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: