Re: M.I.A. - Terrorist Chic
Terrorist chic is the reconfiguration of terrorist iconography and aesthetics into commodities for consumption. It is becoming increasingly pervasive from the hooded sweatshirts of Anticon to the reappropriation of Hamas' kaffiyehs by hip hop's fashion elite. My aim with this essay is to challenge the idea that terrorist chic always operates to transform terrorist symbols and narratives into empty signifiers for consumption, through an analysis of the pop star MIA. Born Mathangi 'Maya' Aulpragasam, MIA is a recording artist who spent her early life in Sri Lanka before the ethnic conflict forced her family to move to London as a refugee. Her father was an educated, militant Tamil but resisted joining the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Her music is a mash up of various cultural styles, often combining the sounds of world music with a contemporary Western electronic dance aesthetic. Her music and visual art show sympathy for the plight of the oppressed and disenfranchised and, most controversially, those who are stigmatised as terrorists. In the first section of this essay, I will argue that MIA's terrorist chic is a legitimate strategy for engendering a revolutionary politics from within commodity culture. In the second section, I will argue that MIA deterritorialises her own terrorist body and in doing so, transgresses the cultural/regional/political borders that prevent radical becomings. I will be discussing MIA as a machine in the Guattarian/Deleuzian sense. MIA as a machine is a cultural assemblage, the consumption of which brings MIA into the process of productivity production even as exterior elements define what the MIA machine is (Guattari, 1995, 37).
Terrorist chic / Becoming terrorist
Much of the discourse surrounding the appropriation of imagery attributable to radical political movements revolves around Marx's concept of commodity fetishism, the idea that in the production of commodities, the object of commodification is ascribed an exchange-value that obscures its use-value (Marx, 1867, 44-45; Tetzlaff, 1993, 248;). For example, Samantha Edussuriya has expressed concern that though MIA utilises iconography referring to the struggles of the Tamil Tigers, any political reading of this iconography is 'undercut by the gimmicky enthusiasm invested in these symbols'. Underlying such arguments is the idea that consumers' prehension of terrorist iconography is relegated to a superficial engagement as soon as it enters into the realm of terrorist chic and is co-opted by the corporate media. The problem arising from the Marxist-based position is that it fails to take into account how patterns of consumption have changed. The consumption of a commodity such as MIA is accompanied by magazines, video clips and, of particular contemporary importance, Internet blogs that all inform the commodity's production of subjectivity. MIA should be understood in terms of Deleuze's concept of the event (Deleuze, 1988, 18-25; link) as a commodity whose meaning is produced through the consumer's prehension of elements received in multiple media platforms.
Representations of MIA in the media consistently align the politics of resistance struggles with her identity. In the video clip for her single, Galang, MIA performs her song in front of Day-Glo coloured graffiti images of armoured tanks, tigers and bombs. The tigers are a reference to MIA's ties to the Tamil Tigers through her activist/militant father. This political link is cited by nearly every review of MIA's albums. Josh Timmerman of Stylus Magazine called her a 'political dissident' while Robert Christgau of Rolling Stone describe how MIA's '[s]tar access enables a woman who grew up an impoverished refugee to observe the outcomes of similar histories in immigrant and minority communities worldwide' (link). On a pure sonic level, MIA's music evokes global conflict. On Kala, for example, the sounds of Bollywood musicals (on 'Jimmy') collide with didgeridoos and youthful Australian indigenous rappers (on 'Mango Pickle Down River') along with the jolting sound of machine guns as percussion (on 'Paper Planes'). MIA in interviews usually calls attention to her politics. In a typical interview on Pitchfork, MIA stated that..
politics is the first thing that defines who I am. It's like, 'You're just The Other, you're this thing. You have evil thoughts about the world.' When I watch President Bush on the telly going, we need to fight the axis of evil and kill these terrorists by all means necessary, I just go, 'Shit, poor Dad.''¦ They've made a cartoon character out of a terrorist. It's so ironic that I'm here because the front of this week's Newsweek is exactly what I was singing about on 'Sunshowers'.
The concrescence of these elements in the consumer results in a prehension of the MIA event that is inextricable from a politics that problematises the rationalisation of global conflicts using reductionist terms such as 'terrorism'. The political component of MIA is an eternal Object as references to real conflict are made consistently throughout her media representations and thus serves as consumers' dominant ingression into the MIA event.
It is worth noting that this media savvy mode of consumption is in no way universal but rather singular and subjective. A Deleuzian conception of the MIA event must also take into account those whose consumption of MIA extends to merely hearing her song in a club and reacting to the beats. The government and media industry have even intervened in an effort to curb prehension of MIA's terrorist-humanising narratives with MIA being denied a working visa to the United States when recording Kala and MTV refusing to play the single Sunshowers. However, these interventions have been reported in the media and actually worked to strengthen the eternal Object that is MIA's politics
But even if MIA's terrorist chic does not empty the iconography she engages of the political history in which it was originally couched, some might argue that the consumer's engagement with the commodity's politics is merely superficial. Karen Bettez Halnon argues that the trend of consuming commodities that adopt an aesthetic of poverty is a 'rationally organized type of class vacationing' that controls the spectre of the underclass by treating it as a tourist site to be 'symbolically consumed as so many safely objectified and dehumanized commodities' (2002, 513). Similarly, it could be argued that MIA's terrorist chic merely engenders a desire to engage in a terrorist on a superficial, transitory and touristic sense in order to allay the fear of real terrorism.
However, it is reductive to describe consumers of MIA as engaging in terrorist chic because they fear terrorism. Guattari and Deleuze wrote that 'the social field is immediately invested by desire' (1983, 29) and that (1983, 31)
[a]rt often takes advantage of'¦ desiring-machines by creating veritable group fantasies in which desire-production is used to short-circuit social production'¦ by introducing an element of dysfunction.
The MIA-machine engages an aesthetic of dysfunction as part of her terrorist chic. This is evident in the patchwork style of her cover-sleeves or in the intentionally clumsy special effects in her videoclip with 'Boys' whose pixelated decorations spill off the screen. As Manish and abhi from Sepia Mutiny point out, MIA's appeal is inseparable from her rebellious politics. The consumption of MIA involves plugging one's self into a machine/commodity that produces desire for political change and rebellion. It involves a becoming-terrorist.
MIA is concerned with the politics of naming in global conflicts, particularly with the label of 'terrorism'. MIA's reconfiguration of terrorist aesthetics enacts a deterritorialisation on discourses of resistance struggles. I am using Guattari and Deleuze's concept of 'deterritorialisation' (1987, 508-510) by which is meant 'the movement by which 'one' leaves the territory' (508).
The role of territorialising political groups through the label of 'terrorist' is important. Austin T. Turk (2004, 271-272) writes that terrorism is an interpretation of events and...
these interpretations are not unbiased attempts to depict truth but rather conscious efforts to manipulate perceptions to promote certain interests at the expense of others. When people and events come to be regularly described in public as terrorists and terrorism, some governmental or other entity is succeeding in a war of words in which the opponent is promoting alternative designations[.]
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is an organisation whose aim is the independence of the Eelam Tamil Nation from Sri Lanka (link). Yet the conflict between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government has been framed with two narratives. The LTTE's narrative is one of an 'armed struggle for political independence as a response to institutionalised racism and violence against the Tamil people by a Sinhala-dominated state' (Nadarajah & Sriskandarajah, 2005, 88) while the government's narrative is one of a violent terrorist group challenging the state's 'authority, unity and territorial integrity' (Nadarajah & Sriskandarajah, 2005, 88). It is the state's narrative that has largely been accepted by other nations such as India, the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Canada and Australia (link). As Nadarajah and Sriskandarajah argue, the state's labelling of the LTTE as 'terrorists' has supported policies of strong military action and non-engagement with the LTTE's political demands and undermined negotiation processes (2005, 94-98). What is evident then is that the Sri Lankan state has undertaken a conceptual territorialisation of the LTTE's political aspirations through the discourse of terrorism in order to delegitimize their efforts of independence/liberation.
MIA's terrorist body is deterritorialised through the sonic assemblage of cross-cultural styles in her music. Throughout the album of Arular, favela trumpets on 'Bucky Done Gone' clash with London slang on 'Galang' and electronic beats on 'Pull Up the People'. On Kala, the world musics that are sampled are even more diverse with Bollywood samples in 'Bamboo Banger' and didgeridoo samples in 'Mango Pickle Down River' sitting next to the disco sounds of 'Jimmy' and the African drumming of 'Bird Flu'. MIA's globalised sounds therefore deterritorialise her by breaking down regional/cultural/political boundaries and identifying her as both internal and external to various nation-states. This enacts a deterritorialisation on the moralistic and cultural binaries that form terrorist discourse as perfectly embodied by President Bush's proclamation that terrorists 'hate our way of life'
The lyrics of MIA deterritorialise the terrorist body, not by simply providing an alternative narrative of freedom struggle but by deterritorialising the signifiers of terrorism onto a range of machinic affects that do not engage the logic of fear, paranoia and stigmatization that terrorist discourse usually does. Guattari writes in Chaosmosis that a 'continual emergence of sense and effects' is an essential dimension of machinic autopoiesis (1995, 37). This is relevant to MIA's reconfiguration of terrorist discourse. In 'Sunshowers', MIA narrates the story of a man killed by the authorities for associating with Muslims. She sings 'From Congo to Columbo / Can't stereotype my thing yo' and then 'You wanna win a war? / Like PLO I don't surrendo' thus territorialising herself within terrorist framework. The chorus, however, deterritorialises that framework: 'Sunshowers that fall on my troubles / Are over you, my baby / And some showers I'll be aiming at you / Cause I'm watching you my baby'. Terrorist bombs mutate into Sunshowers. Anti-terrorist authorities mutate into 'my baby'. This invocation of RnB clichÃ©s introduces a range of complex desire productions in the interactions between terrorist and authority/capitalism. The terrorist body is then reterritorialised onto capitalist desiring machines when MIA sings 'He got Colgate on his teeth / And Reebok classics on his feet / At a factory he does Nike / And the he helps the family'. On 'Bird Flu', MIA further complicates things by deterritorialising capitalism from its freedom-through-consumption rhetoric, singing, 'A protocol to be a Rocawear model?/ It didn't really drop that way / My legs hit the hurdle / A protocol to be a rocker on a label? / It didn't really drop that way our beats were too evil'.
MIA imbues her videoclips with third world imagery but presents it using MTV editing techniques. In the videoclip for 'Sunshowers', MIA performs the song in a Sri Lankan jungle with a group of women that might be read as a group of insurgents, given the discourse surrounding MIA but this is never explicitly known. The jungle setting and MIA's traditional outfit at first suggest a self-reterritorialisation onto fairly stereotypical images of Tamil ethnicity. The same may be said of the videoclip for 'Bird Flu' set in a poor Sri Lankan town. However, the rapid editing and the display of dancing bodies deterritorialises MIA's ethnic, terrorist body into a sexualised MTV aesthetic. The terrorist body becomes a site of desire, drawing the consumer into another community and becoming complicit with them at the same time that the terrorist becomes complicit in commodity culture.
Some of MIA's critics have accused her of homogenizing and essentialising all resistance movements into a generic terrorist label. For example, the Columbia Spectator published an opinion article that argued that...
For her, there is an identifiable space outside of the metropolitan West, but it is largely undifferentiated and basically exotic. It is, in a word, a 'general' space. The lyrics of 'Bamboo Banga' are proof enough: Ghana, India, Sri Lanka, and Burma exist not as unique places and people, but simply as abstract notions of foreign places. M.I.A. considers them together, with the word linking them being, unfortunately, bamboo.
The problem is that even separating the Orient into unique places and people will rest upon a 'homogenizing impulse' (West, 1990, 27). Hence, MIA never fully endorses the LTTE even as she calls attention to their plight. Hence, MIA emphasises her Tamil background even as she constructs her identity out of other cultures. Deleuze and Guattari talk about the opposition between smooth space and striated space (1980, 481):
In striated space, one closes off a surface and 'allocates' it according to determinate intervals, assigned breaks; in the smooth, one 'distributes' oneself in an open space, according to frequencies and in the course of one's crossing[.]
The MIA machine produces a perception of the world that is striated to the extent that she acknowledges specificity; that the experience of Aboriginal kids in 'Mango Pickle Down River' (There's only one ocean that got fish left / One day we'll have to be a really good chef / And I don't mean us in the bush making meth) is different from that of African immigrants in the UK in 'Hussel' (I'm illegal I don't pay tax tax / EMA yes I'm claiming that / Police I try to avoid them / They catch me hustling they say deport them). But MIA's terrorist body also exists in a smooth space as she exists across cultural boundaries. She draws on the politics of various political movements such as the PLO and the LTTE but MIA is not bound by regionally essentialist identities.
I have argued in this essay that MIA's reconfiguration of terrorist narratives and iconography in her sonic and visual style engenders a becoming-terrorist that is made possible by a media matrix that ensures that the political/historical content of her aesthetic is prehended by the MIA-event. The use of an MTV aesthetic to sexualise the terrorist body radically engages a desire for her political project. Secondly, I have specified her political project as a deterritorialisation of the terrorist body. Rather than advance an alternative narrative of 'freedom struggle' onto existing conflicts, MIA opens alternative pathways to understanding what a terrorist is. MIA's success as a political artist is her combination of ideological vagueness and historical specificity. We must hope that she can maintain this balancing act, operating within the sexualised regimes of commodity culture to enlighten her consumers about the oppressed peoples she sympathises without either letting sex subsume her message or letting herself be marginalised within an essentialist identity.
KEY TEXTS CITED:
Deleuze, Gilles (1988), '˜What Is an Event?', in The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, Tom Conley (trans.). London The Athlone Press, 1993: 76-82.
Guattari, Felix and Deleuze, Gilles (1983), Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Minneapolis: University Press, (1st pub 1972), chapter 1: 1-50.
Guattari, Felix and Deleuze, Gilles (1987 ), '˜1440: The Smooth and the Striated', A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, B. Massumi (trans.). London and New York: Continuum, 474-500.
Guattari, Felix and Deleuze, Gilles (1987 ), '˜Deterritorialization', A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, B. Massumi (trans.). London and New York: Continuum, 508-510.
Guattari, Felix (1995), '˜Machinic Heterogenesis', Chaosmosis: an ethico-aesthetic paradigm, P. Bains and J. Pefanis (trans.). Sydney: Power Publications: 33-59.
Halnon, Karen Bettez (2002), '˜Poor Chic: The Rational Consumption of Poverty', Current Sociology, July 2002, Vol. 50(4): 501-516.
Mark, Karl (1867), '˜The Fetishism of the Commodity and the Secret Thereof', [Das Kapital] Karl Marx Capital: An Abridged Edition, ed. David McLellan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999: 42-50, 491.
Nadarajah, Suthaharan and Sriskandarajah, Dhananjayan (2005), '˜Liberation struggle or terrorism? The poltics of naming the LTTE' Third World Quarterly, Vol. 26(1): 87-100.
Tetzlaff, D. (1993), '˜Metatextual Girl' in The Madonna Connection: Representational Politics, Subcultural Identities, and Cultural Theory, ed. C. Schwichtenberg. St. Leonards, Sydney: Allen & Unwin: 239-263.
Turk, Austin T. (2004), '˜Sociology of Terrorism', Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 30: 271-286.
West, Cornel (1990), '˜The New Cultural Politics of Difference', in Russell Ferguson et al (eds.).
Re: M.I.A. - Terrorist Chic
On terrorist chic'¦
Terrorists, freedom fighters, resistance groups whatever'¦
These groups tend to have an identifiable aesthetic of their own which is part of their political strategy.
Let's have a look at how radical aesthetics and images move through culture'¦
From thecoolhunter '¦.
'Terror fashion' is about to invade cities. The new French brand Anticon is launching a new concept of hooded sweatshirts. Graffiti artists, people with acne, snowboarders or simply superheroes would certainly be into them. To order your sweatshirt, you'll have to wait a few more weeks but we wanted you to be first in the know. Definitely an eye-catching fashion statement!
Note there is also excerpts from Bret Easton Ellis' Glamorama in the readings. Which might be useful in someway. Here's an excerpt of a review from the NY Times:
It's awfully hard to make the leap Mr. Ellis wants us to make from the world of beautiful narcissists to the world of coldblooded killers: there are, after all, differences between models, however self-absorbed, and bloodthirsty serial killers; there are differences between fashion-obsessed hipsters and Hitler, whom Mr. Ellis has the nerve to quote in an epigraph to this novel. ('You make a mistake if you see what we do as merely political.')
It is equally hard to understand why Mr. Ellis wants to spend so much time (in this novel and every other book he's written) chronicling a world he seems to recognize as shallow, mercenary, cynical and meaningless '” a world he glamorizes as much he debunks. This time around, it results in characters whom the reader and Mr. Ellis have nothing but contempt for, and a novel, as Victor might say, that 'equals yuck.'
Urban Outfitters called their kaffiyeh an 'anti-war scarf.' Delias.com gives it the Orwellian name: 'Peace Scarf.'
From The Black Snob:
Usually accentuated with some sort of bling, rocked over expensive urban couture. It was outlaw fashion. Terror chic. And it made sense that the coolest of the cool would be attracted to a look sported by rebel fighters living along the Pakistani border with Afghanistan and in the besieged territory of Gaza.
Hot with every paramilitary, militia-loving Zapatista-uprising or FARC, PKK, PLO bomb maker, the look is the no. 1 accessory for all terrorists and revolutionaries from Hamas to Hezbollah. The scarf has been hot since Fidel Castro took Cuba from Batista and the upper class. A mainstay since the Viet Cong made it hot in the Mekong Delta. Basically, if you're a rebel with a murderous cause, you can't live without your scarf. Not only can it serve as a mask, but it can keep the sweat off your face, the bugs out of your mouth (if you're in the jungles of Colombia) and keep the sand out of your nose (if you're in Saudi Arabia).
It's a must have.
Of course the Madhi Army and the original gangsta of all radical jihadis, Osama bin Laden, aren't rocking Kanye's Louis Vuitton model. Mostly because they 1) despise our narcissistic, hedonistic capitalism, mixed with our imperial desires for global domination and 2) are not going to pay $100 for a scarf. You know they probably get those two-for-one at the flea market.
And Kanye has to take it even more uptown. He's not going to any jungle or desert anywhere to kill anything. He's from Chicago, USA. He's not interested in getting his ass blown up. Rather than fight the man, he just adds a pair of matching gloves and color-coordinated custom kicks to pimp that look out a little more.
War urban chic isn't a new idea. During the first Gulf War in 1991 desert camouflage was all the rage among the hip hop set. While shouting out 'Peace in the Middle East' lazily at the end of a track there were the tell-tale military style boots, desert cami baggy cargo pants and a crisp white T-shirt with a platinum chain dangling.
How does Mingo's shirt represent 'a Muslim looking for a kind of salvation because his family is poor'?
Carl Williamson, graphix designer
Oh sweet Jesus. Do you remember that annoying girl on America's Next Top Model who said she was from a gated community in the Bronx? I have a hunch this is her brother.
Damali Campbell, soon to be grad school drop-out
Because punishing Americans by flooding our stores with dumb shit like that is cheaper than Jihad.
Now some stuff on M.I.A. from City Pages:
So M.I.A.'s website filled me with revulsion, rage, and probably a little envy. Most of her artwork appropriates terrorist iconography-sometimes incongruously. For example, the airlines that border her self-designed album cover are a nod to that other terrorist group. Planes have nothing to do with the LTTE, or their tactics, but sweeping it all together seems to connect to the terrorists are people too view she espouses. It's galling to see LTTE tiger symbols on candy-colored backgrounds. People died because of this! And she makes it'¦cute? But she is here, in the West, and so am I. And she's taken her Sri Lankan-ness and pushed it to the fore, something I've been too timid to even try.
I love 'Galang'; it's my favorite track, and the 'yah yah heyyy, oey oey oh oh oh' near the end reminds me vaguely of being at the Galle Face beach, listening to the fishermen's chants as they hauled in the day's catch. But I saw the video the other day, and as she's dancing all these stenciled pink bombs fell in Pop Art sheets behind her. Does she know what she's doing? I mean, this stuff is real. She gives her images power and meaning by connecting her work directly to her father (the album title is supposed to be his 'rebel code name' for shit's sake). Her music, for all its nonsensicality, is so'¦smart. It's fun. It's interesting. She's not concerned about proving her identity to one group, and instead searches for other dislocated people, displaced sounds. But, at least for me, what she's trying to say (oppressed people turn to violence for a reason) gets undercut by the gimmicky enthusiasm invested in these symbols.
Finally an interesting interview with Bruce La Bruce director of 2004's The Raspberry Reich (thanks machinepeople for the heads up), a film critiquing terrorist chic, from kamera.co.uk:
Why did you decide to tackle the Radical Chic theme? When did you develop an interest in that?
Radical Chic has always interested me, ever since I took a course in university called Protest Literature and Movements. Part of the appeal of all the early equal rights movements - feminist, gay, black - was that they understood the importance of adopting a militant image and rhetoric that was both intriguing to the media and also politically charged, alluding to the kind of Marxist-based guerilla insurgencies that were happening in Latin America in that era. But the problem with working within the capitalist system by making these radical political movements alluring and even sexy is that it plays into what Marx called commodity fetishism.
Eventually each of these movements was subsumed and co-opted by the corporate media to the point where you have someone like Madonna manufacturing reputedly radical images of guerilla insurgency to sell millions of records, and the image of Che Guevera becoming a capitalist, sexual icon in the order of James Dean or Marilyn Monroe. The political substance of these radical images has been excised, resulting in a set of empty signifiers which can only be seen as an aspect of fashion or style.
I think that's the biggest problem facing any new radical political movement today, is to figure out how to avoid the co-optive powers of the media and make a sexy insurgency without succumbing to the merely cosmetic realm of radical chic. Nonetheless, you can now order the new Raspberry Reich t-shirts at www.brucelabruce.com featuring six sexy slogans: The Revolution is My Boyfriend, Join The Homosexual Intifada, Put Your Marxism Where Your Mouth Is, Heterosexuality Is The Opiate Of The Masses, Madonna Is Counterrevolutionary, and Corporate Hip Hop Is Counterrevolutionary.
source: written by Brad Nguyen at