Images of Euro gluttony

Unthinking Eurocentrism
March 31, 1995

Ella Shohat and Robert Stam's wonderful book made me think about food, not just because of its metaphorical use in understanding film making and wider cultural processes; nor because of the way food is used in films to tell allegorical tales, but mainly because the authors have cooked up a feast for anyone with an interest in cinema, cultural history and the significance of the media in society.

The book's overriding focus is film. Film, the world's "storyteller par excellence", film continued the late 19th-century museological tradition of displaying the spoils of empire to an audience who had been primed but were now fixed into a colonial perspective. Even the technical accomplishment of cinema itself was used to confirm Europe's sense of superiority. Films, therefore, have always expressed wider historical developments; from imperialism to anti-colonial struggles. The authors' aim is to offer a critique of Eurocentrism and highlight films in which "desires are mobilised in empowering directions".

The "unthinking" Eurocentrism of the book's title refers both to its taken-for-granted knowledge and to the authors' attempts to deconstruct it. Eurocentrism is taken to encompass both European and, more recently, US domination, yet it is more about an implicit positioning than an overt political stance: a capacity to impose hierarchies and to position cultures as inferior to its own. While there is clearly a point in linking Europe and the US in this way, it does make it harder to debate important differences between the two traditions, including the Americanisation of European culture.

The authors employ terms and ideas from diverse perspectives in the course of their encyclopedic grasp of world cinema. For example, psychoanalysis is deployed to explain Eurocentric representations of the third world. The latter's "out of control", "oversexualised" image is understood to satisfy the West's libidinal impulses. Elsewhere the authors show how cinematic themes of adventure and exploration are invariably racialised and gendered (virgin lands, penetrable interiors, fecund wildernesses etc) and so resonate with the imperial and sexual exploits of white European men.

Post-colonial cinema employs a different strategy. It cannot expect simply to remove the long Eurocentric tradition, so instead post-colonial cinema seeks to develop a more complex repertoire of techniques including parody, synthesis of styles and those expressing cultural dislocation and disembodiment. Returning to the food metaphor, Brazilian modernists in 1920s cinema made the trope of cannibalism the "basis of an insurgent aesthetic" in which imported cultural products were devoured to form a new synthesis with local culture.

The authors also engage persuasively with recent debates in cultural theory - "postcoloniality", "cultural syncretism" and "hybridity" - all of which aim to break down ideas of absolute and fixed boundaries between cultures but which can nevertheless elide different power relations. The authors also stand back from film per se in their critique of some of Eurocentrism's historical claims. Persuasive as this evidence is, however, the appeal to "real" history of the precolumbian period appears at odds with the authors' view that knowledge can only be relative and hence outside the jurisdiction of some higher epistemological court. Do the authors, for once, want to have their cake and eat it?

John Gabriel is a senior lecturer in cultural studies, University of Birmingham.

Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media

Author - Ella Shohat and Robert Stam
ISBN - 0 415 06324 8 and 06325 6
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
Pages - 405pp

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