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French Version

Talking, listening, provoking: Views from the edge of communication

Notre Dame and American Universities try to go beyond the stereotypes

The sign behind the presenters' table read "Gross Cultural Communication Symposium" at the morning session, suggesting that the event's sponsors at the Universite de Notre Dame and their collaborators from the American University in Washington D.C. have a vibrant sense of humor.

After lunch the subject had became "Cross Cultural Communication" - a more staid rephrasing of an important theme. The opening day of said symposium provided many more opportunities to contemplate the nature of U.S.-Lebanese perceptions in this period - variously seen as post-(Independence) Revolution, or simply counter-revolutionary.

According to NDU's Mass Communications Department Chair Joe Ajami, his university's collaboration with the American University arose from the work of Brigid Maher, a professor of communications from AU visiting NDU on a Fulbright scholarship. It doesn't reflect any institutional relationship between the two universities, he says, though it's hoped there will be such ties in future.

Reflecting on the dialogue in question, Ajami (a journalist by training) says he's a little disappointed that so few of NDU's participating students chose to pursue his vocation. He estimates the ratio of advertising-marketing students to journalism students here is 4-500:15.

From the AU side, Maher says her university is pursuing outreach with the global south. Within her faculty, Dean Larry Kirkland has long been interested in facilitating the exchange of faculty and students between AU and Middle East universities. "It became especially pressing after 9-11," she said. "But he was working on it before then."

She sees inter-cultural dialogue as a pressing need for both sides. An academic whose political views are not necessarily reflected in the current regime's policies, she wants to correct the Arab world's "Occidentalist" perceptions of the U.S. "My United States is a pluralistic society," she says, "but that's not how we're perceived here."

On the other hand she admits that she and her colleagues badly misread Beirut's recent bout of popular demonstrations - equating them with anti-Iraq War protests in the U.S.

"For me this is an effort to see past our stereotypes of one another," she says. "We don't necessarily have to agree but we can still get along."

In certain circles there is some concern about evil men (and women) in Washington wanting to extend U.S. political hegemony hereabouts. When the symposium's four American participants enter the room they're all dressed in black, amusingly enough. Otherwise, though, all of them are far too liberal to fit the standard "U.S. imperialist" stereotype.

Liberal intentions aside, this is the first symposium of its kind between these two universities so it's no surprise that some of the sessions were more successful in communicating across cultures than others.

The good-natured techno-geek Justin Schauble, described as "AU's chief new media strategist," delivered a talk about state-of-the-art hardware and software that makes it possible for web-based media to operate very cheaply compared to its television network grandfather.

In its advocacy of certain products it often came across as more of an exercise in marketing than cross-cultural communication, but Schauble was good enough to mention that capturing the moment more cheaply has tended to dumb-down broadcast journalism and lead to a deterioration in public confidence in the media.

During the ensuing question period, the U.S. academics learned that none of the students present trusted any of Lebanon's television networks, which all happen to be owned by - or closely associated with - politicians.

Many of the other sessions presented papers that were clearly designed for interested American students - whose knowledge and view of the world are (despite appearances) quite different from those of their Lebanese counterparts.

Leena Jayaswal's first session - on how the technique of photography has ensured that it was never an accurate reflection of "reality" - is intrinsically interesting to the uninitiated but it isn't the sort of thing U.S. academics need to bring to a student body already supremely skeptical of journalism.

When one presenter twice commends the Lebanese for carrying off several weeks of popular demonstration without resorting to violence, then proudly reports how the NDU kids she'd spoken to are "sick of violence," she betrays an innocence of the complex dynamic driving Lebanese popular protest since mid-February.

Most effective, in terms of engaging and challenging the Lebanese students, were the workshops of Leena Jayaswal and Randall Packer. Packer has enlisted Lebanese participants to help him "cover" the Americans' time here on his IndyMedia-style blog site "Reportage from the Aesthetic Edge."

Jayaswal presented the work of a number of "subaltern" U.S. photo-artists, all addressing issues of identity. The effect of the presentation was to challenge both the commercial representation of American identity as purveyed here in the popular media, and the disparate conceptions of morality borne by these apparently "Western" students.

The work of the U.K.'s Richard Billingham, for instance, turns an unforgiving lens upon his superbly dysfunctional family. Jayaswal asks whether it's ethical to turn the camera on your own family in this manner - slyly jabbing a pressure point likely to elicit some response.

"This work has no message," one student protests. Then she defies the room, "Can somebody tell me what the message is?"

"This is exactly the response he's looking for," answers another student. "It's courageous to do this." "But that's not a message," she insists. "This isn't courage. It's shameful."

Beirut 30-05-2005
Jim Quilty
The Daily Star

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