Maureen Dowd’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom

by zunguzungu

Was there ever anything more overdetermined than the set of photographs Maureen Dowd produced of her visit to Saudi Arabia? She wrote a series of columns in March (1, 2, 3, 4), but it seems sort of right that they’ve culminated in a slideshow of images for Vanity Fair called “Sex and the Saudi’s”; you don’t even need to click the link to know what they are pictures of, and it’s actually quite plausible, that she was actually inspired to her visit by the latest Sex and the City movie, as the title proclaims.

I mean look at the first two picture of the slideshow. First, we see her posing in front of an image of camels:

Then we see her posing in front of real camels, her fantasy made real:

The first thing to say, then, is this is how Orientalism works: we know what pictures of the Orient we want, and so we go out and get them. There is nothing surprising in that slideshow. But the second thing to note is that these images of her desire have to get made real somehow, which is what’s actually still interesting about the whole parade. How did she get there? How did she come to see the things she wanted to see?

After all, it tells us a lot about Maureen Dowd that she can utter a sentence like this one with a straight face (in reference to the second picture):

“The idea of seeing Saudi Arabia with the welcome mat out was irresistible,” she writes, “even when the wary Saudis kept resisting.”

Because what she wants is a Saudi Arabia composed of pre-modern camels and their jockeys, unsophisticated religious zealots whose “attempts at more tolerance are belated baby steps to the outside world.” The slower their progress, after all, the more legitimate her superior attitude can be: having grown up and out of the 60’s herself, she gets to pass judgment on “this veiled, curtained and obscured fortress,” to which “’60s-style cataclysmic social changes” are something she knows and they don’t (quotes from her first column, “Loosey Goosey Saudi”).

It tells us a great deal about her and what she went to Saudi Arabia to find (and did find), in other words: confirmation. After all, look back at that quote: the fact that they’re selling her exactly the image she wants to buy — a slowly modernizing puritanical society — passes completely under her radar; she wants images of burkas next to swimming pools and they’re happy to give them to her, happy to cater to her belief that social justice is a sort of natural outgrowth of luxury. But this business of “wary Saudis” is preposterous; it would be hard for a trip to be more fundamentally state sponsored trip than hers was, and the image of “wary Saudis” was just one of the images they provided her to pose next to.

That’s not to say that there’s nothing interesting to see here; in fact, what I find fascinating about the whole thing is the way we can see the Western consumer of exoticism happily blinding herself to the process of its production, the tourist pretending to be the master of her own tour (rather than its subject). It’s a version of the classic form of the commodity fetish: we imagine that the purchase is the thing that calls the commodity into existence, rather than the labor that actually produced it. But here, the process being erased isn’t labor in its classic sense; it’s the labor of manipulation being un-noticed by someone who is happy to be manipulated.