Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Cars and Killers

Next week will be a busy academic whirlwind tour of two Nordic capitals for me: Helsinki and Oslo. The two main American Studies events of the year are crammed together as Consecutive conferences: The Renvall Institute's Helsinki do, The Maple Leaf and Eagle Conference, has reached instalment no. 12 in its fine run (it will be my third time around as a participant). The theme is always broad and this year is no exception: "North America - Relations and relationships". My contribution is about the cultural importance of one specific, iconic brand of car: The Cadillac...

I approach this broad topic from a cultural text studies point of view, analysing film, photos, novels and songs - investigating how the cars are represented as markers of specific identity positions within specific difference hierarchies:

The Cadillac car has long featured in the American imagination as a signifier of cool masculinity, mastery of the road, financial surplus and a predilection for luxury and comfort (cf. the lyrics to ‘Cadillac Man’, quoted below). I propose to analyze a number of cultural texts that construct, establish and eventually subvert these connotations. I am particularly interested in constructions of race and sexual orientation utilizing the vehicle of the Cadillac. Texts to be analyzed include Jack Kerouac’s “fag Cadillac” in On the Road, rock singer and performer Mink DeVille, the persona of James ‘Thunder’ Early (played by Eddie Murphy) in the 2006 movie Dreamgirls, and various rock ‘n’ roll lyrics featuring comparisons of Fords and Caddies…

Well I’m the king of the road
Ain’t got no place to go, no place I call home
Seen the world from behind this old wheel
Driving away from those feelings I feel
- Cadillac Man
After a few days in Finland we'll relocate to Norway for the big European American Studies event under the auspices of the EAAS. Here my presentation is in connection with my on-going project on American Icons, more specifically some icons of transgression, associated with the 1960s. I'll give a paper on two celeb-criminals, two very different cultural texts, Patty Hearst and Charles Manson:

All iconic representations of actual persons (living or dead) are caught in a dichotomy between elements of normality/familiarity and elements of transgression. Manipulation of representations of celebrities or famous persons into hero- or other-images can either constitute adversarial or collaborative icon work. In adherence with the conference theme of “E Pluribus Unum or E Pluribus Plura” it would be interesting to examine iconic images that are meant to be particularly transgressive of normality and challenge stereotypical images of American wholesomeness. I propose to look at specific collaborative, yet provocative representations of two 1960s icons of transgression: Charles Manson and Patty Hearst, and to analyze how these particular images simultaneously stylize and sacralize these counterculture (anti)heroes, turning the viewer of the icons from passive consumers into ardent worshippers, consumers or cultural agnostics, all according to our ideas regarding the subjects and symbols in question. The images are reproduced below:

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Nye Boycots Florida

...and so must we all. Shameless indeed. There has been a disturbing resurgence of Jim Crow legislation around the country but Florida's overt intimidation of civic volunteers is the most troubling. With gutted federal enforcement agencies and a conservative Supreme Court, it will take some serious grassroots momentum to turn the trend around. I won't hold my breath on either McCain or the elite media.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Out of the Bag again and behind the curtain

After last week's ABC Democratic primary debate, the Bag posted a great series of TV frames as a visual recap to the debate. In my earlier post I wrote;

This is by far the most succinct summary of last night’s debacle of a debate TV show hosted produced by ABC News Disney Entertainment. This captures the essence of what is, “the postmodern condition” of US politics.

I selected this image as the most telling frame of the set.

Tuesday was Earth Day btw, but most wouldn't have known if not for Google's always clever way of "holiday theming" their logo. Al Gore has recently launched a $300 million environmental ad campaign to increase awareness and apply political pressure. Likewise, some of the other major environmental organizations have also launched public advocacy campaigns like the Sierra Club's Power 2 Change. The environment is one of the top issues among Democratic voters but it wasn't discussed during the debate or in any meaningful way since.

But Tuesday was also Pennsylvania Primary Day, which dominated the news cycle. So fitting the severity and importance of the major issues at hand, the three remaining presidential candidates recorded statements on Monday, not to address global warming, poverty, the war in Iraq, or the economy but addressed fans of the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) for the popular program, "Monday Night Raw."

McCain, I would presume, won the verbal "smack down", with a subtle mispronunciation of Obama's first name and a not so subtle gender bias, "If you wanna be the man, you have to beat the man." Remember Bush Sr. used to deliberately mispronounce Sadam Hussein's first name in a similar fashion leading up to the first Gulf War. The right wing has repeatedly injected Obama's middle name, Hussein, at every turn.

Jeez, when will Democrats learn to stop playing in territory which give Republicans distinct advantages? Clinton as "Hill-Rod" was more on cue than Obama's inauthentic, "do you smell what Barack is cookin'?" Did the campaigns provide their own scripts or were the candidates scripted by the WWE? I initially associated "cookin" with "soul food" and the wrestling character who played Obama in the ring that night was fitted with grossly exaggerated "ape like" ears. But the cooking line could also just be a reference to one of wrestling's biggest stars, The Rock.

McCain's,"...and whatcha gonna do when John McCain and all his McCainiacs run wild on you?" was just disturbing. McCain with his own private paramilitary special force of brown shirt goons comes to mind. Obamabots and Hillbots seem to be the most common derogatory slang for their respective supporters. In 2004, Howard Dean's partisans were referred to as deaniancs. But coming from McCain's mouth, who's running a distinctly militarized campaign the personal "run wild on you" feels all the more threating. Of course, this is all just entertainment right? Corporate sponsored entertainment, which is what the Bag so aptly crystallized.

So here's where this post comes out of the Bag again and looks behind the curtain. President Bush, who now has the lowest approval rating of any president since Taft, appeared on the NBC game show program, Deal or No Deal to address one the contestants, a three tour Iraqi War veteran. See the video here.

There are far too many points to address here in this blog post. Many important ones have been raised at the Bag, not the least of which is the Bush administration's use of soldiers as political props. But I was most interested in how these three utterly bizarre media episodes might relate to each other.

During the last decade, TV programming has become notably dominated by "reality TV." For me, these three episodes; the debate, the WWE, and Deal or No Deal, all occurring within a week, signify a continued media commodification of the political public sphere into a realm which ceases to even attempt to recreate or reproduce reality. In it's place the entertainment industry creates "hyper-real TV" in essential Baudrillardian fashion.

My initial reaction to the Bush megatron appearance was not Orwell's 1984, which came next, but the Wizard of Oz.

It's become commonplace today to compare America's stumbling economy and increasingly economically stratified society to the Gilded Age. This was afterall the backdrop of L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which was first published in 1900.

While many scholars have read the Wizard of Oz as, "a parable of the Populists", does the story have any narrative power as an allegory today?[1] Annie Leibovitz's (stunning) December 2005 "Oz" inspired photo shoot for Vogue may be instructive. Like the first image in this post suggests, who is wagging the dog behind the curtain?

[1] Henry Littlefield was probably the first to critically analyze the Wizard of Oz as an economic parable in his 1964 essay which was published in American Quarterly, "The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism". (subscription required)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Big Three Killed My Baby

For the last couple of weeks or perhaps a month, I've been rediscovering The White Stripes, a Detroit City garage rock band. I knew and liked them before my visit to Detroit two and a half years ago, and I can't say that my visit to Detroit really had anything to do The White Stripes - but I did discover another garage band The Detroit Cobras while there. Not sure why I'm re-tuning myself to Stripes, probably because their sound is quite close to The Detroit Cobras - unpolished, raw, energetic and not filled with a pitch-perfect ProTools sound.

The song that really stays with me is "The Big Three Killed My Baby", a song that is both typical and atypical for the Stripes. It was their third single ever, also the third track on their debut album. The sound is typical of their early years, which is more unpolished than the later, and Jack White's vocal is more scratched and raw and pulled a bit back in the production. The result is pretty close to MC5, who of course also hailed from Detroit. Lyrically, the song is atypical for the Stripes, as it is quite political, while most of their songs are relationship songs (for lack of a better word).

Generally speaking, three is a significant number for the Stripes as Jack has often stated. Their music consists of three sounds: vocals, guitars, drums or vocals, piano, drums. Visually, black, white and red are the only colors used. In the context of Detroit, the Big Three can really only refer to the Big Three car companies: General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. That they "killed my baby" needs a bit more unpacking. But first, here is a live version of the song - it's a bit faster than the original, and the sound is less good - but here Jack White inserts the names of the Big Three into the song.

The song has three verses and three choruses but interestingly the structure is reverted from the standard verse-chorus and instead runs chorus-verse. The song ends with a coda that can almost be said to serve as a new chorus. Musically, the song starts with a discordant guitar noise, leading into a typical garage rock riff for the first chorus. The verse shifts into a standard blues riff, akin to Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker intoning the ails that afflict them. Thus, there is a reversal of the way that verse and chorus are used musically - the typical blues riff is used for the verse rather than the chorus, while the more standard rock riff is used for the chorus.

The song is simple and stripped-down, with no real musical progression except at the coda. What the reversal does, is to draw forth the lyrics of the verse and make them stand as statements, much in the spirit of blues. It is a similar feeling to "I'm a Man" - ba-da-bam "I'm a man" ba-da-bam "I spell M" etc. This strategy makes us pay attention to the lyrics of the verse as much as chorus. The silence between each riff pushes Jack's voice forward and his shouts seems as if refracted through a megaphone or otherwise distorted. It gives the sensation of aggressive and frustrated shouting.

The chorus is simple and direct:

The big three killed my baby
No money in my hand again
The big three killed my baby
Nobody's coming home again
Here is a blues echo again, "bad guys killed my baby, I'm now left alone with no money". This is definitely familiar territory for any form of blues or rock, and certainly also the Stripes themselves. The change comes in the first verse:
Their ideas make me want to spit
a hundred dollars goes down the pit
30,000 wheels are rollin'
and my stick shift hands are swollen
everything involved is shady
and the big three killed my baby
It seems reasonable to assume that 'their' refers to the big three and it is in this verse that we see not just a personal protest and revulsion ("make me want to spit"), but also the clue to what the big three are. The reference to wheels and stick shifts make us think of cars, and as I mentioned, in the context of Detroit, we can be sure that the Big Three represent the car industry. Money being wasted and shady dealings set the tone for the rest of the song, but the reference to stick shifts is peculiar. The image of having used the shift so much that one's hands swell up, is clear enough. The negative feedback image that we get, a particular loathing towards the car and its mechanism, is also clear enough, and quite powerful in the way the car is seen as almost penetrating in nature.

What is peculiar, is that most American cars have automatic rather than manual transmissions. The reference thus seems rather out of place in the context of Detroit. Of course, even automatic transmission requires the driver to manipulate a strick, so the image still works.

After another chorus, comes second verse, which is almost twice as long as the first verse:
Why dont you take the day off and try to repair
a billion others dont seem to care
better ideas are stuck in the mud
the motors runnin' on Tucker's blood
don't let them tell you the future's electric
cause gasoline's not measured in metric
30,000 wheels are spinnin'
and oil company faces are grinnin'
now my hands are turnin' red
and i found out my baby is dead
Most of the verse is clear enough, revealing a frustration with people buying new cars instead of reparing old ones, being indifferent to the problems and the involvement of the oil companies. However, there are two significant lines, the first being "the motors running on Tucker's blood".

Preston Tucker designed one of the most iconic American cars; the 1948 Tucker Sedan, also known as 'Tucker's Torpedo'. It was not, however, a big seller, as only 51 cars were produced before production was shut down, based on allegatons of fraud. Tucker had taken to selling the cars before they had been built, and this led to investigation for fraud, initiated, some say, by the Big Three - hence the reference to blood.

The reason it was called the Torpedo was not just its sleek aerodynamic design, but also because Tucker during World War II had produced gun turrets for torpedo boats. After the war, Tucker shifted his production to cars, but brought in ideas from his military experience. Friedrich Kittler's statement on the entertainment industry being abuse of military technology seems to be suitable even here.

Tucker, then, becomes an image of the car industry's involvement with the military (metonymic with war and death) and shady dealings (although he was acquited, the rumors that the Big Three initiated the investigation still reflects corruption).

Related to this same notion of the car industry being implicated in a larger system of dominance and corruption, comes in the lines "don't let them tell you the future's electric / cause gasoline's not measued in metric". Gasoline in the US is of course not measured on the metric scale, but rather on the Imperial - so the song claims a certain Imperial colonialism on the car industry's part, implicitly arguing, I would say, that the reason there are so few electric cars is the fact that the car industry and oil industry work together to keep such change down ("and oil company faces are grinnin'"). Clearly, there is conspiracy theory at work here, but also a capitalist critique of inter-connected corporations.

The chorus again and then third verse:
Well I've said it now, nothing's changed
people are burnin' for pocket change
and creative minds are lazy
and the big three killed my baby
The shortest of the three verses, it continues with the accusation against the majority of people, pointing out that their greed for money halts change and development. It makes creative minds lazy and thus baby gets killed. What is more interesting, is the coda of the song. The music shifts into the chorus but changes slightly into a pounding finale. The lyrics:
And my baby's my common sense
so don't feed me planned obsolescence
yeah, my baby's my common sense
so don't feed my planned obsolescence
i'm about to have another blowout
i'm about to have another blowout
Three different lines, each repeated once, makes this coda seem akin to another chorus. "Don't feed me planned obsolence" extends the disgust at the lack of development in the car industry, but what is more interesting is that suddenly "baby" moves from supposed lover to common sense. What is killed by the Big Three is thus not (just) the lover, but is instead an expression of the frustration and anger with the meaningless structure of the corporate car industry. The final line, is even more signifying, seeing as we can interpret "blowout" in many different, yet inter-connected ways.
  • blowout refers to the eruption of oil and gas from an oil well.
  • it may also refer in medicine to a specific skull fracture, located around the eye.
  • it is a term in real estate, when many people vacate the premises.
  • when a tyre explodes.
  • a social event.
  • in sports, with a one-sided result.
  • a big sale, often used relating to car sales.
  • separated into blow out, it also refers to exstinguishing something.
The oil well eruption connects to the accusation of the oil industry being part of a larger corporate dominance - the blowout reference can be seen as antagonistic; an attempt or desire to blow up oil wells. Similar violence is echoed in the fracture reference, but from the other side of the battle - yet another strike is about to fall from the car industry. A tyre exploding furthers the frustration over poorly made cars, the one-sided sports game may be understood to refer to the opposition against the car industry. It's a blowout. A car sale increases the number of cars in circulation, and if you're blown out, your resistance has been extinguished. The social event doesn't fit particularly well into the discourse I have established, but there is one significant element that I have left for last.

Real estaters refer to many people leaving a particular place as a blowout. For me, this is the reference that pulls it all together. Downtown and Midtown Detroit has in the last decade or more suffered "white flight" yet again, as the Big Three have reduced production and moved production away from Michigan. Detroit has more than halved its urban population in this decade. "The Big Three Killed My Baby" is from 1999, just as this flight was happening, and this is most definitely a blowout. Urban Detroit depopulated, leaving only poorly educated and often unemployed people behind.

When I visited Detroit, certain areas of Downtown - not to mention Midtown - felt almost like a ghost town. Huge hotels stood vacated, empty, with their windows boarded up. Everywhere there were houses falling into ruin. At times it was surreal, much like these two pictures can tell:

They are taking facing opposite directions on the same street.

This blowout is a direct consequence of the Big Three's actions, and has caused understandable anger and frustration in Detroit. It is a clear case of what Jane Jacobs in her book The Life and Death of the Great American Cities calls cataclysmic money; whole neighborhoods are struck by a lack of flow in capital and production.

This reading of the song as protesting against the actions of the Big Three in the social context of Detroit workers, also provide us with a new insight into the lines of the chorus. Suddenly, the context of "no money on my hand again" functions as a reference to the poverty the Big Three have caused (yet again), as production changes. The line "nobody's coming home again" is easily understood as the regret of people moving out of Detroit, leaving behind a dysfunctional city. The baby that is killed can then be seen to be the city of Detroit, rather than a lover or even common sense. The common sense simply comes from living in Detroit and seeing the effect of the car industry first hand.

But as much as this song is a protest song, a cry of anger and frustration, it is is not completely without reflection. There is one line in the second verse that goes "now my hands are turnin' red". I see this as an admission of guilt and complicity. Everyone has a car, needs a car, in Detroit and while you can be dissatisfied with the actions of the Big Three, you are still part of the larger system. Tucker's blood is also on your hands and on the Stripes themselves.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Big Eyed Friction in the Archives

I'm just going to link (without comment) to Historiann's wonderfully compelling post, Feminist Art, Feminist History, and Public History: Friction in the Archives?

Plus I got to play with the words of her post title which should win this year's "top 10 best blog post titles award." I could wordplay all night with this but I sense a future thesis title like, "Friction in the Archives: A History of Public Feminist Art."

ok, one comment. Art critic or not, did she have to take the "Big Eye" down?

Seriously. Great post. And I wasn't kidding about Big Eye or the title.

as|peers inaugural issue

As of 24. April 2008, the first issue of the new graduate journal aspeers is available online and in print. aspeers is Europe’s first and currently only peer-reviewed graduate journal in American Studies. The founding issue delivers a snapshot of American Studies work in European graduate programs. Its six academic papers are complemented by five creative contributions from around the world.

For more information on aspeers, please visit:
To access (and respond to) the inaugural issue, visit:

In the summer of 2008, aspeers will issue a new, topical call for papers for the 2 (2009) issue. Register online at today, to make sure you receive the call for papers by email.

My essay, "Don DeLillo and Society’s Reorientation to Time and Space: An Interpretation of Cosmopolis" was among those selected for the first issue.

If you are interested about how the journal came into being you can read the foreword, by Dr. Anne Koenen and Sebastian Herrmann here.

The idea to let a seminar publish a graduate journal stems from two major influences. First, Leipzig’s American Studies Program has traditionally searched for new and innovative ways to bring together research and learning...

Secondly, the so-called Bologna Process encourages European University programs to offer “Professional Skills Modules” in which students learn and practice skills related to their field of study. In 2007, the inauguration of the Institute’s new MA program thus offered the opportunity to try a new form of blending academic learning, skill development, and professionalization.

Working with the editorial team was a fantastic experience. I was more than pleased with both the academic and professional level of the entire process. I admit a degree of envy for not having had the opportunity myself to participate in what must have been an equally if not more rewarding experience for the editors.

As an "open source journal" all are welcome to visit and participate in a discussion on any of the journal entries. I welcome your feedback, comments and criticism.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Hillary Clinton as Annie Oakley?

As often happens here on this blog, because we don't have a formal editorial process, different writers post articles related to the same or similar material, albeit from often different perspectives. See Bent’s article bellow, Barack Mean to Bubba, which also deals with the topic of this blogpost. Although we have approached the subject from different perspectives these two articles should be seen as complimentary.

One of the many interesting aspects of American politics are the ways popular cultural narratives are manifested, especially as deliberate campaign constructions.

This post explores the current brouhaha over Barack Obama's alleged "elitist" remarks through the lens of the cowboy cultural narrative, both as campaign rhetoric and visual media representation.

In The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century, R.W.B. Lewis coined the term “American Adam” in reference to the cowboy and noted, “It is the birth of an archetypal, still finely individualized character, which [D.H.] Lawrence identifies as ‘the essential American soul…an isolate, almost selfless, stoic, enduring man’” (104). Lewis claimed that the archetype – the American Adam – was “birth[ed] on American soil” and in the American imagination the late nineteenth/turn of the century cowboy came to be perceived as a uniquely American creation. Hence, the mythological construction of the cowboy, built on the foundation of the medieval English knight, was a crucial element in the creation of nationalist sentiment in post-Civil War America. (Moskowitz, 2006)

I've been attracted to the Obama campaign however precisely because it challenges many of the narratives which have been so dominant in recent years, often turning conventional wisdom on its head. His speech on race serves as a great example, tackling head on what would have been considered political suicide. Two earlier posts, The Politics of Gotham and Postmodern Presidential Branding, also demonstrate that his “brand of change” represent a break from the clichéd narratives dominant in politics since "the Cowboy" came to power in 1980.

When Obama’s recent remarks at a San Francisco fundraiser became political fodder, he once again responded by undercutting a popular or dominant cultural narrative. But first, here's the statement which the press, and both the McCain and Clinton campaigns had seized upon;

“You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

photo: Alex Brandon / AP in Time MagazineAri Kelman has an interesting analysis and further background of the incident here. Obama's statement has been attacked first and foremost as elitist. The image here which accompanies this Time Magazine article adds a perfect visual of Obama's alleged elitism. While the posture and facial expression captured relate "aloofness" the subtext reads that "change" is phony as Obama's body position blocks out the letters. The Bag has deconstructed a similar image here. Within the politicized cowboy narrative, the "Eastern Elite" represents the antithesis to the "American Adam." By portraying Obama as such he is vilified, as an enemy not only against the "common man" but as a corruption of America's frontier ethos. While the Turner thesis is mostly appreciated today in academia within its historical context, it continues to serve as political gospel within much of the DC political class.

Update: The photo above was online yesterday but has since been replaced with another, less explicit portrayal. It's curious as to why the replacement was introduced today.

Camp Clinton, has repeatedly demonstrated a strategy that embraces Republican and media talking points. In a very odd, but increasingly typical Clinton move she even affirmed a common Republican talking point stating that both Gore and Kerry lost in 2000 and 2004 respectively because they were perceived as elitist.

But it gets more interesting. She builds the case against Obama's elitism even further by claiming he's anti-2nd Amendment, and portrays herself as part of America’s rich gun-loving cultural heritage.
“You know, my dad took me out behind the cottage that my grandfather built on a little lake called Lake Winola outside of Scranton and taught me how to shoot when I was a little girl," You know, some people now continue to teach their children and their grandchildren. It's part of culture. It's part of a way of life. People enjoy hunting and shooting because it's an important part of who they are. Not because they are bitter."

There are of course many Americans who hunt and fish, who have an affinity to the "outdoors sportsman's ethos." The hunting trips with my grandfather our some of my fondest memories. In America, cowboys are still heroes and the modern hunter plays into this image. But the image of Clinton as a hunter just feels completely inauthentic and unbelievable.

Obama has continually proven adapt at political jujitsu, turning one's opponent's perceived strengths against them. Take this stump speech at a union gathering in Pennsylvania for example. Rather than defend his comments, Obama counters and refocuses his campaign message. He first takes up the elitist charge from the McCain campaign, turning it back against them.
"here's a guy who wants to perpetuate the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans while ordinary folks are struggling to pay the gas bill, and light bill, and gas at the pump, and he's saying I'm out of touch? Do you think I'm out of touch or do you think he's out of touch!?"

Then he narrows in on Clinton, saying, "she knows better, shame on her" which is also a reference to her own words she used against him when talking about health care a few months back. The most artful and powerful part of Obama's talk was followed with his reference to Hillary Clinton as Annie Oakley, the famous cowgirl of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Shows.
"She's running around talking about how this is an insult to sportsmen, how she values the 2nd Amendment. She's talking like she's Annie Oakley. Hillary Clinton's out there like you know she's out in a duck blind every Sunday. She's packin' a six shooter! Come on, she knows better."
Hillary's portrayal of herself was meant to ingratiate herself within a cultural tradition. However, Obama takes that narrative "hunters and fishers" and traces it back to its cowboy myth origins by invoking Annie Oakley, ‘the essential American soul…an isolate, almost selfless, stoic, enduring [man]’” Oakley, though not an "authentic cowgirl" herself is mythologized as such and by comparing Clinton to Oakley, the narrative becomes absurd.

That's not to say that contemporary female politicians can't convincingly portray the cowboy myth. Anne Richard's, the Governor of Texas who was defeated (outcowboyed by Rove, some would argue) by George Bush comes to mind. When Obama cleverly says about Clinton, "I want to see that picture of her out there in the duck blind" he knows one doesn't exist. Anne Richards on the other hand was authentic and believable. (Notice the yellow rose on her lapel). Here's an image of Richards, presumably in South Texas, on an actual (non PR produced) bird hunt. But it's this legendary photo from the cover of Texas Monthly that will always stand out for me. Before her defeat to Bush, she was even rumored to be a potential presidential candidate. Here the motorcycle replaces the horse, and Richard's looks as comfortable in the saddle of a Harley Davidson as Annie Oakley was in the saddle of a horse. Could anyone conceivably picture Clinton on that hog?

While I contend that Obama has very cleverly exploited the cowboy narrative against Clinton, Clinton herself seems to have made a gross misjudgment by attaching herself to it. Rather than vilify Obama, who could never convincingly be a credible cowboy, Hillary seems to have framed McCain as the vastly superior candidate in the race. Remember her remarks that only she and McCain had the experience to answer the 3am phone call? By siding with McCain, she inadvertently poses the question, do you want a "real maverick" or a faux Annie Oakley?
Which brings me to McCain where I end this discussion. Should Obama ask to see a picture of McCain in a duck blind there would be no shortage. Whether McCain's "maverick" image is justified or not is irrelevant to this post. There are certainly no shortages of modern day cowboy anecdotes of McCain in the media. McCain's self-professed political hero is Theordor Roosevelt, who was himself no stranger to publicly portraying the cowboy hero myth. Here's what McCain said about his political hero at a 2002 speech at the University of Southern California;
Theodore Roosevelt is one of my greatest political heroes. The “strenuous life” was T.R.’s definition of Americanism, a celebration of America’s pioneer ethos, the virtues that had won the West and inspired our belief in ourselves as the New Jerusalem, bound by sacred duty to suffer hardship and risk danger to protect the values of our civilization and impart them to humanity. “We cannot sit huddled within our borders,” he warned, “and avow ourselves merely an assemblage of well-to-do hucksters who care nothing for what happens beyond.”

There's no shortage of visual imagery portraying McCain as the "maverick", a modern day "Rough Rider".

1) President Theodore Roosevelt with naturalist John Muir at Yosemite in 1903.
2) John McCain, "Prisoner of Conscience" Vanity Fair, February 2007.

While I don't know how the production details of Vanity Fair shoot came to be, in the photo above, the similarities to the 1903 photograph are recreated to near precision. It's hard to imagine the TR photo wasn't used as a template. McCain's attire, stance and even his stare, all resemble TR's as closely as possible for a 21st century recreation. Even McCain's bird dog, redundant on a fly fishing trip, replaces Muir, facing the same direction with a similar stare into the distance. The dog's long shaggy ears even resemble Muir's long bushy beard.

Several books have recently been released that address the media's role in creating and perpetuating McCain "the maverick", which rely on and reproduce the established mythological cowboy narrative. Despite the attention that these authors will bring to the media's role in perpetuating myths, the majority of Americans will most likely continue to see McCain as he's been constructed, a postmodern TR. For Obama, should he become the Democratic nominee, voters will have a clear choice between two very different but compelling popular cultural narratives. Should Hillary go on to secure the nomination, the vote could come down to two false choices; "the real maverick" or " a faux Annie Oakley?" Given those choices, its not difficult to predict which cowpoke would be singing "happy trails."

Update: David Nye draws a similar conclusion on my point about Clinton's strategy here.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Barack Mean to Bubba?

Barack Obama may have committed a major political faux pas last week when he spoke out on the attitudes of some prospective working class voters: "It's not surprising then," he said, "that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations." Hillary Clinton quickly saw an opening and worked the spin to the max: “It’s being reported that my opponent said that the people of Pennsylvania who faced hard times are bitter; well, that’s not my experience,” Mrs. Clinton told an audience at Drexel University. “Pennsylvanians don’t need a president who looks down on them; they need a president who stands up for them, who fights for them, who works hard for your futures, your jobs, your families.” Certainly Obama committed a bad move in terms of navigating discourse spheres: by raising the otherwise silent class issue, he opened himself up to all kinds of metaphorical abuse.

What I find interesting about this debacle is how political discourse gets reduced to simple dichotomies, highlighting one or another discursive difference. In this case it's smart vs. dumb, un(der)educated vs. intellectual, country vs. city, and somewhere deep down class and race lurk as subtexts. Take the spin put on this case:
Rubes. Rednecks. Low-information voters. Beer-track voters. NASCAR man. Bubba. Retro America. These terms have all been used by well-known progressive writers and thinkers to describe white working-class Americans. This familiar litany of contempt provides the context for the firestorm that erupted Friday, when Sen. Barack Obama's remarks to a closed-door group of rich donors in San Francisco were made public by a blogger for the Huffington Post.

The list of derogatory terms Salon's writer Michael Lind opens his article with is tantalizing... Let's look at them using sophisticated analytical apparatus such as etymology, cultural text studies and semiotics (sorry beer-trackers!):

Merriam-Webster tells us that a 'Rube' is 'an awkward, unsophisticated person' and that the etymology is that it it a short, nick-name form of the Christian name 'Reuben'. For more colour, let's go to the OED, where we find late nineteenth century phrases like these: "We could make sandwich money in front of a hootchy-kooch palace, barking at the Rubes" or "They know a Rube when they see him, or a guy, or a crook, or a bonehead." The first users of the term seem to have been carnies, or barkers trying to find easy marks at carnivals and freak-shows. Hmmm... nice tie-in with the political side-show usage in! What must also be noted here is the class and ethnic slant built in to the Rube term: country bumpkins and yokels of German, Dutch or Jewish stock (possible shades of anti-semitism here?)... The most famous Rube in popular culture, btw, is Rube Goldberg, whose cartoon inventions of comically complicated machines to perform simple tasks such as teeing up a golf ball make him a perfect schmuck...

'Rednecks' is an old favourite term for Southern, working-class whites - anecdotally related to the red dirt of the region ending up on said farmers' necks. Again from the OED, and that wonderfully colourful, non-pc decade, the 1890s: "a name applied by the better class of people to the poorer inhabitants of the rural districts." Synonyms would include "crackers, tar-heels and other poor white trash." Ouch...

With 'low-information' we are in another realm, that of euphemism and understatement. A franker, non-pc and politically suicidal way of putting it would be 'ignorant'. Ignorance of course doesn't come without a lot of hard work: the work of not going to school, not reading books, not challenging one's mind, not caring to gain 'information'...

With 'Beer-track' things are getting interesting: The Economist already had the low-down on this term and its opposite, 'wine-track', in an article in early March:
A famous political distinction exists between “wine-track” and “beer-track” Democrats. Wine-track Democrats have traditionally supported reform-minded liberals such as Gary Hart and Paul Tsongas. Beer-track Democrats have preferred more practical-minded pols. Walter Mondale famously hammered the nail into Gary Hart's coffin when he stole a line from a hamburger advertisement and asked “Where's the beef?” [...] Obamaworld is a universe of liberal professionals and young people—plus blacks from all economic segments. Hillaryland, by contrast, is a place of working-class voters, particularly working-class women, and the old. These are people who occupy not just different economies but also different cultures. How many white Obama voters eat in Cracker Barrel or Bob Evans? And how many Clinton voters have a taste for sushi?

The illustration by Kevin Kallaugher is pretty neat too:

But what is the deal with the beer-track/wine-track dichotomy? It's an obviously displaced class-metaphor similar to other beverage-related nicknamings of a swank neighbourhood, such as the 'whiskey-belt', but a particularly insidious one because it has its open antithesis built into it: beer and wine (unlike whiskey and soda) don't mix - it's one or the other. The cultural connotations appear to ameliorate the harshness of the dichotomy but in reality only exacerbate it. Beer spells underclass, loss of control, drunkenness and loutish behaviour - Animal House. Wine spells sophistication, finesse and distinction - Sideways. The metaphor is related to the mind, and functions as a conduit over into the same 'intellectual - dumb' split as 'Rube' and 'redneck' signify. Virginie Boone spins the lighter side of the dichotomy in this blog...

'NASCAR', of course, refers to the funny kind of American stock car racing where the races are carried out on oval tracks, so that the intelligence of the drivers is not overtaxed by them having to keep a distinction between left and right always ready in their busy little brains - but that of course is just my snotty intellectual preference for types of racing where actual skills behind the wheel has an impact on the result. By inference the audience - 'fans' - of the sport (NASCAR-man and Mrs. NASCAR-man) are also associated with drink, rowdiness, a penchant for crashes and violent death, and low intelligence (actually I would have expected a Republican slant in NASCAR's fan base...) Peter Bainart writes almost with as much bias as I could muster in the above where I was trying to be sarcastic and exaggerate as much as possible:
Let's call him Nascar Man ... Nascar Man is the guy liberals need to win, but usually don't. He loves guns, pickup trucks, chewing tobacco, and church on Sunday. He thinks liberals are high-taxing, culturally libertine, quasi-pacifist wimps. And, once liberals have conjured him up, they no longer say what they really believe -- even to one another ... Nascar Man inhibits intellectual inquiry. He's the bully everyone wants to appease.

There is a funny soul-searching blog on this quote from a guy called Mark Schmitt that I can recommend...

'Bubba' is NASCAR-man's younger brother, second cousin, dad, grandad, next-door neighbour etc. Nuff said... In fact the only Bubba I really need to refer you to is golfer Bubba Watson, the longest hitting man on the PGA tour (No. 1 in driving distance w. 310 yards, but unfortunately only no. 178 in driving accuracy...) Bubba hails from Bagdad - that is Bagdad, Florida, not the Middle Eastern hot-spot we Europeans tend to think of first when hearing that name... He is comfortable with his masculinity, to the degree of using a pink shaft in his big stick (golf slang for the driver...) Bubba is best friends and hunting buddy with another Florida golfer 'Boo' Weekley, another hick from the sticks who recently tried to bring rifle cartridges on a commercial airplane...

Finally, we have the funny appellation 'Retro America', which must refer to the nostalgia among some democrats for the days of vintage consumer USA, as indicated in the blog that wears this label on its sleeve: "travel back to a time of pink kitchens, cars with huge fins, barbeques by the backyard pool". Pre-Kennedy USA, pre-desegregation USA, pre-Women's Lib, pre-Vietnam, pre-Moon landings, pre-oil crisis USA... The days when a man was a man and a woman was a housewife. The days of rock'n'roll, before Betty Friedan, Black Power, hippies and yippies, the youth revolt and the liberal university. Aren't we all just drooling by now...?

These days 'retro' is almost synonymous with 'vintage' - certainly in the fashion business. Again with an analogy across discourse spheres we understand the deep rooted wish for a simpler retro-fitted world in the political sphere as well. A nostalgia for simplicity that is deeply disturbed by the fact that the Democrats contesting this nomination are dreadfully unsimple by dint of their unprecedented distribution in terms of ethnicity and gender: Will NASCAR-man, Bubba and the wifey, prefer a woman or a black man? Whoa, honey - let's turn back the clock on that one...

The list of stereotypes is done, but what remains is that discourse such as Salon's simplifies matters greatly. All Americans can comfortably choose between beer and wine, meat & potatoes and pasta, Daytona and The Metropolitan Museum, swamp blues and string quartets. As Pierre Bourdieu teaches us it is all a matter of distinction... But the real political choice is too important to be reduced to a matter of taste - it's complicated, not least by the differences of gender and race which are carefully avoided by the candidates themselves most of the time, and the political pundits virtually all of the time. They prefer a nice food metaphor or a stock cartoon character any day. The reason this debate came back to smack Obama is that a mostly dormant major difference all of a sudden got vitalised by his remarks: class reared its ugly little head. Good thing pundits could 'culturate' it back in its basket by turning the debate into something else: dumb/smart stereotypes.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Bob Dylan - A Winner

So, Bob Dylan won an honorary Pulitzer, for his contribution to American culture. It seems that people are surprised by this, as it is the first time that rock'n'roll has been awarded. It doesn't really seem surprising to me. Awarding Bob Dylan the Pulitzer now seems more like getting it done before closing time, possibly even spurred on by I'm Not There. Also, all it really shows, is that Bob Dylan is an icon of the Sixties and that the Sixties counterculture is slowly being completely incorporated into American cultural life.

Whatever the musical merits of Dylan's post-1980s output, it seems a safe bet that Dylan won for his work in the 1960s. He certainly didn't win for his album Modern Times (2006), so his recent work is less significant than his collected output. Dylan has been awared quite a bit in recent years, but the Pulitzer is probably the highest honor so far.

But in fact, what is interesting about the Dylan Pulitzer, really isn't Dylan; it's about how these awards work. It was inevitable that Dylan ended up getting a Pultzer Prize, and not surprising as commentators say. It was clearly necessary for the Pulitzer committee to reinvigorate the Pulitzers by making them more relevant to the times, otherwise they were in danger of never being able to award other musicians than jazz musicians and classic composers. Dylan's honorary award is the first step in this direction, and in that sense, the Pultizers need Dylan more than he needs a Pulitzer.

Times are a-changing, then, as the awards need the celebrities and the celebrities in fact award the prizes with their glamor, rather than the prizes awarding anything to the celebrities. Perhaps this was always the case, and with the ubiquity of award shows all over the world, it definitely seems that the awards needs the celebrities.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Beauty and Beast? No, it's worse

This article is partially a response to Bent’s last post, Beauty and the Beast? I had originally intended on posting the Lebron Vouge Magazine photo which Bent analyzes below. I then thought I would post a reply in his thread but upon further reflection, I think an independent post is in order. I typically wouldn’t do that but I wanted to display a fair amount of images and just couldn't do that in the comments.

Bent makes an interesting point about how the LeBron photo has been deconstructed, noting that it just as easily could be interpreted through a critical feminist lens. Sure, I suppose. But that fashion models play into gendered roles is nothing new or even much debated. In the context of race in this instance, a feminist reading just feels disingenuous.

It was this statement that really jumped out at me;

“Walker and Husni to me seem to be typical of ethnic minority representatives who are prone to read specific ethnic narratives into mainstream material.”

If that is what’s happening, then we have to ask ourselves why that is. In an earlier post, Disney isn’t Racist, I pointed to an online discussion in which mainly Whites (one would assume) were incapable of seeing inherent racial stereotypes embedded in children's popular culture. One gets that same sense about this photo. I think to dismiss Walker and Husni out of hand is to dismiss centuries long and deeply embedded racial caricatures.

Men’s Fitness editor Roy Johnson took a more nuanced view of the situation;
“It’s a reminder that as African-Americans, we have come very far to have an African-American male featured on the cover of Vogue, but we have very far to go to continue to educate people within our industry regarding the power of images and the potential impact they can have on their readers.”

I’m sympathetic that Bent in this instance may want to defend the photographer Leibovitz. However, Michael Shaw at the Bag thinks otherwise;

... I think the image is worth our deconstruction, but I don't believe for a second Vogue/Leibovitz didn't know exactly what they were doing. In spite of his approval (before, and up to this moment), did LeBron get the shape of it?

I don’t know if Leibovitz “knew exactly what she was doing” but it’s difficult for me to not see the photo within a racialized context. Is it however possible that such an image was chosen on a subconscious level?

But what if Vogue magazine is completely innocent. Do unintended consequences have any bearing on the discussion? What's more, in response to Bent, is white America also not prone to read certain narratives into mainstream material? When a white American claims that an image like this isn't racist, is it because of a deep denial or cultural blindness? Perhaps it's difficult to sympathize with oppression if one's never been oppressed. I contend that there are several narratives which can be read into the image and that all of them are valid. I accept the idea that Leibovitz as photographer and artist was sincerely intent on simply creating images to match the magazine's stated mission for that publication.

Sure, like Bent points out, we can deconstruct this image or any image into multiple layered meanings, creating our own narrow constructions out of the pieces. But to deny that this image or anything else racial in the US "has absolutely nothing to do with the legacy of race in these United States" as one commenter stated, is at the very least, dishonest. Something is there or we wouldn't be talking about it to the extent that we are. 400 years of cultural constructions of the "savage other" can not simply be dismissed, especially in a society were ethnic minorities continue to suffer from both institutionalized and socio-cultural racism.

My point is that the LeBron image, whether intended or not, should be seen within the ugly tradition of grotesquely negative stereotypes of Black men, and as Bent points out, equally disturbing portrayals of women as week sexual objects. Maybe the editor did know what was going on, maybe it was a marketing ploy? Who knows for sure? But old memes die hard.

The University of Wisconsin's Center for Whiteness Studies has some interesting sources on White constructions of Black on White sexual assault here.

The film King Kong thus belongs to the tradition of Birth of a Nation, which first put on the silver screen blackface images of African American men attacking virginal blondes in traumatic violation of imaginary national and race identities. When the airplanes arrive to shoot down Kong and save the white goddess, we can hardly forget the ride of the Klansmen who come to the rescue of the white South in Griffith's film.

The image of a Black man as a gorilla, ape, or sexual monster didn't just disappear. No doubt, some segments of White society are still apt to read the LeBron image as such. While one would hope that this is a very small minority, more troubling are millions of suburban whites who just don't "see" racism anywhere.

Frank Darabont's 1999 film adaptation of Stephen King's, The Green Mile, shows a similar depiction. In this case, John Coffey, an 8 foot Black man is falsely accused and sentenced to death for the murder of two small White girls. Part of the message of the film (I haven't read the book) is that Coffey is accused and murdered by the state because he fits the dominant racial stereotypes of White society. In another scene, Coffey is taken to the warden's house to "cure" his wife's cancer. The wife, wearing a long white satin gown with flowing long blond hair is powerless against "the giant." The four white men are also depicted as utterly powerless (even with firearms) as they look on. Ultimately, the viewers understand that Coffey is there to help the poor sick woman but the scene plays on old narratives of the savage (Black) raping of (White) purity.

The Green Mile could be seen in the tradition of Harper Lee's, To Kill a Mockingbird, which also addresses these same white fears and the injustice that deeply embedded racial stereotypes help perpetuate. Again, despite the good intentions of enlightened Whites, liberal justice can not overcome the "black male predator"/"white woman victim" cultural frame.

Whatever the intentions, the Vogue image appears at a time of extra-heightened racial awareness and even perhaps a growing animosity. Ultimately then, the image is not merely a piece of popular culture but part of the now overtly racialized political climate which was always brewing just below the surface before Barack Obama’s speech on race created the firestorm. Nothing currently in America isn’t about race.

This article is cross-posted at The Agonist

The Rebbe Sues

It seems ethnicity and commercials is a hot topic these days. Waves are still high over LeBron James allegedly being cast as 'King Kong' in Annie Leibovitz' April 2008 Vogue cover (see my recent post on this), and now the wires report that Woody Allen has decided to sue American Apparel over their allegedly unauthorized use of his likeness on commercial billboards in New York and L.A. in May 2007. What is particularly interesting about this, not in itself very unusual instance of an American celebrity engaging in the US national pastime of litigation, is that the billboards in question show Allen in costume from a scene in Annie Hall, his celebrated 1977 film, playing a Hasidic rabbi, complete with hat, full beard and ringlet tresses.

This scene from the movie is set at an Easter dinner which Woody's character is sharing with the Hall family (Here is the complete dialogue). Granny Hall's penetrating gaze 'others' Allen's character and the Hasidic stereotype is his character as seen by her "classic Jew hater"-eyes. Woody does all he can to adapt, even complementing Granny's cooking: "It's dynamite ham." Annie Hall is often considered Allen's best and wittiest film, full as it is of his trade-mark self-deprecating humour which often plays on the audience's stereotypical expectations of expressions of Jewishness.

What, then, might have possessed American Apparel, and their CEO, Dov Charney (a self-professed "Jewish hustler" - incisively profiled in this NYT piece) to use the stereotypically disguised Allen character on their billboards, complete with Yiddish writing in Hebrew letters: "Der Heilicker Rebbe" (The Holy Rabbi/Teacher)? Bloggers were intrigued already last year when the billboards made their first appearance - first in N.Y (on Allen St. of all places, indicating perhaps the jokey quality of the image!), then in a Latino quarter of L.A. - esp. when the commercials then rapidly disappeared again.

Dakota speculated on Curbed LA:

Also, founder Dov Charney is Jewish. Is it some Jewish-only hipster call? What a mystery. But better than pimply-faced teens, oops, legal-age models. Nice job, American Apparel. We hope Woody-as-a-rabbi helps you sell a lot of tube socks.

American Apparel founder Dov Charney is notorious for ads featuring scantily clad young women modeling his company’s clothes while striking provocative poses. Now, it appears, he’s found religion — or at least he’s found the appropriate rebbe: Woody Allen. Responding to an inquiry from the Forward, Alex Spunt of American Apparel explained, “Woody Allen is our spiritual leader.” But the feeling may not have been mutual. Within a week, both billboards were gone. American Apparel did not respond to a second request for comment, but the speculation in the blogosphere is that the clothing company didn’t secure permission to use the Woody Allen image. How it must sting when a rebbe spurns his Hasidim!

On BeliefNet Esther had a nifty analysis of the image on the billboard and its cultural narrative:

AA's target customers are probably too young to really know Woody Allen. But in New York, where everyone's a film expert and a vaguely Jewish neurosis seems to permeate daily life, Woody Allen may in fact be a spiritual leader of sorts. He elevates New York City as some sort of cinematic heaven, illuminating the life in different neighborhoods (most notably the Upper East Side). He shocks us with comedic human truths in his films and with scandalous behavior in his personal life. And even if we're appalled, we accept it because that's his particular genius. He's our Woody, and we laugh even if we wince, because we love him even if we hate him. By invoking the Woodman, AA's message may be that it doesn't matter how other people see you. Just be who you are.

Gawker responds to the news of the suit with horrible Woody images photoshopped into American Apparel underwear products.

The New York Post has this report on the suit in inimitable tabloid style, its headline reading: "Oh, No Jew Don't" - which goes to show that there are both kosher puns and distinctly hammy ones out there...

From my perspective the commercial is interesting as it constitutes a borderline case between collaborative and adversarial icon-work. Its indeterminable layers of irony become entangled in the interpretation the viewer reads into the image. Esther, for instance, sees it as cool and a clear homage to Allen who indeed to her is an intellectual leader in his capacity as an often imitated jester figure, constantly reminding the gentile-dominated, liberal intelligentsia of their 'others'.

Since the film where the still is taken from shows the power of the gentile gaze to 'other' even a liberal ham-eating Jew into an old-school stereotype, the billboard in a way forces us to see Allen-as-Rebbe as the Jew-haters do. This could be read as a sophisticated manipulation of the viewer into a dangerous situation where we are also prone to be Jew-haters by proxy (esp. if we do not immediately recognize Woody behind the beard)... Yet, this undercover subversion is still collaborative icon-work offering homage to Woody's powers.

Why then was Allen so upset that he sued? It is amusing to note that Allen has filed what is known as a 'trademark suit' - this at least seems to indicate that Woody has no doubts that viewers will recognize his brand (i.e. face) beneath the beard and hat. Woody has a history of suing, so maybe he is just in it for the money, as some newspapers have suggested (again treading perilously close to another cultural stereotype about Jews). Apparently AA had 'forgotten' to clear the property rights to Allen's image before posting the billboards...

Reached for comment, American Apparel spokeswoman Alexandra Spunt stated “Woody Allen is our spiritual leader and that’s the only statement the company will make on that issue.” I definitely heard snickering in the background. The same billboard also appears on the corner of Sunset and Alvarado in Los Angeles (right next to Burrito King). There’s no telling what the mostly Latino residents of the neighborhood are expected to make of the ad.

A Canadian site, Urbanphoto, has an outsider's cooler view, analysing the ad accurately as kitsch, in effect transcending the adversarial/collaborative dichotomy:

On American Apparel’s website, the company declares its devotion to “people, places and things that surround us” with photos of everyday streetlife in Hong Kong, signs in Montreal and mid-century architecture like Habitat ‘67. (Sound familiar?) This is a company with a heightened awareness of kitsch, and a passion for kitsch is what is driving a large part of our current urban culture. That might explain why, even though many people seem repulsed by American Apparel, even more are attracted to it.

This view implicitly points to kitsch, or camp as Susan Sontag labelled this transgressive cultural strategy, being a postmodern strategy using the post-ironic, flat form of pastiche, or blank parody, as pointed social commentary.

It's a twofer: it sells underwear - and the customer laughs at the in-joke while swiping his credit card.