On the burqa photo
Other than its obvious “Emperor has no clothes” racism qua anti-Orientalism (i.e., Muslim women are too dumb to know how much Islam oppresses them), and its equally obvious old time racism (i.e., “they all look alike”), the infamous “burqa photo” of recent mass e-mail distribution and presumable right-wing origin is offensive on a purely intellectual level, with its unquestioned assumptions of who we are, how we know each other, and why we take photos.
Effectively, the viewer is meant to understand that our overall meaning as a culture is composed of our millions of singular manifestations as unique individuals, e.g. our facial features, our expressions, that which the burqa masks and therefore destroys. We only know ourselves by our unique and atomized/atomizable external appearances; we only know each other (both as opposed to us and as opposed to other “each others”) on the same terms—which in turn creates an exoticization of the Other, not merely because they’re different from us, but because they’re no different whatsoever than each other. It’s why we’re so obsessed with twins (or triplets, or quadruplets, or the Octomom, etc.)—they don’t look like us AND they look (and act, and talk) exactly like each other.
Somehow, to the Western mind, photography of the (to us) undifferentiated Other defeats the purpose of photography: why bother capturing that which is not unique and therefore uncapturable; what’s the point? But that’s exactly the point. Photography represents us as we are to ourselves and how we want to be to others. The women in the burqa photo appear as who they want to be to themselves; if it’s uncapturable to “us,” it’s because “we” don’t understand who they are to begin with.
It’s obviously religious if the “we” in question are not Muslims but I don’t think it’s just religious by any means; it’s fundamentally a cultural conception of the individual that exposes an opposing cultural conception of the individual held by whomever took the photo, the “us,” presumably non-Muslim and Western, who meant it as a “joke.” But who’s the joke really on; who’s really lacking in his/her/our understanding of the world? We have no concept of the collective in the West; it’s why we have no socialism (I only wish Obama counted, but he’s not even close), or why, to misquote Morrison, we’ve got the guns but they’ve got the numbers.
Photo courtesy of various rightwing sites not worth mentioning.