Friday, December 31, 2004

"The Need for Cultural Studies:
Resisting Intellectuals and Oppositional Public Spheres”
Henry Giroux, et al.

Like eating a big bowl full of bran, reading this article was tough going, though I knew doing so was good for me. Just like bran, the prose was dense and hard to chew, so although it was very short, reading it took forever.

Giroux and his co-authors make the point in this article that academic disciplines are arbitrary and even harmful to the proper application of cultural studies because they “limit discourse.” The study of literary genres, they give as an example, really only became a legitimate area a little more than a hundred years ago. The divisions and classifications of subject areas are not only arbitrary, but also they change according to intellectual fashion.

Disciplines like Women’s Studies, Black Studies as well as (obviously) American Studies and Canadian Studies were developed as interdisciplinary programs “out of the sense that the most important issues were being lost between the rigid boundaries between the disciplines.” American Studies, say the authors, “began with the agenda of retrieving such issues.” The authors also point out, however, that both American and Canadian Studies were “spawned” by “openly political” nationalism,” so they really didn’t begin with the spirit that would engender a truly interdisciplinary and intellectual form of inquiry. So while one would think that these interdisciplinary attempts would have remedied the problem of disciplines, according to Giroux et al., these programs “have failed.” Oftentimes “[p]ractitioners are regarded as dilettantes rather than real scholars and their enterprises are written off as mere fads.”

Giroux and others argue that the present canon “is based upon an hierarchical economy where cultural objects are ranked. Certain of these objects (Shakespeare’s writing, for example) are assumed to be ‘the best’ of western culture; they thus represent, synecdochally, the essence of the culture. It is exactly this symbolic view of culture against which Cultural Studies should fight.” In other words, this new way of viewing the matter at hand shouldn’t rely on the old “truths” just because we’ve always believed them. Instead, “Cultural Studies [...] should be built upon a different economy, one which sees that cultural objects are, in fact, disposed relationally.”

The point, then, should be to develop the kinds of intellectuals who can “provide the moral, political, and pedagogical leadership for those groups which take as their starting point the transformative critique of the conditions of oppression.” These intellectuals, which Giroux et al. call “resisting intellectuals,” “cannot be housed in universities as they are presently structured” because they won’t fit into the expected norm of disciplines.

The authors realize that this stipulation makes their plan impractical, since universities have a vested interest in brokering knowledge the way they do so now. But they do recommend that intellectuals (scholars) not “resign” themselves to the roles universities assign them. In addition, they recommend that “Cultural Studies must develop a self-regulating discourse.” Finally, “Cultural Studies must resist the interests contained in the established academic disciplines and departments.

The proposal they make seems improbable, but since I had to research various American Studies programs to write my own at Union, I learned about how various of them are structured. The one at George Mason University comes to mind—where faculty from a number of disciplines serve on the faculty that teaches cultural studies courses. The American Civilization program at Brown comes to mind as well. And of course the program at Union as well. Giroux and the others are right, though. Any program that steps outside the artificial boundaries education has drawn for itself is immediately suspect; if it isn’t neatly within the waffle-squares of American History or American Literature, the idiots on the hiring committees or the degree granting bodies suddenly develop brain injuries that prevent them from understanding anymore…hmmm….I hate to sound cynical about this essay, which so clearly influenced two important institutions….

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Richard Slotkin’s
Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier

How in the hell someone locates the intense detail Slotkin found for this book, I’ll never know. It is as though he revisited the spores of moss on the north side of a tree in 1742 to give us a picture of the sentiment of a certain obscure writer who was trying to capture the feeling of America at the time. It’s a better book than the title makes it seem, though. The general premise—or maybe it’s more accurate to say one of the general premises in this complex tome—is that the Indian captivity narratives helped to create the literature of America and influenced the form of later works.

Slotkin’s ideas rely heavily on myth and symbol, and he begins with the warrant that the “mythology of a nation is the intelligible mask of that enigma called the ‘national character’” (3). Even so, he admits that in America “attitudes toward the idea of a national mythology have been peculiarly ambivalent,” perhaps as a result of the “utopian ideals” of some of the colonists who settled in New England originally (3). I think what he’s getting at is that there hasn’t been a real unified national myth here ever, since so many different voices have been here, so many different utopias represented all at once. Nonetheless, many different groups came here with the idea of starting a new and perfect society. (So much for the criticism that the myth and symbol critics don’t allow for a pluralistic society.)

The specific problem with studying the mythology of America is that certain impossibilities arise with their being any true mythology at all. Slotkin says that it would be reasonable to question whether the myths were truly American at all. Since, obviously, the first real Americans were Indians, their mythologies were their own. So, Slotkin wonders, did they just “Indianize” the European myths? Or did the American mythology just arise from an anglicizing of the new culture? Another problem is that this new culture came about after the invention of the printing press. However, myths come from oral traditions. So when we look at the folklore of America, many times we see invented myths that come from hack writers for quick publication. Finally, says Slotkin, a problem common to the study of myth in any culture is to define it and distinguish “between archetypal myth, folk legends, and artistic mythopoesis” (6). These, he says, are necessary distinctions, before any real study happens.

This discussion of mythology leads specifically to Slotkin’s broad thesis that “the myth of the heroic quest” is “perhaps the most important archetype underlying American cultural mythology” (10). This myth, you may wish to be reminded, is the one in which the hero leaves his everyday activities “to seek the power of the gods in the underworld, the eternal kingdom of death and dreams from which all men emerge” (10). Oftentimes this hero’s quest has to do with a coming-of-age rite of masculinity and these myths are common to most cultures—Slotkin cites as examples the Odyssey, Gilgamesh, Beowulf, etc. (11). Eventually, though, we begin to see how the universality of this myth connects with the wilderness and Indian narratives of the colonists.

In the second chapter, “Cannibals and Christians,” Slotkin discusses whether or not people are shaped by the land where they live. This might be especially useful for my argument about place and twentieth and twenty-first century comedians. Slotkin says:
Human cultures on the North American continent, whether they were of European or Indian origin, have been shaped by the interaction of the migrant peoples with the American landscape, the wilderness. The one constant in the American environment has been the wilderness in its varying forms of forest, plain, mountain, and desert. [...] As the American environment was the same for each of the these cultures, one might reasonably expect that in the process of adjusting their lives to the wilderness, each these cultures would acquire certain elements or qualities distinctly derived from and suited to that environment. Differences between them might be accounted for by considering their differing points of cultural and historical origin. (26).
So that’s a pretty important statement. To illustrate, he says that the colonists would see “chaos” in the wilderness, whereas the Indians would see “order” and “a kindred intelligence in all things” (27). On the one hand, he says that people and cultures are shaped by the land where they lived, but on the other hand, the cultures of the people themselves determine their responses and reactions to the land where they live. The equation is two-way, rather than a causal one that determines the other. It’s nonetheless important point of consideration for anyone who is interested in place.

Slotkin goes on, then, to deal with examples of the heroic quest in American literature through history. So “the Puritan model of the heroic quest,” he says, is best typified in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. He notes that the hero in stories like these are “fleeing in solitude from sin-begotten humanity” and that “[a]ctual landscapes are less important than the landscapes of the mind” in such stories (39).

Another era in the history of American literature deals with Indian War Narratives (at least their beginning. Indians, says Slotkin, became associated with the “Spirit of Place” of America—along with fears that they were cannibals or devils (66). Generally, the literature of the time was meant to educate or discourage readers from sinning. The Puritans believed themselves to be the new Israelites, God’s chosen people in the wilderness of the promised land.

The Calvinists also saw the wilderness as a “metaphor for the human mind. Both were dark, with hidden possibilities for good and evil. Through the darkness the Indians flitted like the secret enemy of Christ or like the evil thoughts that plague the mind on the edge of consciousness. Like the devil, Indians struck where the defenses of good were weakest and, having done their deed, retreated to hiding” (77).

And in true Calvinist form, Increase Mather wrote of the Indian Wars that they were the result of “New England’s ‘back-sliding’” (83). So there was definitely a corrective purpose to the literature. The clergy also saw the corrective potential of the captivity narratives when the first ones were published. Extremely popular, they were “the first coherent myth-literature developed in America for American audiences” (95). They were best sellers of the time. Other literature began to imitate the sensationalistic style—for example Jonathan Edwards’s sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” used similar rhetoric to Rowlandson’s captivity narrative (103).

The Rowlandson narrative itself becomes a kind of archetype (108). “Once in the wilderness condition, the captive is figuratively in hell” (109). The soul’s “regeneration” begins with this “separation, a perception of the distance one has fallen from grace” (thus, evidently the title of the book). So then, the struggle is to make “progress” in captivity “’twenty removes’ from civilization and Christianity” (109). Then, “the return and restoration of the God-wounded sinner marks the conclusion of the captivity,” but “he is restored to his old life with newly opened eyes” (110-111).

Slotkin next discusses in “A Palisade of Language” how the mythology arose around the Indians that they had special powers. Since they seemed able to survive in such difficult circumstances, the settlers had ideas that they had special powers. So for example, some sailor threw an Indian chief’s infant son in a river to see if he knew how to swim instinctually (118-119). But now that they had decided to fight the Indians, they had not only the nature to fear but also the Indians as well. In their horrific fear of the Indians as devils, they began to behave in the way they feared the Indians would (142).

Really, from there we move from the captivity narrative to developing more of a hero of the Indian, world-wide. It helps that the English start writing about the Indian as a hero. Slotkin later goes on to discuss the yeoman farmer; he becomes the heroized frontier American. Later, it is the cowboy of the dime novel. I would go on at length here with support, but I need to spend more time reading than writing, since the semester is dwindling away. This is a good

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Stuffed Shirts
“Between Individualism and Fragmentation:
American Culture and the New Literary
Studies of Race and Gender”
I have to admit I skimmed past the first half of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s article, thinking that I had already read it about eight times already (by other authors). She discusses the “battle, which pits conservatives against liberals and is [...] leading, directly or indirectly, to the replacement of a long uncontested hegemony of white, male authors, by a plurality of women, African-Americans, and members of various minority or marginalized groups.” She goes on to discuss the awakenings among the various marginalized groups that this group of old, white men who are the Authors of American Literature couldn’t possibly speak for them or represent their corner of the culture. Ultimately, says Fox-Genovese, our concept of the American culture as a whole is confused because we can’t “understand the pattern of marginalized cultures in relation to each other as well in relation to the canonical culture, and, especially, the relation between the canonical culture and the ideal of a national culture.”

When she gets to this idea, I perk up. Forgive me for not maintaining my excitement at the notion that diversity is a great idea. If you don’t know me and you’re reading this, please don’t mistake me for a Ralph Reed devotee. The fact is, I am lucky enough to live in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where people from every country in the world are represented within five square miles of me. Not only that, but it is my great pleasure to teach students from all those countries at Northern Virginia Community College. When I step outside this idyllic place—like, for example, when I go to Cincinnati for school—I become a rabid proponent of the tenets of diversity, believe you me, and I miss seeing and hearing people from other places. A person has to live among a population that resembles Hitler’s Nazi youth to be reminded (no offense to my Cincinnatian friends, but it’s true).

Anyway, what I like about Fox-Genovese is that she doesn’t stop at the observation that there’s more to American Literature than Melville, Cooper, and Thoreau (and all those other guys)—oh, and Emily Dickinson. She doesn’t stop at the inclusion of Alice Walker and Langston Hughes. She understands and makes the case for the way Stowe and Cather and Jacobs were marginalized. But she expresses the concern that I have always had for these discussions. Essentially, she’s saying that by isolating these writers into little ghettos of diversity (my term), we marginalize them all over again; we do nothing to explain their relationships to our culture as a whole. In effect, we’re excluding them the very same way they were excluded always.

As I read the last half of this article closely, I began to think of it in terms of a grossly oversimplified metaphor. If American literature is a shirt, heretofore, it’s been a blue button-down oxford, like the kind from Brooks Brothers. That’s been the only kind there is, end of story (except maybe the pink one they got out for Emily Dickinson). Opening up the field to these previously marginalized writers has meant, essentially, lifting the dress code. So sometimes we see greens, yellows, garish shades of chartreuse and orange, and even the occasional Hawaiian print. Not only that, but they’re different cuts of shirt—from camp shirt to v-neck to tank top to halter top. The purists probably frown on having all those colors and all that skin showing; they would feel much more comfortable if we grouped like shirts with like shirts—or at least all the oxfords with the oxfords and those godawful Hawaiian prints on the luau deck. The point is, segregation is an archaic idea, in culture and in literature. I think that that’s what Fox-Genovese is getting at.

Fox-Genovese cites T.S. Eliot’s famous argument that “we cannot hope to understand culture if we thoughtlessly identify it with individual experience. Culture, he might have said, cannot be reduced to autobiography. Instead, he said that the culture of the individual is dependent on the culture of the whole society to which that group of class belongs. Therefore it is the culture of the society that is fundamental.” She goes on to say that because it is important to study culture as representative of a group and not to marginalize, “the most compelling results of the new literary studies of race and gender point back, albeit in new terms, toward the older paradigm of American Studies as some combination of history and literature.”

I think she is right; in many ways I think that many of these originating texts in American Studies are very solid. They require the kind of updating that Fox-Genovese is doing in her essay, but the historical approach that allows a critic to look at the culture as a whole is important. She reminds us at the end that we should not be ashamed that our culture is “the product of historical struggles that have been won by some and lost by others. Such are the consequences of power.” That may mean that “their views would prevail” at present, but it doesn’t mean that the views of previously marginalized groups have to be silenced forever.

The danger of being too sensitive about our dark and violent past, I fear, is that we erase it, the way the Ministry of Information does in Orwell’s 1984, when past events don’t jibe with the present interpretation of history. In all, I think Fox-Genovese makes a very cogent argument for inclusion of diverse viewpoints and a sensible way of thinking about America.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Staying Awake for Henry Nash Smith
Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth

Henry Nash Smith’s book is one of THE quintessential American Studies books. Dear God, how I tried to like it. I promise that I’ll like other ones in the future. I’m afraid that not liking Bercovitch and Smith will mark me as some sort of American Studies weakling—but fear not! I’ll have plenty of good things to say about Richard Slotkin soon enough. Staying awake for Henry Nash Smith should be evidence enough of my commitment.

Let’s orient Smith within the American Studies timeline. Parrington, Perry Miller, and F.O. Matthiesen came first. Leo Marx was Smith’s student. Bercovitch and Slotkin followed much later. Writing in the late 1940s, Smith begins by explaining his reliance on myth and symbol as important elements of “intellectual construction” of his “collective representations.” He further explains that he doesn’t mean to imply that there’s any “empirical” evidence to support the use of myths and symbols as strategies for interpreting and understanding culture, but rather that “they exist on a different plane” because they “exert a decided influence on practical affairs” (XI).

The first section of the book is actually pretty good. Smith states as his purpose to examine “the impact of the West, the vacant continent beyond the frontier, on the consciousness of Americans” so that he can determine its effect on “the literature and social thought down to Turner’s formulation of it” (4). It’s at once a remarkable purpose because of its interdisciplinary nature.

Smith begins by saying that early in America’s history the image of the Western frontier was of an evil place. Michael Wigglesworth described it in 1662 as “a ‘devil’s den,’

A waste and howling wilderness,
Where none inhabited
But hellish fiends, and brutish men
That devils worshiped. (4)

But by the eighteenth century, that image of the place as evil had diminished. The West was still a mystery, though, since the frontier belonged to the French.

Smith spends some time talking about what, historically, the country’s original leaders viewed as the future for America. Jefferson’s idea was that the at some point, “North America would be peopled by descendants of the original English colonists,” but when the Louisiana Purchase occurred, he thought that the property west of the Mississippi “should be turned into an Indian reservation for at least fifty years.” Jefferson thought that that property should be reserved, that “(e)migrants should be forbidden to cross the river ‘until we shall have filled up all the vacant country on this side’” (15).

Instead, though, the exploration of the region occurred (largely during Jefferson’s presidency), and according to Smith, the “importance of the Lewis and Clark expedition lay on the level of imagination: it was drama, it was the enactment of a myth that embodied the future. It gave tangible substance to what had been merely an idea, and established the image of a highway across the continent so firmly in the minds of Americans that repeated failures could not shake it” (17). From there, populating the whole continent became inevitable. The discovery of the Oregon Trail and people began moving West (18).

When Lewis and Clark reached the West coast, they reignited a dream of finding “a passage to India” (19). Columbus, you may recall, had been looking for India and its spices to trade. And the seventeenth century colonists had sought this passage, sending explorers west from Virginia with the thought that India could only be a matter of ten days’ travel past the Alleghenies (19).

The interesting part of this curiosity of a passage to India was its impracticality. Trade from the passage would never have been possible until the mid-nineteenth century, when the railroad was built cross country. But Smith points out that “the idea of a passage to India, with its associated images of fabulous wealth, of ivory and apes and peacocks, led a vigorous existence on the level of imagination entirely apart from its practicability” (22). This is an important historic mythic belief in American history, great evidence of the kind of idea that guides the policies and actions of people in a way that, in retrospect, we can see is impractical or inexplicable. It’s a great example of the myth-and-symbol school’s working well.

A little later, the notion of trade with the Orient became less impractical. Thomas Hart Benton was a great proponent of American expansionism; he believed that “trade with the Orient [would] emancipate the United States from its dependence on Europe” and that the U.S. would “go on to nationalize their character by establishing a system of commerce adapted to their geographical position and free from European interference” (26).

Now a very interesting point about Benton was that he was much influenced by Montesquieu, believing that “a republican government could not survive too great an extension of its boundaries” (26). Thus, it was his idea that the people who settled the West coast would form their own nation. But, he said, that territorial change wouldn’t “hamper American commercial expansion into the Orient because the new Pacific republic” would be an ally to the U.S. against all the European powers (26). So, obviously, Benton didn’t have his way because one of the reasons why the decision was made to keep the U.S. together, risking having a republican government with such large boundaries, was to resist the powerful forces of the old country in Europe.

Benton was important for many reasons. He was responsible for the railroads being built. He wanted the federal government to build the tracks and then lease them to private operators of trains (27). However, he finally had to turn to private capitalists to build them (after he could get no support from the government) (31).

Smith next takes up William Gilpin, who followed Benton as an expansionist. The important thing to know about Gilpin was that he was instrumental not just in encouraging westward expansion but he also encouraged study of physical geography. In fact, he thought that German geographer Alexander von Humboldt’s idea of the “isothermal zodiac” was justification for “the westward course of the empire” (39). Not only that, but, Gilpin thought, “If the earth is the final arbiter of human destinies then the student of society should direct his gaze toward nature rather than history.” Now this is an important idea—particularly judging from what comes next. Smith summarizes his thought still more: “The important thing about man is not his past, but his biological adjustment to his milieu which is a matter of the present and of the future” (41). So that is an important idea, essentially that the way people adjust to the place where they are determines the way they act. This has much to do with the idea of SPACE AND PLACE.

Smith next takes up Whitman’s idea of Manifest Destiny, which connects neatly with Gilpin’s idea, essentially the same thing. Whitman said, “the poet of America ‘incarnates its geography and natural life and rivers and lakes’” (qtd. in Smith 44). Smith says Whitman set out “to sing the whole continent.” Whitman himself said that Leaves of Grass was for “the trans-Mississippi region, for the Great Plains, for the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific slope” (45). The idea of the discussion of Whitman is to demonstrate that he mythicized America as a nation from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

The second section of the book deals with the “sons of Leatherstocking.” How it does drone on. In the beginning of the chapter, “Daniel Boone: Empire Builder or Philosopher of Primitivism?” Smith discusses Francis Parkman’s journal when he was staying Lake George. Parkman describes it as a nice place for gentlemen, “but now, for the most part, it is occupied by a race of boors about as uncouth, mean, and stupid as the hobs they seem chiefly to delight in” (51). Smith takes issue with the “class bias underlying the judgment,” noting that it “was one of the dominant forces shaping the nineteenth century attitudes toward the West” (51). However, when Parkman moved away from the agricultural east out into the forest in the West, his opinions seem to have changed about nature (52). Historians call this phenomenon—when “young gentlemen of leisure” amused themselves in the “slightly decadent cult of wilderness and savagery”—primitivism (52). As a result of his primitivism, Parkman opposed any development or civilization of the west. Such an opposition to progress was unusual.

Daniel Boone is difficult to categorize because of the conflicting myths about him. Was he the kind of guy who would reject developing in the interest of preserving the wild, or did he want to civilize his new surroundings and work to get along with all kinds of people?
Smith goes on to compare Boone with Cooper’s Leatherstocking, and while he notes a number of surface similarities, he notes far more differences.

Smith next takes up the idea of “The Innocence and Wildness of Nature,” citing Cooper’s description of Leatherstocking, that “he could at any instant open his heart to God without having to strip it of the cares and wickedness of the settlements” (71). In other words, living in nature gave him a certain purity. Smith says, “Civilization is pernicious also because it interposes a veil of superficiality between the individual and the natural objects of experience” (72).

To illustrate these points of nature, Smith brings up the work of an obscure Kentuckian writer, Charles W. Webber, who “tried and failed to construct an interpretation of the Western wilderness within the framework of primitivism” (72). Smith calls his brand of writing “pompous” and “moralistic.” But at the time, he was considered to be a talent and was compared with Melville (76).

The early generation of these “fictional Wild West heroes,” says Smith, “were primarily symbols of anarchic freedom” (81). The next generation might be typified by stories of Kit Carson, which Smiths says were a part of a body of work called “steam literature” because the books were “printed on the newly introduced rotary steam presses” (87).

From there, into the mid-nineteenth century came the advent of the dime novel. Erasmus Beadle was one famous author who produced many of the “subliterary” form (90). The books were produced in a large-scale, almost assembly line fashion. Writers “could turn out a thousand words an hour for twelve hours at a stretch (91). Unbelievable!! Characters in these books were everyday heroes, low class, so that the audience could relate to them.

Dime novels also had heroines. A classic way of introducing a less-than-passive woman character who could ride a horse and shoot a gun was to have an Indian woman who could ride and shoot well—and then to learn that she had been captured and was really white (112). That would legitimize her in the views of the audience. Great device! Women could also be strong and powerful—but only if their motive was vengeance (115).

The next section is called “The Garden of the World.” This part opens up with a quotation from de Crevecoeur. Here Smith discusses “the agrarian philosophy,” which dictates that “agriculture is the only source of real wealth; that every man has a natural right to land; that labor expended in cultivating the earth confers a valid title to it,” etc. (126). The wide expanse of the West offered so much promise because, as far as Franklin and Crevecoeur believed, “the waiting West promised an indefinite expansion of a simple agricultural society became the most certain guarantee that the United States would for a long age maintain its republican institutions. Not for many centuries would the vacant lands be filled and an overcrowded population fall into the depravity of crowded Europe” (128).

In another chapter, Smith takes up “The Yeoman ideal,” which he viewed as the “fusion of eighteenth century agrarian theory with the observation of American experience beyond the Alleghenies” (135). The yeoman farmer was “the hero of a myth, of the myth of mid-nineteenth-century America” (135). To own land gave independence the likes of which had been impossible in Europe (136).

The South, however, was “actively hostile to the yeoman ideal” (145). A slave-oriented society with enormous plantations was a different kind of society. Even the humor was different. Smith says that Southwestern humor used “its own striking symbols,” ones which later went on to have “important consequences for American literature” (in the work of Mark Twain, for example) (145). However, the South seemed to fit outside the descriptions Smith had given heretofore of what constituted America.

Smith notes that the idea of the agrarian idea stuck around for a long time. In fact, he notes that perhaps one of the most interesting parts of studying the intellectual history of the U.S. is to observe how slowly the idea dissipated, even in the face of the growth of the industrial age (159). What finally began to erode the reliance on agriculture was the arrival of the steam engine in the Mississippi valley (160).

The Homestead Act had been a mid-nineteenth-century attempt to have a utopian, agrarian country, but it generally failed; what succeeded better was the railroad (190). One reason Smith gives is that the agrarian society was not in keeping with the speed of the industrial revolution, which is certainly true. However, he also speculates that “early efforts to deal with the agricultural West in literature prove that the frontier farmer could not be made into an acceptable hero [...] At the same time his low social status made it impossible to elaborate his gentility” (215).

The study of stages of civilization were understood in Europe to be related to a succession in time. However, people began to believe of the U.S. that “one could examine side by side the social states that were believed to have followed one another in the long history of the Old World” (219). William Darby, author of the 1918 Emigrant’s Guide, wrote “New Orleans represented the summit of cultivation, refinement, and luxury. The plantations of the lower Mississippi likewise offered ‘all that art, aided by wealth, can produce’” (219). But west from there, “along the Sabine, the way of life of the scattered inhabitants suggested ‘the utmost verge of inhabited earth, and the earliest dawn of improvement’” (219).

A little later (and at the merciful end), Smith writes of Frederick Jackson Turner’s influential essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” Smith believes Turner’s to be the most important piece of writing about the West. Directed against two main schools of historians at the time, the essay disputes both the idea that American history should be interpreted through the lens of slavery and that American history should be interpreted as outgrowths of British institutions. Turner, in fact as an undergrad, gave a speech where he announced that the age of kings and aristocrats was over, proclaiming the newest age of humanity—specifically of farmers—begun (252).

Smith notes that the fact that our society has such strong roots in agrarianism makes for strong political biases. For one, we tend to have a “covert distrust of the city and of everything connected with industry” (260). If that sounded archaic a year or two ago, the recent presidential election should have settled that question for any present-day disbelievers! Further, says Smith, the “agrarian tradition has also made it difficult for Americans to think of themselves as members of a world community because it has affirmed that the destiny of this country leads her away from Europe toward the agricultural interior of the continent” (260).

Smith definitely answers some questions about individualism among Americans, and he has some good things that I might to apply to discussions of space and place. I still have to prop my eyes open when I read.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Why Does Everybody Hate Feminists?
Susan Gubar’s “What Ails Feminist Criticism?”

Here’s why everybody hates feminists: they’re so divisive. We’ve come to know them for dividing the genders, but in this article, Susan Gubar demonstrates the way feminists have come to be divisive even among themselves, in the groupings within feminists, so the Latina feminists protest that when feminists say “we,” they can’t possibly be speaking for ALL feministas (889), or (as Gayatri Spivak says) when privileged first-world feminists publish their treatises, they should hide under the shame that they are typed by “cheap labor” of third-world women (890). I don’t know where Spivak works, but academics I know can’t afford to pay third-world typists to work on their books.

Nonetheless, I understand her point. I understand tenets of feminism, and I do agree with a number of things that Gubar says here, particularly when she talks about some of the more modern applications of feminist criticism, pretty interesting stuff (that seems to be more linguistics than anything else). However, I don’t know that it’s helped the marginalized groups that much to fight the good fight, the way the feminists have done it since the 1960s.

Anyway, Gubar’s idea in her essay “What Ails Feminist Criticism?” is to remind us that feminism is alive and well. If I were her, I would be concerned if I had to do that. In fact, I think Gubar is aware of the fact that her discipline is troubled. The way she ends the essay is the giveaway. Quoting Braidotti, Gubar says she wishes that “feminism would shed its saddening, dogmatic mode to rediscover the merrymaking of a movement that aims to change life” (902). Does anyone remember any “merrymaking”? She suggests that the best thing to do would be to “heal feminist discourse of the infirmities that made us cranky with one another” (902). Frankly, it’s refreshing to hear a realistic discussion of the “infirmities.”

Gubar first analyzes the stages of feminist criticism. Early critics, in the stage called “critique,” examined male writers’ treatments of women characters’ actions and imagery related to women (882). This method still remains an important one, but a second stage followed, called “gynocritics,” in which women critics tried to find “previously neglected” women writers. In the third phase (in the 1980s), which Gubar calls “the engendering of differences,” critics began to pay attention “to images not only of femininity but also of masculinity” as well as of homosexuality in a way they had not before (884). The idea of deconstructing gender and sexuality is important to feminism, I think. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, as soon as feminists started to be aware of the fluidity of gender and sexuality, they opened up so many more philosophical possibilities. That change in beliefs wasn’t a weakening of the philosophy—it was a strengthening, because it wasn’t a foolish and divisive dichotomy anymore.

But also in this part, Gubar discusses bell hooks in the context of her discussion of the word woman as referring only to the white kind (886) as well as the race and ethnicity issues discussed above. I want to say that I fully support these ideas—and they were radical and fascinating at the time. But now? I think that they make the field of feminism too divisive rather than practical as a twenty-first century ideology. Somehow that undoes the interesting growth potential that the reconsideration of gender and sexuality had opened.

Near the end of the article Gubar discusses some of the criticism of women writers, explaining the way rhetorical strategies of women writers are different than men writers. I find that kind of analysis fascinating, but as I write this, I wonder about the value of that kind of analysis. What good does it do us to know how different men are from women (and the reverse)? It seems to me that it just throws another log on the fire of disagreement. I suppose ignoring differences doesn’t make it any better. I just find that other forms of criticism can be so much more fruitful. I don’t hate feminists, but I’d rather be in a room full of people that don’t have so many beefs with each other.

How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb?

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Keep Your Trap Shut, Heidi –or–
“From Minstrel Shows to the World’s Fair: The Birth of Aunt Jemima”

Manring’s chapter (from his 1998 Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima) is interesting to discuss in the light of what I’ve been reading about myth and symbol. Manring discusses how Aunt Jemima’s picture found it’s way to the pancake mix box and thus become a symbol of comfort and good food for many of us—and because of such clever marketing, a myth developed about around a kernel of truth in her life, sort of the way a pearl develops around a grain of sand.

Chris Rutt had the idea of creating a pancake mix. It was the end of the nineteenth century, when, as Manring says, “the cheap and rapid production of paper bags” revolutionized the retail business because it allowed for the transportation and easy sale of prepared foods for the first time (63). He knew better than to call his product just “pancake mix,” so (as the story goes, anyway) he went to a minstrel show.

Manring details the order of events there, which I have detailed elsewhere (when I talked about Amos ‘n’ Andy), but in this show, Manring speculates that Rutt probably saw a white actor in drag—dressed as Aunt Jemima and singing a song about her. Rutt probably realized that she was “southern hospitality personified” and chose to use her as a sort of mascot (61). Manring makes a point of saying that it wasn’t coincidence that made Aunt Jemima so appealing to Rutt, but rather that he was wise enough to tap “into major trends in the nation’s popular culture and industry” (62).

Manring goes on to talk about what purpose minstrelsy served in American culture. Having gained enormous popularity in the 1840s, minstrel shows “were still common in American theaters throughout the second half of the nineteenth century and continued in some places even in the years following World War II” (66). That’s a surprisingly long time! Regarding the purpose it served, though, Manring says that the “blackface minstrelsy balanced an envy of the supposedly pastoral, indolent lives of southern African Americans with an ostensibly realistic mocking of African-American mannerisms and speech—it was both an act of love and theft” (66). I think this is an interesting analysis (though I’m not entirely sure the love in the act would be entirely clear to the Black people who saw it). Another important point Manring makes is that “this staging of the pejorative quality of blackness was really an act of creating whiteness, reminding white audiences that regardless of whatever trials they faced at work or home, they were uplifted by their race” (66). In other words, it was a way for white people to pull themselves up to stand on the broken shoulders of the already downtrodden. Nice.

The article moves from there to what happened after Rutt sold his product to another manufacturer, R.T. Davis, and the process Davis used to make the pancake mix a national brand. The key was to find a real person to represent Aunt Jemima. Nancy Green was the original; she had been born a slave in Kentucky. Manring explains “she greeted guests and cooked pancakes, all the while singing and telling stories of life on the plantation.” The motto under her picture was “I’se in town, honey” (75). Oy. As I mentioned, any number of myths developed around Green—some aided by her own storytelling skills, evidently. However, what’s remarkable is that no one figured out that Aunt Jemima might be offensive to anyone for another 120 or so years. The symbolic power of Aunt Jemima was still so strong more than a century later, I remember that (white) people I knew thought it was downright mean-spirited of blacks to dispute Aunt Jemima’s picture on the box of pancake mix. They couldn’t see past the symbol to see how strongly that image contributed to their own marginalizing of the race. It’s an interesting issue.

I think one question that could be asked about this whole discussion is whether or not there might be some value in embracing the symbol (as well as the myth)—sort of the way queer culture embraced Hitler’s pink triangle assignation. Maybe Aunt Jemima is a valuable remembrance, in the spirit of “never forget, never repeat.” I don’t know. The interesting part of the below-the-surface racial tension in America right now is that it is nearly impossible for a white person to offer an opinion…so maybe I should keep my mouth shut.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Melvin Patrick Ely’s Adventures of Amos ‘n’ Andy

Blame it on the excess of the holidays: I never thought of ideas in the popular culture as tastes of fruit before today. But when I was trying to place the phenomenon of Amos ‘n’ Andy in American popular culture for myself, it began to seem to me like a kind of fruit that I’ve been tasting for much of my life, but I just now learned the name and detailed information about its nutrition.

I say this because I recognized jokes from A&A: In fact, I thought my grandfather had made up the line, “Well, I guess it’s time for my weekly bath, whether I need it or not.” No indeed. The line (or one like it) comes from the radio show. In the same way, I’d heard my mom’s friend, Helen say “That’s re-gusting,” my whole life, thinking that was her own euphemism. Who knew these came from A&A?

Really, it is this very sense—of tasting the fruit and finding out later about the name—that makes studying popular culture so interesting to me. That’s how we know that A&A was an important cultural influence—well, maybe that’s not the important measure. Ely, in fact, offers many other more compelling reasons.

The show sprang from the roots of minstrel shows, which followed a specific pattern or form:

The first act offered a minstrel chorus, whose comic endmen bounced much of their humor off the interlocutor. Jokes, eccentric dances, and songs sung by one or more soloists. Then came the second part of the production, an “olio” or mini-variety show consisting of non-blackface novelty acts and a “stump speech” on some topic of current interest; a blackface comedian delivered the speech, using abundant malapropisms and exaggerated gestures. The show concluded with a one-act blackface farce relying heavily on slapstick humor. (29)

Bill Kersands was one of the first minstrels. He used the burnt cork to make what now has become the familiar, exaggerated black-face with exaggerated lips (34).

Correll and Gorsden started much like Kersands. They created an act as Sam and Henry but had to change the names to syndicate it; choosing new names for the characters was a studied effort. They told several different stories about how the did it, but most importantly, “Amos” and “Andy” were carefully chosen to represent realistic names for the kinds of people they would have been.

The show was immensely popular on the fledgling medium of radio; it was impossible to know how popular the show was, since no mechanism was in place to count listeners so early in the history of the medium. However, Correll and Gorsden found out their popularity when they began to make personal appearances as A&A. One show they did was interesting as an effort towards humor: they performed their act on stage in character, but without makeup, stunning audiences with “the incongruity between the men’s Caucasian appearance and their ‘Negro’ speech” (62). That was an interesting comedy experiment.

A&A was interesting for a number of reasons. For one, the show depicted Black characters in professional roles. There were Black doctors and lawyers for example. Also, for the longest time, Correll and Gosden did all the voices, but since they didn’t like to do women’s voices, they just did men’s. So in order to create female characters, they had to do scenes where existing male characters talked to their wives on the telephone or just rely on reported speech.

Later on, Correll and Gosden did hire actors to play supporting roles in the show; in this case, it was primarily Black actors. The show thus became a very large employer of Blacks in Hollywood. Finally, it became a show that was televised and for which an all black cast was hired—except white supporting actors (for the first time).

Ultimately, it was a much protested show, and for good reason. If you believe its opponents, the kind of humor involved was that which made the audience think of Black people as fools, not as capable, smart human beings. Though black professional people were depicted, they were shown as subordinate to white people—an unfortunate message to audiences who are decisionmakers of the future.

Ely does a great job with this book—he manages to show the brilliance of the humor somehow without disrespecting a whole culture; he has a great sense of the metaphor I started with—the savoring of a certain kind of fruit, which, perhaps if we tasted much of it these days, would be a trifle sour.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Owen Aldridge Can Study a Broad and Come up with a Bore
“American Burlesque at Home and Abroad:
Together With the Etymology of Go-Go Girl”

This article was somewhat of a disappointment. The title sounded promising, didn’t it? Written in 1971, the essay (from the Journal of Popular Culture) seems to exist only to catalog entertainment practices (and then not always in the most vivid detail). Aldridge’s introduction is a state-the-obvious statement about the identifying factor of American burlesque: “the striptease” 565). Clearly his introductory information was not reason enough to read his article!

Aldridge does, however, tell an interesting etymological tale of the origin of the go-go dancer. A British film of the 1950s, Whiskey Galore, was a literal translation of a French phrase, whiskey a go-go; Aldridge explains that “go-go is an adverbial expression meaning without limit” (566). This was around the time of the evolution of the discotheque, many of which were fashionably named Whiskey a Go-go.

Around the same time “the method of social dancing among the young generation underwent a sudden change—when dances such as the slow, the tango and the rumba, which under optimum conditions were danced cheek to cheek, were replaced by others in which each partner effectively danced as an individual with no bodily contact” (567). Aldridge gives as an example “the twist.” So the new clubs opened with young women dancing these new dances that no longer required a partner, and the dances became associated with the new, fashionable club names.

Conveniently around this same time, a fashion designer designed a kind of hot pants called a monokini, which were like ledern hosen, worn with no shirt underneath; evidently they made great go-go girl costumes.

Aldridge also describes the four stages of “the standard routine” of a striptease. The “’flash’ or entrance; the ‘parade’ or promenade back and forth fully clothed; the ‘tease’ or progressive disrobing; and finally the ‘strip’ or final stage of denuding that is, as far as local authorities permit” (569). He explains that American dancers do the “bump and grind,” which can be traced to the “hootchee-cootchee” from the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 (569).

Here’s where the article truly reveals its anachronistic nature: Aldridge explains that in the U.S., dancers are likely to be so young as in their early 20s, but that “many continue to perform in their 40s and even later.” On the other hand, “In Europe very few are older than 25” (569). I can’t speak for Europe, but I would say it’s quite unlikely our strippers are older than 30.

That’s about it for the article. He really is just cataloging some information, not writing an intense analysis of any kind. Ho hum.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The Culture Industry Theodor Adorno

Theodor Adorno must have been a lot of laughs at parties. What else can be said of a theorist whose claim is that “liking” a piece of “commercial music” is just another way of saying a person is “familiar” with it? Adorno explains, “He can neither escape impotence nor decide between the offerings where everything is so completely identical that preference in fact depends merely on biographical details or on the situation in which things are heard” (30). In other words, the consumer of popular music is stuck between rock-n-roll and a hard place in choosing sounds that are indistinguishable from each other. And for that matter, how jaded is a person who claims that all mass culture is “fundamentally adaptation,” done with a “monopolistic filter” (67)? In a discussion on “Free Will,” this Adorno asserts that he has “no hobby,” but those pursuits he follows in his leisure he undertakes, “without exception, very seriously” (188). No doubt! It would be easy to make a joke on type here—one pictures Cloris Leachman’s Germanic nurse in High Anxiety, the sort of “you vill haf fun and you vil like it” type. That is how I picture Adorno at a party.

Reading his book is much like mandated fun. In other words, it isn’t. Susan Sontag compared a book of Adorno’s essays to “a whole shelf of books on literature.” She is probably right, particularly if we stoop to heft the words-per-paragraph. It isn’t just the number—it’s the weight of the words. I unabashedly admit that full passages, pages even, passed by without my having the vaguest comprehension. “What the hell is he talking about,” I wondered, eyelids flagging, trying to find passages, portions, pages that might come in handy later on in papers—because, let’s face it, Adorno is (literally) a heavyweight. Quoting him in a paper is a good thing to do. So I had to slog through these 200 pages. It took me a week or two of agony.

The contextual essay in the beginning helped. Here J.M. Bernstein wrote about Adorno’s points in his essays. For example, he defined some key concepts such as “culture industry,” which in Bernstein’s words “involves the production of works for reproduction and mass consumption, thereby organizing ‘free’ time, the remnant domain of freedom under capital in accordance with the same principles of exchange and equivalence that reign in the sphere of production outside leisure” (4). Now, this definition is important because of the way it connects to popular culture. What Adorno termed “leisure” and we might call “free time,” is when he sees that we might have a use for popular culture. Now, it seems to me that in the present era, popular culture has become so much more important because we have more leisure time. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that more of us have more leisure time. The rich always had it (Adorno would be quick to point this out, I’m sure). But the average person, the bourgeois class, has enough of it in the common era that it has become an industry.

Bernstein explains more of Adorno’s ideas about the culture industry, saying that “the triumph of advertising [...] is that consumers feel compelled to buy even though they see through” the tricks of the advertiser and know they are being tricked (12). This is where Adorno’s definition of irrationality becomes relevant. Rather than being a typical definition where we might seem “wholly disconnected from individual” goals and needs , it would be in situations where one’s own interest “is pushed to extremes so as to become illogical” (13). I could see how this might be reflected in cases of intense consumerism where people pursue wanting things longer after they need them and long after the things cease to be good for them.

Moving right along, though, Adorno’s first essay is a catchy little title, “On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening.” I had a hard time gathering what he meant by a fetish here. It is in this essay where Adorno equates liking with familiarity (30); he really seems to be complaining about the state of popular music. But even he admits that the “complaints about declining taste” in music have been longstanding. Adorno traces back to Plato’s Republic, where in Book III Plato “bans ‘the harmonies expressive of sorrow’ as well as the ‘soft’ harmonies” (31). Ultimately, Plato reminds the citizens of the republic about the serious effects music can have.

Here’s an obscure reference, relevant to only a few music fans who liked electronica of the early 1990s. A group called The Pop Will Eat Itself sampled a section of a evangelical radio preacher’s sermon for the length of the first cut of their CD, The Cure for Sanity. On “PWEI Against the Moral Majority,” the preacher actually speaks on this very topic: “What is the truth about Rock music? Music is a powerful and perhaps the most powerful medium in the world. Music: Plato said when the music of a society changes, the whole society will change. Aristotle, a contemporary of Plato, said when music changes there should be laws to govern the nature and the character of that music. Lenin said the best and the quickest way to undermine any society is through its music. Music, ladies and gentlemen, is a gift of God. It was given by man to offer praises to God and to lift us up to him and to exalt him. And so we can touch the tender resources of our heart and of our mind. Satan has taken music and he has counterfeited it, convoluted it, twisted it, exploited it and now he’s using it to hammer, hammer, hammer, hammer, hammer a message into the mind and the lifestyle of this generation.”

So what is the connection? There’s a fetishistic liking to popular music, one that the modern moral majority likens to a satanic delight. That’s fetishistic, to be sure. It’s a guilty pleasure, I guess. Sure enough, a little later Adorno says of popular music that he’s referring to “the specifically aesthetic” and “forbidden allurements” as well as “sensual gaiety” (31). In our consumer society, “the listener is converted [...] into the acquiescent purchaser” (31). But Adorno also defines the idea of a fetish value according to Marx’s idea of the concept. He explains that when one fetishizes music, the act of acquisition becomes more important than the music itself so then, according to Adorno, the “consumer is really worshipping the money that he himself has paid for the ticket to the Toscanini concert,” not the music or the musicians (38).

Adorno also argues against any sort of communication between the two “spheres” of music, popular or “light music” and “the higher type.” He explains that they “do not hang together in such a way that the lower could serve as a sort of popular introduction to the higher, or that higher could renew its lost collective strength by borrowing from the lower” (35).

True to form, though, Adorno concludes from his analysis that “musical analysis has today decayed as fundamentally as musical charm and has its parody in the stubborn counting of beats.” But not to be undone by his own gloominess, he adds that “the golden age of taste has dawned at the very moment in which taste no longer exists” (40). Ah, Theodor! You cad!

It’s not enough for Adorno to say that our taste has disappeared. He critiques our “psychological household” as well. When we consume popular music, he explains, we are confirmed in our “neurotic stupidity” (47). Thus, “The assent to hit songs and debased cultural goods belongs to the same complex of symptoms as do those faces of which one no longer knows whether the film has alienated them from reality or reality has alienated them from the film” (47). That gorgeous sentence goes on—actually it says “as they wrench open a great formless mouth with shining teeth in a voracious smile, while the tired eyes are wretched and lost above.” I told you Adorno was a load of laughs. He clearly wants us to know that popular music has a “power over its victims” (48).

The mechanism at work is, Adorno says, a “neurotic mechanism of stupidity in listening” which causes “regressive listeners” who “again and again with stubborn malice [...] demand the one dish they have once been served” (51). Nice. I do follow him here, though. Tune in any Top 40 radio station for two hours and you’ll know the words to all the popular songs. The same kind of truth applies, I guess, to the discussion I have with students about poetry being similar to (sometimes the same as) song lyrics; the difference is whether the poem or lyrics endure.

A very interesting point Adorno makes about this regressive listening is that it is “always ready to degenerate into rage” (56). He explains, “If one knows that he is basically marking time, the rage is directed primarily against everything which could disavow the modernity of being with-it and up-to-date and reveal how little has in fact changed” (56). That speaks to much about the phenomenon of popular music. For one, it seems to address the very notion of adolescence. Rage and adolescence feel connected to me. It also pulls in the need to be up-to-date and hip that popular music requires. Interesting.

On to the next essay, “The Schema of Mass Culture.” I won’t spend a great deal of time here. This is the essay where Adorno argues that culture has a “commercial character” (61). In this commercial culture, we learn to develop a certain reverence for products as a result of advertising (63).

In mass culture, the ideal is adaptation, says Adorno, so the “digest has become a particularly popular fofrm of literary distribution and the average film now boasts of its similarity with the successful prototype rather than trying to conceal the fact” (67).
The result of this kind of culture is that the “individual becomes a nihilist. Anything that cannot be recognized, subsumed, and verified he regrets as idiocy or ideology, as subjective in the derogatory sense” (85).

I see where Adorno’s theories are limited by when they were written when he says that mass culture “only recognizes refined people.” His reasoning is that “even the language of the street kids that can never be reproduced too realistic merely serves to ensure that the laughing viewer is never is never tempted to use any such language himself” (92). Fer shizzle, my Thizzle.

Now the next essay, “Culture Industry, Reconsidered,” is just what it looks like. Here he adds to what he said before and emphasizes a few points. For instance, Adorno wants us to remember that the “culture industry misuses its concern for the masses in order to duplicate, reinforce, and strengthen their mentality, which it presumes is given and unchangeable” (99). It seems to me that he’s working overtime here NOT to sound like a communist. Another interesting idea in this essay is that “the culture industry exists in the ‘service’ of third persons,” and “its ideology makes use of the star system.” The result is that the “more dehumanized its methods of operation and content, the more diligently and successfully the culture industry propagates supposedly great personalities and operates with heart-throbs” (101).

I didn’t have a lot to say about “Culture and Administration.” The following chapter, “Freudian Theory and The Pattern of Fascist Propaganda” is much more interesting. Here he’s talking about “American fascist agitators,” which is always a boatload of fun, whether or not I’m having to wrestle with Adorno’s hefty sentences. He begins with the explanation that social sciences have studied “American fascist agitators” carefully. Their studies have shown that most present-day agitators’ attacks are “ad hominem,” psychological in origin instead of “rational” (132). He says “our would-be Hitlers” intend to create “crowds bent on violent action without any sensible political aim, and to create the atmosphere of the pogrom” (133). This is “the psychology of the masses,” a useful term not just to use when we’re talking about fascists, but also when we’re talking about controlling behavior with popular culture. I don’t like to think of Michael Moore’s methods in teerms of fascism, but his work fits into this category as well.

Adorno says that the interesting part of Freud’s approach to this topic is that he consideres not just the psychology of groups but also “which psychological forces result in the transformation of individuals into a mass” (135). Freud theorized that, “If the individuals in the group are combined into a unity, there must surely be something to unite them” (qtd in Adorno 135). Of course he blamed that bond on the libido, but Adorno points out that Hitler was aware of that connection as well and capitalized upon it—the connection would be through identification (136).

So then these groups and agitators tend to be similar; for example Leo Lowenthal demonstrated that “one of the favorite devices of fascist agitators” was to “compare out-groups, all foreigners and partially refugees and Jews, with low animals and vermin” (147). This is certainly something we’ve all seen done.

The next essay is “How to Look at Television.” I was disappointed with this one, having thought it would be better than it actually is. One point Adorno makes is that television has an affect on “various layers of the spectator’s personality” (158).

He also says that “the archetypes of present popular culture were set comparatively early in the development of middle-class society” (159). They were set in the eighteenth century and have remained since then. No wonder so many of us have sunk in then!!

Really that’s about it for that one. The next one is “Transparencies on Film.” Here Adorno says that “fictional characters never resemble their empirical counterparts no matter how minutely they are described” (179). In addition, even though a film tries to be realistic, it isn’t always, so there might not always be a feeling of immediacy in film (179).

The last two, “Free Time” and “Resolution,” I just don’t have much to say about. I found Adorno unbelievably boring as I said. I hope he was worth the unreal amount of time I spent on him!

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

“Humor in Popular Culture” by Judith Yaross Lee

Dr. Lee publishes this introduction to Studies in American Humor every year as a summary of what has happened in humor scholarship. Leaving aside her very readable (yet scholarly) writing style, the breadth of her knowledge is enough to give one pause. I suppose it wouldn’t be hard to summarize the year in humor scholarship if one paid close attention, particularly if one became well known for having done so and people began to offer updates. But she is about to put the information in a much larger context.

This introduction comes from 2001, a particularly inauspicious year for comedy. Lee says that if there were any “doubts about the centrality of humor to American culture,” we can assume that they “vanished in the terrorist attacks.” She explains that “[s]elf-censorship ruled the day.” But ultimately, the comedians had to go back to work, even Mark Russell, who “recast his political satire as patriotism” when he explained his going back to work as a response to the president’s edict to return to our daily lives. The only joke Russell made about the president was to say that not joking about him would reduce his routine to eight minutes. Lee sums up the delicate problems posed by the national disaster for the comedians: “the biggest challenge regarding humor in popular culture comes from this very centrality and ubiquity.”

Lee goes on to discuss some of the contributors to the issue, including Tom Inge, who wrote about L’il Abner. Lee notes as a point of interest the way Inge shows “the interplay of many media—oral, print, film broadcast—to show how regional images emerge and thrive.

Discussing the work of Victor Navasky, Lee traces the connection of “college humor magazines” such as the Harvard Lampoon to The Onion, Comedy Central, and Saturday Night Live.

Generally speaking, that’s the most important part of her essay, other than to say it is well written and that its’ important to understand that Dr. Lee is an important thinker in the field.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

"The Literatures of America:
A Comparative Discipline”
Paul Lauter

Lauter argues against “the Great River theory of American letters,” one we’ve all taken a dip or two in. Perhaps you know it as “mainstream American literature,” the big guys, like Melville, Emerson, Thoreau, Hemingway, and the others in the great flow of white men. Lauter explains that we are unwise to use such a theory because it is “fundamentally misleading,” since America “is a heterogeneous society whose cultures, while they overlap in significant respects, also differ in critical ways.” He compares the great river theory to making the assumption in gender studies that “the male is considered the norm” or in studying “ethnic organization and behavior” assuming the norm is “Anglo-American.”

Lauter’s purpose in writing is to suggest a way to study “the many and varied literatures of the United States.” He wants to find a way to include the writings of many marginalized groups. He points out that “the works generally considered central to a culture are those composed and promoted by persons from groups holding power within it.” As a result, there may be many reasons why other works of literature might be misunderstood or excluded. To use a comparative method of study would be more inclusive, including “Anglo-European, male writing as but one voice, albeit loud and various, in the chorus of ‘American’ culture.”

The comparative method is not without its complexities. For one, he says, we may be unaccustomed to the method. Another issue is that the various cultures within the U.S. are at different stages of development. So while the white male group may have had more time to develop as writers, other groups might not have had as much time to develop their literacy. Thus, the comparison might not always be on equal terms.

For an example, Black writers might not seem as developed as white writers, having gained literacy later than white writers. While women might have been literate sooner than Blacks, they often were ignored because they wrote what was expected of them—“success tales, in which virtue, in the form of constancy, often self-denial, and sometimes devotion to craft generally brought happy endings for the heroines.” He’s talking about that kind of sentimentalist fiction that’s predictable and awful, rather than pleasant (the kind that Leslie Fiedler talks about in Love & Death in the American Novel).

The problem is, see, the history of fiction isn’t something we can agree on precisely. That is to say—what we once thought was the History of Fiction was just one voice speaking, when in fact many voices should have been represented. It is as though an invisible hand covered those other mouths, not the hand of a conspiracy, necessarily, but the kind of hand that would arise from poverty, a language difference, or just, for example, living in the wrong region. This invisible hand of which I speak is the vehicle of marginalization.

To apply the term “regionalist” or “local colorist” to writers, Lauter notes, “marks them as peripheral to the development of a national culture” because “a critical category like ‘regionalism’ is about as useful—and as accurate—in describing these writers as a phrase like ‘escapist fiction’ would be if applied to Poe” as well as “ethnic” or “minority” regarding other writers.

Lauter also points out what he calls “the social issues,” meaning “the prices paid, often by women for men’s upward, or outward, mobility, the sacrifices of community to self, the difficulties for sustaining community.” What he means is that the work of a marginalized writer or group might not surface or be heard because that group is, essentially, working to support the group in power. To oversimplify grossly, while the group in power can focus on writing, producing a great work of literature, the marginalized group cleans the house, works at the 7-11, and so on, in support—no time to write.

Several examples come up, but Lauter discusses Charles Chestnutt at length. Lauter cites from Chestnutt’s journal, where he says, “The object of my writings would not be so much the elevation of the colored people as the elevation of the white—or I consider the unjust spirit of a caste which is so insidious as to pervade a whole nation, and so powerful as to subject a whole race and all connected with it to scorn social ostracism.” So not only did Chestnutt observe that he was in a marginalized group, but also he noted that it wasn’t his task to elevate his own group but rather to educate the mainstream to the point where that group could have the keen insight of his own—a noble goal.

A contributing factor to this discussion of fiction has to do with taste. Lauter makes the obvious point that taste is individual and related to one’s experience, but he also explains that what is obvious to me was not always obvious. Lauter cites Zola, who said “there are certain things people ought to like, and that they can be made to like.” Zola’s idea of taste better describes the traditional view of literature and What We Ought to Think About it. Consider Shakespeare: contemporary middle- and lower-class audiences my age and older probably don’t go to Shakespearean plays or read them for pleasure because they went to school under the tutelage of a faculty who believed they could force us to like the “proper” literature—like Shakespeare. We rebelled.

Obviously, the idea of taste being related to one’s personal experience is a better one. Lauter brings this idea back to the idea of marginalized writers and their ability to connect to a wide, mainstream audience. He explains that if the writer is from a marginalized group, she cannot assume that the mainstream audience has experience with her subject matter, and if they have no experience with it, there’s really no guarantee that they’ll find her work interesting. She’s got to make “readers like or, more to the point, find interest in, matters and people quite outside their experience.” So really, says Lauter, “The question of function is thus critically related, on the one hand, to subject and, on the other, to audience.”

Elements of fiction are important in understanding the relationship of fiction to the culture, says Lauter. For example, “point of view is [as a] technical device” is one way Henry James “produces psychological verisimilitude and intimacy of narrative.” Audience is important also as element of fiction in analyzing stories and novels. Lauter leaves us with the reminder that if we want this comparative method of studying literature to work, to prevent us from returning to that dysfunctional “Great River” metaphor, we’ll have to “be sensitive to a far broader range of audiences, conventions, functions, histories, and subjects” than we were before.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

"Diversity and the Transformation of American Studies”
Linda Kerber

Kerber’s 1988 speech as American Studies Association President in the main doesn’t tell me anything that Gene Wise or any others didn’t already say: American Studies went along just fine as a myth-and-symbol discipline for a while until its scholars began to understand the importance of diversity; then things changed.

Nevetheless, in making her case, Kerber adds some very interesting supporting points that I didn’t see others add. For one, when Kerber describes the way American Studies began as a discipline, she explains that to say “American Civilization” was to take a defensive posture against “Anglophiles and Francophiles in the academy.” I knew that American Studies, and particularly the literature, wasn’t considered a worthy area of study, but I didn’t know that to term it “Civilization” had a specific connotation. Kerber adds that not only is American Studies interdisciplinary in the present day, but it also was in the 1940s and 50s, when it was among the first programs that “surrendered to undergraduates substantial power for innovation in the planning of a personal academic career.” That’s a fairly significant point. So, she says, it was “the exciting place to be in the 1950s.”

In discussing the historical span of the discipline, Kerber explains the importance of the myth and symbol theorists. She argues that “long before deconstructionists destabilized our understanding of what makes up a text and insisted on the instability of narratives” they used a similar style of criticism; they “struggled to decode the processes by which social meaning is constructed” as well as “to widen the definition of what constitutes a text.”

Kerber ends by arguing against some detractor of diversity, including Allan Bloom. In “The Closing of the American Mind,” Bloom “blamed feminists and black scholar-activities for destabilizing the academy in the last generation.” He specifically calls feminism “the latest enemy of the vitality of classic texts,” ignoring (Kerber reminds us) strong feminist messages in works of the classics, like The Bacchae. She goes on to suggest that scholars like Bloom and Bennett might better “settle down actually to read the classics” they’re so critical of because “they may be surprised at what they find.” What a wonderful challenge! I love an elegant barely couched slam.

Anyway, Kerber’s article was interesting, but not an earth-shaking read.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

It's Burlesque, Baby

The way Allen explains it in Horrible Prettiness, “the emblematic trope of burlesque was the pun,” which weren’t only popular in America; they had enjoyed popularity in Europe as well. But the difference in the Thompson act was that women got to tell the jokes (147). Burlesque humor also used “incongruity and miscegenation” (147).

Allen says burlesque “flaunted the language of the street, of the uncultured, and of the urban working classes: slang.” But when it did that, “it flouted the right of bourgeois culture to determine the propriety of public discourse.” Effectively, burlesque celebrated in its own disapproval, or as Allen put it, “reveled in its illegitimacy” (148). I could certainly connect that to the present-day coolness about coming from the working class and the general approval for using informal language under most circumstances.

A pioneer of the burlesque at this time was Michael Leavitt, who discovered a way to mix up “the lady minstrel shows, vaudeville, and musicalized travesty into one production theater” (163). The result was a more formal burlesque that was able to tour—and which toured with black-face performers. The interesting thing about Leavitt’s show was that it was at least “on the surface [...] a curious hybridization of two [...] disparate forms of popular entertainment,” burlesque and the minstrel show. Allen observes that the mixture was curious since the burlesque was customarily an all-woman show, while the minstrel program traditionally was made up of an all-male cast of performers. So when Leavitt used females in the minstrelsy, it seemed a purposeful subversion. In fact, though, it had more to do with “the economics of popular entertainment”—a single cast was probably cheaper to tour with, I’m guessing (165).

Still an odd connection between burlesque and minstrelsy made them ideal companions. Allen says the “sexual objectification of the burlesque performer confirmed the authority of the male spectator to visually possess her, while, at the same time her inversive and transgressive performance pointed to the social and sexual system within which both spectator and performer were situated” (170). But in much the same way, “the black man represented by the blackface minstrel was obviously an object of ridicule, a construction of thoroughgoing otherness that allowed white audiences to see themselves as both ontologically different and constitutionally superior” (170). These minstrel shows “implicitly (and sometimes explicitly)” sanctioned slavery, but Allen says it would be oversimplifying to say that they were just “a spectacle of racial hatred rendered palatable to the audience through comedy” (170). In fact, says Allen, in a sense, “the blackface minstrel” had a “very low otherness” that let him offer a “displaced, bottom-up critique of the social order, an order in which the white audience itself has been figured in a low other” (170). So from this I gather that the minstrel show was not as simplistic as one might have taken it at first glance.

Allen cites Alexander Saxton’s view that minstrel shows were vehicles for expressing “class identification and hostility, the blackface convention rendering permissible topics which would have been taboo on the legitimate stage or press” (173). These comedians, then, got away with saying things that otherwise would have been inappropriate—long the domain of comedians.

The bodies of the performers in both burlesque and minstrelsy were important parts of their “transgressive and inversive qualities” (174). For example, burlesque performers’ bodies often were a “parody of masculinity” (174). Also, “In jokes, songs, and sketch humor, minstrel characters were represented as fixated on animalistic bodily functions, particularly eating, drinking, and – albeit disguised under cover of primitive courtship – sex” (175).

Part of the “spectacle” of burlesque, of course, was the “celebration of the body. But “the ‘nudity’ of the burlesque performer” made it difficult to understand her performance. In fact, Allen theorizes that it might have been her “acting out’ that “bothered some critics much more than her ‘showing off her body’” (148).

Now the body was important in burlesque, but expectations about the way it would and should look changed over the years. Early burlesque troupe’s “would hire no woman who did not weigh at least one hundred and fifty pounds” (176). Even as late as 1899, burlesque troupe owner W.B. Watson recruited his troupe by size, calling the troupe “Billy Watson’s Beef Trust.” Allen says some performers “weighed as much as two hundred pounds” (176). One late nineteenth century novel describes a backstage burlesque scene where two dancers talk. One says of the male spectators, “they don’t believe it’s female unless it looks like what they’re used to in the barnyard and the cattle pen” (177).

Later, Allen distinguishes between vaudeville and burlesque, saying that vaudeville was for more of “a squeaky clean” audience, after there was a crackdown on burlesque (184). B.F. Keith was responsible for the growth of vaudeville, and he caused this growth by strictly controlling the content of performances in his clubs. Descriptions of performances (and the resulting censorship remind me of the political correctness that began in the 1990s). But both burlesque and vaudeville peaked in 1910; Allen says both were mainly East and West-coast experiences (with some for Chicago in between).

In “Burlesque at Century’s End,” Allen discusses the advertisements of burlesque and gender-based assumptions of the time. Allen cites an article from an 1871 Clipper edition. An essay talks about the “danger” of the “predatory female.” One memorable remark is “Few will dispute the fact that a bad woman is worse than a bad man” (202). We see this prejudice at play in popular culture at the time. For example, “predatory chorus girls in cartoons, stories, and other media were either explicitly or implicitly from the working class,” whereas their “victims” on the other hand “were frequently from the upper class and always at least from the middle class” (204).

Eventually, in the twentieth century, burlesque evolved into the cooch (short for hootchy-kootchy) dance, which was the precursor to the striptease (225). Allen discusses striptease acts in connection with freak shows. He says, “the physically exceptional person becomes a freak when his or her abnormality is made the basis for the commercial construction of radical otherness. That otherness is structured as a grotesque essence, which confuses and thereby challenges the boundaries between key self-definitional categories: self and other, male and female, human and animal, large and small” (234). The connection between these two is the result of Leslie Fiedler – remember him, from Love & Death in the American Novel? – who “explicitly links the experience of watching an exhibition of human biologic abnormality and that of witnessing sexual spectacle.” He saw that connection because each has “the sense of watching, unwilling butt enthralled, the exposed obscenity of the self or the other” (234).

Now, as all good stories must, the story ends for burlesque around about the 1920s, when motion pictures began to put them out of business. Allen explains that “for less than the price of the cheapest seat at a Keith vaudeville theater, one could see three hours worth of films and live entertainment” (244). Allen calls burlesque’s “primary contribution to American show business [...] the development of comedic talent” such as “Phil Silvers, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Jackie Gleason, Red Skelton, and Red Buttons” (258).

Allen goes on to talk about some other performers who crossed over, most notably Mae West, about whom I have written extensively earlier, so I won’t do it again. But I will repeat that she is massively underappreciated—not many realize that she wrote plays and screenplays and was quite brilliant, hiding under her vampishness, not because she was ashamed, but because she was smart and she knew it would win over her audience.

But powerful as Mae West was and powerful as Lydia Thompson was before her (with her burlesque act), Allen reminds us that ‘at no point in the history of burlesque were performers totally in control of the form’” (284). Even so, he says that women were “empowered” by burlesque in a way that they never had been before. They got to tell the jokes, to be in control of the stage, and to be in control of their bodies. It didn’t always make people happy, but it made a big difference: lives of women were not the same ever after.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

From Burlesque to Brutal: Horrible Prettiness
How did burlesque develop its performance style? Allen says in order to know the answer, we first need to know that the theater in America has a complex history. Theater did not have a strong place in the culture until the early nineteenth century, because of its difficult beginning. First, theater needs an audience, and without many large cities to provide one, develop a strong national theater was hardly possible. Also, the U.S. had at least a couple of wars between the colonial period and the early 1800s; so cultural activity like the theater was interrupted. Further, during the colonial period, when theater might have developed even a small audience to sustain it, “two of the wealthiest and most populous American colonies were the least hospitable to traveling players” because the Puritans held in “disdain [...] theatrical entertainments of any kind” (46). In Massachusetts in 1750, there came to be “a fine of twenty pounds for attempting to mount any public stage play” (46-47). Similarly in Pennsylvania in 1682, the fine for attempting to stage a play was “twenty shillings or ten days at hard labor” (47). As a result, it is easy to see how it came to be the nineteenth century before theater evolved here. It’s also easy to trace the roots of our prudishness on many things—for example, the Janet Jackson foolishness at last year’s Superbowl. We aren’t so distant from our prudish Puritan ancestors.

The Puritans’ main complaint with theater was that it was “mimicry and spectacle. To disguise oneself and pretend to be someone else – particularly of another rank or gender was to mock nature and God.” They believed that “plays were inherently blasphemous” (48).

Moreover, the spectacle of the plays made them suspicious because using one’s body as an instrument was dubious. And for a woman to do so was extremely suspicious. Actresses, generally, were considered to be equivalent to prostitutes (49-50).

The theater of the early nineteenth century would have seemed unfamiliar to us in the present day. Allen described theater at this time as noisy and chaotic, and unlike the theater of the later nineteenth century (as well as the present day), the audience would have been less middle class. One might have encountered there “ink-covered newsboys, aproned butcher’s apprentices, burly stevedores, and, in the theater’s third tier, dozens of prostitutes and their customers” (45). Interestingly, the theaters originally had been built in the 1820s by and for the upper classes, but more and more by the late 1820s and early 1830s, the theater was attended by the lower classes (51-52).

Another interesting fact Allen reports is that “To a degree that would be unimaginable to theatergoers today, early nineteenth-century audiences controlled what went on at the theater. When the audiences “found something particularly to their liking, they would insist that it be repeated.” Boston newspaper Spirit of the Times reported for example “from the voice of the audience in 1846 [...] ’tonight we are going to encore Mrs. Kean’s “I don’t believe it” in The Gamester. We hope she’ll prove agreeable and disbelieve it twice for our sakes. Perhaps we’ll flatter Mr. Kean by making him take poison twice’” (56). Sometimes theater riots occurred when audience desires were not satisfied (57).

Later in the nineteenth century, the middle class began to emerge somewhat more, and more middleclass entertainment was made available, including burlesque, so “'respectable’ women attended museum theaters in a manner that would have indelibly marked them as prostitutes in the 1840s: without male escort” (65). Society changed.

A little later, in the chapter, “Women on Stage,” Allen discusses the connection between ballet as high art and burlesque as low art, explaining that ballet costumes showed bare legs and far more skin than would be allowable elsewhere in society—especially including a burlesque show—because ballet is considered to be high art. But if burlesque dancers wore the same costumes, it would be considered obscene (92).

Allen also talks about William Mitchell’s having taken over the Olympic theater in 1839. His form of burlesque was to entertain his “mostly working-class audience with send-ups of whatever their ‘betters’ found fashionable in literature or the theater” (102). This is hilarious to read about, but wonders whether the working class audience truly understood the humor. Hmmm…

In the chapter, “Ixion Revisited,” Allen takes up the topic of “Burlesque’s Problematic Femininity,” and maybe its phrasing is no grabber, but this is where I began to consider some of the feminist issues in the book. Earlier in the chapter, Allen cites the many morality-based critics of burlesque. Just one example is the New York Times’s review of Thompsonian burlesque in 1869 calling it “immensely damaging to the public taste and terribly ruinous to the public morals” (137).

The show that so upset them was what Allen calls “the most thoroughly feminized form of theatrical entertainment in the history of the American state to that time.” But even more interesting is when he elaborates, saying that “no form of American commercial theatrical entertainment before or since has given the stage over to women to a greater degree” (137). In this show, all the parts were played by women, except one—and even that single male actor played a woman.

That the costumes revealed some curves should surprise none of us, but the forceful, “slang-spouting, minstrel-dancing” behavior was what Allen calls “a physical and ideological inversion of the Victorian ideal of femininity.” Dressed in corsets, these women showed off “bust, hips, and legs, calling attention to the markers of sexual difference the sentimental costume kept hidden” (138).

Allen discusses this whole phenomenon alongside a mention of a historical fact that “the 1850s and 1860s [...] saw an outpouring of commentary on the ‘problem’ of prostitution, which was, as Michel Foucault has argued, a displaced discourse on sexuality and women in general. It was also a discourse on the ‘problem’ of class” (138). Incidentally—prostitution wasn’t illegal at the time; it was just a name for transgressing “the bourgeois notions of feminine propriety” or maybe returning “a man’s gaze on the street” (139). So no wonder the burlesque was seen as a threat alongside prostitution.

What struck me here—particularly with Allen’s reasoning and his intelligent discourse—was the mockery made of women who had some power. And if such a mockery was made, why? I started to think about the idea of power as it relates to the idea of modesty, particularly as I hear it defined by my Mideastern – Muslim students. I don’t mean to marginalize or speak ill of their religion, because I think it actually typifies the values that I was raised with also, but sometimes Islam is easy to characterize because their dogma is so clearly stated. Women are expected to be demure, particularly when it comes to matters relating to sex. The less they know, the purer they are, and the better that is for them. Christians—especially fundamentalists—say similar things.

However, this is not simply religious dogma—or even a specifically American phenomenon, I think. People in general are embarrassed by women who know about sex, talk about sex, look overtly sexy, remind people too much of sex. We have disdain for them. For a frivolous answer, think back to Janet Jackson—her foolish ratings grabber breast exposing exercise cost a television network millions of dollars because we’re all supposed to pretend she’s some sort of a virginal divorcee. I realize that the world sometimes at present feels as though it’s full of Britney Spears girls and bare-midriffed girls who seem to be all skin, but they’re in the minority.

My point is that it never occurred to me until I read Horrible Prettiness what it means to make sure that women are modest and demure. If women are this way, they don’t know very much about sex, and that keeps them out of a position of power. Not being savvy about sex makes us powerless in some important ways. To begin with, we know that we are subject to rape under a number of circumstances, but if we’re ignorant about sex, we’re never really sure how or where it might happen. We’re always afraid, so we are unlikely to be independent and must be reliant on men for ease in passage to new places and experiences. If we are truly ignorant about sex, we can never be truly sure if we’ve done it or we’ve gone too far. So we live in fear of being branded a whore. The theocratic accusations of Puritan America (or present day Saudi Arabia or name any one of any number of places where innocent women have been branded whores for no reason) don’t seem so outlandish when we think of what it was like to be “the right kind of girl” or even how it is to be that right kind of girl today. It becomes, to my mind, so completely foolish to be that way oneself and still more irresponsible to teach one’s daughter to do so. It’s horrific. Tell that to the red states, though. Never mind the rest of the world for just a moment.

So here is what women did to look beautiful. The fashion in 1867 was called “the Grecian bend.” That meant to wear a special kind of corset that forced the breasts forward, of course pulled in the waist abnormally small, and then forced the rear-end bizarrely backwards, so the woman would literally form the shape of an S. The result was that most women couldn’t even walk. But, as is true with stiletto heels at present, many women wore them (141). Around the same time, blonde hair dye and heavy makeup became fashionable (142).

Allen cites scholar G.J. Baker-Benfield’s connecting the “stylishness and assertiveness of middle class women” with “the rise of gynecology in the years after the Civil War” (143). When these women took steps “beyond their established roles [they] threatened the entire system by inverting power relations” (143). Most importantly, “a stable and ordered society was seen as dependent on the maintenance of patriarchal power in the home” (143). A former president of the American Medical Association wrote in 1870 that "the unnatural practices of rebellious women (including masturbation, contraception, and abortion)" represented "a threat to American civilization on a par with the barbarian threat to the Roman Empire."

The medical literature around that time saw women as "inherently unstable biopsychological systems, whose maintenance required professional control and periodic intervention. Whereas man's nature was seen as governed by his higher organ, the brain, women's nature was determined by the sexual and reproductive organs of the lower body" (144). (Thank goodness we've seen the light and reversed that!). But in all seriousness, the “wisdom” about these roles was interpreted to mean that if a woman acted out in an unusual way, the intervention had to be through her sexual organs! So gynecological treatment in the years after the Civil War meant these "hysterical" women who "transgressed sexual norms" were “cured” with female castration and clitoridectomy (up through the late 1860s!!)--that is, the “lucky” middle-class women. Working class women with the same issues were declared "feeble-minded" or "criminal" and locked up (144). Frankly, here is one time I’d rather be poor. So enough of our calling other countries barbaric, because that is no more than about 140 years ago.

That’s enough for one reading. More next time about what kind of humor was used in burlesque: Think puns.