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Lost in Translation: The Way We View the Videos 'Innocence of Muslims' and 'Gangnam Style'

While the responses to these two videos couldn't be more different, they have something in common. Both were released online in early July and became international flash points during September. They also revealed something similar: how cultural meaning can get lost in translation.

If Mohammed Will Not Go to the Mountain, the Mountain Must Come to Mohammed

Motion pictures were recently linked to real violence again. Unlike the 2012 Aurora shooting , however, there was no big screen in sight — and there might not even be a real movie to establish the scene of the crime, either. We are, of course, referring to the 'trailer' for Innocence of Muslims -- a youtube video that became a flashpoint across the world. The 14 minute 'preview' debuted on the small screen and triggered violence off screen.

The irony is that Innocence of Muslims is itself never likely to be seen (assuming a movie even exists). And it's not just because the preview created an international incident. The film's 'trailer' gives every indication that Innocence of Muslims is completely unwatchable. It not only manages to offend the Muslim community, but appears to be an affront to filmmaking, too. The only thing it honestly depicts is its own ineptitude.

The 'trailer' -- essentially a compilation of excerpts clumsily edited together -- promotes a film with no discernible artist merit. Westerners could be forgiven for thinking that they're watching a comedy sketch instead of a deliberate act of provocation or instance of sacrilege. Everything about the 'film' -- the directing, writing, acting, etc -- is as laughable as it is inept. The 'trailer' appears to salvage debris from a wreckage and has clearly been tampered with in post production. It's difficult to know which is more questionable: the risible attempt at filmmaking or framing the cast through duplicitous representation.

Given the original script and ideological framework, however, we have to ask: who does the cast and crew think they're really fooling? Although they might have been deceived by the producer, self deception appears to have played a big role, too: it should have been clear that everyone was making a racist and hateful film about the founder of Islam.

Innocence of Muslims not only contravenes the Islamic prohibition of depicting the prophet, it goes out of its way to present him as a religious fraud, womaniser and paedophile. The film's duplicitous nature even extends to the title -- the whole point was to trick Muslims into watching a seemingly innocent 'film' in order to defame them. Innocence of Muslims was never going to find its way onto multiplex cinemas or attract appreciate cinemagoers in the West, though. The filmmakers had to rely on its 'trailer' to hit its target audience.

Taken as a promotional tool, the 'trailer' might as well be screaming from the mountain top: don't watch this piece of shit! The film it purports to be promoting clearly stinks to the high heavens, and its stench somehow wafts through computer screens and clings to viewers. To the discerning filmgoer, it's more an inducement to stay back or away, and only connoisseurs of crap would chose to sit through all 14 minutes. Gluttons for punishment and/or the incredibly gullible can also watch the full movie in HD online — which is just another deception perpetuated on hapless viewers. The 74 minute 'movie' is merely the 'trailer' caught in a feedback loop for a seeming eternity.

The 'trailer', however, was never really teasing a film -- it's more interested in making fun of Islam and is a promotional tool for anti Islamic sentiment.

Although the YouTube video aims its sights pretty low, it was nonetheless able to directly hit its target: to push as many people's buttons as possible. A creatively inert enterprise therefore provides an important reality check about film's ability to mobilize and galvanise people: namely, the moving image still has the power to shock and disturb on a global scale. Indeed, the awful truth is that this year's most significant movie may well turn out to be a non-movie, a hoax movie, a bigoted piece of poison calculated to inflame and divide people of various persuasions.

While the Muslim world might have been the film's direct target, collateral damage was part of its offensive strategy. The Christian producer of Innocence of Muslims also used anti-Semitism as promotional tool and anti– Western sentiment as a deflective shield. Nakoula Basseley Nakoula (an Egyptian Coptic residing in the US as an American citizen) claimed to be an Israeli Jew based in Hollywood, and Innocence of Muslims was allegedly financed by fellow Jewish conspirators to provoke Islam into a clash with the West. Nakoula also relied on antinomy towards Muslims in Western societies to help spread the word online and pushed the limits of freedom of speech to incite some Muslims to act according to stereotype.

The irony is that the Muslim world followed the film's script through its own 'overacting'. Many outraged Muslims took the bait when an Egyptian television station gave the trailer its power to provoke them into reacting. Unfortunately, the media reportedly spoke with authority on a (possibly nonexistent or incomplete) film's behalf. The news outlet was merely following the lead of social media, which invariably authorised the original provocation via its own participation. This obviously raises the question of the rest of the media's role in the subsequent riots. Specifically, why give a deliberate act of provocation credence through the act of sharing in the first place?

Many Muslims directly participated in the 'trailer's' deliberate misrepresentation of its own people. Their violent response to Innocence of Muslims not only confirmed some Westerners' prejudices about Muslims — it helped complete the picture for the filmmakers by making all Muslims look guilty as charged. As one of ringleaders behind the scenes asks: "Do I have blood on my hands? No. Do I feel guilty that these people were incited? Guess what? I didn't incite them. They're pre-incited, they're pre-programmed" to act violently.

The real question, of course, is why would anyone want to use the medium of film to create more hatred and violence in the world? If we already know that casting aspersions on the character of Islam is going to anger some Muslims, why set out to prove that they're predisposed to react violently? The producer obviously thought that he had a just cause, and appeared to want to rectify a moral injury inflicted upon his own religious identity (a persecuted and/or marginalised minority in the Middle East). The only problem is that the producer's multiple identities and history of deceptive behaviour remains a reflection of his own character.

Nakoula simultaneously brought his cause into disrepute by inciting violence from the safety of a democratic country and under false pretences whilst on probation. The attempt to trigger a clash of civilisations -- or rally Westerners around his cause — merely resulted in him being put in a federal detention facility for violating the terms of his probation.

We are also obliged to ask a couple of related questions: how could the Muslim world not see through such a transparent attempt to provoke them to react according to type? Doesn't it know that it is also on probation?. Equally important: how could its members take such a laughably inept 'film' so seriously? Innocence of Muslims was clearly the work of amateurs and did not officially reflect the views of the Western world. Given the ubiquity of Hollywood, it should have been obvious that if we're going to do it at all, we prefer to vilify Muslims in action packed blockbusters instead, and have no interest in watching amateurish films about the life of Mohammed. It appears that the film's real message -- that it was the work of an inept minority — was somehow lost in translation.

The violent reaction to a media event has also brought something else into conflict: the problem of reconciling the right to free speech with the right to mutual respect and understanding. The leader of the Western world might insist, for example, that "freedom and self determination... are universal values" and true democracy "depends on the freedom of citizens to speak their minds and assemble without fear, and on the rule of law and due process that guarantees the rights of all people." (Remarks by the US President to the UN General Assembly, 25 September 2012).

Delegates from the Middle East might counter, however, We expect from others, as they expect from us, that they respect our cultural specifics and religious references, and not seek to impose concepts or cultures that are unacceptable to us. (Speech by Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi to the UN General Assembly, 26 September, 2012). Muslims within South Asia might voice their support by urging "Although we can never condone violence, the International community must not become silent observers and should criminalize such acts that destroy the peace of the world and endanger world security by misusing freedom of expression" (Speech by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to the UN General Assembly, 25 September 2012).

In an ideal world, freedom of speech would seek to clarify and resolve our differences. The right to speak freely would work towards the goal of respecting and understanding one another. It would (ideally) respect boundaries and allow for the possibility of open or porous borders between distinct world views. A free exchange of ideas would permit speakers to overcome cultural barriers, and encourage them to see the world through one another's eyes.

Since we live in the real world, however, freedom of speech typically reveals our blind spots and creates misunderstandings. Each exchange invariably passes through the lens of sensibility and may distort one another's perspective. Freedom becomes just another word for erecting barriers between people or a pretext to police borders. While it remains an open question whether (or to what extent) the Muslim world can remain susceptible to democratic values , Western democracies also need to tease out the consequences of their own principles -- such as demonstrating a willingness to protect values foreign to its own beliefs and not allowing itself to be seen indulging double standards towards hate speech. Indeed, true freedom proceeds from the recognition that not all value systems are created equally, or permits uniform movement between them.

What Comes Around Goes Around

It's possible, of course, to establish an understanding through cultural exchanges; travel, sports, music, visual arts and such. The Arab Spring, as another example, has some of its roots in Western philosophy, which can be be traced back to ancient Greece, and the philosophy of ancient Greece only reached the West thanks to the Arabs by way of the Islamic Golden Age. And in turn, the Muslim world's recent 'revolutions' -- its move towards freedom and self determination through popular uprisings -- reportedly sprung up and spread via social media outlets that originated in Western democracies.

Cultural exchanges are obviously not a new phenomenon, and their transmission coincide with the development of all civilisations. Cultures develop by taking particular texts (writing, images, songs, ideas, etc), and interpreting them within given contexts. Understanding is only possible via translation, or the moving of meaningful texts from one context into another and transforming each in the process. The history of (say) religious belief and artistic forms offer living testimony to this meaningful exchange — text and context remain intimately related to each other, and can trans/form one another through meaningful dialogue.

We're not implying that the exchanges are always mutually beneficial or that the conversation is two sided. The history of cultural appropriation remains contested terrain -- 'texts' can get lost in translation (transit) or be taken without consent and claimed by a more dominant culture. Contact between different cultures often results in cultural imperialism, or the dominance and exploitation of one culture by another. We don't want to imply, either, that some cultures have only been able to extend their rule over others through the use of (physical) violence. If we want to understand the power of Western democracy and/or capitalism across the globe, we only have to look at the way it's 'texts' have managed to ingratiate themselves through the power of persuasion.

Witness the spread of American popular culture, or its ability to colonise the world's subconscious with moving pictures and musical beats. Indigenous cultures are threatening to become an endangered species in a world increasingly without borders and ruled by soft power. Indeed, this is why popular culture matters: it can help reinforce a cultural identity or subject it to outside forces. Nonetheless, America's power is a dominance by open invitation as much as it is one of subjugation (and self-colonization). America has been able to colonise our subconscious because its "colonial objects... have been seen coherently as an artifact available for appropriation" by compliant cultures (John Dorst, Looking West, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999, p. 195).

This might seem a roundabout way to approach Psy's Gangnam Style , but it represents the merry go round that is popular culture. The song is a satirical instance of K-Pop (Korean pop), and takes its musical and visual power from Western popular culture. To some extent, K-Pop is already the spinal tap of mass produced products: it turns the conveyer belt in the (s)hit factory all the way up to 11. As Stereogum's ranking of K-Pop music videos notes "The music coming out of a few different management companies in Seoul has become absurdly popular, and it’s done it by taking the musical and visual vocabularies of late ’90s American teenpop and amping them up into Blade Runner pleasure-bombs, looking and sounding like an optimist’s idea of the future".

K-Pop is essentially a commercial for modern South Korea on constant replay: that's part of its spin cycle. It attempts to persuade consumers that it's literally all shiny and new through young and attractive groups of people. The irony is that South Korea constantly renews itself through nostalgia -- it projects an optimistic image of its future by (generally) appropriating the musical iconography of late '90s American teen pop. The flip side of its sense of invigoration and renewal, however, is less attractive and generally hidden from view.

K-Pop's recycling of American popular culture extends to its young recording artists. The industry's quick turnaround of manufactured bands ensures that young people can be consumed and disposed of at a rapid rate. The record companies have got all their new acts dancing to the same old tune of capitalism, and all that 'moving in sync' reflects the movements of a country keeping its own act together. While South Korean pop culture (film, television and music) might promote a colonised consciousness, it has, in turn, made its presence felt in 'colonies' as disparate as the Middle East and South America. K-Pop exports South Korea's cultural identity to developing countries, and helps sell its own 'brand' in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

"Indeed, the rise of K-Pop is the bellwether of a variety of trends that are changing the global economy (and emerging markets in particular) in fundamental ways. Its success as a product — but, more importantly, as a cultural brand promoting Korean exports ranging from soft drinks to cosmetics to consumer electronics — suggests that Western countries aren't likely to have a lock on the hearts and wallets of developing countries for long. More generally, it illustrates the new reality that the North-South pattern of trade and cultural exchange that has dominated the world since the ascendance of European colonialism is giving way and making room for unexpected soft power." (Mark James Russel, "The Gangnam Phenomenon", 27 September, 2012).

Gangnam Style , however, is more than an assembly line knock off. It's a parody of the consumer culture that has (ironically) assembled around it en masse. Gangnam Style has now been watched by over 346 million people around the world, and the music video was recently given pop culture's ultimate accolade: the most liked video in YouTube's history. The record inevitably found its way to the top of charts all around the world. That's a pretty remarkable feat for a song that remains unintelligible to most people (apart from the 'hey sexy lady' refrain), and the over the top video does little to ground its subversive meaning.

The celebrity endorsements, international dance craze and flash mobs, lip sync tributes, aerobic workouts, parody videos and media coverage have all entered into a dialogue with it.

Gangnam Style's international popularity is indication that meaning can be both lost and gained in translation. On one level, it seems like a fair cultural exchange: we call it pop music because all modern music aspires to be as popular as possible. On another level, it would seem that a subversive pop song has been subverted by its own popularity.

Gangnam Style immediately announces itself as an unconventional K–Pop song because its singer/dancer is not a pretty young thing moving in unison with other band members. And one of the ways Psy (as in psycho) distinguishes himself is by fusing rap with techno. Indeed, the slightly chubby middle aged man appears to be moving to his own beat, and seems to be out of sync with his surroundings. Psy's reach extends his grasp, and he makes a spectacle of himself by being a complete show pony in a materialistic culture. The 'invisible horse dance', for example, makes fun of the equestrian sport/symbol associated with the upwardly mobile, and it's no accident that he gallops towards public transport in a self important (or absorbed) society. So while many people have appropriated the 'invisible horse dance' for their own ends, it's worth noting its role in the video: it mocks status seekers and/or people getting on their high horse.

According to the song, Gangnan -- a rich and exclusive area in South Korea -- has become the standard in which everyone judges (and falsifies) their lives. The country has allegedly lost its way because South Koreans have been following the lead of the West by similarly chasing rainbows. Indeed, Gangnan is all about 'style' (appearances, patterns of behavior, etc), and ordinary people jumping on the latest bandwagons in order to feel included or successful.

As the Atlantic observes in its dissection of the video, beneath the infectious beats and funny images is a scathing satire about the disparity of wealth within a materialistic society and a culture living beyond its means (or on credit) in order to appear wealthy . Instead of being a commercial for consumer society , it mocks the way conspicious consumption has become the default cultural setting.

Gangnam Style, then, brings the world full circle. A song making fun of (a) consumer culture has somehow turned into a ringing endorsement of consumerism. And although Gangnam Style clearly mocks swagger, it has nonetheless been mistaken for a celebration of posturing. Approached from the other direction, a 'colonial object' has simulataneosly turned the tables -- by colonising the subconscious of Western culture. Psy is no innocent though -- he appears to be riding the Korean wave to wherever it will take him. Discovering that he is an American educated Korean muddies the waters even further -- especially since he is (yes) a spoilt rich kid from Gangnam making fun of his own cultural background. Given the song's subversive content -- and the way it has been conspicuously consumed in the West -- the joke appears to be on us, in turn.

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