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Gananath Obeyesekere argues that “one cannot escape the politics, ethics, and quandaries of representation even as we try to describe the Other.” This argument has lead to a great debate between him and another anthropologist, Marshal Sahlins. Obeyesekere believes that even though we try to give an objective portrayal of another, we cannot help judging them by our own standards. Sahlins on the other hand, says that it is possible to describe other people in an objective way, as long as you have evidence. These anthropologist’s arguments were focused around the apotheosis of Captain Cook. The major debate between the two resides in the idea of representation, and an outsider’s ability to understand another culture. This debate on the concept of representation can be applied to the movie, My Son the Fanatic, in which two cultures are represented- Western and Muslim.
In the movie My Son the Fanatic, we see two cultures being represented. The first is that of a Western Capitalist, racist- acted out by the character, Schitz, who was a German businessman. The other culture was that of violent, Muslim fundamentalists- acted out by Farid, the son of Parvez. This movie was written by Hanif Kureishi who was the son of a Pakistani father and an English mother. Because Hanif was a Pakistani, it is expected that he would be able to objectively portray the Muslims in the movie. I think that he did a good job at doing so. He showed that some of the Muslims were violent fundamentalists such as Farid, and he also showed examples of Muslims that were not so extreme such as Parvez. Farid led violent riots to destroy the prostitutes, burned down their house and attacked Bettina, a prostitute that was also Parvez’ friend. If this was the only type of Muslim portrayed throughout the movie, it would have been a stereotypical film; however, Hanif also showed that there were Muslims such as Parvez that were not violent fundamentalists- Parvez even befriended a prostitute.
Unlike his un-bias representation of Muslims, Hanif lacked objectivity in the representation of the Western culture within the film. This culture had only one character that was portrayed as being evil; it seemed very stereotypical on this behalf. The character of Schitz was portrayed as a Western Capitalistic, racist. Schitz was personified as being very selfish, only thinking about his on pleasures and money. The idea of Westerners being all about money is a major stereotype.
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Obeyesekere would have mixed feelings about the film. He would interpret the representation of the Western culture in a negative way. He believes that describing a culture as irrational, as the Western culture was portrayed in the film, would perpetuate a stereotype. When it comes to the representation of the Muslims, I think that Obeyesekere would view it in a positive way because Hanif, himself, was a Pakistani. Obeyesekere seems to believe that he had a better understanding of the way the Hawaiians thought because he was a Sri Lankan. He appears to believe that only someone of a particular culture can objectively portray that culture.
Sahlins’ interpretation of the representations would differ from Obeyesekere. Unlike Obeyesekere, Sahlins would not find the movie to be stereotypical, but rather closer to reality. Although Obeyesekere would view the portrayal of the Westerners being irrational as negative, Sahlins would take a different approach. Being a relativist, Sahlins believes that the representation of another as being irrational does not make them bad, but rather it makes them different. Sahlins would view the Western culture just as having a different way of thinking; Obeyesekere on the other hand, being a universal thinker, would try to find similarities between the cultures and then judge them both on the same scale.
Obeyesekere’s interpretation of the film, as well as his interpretation of the apotheosis can be better explained by considering Said’s theory that the Middle Eastern scholar accentuates the other. Said would say that Hanif chose to portray the Westerners in that fashion because of the way he has been treated by them. When you bring Obeyesekere into the argument, he would say that this bias view exists because an outsider cannot objectively represent another culture because their will always be other motives involved. Obeyesekere following Said says that Sahlins is inadvertently misrepresenting the natives of Hawaii. He says that Sahlins thinks of the natives as only being a part of the other, and not capable of modern thinking. This view shows how much of a universal thinker Obeyesekere really is. He believes that it is possible to downplay culture and find causes for behavior that are universal to all people. He uses his Sri Lankan background to justify his claim that the Hawaiian natives did not think of Cook as a God; he says this never happened in the history of his people, thus it probably did not happen in Hawaii. Sahlins takes this argument and puts a twist to it. Sahlins says that Obeyesekere is speaking on the behalf of the Hawaiians- this is negative because he is silencing the Hawaiians. Being a relativist, Sahlins feels that this should not be done- you cannot compare two different cultures to one another because each has its own uniqueness. Sahlins said, “Different culture, different rationalities”- this can be applied to the Cook story as well as the film. When applying it to Cook, Sahlins is implying that the Sri Lankan culture may have different views then the Hawaiians, thus making it possible for their actions to be different. When you try to put all cultures under one roof, a conflict may arise. This can be seen within the context of the film. Similar to Huntington’s argument, Sahlins would say that the father and the son had so many problems because they were both trying to impose their beliefs on the other- they are too different to accept and understand the ways of each other. They see things differently because of their beliefs.
I believe that Sahlins has a stronger argument on the apotheosis of Cook. Obeyesekere is correct in his assumption that “one cannot escape the politics, ethics and quandaries of representation, even as we try to describe the Other.” Even if we try really hard just to focus on what the person is trying to say, we will still incorporate our views which will cause us to focus on certain aspects and overlook others. However, I feel that we can control the extent to which our values get intertwined in the framing of the Other. I agree strongly with Sahlins when he says that Obeyesekere cannot give a more accurate depiction of the event just because he was Sri Lankan. You can not use the same scale to measure two different cultures. I feel that every culture, and every person is unique- one group should not be compared to another, they should be judged separately. Just because one group of people react in particular does not mean the next group will do the same. Sahlins seems to deal with the political and ethical quandaries better because he does not assume that he knows everything about the Hawaiians. He finds evidence before he makes a claim. Obeyesekere, however, does not do this. He commits unethical acts such as speaking for the Hawaiians- he feels that coming from a non-Western background gives him a better understanding of what happened in Hawaii, but it does not. Obeyesekere was s Sri Lankan, not a Hawaiian; therefore he should not take on the responsibility of speaking for them. He says that the Westerners make up these myths about the natives, but Obeyesekere himself, puts words into their mouths- he silences them and their culture. Obeyesekere was not in Hawaii at the time of Cook arrival and death, thus his ideas about the events that took place are just as outlandish as Sahlins. The only difference is that Sahlins backs up his statements with evidence, whereas Obeyesekere backs up his statements by repeatedly bringing up the fact he is not a Westerner, and thus must have a better understanding of the Hawaiians.