NO CAPTION NEEDED
ICONIC PHOTOGRAPHS, PUBLIC CULTURE, AND LIBERAL DEMOCRACY

No Caption Needed is a book and a blog, each dedicated to discussion of the role that photojournalism and other visual practices play in a vital democratic society. No caption needed, but many are provided. . . .

February 29th, 2008

Conference: Modernism and Visual Culture

Posted by Lucaites in conferences & shows

Modernism and Visual Culture

1st-2nd November 2008
Oxford University, UK

Keynote Speakers
David Trotter (Cambridge University)
Laura Marcus (Edinburgh University)
Maggie Humm (University of East London)

“A writer … has need of a third eye whose function is to help out the other senses when they flag.” (Virginia Woolf, 1925)

In the wake of recent analyses of the landscape of visual cultures at the end of the nineteenth century, new contexts have become available for understanding the emergence and shape of modernism. This conference seeks to unpick our tangled model of the relationships between the established arts in the modernist period and between modernism and popular culture, and to illuminate the types of reactions occasioned in the established arts by the emergence of modern mass media. Papers on any aspect of the relationship between modernist literatures and cultures with visual culture, including cinema and fine art, are welcome.

Possible questions to consider:

Are recent claims for modernism’s affinity with popular culture anything new?

Was Cubism’s debt to chronophotography a model for – or an exception to – modernism’s relationship with photo-chemical reproduction?

Was the ‘modernity’ to which the established arts responded actually the emergence of a rival new cultural landscape comprised of cinema, variety theatre, instantaneous photography, stage illusions, the moving panorama, mass spectator sports, moving-image lantern shows, the illustrated short story and the cartoon strip?

Did literary modernism emerge in emulation of the innovations occurring in modernist painting?

What role did modernism play in altering established theories of visual culture?

Can modernism and late-nineteenth-century popular visual culture be seen as the twin products of a single preceding historical development?

What singular and identifiable properties, if any, did such related forms as cinema, cartoon strips or shadowgrams have in impacting on the existing arts?

Were the different modernisms of the various established arts the product of their varying vantage points on new media forms?

If new visual media generated modernism, did they do so by threatening to become art forms themselves, or by throwing the distinct qualities of the existing arts into relief?

Were modernists already modernists when their work adopted the traits of various new forms of visual culture?

Is realism in cinema equivalent to modernism in the existing arts?

Was the reflexivity learned by the group of polymedia practitioners we call modernists the basis of modernist form in all of the arts?

Speakers are encouraged to use visual material in their presentations. Send 300-word abstracts for 20-minute papers to Andrew Shail (andrew.shail@at-annes.ox.ac.uk), by 1 April 2008. Panel proposals are welcome – please include contact details and affiliations for all speakers.

February 28th, 2008

Late Modern Pickled Punk

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

Perhaps the most controversial of carnival exhibits in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century was known in the argot of the freak show as “pickled punk,” the preservation and display of fetuses, usually with some pronounced and spectacular deformity. Such displays titillated a curiosity for “knowledge” of the abnormal and bizarre, but like carnival freak shows in general, the practice largely died out in the 1940s with advances in medical knowledge that offered scientific explanations for the freaks, as well as a shift in public attitudes about the propriety of putting such oddities and anomalies on public display. Pickled punk saw a revival in the U.S. in the 1950s and 60s, but was soon outlawed in many states.

I was reminded of the history of the freak show, and of pickled punks in particular, when I saw this photograph, the first image in the recent reprise of a 2005 slide show at the Chicago Tribune :

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What you are looking at is the vascular system of a human head that is on display as part of a traveling exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry titled “Body Worlds.” “Body Worlds” is one of a number of different shows which exhibit human bodies that have been flayed, vivisected and “plastinated.” Plastination is a chemical process that removes waters and fats from a dead body, replacing them with reactive polymers that deny bacteria the nutrition they need to effect decomposition. “Body Worlds” exhibits have been shown throughout the United States and Europe in recent years and with the avowed purpose “to educate the public about the inner workings of the human body and [to] show the effects of poor health, good health and lifestyle choices.”

There is surely need for great scientific literacy in the United States, but one has to wonder if what animates these shows is really an interest in knowledge or a perverse desire to encounter the macabre. I’ve not yet attended one of these shows, but I have talked with several who have and they report that the displays include everything from plastinated body organs (often deformed or diseased) to a wide array of  human bodies performing a full range of activities that include kneeling, smoking a cigarette, dribbling a basketball, shooting an arrow, sitting at a table while playing poker or chess, emulating Rodin’s “The Thinker,” and so on. And with the exception of the “The Smoker,” whose blackened lungs stand as a warning against the use of tobacco, there seems to be very little display or discussion of knowledge about human anatomy that would otherwise be hard to come by, though there is a great deal of attention to the technology of plastination, as well as praise and celebration of its inventor, scientist-artist Gunther von Hagen, who comes across in many ways as a contemporary P.T. Barnum.

Knowledge or entertainment? What’s the big deal? And why shouldn’t the mass dissemination of knowledge be entertaining? It is, of course, hard to know quite where to begin here, but one thing that clearly gets lost in all of this is that we are looking at flayed and vivisected corpses that at one time housed living and breathing human beings, their nameless bodies thoroughly objectified and put on display for our visual consumption. Questions have been raised recently about where the bodies actually come from, but there is another point to be made, for it is hard to imagine how these displays are designed more to prime or sate our thirst for knowledge—or to inure us to the dead or decaying body as part of an avant-garde intervention against bourgeois taboos—than to titillate our desire for macabre spectacle. Indeed, in a slightly different register we might actually call it pornography. How else can we explain the reported “fascination“ with images like that of “The Skin Man“ holding out his own outer shell for our examination (and edification)?

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In its own way it would seem to be a late modern form of pickled punk.

Photo Credits: E. Jason Wamsgans/Tribune; Gunther von Hagens/Body World

February 27th, 2008

Fashion Week and the Drive to Display

Posted by Hariman in fashion/fiction

February has been the month for Fashion Week in New York, London, Paris, Milan and maybe even Peoria. I don’t get out much, so I have to get by with the slide shows. Where else would I see something like this?

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This design is much more refined than most of the dresses, which often seem intended to insult every known aesthetic principle on behalf of sheer indulgence. By contrast, this retro accessory is a model of simplicity, at once elegant and bold. (Not too bad, eh? I also can write restaurant menus and label house paint colors.) And it is retro:

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Some things never change, however: note how both models are looking in the same direction. In fact, the world of fashion is a continual swirl of variations on a theme. One wonders why. Human invention probably has its limits: if we are ceaselessly inventive, it is largely by variation rather than genuine innovation. And how many ways are there to make an impractical hat? There will be other answers as well. One of them is suggested by this recent photograph from National Geographic:

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This is an act of competitive display to maintain breeding rights. Here as in many species the males carry the burden of ornamentation, but the results are the same: variation on a theme, often to excess. Nice tail feathers, don’t you think?

What distinguishes the human display is that we imitate other species. In 2008 as in 1942 and long, long before that, we have imitated birds, fur-bearing animals, fish, insects, you name it. Design, in other words, is one way that we are part of nature. The connection may seem tenuous during Fashion Week in February; hothouse fashions certainly seem far removed from the icy winter I see every day. But sometimes it is when it is most extravagant, impractical, and obviously decorative that fashion can suggest a wonderful unity to the world, a panoply of aesthetic forms that have to be both beautiful and functional. So take a look, and enjoy the show:

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Photographs by Nicholas Roberts/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images; Life Magazine; Mauritz Preller/National Geographic.

February 26th, 2008

Seeing Democracy, Imagining Russia

Posted by Hariman in the visual public

If you type “democracy” into Google Images you will see one of the more motley and uninspiring slide shows possible. Bad editorial cartoons, messy posters, conventional book covers, not so snappy bumper stickers, a video game, an Internet TV platform, a monument in Bangkok, and my personal favorite: the king of Nepal wearing a floral garland. Most of these are not images from photojournalism. The two iconic images from Tiananmen Square each put in an appearance, along with a few snaps of protesters holding signs, but, again, the record is not distinguished.

This poor showing may be an oddity of the search engine but should not be surprising. Democracy is a set of beliefs, practices, and institutions each of which includes assumptions about the world that are partially metaphysical. I can show you a traffic light, but not “rule of law.” People voting, but not “the will of the people.” A flag, but not “liberty and justice for all.” So it is that we are drawn to documenting political and ethical failures, and to relying on iconic images and other symbols. One can document crime, privilege, and injustice, and a monument or photograph can evoke reaffirmation of our democratic ideals.

These thoughts were brought to mind by an image accompanying a Sunday New York Times story on the erosion of democracy in Russia during the Putin regime. Interestingly, the story was published in Russian on the previous Friday at a Times Russian website, and some of the 3000 comments were translated for a story in the US on Monday. The comments suggest that democratic debate is alive and well in the Russian blogosphere, with the added value of having devotees of authoritarian rule being able to voice their sentiments directly rather than code them as family values. But I digress.

The question I want to raise was provoked by the first photograph in the 13-photo slide show accompanying the article:

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This stunning image is captioned as “Nizhny Novgorod, an industrial center with 1.3 millian residents, was known as Gorky during the Communist era, when it was closed to foreigners and was home to the dissident physicist Andrei D. Sakharov, who was sent into internal exile here. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, it became a hotbed of liberalism. Today, authority flows from the Kremlin to a regional governor appointed by President Vladimir Putin.”

If you read all of that without having your eyes glaze over, you’re ahead of me. I can’t help but note that the 66 words fail to identify the specific place being photographed or the subject of the the large statue in the center of the frame. Likewise, there is no evident reason to believe that what is being shown has anything specific to do with industrialization, Gorky, Communism, or Sakharov. I believe that we are looking at the statue memorializing Valery Chkalov, a Soviet test pilot killed in 1938, but you wouldn’t know it from the Times. In any case, that allusion to Soviet engineering is topped visually on either side by the Orthodox crosses and deer immortalized in ice.

So, what are we being shown with this photograph? One answer is merely aesthetic: it’s a visually striking image, what more do you need to know? I don’t doubt that had something to do with its being selected for the slide show, but it will not account for the full range of effects. We think with images, and this image will make it easier to imagine one Russia rather than another. Apparently, the news is not good. Although technically a color photograph, the scene seems a natural grayscale. The cold, hard, metallic monument sets the tone; its black sheen is the most vital thing in the picture, as if it were a monument to Darth Vadar on the Ice Planet. Inanimate objects surrounded by a vast, empty, public space and a featureless winter sky: Welcome to Nizhny Novgorod.

The “new city” was founded in 1221, and the photograph’s symbolism all but keeps us there. Nature and the church–a bastion of traditional pieties–surround a lifeless monument; Mother Russia envelops a hard core of authoritarian metal. The people are represented by a lone worker and his tools, which appear antiquated. So much for the people’s republic, vanguard of progress, and one has to wonder if a democratic people could fare any better in such a frozen place.

Unlike his counterpart in the US, I haven’t looked into Putin’s soul, but I wouldn’t trust him with the garbage. Even so, those committed to democracy should do more than point to its threats. If democracy is to succeed in Russia, it may need help from citizens elsewhere. (The US did.) We may not be able to see democracy, but it does require imagination. If we have already concluded that Russia is fundamentally cold, harsh, and naturally authoritarian, we do them no favor. Images such as the one above are visually distinctive, but they may be a political mistake.

Photograph by James Hill/New York Times.

February 25th, 2008

Domesticating Dissent

Posted by Lucaites in afterimages, visual memory

When I ask my students to make a list of iconic photographs they almost invariably recall the image of the two black athletes at the 1968 Olympics with their hands raised in a “black power” salute.

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They rarely know the names of the athletes, nor can they typically recall the particular track event that was being celebrated or who won what medal, but the image itself seems to be seared in their collective consciousness. And why not? Reproductions of the photograph of this moment of political dissent during a time of social and civic turmoil are ubiquitous. Indeed, one can barely read about the 1968 Olympics without the picture showing up, and indeed it has been the subject of several movies including an HBO documentary film titled “Fists of Freedom: The Story of the ’68 Summer Games.” It was prominently displayed in the movie Remember the Titans and it is available for purchase as a mural-sized poster and as a fine art print, as well as stenciled on t-shirts; a rendition of it was cast as a larger than life size statue and is on display at San Jose State University were the two athletes went to school. Both of the men—Tommie Smith and John Carlos—have recently published autobiographies about their experiences featuring their moment on the victory stand.

Given the notoriety of the photograph it is of little surprise that Smith and Carlos have embarked on a year long lecture tour in anticipation of the 40th anniversary of the “black power” salute and the significance of the moment of political dissent that it depicts. What is surprising—if not altogether disappointing—is how the NYT chose to cover the lecture tour as it made its way to the Black National Theater in Harlem last Wednesday. The Times article is titled “Enduring Image Leads to Enduring Dispute” and the story it reports focuses on the petty and personal jealousies that have vexed the lives of Smith and Carlos, once good friends who now “harbor deep-seated and previously unexpressed resentment toward each other.”

As with so many iconic photographs – think of the migrant mother, the flag raising on Iwo Jima, the Times Square Kiss, the Kent State massacre, accidental napalm, and the list goes on – popular interest seems quickly to shift from the key public issues represented and negotiated by such images to the subsequent private lives of the individuals being depicted, i.e., who are they? what became of them? And so on. And in the process, the complexities of significant political events central to the history of liberal-democratic public culture fade deeper and deeper into the background, as a neo-liberal interest in the life of the individual trumps the public interests of a democratic polity. Or at least that is how such images are typically treated by the national media.

This cultural and ideological revisionism is marked by the photograph that accompanies the NYT report on Smith and Carlos:

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The first thing to note is that the image signifies the tension between “then” and “now” while putting the accent on the present moment. The point is emphasized spatially as the contemporary Carlos (on the left) and Smith (on the right) dominate the image. But note too that the two men are cast in the light and seen in living color, while the past that spawned their relationship is represented by black and white photographs and cast in dark shadows. The author of the article bemoans the “inevitable” moment when “idealism” (then, black and white) gives way to “reality” (now, in color), but the focus in the article on the contemporary travails of these two men (now more private individuals than citizens) seems reinforced by the photograph which treats the past as a antique and fading memory. One might wish for more attention to the idealism of that earlier time, perhaps emphasizing a truly “Olympian” moment when at least some athletes were guided more by issues of social justice—and its attendant risks—than by private self-interest. But I think that there is a different and more important point to be made here, for the photograph above also functions to domesticate the original image of the “black power salute.”

Notice how the contemporary photograph puts the black and white image of King closer to the foreground than the iconic image of Smith and Carlos, even though chronologically the later image is more recent. Our present day remembrances of King thus become the frame through which we are encouraged to view and interpret the original image of the two athletes, and accordingly it is the standard of King’s Christianized, “beloved community” that becomes the marker of idealism against which the current day dispute between Carlos and Smith is to be measured (and found lacking). What this ignores is that the 1968 summer Olympics took place nine months after the publication of the Kerner Commission Report, six months after the assassination of Dr. King, and in the midst of increasing concerns that the then so-called “civil rights movement” had lost its political edge and effectivity. And most of all, what it ignores is that the “black power salute” – a phrase which is never once mentioned in the NYT article – constituted a very different and more threatening political idealism than the one we retrospectively affiliate with King’s “dream.”

In short, what we seem to be witnessing is the domestication of a valued photograph that marks and models an important and radical moment of dissent in the life of the polity. The tragedy here is that the “enduring dispute” announced in the title of the NYT article refers to a normalizing, private quarrel between two individuals, and not the more important tension animating our understanding of the relationship between the “civil rights movement” and the “black power movement.”

Photo Credits: Staff Photo/AP, Gabriele Stabile/NYT

February 24th, 2008

Sight Gag: Shocked But Not Awed in Germany

Posted by Lucaites in sight gags

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This is a picture of a papier mache float in the Rose Monday carnival parade in Dusseldorf, March 3, 2003. The woman emerging from Uncle Sam’s buttocks is Angela Merkel, subsequently elected the first woman Chancellor of Germany in 2005 and currently considered by Forbes Magazine to be the most powerful woman in the world (followed in second place by Condolessa Rice). At the time of this photograph she was the leader of the conservative opposition in Germany and highly critical of the government’s anti-Iraq stance; she had also just returned from a trip to Washington, D.C.

Photo Credit: Ina Fassbinder/Reuters (and with thanks to Stefan Sharkansky)

Our primary goal with this blog is to talk about the ways in which photojournalism contributes to a vital democratic public culture. Much of the time that means we are focusing on what purport to be more or less serious matters. But as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert often remind us, democracy needs irony, parody, and pure silliness as much as it needs serious contemplation. For our part, we will dedicate our Sunday posts to putting such moments on display in what we call “sight gags,” democracy’s nod to the ironic and/or the carnivalesque. Sometimes we will post pictures we’ve taken, or that have been contributed by others, or that we just happen to stumble across as we navigate our very visual public culture. Sometimes the images will be pure silliness, but sometimes they will point to ironies, poignant and otherwise. And we won’t just be limited to photography, as a robust democratic visual culture consists of much more. We typically will not comment beyond offering an identifying label, leaving the images to “speak” for themselves as much as possible. Of course we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think capture the carnival of contemporary democratic public culture.

February 22nd, 2008

Flag Week: Iwo and Manzanar

Posted by Hariman in visual memory, visualizing war

On February 19, 1945, the Marines hit the beach at Iwo Jima. A few days later Joe Rosenthal would take the most famous iconic photograph of them all. That image will appear throughout the media this week, and it should be no surprise to see it here:

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That should not be the only flag we remember, however. Three years earlier, but on the same day as the invasion of Iwo, President Roosevelt signed an executive order granting authority to the military to relocate Japanese-American citizens to internment camps. These two stories could not be more contradictory: on foreign soil, men giving their lives so that their country can remain free; in their own country, soldiers imprisoning fellow citizens who were no threat to the liberty broken by their incarceration.So it is that we should look at another image of the American flag:

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This photograph was taken by Dorothea Lange at the internment camp near Manzanar, California. The image captures perfectly the terrible mixture of irony, betrayal, pain, and longing that defines every aspect of this desolate moment in American history.

Two photographs, two flags, two sides of American history. Let’s not forget either one.

Photo Credits: “Flag raising on Iwo Jima.” Joe Rosenthal, Associated Press, February 23, 1945. 80-G-413988 (http://www.archives.gov/research/ww2/photos/#iwo).

“Dust storm at this War Relocation Authority center where evacuees of Japanese ancestry are spending the duration.” Dorothea Lange, Manzanar, CA, July 3, 1942. 210-G-10C-839 (http://www.archives.gov/research/ww2/photos/#home).

February 21st, 2008

The Joy of Voting

Posted by Lucaites in no caption needed

Every year or so at election time we are reminded of how apathetic American voters are by one or another group that calls attention to the low U.S. voter turnout in comparison to other countries. The antidote to this condition is to be “rational,” for voting, we are told, is the rational thing to do: every vote can make a difference, by voting you have a voice in the political, use it or lose it, and so on. The problem, of course, is that no matter how rational it is to be rational, few of us live our lives exclusively by the standards of such a calculus (even when we can figure out what the rational thing to do is!). The question then, perhaps, is not why do so few people vote, but in fact why do so many actually choose to go to the polls?

One possibility, of course, is that voting is altogether irrational, contrary to one’s best interests according to a carefully calculated cost-benefit analysis. A different answer is suggested in this photograph that appeared in the NYT this past week following the parliamentary elections in Pakistan.

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Voting in this election might have been the rational thing to do, although the caption points out that those going to these polls did so “fearful of violence,” but what the photograph features is a moment of unfettered, collective joy and celebration. The figure dancing in the middle is a cipher of almost pure affect, channeling the emotion that courses up and down the street. This election is about more than aggregating personal preferences: in the process citizens have become part of something that is larger than individual self-consciousness. The joy of voting here is an almost transcendent act; it is not inconsistent with a rational appeal to aggregate one’s votes and thus gain the power of numbers, but it is clearly more than that—a ritual of social life and collective being.

In the U.S., of course, we worry a good deal about the influence of such demonstrations of public affect on the voting process. And so while political campaigns themselves seem to be acceptable occasions for public spectacles, parades, and overt displays of collective emotionality, voting itself is rendered as an individual and isolated moment of private reflection. This photograph from this past week’s Washington Post is typical of how the voting process is ritualistically represented by the mainstream media:

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Nameless and faceless individuals visually and physically segregate themselves from the influences of the public as they register their voice and opinion guided by nothing by conscience—and, presumably, rationally calculated private interest. Indeed, there are no signs of the public whatsoever, a point underscored by the high angle and long distance of the image that would ordinarily contextualize the setting in a public space, but here only emphasizes the stark, drab, emptiness of the room which could be anywhere—and nowhere.  Note too how the image highlights the fragmentation and separation of private individuals. What the picture shows us then is a scene that symbolically underwrites the autonomous individuality featured in contemporary liberal-democracy, and one that mutes the affect or joy that goes along with being members of a community of strangers. Good reasons aside, it is little wonder so many people choose not to vote.

Photo Credits: Tyler Hicks/NYT; Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

February 20th, 2008

The Neo-Con Nightmare: Hope

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

The latest theme among the punditry–and once again, one serving conservative interests–is that Barack Obama is a silver-tongued, spell-binding, mesmerizing, messianic orator whose powerful rhetoric is creating a cult of personality. (They really are saying this.) Charles Krauthammer is the latest to weigh in, although largely to summarize his colleagues’ profound insights. One might think it would be an understandable response if the current president had been a model policy-maker, but that obviously is not the case. And it wasn’t that long ago when conservatives were telling us that Ronald Reagan ought to be celebrated for how he made us believe, after the doldrums of the Carter years, that it was “Morning in America.” That message of hope has been conveniently forgotten, it seems. So what’s up?

The convention of capable writers attacking eloquent speakers goes all the way back to Plato. In brief, the cautionary note against demagoguery is an important warning in any democracy, but one often used on behalf of oligarchic interests. And there are two very important considerations: whether the charge is correct in the particular case, and what the alternative is. Furthermore, it can be difficult for some people to tell the difference between bombast and eloquence, and the alternative often gets a pass as one assumes that other speakers with different styles are somehow more substantive, or those with less ability are nonetheless adequately effective.

But those are not the problems we have at the moment. No, the problem is that the currently regnant ideological regime has acquired enormous power, influence, and wealth through the politics of fear. No wonder they now are afraid. Obama isn’t just an orator, but his oratory has done something far more important than enchant his audiences. He has given voice to a new, rightly hopeful America that already exists. If you want to see them, take a look:

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These are faces in a crowd that was listening to Obama last month in South Carolina. I liked this photograph the moment I saw it. That response is cued by the smiles in the center of the frame, but by more as well. To the extent that faces can tell the story, these people aren’t just watching, they are listening and responding, and actively so. They are not being snowed but rather attending intelligently and liking what they hear. They are in a good mood because they are responding in kind to a speaker who respects them enough to appeal to their intelligence and their belief in a good society. They are neither stupid nor poor, nor vulnerable to a demagogue because of that. But that is not the whole of it.

The profound beauty captured in this photograph is that they are comfortable with one another. Black and white, young and middle-aged, Southerners all, they are pressed together and yet each is completely at ease. The good vibe comes not from seeing Obama’s luster reflected in their faces, but from who they already are individually and together. This is the America that has been emerging, however fitfully, in that last twenty years. This is the America that wants to hope and deserves a president who can recognize and respect and strive for all that hope represents.

The Krauthammer column appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Presidents Day. The Republican claim to be the “party of Lincoln” became ever more strained with the the continuation of Nixon’s “Southern strategy” throughout the Karl Rove era. Now it appears that it was not enough to abandon Lincoln’s vision of America; his eloquence has to be rejected as well. But let us not forget the challenge he has set before us forever. Politics may not be able to escape vicious partisanship, but it should not succumb to it, and the highest calling of the political leader is to bring people to respond to their common problems by drawing on what is good and true within each of us. As Lincoln knew:

“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Photograph by Jim Wilson/New York Times. You can read all of Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address here.

February 19th, 2008

Madonna and the Santa Clones at the Dog Show

Posted by Hariman in no caption needed

Question: is an icon one or many? On the one hand, an icon is supposed to be unique, representing the singular achievement, the ne plus ultra of a field of human endeavor. Michael Jordan is an icon, not Scottie Pippen or many other top-tier players. Babe Ruth, not Hank Aaron or Sammy Steroid. Einstein and Picasso, not Bohr and Braque. The Mona Lisa, not . . . Well, that gets to the other hand, which is that the icon is iconic because it is widely distributed, something that may have become distinctive through constant reproduction regardless of individual merit. Thus, the icon appears to be both singular and the latest iteration of a series, both unique and the characteristic instance of a type. Nobody understands this better than Madonna:

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Here she is posing with actress Holly Weston at a publicity shoot for their movie “Filth and Wisdom.” The combination of title and double image invites snide remarks, but that’s taking the cheap bait. I like the photo because of how it captures Madonna’s genius for making herself heir to all the blondes produced by the Hollywood dream factory. We have realized since Warhol’s Marilyn series that the blonde du jour is performing a type, but Madonna makes that a virtue rather than a dirty little secret.

This photograph captures the visual iteration beautifully. Madonna is in focus and set forward at the head of a series. The younger woman is somewhat fuzzy, as if still in the process of formation. They seem to be perfectly sequenced in space and time, the one rightly receiving the spotlight that eventually will be on her successor. Above all, each is one of a series that can extend indefinitely–and will, as all that is required is processes of reproduction that obviously are well in place. Image, publicity, bone structure are all a sure thing. The “mechanical reproduction” of the camera replicates the culture machine and genetic mechanism alike.

According to Walter Benjamin, mechanical reproduction destroyed the “aura” of the individual work of art as well as its relationship to tradition. Absent this anchoring in “ritual,” artistic production becomes politicized. For all his brilliance, Benjamin’s observations can get in the way of understanding how culture depends on constant iteration of visual forms. To see this, one might shift from fine art to vernacular practices and pagan rituals, like this one:

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You are looking at a photo from this year’s annual convention of the Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas. If there is a rival organization of Fake Bearded Santas, I haven’t heard of it. This group meets every year in Southern California, which no doubt it just the place for letting your hair down after the Christmas rush.

I get a kick out of this image for several reasons. Their easy association with ritual is mirrored in their behavior for the camera, where they all lean together and smile on cue for the group snapshot. The photographer may have asked for a big “Ho Ho,” but they probably smile easily. We also can smile at the few outliers in the group: the Lord of the Rings afficiando in the front right, and the wary ball cap guy in the left rear. The real comic effect, however, comes from the photo being a study in duplication. Santa Claus should be a single, iconic figure, and he is–but only because there are Santa Clones in every department store in the country.

And so we get to the dog show. To get some distance from Benjamin’s anxiety about the mass media, we might consider how it is that humans are continually reproducing images of visual iteration. Like this:

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These are Old English Sheepdogs lined up for judging at the Westminster Dog Show. I won’t doubt that each of these dogs are individuals, but the photograph highlights their species identity and regimented styling. The most distinctive Old English Sheepdog will be the perfect iteration of the type, which stands behind that dog in a long series issuing from the twined processes of nature and culture.

Despite the attempt by these photographs to put a good face and good vibe on cloning, I’ll bet that the anxiety about mechanical reproduction remains. Celebrity culture, vernacular culture, subculture, all are exercises in the reproduction of the same. Cloning isn’t something that emerges unbidden from modern technology, but rather one more instantiation of something humans do all the time. If you don’t like it, there still is reason to blame the camera, which is both an apparatus of reproduction and a means for naturalizing cloning. But I wouldn’t, for these images and others offer more than apparatus and ideology. They are how we see ourselves as we are, seriatim.

Photographs by Markus Schreiber/Associated Press, Karen Tapia Andersen/Los Angeles Times, and Timothy A. Clary/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images.

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