Thursday, May 29, 2008

Communing with Lincoln

This picture (h/t The Bag) immediately struck me as it provides a very interesting visual narrative to an analysis I recently wrote on some contemporary political appropriations of Abraham Lincoln. I plan to discuss this image in more detail, along with my article which will be available after the weekend.

In the meantime, go check out The Bag's post, "Taking A Lesson," which apart from providing an interesting reading of the image demonstrates a very telling case of the politics of photojournalist editorializing.

Why you are there, also see this very provocative post, "Stereotypes From The White Corporate Media: The Black Man Gets His Hands On The Presidency."

Monday, May 26, 2008

McCain's Memorial Day Political Iconography

Today is Memorial Day in the US. Doubtful there was any "coverage" by our local media here. But given the recent importance we've been placing on visual analysis, iconic studies, and semiotics I thought this image, featured today on the mainpage of John McCain's campaign website, might be interesting to toss around.

I've recently been re-reading Robert Hariman's and John Louis Lucaites' exceptional book, No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture and Liberal Democracy.

Chapter 4, "Performing Civic Identity," specifically explores the iconic image of the flag raising at Iwo Jima.

Hariman and Lucaites argue that the flag raising image creates three simultaneous civic narratives based on three deeply embedded ideological traditions within America's political and cultural history. I'm pulling this from memory so please correct me if I don't get it exactly right.
1. civic republicanism
2. egalitarianism
3. nationalism

From the photo above, its obvious that the man holding the flag is none other than John McCain. Given that John McCain's campaign has embraced militaristic and nationalistic themes for his campaign an image like this is not unique for McCain on its first read.

However, I couldn't help seeing this image in relation to the iconic Iwo Jima photo. There's McCain, standing atop a barren hilltop amongst an eerily similar barren landscape like that depicted in the Iwo Jima.

What do you think? Is McCain relying on the cultural memory of the Iwo Jima image here?
If so, does the image meet any of the three qualities listed above? For Hariman and Lucaites the Iwo Jima worked and continues to work because it simultaneously embodies all three of those traits which can be read by different and competing identities within the body politic. For me, any expression of egalitarianism or popular liberal democracy is removed from the context in the McCain photo. Its even difficult to read a civic republican virtue into the visual narrative. I'm left with a libertarian ultra-individualistic patriotism as the sole narrative. Perhaps the creators thought a lone McCain would strengthen the "maverick" meme. I don't know, I think this image fails terribly in comparison to the original, if that is what it was based upon.

What do you think?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

CFP: Cultures of the Image

Iconotopoi/Bildkulturen (Cultures of the Image)
Current Academic Practices in the Study of Images
Joint Eikones-McGill Graduate Conference
Department of Art History and Communication Studies
McGill University, Montreal
December 3 to 5, 2008

The joint McGill-Eikones Graduate Conference Iconotopoi/Bildkulturen (Cultures of the Image) aims to identify and challenge cultural and linguistic barriers within the academy, so that the study of images may one day become as mobile as its objects of inquiry.

Since the early 1990s, at least two interdisciplinary fields dedicated to understanding images attest to the differences in cultural/academic approaches to the study of images: Visual Studies in America, and Bildwissenschaften in German-speaking Europe. Each of these fields traces its roots back to the Linguistic Turn, and both stem from the Pictorial or Iconic Turn (cf. W.J.T. Mitchell’s Critical Iconology and G. Boehm’s notion of Bildkritik). Bildkritik emphasizes the singular image, its inner tensions and structures, and its temporal and affective interplays. In contrast, Visual Studies often focus on the social and political contexts of image productionand reception, thereby broadening the field in which images are considered.


Monday, May 19, 2008

Dead Heads for Obama

A few months ago I posted an article, Postmodern Presidential Branding, which highlighted Obama's "O" logo in particular, as a example of open ended visual narrative, easily recreated and reproduced. Here's exhibit 3,569. I was never a Dead Head (though I dated one) but I've been a Grateful Dead fan for as long as I've been choosing what I listen to. The Dead Head community has always actively recreated and reproduced the Grateful Dead image which makes this image all the more interesting as it merges two open-ended narrative icons. The employment of Obama's campaign slogan,"fired up and ready to go" was also not lost on this gentle commentator. This flew under my radar at the time but here are some photos of the band from the "Dead Heads for Obama" GOTV event.

Here's Bob Weir endorsing Obama which links to both Mickey Hart's and Phil Lesh's endorsement. Why didn't this get as much press coverage as John Edwards' recent endorsement? Anyhow, there's also video from the concert which you can scroll through but I thought the quality was so poor I've posted the song bellow instead.

In my little neck of the woods here in Denmark, after three glorious weeks of sunshine we received a little box of rain this morning. Dead Heads were doing "viral marketing" long before Time Magazine named "YOU", person of the year, but this "user generated" video is pretty sweet. Happy Monday.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Lakota Sundance and the American Flag

One of the most captivating presentations at the recent EAAS conference in Oslo was Kay Koppedrayer's narration of the events at a Lakota sundance ceremony on the Pine Ridge reservation where American Flags were flown during the ceremony:

One year, four American flags flew over a Lakota sundance on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Raised on a column of lodge poles dug into the hillside above the eastern gateway of the sundance arbor, the flags were easily visible from every location on the sundance grounds, from where families camped, to where people parked and sat in their cars, to the shade circling the arbor, where the drums and singers sat, to inside the arbor where the sundancers prayed, to the fire and where the sweat lodges were located.

There were varying opinions among the participants concerning the meaning of the iconic flag in such a context. I was particularly struck by this comment cited by Kay:

As one of the Lakota sundancers put it, "that's our flag, too. We captured it. We won that flag, the one that’s flying up there." He was referring to the defeat of Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, in which more than a few American flags were taken by the victors. One estimate is that some fifteen were later brought back to the Lakota and Cheyenne camps.

See for instance the account by Chief Rain-in-the-Face of his role in the battle of Little Big Horn which mentions a flag capture:

I had sung the war song, I had smelt power smoke, my heart was bad--I was like one who had no mind. I rushed in and took their flag; my pony fell dead as I took it. I cut the thong that bound me; I jumped up and brained the sword flag man with my war club, and ran back to our line with the flag. I was mad. I got a fresh pony and rushed back, shooting, cutting and slashing. This pony was shot and I got another. This time I saw Little Hair (Tom Custer)--I remembered my vow. I was crazy; I feared nothing. I knew nothing would hurt me, for I had my white weasel tail on. I don't know how many I killed trying to get at him. He knew me. I laughed at him and yelled at him. I saw his mouth move, but there was so much noise I couldn't hear his voice. He was afraid. When I got near enough I shot him with my revolver. My gun was gone, I didn't know where. I got back on my pony and rode off. I was satisfied and sick of fighting.

The pride in the American flag expressed by one Lakota sundancer in the above quote from Kay's presentation was supplemented by her further account of the respect several veterans of service in the US military expressed for the flag. Historically the US Government has made considerable efforts to establish the role of the flag and has used it as a means of integration of Natives serving in the military. Kay Koppedrayer again:

Veterans returning from the war were welcomed with victory songs, adaptations of earlier songs celebrating victory over other tribes or the US cavalry (Standing in the Light: A Lakota Way of Seeing, Young Bear and Theisz, 1996: 83-84), and flag songs, introduced to the reservations with the citizenship and recruitment campaigns. [...] Flags were flown at these [social] dances as at most other gatherings on the reservation as part of the Americanization process. Veterans, honoured with the flag songs and victory songs, were given the privilege of opening and policing the gatherings. As for the Lakota soldiers who didn’t come back, their deaths were honoured with the display of the flag. A description of a soldier’s burial at Rosebud describes his body being brought home: “Long before we reached the home we could also see Old Glory floating from a tall flagpole that had been set up since the news of his death had reached the reservation” (Department of Interior 1927: 3).

At the end of the sundance described in Kay's presentation the flags were taken down and in an impromptu ceremony presented to a young Marine representing all the veterans there. Kay quotes this young man's account of the event:

He said that when he stood there in front of the people, it was so still, so quiet, he felt as if the ancestors were there, all the veterans were there. He stood there for all the veterans and he can’t put into words how he felt, can’t express it, can’t explain it. He said the look on the faces of the family members who received the flags is something he can’t explain. He said that the experience took him to another place, "it was as if I was up on the hill [the hill surrounding the sundance grounds, but also an expression that is used when one goes fasting (= vision quest), the hill where the flag poles were, the hill where the men had earlier been fasting] watching. I could see myself and I could see everybody and I could see the pride. The pride I felt wasn’t my pride, but it came from the people, it came from them and I felt it through me."

Kay's narration of these events and feelings left us all quite stunned. The somewhat problematic connotations of Old Glory had been re-interpreted for us in a whole new context. I deem the actions of the participants in the Lakota sundance as a performance of an instance of unincorporated, non-hegemonic collaborative icon-work vis-a-vis the US flag...

For an alternative Native view see this document.

Here is a Whitecap Dakota/Sioux flag used in Canada:

Thursday, May 15, 2008

An Uncanny Convention(al) Photo

Yesterday John Edwards endorsed Barack Obama. I know, old news already. But if you haven't seen the video it's worth noting the overwhelming enthusiasm from the Michigan crowd when Obama introduced Edwards. Considering he received 7% of the vote in West Virginia and isn't even running I'd say he's still got some serious mojo with "the people".

Hat tip to the EENR blog for video. EENR is a progressive blog community which began as a partisan grassroots community for John Edwards and has since morphed into an independent progressive/populist advocacy site.

The thing that struck me immediately about the visual of Obama and Edwards together was how much they looked like running mates at a Democratic convention. No doubt many would have read the visual as such which was probably the point. The BAG has a few remarks on this worth checking out, "-- it's hard to believe the true blue O-team wasn't playing for this exact pose."

Bellow is Clinton and Gore at the 92 Democratic convention. The comparison is uncanny.
Even Edwards' and Obama's facial gestures mimic Gore and Clinton in these two photos.
Do you notice anything different between the two photos?

The title of this blog post is a direct play on the BAG's title linked above, "Obama-Edwards: Just A Convention(al) Photo"

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Icons of Transgression

My paper for the EAAS conference in Oslo last week dealt with icons and icon work, continuing a line of research I began about 5 years ago when I participated in a conference in Austria with the theme of US Icons. The convener of both the AAAS event in 2003 and of the Oslo workshop was Klaus Rieser of Graz, Austria whose tireless work is beginning to make an emergent interdisciplinary field out of Icon Studies.

Here is an excerpt of my presentation focusing on my two case studies of transgressive American icons, Charles Manson and Patty Hearst...

It is the elderly Manson who fuels the imagination of icon workers that use him in a politicized discourse, as witnessed first by a right wing manipulation of Manson’s image, photo-shopped into a photo of former Democrat candidate for President, John Kerry, who was the victim of a vicious slander campaign due to his past as an anti-Vietnam War activist. Here a grinning Manson in a suit modelled on Kerry’s (as is Manson’s hair style) shows the Senator a piece of paper or a photograph (perhaps a snapshot of the original Manson victims), and they appear to share a moment of confidence, although Kerry’s closed eyes might indicate that the image Manson shows him is a bit too much to take in. Note the Swastika on Manson’s forehead (he had used a knife to scrawl an 'X' on his forehead during his trial, and this 'X' later turned into a Swastika in popular legend), as well as the Kerry campaign button on his lapel.

In a parallel image, this time used to satirize Kerry’s defeater, George W. Bush, Manson’s photograph (the raw image is the same, and here the hair and attire are not airbrushed or photo-shopped) is used for a different type of collaborative icon work, this time more oppositional in nature. It is accompanied by an amusing text calling for the approval by the Senate of Manson as ambassador to the Klingon Empire (referencing the Star Trek universe). In this narrative Manson works for the Republicans as (crudely) indicated by the replacement of the Swastika on his forehead, which is substituted with a GOP Elephant, the symbol of the Republican Party. Bush and Condoleeza Rice are both ‘quoted’ as supporting Manson’s speedy appointment, saying for instance that “questions about Manson’s management style shouldn’t be part of the confirmation process”.

These two instances will be perceived as collaborative only from a politically partisan view. Both authors use Manson’s monstrosity to satirize the party he or she does not belong to. They are both hegemonically inscribed in a party political system, although not officially sanctioned by either party. The main iconic image I have selected for analysis is however a true homage to Manson.

Here Manson is a saint and a martyr, signalled as in classical religious iconography via a representation of his stigmata. Here we note again the Swastika on Manson’s forehead, echoed in even more stylized form in his halo along with pentagrams that associate Manson with Satanism. His other stigmata consist of the blood stains on his face and neck and the strange umbilical chord of blood stretching from the back of his skull into the background of the icon. The photograph used as template for the icon is one depicting Manson in a particularly wild-eyed moment, taken shortly after his arrest, but prior to the X’ing incident. The choice of red, black and purple colours for Manson’s halo and the background (the traditional rays of light signalling the subject’s holiness in religious icons is here turned negative and black) contrast sharply with his pale skin. Taken together with the Swastika this composition and colour scheme serve to underscore Manson’s racial programme which the creator of the icon obviously condones. On the website I originally located the image there is a click through link to a further shrine for Satanism and Alistair Crowley which opens when Manson’s image is clicked.

Manson’s afterlife as an icon is thus prolonged by oppositional, collaborative icon work, falling within at least three spheres (which are not as separate as they perhaps should be): political, religious and pop-culture discourses all feed off his image...

Turning now to Patty Hearst, we encounter a story much intertwined in the same counterculture background as the Manson legend. Heiress Hearst was the victim of an extremely high profile kidnapping in 1974, at the tail end of the armed struggle that militant splinter groups originating in the counter-culture and its anti-capitalist agenda was waging in America. The kidnappers, the bizarrely named Symbionese Liberation Army, carried out urban guerrilla warfare inspired by South American left-wing groups. Their agenda further included an attempt to free African-American inmates from the US prison system which their rhetoric compared to concentration camps and apartheid regime oppression a la South Africa. The SLA saw itself as spearheading a Black revolution in America and took as its symbol a seven-headed cobra snake – each head representing a Kwanzaa principle, such as unity, creativity and faith. After kidnapping Hearst and demanding various types of ransom payment (in kind, to be distributed among the poor), Hearst apparently willingly switched sides and joined the SLA in a bank robbery, generating one of the more iconic images of Patty (now known as Tania) wielding a sub-machine gun.

The SLA was eventually hunted down by the police and in an extremely violent shoot-out which resulted in a fire, most of the SLA members were killed. Hearst and a few SLA members escaped the siege and shootout, but were arrested soon after. During the trial, Hearst again switched persona and claimed that her participation in the robbery was coerced and that she had been sexually abused and brainwashed during her captivity by the SLA. She was sentenced to a fairly mild stretch in jail, her sentence was reduced by President Carter and eventually she was fully pardoned by President Clinton. A number of iconic cultural texts have been generated by this sequence of events.

The best known icon of Hearst is the image of her in front of the SLA cobra on a bright orange background. ‘Tania’ stares aggressively at ‘the Man’, ready to fire her Thompson gun – another weapon is ready in the background. This is revolutionary iconography 101, down to the army fatigues, the beret, the weapon and the surprising amount of cleavage shown. The phallic cobra offers a potent reminder of Tania’s taming, but also boosts her new-found revolutionary clout. As an ironic paean to this image Warren Zevon has put Patty Hearst into the lyrics of his tall-tale of mercenaries, post-colonial African liberation wars, upright, well-meaning Norwegian boys displaying bravery, sinister Danish power brokers, and CIA engineered betrayal followed by posthumous just deserts in the form of a headless ghost’s revenge: “Roland, the Headless Thompson Gunner”. The song ends on a didactic note:

The eternal Thompson gunner
Still wand'ring through the night
Now it's ten years later, but he still keeps up the fight
In Ireland, in Lebanon, in Palestine and Berkeley
Patty Hearst heard the burst
Of Roland's Thompson gun and bought it…

What exactly the meaning of the closing phrase “and bought it” means is an interesting point of debate. To buy something, of course means to acquire it for money, but also to buy into a story hook, line and sinker. The court case against Hearst revolved exactly around this point: did she buy the rhetoric of the SLA, or was she coerced or seduced, becoming a case of Stockholm Syndrome? My take on Zevon, who has many songs about masculine exploits gone horribly wrong (“Send lawyers, guns and money – the shit has hit the fan” is a line that springs to mind), is that he is warning us all against being taken in by revolutionary bravado and romanticism. To him Hearst is the naïve, protected, socialite teen who temporarily falls for the seduction of revolutionary ardour (a sentiment I would guess many of us can recognize).

Here is Zevon performing his song on Letterman:

More images of Hearst and Manson available here...

Read the rest of my paper in due course when it appears in print or as part of my book on Icons of Transgression...

Friday, May 09, 2008

Harvard Law Commits to Open Access Scholarship

For the times they are a-changin'

“Each Faculty member grants to the President and Fellows of Harvard College permission to make available his or her scholarly articles and to exercise the copyright in those articles. More specifically, each Faculty member grants to the President and Fellows a nonexclusive, irrevocable, worldwide license to exercise any and all rights under copyright relating to each of his or her scholarly articles, in any medium, and to authorize others to do the same, provided that the articles are not sold for a profit. The policy will apply to all scholarly articles authored or co-authored while the person is a member of the Faculty except for any articles completed before the adoption of this policy and any articles for which the Faculty member entered into an incompatible licensing or assignment agreement before the adoption of this policy.”

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Thoreau at Walden at Containing Multitudes

The American Studies East Anglia blog has recently undergone a few minor changes, including a very cool banner and new blog title, Containing Multitudes.

A few days ago Graphic Adaptations of American Classics was posted, highlighting some very interesting new comic art, all of which are now cued on my Amazon wish list. But the most interesting for me was John Porcellino's adaptation of Henry David Thoreau's Walden, which I've ordered for myself now and to share later with my son.

Containing Multitudes has an "exclusive account of the genesis of Thoreau at Walden by the book's creator, John Porcellino" here.

Walden is such a dense, beautiful text, that almost every line in it could be fodder for pages of exploration. I tried to keep to the essence, and obviously there's a lot that that couldn't be included.

Both posts contain a wealth of links for further investigation. Perusing the Center for Cartoon Studies website I found another intriguing work they released, Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow. This too is on my short list.

Oh yeah, CM has also established a Facebook presence which you can find here.