Wu-Tang Clan: Master Martial Artists or Dojo Dummies?

There are parallels to be drawn between the Wu-Tang Clan’s incorporation of Chinese martial arts films and Edward Said’s analysis of Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park, Jane Austen and Empire. More specifically, we must compare the Wu-Tang Clan’s treatment of the film to Austen’s treatment of Antigua. The comparison reveals that both the Wu-Tang Clan and Austen are guilty of exploiting foreign ideas and cultures in their art — for better or worse.

We must look at the sense of morality employed by the Wu-Tang Clan and Austen respectively. Said contends that Austen views Antigua as an entity that is “‘out there’ that frames the genuinely important action here, but not for a great significance” (1122). Said is alluding to a sort of disrespect here, arguing that Austen is using Antigua inappropriately. He is essentially saying that Austen is compounding the view that the island merely symbolizes Bertrams’ drive for property and wealth without playing an actually significant, telling role within the plot. It is tempting to make a similar conclusion concerning the Wu-Tang Clan’s use of Chinese martial arts films – is the rap group’s use of audio clips from the films enough to show proper appreciation, rather than wrongful appropriation?

The Wu-Tang Clan’s entrance into the rap scene was explosive and remarkable, to say the least. With the release of their first album, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the group showcased all of its unique, appealing personalities through hard-hitting vocals and memorable lyricism. It was a winning combination, with the group from New York building upon the strong foundation they received from the album’s critical success to become one of the most legendary rap groups in history.

But a big part of the album’s success was its heavy incorporation of Chinese martial arts films. Even the title of the album is a reference to the 1978 movie The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. This was a new feature to say the least – mainstream rappers had never before looked to east Asian influences to include in their music. (Though this nuance appeared less frequently in the group’s later work, one member of the Wu-Tang Clan, RZA, directed his own martial arts film based in China, in 2012: The Man with the Iron Fists.)

Each song on Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) incorporates some sort of element from a Chinese martial arts movie. For example, the introductory song begins with a few words of speech from the 1983 film Shaolin and Wu Tang (hence the group’s title, Wu-Tang Clan):

The words, exactly, are:

“Shaolin shadowboxing and the Wu-Tang sword style. If what you say is true, the Shaolin and the Wu-Tang could be dangerous. Do you think your Wu-Tang sword can defeat me?”

“En garde, I’ll let you try my Wu-Tang style.”

The speech here is well used. It sets a violent, in-your-face tone; what follows are gruesome lyrics over an abrasive instrumental, as group member RZA urges listeners to “Bring da motherfucking ruckus”.

Take the seventh track on the album, “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta Fuck Wit” for example, too. The first words heard on it come from the 1977 Chinese martial arts film Executioners from Shaolin: “Tiger Style!” This is a reference to a fighting technique. Again, the matching aggressiveness that follows is obvious – just look at the track’s title. RZA, in this instance, goes on to instruct fellow group member Method Man: “Hah! Lebonon, step up, boy! Represent! Chop his head off, kid!”

The Wu-Tang Clan, with their first album, knew they only had one coming-out party. They wanted to be ‘out there’ and give the rap scene (at least New York City’s) a product that was never experienced before. They went about doing this by being ultra-aggressive, and introducing this style with confrontational, violent words from Chinese martial arts films. They could have used an endless amount of quotes from American films, but looking to a place as far away as China for such inspiration was never done before. It was another note of uniqueness, and it worked marvellously. The album sold, and was received extremely well.

All that said, it is not known which came first: the Wu-Tang Clan’s obsession with Chinese martial arts films, or their aggressive music? If the aggressive music resulted from their obsession to recreate the tone from these films that they enjoyed, then I would consider that rightful appreciation. If they were aggressive to begin with and merely tacked on the quotes from the films to add an exotic feature, then that would constitute wrongful appropriation.

There is some serious grey area here – we do not know if their intentions came from a place of genuine admiration. As aforementioned, RZA went on to direct a martial arts film but the Wu-Tang Clan’s incorporation of Chinese martial arts films subsequently decreased. The violent words of Shaolin fighters made rather more erratic appearances in their discography following the release of Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).

The thin line between proper appreciation and wrongful appropriation continues to exist in the hip-hop industry today. The Wu-Tang Clan were not the first to call upon an earlier time to influence their music – it is believed that rappers’ diss tracks (in which they purposefully insult and degrade other rappers) originated from the popular, playful game “the Dozens”, which involved individuals from impoverished Black communities trading insults until one quit and a winner emerged. More recently, the now renowned Drake has attracted controversy for his covers of songs “Sweeterman” and “Ojuelegba”. In both, he speaks patois, the Jamaican slang language, though he has no Jamaican heritage. Moreover, the song “Ojuelegba” is actually Nigerian in origin.

Clearly, the conversation is there to be held in the present day, as well.

 

Works Cited

Said, Edward. “Jane Austen and Empire.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Rivkin, Julie and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

 

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Janet Mock, as seen through Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

Judith Butler’s careful consideration of trans individuals in relation to her theory of gender as an “act” brings me to the case of Janet Mock, a prominent trans woman who has garnered renown for her revealing, enlightening autobiography Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More (though I must add that she is acclaimed for being a distinguished journalist in her own right, before her autobiography was released). In considering Mock, we must consider Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s views on “male homosocial desire”, which she says is “the radically disrupted continuum in our society between sexual and nonsexual male bonds” (709). The radical disruption that Sedgwick speaks of is caused by homophobia, as individuals engage in it to disrupt male bonds and maintain a patriarchy governed by heterosexual men. We must also consider Judith Butler’s main argument, the crux of which is this: “Gender reality is performative which means, quite simply, that it is real only to the extent that it is performed” (907). Gender is, according to Butler, an “act” (908). One is not merely a man or a woman but acts as either role to define their own gender. Mock’s experience as a trans woman reinforces Butler’s theory of gender through performance and appearance, and counters Sedgwick’s beliefs concerning the use of homophobia against strictly “male homosocial behavior”, as she finds her own ways to act as a woman and must fight against homophobia in her efforts to engage in female homosocial behavior.

Butler’s theory brings forward interesting intricacies concerning trans individuals, and she recognizes this: “Indeed, the transvestite’s gender is as fully real as anyone whose performance complies with social expectations” (907). Mock, for a long period of time, struggled to fully express her trans identity and find the best, most complete way to “act” her gender. This is best exemplified by her initial forays into the dating world, when she was dealing with the fine line concerning her appearance and the truth that she was attempting to conceal. In her autobiography, Mock details her first date with Adrian, a man whose “lustful gaze… further validated my womanhood” (158).  The date was a nervous affair for Mock, at least initially: “But as dinner progressed, my nerves subsided, and I fell into the groove of a girl on a date with a guy” (158). Therefore, we can see that “acting” a gender has much to do with environment and company. The quality of these conditions determine how the individual can best express their gender. This is reinforced by the fact that Mock’s definition of womanhood is derived from “watching the women in Dad’s life cook and cackle in the kitchen” (65).

As Mock’s life goes on, she embraces more apparent ways of expressing her movement across genders, as she starts a hormone treatment and begins dressing in a more feminine manner. She practically outright supports Butler’s theory concerning the importance of “acting” a gender, especially through her appearance: “I clutched tightly to my green Keroppi folders and my size-too-small jeans and my arched brows, and when I could grow my hair long enough, my side part. These elements, though small and insignificant to passersby, made up my girlhood, and I fought hard to ensure that they were seen” (124).

Mock’s emergence and eventual coming to comfort and normality as a woman was undermined by homophobia. Sedgwick argues that homophobia is used to balance and combat the “male homosocial desire”. In Mock’s case, however, she encounters homophobia in her efforts to engage with the “female homosocial desire”, as she wants to be a woman among women (709). This struggle is compounded by Mock’s father’s initial reaction to her exploring her gender identity, as he abandons his daughter and dismisses her life journey, saying that he would not support it. (He eventually comes around to reaffirm his unconditional love for Mock). Mock’s experience with her father speaks volumes of Sedgwick’s belief that “patriarchies structurally include homophobia”, if we are considering her father as a one-man patriarchy (698). How do you think Mock herself would interpret Sedgwick’s key theory concerning homophobia’s role against homosocial desire? She would obviously read Sedgwick’s work with great intrigue, to say the least.

Mock would read Butler’s work with intrigue, too. “My point is simply that one way in which this system of compulsory heterosexuality is reproduced and concealed is through the cultivation of bodies into discrete sexes with ‘natural’ appearances and ‘natural’ heterosexual dispositions,” Butler writes (905). Mock agrees with Butler’s statement here, as she has felt automatically maligned by greater society for changing her bodies from its “natural” appearances to fulfill her non-heterosexual (and therefore non-“natural”) sexual desires. “It was a balancing act to express my femininity in a world that is hostile toward it and frames femininity as artifice and fake, in opposition to masculinity, which often represents ‘realness,’” Mock writes (124). What it would take for trans individuals to have their bodies and sexualities be defined as ‘natural’? Will it take a formal deconstruction of the word ‘natural’, or what it means?

The Selfie: A Misleading Ego Booster?

The iPhone is a beautiful thing. While it is not the only smartphone with a front-facing camera, it is the one I most often see extended an arm’s length away from someone, capturing an image of the photographer, who is able to see himself on the phone screen. This is called a selfie (as if you did not know already). The selfie is more than just an interesting and relatively recent technique for taking a photo; it reveals much about the human psyche, particularly its desire to fulfill the pleasure principle through seeking repetition and the ‘ideal’ image.

Through Freudian terms, it is straightforward to see the selfie as an example of one of his key theories: the inherent human desire to repeat a behavior (or at least want to repeat a behavior). Just one selfie is almost never good enough. We have a tendency to take a selfie over and over again, for what at times may seem like no reason at all. Sometimes the lighting is fine, the people appear naturally photogenic, and the photo is still and not blurry whatsoever. Even then: at least one more, please. The process is virtually inexplicable, but we must consider Sigmund Freud’s argument that “It is certain that much of the ego is itself unconscious” (Freud 434).

Indeed, it is virtually impossible to consider the selfie without taking into consideration the concept of one’s ego. We cannot rid ourselves of our egos – we all have an “I” that we must take care of and make sure is happy and content. Moreover, this can be explained by Freud’s “pleasure principle”, which Freud says is our desire to perform behaviors that give us pleasure. However, the psychoanalyst writes that “It is clear the greater part of what is re-experienced under the compulsion to repeat must cause the ego unpleasure, since it brings to light activities of repressed instinctual impulses” (Freud 435). Then again, this is counteracted by the joy that each click of the phone screen’s shutter button brings to the photographer, capturing another image of him and his company, if there is any. Such a behavior celebrates the ego, playing right to the tune of the pleasure principle. How does Freud’s argument hold up?

As much as we love taking photos of ourselves, such photos do not capture the ‘real’ us, fellow psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan would contend. When we see photos of ourselves, we are seeing our ideal selves – that is, we can see facets of our bodies that we cannot see in reality, such as our faces, necks and so forth. Thus, any photo is merely a reflection. It is not a ‘real’ image – only what we can see of ourselves with our own eyes can constitute a ‘real’ image. So, when we are taking photos ourselves, we are not even seeing our real selves. Thus, while it may be frankly bizarre that we are finding joy in mere reflections, we must believe that we are seeing our ‘ideal’ selves, and finding joy in seeing images that are invisible to our eyes without a phone screen (or in Lacan’s case, a mirror).

The concept of deriving joy from seeing our ideal selves becomes even stranger when we take into account the iPhone’s FaceTime feature, in which two iPhone users utilize the front camera as a video feed to each other in order to communicate. Both users are not seeing the ‘real’ image of the other user, or even of themselves. Two ideal images are conversing, with reality completely out of the equation in the context of the conversation. What do we make of this? Why are we so inclined to FaceTime our loved ones, when we know we are not even seeing the ‘real’ them? (Personally, I can’t bring myself to FaceTime my family that often – it would only make me want to see them in person more, to see the ‘real’ them).

The selfie cannot be anything than an inherently egotistical concept, as it allows ourselves to see the ‘ideal’ images of ourselves and compels us to take such photos repeatedly. It is a concept that Freud and Lacan would discuss passionately about until the day’s end if they were still alive today. What do you think their ideas would be, and how would they hold up against each other?

Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. “Distinction.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Rivkin, Julie and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.
Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Rivkin, Julie and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

My Struggle with LinkedIn and its Classism

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While I admit that I have a LinkedIn account, I am not proud of it. Really, what is a teenager meant to do on LinkedIn? My membership right now cannot be anything but pretentious. I am still in college, so I am not in the best position to take advantage of the social network’s business relationship-building capabilities. However, my dad has urged me to start taking it seriously, and for the sake of writing this blog post, I made a new account. I am opening myself up to a whole new world of networking and potential connections. I am, for all intents and purposes, joining a new interpretive community.

In this interpretive community, the one trait that unites us all is our interest in the job market. We are all either seeking exposure to potential employers or recruiting new employees. I cannot find another purpose for LinkedIn; it definitely cannot entertain like Facebook or Twitter. I want to find my own place within this interpretive community, as we all seek to express different experiences and areas of expertise with each other in the hope of establishing efficient, effective business relationships. But where is my place in such a system? I have only completed one year of college, so I have barely any knowledge worthy of sharing with individuals I would one day like to work with. So, while I am a member of this interpretive community, I cannot really contribute. At this stage, I am mostly just reading and observing. According to Fish, that means I currently barely qualify for membership in this, or any, interpretive community: “Interpretive communities are made up of those who share interpretive strategies not for reading… but for writing texts” (Fish 219). In this case, let us consider “writing texts” as seeking and messaging potential new employers or employees.

I am still looking forward to the day I can leave behind Facebook and spend more time on LinkedIn (although I hope it is not for the sake of frustratingly searching for jobs and potential connections). Stanley Fish says that “individuals move from one [interpretive community] to another”, and it is my belief that I will become more of a LinkedIn person than a Facebook person (which I certainly am now) (Fish 220). As I grow and become more mature, I predict that I will start using Facebook less and become a more job-oriented person as I embrace a profession and do my best to earn a respectable living. I will become a busier person; I will have less time to keep up with ALS Ice Bucket Challenge videos, vacation photos and humorous statuses. Instead, I will be using Facebook to keep in touch with old friends more exclusively. It is only inevitable  that I will be transitioning from one interpretive community to another one.

Bourdieu, meanwhile, speaks of “the division between the different fractions competing for dominance in the name of different principles” (Bourdieu 240). In other words, he is referring to classism; it is rampant on LinkedIn. There are all sorts of individuals on the social network, and I suspect that Ivy League graduates are more likely to be suggested to each other as potential ‘connections’ (leaving community college graduates, for example, out of the loop). Perhaps most obviously, LinkedIn asks each of its new users to list their education and work experience. How would this make a high school drop-out with only entry-level work experience feel? Already, they are disheartened (and perhaps disadvantaged) by LinkedIn, which I suspect best serves super-qualified job candidates equipped with credentials worth boasting about.

While I would not be surprised to learn that LinkedIn has, indeed, helped a great deal of unemployed individuals find work, it currently strikes me as being the most beneficial and rewarding for those who have been privileged and lucky enough to afford private college educations and a handful of impressive jobs already. It strikes me as a great separator of what Bourdieu calls “bellatores (warriors) and oratores (scholars)” (Bourdieu 240). That is, the differences in its users’ traits are made starkly clear, creating an unofficial hierarchy.

I hope that when it comes to the time that I should start taking LinkedIn more seriously, I will have plenty of qualifications ready to list, for the sake of avoiding embarrassment and locating the best possible connections. My sympathy remains for those who may not be so lucky.

Works Cited

Bourdieu, Pierre. “Distinction.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Rivkin, Julie and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

Fish, Stanley. “Interpretive Communities.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Rivkin, Julie and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.