Samsara Style • 31 August 2013

Colonialism Chic
What does our aesthetic say about who we are? Based on the artifacts, what will future historians conclude about our values and our way of being in the world?

Real art puts the unsaid, and the unconscious, into objects. We interact with it to understand reality better. Meanwhile, the artistic choices of the rest of us are loaded with unconscious stuff. It can get awkward.

When it comes to ashtanga aesthetics now, here’s my question. What in the imagery we are making is actually beautiful? I’m talking beauty that opens up reality, and opens the heart. Not just candy that catches your eye, or summons the response “I want that.”

Internet ashtanga 2013 delivers an emphasis on image, with an aestheticization of our collective rippling abdominals and flexible hips. (Nice intermediate series, everyone. Really. This stuff is HARD and you have done the work.) And there is a bizarre new icon in the mix: the disciplined-adventurous calorie-counting white woman, wearing small amounts of clothing, doing a massive yoga posture, outside, in India, in an urban setting. At the margins of the frame is a person with brown skin, ragged clothing, and look of bewilderment or offense. The colors are saturated; it’s dusty; the natives are tired; and the bendy vagabonds are very, very far from home.

Nailed it. Colonialism has an aesthetic signature, and this is it.

This is the style produced by adventurers who land in the global south. It’s been around since Hemingway, though there are whiffs of it as early as the journals of Cristóbal Colón. Its tropes are heat exhaustion and the hard work of plunder, cheap exotic raw materials, distance from “civilization,” precious quirky natives that can be pushed around, the sex appeal of sweat and vagabonding.

Cue up Bonny Prince Billy’s song Southside of the World. Latent themes include cultural difference, alienation, appropriation, oppression and power. The exotic commodities on display might be linens, fruit, tea, wood, handcrafts. Yoga postures.

This aesthetic is beautiful.

I spent my 20s seeking it out in alternating cycles of rage and revelry. I lived for years in Central America, traveled the Caribbean, read magical realism and obsessed about the Cold War and the Nicaraguan Revolution all the way to graduate school. This aesthetic is sultry and dramatic, dense with religion, subversion and intrigue. Have you been to an actual banana republic? How about Mysore’s Green Hotel, Oak Alley on the Mississipi, the downtowns of Latin American capitals? See also: Graham Greene and Heart of Darkness on the right hand, and Wide Sargasso Sea and The Golden Notebook on the left. Gorgeous outtakes are the German colonialist section of Pynchon’s V, or the French outpost scene in the long version of Apocalypse Now.

So, I like this stuff. There are ways to work with the culturally hard-wired aesthetic of colonialism without reproducing the oppression and plunder that motivated Colón. There are ways to appreciate it without that taking us even deeper down the rabbit hole of entitled white attention-getting leisure experience.

But not if we’re aesthetically immature. Not if we’re just assembling elements our subconscious tells us “go together” and jumping in the frame with them in a bid for attention. Again, our everyday aesthetic choices are tricky because they express our unconscious stuff, whereas real art (made by an insightful few – thank you, visionaries) is non-derivative, not so needy, and very much awake.

So what’s unconscious in our Mysore porn? I don’t know. But something is going on here, and some questions may tease it out. What is the attitude our images have toward space? Whose space is it? Is there communication among those inside the frame; and who is getting pushed outside the frame? Or pushed inside the frame? Is there an awareness of how commodification works? Can we empathize with the people and culture on display? Are the people smiling? What got photoshopped?

I have no moral argument to make here. Orientalism was written the year I was born and I’m over it. Have fun on yoga vacation, everyone. Play, dance, love. Do some secret service. Nobody owns yoga; nobody owns culture; modern comfort with the body and social decorum are good; and it’s nice that globalization translates these values to most corners of the planet. That said, if someone wanted to over-think this, the line of critique would be something about appropriation, whiteness, first world feminism, easy exchange rates on the Rupee, family money, easy credit, and deep infrastructural privilege. Something about people hanging out for 12 weeks in Mysore and just not getting it on a human level. Whatever.

For me, it’s not an ethical but an aesthetic thing. On a purely personal level that does not prevent me from adoring the majority of people who have other preferences, I find commercial yoga tacky. You already know my idiosyncrasies. It’s not lululemon; it’s me.

Until there is the face of a marginalized, wide-eyed woman in the frame. Until the imagery itself is an act staking an exclusive claim to the meaning-space there. Then all of a sudden there’s this juxtaposition of (1) the marginal characters’ subjectivities, together with (2) the self-objectifying, attention-monopolizing poser at the center in (3) an environment that the poser doesn’t seem to want to understand.

That juxtaposition brings up ethical questions for me, about our self-centerdness as asana practitioners and travelers. The aesthetic itself raises up my ethical bottom line, which has to do with giving back the fruits of our practice to the world, to god, giving back anywhere but to the attention-seeking self.

There is no judging matters of taste. But is it in our good taste to fetishize hardcore historical inequality? When matters of the heart come this close to the surface, aesthetics and ethics intertwine.

19 Comments

  • Posted 1 September 2013 at 3:33 pm | #

    completely love this, but then you knew I would ;) xoxo

    • (OvO)
      Posted 1 September 2013 at 3:36 pm | #

      Haha! Yes, comrade.

  • Posted 1 September 2013 at 4:53 pm | #

    You’ve nailed my own ambivalence and unease about the cult of “beautiful asana” with this post, most thoughtfully and wisely. Thanks, Angela. I especially agree with this:

    “Real art (made by an insightful few – thank you, visionaries) is non-derivative, not so needy, and very much awake.”

    Yes, exactly.

    (And, if you replace the word “art” with “yoga” it would be just as true.)

    • (OvO)
      Posted 1 September 2013 at 6:58 pm | #

      :-)

      Anyone can do yoga, except lazy person.

  • Omiya
    Posted 1 September 2013 at 5:25 pm | #

    A breath of fresh air as a second generation North American Indian thoroughly disillusioned (while worrying about being too judgmental) with the whole commercial and aesthetic first world yoga scene.

    • (OvO)
      Posted 1 September 2013 at 7:00 pm | #

      Thanks for this, Omiya.

  • Posted 1 September 2013 at 5:45 pm | #

    Great post. I had a conversation with a colleague recently whose family is brahman. The convo was in response to the recent yoga trial (about yoga being practiced in schools) and the way the plaintiffs had a constructed view of yoga that depicts an “anti other” worldview. I see it that way. At the same time… yoga IS constructed even by those who teach it and promote it in the West. How do we avoid exoticizing yoga and/or hinduism? Does it matter if we do? Hell, I’m guilty of doing massive yoga postures in front of temples in the East. Nowadays I like to be mindful of my “white women” yoga behavior, but I choose to be mindful of it. Not everyone does. I’m not sure what to make of all of this, but when we look at “yogas” in the West under a colonial or postcolonial lens a lot comes up. My colleague shared this link with me, so I’ll share it here with you. It’s just an article that touches on some of this: http://www.yogajournal.com/wisdom/2610

    • Posted 6 September 2013 at 3:51 pm | #

      Yes! Singleton’s work is really interesting and asks some of the questions that tortured me for a while. I’d suggest reading his book, Yoga Body: the Origins of Modern Postural Practice. There are places he mis-interprets his data (according to his own informants) and he takes some large, decidedly unscientific flights of fancy in speculating what “might of happened” in certain cases. So the answers to the questions that especially interest me are hypothetical, and I’m not sure casual readers pick up that nuance.

      Singleton himself complains that the book’s conclusions have been overstated by lay readers, but hey, he’s the one who put the title “Origins of Modern Postural Practice” on the cover and then proceeded to give no clear answer to the question of where it came from. The data are just some interesting side notes, but with them comes a great discussion of negotiation and synthesis of “eastern” and “western” cultural stuff.

  • Posted 1 September 2013 at 6:54 pm | #

    I knew things had turned a very sharp corner when I saw an announcement (ad?) from a photographer in Mysore offering yoga portraits with a “background”(my interpretation). Is that aesthetics? Or merely a traveler’s trophy/proof that they conquered the unknown.the unfamiliar, the untamed, the exotic, dare I say the unsanitized, while simultaneously, collecting asana skillz? The compulsion to capture is very ingrained in us human folk, and hard to disassemble.

  • Posted 1 September 2013 at 9:58 pm | #

    There is a scholar in the social sciences who has been cited a hot number of times for her concept of “the contact zone”–social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other for understanding”(pratt), those beautiful mysore photos make me think of this. Could I picture myself in them at this point in my life? No. But that’s only bc my own experiences w/ culture have complicated what those pictures might mean. What’s most important, I think, is to keep the conversation going about these spaces of difference to nurture understanding on both sides of “the zone.” Esp. Because a lot of people like those pictures! And difference is constant… Sorry to be long winded, this topic is interesting to me :)

  • Posted 5 September 2013 at 8:16 am | #

    But how to ignore it when you’re in those rooms that you very ably describe? I haven’t been able to walk into one for over year now.

    • (OvO)
      Posted 6 September 2013 at 10:20 pm | #

      You mean Mysore rooms in So-Cal, Kara? I don’t know… you seem to indicate things there have gone off the hook in the year since I dropped in to a Mysore class in those parts. If so maybe it’s time for the pendulum of performanceyness to swing back from outward expression to pratyhara…

  • Posted 6 September 2013 at 3:45 pm | #

    Rachel, thanks for this reference. Sounds great and I will check it out.

    I agree about the shifting experiences of our own aesthetics, and about conversation being interesting and important. Maybe just in the form of, “Hey, what sort of encounter did you have with this woman in your picture, and do you think the way that you’re using her image artistically is, you know, edifying?”

    Here’s a comment I made on FB…

    Some people will read this and be uncomfortable if not angry that I’m even TALKING about our aesthetics, and perhaps feel embarrassed that they have (like me, like most people) “represented and lived” the “cross cultural, cross temporal” aesthetics described here. The very existence of this conversation will feel uncanny in a bad way. But others will read this and wonder why I don’t actually critique much of anything. The answer for both sets of readers is that I just see a lot of play happening. Very little of it is troubling. And in the meantime, the bigger tent this conversation can have, the better. I suspect there are some shared, ethical bottom lines for our place/time, but it will take some conversation to figure out what they may be.

    • Posted 9 September 2013 at 10:42 am | #

      I think your conversation is so important, and this hits it right on the nail for me: “And in the meantime, the bigger tent this conversation can have, the better. I suspect there are some shared, ethical bottom lines for our place/time, but it will take some conversation to figure out what they may be.” Thanks for writing this, AJ.

  • Posted 28 September 2013 at 12:09 pm | #

    I love this post! Even when I was new to the cult, rose-colored glasses glued on, I never once had the urge to be photographed in front of a temple. For one thing, that’s completely out of context and taking the asana out of the yoga practice, but I wasn’t thinking about it one way or the other.

    Asana practice can certainly be artistic expression, but the promo temple shot is another thing entirely. I wish people would be more humorous about it. All these handstands on beaches! I left a comment on an instagram once that I’d appreciate some novelty, like handstands in snowsuits at the north pole.

  • Posted 28 September 2013 at 2:57 pm | #

    Haha! You’re hilarious, Boo.

    Because you are an artist, aesthetic tone-deafness is easy for you to recognize.

  • Louise
    Posted 29 September 2013 at 10:08 am | #

    Wow. Yes, I’ve seen this too in Mysore. It’s kind of interesting – when you’re a tourist visiting a site of interest in India, locals sometimes ask to take your picture. There’s definitely an ‘exotic’, ‘trophy’ element to that. But the focus here is on the ‘other’ – the local photographer snapping the exotic foreigner. There’s objectification there but somehow other-objectification doesn’t seem half as icky as ‘self-objectification’. These Mysore shots are so icky because the focus is on the self.

  • (OvO)
    Posted 1 October 2013 at 7:30 pm | #

    Wow, Louise. You’re right. Thanks for this.

    Michael Taussig is an anthropologist who has written about the colonialist aesthetic. His work is REALLY good. Ironically, here is a summary of his work on teh colonial history of saturated colors in, um, Apartment Therapy.

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