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Is There an Icon for Everything?

It may have started with this:


Search for “icon” on LexisNexis and you can quickly overload the browser with thousands of citations. And no wonder, the word appears continually these days in every section of the newspaper. Yesterday the Chicago Tribune reported, “At Hall of Fame, Day Dedicated to Two Icons, Not Controversy.” Who were the two titans of the game? Iron man Cal Ripken was one; the other was Tony Gwynn. A fine player, I’m sure, but not exactly a household name. He is, however, probably in the same league as Tom Snyder, who today was labeled a “late-night talk show icon.” A search reveals the same for a clerk in Cambridge, a banker in Arkansas, and just about everything in Australia. Not to mention tomato soup in the U.S. . . . Should we be surprised that there now also are “supericons” (Kate Moss, by one account)?

One might wonder why. My Northwestern colleagues Pablo Bockowski and James Webster have each done research that suggests one answer to the proliferation of “icon.” Very briefly, the combination of new media and intense competition for consumer attention can produce homogenized content. YouTube is an obvious example: of all those video clips seen by millions of viewers, one result is that a very few get tremendous circulation–dare we say they become iconic?–while most fade unseen in the desert air. As all media become focused on relaying what is currently popular to get their share of consumer attention, this phenomenon becomes the standard of significance while “repurposing” pops up as a new (and ugly) verb.

Here’s where “icon” comes into the picture. The homogenization thesis is a corrective to the fragmentation thesis, which says that incredible proliferation in media technologies and producers creates ever more finely segmented and isolated audiences. Thus, fragmentation and homogenization are countervailing forces that can produce mixed outcomes. We might speculate that the homogenization that can happen across producers and audiences can also happen within any topical category, audience, or sub-culture: amidst the information explosion within that “locality,” some few individuals will get a disproportionate amount of attention and thus seem to be representative of the category. Given these market forces, being notable and being well-known will seem to be much the same, so much so that one word might suffice for both. And so it is that anyone trying to claim that anything is worth our attention might say that it is iconic.

Thus, the same word can mark two related though quite different qualities. “Icon” can refer to anything that is recognized widely, such as the smiley face, or to any representative of a particular sub-culture, such as Tony Gwynn.

Have a nice day.


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Paper Call: Video Game Reader

Joystick Soldiers: The military/war video game reader

Edited by Nina B. Huntemann and Matthew Thomas Payne

The editors seek essays on military/war-themed video games which explore the multifaceted cultural, social, and economic linkages between video games and the military. The collection will feature scholarly work from a diversity of theoretical and methodological perspectives, including: close textual readings of military-themed video games; critical histories of game production processes and marketing practices; and reception studies of video war gamers, fandom, and politically resistant game interventions. As there is no other collection of its kind, Joystick Soldiers will make a significant contribution to the breadth of work shaping the burgeoning field of game studies, complementing analyses concerning the Military-Entertainment Complex, and offering diverse insights on how modern warfare has been represented and remediated in contemporary video games. The editors invite junior as well as established scholars to submit, and welcome cross-disciplinary work from sociology, cultural studies, anthropology, history, military studies, psychology, economics, media studies, visual communication, graphic arts and game design, education, and so forth.

We are looking for submissions that address a wide range of topics from diverse methodological approaches, including but not limited to:

–Use of games for training, recruitment, propaganda (serious games)
–Video games and military ideology (or Military-Entertainment Complex)
–Representing / playing soldiers, terrorists, & civilians
–Global reception of America’s Army and other “pro-US” war games
–Production of war video games
–War video games across genres (e.g., FPS, RTS, RPG)
–Playing war video games of past & near-future conflicts
–War game mods and other user-generated content
–Machinima as social commentary on war (e.g., Red vs. Blue)
–Games and resistance (non-combat games, in-game protests, diplomacy as alternative to force)
–Game for peace
–Networked war games in different spaces (LAN parties, on-line, mobile).
–War games and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

We are interested in defining “military/war” video games widely, but not so widely as to be useless for critical analysis. The following is a partial list of war video games we hope to include, but submissions for scholarly work about other games are welcome, for example games based on past wars (Battlefield 1942; Call of Duty, etc) and non-US based games.

–Marine Doom
–Counter-Strike & its mods
–America’s Army & America’s Army: Rise of a Soldier
–Battlefield 2: Modern Combat
–Close Combat: First to Fight
–Conflict: Desert Storm II – Back to Baghdad
–FA-18 Operation Desert Storm
–Freedom Fighters
–Full Spectrum Warrior & Full Spectrum Warrior: Ten Hammers
–Kuma War
–Ghost Recon 3: Advanced Warfighter
–Operation Flashpoint: Resistance
–Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield
–Sniper Elite
–Under Siege, Under Ash, and Special Force

Please submit a 500 word abstract and short bio (100 words max) by September 17, 2007 in Rich Text Format (RTF) to Nina Huntemann and Matthew Payne at joysticksoldiers@gmail.com. We expect final papers will not exceed 5000-7000 words and will be due December 10, 2007. Feel free to repost this CFP on relevant lists. Please contact us if you have questions about potential essays or the book project in general.

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Lil' Bush at Street Level

John has written about Lil’ Bush, referring to how the president is being photographed to emphasize a diminished stature; whether the reduction in size reflects his slide in the polls, a corresponding loss of political effectiveness, or continued moral decline may be in the eye of the beholder. John and I have each written on photographs that feature hands or feet while cutting faces or the rest of the body out of the picture. And last week I wrote about a striking illustration by Barry Blitt for the Sunday New York Times. Given these interests, imagine my reaction when I saw Blitt’s illustration in this Sunday’s Times:


There he is, a real little Bush, surrounded by the many different shoes one can see in any New York City street scene. The illustration is a stand-alone piece, moreover, as it has only a very general relationship with the Frank Rich essay for which it is a visual caption. Rich presumes Bush’s loss of credibility and focuses on the administration’s strange PR strategy of hiding behind General David Petraeus. None of this is marked in the drawing.

So what is going on? Certainly the drawing does a fine job of cutting the president down to size. (To really get the point, look at the silhouette.) The contrast with the many feet brings in more as well: Bush and the other figures represent two versions of the body politic. Bush provides the standard image of the elected official speaking to the public. In that model, the official stands in for the office that represents the body of the people. He is a single person and they are a single, unified collectivity, as if a single audience within earshot of the speaker. Obviously, Lil’ Bush isn’t up to that job. And perhaps he shouldn’t want it anyway. Instead of the president’s stock gestures (note the prominent hands), canned speech, and failed policies, we see a variety of anonymous people representing different lifestyles, going about their business briskly in different directions, without getting in each other’s way. This is a different idea of the people–a plurality that need not be One, pluribus without the unum–because they already are members (note the pun) of a liberal, pluralistic civil society.

But liberal visions need not be innocent of violence. I think the image also evokes the fantasy that one of those busy feet on the crowded street might just step on Lil’ Bush and squash him flat. You can’t blame people for thinking–or drawing–that way, but this is one example of how even the reality-based community, feet solidly on the ground, needs to be reminded that there are no simple solutions.

llustration by Barry Blitt for the New York Times, The Week in Review, July 29, 2007.


Pre-conference Paper Call: Democratic Aesthetics

National Communication Association Pre-conference Seminar

Democratic aesthetics: actual, radical, global.

Wednesday, November 14th 2007, Chicago Hilton, Conference Room 4K

(Participants in the seminar must be registered for the NCA Annual Convention.)

Seminar leaders: Jon Simons and Michael Kaplan, Indiana University, Bloomington.

Issues to be Explored: The purpose of the seminar is to focus on those senses of aesthetics that pertain to the sensory communication of social meanings through the production/dissemination and consumption/interpretation of cultural symbols. In these senses, democratic aesthetics can consist of, among others:
a) particular genres of art forms that embody specific democratic values (such as portraits of ordinary people and individualism, or Brechtian, didactic, realist theater);
b) democratic styles of political performance (such as political actors presenting themselves according to the modes of popular culture, such as politicians as celebrities, or theatrical or “spectacular” activism);
c) the democratization of aesthetics, recognizing aesthetic activity in everyday life (as in Paul Willis’ “grounded aesthetics” or Pierre Bourdieu’s “popular aesthetics”);
d) the constitution of democratic publics as communities of aesthetic judgment (e.g. drawing from Kant’s and Arendt’s notions of sensus communis).

The seminar will analyze general processes and particular examples of democratic aesthetics, while also assessing them in terms of conceptual and normative distinctions of democracy. In particular, the seminar will address the question of whether democratic aesthetics is irrevocably associated with commodified and mass mediated capitalist culture, and hence as symptomatic of attenuated forms of actually existing liberal or market democracy (as in critiques by Terry Eagleton and David Harvey), or whether (and under what circumstances) democratic aesthetics can motivate more radical, emancipatory versions of democracy. The distinctions between actual, critical and radical notions of democracy is also crucial to addressing a key motivating question for the seminar, namely, whether under current conditions in which the Western militarized export of democracy cannot be considered an unqualified “good,” democratic aesthetics offer less hostile ways of practicing democracy in an international and transnational environment.

Seminar structure: The all-day seminar will be structured by three position papers, written by previously selected presenters and circulated to seminar participants in advance, each of which will address a different aspects of “democratic aesthetics” as outlined above. The discussion around each position paper, following a 15 minute overview by the presenter, will be led by a named facilitator, who will structure the discussion on the basis of responses written by seminar participants 2 weeks in advance of the seminar. The seminar will close with a discussion about directions, themes and case studies for future research on the topic.

Requirements: Those interested in participating are initially asked to submit a one-page (250-300 word) statement of interest in the seminar topic, including research already undertaken in the area. These statements of interest should be e-mailed to the seminar leaders: simonsj@indiana.edu and mikaplan@indiana.edu, by Wednesday 1st August 2007. Notification of successful submissions will be given by 21st August.

Seminar participants will be sent the three position papers by Wednesday, 3rd October and are asked to read all three papers and to write a 500-750 word response to the paper in which they are most interested by Wednesday 31st October. Responses should be e-mailed to the seminar leaders: simonsj@indiana.edu and mikaplan@indiana.edu, the paper writer and the facilitator for that paper (details will be provided).


.. and Before the Caption Comes the Picture


Robert and I have spent much of the past ten years trying to figure out what makes a photograph “iconic.” We have some pretty good ideas about what leads to photographic iconicity, but all but one are arguable: Unseen photographs never become iconic. And the condition of see-ability, of course, is that the photograph actually has to be taken. And now the truly great city of New York, in all of its infinite wisdom, wants to regulate the taking of photographs, requiring permits and $1 million dollars in liability insurance from anyone who “wants to use a camera in a public place for more than 30 minutes” or from “a group of five or more people who plan to use a tripod in a public location for more than 10 minutes, including the time it takes to set up the equipment.”

The NYT reports that the policy is not “intended to apply to tourists or amateur filmmakers or photographers” who, the rules emphasize, are “rarely” effected by the proposed regulations. We are quite sure that this is of very little comfort to citizens who might actually want to picture the world around them. The permits are “free” (though liability insurance, one might imagine, is a different matter), and the proposed rules include all sorts of exceptions (designed, no doubt, to navigate and manage First Amendment concerns), but Kafka taught us about the bureaucratic style and we all know about the slippery slope of regulation.  And the question has to be, exactly what interests are being served by such regulations?

The advocacy group Picture New York has an on-line petition and is planning other protest activities, as in the picture above of photographers with faux-cameras. Thanks to Ted Striphas for calling my attention to this issue.

Photo Credits: Gabriele Stabile/New York Times


Mourning in America

Memorializinig Iraq

As of this posting there have been 3,013 U.S. military casualties in Iraq since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. That is three thousand and thirteen indistinguishable, flag-draped coffins. Three thousand and thirteen individual bodies. And the question is, how should we honor and mourn their sacrifice, as individuals or as faceless members of a collectivity? The issue came to a head at Fort Lewis, Washington this past week, where the base commander considered doing away with the practice of individual services for each death in lieu of a collective monthly memorial. The rationale was logistical, if not a little bit ironic: there are just too many deaths coming out of the war to honor and remember each individual. The protest from soldier’s families and veterans was palpable and pronounced. The policy was subsequently revised to hold weekly memorials, a compromise which surely satisfies no one.

The photograph above was featured with the original New York Times story – although it was subordinated after a few hours and replaced on the mast with a picture of an honor guard performing a rifle salute – and then repeated the next day in a story reporting the compromise. And as poignant as it is, it nonetheless underscores a very real problem: this is not WWII, where an entire generation sacrificed and fought and died, and thus could be memorialized in the collective – “the greatest generation.” Nor is it Vietnam, where those who fought and died became the scapegoats for the nation’s sins and could only be memorialized after great public controversy, and at that by splitting the difference between the collective and individual trauma of the war in a monument that honored both at once, with names inscribed in black granite. Rather, it is a war being fought in the shadow of our dueling memories of WWII and Vietnam, by men and women who are individuals first and soldiers second (and only incidentally so). We have yet to come to terms with this difference, or the symbolic register in which it is being experienced and enacted, and yet, as this image hints, it is a difference that will no doubt animate a unique mode of memorium, one that in the end, perhaps, will need to put the individual face in front of the flag.

Photo Credits: Kevin P. Casey/New York Times


Visual Memory and 9/11: It's deja vu all over again

A recent story in the New York Times following an accidental explosion in New York City began with this photo:


and these words: “It has instantly become the iconic image of Wednesday evening’s steam pipe explosion.”

Well, I’m confident this photo will not become an iconic image. And not for want of trying: the Times chronicles its immediate distribution, provides a long interview with the guy on the left, then a later interview with the woman in the center, as well as other links, including one that includes wry commentary on the promotion of the image. Like most of those images that are promoted as icons, however, this one will soon sink out of sight.

What interests me is why the reporter could think this rather banal image is so significant. Steam pipe explosions are not good candidates for historical significance. The photo could be of an auto accident, and the facial expressions do not suggest alarm, so why is this street scene thought to be iconic instead of business as usual for NYPD? One reason is the preoccupation with icons that is current today. (I know, I know, but as was said in the comic strip Zits recently, “nobody every died of irony.” I’ll post on the contemporary desire for icons another time.) I believe the answer is that the photograph resonates powerfully with a number of the images that were prominent during the coverage of 911. These all included women covered in dust or blood and often being helped as they walked, staggered, or were carried while emerging from the scene of the catastrophe. For example:



Thus, the reporter saw through the current photograph back into the many more distressing images of a far greater event. She was seeing not only with her eyes but also with her memory, which carried the powerful emotions associated with the many earlier images. Though not likely to be an icon, you might say it’s deja vu all over again.

First photo: Brendan McDermid/Reuters. Second photo: Lyle Owerko–Gamma. The crease is due to my inexpert scan from Time, September 11, 2001.


Visual Memory and the Fall of Iraq

The cover of the current issue of Time provides a fine example of two features of the visual public sphere: allusions between images in different media, and the role of visual memory in shaping historical analogies. Here’s the cover:


This is a remarkable piece of graphic design. The most important feature, I believe, is the helicopter, which is a direct allusion to the fall of Saigon. That event is fused in collective memory with photographs of helicopters–they are omnipresent in the images and the discourse about the last hours of the evacuation. For example, Time‘s silhoutte is a reprise of this image:



There are few examples of this or similar images in the Google image archive, however, which is dominated by this photograph:


The photo was taken by Hubert Van Es; you can read his report on the shot here. There also were images of of the choppers being pushed off the decks of one or more aircraft carriers, but those are less available today. Helicopters became the visual marker of the fall, and any one image probably channels the others. I suspect that there are fewer still shots of the airborne machines online because those images were more likely to be on video. The one I used was taken from a BBC puff piece on Peter Arnett; the photo is captioned “Fall of Saigon, but Arnett stays.”

These photographic and video images shape collective memory in part because they have been relayed in the intervening years by graphic designers. So, for example:


and, probably the most widely circulated design, which could rely on the literal image to support a formal allusion:


Thus, the Time designer could count on the historical analogy because the visual design had become so thoroughly disseminated.

And the analogy has specific implications that are evident from other elements of the cover. For example, look at the text that is where the A had been in “IRAQ”: “What will happen when we leave.” It is not a question.

Time photo-illustration by Arthur Hochstein, July 30, 2007.

Update: To see how the Bush administration tries to counter the analogy, look at the July 26 post at BAGnewsNotes, which compares the Time cover with the latest photo op.


Sex and the Civitas

Although photography has almost completely displaced illustration as the visual art of print journalism, some newspapers still use drawings regularly. The New York Times is particularly inventive in that regard (as well as with graphic art, but that’s another topic). The Sunday Times featured a terrific drawing that dominated the space above the fold for Frank Rich’s weekly essay on political culture.


Rich was remarking on “the G.O.P.’s overdue summer of love,” whereby the Party was caught between the David Vitter prostitution scandal and having a twice-divorced adulterer as the front runner for the presidential nomination. Gloating aside, Rich’s main point is that the electorate may be moving beyond Family Values prudery. The illustrator got that idea big time. The drawing fuses two iconic images: Marilyn Monroe’s publicity shot for The Seven Year Itch, and the Statue of Liberty. If the image seems incongruous or naughty, that shouldn’t be surprising. Whether you see Lady Liberty enjoying the not rush of air up her thighs, or Marilyn donning a the civic crown as part of her erotic playfulness, these are not attitudes that are likely to be taught to home schoolers. (Pedantic aside: “prurient,” meaning lascivious or lustful, is derived from the Latin word for itch.) That transgressiveness is reinforced by the formal hybridity of the image: the icons in question began as photograph and a statue (neither of which is an illustration); they became icons of celebrity culture and civic culture; they reflect 19th century civic republican art and 20th century image making.

The drawing may be go farther than Rich would like. He is suggesting that the electorate is coming to its senses, not in the sense of having its own summer of love, but rather in becoming prudent rather than moralistic about the relationship between private life and public policy. The drawing, however, suggests that when the private passions and civic ideals go public together, the result is much more a matter of desire than restraint. Or perhaps I’m being moralistic. In any case, this is a great example of how illustrators still can play an provocative role in the visual public sphere.

Illustration by Barry Blitt for the New York Times, The Week in Review, July 22, 2007. (NB: Blitt already has a place in the history of iconic images, as he created the New Yorker cover that depicted two male sailors kissing in the manner of the iconic photograph of a sailor and a nurse clenched in Times Square on VJ Day. You can see the cover here (scroll down). If you have a copy of No Caption Needed, it’s on page 79.)


Conference Paper Call: Photographic Proofs

Photographic Proofs
Yale University, New Haven, CT
Friday-Saturday, April 4-5, 2008

“A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing
happened. The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption
that something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in the
picture.” – Susan Sontag

“But the proof of the pictures was in the reading. The photographs had
to have their status as truth produced and institutionally sanctioned.”
– John Tagg

The Yale University Photographic Memory Workshop, in conjunction with
the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, invites
submissions for a graduate student conference entitled “Photographic
Proofs.” The theme of this conference should be interpreted
broadly. Papers could be theoretical, historical, or critical
explorations based upon one photograph or a collection of photographs.
They might interrogate the theme of photographic proofs from one of
many different angles, including documentary, artistic, commercial, and
vernacular photography. Selected sets of photographs may relate to
war, science, medicine, race, class, law, business, reform, the natural
and built environment, frontiers, performance, gender, sexuality, or
family, among other subjects.

In order to engender an inter-disciplinary community and to further
challenge and develop the vocabulary that surrounds photographic
criticism, we encourage submissions from graduate students at all
stages of their studies, working in any discipline. The Beinecke
Library will add to this discussion by hosting a workshop for
conference participants highlighting the library’s extensive
photographic holdings.

We are pleased to announce that Professor John Tagg will deliver the
opening keynote address. John Tagg is Professor of Art History and
Comparative Literature at Binghamton University. His books, which
often focus on the relationship between photography and power, include
The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories,
Grounds of Dispute: Art History, Cultural Politics and the Discursive
, and the forthcoming The Disciplinary Frame: Photographic
Regimens and the Capture of Meaning

In an effort to foster a geographically diverse community of graduate
student presenters, we are pleased to be able to cover travel and
accommodation expenses for students whose papers are selected.

Email CVs and abstracts to photographic.proofs@yale.edu by Monday,
October 15. Abstracts should be under 300 words. Final papers should
not exceed 20 minutes in length. We will notify selected speakers by
December 15.

Co-organizers: Alice Moore and Francesca Ammon, graduate students in
American Studies. Please address any questions to