Unthinking Eurocentrism
Radicalizing multiculturalism

by Ilene S. Goldman

from Jump Cut, no. 40, March 1996, pp. 96-101
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1996, 2006

Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media by Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, London & New York: Routledge, 1995.

As I wrote this review, the Frederick P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed. Within hours NPR reported that authorities sought two "Middle Eastern-looking" men in connection with the crime. Undoubtedly the car bomb which razed the building and killed more than a hundred people, injuring hundreds more, was an act of terrorism. But why did we immediately suspect the perpetrators to be of Middle Eastern origin? Why did public discourse thrust all Arab Americans in the tenuous position of having to defend their heritage? And, perhaps the most difficult question of all, what does a "Middle Easterner" look like anyway?

On Friday Apri1 21, 1995 in an interview with Paula Zahn, a CBS news analyst raised questions about the media representation of Arabs and Muslims in relation to the Oklahoma bombing and the trial of the World Trade Center bombing suspects. He asked,

"If all Americans see are pictures of fanatics, boisterous and barbarous men and women in veils carrying jugs on their heads, how can they think of Arabs and Muslims in any other way?"

He admonished the press — liberal and rightwing — for consistently picturing Arabs and Muslims in a negative light, for dwelling on the "lunatic fringe." This analyst posited that the press has a responsibility to represent the regular people, too. Positive images of Arabs and Muslims, he implied, would balance the others and make them acceptable.

It is not that simple. Correcting or redressing negative stereotypes takes more than balancing negative images with positive images. As feminist film scholars learned in the middle 1970s, positive images alone do not suffice to undo years, decades, even centuries of bias, racism, sexism, homophobia or xenophobia.[1] These modes of thinking and reacting do not derive simply from news reports and images. Perhaps the images come from the way of thinking. It becomes a question, at the most basic level, of whether life imitates mass media or vice versa.

Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media tackles this problem head on, interrogating power structures as well as the discourses which support and grow from those power structures. Ella Shohat and Robert Stam undertake a prodigious endeavor — the complete rethinking of contemporary media representations and subjectivities through dissecting complex but "commonly understood" terms and theories. The authors destabilize national imaginaries by shaking their very foundations. In so doing, Shohat and Stam take an "adversarial" approach to media scholarship, speaking as scholars, educators, and activists. The book interrogates Eurocentrism as an implicit subject positioning, questions power relations, and examines institutional discourse. The critique of Eurocentrism relies on multiculturalism for, as the authors assert,

"Multiculturalism without the critique of Eurocentrism runs the risk of being merely accretive — a shopping mall boutique summa of the world's cultures — while the critique of Eurocentrism without multiculturalism runs the risk of simply inverting existing hierarchies rather than profoundly rethinking and unsettling them. (359)

In unthinking Eurocentrism through multiculturalism, the authors attempt

"not to belittle Europe, but to deconstruct Eurocentrism to destabilize paradigms which simplify and make Europe a singular source of culture" (1).

The result is an extraordinary and sometimes dizzying unpacking of the "epistemic habit" of Eurocentrism. The range of historical examples, scholarship from around the globe, and the authors' incisive critique make this an invaluable resource for media scholars and academics. Engaging current academic and popular debates, the book defines directions for media and cultural studies at the beginning of a new millennium.

A remarkable array of mass media examples — film, video, and music — support the general theoretical inquiry. Vast historical references complement the analysis of contemporary mass media, producing a work of extraordinary scope. The journey proposed by the authors is long and arduous. Chapter One maps it out with detailed history, analysis, and criticism of the terminology and theories involved. The ensuing eight chapters tackle discrete elements of Eurocentrism, multiculturalism, and their discourses. Each chapter builds on the arguments and examples of the preceding, creating a tapestry which loosely parallels the interdependence of cultural communities at the heart of multiculturalism. The book's uniqueness derives from the connections Shohat and Stam make throughout their inquiry. These connections work themselves out on five levels:

  1. temporal (through a history of multiculturalism and of colonial discourse),
  2. spatial and geographical (across and within Asia, Africa, the Americas and Europe),
  3. disciplinary (across normally disparate fields),
  4. intertextual (drawing from a broad discursive network, from the erudite to the popular), and
  5. conceptual (by relating colonialism, nationalism, imperialism, race, ethnicity, and multiculturalism).

The book's analysis of Eurocentric media interweaves all of these nuances in a rich, readable text. This cross-fertilization will be of interest to media scholars as well as to anyone interested in questions of race, class, gender, culture, and postcolonialism.

These same strengths, however, limit Unthinking Eurocentrism's teachabilty to advanced undergraduate or graduate classes. The book takes for granted its reader's knowledgeability. The wide range of concepts and textual examples used necessitate some familiarity with them. Some concepts are mentioned only briefly (e.g., "Brechtian distanciation," "Manichean binary"), and many films are named but not discussed. This book will complement every first year media graduate student's reading list. It could be incorporated into an introduction to graduate studies seminar or taught in a myriad of other graduate classes. For the undergraduate, however, the impossibility of viewing even a fraction of the films mentioned would make reading Unthinking Eurocentrism a frustrating exercise. On the other hand, some of the discussions of genre or in-depth textual analyses would balance other undergraduate readings. For the teacher of undergraduates, Unthinking Eurocentrism is a treasure trove. Teachers will benefit greatly from its suggestions for curricular design, discussions of films which might be used in class, and its usefulness as a general resource to introduce multiculturalism into the classroom.

Two definitions underline the project: Shohat and Stam understand "Eurocentrism" as a construct which

"sanitizes Western history while patronizing and even demonizing the non-West. It thinks of itself in terms of its noblest achievements — science, progress, humanism-but of the non-West in terms of its deficiencies, real or imagined." (3)

Eurocentrism has been "naturalized as "common sense." It originates in former European colonies as well as in Europe and other Western countries. "Multiculturalism," or what the authors propose as "radical multiculturalism," is a term which "points to a debate" (47) rather than an inherent meaning. Shohat and Stam propose

"to prod [multiculturalism] in the direction of a radical critique of power relations, turning it into a rallying cry for a more substantive and reciprocal intercommunalism."

They posit,

"What is missing in much of the discussion of multiculturalism is a notion of ethnic relationality and community answerability…In this sense a radical multiculturalism calls for a profound restructuring and reconceptualization of the power relations between cultural communities." (47)

Unthinking Eurocentrism begins this restructuring and reconceptualization. It does not pretend to complete the task, only to set the parameters of the debate. Situating its argument in a space which encompasses Africa, Asia, and the Americas as well as Europe, the book demonstrates and analyzes an interdependence among cultural communities. Media examples are drawn from dominant media as well as counter and resistant media. Theoretical insight is drawn from well-known Western scholars as well as from non-Western scholars. Within each chapter the book also offers insights on the possibilities of reorganizing media courses and film/video canons.

At the center of the desire to "unthink Eurocentrism" and propose in its place a radical multiculturalism lies the conviction that most places in the world are inherently hybrid and syncretic. Thus, the narrowly defined and sometimes arbitrary modes of representing those places are not "natural" but come from institutional discourses and power relations. Common knowledge assumes that media representations contribute to identity construction. Shohat and Stam add that since all contemporary political struggles pass through mass culture, media are essential to the discourse of multiculturalism. In shaping identity, media have the power to isolate or to affiliate groups of people. The authors concentrate on discursive practices inherited from the colonial period, summing up a historic trajectory of terms and arguing that despite contemporary concern with multiculturalism, it is not a new phenomenon. (16) Thus the negative image of the Middle Easterner and the immediate assumption that Muslim Fundamentalists are involved in a terrorist act may be residues of colonial and imperialist discursive practices which have long demonized the non-West.

In Chapter One, "From Eurocentrism to Polycentrism," the authors dismantle terms and theories which have long, complicated histories — "West/ East," "race/ racism," "colonialism," "Third World." Examples from literature, nonfiction writing, and cinema illustrate the constructedness of each term, the representational tropes the terms engender, and the ways these concepts have become blurred over time. In setting their exploration's parameters, Shohat and Stam emphasize the ambiguities of terms which are in the forefront of academic thought and popular parlance, especially "postcoloniality" and "hybridity." This largely theoretical and historical material provides the tools with which Shohat and Stain deconstruct Eurocentric media practices. Significantly, these tools cross over disciplinary boundaries. Among other things, the authors draw on film and media studies, cultural studies, psychoanalytic theory, post-structuralism, history, and colonial literature. The dismantling of these media practices helps erase the border between the classroom and the street as well. Shohat and Stam intend their rethinking of media to be political and politicizing.

Chapter Two, "Formations of Colonialist Discourse," lays out the history of colonialist discourse, explicating the shift in representation and relations between Africa and Europe after 1492 and demonstrating what contemporary debates and representations inherit from the past. This chapter encapsulates the book's virtuosity. Stam and Shohat demonstrate how colonialist discourse created a new ideological positioning of the "Other" in order to foster a pan-European imaginary. Cinematic representations, 400 years later, have functioned in a complicitous way to recreate and continue this positioning:

"European cinema, in its infancy, inherited the racist and colonialist discourse whose historical contours we have outlined here. Cinema, itself the product of 'Western scientific discoveries,' made palpable to audiences the master-narrative of the 'progress of Western civilization,' often through biographical narratives about explorers, inventors, and scientists…Cinema thus became the epistemological mediator between the cultural space of the Western spectator and that of the cultures represented on the screen, linking separate spaces and figurally separate temporalities in a single moment of exposure." (92-93)

Today's representations of the "Third World," particularly in mainstream and counter cinema, grow out of and build upon a five hundred year old tradition of "Otherizing." The primary examples in this chapter are representations of Columbus's arrival in the Americas and the subsequent colonization and conquest of the indigenous peoples.

"[T]he Columbus debate is crucial to Eurocentrism, not only because Columbus was a seminal figure within the history of colonialism, but also because idealized versions of his story have served to initiate generation after generation into the colonial paradigm." (62)

Arguing that "cinematic recreations of the past reshape the imagination of the present, legitimating or interrogating hegemonic memories and assumptions" (62), Shohat and Stam compare the glut of quincentenary images to earlier filmic representations. They also contrast mainstream "Western" films with recent resistant representations and "Third World" films. Thus, discussions include the Cuban-Peruvian film TUPAC AMARU (1984) and the Brazilian films TERRE EM TRANSE (LAND IN ANGUISH, 1967) and QUILOMBO (1984). These discussions complement remarks on CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS (1949), DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990), and the 1992 "commemorative" films COLUMBUS: THE DISCOVERY and 1492: THE CONQUEST OF PARADISE. Renegade and resistant voices, as well as television documentary production, round out the arguments.

Building on the fact that the "beginnings of cinema coincided with the giddy heights of the imperial project"(100), Chapter Three — "The Imperialist Imaginary" — argues,

"The cinema, as the world's storyteller par excellence, was ideally suited to relay the projected narratives of nations and empires. National self-consciousness, generally seen as a precondition for nationhood — that is, the shared belief of disparate individuals that they share common origins, status, location and aspirations — became broadly linked to cinematic fictions." (101)

Shohat and Stam examine discrete genres and representations of colonialism therein, particularly looking at the Western and at adventure films. They argue that the twin functions of cinema as science and as spectacle were particularly suited to the project of creating and sustaining national imaginaries, tracing "the imperialist imaginary" from early to contemporary cinema:

"The cinema combined narrative and spectacle to tell the story of colonialism from the colonizer's perspective. From the Lumière brothers' mocking portrayals of the culinary habits of North Africans in Le MUSULMAN RIGOLO (THE FUNNY MUSLIM, 1902), through the adventure tales of TARZAN, to the Westerner-in-the-pot cannibal imagery of the 1980s version of KING SOLOMON'S MINES and the scientific missions of INDIANA JONES (1981, 1984, 1989), dominant cinema has spoken for the "winners" of history, in films which idealized the colonial enterprise…" (109)

Television news coverage of modern war is compared with Hollywood films to demonstrate that the colonial/ imperial paradigm continues to exist as a main theme and also as a subverted element. Beginning with tourist advertisements for contemporary Greece and ending with the Gulf War, this chapter proves the power of the media to unite people through the creation of a compelling national imaginary.

Chapter Four, "Tropes of Empire," explores the various representational tropes which underline and reinforce the national imaginary. The authors analyze the role that tropic operations of colonialist and imperialist discourse play in the construction of Eurocentric hierarchies. Shohat and Stam focus on

"gendered tropes that link the colonized to eroticized geographies of 'virgin land,' to the projective imaginary of 'dark continents,' to exotically 'veiled' territories, and to symbolic fantasies of rape and rescue" (141).

They pay particular attention to the representation of women and of the bodies of non-Westerners, analyzing these with a mixture of Freudian psychoanalysis and post-structuralism that at times becomes unwieldy. Here the authors elucidate connections between cinema and history, anthropology, and archeology. Moreover, they make an important link between cinema and another visual medium (though not a narrative one) — cartography. Images of maps and globes lend an "aura of scientificity" to narratives of empire. Through narratives pretending to history, anthropology, and archeology, Hollywood asserts a historical and empirical knowledge. Hollywood's role in writing the culture of others is explored in classic films (e.g. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, INTOLERANCE) as well as in B movies (ISHTAR, SAHARA).

Lest the reader think that Unthinking Eurocentrism is an exercise in Europe-bashing, I should note that in Chapters Three and Four — as throughout the book — Shohat and Stain intertwine analyses of mainstream cinema from "Third World" areas. They contrast mainstream narratives with examples from documentary film and from counter-practice by both "Western" and "non-Western" makers. The result is a thought-provoking collection of observations. The most revealing of these occurs in "Tropes of Empire" in a discussion of "Rape and the Rescue Fantasy." As Shohat and Stain begin,

"The Western imaginary metaphorically rendered the colonized land as female to be saved from her environmental disorder"(156).

The colonizer is the rescuer, saving both the colonized land and the Western female threatened by the "polygamous Arabs, libidinous Blacks, and macho Latinos." Anti-colonialist texts have also utilized this trope, comparing colonization to rape.

"Nationalist intellectuals interrupted the colonialists' exemplary tales of sexual violence and heroic sacrifice by appealing to the actual history of sexual violence and dispossession wrought against 'Third World' women themselves" (161).

However, Shohat and Stam demonstrate that even this anti-colonialist tack is masculinist if not Eurocentric:

"Since colonialist discourse relied on gendered language to articulate its mission of progress, anti-colonial critique called up the elided history of the rape of Third World women. Thus by positing the nation as a haven for 'our' women, anti-colonialism clung to a masculinist fantasy of rescue." (161)

Chapters Five and Six form a brace which addresses many questions alluded to in Chapters Three and Four. Entitled respectively "Stereotype, Realism, and the Struggle Over Representation" and "Ethnicities-in-Relation," these chapters tackle issues of verisimilitude, truth in representation, the "hidden" discourse of race and ethnicity in media, and latent multiculturalism. One observation forms the base for the discussions in both chapters:

"Filmic fictions inevitably bring into play real-life assumptions not only about space and time but also about social and cultural relationships. Films which represent marginalized cultures in a realistic mode, even when they do not claim to represent specific historical incidents, still implicitly make factual claims." (179)

From here Shohat and Stam propose substituting a study of discourse for traditional work focusing on images. They contrast stereotypes with "reality" or "truth" in order to demonstrate that there is no absolute truth. What remains indisputable, however, is that marginalized groups have historically been powerless to control their own representation. Therefore, Shohat and Stain argue, it is crucial to understand not just the representation or image, but also the institutions which disseminate mass media texts and the audiences that receive them. (184) Further, one must read the texts "from the margins" to ferret out the drowned cultural voices floating near the surface. (221)

Two notable ideas emerge here: To begin with, stereotypes of marginalized peoples exist in Western and non-Western mass media, demonstrating the ubiquity of Eurocentric thought. Casting, linguistic decisions, and audience expectations abet these representations. Self-representation is not simply a matter of marginalized people's wresting control of the tools of production and placing themselves on the screen. Shohat and Stam's privileging of the discursive encourages the reader to see that stereotyped mass media representations are "part of a continuum" (215) and exist in relation to other forces. Examining these discursive structures, the reader discovers with the authors that

"Polyphony does not consist in the mere appearance of a representative of a given group but rather in the fostering of a textual setting where that group's voice can be heard with its full force and resonance. The question is not of pluralism but of multivocality, an approach that would strive to cultivate and even heighten cultural difference while abolishing socially-generated inequalities." (215)

The second important concept has to do with the syncretism of multicultural societies. Shohat and Stam urge scholars to look beyond race and racial binaries (Black/White) to ethnicities within ethnic groups (Jewish or Irish Americans, Mexican or Cuban Americans). They use The Jazz Singer to exemplify that

"a relational approach to representation would take into account both a racial dimension-the Whiteness of European-Jewish immigrants-and an ethnic/ religious dimension-their Jewishness." (228)

The population of most countries is diverse and cultural communities grow to be interdependent. Thus, isolated discussions of "race" or "ethnicity" tend to be one-dimensional.

"In a multiracial society, the self is inevitably syncretic, especially when a preexisting cultural polyphony is amplified by the media. This syncretism is first of all linguistic…Cultural syncretism takes place both at the margins and between the margins and a changing mainstream, resulting in a conflictual yet creative intermingling of cultures." (237)

Chapters Five and Six continually link the myriad of racial and ethnic representations discussed to the multicultural society in which we live. They challenge the reader to rethink not only media representation but also her own views about the world around her and how they were shaped. Finally, pages 241 through 245 offer concrete suggestions for introducing multiculturalism into the classroom in order to effect "the mutual illumination of cultures." The authors suggest,

"A relational methodology would also go beyond a bipolar comparative approach between single nations to a more broadly conceived diasporic or transnational approach. A truly multicultural media studies would perform a conceptual 'remapping' of the field within a global space." (243)

Chapters Seven and Eight examine, respectively, "The Third Worldist Film" and "Esthetics of Resistance." Unlike the previous chapters, which untangled discursive patterns in a variety of media sites, these chapters interrogate specific film practices. The concern here is with films made by Third World filmmakers, whether made in Third World countries or in diaspora. Chapter Seven deals with the radical political cinemas of the late fifties through the early eighties. A historical overview of the "new cinemas 'which proliferated in the sixties provides the uninitiated reader with a general understanding of theoretical writings and formal experimentation of this generation of filmmakers in the Third World.

Chapter Eight continues the inquiry chronologically, looking at more recent resistant or counter practices. Unthinking Eurocentrism makes a sea change in terms of style and rhythm in these chapters. In the first two thirds of the book, the authors mention a plethora of films to support or illustrate many of their points. They analyze or describe some of these films briefly. Here, Shohat and Stain choose to "focus on specific films which exemplify noteworthy strategies with special clarity or flair," in an attempt to demonstrate a "repertory of approaches, in all their diversity and even contradictions" (249). The theory which has been deconstructed and reworked in the preceding pages is here put to the test, resulting in two chapters which read more like a film studies text than the rest of the book.

The reader will welcome this shift for two reasons: First, it demonstrates the methodological use-value of the theory in the preceding pages. Moreover, while the first two thirds of the book root out Eurocentrism in First World and Third World texts, these chapters show that alternatives have existed for a long time. A multicultural approach to fllmmaking, as well as to media criticism, seems the best weapon against Eurocentrism. Shohat and Stam note,

"In the face of Eurocentrism, Third World and minoritarian filmmakers have rewritten their own histories, taken control over their own images, spoken in their own voices" (249).

And, perhaps most poignantly, these chapters prove, in the authors' words,

"It is not that their films substitute a pristine truth for European 'lies,' but that they propose counter-truths and counter narratives informed by an anticolonialist perspective, reclaiming and re-accentuating the events of the past in a vast project of remapping and renaming." (249)

The films discussed in these chapters do not simply attempt a revisionist historiography. Some of the canonical Third Worldist films mentioned in Chapter Seven — BATTLE OF ALGIERS, BATTLE OF CHILE, HOUR OF THE FURNACES, BARREN LIVES — were experiments with dialectical and political documentary filmmaking. Chapter Eight looks new alternative cinematic practices, including video work. All of the media presented attack Eurocentrism through formal innovation, eschewing or reconfiguring hegemonic Hollywood filmic conventions like cause-and-effect narrative patterns and seamless editing. The documentaries combine various approaches to effect an avant-garde filmmaking with rhetorical punch. These are multicultural film and video practices. Shohat and Stain want the reader to appreciate how they were radical in their moment.

In "The Politics of Multiculturalism in the Postmodern Age," Shohat and Stam posit the relevance and radicalness of "unthinking Eurocentrism" for the classroom. For them, nothing less than "an indispensable re-envisioning of global politics" (359) is at stake. This chapter is not a "summary" or a "conclusion." Rather, it reiterates the cross-references among disciplines made throughout the tome. It renders in pedagogical and practical terms the multicultural grid built in Chapters 1 through 8. Moreover, this chapter specifically adds a deconstruction of spectatorship to the grid. Shohat and Stam argue that no textual or theoretical approach to media criticism is complete without consideration of the spectator. They situate all of this within a pedagogical politics, suggesting several ways to rethink audiovisual pedagogy.

Many the observations in Unthinking Eurocentrism are not new. They come from assorted academic disciplines as well as the popular press. Bringing these ideas together in one volume, crossing disciplinary boundaries, maintaining the political voice of activist throughout — this is new and it is laudable. The consideration of colonialist films produced in Western and non-Western countries alike underscores the idea that Eurocentrism does not exist exclusively in European and neo-European nations. It also stresses the fact that understanding media practices can only enhance one's comprehension of cultural and social power structures.

For these reasons, Unthinking Eurocentrism is an important book. It is, however, a specialist's book — a dense but readable tome packed with more ideas, examples, and questions than typically seen in one place. Regardless of one's specialty, however, Unthinking Eurocentrism is the first truly multicultural, interdisciplinary approach to media, one which is valuable for any one, from the scholar of formalism in Hollywood to the specialist in Latin American feminist media to the political scientist to the historian.


1. I refer here to the debate which began with the publication of Linda Artel and Susan Wengraf's Positive Images: Non Sexist Films for Young People and Diane Waldman's Jump Cut review. (See Artel, Linda and Susan Wengraf, Positive Images: Non-Sexist Films for Young People, San Francisco: Bootlegger Press, 1976; Waldman, Diane, "There's More to a Positive Image Than Meets the Eye," Jump Cut 18, 1978. Both reprinted in Erens, Patricia. Issues in Feminist Film Criticism, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990).

In the introduction to their book, Artel and Wengraf express concern with the media's power to perpetuate sex-stereotyped behavior. Their goal was to foster awareness of alternative images of women and to promote work which "presents girls and women, boys and men with non-stereotyped behavior and attitudes: independent, intelligent women; adventurous, resourceful girls, men who are nurturing; boys who are not afraid to show their vulnerability" (9 in Erens). This book began a debate within feminist film theory that is exemplified by Diane Waldman's response in her Jump Cut review. Waldman objected first to the criteria for "positive images" outlined by Artel and Wengraf. She argued that their "guidelines for selection and evaluation" "immediately introduces a problem on the theoretical level: What are 'positive' characteristics and what is the relations of these images to social reality?" (14 in Erens). Waldman also questioned the very notion of a "positive image":

"The notion of a 'positive image' is predicated upon the assumption of identification of the spectator with a character depicted in a film…Yet the mechanism of identification goes unchallenged and unchanged, and introduces, I think, a kind of complacency associated with merely presenting an image of the 'positive' hero(ine)." (17 in Erens)

Subsequent feminist film theory and filmmaking interrogated issues of identification as well as the pedagogical issues which Waldman discussed.