of constriction or numbing is a way of resisting their individual traumatic narratives.  Each night, Federico de la Fe sticks his hand into his stove “until it hurt so much that he could not feel his sadness” (20).  For him, fire cured his itch, his bed-wetting, and his sadness.

      In the light of this reading, the war against Saturn is another method of resisting the trauma narrative, as members of the EMF attempt to conceal their thoughts and memories by hiding under lead that is too dense of a metal that “not even the most powerful x-ray in the universe could penetrate” (26).  They will be able to escape these thoughts if they manage to hide them from Saturn who is responsible for writing about their experiences and is therefore the cause of their emotional suffering.  Consequently, the “fight for emancipation” is initiated and the EMF members cover their houses with lead.  It’s interesting to see that the repression of their psychological and emotional pains always must come with a price as the lead causes their stomachaches and subsequent vomiting.  Figuratively, their escape from their grief through silence, again, causes them physical pain. 

     Another method of escaping emotional pain by avoiding being on Saturn’s radar is achieved by baby Nostradamus and Little Merced.  Baby Nostradamus teaches Little Merced mental strategies to consciously block her thoughts from Saturn and she is able to acquire that power and gradually progress through practice.  I think several aspects of the book remind us all a little of House of Leaves, especially the layout and the use of metanarratives, but have you noticed the many random dots in the book? For my midterm project, I talked about the appearances of various forms of dots in House of Leaves and suggested that they represented absence, silence, emotional void etc. and I find it quite daunting that the big dots that appear at the end of the book are one form of Little Merced’s silenced thoughts.    

Organized Fragmentation

Adam’s article points to some of the characteristics of what she calls “American literary globalism” that is temporally post-postmodern through her examination of Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange.  She states that the novel is a reaction against the aesthetic sensibilities of high postmodernism and I think she argues it well through her comparative reading of Tropic of Orange and Pynchon’s Lot 49.  I agree with the point she makes about the narrative construction of Tropic of Orange that although it is complicated, it is formally less chaotic and disoriented than most canonized postmodern texts.  Yamashita preserves the postmodern features of meta-narrative and fragmentation almost as if to intentionally take control over the narratives as an author by imposing organization on the textual chaos of postmodern writing.  Of course, one of the most obvious organizing strategies is the hypercontext at the beginning of the book as she lays out to the readers the time, location and topic of each sections.  Another way of structuring is through her framing of the events within the seven days of the week, with each chapter introducing the events of a single day.  Therefore, the novel’s chronology is consistent (as far as I can remember) and that I believe is a significant characteristic that parts Tropic of Orange from postmodern works that are notorious for their erratic shifts in time through the collision of multiple pasts, presents, and futures.   I think it’s especially ironic, however, that time in the actual plot of the novel is treated differently, as the characters note the curious freezing of time in the story. 

Another organizing feature that Yamashita uses to enforce order in her text is the equal division of focus she places on the subjects of her story as each chapter focuses on one of the seven main characters.  Even though the subjects change with each section, these shifts are not abrupt due to the various dialects and idiolects Yamashita ascribes to each of her characters.  Adam briefly notes the different voices and dialects as she notes “Emi’s fast-talking hipster vernacular to the streetwise cadences of Buzzworm and the immigrant Bobby Ngu to the earnest reflections of the Mexican housekeeper Rafaela and the political poetry of Archangel.”  She uses language as a another means of organization as the reader is able to recognize the multiple subjects of these sections just by observing the language style used in each.    

The narrative is also written in different perspectives and I think it’s interesting that Gabriel is the only one of these seven characters whom is given a voice, as all his sections are written in first person perspective.  I tried to think of an explanation as to why Yamashita chooses only him as a first person narrator and to see if it’s related to the theme of the story and the only thing I came up with is that Gabriel is the only one who has a direct relationship with all the other main characters.  But Adam suggest an interesting point in her comment on Emi’s death that could possibly explain this privilege he gets “she is no longer useful, … the future belongs instead to characters like Gabriel or the community organizer Buzzworm, who are both more respectful of the past and willing to harbor utopian visions of the future.” Another interesting assertion is that the people, history and culture of Mexico are the “lifeblood of Yamashita’s Southern California,” which could be one way of explaining why the only Mexican male in the book takes charge of his own story.   

A Little on Structure, Tone and Treatment of Time

You’d think after reading House of Leaves we’d all find the weird and erratic narrative structure of The Female Man a piece if cake.  I personally had trouble understanding some parts of it, and the multiple narrators and the ambiguous “I” got me very confused at certain points.  I don’t know if the division of the narrative into so many passages, pointing the shifts in times and places helped make it easier or made it more confusing.  One thing I notice about the structure is its division into 9 parts; an interesting choice Russ makes, since the number nine is usually associated with maternity and, perhaps, femininity.  In her demonstrations of possible worlds where the boundaries of gender are destroyed, there is only one thing females have that males still can’t have: babies!  Women in Whileaway are able to conceive without needing male partners, while men in the other three worlds can’t make their own babies.

 I find the ironic and aggressive tone of the book to be interesting.  Russ is very much in your face, and I can imagine it being a buzz killer for some readers.  She is really funny when she’s being ironically bitter. My personal favorite is on page 148:

Narrator to Jeannine on the danger of communication device: “It will explode in your brains and drive you crazy.  You will never be the same again.  You will be lost to respectability and decency and decorum and dependency and all sorts of other nice, normal things beginning with a D… You will be dead, dead, dead.”

With an emphasis on the D’s, I see an implied association between these things starting with a D and men.  Jeannine is also threatened by her relationship with her boyfriend and struggles throughout the book to find her independence.  “Dead, dead, dead” confirms the association, as men are all dead in Janet’s world.  This makes me even more curious about the J’s and what it means to give all four female characters names that start with a J. 

Finally, I want to briefly mention an important point the narrator makes in Part One- VI where she begins to introduce Whileaway to the reader.  She explains that since there might be an infinite number of possible universes, and that there isn’t a single and clear line of probability, “the paradox of time travel ceases to exist, for the past one visits is never one’s own Past but always somebody else’s; or rather, one’s visit to the Past instantly creates another Present” (7).  I think this and the rest of the passage says a lot about the treatment of time in postmodern works.  Modernist writers, as Virginia Woolf, talk about the importance of time in manifesting realism in literature and explain that time is not linear, but must take the reader to the past as well as the present to provide insight on the histories of the characters, giving them a more realistic portrayal.   Postmodernism takes this principle to a different level, as the treatment of time is more imaginative.  It attempts to explore several possible pasts, presents and futures, and therefore generating numerous realities.  The importance modernism places on the concept of realism is not only absent in postmodernism but is disparaged and rejected through this use of inconsistent and multiple time lines. 

The Check Mark

I was feeling a little ambitious and was trying to finish the book before I wrote this post, but due to my spontaneous napping that this book is inducing, I still have but a few pages to go. I decided to go by Suzanna’s advice and skip straight to the end to read Pelafina’s  letters to her son, Johnny, before continuing to read further.  These letters shed light on his past and certainly helps me with understanding his character better.  Aside from the emotional and psychological baggage that must have come along the broken home and the physical abuse he had to endure as a child, which I don’t feel like delving into, we also learn about his intelligence and talent with words that is reflected in his mother’s reaction to his writing.  Yet, reading through the letters did not give me the satisfaction I needed because there is always the question of credibility that we all seem to enjoy pondering upon.  We learn about this abuse as a child by his foster parent through his mother’s response when he tells her in one of his letters, as well as in his own narration, but are we expected to necessarily believe what he tells his mother and his reader? The more I read the more it seems like he intentionally wants his reader to be skeptical of his stories, like in page 108 when he tells his story about being hit by a truck and immediately negates it detail by detail.  And I know I’m going too far with this, but could the whole pack of letters be another one of the fictional texts in the book that is claimed to exist?  Another thing that the letters helped me notice is the check sign at the bottom right of page 97.  In the letters we learn that Pelafina tries to communicate in secrecy with Johnny by asking him to sign a check at the bottom right to confirm that he has read her letters, and so its appearance in this page raises some questions about why it’s there.  I believe it bares some relation to the quote taken from the OED, which his mother supposedly gave him to encourage his writing (sorry, but everything in this book I am forced to take as a supposition) of the definition of SOS that opens that chapter, which, correspondingly, is another signal used for communication.  Is he using this method to manifest communication with someone? Who may that be and why?  I could be imagining this but I think someone suggested in the blog that Johnny’s mother could be the ultimate narrator of this book.  If we look at it that way then do we take it as an indication of her role as narrator? It is also possible that this check mark carries no significance except that it is used to put off the readers and mess with their heads at 5 in the morning.  It could be another one of those red herrings that we’ve been getting a lot of in these postmodern texts.  

“Representation as itself a simulacrum” Baudrillard

I had some trouble understanding Jean Baudrillard’s article and what he means by Simulacra.  It’s one of those articles that I start off thinking “I got it!” and then the more I read I realize that I don’t get it.  But I noticed he explains in his description of the representations of reality, “no more mirror of being and appearances, of the real and its concept; no more imaginary coexistensivity: rather, genetic miniaturization is the dimension of simulation.” For some reason that reminded me of the 500+ photos that I have saved on my memory card.  The memory card can be seen as a “miniature” of different realities, photos of my family, my friends and myself in different occasions that can be “reproduced,” duplicated, and even shared with others.  These digital pictures are now even substituting the tangible ones that we used to keep framed around the house and that are compared with the “map” Baudrillard mentions that was once used to represent reality. His explanation also made me think of Plato’s theory on art being an imitation of life that is thrice removed from reality.  Baudrillard suggests a new dimension to the whole notion of art and imitation, and mostly focuses on an absence of reality that proliferates a new and different, I am hesitant to call, reality.

As to House of Leaves, I was curious to know if there was a certain method for reading this book or whether it’s best to go along with the shifts in narratives and the interruptions.  I personally can’t stand elaborate footnotes because of the distractions they create when I’m reading and I tend to ignore them and maybe go back to some of them at the end of a chapter.  With this book, I felt an obligation towards these footnotes, even though I know they are mostly made up information, and I also decided to read both narratives along side because I thought it would give me the necessary “feel” of the layering and the fragmentation in the book.  As if the book wasn’t fragmented enough, I tried reading parts of Baudrillard’s article along with the book.  Maybe not a smart move but I was initially put off by the article’s difficulty and decided to take that approach.  Going back to the point I mentioned, I noticed the same idea somewhat “echoed” by Zampano in chapter 5.  His “odd murmuring” about the significance of echoes in a way resonates, I think, with what Baudrillard was saying about what he calls simulacra.  Zampano explains the mythological history of Echo and concludes that Echo’s repetitions were colored “with faint traces of sorrow or accusation never present in the original” (41).  In a way it could be taken as an example of one of Baudrillard’s “successive phases of the image” which is that it “masks and perverts a basic reality” that will eventually lead to it baring no relation to any reality and would have “its own pure simulacrum.”  Zampano explains that Echo’s voice then “possesses a quality not present in the original, revealing how a nymph can return a different and more meaningful story, in spite of telling the same story” (42). 

Notes on Heather’s Character- Orr’s Name

Karin brings up an interesting idea when she mentions that Heather may be seen as Orr’s antithesis.  While I was reading I thought Heather’s character was unexplainably inconsistent, but then I thought this whole book is based on inconsistencies.  While the spider metaphor that first introduces her accentuates strength in her and shows her as aggressive and fierce as she’s described as predator and Orr as her prey, the portrayal of her character as Orr’s grey-skinned wife is more domesticated and she appears more vulnerable.   The role reversal is certainly apparent when she becomes the needy one who seeks reassurance from Orr.  As Orr explains it in his thoughts about his wife, her “brown” color was what made her who she was.  Her history as one of mixed race and her struggle with issues of belonging seemed to have created that complexity in her character that had fed her strength.  In the final version we get of Heather towards the end of the book, she’s even fiercer than Orr remembers her to be and is “vivid” and “difficult.” In a continuum where they never married but only knew each other briefly in a far past she grows more into the aggressive person she was when Orr first met her at her office.  This may be an indication that her relationship with Orr seemed to have had an effect on her assertiveness as her color did or does. In the cabin scene we sense her weakness for the first time as she begins to have warm feelings towards Orr.  This shows how her relationship had an effect on her character as it toned her down a bit and penetrated the façade of fierceness that she had maintained before she met him.  I think this point really exemplifies Le Guin’s thoroughness in her depiction of character without dwelling on the minor details as a modernist writer would.

As to Orr’s name and its signification that’s been brought up by Sara Flood and Karin, I agree that his name suggests that his mundane character is the polar opposite of the typical science fiction hero.  Further, I think it cleverly represents the nature of his super power: the ability to alter reality and create multiple options and realities.  In his brief meditation of the Alien in front of him Orr explains, “It was not standing there… not in the same way that he would stand, or sit, or lie, or be.  It was standing there in the way that he, in a dream, might be standing.  It was there in a sense that in a dream one is somewhere” (178).  While the repeated “or” is what made me realize the mentioned connection, this line, I believe, is crucial in examining Orr’s understanding of the realities that he creates.  He’s beginning to realize that it is not actual reality that he alters but a reality that is existent only in dreams, and now he’s in another person’s dream and hence in a different reality.   There is no actual reality but only coexisting, colliding and interpenetrating realities, which is a prominent characteristic of postmodern fiction, as Harvey explains.

Relating some features of Postmodernism to “The Crying of Lot 49”

While primarily focusing on Detective stories as a genre and briefly tracing its origins and characteristics, Michael Holquist’s essay “Whodunit and other questions: Metaphysical detective stories in post-war fiction” tackles the issue of the fusion between high and low art as a prominent characteristic of Postmodernism.   I think his argument about the “pattern of reassurance” as a sophisticated form of a happy ending is interesting.  From the way he describes it, it appears to be a common denominator in the different forms of literary kitsch.  Another tendency is the shortcut they take to the “catharsis,” by skipping the “pain” and “tragedy,” which denies the reader a full experience and possible meaning.  These features render such works as merely quick and easy crowed pleasers, as opposed to high art that may not be accessible to the majority.  Taking this into consideration, the “red herrings” that have been used in the “The Crying of 49” begin to make a little more sense to me. Similar to Oedipa’s confusion in her search for clues and their meaning, the novel suggests allusions that can be misleading to the reader who is expectant of an easy answer.  Also the toying of the author in his dealing with the relationship between signifier and signified is an effort to mislead the presumptuous reader; while the names can be telling of character as talked about in a few of this week’s posts, there are some names like “Dr. Hilarius” that seem to me sort of pointless, or maybe I’m being too cynical.

In “Postmodernism, or the cultural logic of late capitalism,” Jameson describes the canonization and academic institutionalization of the modern movement as a plausible explanation of the emergence of postmodernism.  Postmodernism subsequently rejects the complete focus on what is thought to be high art by creating a bridge between high art and popular art, as Holquist mentions.  The inclusion of the polar opposites is evident in “The Crying of Lot 49” as we are introduced to “Paranoid,” a pot smoking band who write songs like, “Lonely girl in your lonely flat, well, that’s where it’s at, so hush your lonely cry,” and later an opposite representation is seen in the play Oedipa attends that causes her to visit a university professor for clarification on the play, which reinforces Jameson’s statement about the control of institutions on art.  

Response to first week’s reading

Foer’s narrative is probably the only one of the short stories that seemed relatively clear from the beginning.  It draws attention to the importance of listening to what is unspoken and untold and cleverly frames the story through the narrator’s instructions on the uses of the “silence marks”:: with each explanation, we are given a piece of information about him that ultimately narrates his story.  I’ve come across some writings in psychoanalytic criticism, such as Cathy Caruth’s “Unclaimed Experience,” that emphasizes the significance of reading into the silences that is particularly to be exercised with narratives that deal with trauma.  I wouldn’t know how to approach this story in terms of psychoanalysis, at least not for now, but I get the sense that we are left with an opportunity of exploring the narrator’s silences more deeply and examining not only what he doesn’t say in his conversations but what he doesn’t tell his audience. 

Don DeLillo’s  “The Uniform” reminds me a lot of Joseph Heller’s novels in terms of its use of elements of absurdity and irony.  It appears to me that this story follows the style of black comedy and I see the “cartoonishness” that Dr. Sample points to in the portrayals of the killing and raping that paradoxically makes the scenes all the more disturbing.  This narrative style serves the purpose of depicting a grotesque image without the descriptiveness expected and with simplicity and flatness that makes it more comical in a way.  But to understand the purpose of this use, I’m reminded of something Heller had said about Catch-22, that he had wanted his readers to laugh and then look back in horror at what the they were laughing at.  There’s also the recurrent attempt to articulate a traumatic experience (Harlow and her history of sexual abuse) and not being taken seriously and not being capable of comprehending it that we also see in Catch-22.  Is the excessive use of absurdity and hilarity a retreat from the futile attempts of expressing the horrific and the grotesque?  Does that suggest the inadequacy of language in these cases?

Link’s “Some Zombie Contingency Plan” I liked the most, despite its difficulty and ambiguity.  By taking the setting and the several references to horror films into consideration, the story seems like a mimicry of horror films of the 80’s and early 90’s that typically start with a group of unsuspecting teenagers gathering at a party where there’s music and beer, midway through the villain crashes and the slaughter begins.  But in this story the zombies never show up.  I’d hate to take this story back to psychoanalysis, too, but does that mean that the whole idea of zombies is just in the protagonist’s head? And why does he continuously slip into different identities as the narrator uses different names for him?

As to Hassan’s “POSTmodernISM” I was initially put off by its difficulty as I had trouble understanding what he was talking about, but reading more into it, I kind of get him.  I think his article is interesting and useful.  I especially appreciate the attempt he makes to compare Modernism and Postmodernism and show how they are different. It’s quite an interesting and ambitious attempt, and I mean ambitious in a good way, considering the time his article was published.