Theoretical Framework

Digital narratives about the Syrian diaspora involve transnational confrontations in multiple ways. The subject of the projects—the Syrian refugees—cross geographical and geopolitical boundaries, making the experiences conveyed by their narratives reflective of the political, cultural, and social Orientalist binaries that they encounter. Additionally, digital literature is often intended to translate the refugee experience into forms that Western audiences are receptive to, which is why they offer interactive experiences that prioritize the user’s control over the medium and its content. Edward Said’s Orientalism criticizes the construct of “the East” through stereotypes, misrepresentations, and generalizations that permeate Western discourse and thought. Said deconstructs the creation of “the Orient” by three practices: the academic study of “Oriental” cultures, the construct of a dichotomy between the civilized West and the exotic, unsophisticated East, and discourse as delineated by Foucauldian theory.[1] Said argues that Orientalism is entirely dependent on a “flexible positional superiority, which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand.”[2] Digital mediums create a functional “upper hand” by placing the West in a position to manipulate and decide the portrayal of the East.

Mary Queen identifies another application of Orientalism in the form of Western digitalization, democratization, and moralization.[3] She posits that while digital technology allows for globalized representations of marginalized communities, it also has the capacity to reinvent and thus erase cultural identities “within neoliberal frameworks of ‘democracy’.”[4] Digital texts surrounding the Syrian refugee crisis are often created with the intention of generating empathy and humanitarian aid, meaning that democratic frameworks are an integral part of their construction. Queen’s analysis of the Orientalist “rescue narrative” constructed around Muslim, Afghan women is a helpful parallel to consider when examining the similar narrative constructed around Syrian refugees, a demographic that is mainly comprised of women and children.[5] Many of the storytelling projects highlight the perspectives of young, impoverished children to emphasize the juxtaposition between their innocence and the atrocities they’ve encountered. However, a lack of balanced perspectives from other demographics within the crisis limits the historical and social accuracy of the narratives.

            While the digital refugee narratives are portrayed as authentic, realistic representations of the subaltern, they are created, digitalized, and circulated often out of a desire to reach Western audiences for the purpose of generating visibility and support;[6] their very being is contingent upon the West recognizing and legitimizing them. The digital constructions of the Syrian refugee narrative end up becoming blurred copies that conform to Western values, a process that Homi Bhabha addresses in his post-colonial theories of hybridity and liminality. In his work The Location of Culture, Bhabha describes the relationship between the colonizer and colonized as being characterized by both complexity and ambivalence.[7] The colonized, while recognizing that their ontology is being violently manipulated and controlled, cannot help but desire some aspects of the colonizer’s identity and is therefore, never completely opposed to being a colonial subject.[8] This creates a cycle of “mimicry” in which the colonized, ambivalent towards the colonial relationship because of their uncertain desires, attempts to mimic the colonizer and eventually becomes a “blurred copy” of them.[9] Bhabha’s theory of mimicry explains the fragile balance of digital refugee narratives , especially in contexts of humanitarianism that appeal to Western audiences.

            Additionally, Bhabha’s theory of liminality clarifies how blurred, hybrid copies of the subaltern come to be. He identifies an “in-between” space “that is internally marked by the discourses of minorities, the heterogeneous histories of contending peoples, antagonistic authorities and tense locations of cultural difference.”[10] It is in this liminal third space—the space between the colonizer and the colonized, the space between the West and the Orient, the space between diaspora origin and destination—that subaltern bodies, caught in the clash of ideologies, cultures, and values, become new versions of themselves. Both the content of diasporic experience and the form of digital storytelling create spaces of liminality that hybridize Syrian refugee narratives. Historically, the study of diaspora literature has relied on Bhabha’s liminal theory to explain why the genre and its subjects are unique, hybrid entities that, while sharing transnational and post-colonial characteristics, still deserve their own frameworks for analysis and criticism.[11] Bhabha’s recognition of hybridity as its own identity deconstructs binaries that would force those “in-between” to exist in perpetual states of limbo and exclusion. The recognition of Syrian refugees as a population subject to hybridity acknowledges that their experiences and stories are necessary representations of the cultural, physical, and temporal “in-between,” rather than accidental bodies and narratives that have yet to conform to the Orientalist binary. Bhabha’s theory of liminality gives definition to the spaces in which hybridization occurs, a delineation must now be applied to digital mediums.

            The internet’s simultaneously fluid and algorithmic identity also makes it a liminal space that further hybridizes Syrian refugee narratives.  Lilie Chouliaraki argues that the globalization of media and digital communication is creating a “de-territorialization of experience” that allows for Western audiences to be confronted with “the suffering of distant others.”[12] Queen adds that digital spaces are not neutral, but influenced by “historical, cultural, geopolitical, and ideological forces” that “reshape the meaning of texts as they circulate” across the web.[13] The viral nature of the internet is transformative, reconfiguring Syrian refugee narratives according to the tastes, intentions, and perspectives of new, intervening actors so that they carry new connotations and implications.

            While it may seem contradictory to suggest that “blurred images” of Syrian refugees can become “hyperreal,” Chouliaraki posits that the more real the images claim to be, the more the lines between image and reality are indistinguishable which creates Baudrillardian “hyperreality” that merges the two.[14] Digital literature about the Syrian refugee crisis also edit, remediate, and transform their content to the point where their end product is a simulacrum, a representation that appears real but is not actually based on an existing, original entity.[15] Additionally, Chouliaraki engages with Baudrillard’s ‘post-aesthetics,’ building upon his claim that images of suffering are internalized by audiences only because they have already internalized other simulations and spectacles of suffering.[16] Unable to identify with the tragic material conditions that Syrian refugees endure, Western audiences search and dismantle refugee narratives for the human experiences that they can relate to. Because human beings rely on their preexisting associations to make sense of suffering that they themselves cannot fathom, Chouliaraki considers encounters between humans and spectacles of suffering to be “cinematic experiences” of human pain.[17] Viewers, fronted with images and narratives of the Syrian refugee crisis, choose the frameworks for their own experiences through the interactive interfaces of digital storytelling projects. Their personalized experience creates another dimension of hyperreality: a conflation of the reality that exists and the reality they are willing to accept.

 

[1] Edward W. Said, Orientalism, 1st ed (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 1–3.

[2] Said, 7.

[3] Mary Queen, “Transnational Feminist Rhetorics in a Digital World,” College English 70, no. 5 (2008): 471–89, JSTOR.

[4] Queen, 471.

[5] Queen, 473; “Situation Syria Regional Refugee Response,” Operation Portal: Refugee Situations, UNHCR, May 24, 2018, https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/syria. Roughly 70% of registered Syrian refugees are women and children.

[6]. Mitra LeBuhn, “Picture This: The Role of Digital Storytelling in Motivating Donations towards Refugee Relief,” Independent Study Project (ISP) Collection, April 1, 2017, 6, Web.

[7] Homi K Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 2004) 95–97.

[8] Bhabha, 107.

[9] Bhabha 122-123; Bill Ashcroft et al., Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts, 2nd ed (New York: Routledge, 2009), 125.

[10] Bhabha, 212.

[11] Bhabha, 45–56.

[12] Lilie Chouliaraki, “The Media as Moral Education: Mediation and Action,” Media, Culture & Society 30, (November 1, 2008): 831, SAGE Journals.

[13] Queen, 475.

[14] Chouliaraki, 834; Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser, The Body, in Theory (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), 21.

[15] Baudrillard, 6.

[16] Chouliaraki, 833–34; Baudrillard, 65–67.

[17] Chouliaraki, 834.