Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.

Insight: The virulence of cultural voyeurism in art and the humanities

Corporatism has sown a pseudo-solidarity that continues to objectify subjects for professional advancement


"Upon closer inspection the social sciences, most notably 19th-century anthropology, are deeply-rooted in a masked history of imperialism and colonialism." Illustration published on Monday, Sept. 7, 2020. 

In this era rife with neoliberal economics and systemic inequality, cultural voyeurism prevails as both a contentious and acute issue in the context of academia and art and corporate appropriation.

Cultural voyeurism is a "deliberate, recurrent, and proactive effort to acquire information about another culture or cultural phenomenon, sometimes from a distance and sometimes as a participant observer," as defined by Ohio State University communication professor Osei Appiah in a 2018 article published by Oxford University Press.

But the use of voyeurism, or the practice of obtaining sexual gratification from observing others, in describing this type of cross-cultural exchange denotes a subtext of objectification and imbalance of socioeconomic clout.

H. L. T. Quan, an associate professor at ASU's School of Social Transformation, said in her college years, as she and her peers of color began posing questions regarding racial formation, power relations and the possessive investment in whiteness, they were stifled from conducting meaningful inquisition by the white, male uniformity of political science.

"That also shows up in epistemology and methodology," Quan said. "And so as many of us of that generation (began) to raise hard questions about knowledge and power, to use Foucault's term, we (had) to look elsewhere. There was not a home for us."

In reaction to the homogeneity in political science, Quan and her like-minded peers looked to feminist studies and ethnic studies, particularly Black and Latinx studies, which she said are preeminent in a range of fields.

"Of architecture and arts, to synthetic biology and zoology, and in between we have mathematics and political science and geography and economics, the ethnic studies, and particularly Black studies, have been at the forefront of raising some of the most complex and critical questions about power, about government and about citizenship and belonging," Quan said. 

Fields like Black studies have "deep and intimate ties to the historical struggles against anti-Black violence, against white supremacy and for liberation," Quan said, which in turn has fostered innate investments in social justice.

"For Black Americans, Black cultural production is a sign of resistance," said Rashad Shabazz, an associate professor in the School of Social Transformation and author of "Spatializing Blackness." "It's a sign of giving voice to a politics, an identity, a history."

Cultural voyeurism in the context of Black studies "can be an articulation of white privilege" insofar as the non-Black voyeur being permitted to engage and disengage freely and flippantly, "whereas for Black people, there is no stepping away," Shabazz said.

"We are always within that cultural milieu whether we choose it or not," he said. "And so, again, that voyeurism is about power, it's about privilege. And I don't know if there's a way to be a cultural voyeur... (and) not reinscribe that power asymmetry."

In addition to teaching as an associate professor, Quan, along with ASU's C.A. Griffith — associate professor in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre — is a co-founder of QUAD Productions, a not-for-profit production company that has produced a range of documentary films, most notably an award-winning piece on conversations between Angela Davis and Yuri Kochiyama.

América’s Home, another film from QUAD Productions, depicts the impact of colonization through an amalgam of race, gentrification, displacement, empire and popular resistance in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

In producing the 2012 film, Quan said it was imperative to amplify the most pressing stories to communities facing oppression and refrain from creating art that was tacitly self-indulgent.

Every project requires a different kind of reciprocal service, Quan said, and at times when filming had ceased, the production team would help to restore the Casa Sofia, the cultural center resting at the heart of the film.

In making art that depicts socioeconomic injustice, it is vital to not purely commodify suffering for the sake of professional advancement, "because that's very colonial, that's very extractive, that's very exploitative," Quan said.

Similar to art, the humanities, most notably 19th-century anthropology, are deeply-rooted in a masked history of imperialism and colonialism, exponentially being addressed since the rise of certain mid-20th-century critique and analysis.

Anthropology is "a science that was invented in the service of European expansionism and empire, and to justify white superiority," Quan said, supported by works by Linda Smith, Andrew Apter, Ruth J. Prince, Peter Pels and Diane Lewis.

"This is why research should be more collaborative, and it should (have) more participant action," she said. "We should think about impact, we should think about power relationships, because when we don't research lends itself to exploitation."

In regard to the subliminal presence of cultural voyeurism in light of global protests against police violence, Quan said many globalized corporations have feigned solidarity in order to retain their consumer base and, ultimately, maximize profit.

One prominent example is Uber erecting a billboard proclaiming "If you tolerate racism, delete Uber," despite a 2020 study on the use of dynamic pricing on ride-share apps determining that, among other biases, fares increase in neighborhoods with a higher percentage of non-white individuals.

"That is not just voyeurism," she said. "That is actively changing their marketing strategy to sell their product. So there's a form of corporate appropriation. And when I say appropriation, it's a little bit more than just this notion of voyeurism.”

Quan cited the use of music by Black artists in commercials or other adverts without proper compensation as one example of this parasitic corporate appropriation.

This aforementioned appropriation of Black American culture is "the extraction of Black wealth and Black labor," Quan said. "The persistence of anti-Black violence in this country is because we as a nation have failed to seriously confront the way in which white supremacy underwrites so much of our policies and economic relations and our social relations."

Reach the reporter at and follow @samtellefson on Twitter. 

Like The State Press on Facebook and follow @statepress on Twitter.

Sam EllefsonMagazine Editor-in-Chief

Sam Ellefson is the Editor of State Press Magazine, leading a team of writers, editors and designers in creating four print issues each semester. Sam is a senior getting dual degrees in journalism and film studies and is pursuing an accelerated master's in mass communication at ASU.

Continue supporting student journalism and donate to The State Press today.

Subscribe to Pressing Matters



This website uses cookies to make your experience better and easier. By using this website you consent to our use of cookies. For more information, please see our Cookie Policy.