What other’s erotic fantasies taught me

Pictures of explosions always work

Pictures of explosions always work

Trash is the most popular form of art. Be it the kind of soap opera that turned Turkey into the world’s second biggest exporter of TV series, „Fifty Shades of Grey“ or the musical „Cats“. Literature studies rarely discusses what it considers simple fiction, while educated folks often only admit consuming it with a busted giggle. Think of that time when your friends discovered that cheesy pop rock album as they unexpectedly showed up in your room when you were fourteen. Yeah, you know what I’m talking about, don’t you?

But besides academics raising their noses into the stratosphere, I argue that trash is indeed well worth analysing.

By definition, trash itself isn’t meant to be deep. „The Avengers“ to me and „Doctor Hillbilly Inbred“ to my grandma are like fast food. They go in easily, you know what to expect and your brain gets flooded with pheromones in realtime while you unravel the plot and the motifs as easily as my cat unravels shoe laces.

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This is a big one.

Hey, did I just refer to the 225 million dollar blockbuster „The Avengers“ as trash? It kinda is. There is no hidden subplot, barely necessity or appeal to approach on a meta level, little room for interpretation in the motifs of the characters, who themselves could have been designed by a ten year old, etc. The essential difference between „The Avengers“ today, this (sadly fake) 1978 version in which the Avengers fight against Kiss, as well as this all too real „Captain America“ from 1966 is, well, a 225 million dollar budget. The producers didn’t intend to make you reflect the world around you. What they wanted to create – and masterfully did so – was a spectacle for the senses with well-choreographised action scenes and characters easy to project on.

Still not content with „The Avengers“ being trash because it’s somewhat state of the art in mainstream film making? Well, 36 years ago, so was the first „Mad Max“.

The other day, I saw „The Phantom of the Opera“ here in Istanbul. It was a magnificient production. The chandelier rose to the ceiling right in front of us, the music blasted our thoughts, the phantom’s dungeon was as creepy and mystical as ever anticipated. Yet, in the end, the plot is based upon a 1909’s gothic novel, one of hundreds of spooky stories written around the turn of the century. Given the orchestar, the stage set, the audience’s implicitly learned expectations and the touch of Andrew Lloyd Weber, any other gothic novel of that era could have been just as tantalising. But from the myriad of shockers written en masse in the fading Victorian Age, this one and Bram Stoker’s „Dracula“ made it into the canon. Comparably, from the myriad of bad teen stories haunting the internet, the „Twilight“ series made it to 120 million sales.

Coincidence, one might say. Alas, scholars of the humanities don’t believe in coincidence on this scale.

I believe that tacky works of literature (e.g. gothic novels) can, intentionally or not, capture the stereotypes and expectations we are inclined to have due to our similar socialisation. If done well, our mental categorisations are depicted in the characters of the work at a level we don’t consciously comprehend.

Take, for instance, „Dracula“. A flamboyant foreign gentleman seduces the young girls of the British upper class, violating established values. That’s the core of the story, plus special effects like bats and immortality.

The resulting death of the young women by their guardian’s hands can be understood in the physical way, but also as a social death. To prevent further damage to the family renomation, represented in the virtue of its females, the good Victorian Brits see no other option but to exile the girls. In „Dracula“, this ends bad for the antagonist outcast as well. In „The Phantom of the Opera“, a few years of rapidly advancing social awareness later and originally set in comparably libertine France, the culprit is ultimately given a chance to understand his wrong-doing. He chooses to let go of the traditional healthy-brave-rich-young-male/healthy-beautiful-young-female couple.

Is „Dracula“ a sexist and racist piece that promotes violence against fringe groups? It’s definitely a story that processes the middle-class fears and fantasies not only of the time of its creation. And it’s not just about female fantasies concerning rich men longing for them in candle-lit ballrooms, but as much about male dreams to enslave young girls by sexual allure.

Bam!

Bam!

To me, understanding how trashy stories can make it to huge popularity means to understand human desires, for example for simplicity. Since personification, in the case above of sexual desire, works well to make vague abstractions comprehensible to us, can’t this be applied to fields outside of literature studies?

Sure can. Entities like „the devil“ or „demons“, known to almost any culture, are a combine of all the things we collectively consider sinful. Only that if we were actually to define what is sinful, no society would ever reach full consensus. Creating a something that has a face and limbs helps us to comprehend the concept of „evil“, while at the same time eluding costly discussions on what exactly is „evil“. Double-kill!

Media also utilizes our mental imagery. For instance, German newspapers with headlines about Islam will often come up with similar pictures of women in burqas, kalashnikovs, bearded men, etc., inadvertently feeding common pre-judicism. Apparently, US media after the 2001 terror attacks prefered to show those pictures of men saving women from the ruins and the rubble – besides Twin Tower victims having been predominantly male. A dude saving a chick is kind of what we expect, and so it’s delivered. Our subconscious is used to convey messages to us – a picture painting a thousand words. To guarantee widespread understanding of the symbolicism of the image, equally widespread stereotypes are drawn upon (male hero, female victim).

Confirmation of our immanent views is merely a side effect in normal media, as opposed to if we’d go into propaganda. I find propaganda interesting, actually, because I enjoy unravelling all those cautiously construced manipulations and ponder how they make use of the audiences mental imagery.

Revolutions usually have a face connected to them, too. Lajos Kossuth is the tragic hero of the Hungarian revolt of 1848. If I could describe with a few words what he symbolises, his name would not need to be remembered – plus, I don’t even know it. But you surely have heroes in your own country’s history, and they certainly are – to an extent – constructed, idealised, glorified.

If you are Turkish, you might think of Atatürk, founder of modern Turkey. Since Mustafa Kemal symbolises more than Mustafa Kemal, criticising him has always been interpreted as being critical of all he respresents in the eyes of the Turkish public. What exactly that is will be vaguely the same for most Turks, but differ in more or less important fringe aspects of Turkish identity (is drinking alcohol part of Turkish culture?). A situation which causes trouble till today.

By why do we even bother so much about personal representation? Generallys speaking, it’s a bit like in learning a foreign language; first, you learn to talk about people, then come places. By the time you discuss System Theory in a foreign language, you better have acquired yourself some C2 skills.

Talking (and thinking) about people needs the least abstraction, next to places. Besides other reasons, perhaps that’s why most European societies formed monarchies for very long – until an increasingly educated public demanded nationalism in the 19th century, swearing allegiance to geography and community rather than individuals. Doing so required a much higher capability of abstraction, and it requires an even higher capability of abstraction to identify with ideas, such as the complexity that is a pluralistic democracy. Well, technically, Stalinist Russia called itself a communist society, thus offering an ideology as the common denominator. But obviously, it succumbed to a semi-global Stalin cult. It’s an attack on two fronts, if you opt to see it like that.

So, next week, I will go to the movies and watch the newest „Mad Max“. And while the normal audience will gaze at the explosions and be stunned by the speed and force of the furious fortress-phalluses, I will sit there, with my finger on the chin, thinking some uppity bourgeois crap like „I wonder if the antagonist girl misses an arm because the viewer is assumed to associate bodily defects in women with viciousness“. Well, and I will also gaze at the explosions.explosion4

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Racists from a distance

In recent decades, there has been a lot of progress in my home country. It’s not that long ago that homosexuality was criminalised (till 1971) but rape within marriage wasn’t (till 1997), that the term “Einwanderungsland” – “country of immigration” – was seen as treachery (till the early 90s) and that children of immigrants had to fight to be allowed to any but the worst highschools (yesterday more so than today). Even though Germany is still not a liberal utopia, many of these issues are turning to the good. But in the past weeks, we have been reminded that hatred and xenophobia, though they lost much of their power, will always be lurking around.

Is that the Santa Claus chocolate I know from my childhood in Turkey?

Is that the Santa Claus chocolate I know from my childhood in Turkey?

Refugee homes have been attacked in several cities, but that’s not what made it into big media.

In Dresden, eastern Germany, thousands of people gathered for a protest against what they call the “Islamisation of the Occident”. I’ll make it quick; obviously, Europe isn’t being islamised. There’s a loose alliance called “pegida” (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident – Germans are the only people who call themselves “patriotic Europeans”). Pegida, similar to the people recently voting in favour of the new German right-wing party AfD, think that they represent a silent majority, that all proper Germans share their fears, that a clique of elitists is pushing forward change for their own obscure reasons and that they’re really not racist, like really, for shit not. If you don’t trust my words, you can easily read up on the issue in those two articles, one by BBC, the other one by the English version of Deutsche Welle. If you do trust me, just assume that all the protesters demand is either already established (“criminal asylum seekers should be banished”), is based on phantasms (“Western media are conspiring against the little guy on the street”) or both (“they’re stealing Christmas”).

It can be deduced that the official demands cannot be the core reasons why so many individuals are being driven on the street. Those, I already hinted, are fear of change, fear of being left behind, fear of the unknown. Dresden lies in an area of Germany where there are the fewest foreigners, the least employment, the worst perspectives for the youth and, as a result, the most neo-Nazis. Not surprisingly, supporters of pegida barely differ between rather distinguished groups like Turks and Moslems or the PKK and Al-Qaida.

Again, Santa Claus. Or is it the Turkish original, Saxa Claus?

Again, Santa Claus. Or is it the Turkish original, Saxa Claus?

It can also be deduced that these groups are not representing the majority. The political parties with the by far closest ties to the movement, AfD, currently has 6% in all-German polls. Around 75% of the members of the nearest conservative party, the leading CDU/CSU, don’t want their party and the AfD to collaborate. Furthermore, most media articles focus on the pegida protests, even though counter protests are usually the same size, if not considerably bigger, depending on the city. The stronghold of pegida, Dresden, saw 9000 individuals protesting for more tolerance a few days ago, though the number shrank to 5000 while pegida grew from 10,000 to 15,000 in a couple of days. That’s less than 3% of Dresdens population, with people from other areas travelling there in order to join the protests (“slowpoke tourism”). Ironically, here we have a case in which mainstream media allegedly helped our sulking little racists.

But what is actually bizarre about this new right movement, incorporated both in the Dresden protests as well as the AfD, is the strong and seemingly disconnect attraction towards Russia.

Everyone knows that there are many people of Turkish origin living in Germany, but not so many know that there’s also a considerable Russo-German community. It mainly consists out of descendants of German settlers migrating to eastern Europe in the 19th century, who used and use their opportunity to “return” to the prosperous and liberal West, mainly since the crumbling of the iron curtain. In the beginning, most of those “Spätaussiedler” (untranslatable, literally “late repatriate”) spoke little or no German. I have lots of friends who were born in Russia and didn’t speak a word of German until their early childhood, but nowadays have no knowledge of their original mother tongue left. Often, there is nothing about them, not even the name, that would let you assume you’re talking to someone born on the eastern side of the Oder river. In this light, it doesn’t seem so very surprising that Russian media corporations would establish German-language branches, such as Russia Today did recently with their German offspin Russia Today Deutsch. Except, of course, that RT Deutsch cares about this technically interesting group as much as a fluke fisher cares about trouts.

In the middle of Kadiköy, this. Is Western culture taking over Turkey?

In the middle of Kadiköy, this. Is Western culture taking over Turkey?

The in-your-face propaganda incorporated by RT Deutsch is funny. I’m a huge fan of well-crafted propaganda, but RT Deutsch – additionally to being bad journalism – is “The Eternal Jew” compared to the original website’s masterpiece “The Battleship Potemkin”. In other words; RT.com interviews high end Russian politicians and experts, gathers and uses sources, is neutral in the headlines and balanced in most individual articles. It takes quite a bit to understand the sophisticated machination of the kremlin behind it. If you take, for instance, BBC or German state-controlled heute.de and count how many pieces at a given day are directly critical of their respective governments, you will get quite a number. For heute.de, if you count it in the very moment you’re reading this, I assume you’ll find around five articles which in the headlines alone point out what’s wrong with our country (that was before they changed their layout to the worse, it’s probably less now because there are fewer headlines visible altogether). The German army being badly equipped, a minister of a ruling coalition party being an alleged pedophile, etc. You would never see this on RT. If anything, opposition members would be alleged pedophiles.

Now take a look at RT Deutsch. The first thing that’s drastically different is the layout. RT.com resembles BBC or heute.de before their stupid change in design. RT Deutsch, however, features less articles, bigger writing (tabloid-ish altogether) and biased headlines wherever you bother to read. Rhetoric questions, partially answered in just the same header, are omnipresent. Only after a minute of reading you’ll have understood the narrative of RT Deutsch. America and the EU are the bad guys, the NATO is power-hungry and a bunch of warmongers, everybody is dependant on Russia, etc. Take a guess on their stance on the Ukraine. Also recently launched RT UK is not nearly as, well, dumb as RT Deutsch.

Why can two versions of the same website in two languages be so different? RT.com is aimed at an English-speaking, somewhat academic, media-savvy, international readership. Basically me. RT.com was established to convince me of a pro-Russian point of view. RT Deutsch, however, is targeted at people who vote for the AfD, which is another way to say “people who like to think just enough to have an opinion, but not enough to question it”.

Actually, someone in Russia was quite smart here. Somebody noticed that in Germany, there is an emerging community of conservatives that is in strong opposition towards the EU, the USA and what they assume to be the German system. As conservatives kind of thrive on this good-and-evil-mentality, they needed a reactionary counterpart to the complicated west. A tower of strengths against all those things that make them afraid and shatter their worlds. How happily surprised must the Kremlin media advisor have been when he realized that in the heart of Europe, there is a group of people who don’t know so much about Putin, but still really like him. What would have been a more rational choice than to feed them with what they already believe in?

According to some thinkers, the Backlash-effect against social progress is a returning phenomenon. In the USA, there were waves of antifeminism around 1900, in the 1940s and again in the 1970s. The cycle, if it exists, seems to be 30 to 40 years in length. Here in Germany, this is slightly shifted and the 1980s are regarded as a time of conservative backlash against the liberal achievements of the 1960s and 70s. Well, 1984 was thirty years ago and I guess it is again time for slowpokes to catch up.

That's it. I'm founding an organisation to fight the Westernisation of the Orient.

That’s it. I’m founding an organisation to fight the Westernisation of the Orient.

War in Syria and Iraq would be so boring without Western converts

In Istanbul, there’s fear. Fear of an expected apocalyptic earthquake not so much as fear of the recent strokes of genius of ISIL’s propaganda & public relations cracks. A guy with a cheap shirt, an IS media officer, threatened to attack and “liberate” Istanbul unless Turkey abjures from using their power over the waters of the euphrate* to pressurize ISIL in Raqqa. Syrian-based terrorists creating paranoia is not specifically the number one topic in Istanbul’s streets, but it is one more piece of a jigsaw, contributing to what I call the “chain of lame”. Syrians get discriminated against in Turkey because people are afraid they’d take their jobs and blow up shit. Meanwhile, Turks get discriminated against in Germany because people are afraid they’d take their jobs and blow shit up. Meanwhile, Germans get discriminated against in Switzerland because Switzerland ist kind of the top of the food chain when it comes to believing you could do fine without the rest of the world and migration in particular. Chain of lame. Remember it.

I actually think ISIL knows the ways of spreading news about themselves rather well, for example in their usage of social networks (they appear to have a huge amount of zombie twitter accounts, for example). Then again, they have it easy.

After my costume choice at last year's halloween, I will probably never receive a visa for the USA.

After my costume choice at last year’s halloween, I will probably never receive a visa for the USA.

In 2013, I celebrated halloween here in Istanbul. Me and one of my flat mates were the only ones who dressed up, though, she as a witch, and me as an Arab. Whenever someone would ask me why I dressed up as an Arab for halloween as Arabs aren’t specifically scary, I would routinely reply “Arabs aren’t scary? Did you check out the news in the past twelve years?”.

Now, very obviously, the vague social constructs referred to as Arabs and Muslims may be somewhat overlapping, but aren’t nearly the same thing. Just as for example Jews and Israelis aren’t, students and potheads aren’t and Robert Downey Jr. isn’t, in fact, Iron Man. But in all cases, both entities are associated with the same or similar respective stereotypes. And here’s what makes it easy for ISIL to find willing recipients for their propaganda; media and people love talking about radical Muslims. This is now news; I’ve heard a few times that Westerners shit their pants whenever someone mentions Islamists, Sharia etc., but I think it’s not really that. Instead, Westerners just like all humans enjoy to shake their head over the conceived backwardness of others and adjust their collars in blissful ignorance whenever they’re encountering strange cultures. It’s no different in other societies, so I wonder which aspects of Western culture are being exploited in foreign language media to make people feel better. I think it’s sexual freedom in Russian and general decadence in Arab papers, but I can’t read either language, so hell do I know. Anyways; bearded hoodlums with shabby clothing cutting of heads of journalists? Exactly what the Western reader requires to feel superior over barbarian desert dwellers.

What caught my interest though in media coverage of the war in Syria and Iraq was the inflational presence of Western converts (in this case including individuals who converted from a less radical interpretation of Islam to an extremist one) in all sites I’m viewing regularly – which are quite a few. The amount of such converts fighting for ISIL or similar groups is in the low or medium four digits, as part of a faction no-one knows the size of, probably not even ISIL. Besides PR, European converts appear to be used as low file fighters or workers, it seems, but again, the situation is grim when it comes to exact numbers and reliable sources. Luckily, exploring how ISIL works isn’t the idea behind this article.

A survey in Germany showed that most of the converts joining the fight in the Levant are male, young and have experienced failure at some point in their educational carreer. Undoubtedly, questions need to be asked. Why is the youth being radicalised, how were they made feel excluded from their native (i.e. European) socities, how can we prevent this etc. But reading the articles one at a time, it appeard to me as if those issues aren’t the key to the absurdly intense coverage of radicalised youths and ISIL. Instead, I got the impression that many journalists wondered how they could make the crisis in the Middle East more interesting for their respective audiences. You know, religious groups we never heard of slaughtering each other, unprecedented violence, Arab guys with little fashion sense threatening each and everybody, yeah, we got that. A direct link to our everyday lives was desperately needed. What’s closer at hand than brisking up conservative fears of terrorists lurking between us? Our youth, our most precious, being seduced my turban-wearing hate preachers in the midst of our society. That’s what evidently makes people read news. ISIL, apparently, knows this. A rapper originating from Berlin shooting music clips about successful ISIL-campaigns, an Austrian breakaway tweeting about how his scorn against not being including turned him into an ISIL fighting machine. That’s the stuff. And the more this is received in Western media, the more ISIL – just like Al Qaida in the past – can profilate itself as the bane of the Western world, your alternative if you really want to show it to the people who wouldn’t let you participate.

Actually, to harness the awesome power of stereotypes, ISIL should make their executioners eat kebab while beheading people. You know, just so that fat white viewers can relate oriental terrorists to minorities in their home countries even more easily, thus discriminate more and fueling conservative parties embracing in the make-belief danger connected with strange people and cultures and thus spawn more potential fanatics here and there. That’s what I call legit media advice.

Meanwhile, in Istanbul and any placeyou can find to it’s west as well, the events connected to ISIL deepen the dangerous predjudice towards anyone from the Middle East.

Istanbul's new old look after the supposed imminent conquest by radical forces? Probably not.

Istanbul’s new old look after the supposed imminent conquest by radical forces? Probably not.

*Turkey has power over the waters of the euphrate because of a controversial dam upstream from Raqqa and on Turkish soil, not because of Erdogans majestic water bending skills.