Friday, 17 January 2014

Edward Said and Graphic Novels

Part 1: Introduction 

Graphic novels represent a new frontier for cultural critics. Today, the graphic novel has taken its place alongside the action blockbuster and the evening (and morning, and afternoon, and nightly) news, America’s favorite source of education about the Middle East. That is no cause for either simple celebration or lament. Peering through the lens of Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism, this paper will try to see what Americans might be learning from this relatively young medium and what kinds of ideology they might be imbibing. Following a discussion of Frank Miller’s propagandistic oeuvre, the humanistic fairy tale of Craig Thompson’s Habibi, Brian K. Vaughan’s Pride of Baghdad, and Iranian-Western counterpoints Persepolis and Zahra’s Paradise, the paper will briefly point to the potential of a renewed cultural criticism grounded in Lenin’s definition of imperialism as “the highest stage of capitalism,”thus grounding his analysis of Western false consciousness in a material analysis of global political economy.

First, however, the reader will benefit from a short exposition of the key concepts and terminology Said uses in Culture and Imperialism, especially the terms “culture” and “imperialism.” Despite Said’s fondness for complicated syntax and burying the lede, he readily supplies such definitions. For “culture” he provides two definitions: first, he means “practices, like the arts of description, communication, and representation” which are relatively autonomous from social and political forms. In the second sense, culture is “a concept that includes a refining and elevating element, each society’s reservoir of the beset that has been known and thought.”¹ Culture is in this way situated as a source of identity, a structuring of attitudes at both a mass level (first definition) and an elite one (second), a discourse that is supposed to transcend everyday existence and provides narratives for the nations that produce and protect it. In turn, Said believes culture becomes a “protective enclosure” that can stifle criticism as much as promote it.²

Imperialism is defined as “the practice, the theory, and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan center ruling a distant territory,” which is not simply an “act of accumulation and acquisition” since it is “supported and perhaps even impelled by impressive ideological formations.”³ Imperialism  is possessive and constitutive of culture in both the dominating metropolitan center and the occupied territory, with culture driving the immense expansion of European and American domination over land. Land is the crux of the analysis, because in his method geography defines the position of the author involved. His method of reading, known as contrapuntal reading, “must take account of both processes, that of imperialism and that of resistance to it, which can be done by extending our reading of the texts to include what was once forcibly excluded.”⁴

Throughout the text of Culture and Imperialism, Said practices this discipline of reading on the margins, searching for and teasing out the critical psychological and cultural pillars of imperialism latent even in anti-imperialist texts. In the present study, the subjects of criticism are far newer, emerging in an environment already aware of Said, and there is already within these texts an awareness of the tropes they are using and the position of the narrative subjects as residents of either dominant or dominated regions of the world. This paper will therefore not be “including what was forcibly excluded,” but rather engaging texts—and images—which are in some way cognizant of the colonial and imperial legacies in which they reside. The current study will employ this contrapuntal method by taking into account books authored from both American and Middle Eastern perspectives, searching for the way ideologies of imperialism are propagated and how those who are marginalized respond to Western impositions.

By the end, however, we will find that there are significant limitations to Said’s method because it decouples culture from politics and the economy. Any discussion of imperialism that neglects these and focuses solely on ideology and culture is bound to be somewhat bloodless at least and at times even misguided.

  1. Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), xii-xiii.
  2. Ibid, xiv.
  3. Ibid, 9.
  4. Ibid, 66-67.

See here for part 2: Frank Miller


See here for part 3 : Humanists

Part 4: Iran

Graphic novels from Middle Eastern perspectives are fewer in number than those composed by Americans, but they have attracted considerable audiences in the West. Two, in particular, are worthy of consideration: Zahra’s Paradise by Amir and Persepolis, written and drawn by Marjane Satrapi. Both of these are the work of Iranian expatriates to the West—America in the case of Amir and France in the case of Satrapi. Both were originally composed in European languages rather than in Farsi, and both were published for Western audiences. In Edward Said’s categorization of works, these would both constitute anti-imperial counterpoints, the response of oppressed and subaltern peoples to the oppression of the metropole.¹ However, because both authors are caught up in metropolitan publishing and distribution, their works are not simply oppositional but reflect a hybrid perspective.

Persepolis is an autobiography about the childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood of Marjane Satrapi, daughter to a well-off and secular Iranian family. Its first volume largely takes place in Tehran and follows Satrapi’s family through the enthusiasm of the early revolution and their disappointment in the authoritarian and theocratic turn it eventually took. Under extreme duress during the Iran-Iraq War, faced with food shortages and increased repression, the parents send their child to a French school in Austria, which sets up the events of the second volume. That second volume follows her travails and struggles with love and housing in Europe before she returns to Iran, finally ending with her leaving her native country and moving to France.

As feminist critic and scholar Hillary Chute has observed, “while Persepolis may show trauma as (unfortunately) ordinary, it rejects the idea that it is (or should ever be) normal, suggesting everywhere that the ethical, verbal, and visual practice of ‘not forgetting’ is not merely about exposing and challenging the virulent machinations of “official histories,” but is more specifically about examining and bearing witness to the intertwining of the everyday and the historical.”² The book employs a flat, often austere style, using symmetry and imagery that is iconic in that it employs abstraction and critical distance to make larger points about the author’s memories. In Chute’s words, the book aims to use abstraction to in order to “call attention to the horror of history, by representing endemic images, either imagined or reproduced, of violence.”³ Persepolis’ style flattens historical expositions, emotionally charged memories, childhood fantasies, and large-scale events into a unified stream of images and text. Its technical virtues are on a different order than the exotic, ornate Habibi and the classic painted beauty of Pride of Baghdad, which also mix fantasy and history. Persepolis’ virtue, especially when considered as a response to British and American imperialism, highlights the author’s pride in her own culture while recognizing that she is in many ways dislocated from it. Her position as an acclaimed, liberated, published author in France demands that her story assume a somewhat more remote perspective, and her precisely composed images of violence represent strong indictments of both foreign imperialism and nationalistic/religious tyranny.

Satrapi’s book demands that its largely Western audience reconsider history from a different geographical and cultural perspective. While American discourse about Iran since the revolution has focused on its repressive theocracy, its policy has committed to containing Tehran’s regional power (though its pursuit of the Iraqi occupation and installation of a Shiite government would belie this), and its graphic media has fixated on pictures of dour clerics and opposition street protests, Persepolis drills back into history, remembering a more open and cosmopolitan Iran. While its perspective is limited by the author’s lack of religious conviction, her upper-class upbringing, and her Western education and current residence, it nonetheless has given the West a formidable alternative account of Iran, one that has been embraced by large audiences in Europe and the United States. It challenges dominant discourses and creates cultural space for people to reevaluate their views. Perhaps most poignantly, it shows the narrator/protagonist/author experiencing the West as oppressive, both in her time in Iran as well as during her sojourn in Austria, puncturing Western chauvinism with a biting directness.

Satrapi’s father’s account of the corruption of Iran’s Reza Shah by the British.⁴

Iranians protest the US-backed Shah Reza Pahlavi.⁵

Zahra’s Paradise, which recounts the quest of an Iranian family for the whereabouts of a lost relative amidst the ruined aftermath of the Green Revolution, is Persepolis’ close cousin. Scripted by an Iranian expatriate and illustrated by an Algerian, it is another book composed by an anti-regime figure from Iran that attempts to give a Western audience an “inside look” at the history of Iran. On the other hand, it differs from Satrapi’s work in two important aspects. One, it is a work of fiction based on history, rather than an autobiography. Second, it was originally published online, which has fascinating implications for its critical and mass reception in the West. For one, its narrative and publishing format are harmonized, in that they argue for a leading role of “new media” and online “techno-activism.”

The plot of Zahra’s Paradise emphasizes the role of online censorship, government control over, of all things, copy machines, and technical sophistication as weapons of oppression. At the same time, the protagonists are only abel to achieve their goals through James Bond-esque database hacking and the theft of a disc from an Iranian government official. While it is admirable that the story’s Iranian characters maintain their agency and that no Western “saviors” appear, its almost uncritical embrace of technology as a liberating force in itself is far more troubling. In the age of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA and increasing government use of the Internet as an instrument of surveillance and repression, a naïve commitment to technological liberalization—especially when the developed West and American in particular exercises hegemony over the Web’s protocols and structure—undermines its assertion of Iranian independence.⁶

Both of these books challenge any one-sided interpretation of Said’s theory as put forward in Culture and Imperialism. Satrapi and Amir are both residents of the West but of Iranian origin, and though they participate in the cultural production of Western countries and in Western languages, their book issue strong challenges to the idea that foreign domination—or foreign liberation—are viable solutions to Middle Eastern problems. At the same time, one cannot precisely delineate between imperialist and non-imperialist elements of books, since both are entwined and might have nothing to do with the nationality or ostensible identity of the writer. Said’s final page in Culture and Imperialism reminds critics to keep from sweeping generalizations:
No one today is purely one thing. Labels like Indian, or woman, or Muslim, or American are not more than starting-points, which if followed into actual experience for only a moment are quickly left behind. Imperialism consolidated the mixture of cultures and identities on a global scale…Yet just as human beings make their own history, they also make their cultures and ethnic identities. No one can deny the persisting continuities of long traditions, sustained habituations, national languages, and cultural geographies, but there seems to be no reason except fear and prejudice to keep insisting on their separation and distinctiveness, as if that was all human life was about.⁷
Therefore, although Persepolis and Zahra’s Paradise are products of the universalization of world markets and cultures caused by imperialism, they are not fatally compromised just by that fact. In a contrapuntal reading, they are still a complex response by the dominated world, which is not pure but contaminated by the memory and, in this case, the economic hegemony of the dominating metropole. Without enriched Western publishers, ISPs, and website hosting services, without the immense communicational and technological achievements of global imperial capitalism, these books would not be the way they are. They carry within them traces of oppression, and indeed attempt to immortalize those traumatic memories and claim them for the oppressed culture. They make their own history, just as the works of Frank Miller, Craig Thompson, and Brian K. Vaughan, at the same time they forge a Western history, attempting to impose their own interpretations on distant territories.


1.       Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 66-67.
2.       Hillary Chute, “The Texture of Retracing in Marjane Satrapi’s ‘Persepolis,’” Women’s Studies Quarterly vol. 36, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 2008), 105.
3.       Ibid, 98.
4.       Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis (New York: Pantheon Books, 2003), 21.
5.       Ibid, 18.
6.       Amir, Zahra’s Paradise (New York: First Second, 2011).
7.       Said, 336

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