Saturday, December 27, 2008

Household Space and the Uncanny in a Carbon Footprint Ad

There's a very clever, subtle PSA promoting awareness of our carbon footprints, developed by the British agency AMV BBDO (the makers of the "Stop the Bullets" PSA mentioned in my last blog post). The new ad, Footprints, shows a series of scenes in which each person leaves behind gooey footprints of dark petroleum. The ad ends with a child's voiceover, "You have a carbon footprint which contributes to climate change. To discover yours and how to reduce it visit uk/ACTonCO2"

I'm especially interested in how the ad makes use of interior, domestic space. The opening shot is of an outdoor lamp illuminating a jovial party scene on a patio; a man leaves his affectionate companions and walks indoors, leaving the dark footprints behind him; a mother does laundry walking past her baby on the floor; a mother and daughter leave their car in the garage as they enter the house; children race around, leaving video games on an unattended computer monitor; a man gets out of a bathtub; friends lounge around a refrigerator's open door. So here, in contrast to most representations, carbon footprints are not presented as the products of vast factories or machines, but rather of individual persons, pointedly emphasizing individual responsibility at the level of the household.

This emphasis on domestic space is reinforced by the soundtrack, the opening lyrics of the 1969 song,"Shangri-la," by Ray Davies of the Kinks: "Now that you've find you've found your paradise/This is your kingdom to command/Your can go outside a polish your car/or sit by your fire in your Shangri-la..." The lyrics are loosely keyed to the images on screen ("polish your car" is tied to the scene of a mother and daughter getting out of a car; "sit by the fire" is linked to the scene of a lit computer screen, the modern equivalent of the fireplace)

The later lyrics of the original song (not in the ad) are considerably darker than the opening, indicating that the protagonist Arthur is trappped in a deeply alienating existence, with no way out. So inasmuch as memories of the original song might linger on among some of the audience, might the ad be read as an implicit critique of the bourgeois sensibility?

Watching the ad, I find myself thinking of Freud's famous observation that there is nothing more uncanny (Unheimliche, un-home-like) than the Home-like (Das Heimliche). In the seemingly familiar, comfortable environment of their home, there lurks a disturbing trace of the repressed, of all that which we would prefer to forget.

Guns Aestheticized: Reading an anti-gun PSA through Doug Kellner

I've been reading Douglas Kellner's fascinating book on mass-mediated gun culture in the United States, "Guys and Guns Amok: Domestic Terrorism and School Shooting from the Oklahoma City Bombing to the Virginia Tech Massacre." (Paradigm, 2008) The book is causing me to think carefully about the profound aestheticization of guns and gun-related violence in contemporary American and global culture. There is a nearly sacramental status afforded to guns and bullets, as prosthetic extensions of the masculine ego, in innumerable mass media images.

Reading Kellner, it occurs to me that this sensibility even informs works of media culture that are self-consciously opposed to gun violence. I find myself rethinking, for example, the well known British public service announcement, “Stop the Bullets, Kill the Gun." For more than a year, Choice FM’s anti-gun violence ad (produced by the London-based AMV BBDO) has been making the rounds on line, reproduced on YouTube and in other venues:

(See production credits at )

Produced as part of the London radio station’s campaign against urban youth violence, especially "black-on-black" violence, the ad features slow-motion shots of a bullet exploding, in turn, an egg, a glass of milk, an apple, a bottle of tomato ketchup, a bottle of water, and a watermelon. The final screen is of the face of black youth; the bullet flying towards his head stops just before impact and turns into the words, “Stop the bullets. Kill the guns.”

The sequence of destroyed objects is presumably carefully chosen to build up towards the invisible spectacle of a human cranium being destroyed by a bullet. The final explosion, of the red fruit of the watermelon, foreshadows the (unseen) explosion of blood that would follow the bullet strike on the head of the black child.

I've been intrigued by the ad because of its allusions to high art, including contemporary stop-motion art photography and classical opera, but not quite sure what to make of these echoes. Kellner's analysis of the grand "Spectacle" of gun-related violence in modern society has encouraged me to thinking more carefully about why such high aesthetic values are brought to bear on the subject of gun violence in the ad.

I am not entirely sure of the precise artistic lineage of the image of the bullet strike. Perhaps, one of the sources here is the famous 1961-1963 series of “shooting pictures,” by the French contemporary artist Niki de Saint Phalle, in which a fired bullet exploded concealed paint containers.

The more proximate inspiration is presumably the work of the scientist and photographer Harold E. Edgerton, whose 1964 still shots, “Shooting the Apple” (also called “.30 Bullet Piercing an Apple”) and “Bullet Through Jack”, capture, through use of stroboscopy, a bullet passing through the objects.

One thinks as well of AP photographer Eddie Adams's famous 1968 image of South Vietnam's national police chief executing an alleged Vietcong insurgent. There must be innumerable other photographic and cinematic images of human heads exploding as bullets pass through them, that in one way or another inform the ad. It is even possible that among the iconographic inspirations are the famous photographs of Flight 77 (“the second plane”) passing through the second World Trade Center tower on September 11, 2001.

Equally intriguing is the ad’s use as background music of the Bellini’s aria “Casta Diva” from Norma, perhaps best known Bel Canto aria of the 19th century. Was the selection chosen only because of its beauty and its fame, and to highlight the Edgerton-inspired aestheticization of the bullet strike? The music and moving image are carefully calibrated, so that the soprano sings the first word just as the bullet hits the first object.

Is there, as well, a clever deployment of the opera’s lyrics lurking in the background? The soundtrack plays the first three lines of the aria, in which Norma invokes the pure and chaste goddess of the moon:

Casta Diva, che inargenti
queste sacre antiche piante,
a noi volgi il bel sembiante

Translated by the Opera Guide:

"Chaste goddess, who dost bathe in silver light
These ancient, hallowed trees,
Turn thy fair face upon us."

Is the implication that the gun and the bullet are, in the current moment, our own sacred divinities? The unexpected slow motion beauty of the bullet strike gives a glimpse of eternal mystery, an effect heightened by the sublime music.

I can't help but wonder if it is entirely coincidence that final sung word in the ad is "sembiante" (appearance, semblance, face) just as our eye lingers on the face of the boy, suspended somewhere between life and death. In this sense, the ad might call to mind Roland Barthes' famous observation in Camera Lucida, when gazing at the photograph of the condemned criminal on the eve of his execution, "He is dead. And he is going to die." Photographs so often take us into strange temporal interzones, suspended between past, present and possible futures, and this ad would seem to exemplify and play upon those affordances. Perhaps the Bellini aria, with its stately rythmns, enforces an awareness of temporal sequence that intensifies the effects of the slow motion shots of the Phantom camera (capturing motion at 10,000 frames per second).

As in so many skillfully crafted PSAs the question of effectiveness is inevitably raised. Does the ad’s beauty simply heighten our contemporary cultural fixation with bullets and guns, as manifestations of the sacred? Or does the ad significantly undercut the great aesthetic value accorded to gun-related violence on television and in film? Reading Doug Kellner's important study, I'm inclined to think that the ad, despite the best of intentions, is so enmeshed with a hegemonic aesthetic that rends the speeding bullet sublime that it is unlikely to deter anyone from participating in gun violence...

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Art and Evolution: Kiki Smith's Lucy's Daughters

I've just posted a video essay on Kiki Smith's wonderful silk screened art work, "Lucy's Daughters" (1990), which I first saw in a show curated by Margarite Evangeline at the Rose Art Museum:

I'm especially struck by how the piece contrasts with the standard graphic framing of evolution in the popular imagination, typified by the unlinear "parade of man" visual trope, of the sort ridiculed by Stephen Jay Gould in his book "Wonderful Life.

Our hope is to get a kind of video dialogue going in advance of the symposium on art and evolution we're planning for "Darwin Day", the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin on February 12, 2009. I'd love to view some specific video responses to my video essay, as well as other commentaries about: (1)how artists have responded to evolutionary ideas, and (2) how, in turn, visual and other representational genres have helped to shape popular (and scientific) understandings of evolutionary processes.

I'm excited about YouTube's potentional for promoting stimulating video dialogues about problems in cultural theory and the interpretation of art, now that it is so easy for so many people to post video responses to videos that they encounter on line. I'm wondering how this kind of visual correspondence might itself evolve of over time. To be sure, quick video responses and counter-responses many not always encourage thoughtful reflection, but the medium does seem to have interesting "affordances" for the building of communities devoted to collaborative cultural analysis outside the bounds of the academy in a formal, institutional sense.

Beyond the general educational value of video essays themselves, I'm intrigued by the pedagogic possibilities of YouTube in the courses that I teach. Would it be a good idea to encourage or require students to post video responses to one another, perhaps pondering a specfic image, work of art, or other cultural phenomena? In small classes at least, one could initially limit the video dialogues to a closed group (the YouTube upper limit for closed access is 25 viewers) and then later go public with the video dialogue, I suppose, once we decided as a class that the video threads were ready to be shared with the wider universe. I still would want students to post carefully thought out written responses on line, but it does seem to me that the discipline of composing video essays (in which image, text and voice are thoughfully integrated) is a very useful one, especially if students were responsible to one another for crafting videos that responded to their peers' videos.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Interpreting a Gravestone in Greene County, Georgia

I've just posted a video essay on our new Cultural Production "video channel" about an enigmatic gravestone in the city cemetery of Greensboro, Georgia:

I came across the marker while doing research in cemetery for my book on slavery and memory in Georgia. At this point, I know nothing about the woman the marker commemorates, a Mary Irving who evidently passed away in 1828, other than what is inscribed on the slab. I'm fascinated that the details of her death (evidently from a venomous snake) are diagramed out on the slab. The visible slab, I should note, appears to be a recent reproduction, perhaps placed over the original slab after it faded due to the passage of time; I don't know how similar the modern images are to the ones made in the 1820s.

I'm curious about the potential use of i-movies as instructional devices, a usage that has been especially popularized by the wonderful scholar Shigehisa Kuriyama at Harvard. See a report at:

What does this genre let us do that conventional illustrated essays can't quite do? What are the pros and cons of intentionally directing the viewer's gaze through the so-called "Ken Burns effect?" Should we be encouraging our students, in the interest of developing their oral expression and visual literacy to produce and submit these kinds of video essays in the context of academic courses?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Flags over Guantanamo Bay

In my first experimental "webisode" for our emerging Cultural Production "video channel" I reflect on a striking image from the entrance of "Camp Justice," the notorious detention camp on the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Please watch the video on YouTube:

Comments and suggestions would be most welcome.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Webisodes on Critical Media Analysis: "Whopper Virgins"

We have been thinking, in Cultural Production, about ways to develop short “webisodes” (on line video segments) that would showcase and promote productive conversations in critical media analysis. Our initial idea has been to make short segments analyzing new television and print advertisements, integrating grad students and faculty in conversation with sampled footage of the ads themselves. We’ll see how this works out.

We’ll start with Burger King’s much-discussed, “Whopper Virgins” campaign, an ethnographic-style documentary chronicling the supposed journey of taste-testers to the the distant corners of the earth, exposing Greenland Inuit and Romanian and Thai villagers (supposedly new to Burger King or McDonald advertisements) to hamburgers. These various exotics, usually attired in traditional costume, then judge between the Whopper and the Big Mac. The short television ads, now running, are drawn from a skillfully produced larger eight minute “documentary’ on line at:

The ads proclaim such phrases as "See what people thought, when nobody told them what to think," or "Unbiased. Unbelievable. Undeniable."

The blog buzz on the campaign, curiously, largely buys into the hype about Burger King reaching communities as yet ignorant of fast food: what right, some bloggers ask, does the corporation have to push unhealthy foods into new markets? Yet, at least for us in Cultural Production, our primary questions have centered on the ideological and affective dimensions on the campaign. At one level, the ad can be read as a rather standard exercise in American cultural imperialism, a latter day civilizing mission recruiting communities from the global antipodes into the tastes and sensibilities of Pax Americana, epitomized by the hamburger. Yet we also sense a curious wistfulness in the campaign, a joy by the American protagonists at being welcomed (and ultimately fed) by the rest of the world. Does this signal a post-post 9/11 desire (epitomized by the recent celebration over Obama’s election) by Americans to be welcomed once more back into the global fold? (To be sure, this reveujenated internationalism remains predicated on the sure assumption that deep down the rest of the world just wants to reconnect with its inner American essence, realized through the sacrament of the hamburger!)

We are puzzling over the best way to frame these kinds of conversation on line through web-based video: through our own talking heads, through sample ad footage with voiceover student and faculty commentary, through some of of interactive slide show? How do we promote critical readings of these media forms, without foreclosing important lines of conversation and interpretation that we may not have anticipated? Suggestions are most welcome...As we work on all of this, please stay tuned!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Projections on a Waterfall?

In a recent conversation with Ellen Hagney at the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation we discussed the possibility of my Museums and Public Memory class (Brandeis University) in Spring 2009 doing some sort of multimedia installation around the museum and the site of old mills along the river. We are already planning a digital audio walking tour along the river banks, in which walkers would be able to call in via cell phones to hear edited recordings of community members sharing their memories of the river over the years, supplemented by recorded soundscapes of the river and perhaps electro acoustical music inspired by the river.

The idea that has especially intrigued us is developing some sort of video projection installation, perhaps in conjunction with the 2009 Boston CyberArts festival, projecting a video montage directly onto the Moody Street waterfall. (See our proposal on line.) This drop in the river in effect powered the initial creation of the American industrial revolution, providing the energy for the turbines of Francis Cabot Lowell's 1814 textile mill. The surface of the waterfall (and the water vapor generated by the churning waters) might provide an effective “portal” into the city’s history, perhaps going back to precolonial Native American timescapes through histories of colonization, industrialization and the demographic transformations of the community.

At this point, we are imagining some sort of creative compilation of old family and archival photographs of the river, art works inspired by the Charles perhaps videoed interviews of community members reminiscing about the river over time. This might be done in collaboration with some students in Ellen Schattschneider's Visuality and Culture course. Although the actual multimedia projector would be a relatively new piece of technology, the act of projection would hearken back to 19th century visual technologies, including magic lantern projection, such as the Haliotype of the 1850s. (We’d be interested in learning when magic lanterns projections first came to Waltham and what the subjects of this early displays were.)

More broadly, I hope our class learns more about the historical relationships between technologies of optical projection and emerging concepts of psychological projection. William James, for instance, uses the term “projection” extensively in reference both to external projection (in the sense of displacement) of interior psychological states upon an outer object, and internal projection on a kind of mental screen in the case of introspection. Was James specifically inspired by magic lantern displays? Visual projection dates back to at least the mid-17th century: to what extent were emerging modern conceptions of mind and interiority conditioned by these technologies?

In turn, is is interesting to ponder the increasing use of water vapor projection screens in many venues around the world: what precisely is the pleasure of these sorts of ephemeral surfaces? If the reigning experience of modernity is, in Marx’s terms (made famous by Marshall Berman) that “All that is Solid Melts into Air,” then are projections on vapor the purest expression of a modern, or postmodern, sensibility? At the same time, does the impulse to see into a wall of water evoke a primal desire to return to a uterine space, powered by what Freud long ago termed the "Oceanic feeling"?

In any event, we are eager to elicit thoughts from local community members on what might be imaged and imagined through projection installations on and around the waterfall.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Soundscapes and Bodies

In a recent poster session at the American Anthropological Association meetings in San Francisco, Cultural Production graduate student Bryce Peake presented his research on “soundscapes” in and around restaurants on the Maltese island of Goza in the southern Mediterranean. (Bryce is pictured to the left of his poster, explaining his research).

Like the term “landscape,” the concept of “soundscape” implies both a state of being and active process: we creatively “landscape” and “soundscape” our environs, even though certain features of landscapes/soundscapes (in their nominative senses) are relatively impervious or resistant to human intervention. How do we conceptualize, then, the relationship between landscapes and soundscapes? One way of approaching this problem is to consider an intriguing observation by the South African cultural theorist David Bunn, “there are no landscapes without bodies.” By this Bunn refers not simply to the standard practice in European painting of placing bodily figures in the middle foreground of a landscape but to the often implicit presence of embodied forms in landscape imagery as well as to the sensuous promise of bodily engagement in landscape contours and features offered to the viewer. In what respects, then, are bodies figured, overtly or implicitly, in a soundscape or acoustic ecology, provisionally defined as the sum total of all audio waveforms discernible in a given environmental niche? In the case of Bryce’s research, there would seem to be a prominent body politics embedded the Goizetan soundcapes: the habitus and dispositions of the bodies of both tourist and native are enacted and disciplined through the repetitive structuring of recorded and live sound.

Recalling my own research on mass witchfinding in Eastern Zambia, I am struck that a highly organized soundscape is carefully orchestrated for the collective disciplining of human bodies. As each villager enters the “circle of truth” interrogation space in the village center, a collective hush falls as the spirit-possessed diviner utters, in a high, reedy voice, the numerical “read-out” of the subject’s degree of witchcraft substance. To announce the presence of an accused witch in the circle, the witchfinder and his disciples will burst into Zionist hymns, as the crowd roars in anticipation. When witchfinder climbs the roof of a house to disclose a hidden witchcraft horn, the whole assemblage may emit cascading waves of laughter or rage, all skillfully “conducted’ by the witchfinder. The retreat of a disgraced accused person (upon whose skin the witchfinder has tangibly written his or her witchcraft quotient) is in turn usually accompanied by the shocked silence of the crowd. The noise of mass witchfinding is at times audible from several miles away, and one has the sense of a kind of audible thunderstorm proceeding across the landscape, cleansing (or terrorizing) communities and bodies in successive waves of righteous anger.

Looted Gardens: Shubha Mudgal and Reconstructed Memory

In mid October 2008, the great Indian classic and popular vocalist and peace activist Shubha Mudgal held an extraordinary MusicUnitesUs residency at Brandeis University (organized by Professors Judy Eissenberg and Harleen Singh, who both serve on the Cultural Production faculty committee.) Shubha held a series of remarkable workshops on topics ranging from gender, music and the sacred to the cultural politics of Bollywood music.

One of her first events (on Wednesday, October 15, 2008) was a dazzling session on women and art at the Women’s Study Research Center, which may be viewed on the WGBH website at:

or heard via MP3 audio at:

After a brief introduction, the session begins with Shubha giving a painfully beautiful performance of a song composed during the colonial period by a woman singer, responding to Gandhi’s request for women to create and perform liberation songs throughout India. If I heard the translation correctly, the lyrics state: “Strip the gardens of India of every flower that they contain, you can loot as much as you like, it doesn't concern us, since in this land of abundance, we will always have enough, and we will lay down our lives for our freedom”

I take the gendered wording of the song to be highly suggestive. Women, custodians of flowers and gardens, offer up these charges in the struggle against British colonialism. Is the implication that the mothers of India are, by metaphorical extension, also offering up their biological children in the struggle? Is there even as sense here in which the landscape of India is being figured as a feminine, abundant maternal body, committed to enduring the ravages of the occupying colonial power? Does the female singer in effect offer up her own (stigmatized) body as well as Mother India in the struggle?

The current performance of the song emerges out a process of cultural excavation and re-imagining. As Shubha explains, no written score of the original work exists; Anish, a member of her troupe, thus reconstructed the song from fragments and composed a new score for it. More than six decades after India’s independence, what does it now mean to reconstruct and re-perform this song? Given Shubha Mudgal’s deep commitment to transcending conventional national political boundaries--through intimate, artistic connections among all the women of Indus valley civilizations--the present-day performance of the song would seem to summon up the collective body of South Asian women and all their gardens. (This is presumably intensified by the song’s integrative use of many languages of the region, including Urdu.) Though "looted" through decades of communalism and war, this collective trans-national South Asian body ephemerally manifests itself in musical form, as a tangible reminder of a lost unity, for all of those separated by the chasms of class, gender, nation and cycles of violence.

Later in the recorded session, Ulka Anjaria (also a Cultural Production faculty member) briefly returns the conversation to the song, which she reads as a deeply subversive articulation of the Nation from its most stigmatized margins. She suggests that rather than conform to Gandhi’s call for women courtesans to return to the “respectable” fold, the voice of the singer adamantly maintains its marginal gendered position, while daring to characterize the entire nation.

MusicUnitesUs will continue these conversations in Spring 2009 through a series of video conferences between Brandeis clases and Shubha Mudghal in India. For updates, see the MusicUnitesUs website.

I do hope we’ll have a a chance, among many other things, to discuss further this remarkable reconstructed song of looted gardens and ever-abundant flowers.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Generational Inversions in Battlestar Galactica (Season 4.5)

In her perceptive introduction to the Battlestar Galactica issue on Flow TV, Lynne Joyrich notes that the central problem on BG is the problem of reproduction: of humans, cyborgs and hybrids (not to mention the reproduction of violence and the reproduction of the earlier television series itself!) In the mid-season finale of season four, “Revelations,” the standard generational relationship of reproductive sequencing (always ambiguous in the show) is dramatically inverted. Admiral Adama’s son Apollo is temporarily elevated to the presidency and is for a time his father's superior. As Apollo awaits word of whether his father alive is dead, Kara tells him what the Admiral once told her, “Children are born to replace their parents; for children to reach their full potential, their parents have to die “ The admiral returns from seeming death, only to break down upon learning of his Executive Officer’s betrayal. Apollo plays the parental role and comforts him. The Admiral does return, more or less, to full patriarchal confident status by the end of the episode. But, we are left wondering, to what end? The goal of the entire series narrative, reaching Earth seems to be achieved, but Earth, if it is indeed Earth, is a desolate post-apocalyptic, radioactive wasteland. Unclear as of yet if this is set in “our” ancient past or distant future. As the thirteenth colony, Earth could be thought of as the offspring of the twelve colonies. Yet in another respect, Earth could also be conceived as the parent of all humanity; does the parental planet thus have to die, in order for humanity (and its Cylon brood) to reach their full potential?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Arboreal Symbolism in Post-Conflict African/Diaspora Art

I've long been fascinated by creative deployments of tree symbolism among contemporary African and African Diaspora artists. Trees are often deployed to re-root persons and communities in the wake of dislocation and violent conflict, in the interest of bodily, spiritual and collective healing. Trees, which are like and unlike human beings in such dramatic ways, often enable alternate imaginings of personhood, in ways that important link different temporal epochs and spatial locations.

In a forthcoming article in Electronic Antiquity, I discuss the work of the Atlanta-based African-American artist Kevin Sipp, who has produced a series of remarkable tree sculptures incorporating diverse elements, including sound system components. In his "Strange Fruit" tree-inspired works (one of them seen above) Sipp creates sculptural forms based in part on Kongo nkisi, that serve as alternate homes for the unquiet souls of those killed in lynching, interrupting cycles of violence, pain and retribution. He understands his work as ministering in particular to urban young gang members, the reborn souls of of lynching victims, who through trees and the haunting music broadcast from them, may yet a place of re-membering, re-collection, and spiritual solace.

Mozambican artists have comparably worked with the detritus of violent conflict in the "Transforming Arms Into Ploughshares" project, fusing the broken down elements of automatic weapons into a great Tree of Life. See:


In this instance, the breaking down of the guns not only ensures that the "guns will never kill again," but also, it would appear, in Boas and Levi-Strauss' sense, helps reduce prior histories to minute, recombinable elements, so that the mythic bricoleur may fashion, "New worlds from fragments." Equally important is the collective, collaborative process at the heart of this project, in which a group of artists joins together out of their individuated histories of pain and loss, to forge an integrated tangible image of new vitality, transforming histories of death into the regeneration of life.

A fascinating new variation of this theme is seen in the recent sculptural work (Untitled, 2008) of Dinka artist Atem Aleu, a graduate student in the Cultural Production program; Aleu developed the work in the sculpture class of Cultural Production faculty member Tory Fair. (In the above photograph, Atem is seen to the left of his sculpture; Mangok Bol, the administrator of the Cultural Production program, is seen to the right). The metal form calls to mind a missile or bomb casing, of that sort that still dot the scarred landscape of Sudan in the wake of the recent conflict. Yet the curled metal sheets also evoke the trunk of great tree, displaying in soldered relief forms images evoking the genocidal violence of the second Southern Sudanese Civil War. The great roots of the tree shows traces of the desperate long marches of the refugees through desert and jungle, journeys along which many perished in agonizing ways. A truncated arm of the tree evokes the ubiquitous spectacle of amputees; our view into the tree’s interior, significantly, is blocked: as the artist explains, in a similar fashion the voices of may of the war’s victims were blocked from external interlocutors. Yet towards the summit of the tree one glimpses the possibility of redemption, in the shape of ancestral faces that in effect flower out of the tree. Once again, swords are turned into plougshares and legacies of horror are transmuted through art into the possibilities of collective rebirth.

Atem Aleu’s exhibition of sculpture, painting and lithograph will open on February 10, 2009 in the Schwartz Gallery at Brandeis University.

Critical Media Pedagogy for All Ages

Many of us wrestle with effective strategies for teaching critical media literacy. How do we teach our students ways to take apart the ideological dimensions of mainstream and independent mass media, while also helping them develop analytic models that help account for the profoundly (often seductive) mass appeal of these cultural forms?

I’ve been deeply impressed by the work being done by the critical media feminist scholar Rhonda Hammer at UCLA, as she trains her students in media analysis. Her students have produced an extraordinary series of videos, posted on line, exploring a range of mass media imagery, in ways that are smart, incisive and often funny. See:

I like the way many of these pieces creatively move back and forth between media imagery and carefully edited interviews (sometimes on the street) with ordinary consumers of media, across lines of gender, race and class. The net effect of the strongest of these works is not simply to portray audiences as passive consumers of media hegemonies, but rather to emphasize the creative and thoughtful agency of audiences, as they actively struggle to position themselves in reference to these powerful and seductive images. Taken as a whole, these imaginative critical videos take media seriously, while also taking seriously (and not simply stereotyping) media consumers, honoring their intelligence and critical self-consciousness.

Here on the “other coast”, many of our graduate students in the M.A. Program in Cultural Production at Brandeis are especially interested in developing critical media capacities among children and adolescents, especially those from historically excluded communities. They know that simply lecturing to youth---about the gendered, racist, classist and homophobic subtexts of the popular music, film and television in which they are deeply invested-- is an ineffective pedagogic strategy. What are productive alternatives? Often we’ve found the best approach is to have young people develop their own imaginative media products, in ways that cause them to reflect upon the political construction of mainstream media--while still honoring their delight in the dynamic energy of the media that they regularly consume.

For instance, Cathy Draine has done highly creative work at Freedom House in Dorchester with urban teens in her program, as they develop snappy PSAs on school avoidance. Brian Friedberg, in turn, has sought to engage the musical and media-savvy imagination of adolescent young women living in the Prospect Hill Terrace public housing development by having them develop a “mockumentary”, in which they script and play the roles of members of girl band undergoing a break up. Last year, this same group of young women, when performing at the Brandeis campus, only wanted to lip sync songs by current pop idols. But this year, working with Brian, the young women are composing their own music and writing their own lyrics, as they also develop the characters they are playing. Along the way, Brian engages them in thought-provoking conversations about mass media literacy but this isn’t the foregrounded focus of their sessions. Meanwhile, in the same Prospect Hill community center, Nadia Hemady engages a broader group of teens and tweens in conversation about media by exposing them to media forms, primarily Japanese anime, with which they are not all that familiar. In watching and discussing in anime in Japanese (with English subtitles) the young people’s experiences of mass media is to some extent ‘de-naturalized,” and they develop on their own interesting and creative takes on cinema and television more broadly.

Other Cultural Production students are deploying ethnographic research techniques to develop nuanced senses of how audiences creatively re-appropriate mass media forms. Bryce Peake, for instance, has been doing fascinating fieldwork on urban “Zombie Walks,” in which hundreds of people, usually in their twenties, dress up as Zombies, largely modeled on the undead creatures in George Romero’s films, and lurch through city neighborhoods. Becky Lennon, in turn, is critically analyzing children’s “educational television,” including the popular show “Dora the Explorer,” with an eye to unpacking the subtle transpositions between the Dora character and the “imagined community” of the children’s television audience. Although each episode of the show is formally framed in terms of interactive problem solving, Becky argues persuasively that the shows offer a kind of pre-fabricated simulacrum of problem solving, while captivating children who in a curious sense continuously give life to the Dora character. Later this year, Becky may be developing creative media projects with children, as they explore and comment upon these kinds of educational TV shows.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Theorizing Race and Slavery in HBO's "True Blood"

A good deal of the blogsphere’s discussion of the first season of HBO’s “True Blood” has swirled around the puzzling representations of race on the show. What are we to make of the rapid images of civil rights sit-ins and black church worship, intercut with shots of the Klan, in the dazzling opening montage? How are we to interpret the suggested analogy between the struggle for vampire equality and the civil rights and gay rights movements (the latter signaled in the opening sequence’s roadside sign, “God Hates Fangs”, only one letter removed from a homophobic slur)? What is the status of the various cross-racial and cross-species liaisons and romances in the show? Is the “blood” in the show’s title an alibi for American racism’s obsession with the supposed “truth” of blood and bloodlines?

Considerable discussion centers on the African-American characters played by the remarkable Nelsan Ellis (Lafayette) and Rutina Wesley (Tara): are they stereotypical sidekick characters rendered as secondary to the white protagonists or do they in fact dominate the dramatic crux of the show?

For examples of the blogged conversations on race in the show, see:

and a response:

Among the comments to the latter post is a mini-debate over the “good” vampire character Bill’s lack of apology for his father’s slave-owning, a brief moment as the former confederate soldier speaks to a nearly all white crowd of southern Civil War enthusiasts. Yet, I wonder if the problem of slavery and its legacies, rather than only a passing concern, is in fact at the center of the entire series. Tara rages against her mother for having named her for Margaret Mitchell’s mythical plantation, the summation of white cultural denial of the horrors of slavery. What precisely is being exorcised from Tara and from her mother? Might it be, among other things, the enduring violent echoes of enslavement?

It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to untangle the shifting master/slave dynamics embedded in the show’s mortal/vampire relationships. In a manifest sense the vampires, campaigning for equal rights, are equated to the descendants of slaves struggling for full inclusion in civil society. But in the show’s tangled underworld, vampires themselves are generally figured as masters, “glamming” their susceptible, frail human subjects and draining the life force out their subordinated mortal “pets.” In turn, Jason and his dangerous girlfriend Amy attempt to enslave the nascent vampire Eddie as a permanent source of intoxicating vampire blood. In some respects, Jason himself is enslaved, to Amy, his libido, and his addictions, even at the moment when he longs for a degree of reciprocal equality with the temporarily enslaved Eddie. The African-American gay man Lafayette (named for the anti-slavery foreign hero of the American Revolution) subordinates and subjects himself in prostitution and yet maintains that only he is truly free.

Presumably, the impossibility of determining the precise analogues of slave-owner and slave in "True Blood" is precisely the point. Claude Levi-Strauss, whose birthday anthropologists and students of culture around the world celebrated last week, has long argued that myth is not so much the fixed statement of a solution as it is the dynamic, shifting articulation of an insolvable problem. Polynesian mythology, for instance, centers on the vital (if irresolvable) cultural problem of determining how the relationship between brother and sister is like and unlike the relationship between husband and wife. If “True Blood” is a contemporary American exercise in mythology, is it a comparably dynamic, unstable exploration of the core American cultural conundrums: Who is truly enslaved and who is truly free? Can Master and Slave every exist without one another? And are there mysterious traces of the Free and the Unfree in each and every one of us?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Amos Russell's Juke House

This delightful piece is one of a series of dioramic "Jukes" by the African-American self-taught artist Amos Russell, whose work is sold through Cathead Delta Blues and Folk Art in Clarksdale, Mississippi. I love the way the work draws the viewer into the sparse interior, with its unadorned white-washed plank walls, the simple door, and the tiny pile of firewood beside the wood burning stove. Most of the dancing and music-playing small figures have their feet lifted off the floor or an arms upraised, conveying a sense of the foot-stomping music and uncontainable vibrant energy of a Saturday night. (No one's sitting at the tables or at the bar; the music has evidently drawn everyone onto the dance floor.) Although the interior is relatively spacious, the fact that only four couples are dancing evokes the tight quarters of the classic cramped juke joint, which often could only accomodate a few dancers at a time. Russell deftly evokes, as well, the adorment of the rural work force that frequented the jukes, including the women's head ties and the men's caps and work hats.

See my reflections on co-teaching a travel course in the Mississippi Delta with my colleague David Cunningham, when our class was hosted by Dr. Luther Brown and his Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University:

And see our class preliminary website on oral history from Clarksdale and Greenwood, a partnership we did with the Delta Blues Museum:

Cultural Production Center in Southern Sudan

The M.A. Program in Cultural Production is developing a partnership with the planned Jonglei State Cultural Production Center in Bor town, Jonglei state, Southern Sudan. The Center is directed by Cultural Production graduate student Atem Aleu, who is an accomplished visual artist and cultural performer

The Cultural Production Center in Bor will be devoted to celebrating, supporting and documenting the rich cultures of the Southern Sudan, with a special emphasis on the regions of Jonglei State. The Center seeks to train a new generation of artists, musicians, writers and dramatists committed to the artistic and cultural vitality of New Sudan. The Center will encourage traditional and modern arts, including painting, poetry, music, song, dance, video-making and digital arts. Their first goal is to build a physical Center for the Arts and Culture in Bor town. Their training and cultural enrichment programs will be open to young men and women from 16 to 30 years old. Most of their instruction will be in English. Atem plans to return to Bor in Summer 2009 to hold more community arts worskhops and plan for the construction of the Center.

We are exploring the possibility of graduate students in the Cultural Production Master's program at Brandeis undertaking practicums and internships at the new Center, working with young people in traditional and pop music, Hip Hop, video production, creative writing, creative non-fiction, choreography, digital arts, and community-building. Atem is eager to train local young people to be cultural interpreters, archivists, and documenters of the dynamic cultural scene in the region.

In the meantime, we are working closely with Atem as he develops his overall conception of the Center and its programming. I'm especially fascinated by Atem's commitment to bringing together former adversaries, across lines of ethnicity and religion, to work together to develop the artistic and cultural resources of the region.

The photograph above shows Atem's student Samuel Ajok applying primer to a painting, in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya in 2005. Samuel is currently living in Bor, Sudan.

Those interested in efforts by the "Lost Boys" to do reconstruction and development work in Sudan should be sure to see (and support) Jen Marlowe's remarkable, nearly completed film, "Rebuilding Hope."

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Dinka Men Sing Three Hymns

On November 3, 2008, Mangok Bol (Administrator of the Cultural Production program), Atem Aleu (a first year graduate student in the program) and William Malwuil (the "cultural ambassador" of the Southern Sudanese community of Massachusetts) performed three Dinka hymns, in the Lee Gallery of the Rose Art Museum at the Cultural Production/Global Studies open house at Brandeis University.

The three hymns are primarily in Dinka; they were composed by young people during the Sudanese civil war, in some instances in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya.

The first song is visible below, and on YouTube at:

Title: Absent Friends

"We greet you all, children of God,/We greet you in the name of the Trinity/We hope you are doing well/In the power of Jesus Christ Amen."

The second song is visible below and on YouTube at:

The song welcomes people in the Dinka language ("Kudual duan" "Greeting to all of you"), Nuer language ("Malemegua, Malmedit") and Murle language ("Abona Juru, Abona Labon")

The final song, visible below and on YouTube at,

is titled, "Thiei de wel (Spread the Word).

Verse 1: I'm telling you to prepare yourself.
The day of His coming, I'm telling you. (REPEAT)

CHORUS: "The church was blessed (before us)/Jesus is our Savior/Let's come quickly and bow/I'm telling you of the day Jesus will come".

Verse 2: Eat your food but remember Him. The day of His coming, I'm telling you.
Verse 3: Wear your clothes, b
ut remember Him. The day of His coming, I'm telling you.
Verse 4: Drink you wine, b
ut remember Him. The day of His coming, I'm telling you.
Verse 5: Play your music, but remember Him. The day of His coming, I'm telling you.
Verse 6: Pray to any god,
but remember Him. The day of His coming, I'm telling you.

William plays a thom, an instrument he has constructed; these instruments, at times made out of frying pans, are common in Southern Sudanese refugee communities. Atem Aleu's drawing of a thom-player, incorrectly attributed to a different artist, is visible on the web, at

The South Sudanese Cultural Documentation Center at Brandeis University is a collaborative effort between the M.A. Program in Cultural Production (Brandeis University) and the Sudanese Education Fund.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Cultural Production students at Prospect Hill Terrace

Over the past two years, Cultural Production graduate students and faculty have partnered with the tenants association at Prospect Hill Terrace, Waltham’s largest public housing development, to develop cultural enrichment programs for children, teens and adults. During the Fall 2008 semester, for instance, Nadia Hemady has concentrated on adolescent programming, including engaging teens in reading and rehearsing Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. She's also engaged the teens in her love of Japanese popular culture, exposing them to trends in manga and anime. Cathy Draine designed a lesson plan process for our various initiatives. Amanda Sobel Driver organized an arts enrichment workshop for children, culminating in a visit to the Surrealism exhibition at the Rose Art Museum. Bryce Peake has led a workshop on percussion and improvisation, emphasizing music making with found objects. Brian Friedberg leads a workshop on popular music for teenage young women, structured around a “mockumentary” about the breakup of a girl band. A group of grad students and undergrads also worked with children in studying and making African-style masks, and telling stories about the power of the masks. Brian and other students, as well as Professor Ellen Schattschneider, have worked with the adult tenants to develop local vegetable and flower gardens, and explore sustainable food initiatives. Inspired by Professor Jane Hale's work on family literacy, a number of students and faculty have worked on reading issues with family members of all ages. Atem Aleu has done workshops on water color painting with children.

The Community Center is in a transitional period, as students and tenants work together to plan a sustainable trajectory during a time of limited financial resources. But Cultural Production students remain active partners at Prospect Hill, and we look forward to an exciting spring semester of artistic, cultural and empowerment initiatives.

Artist Atem Aleu on the "Origin of Death"

In his 2005 painting, “The Dinka Say that Woman is the Origin of Death,” Cultural Production graduate student Atem Aleu revisits the well known Dinka myth of the coming of death in the world. In the early days of the world, a rope linked earth and sky: thus, anyone who died one earth could ascend the rope and be reborn in heaven. A woman pounding became angry at birds eating the spilled grain and thus killed a baby bird with her pounding stick. In retaliation the mother bird cut the rope, condemning all of humanity to enduring death.

See the painting in detail at:

and hear an audio commentary. (The entire website

was developed by Cultural Production student Nadia Hemady, in collaboration with other students in my Museums and Public Memory class in Fall 2006.)

Among the many fascinating features of the painting is the upper left section, in which in scroll like fashion the surface of the canvas appears to have been rolled back to reveal the consequences of the coming of death, including a women mourning as she holds a hoe, and a small figure (presumably a child) chased up a tree by lions. I have read these scenes as referencing the long trek in the mid 1980s by the “Lost Boys and Girls” from southern Sudan to the refugee camps in the Ethiopian highlands, when many children were stalked by carnivores. (I should note, however, that the artist insists that his reference is only to the mythical time in which the ancient story is set. ) In any event, my sense is that the images “behind” the lifted up sections of the painting are those that span temporal epochs: on the left, we see the mythic horror of death’s beginning, reiterated in the recent history of genocide; on the right we see the bird that is both the mythic bringer of death, and also a modern signifier of peace, heralding the signing the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the world’s longest running civil war. The text like quality of this section of the painting is appropriate for prophetic discourse, in which past and present are encompassed within enigmatic imagery.

See the Waltham Daily Tribune's recent article about Atem Aleu, at:

We look forward to the February 2009 exhibition by Atem Aleu of his new work, which engages with memories of genocide in Southern Sudan and Darfur through lithographs and oil paintings.

NOTE: The South Sudanese Cultural Documentation Center at Brandeis University is a collaborative effort between the M.A. Program in Cultural Production (Brandeis University) and the Sudanese Education Fund.

Marking a Slave Market in Washington, Georgia

Here’s a sign on a wall by the town square in Washington, Georgia, pointing to the “Site of Lewis Prudhomme’s Slave Market, 1795-1808.” My understanding is that Prudhomme came to Washington, along with other Santo Domingo planters (and some of their slaves) in the wake of the Haitian Revolution, and that he ran a profitable slave trading business, based in the town’s west square.

Beyond the historical specifics (which I haven’t seriously researched yet) I’m fascinated by the wall itself: the juxtaposition of the historical markers about the slave market and about “Lindsay Chevrolet Company, 1930-1985), above the larger “Parking” sign. The square itself is heavily narrativized with extensive historical signage, since it was the last location of an official meeting the Confederate government, on May 4, 1865, shortly before Jefferson Davis was captured by Union troops. A large stone tablet, an several other memorials, records that story, along with a state historical sign about Jefferson Davis. But the slave market itself, associated with years of unfathomable human suffering, only has this tiny sign. (To be sure, even that sign constitutes a more thorough marking than most slave markets in the American South.) The Georgia state historic marker of course has no mention of slavery, only noting that with Jefferson Davis's capture, "his hopes for a new nation in which easth could exercise without interference its cherished constitutional rights [were] forever dead."

What might an appropriate memorial at the site of the old slave market in Washington, Georgia look like? The adjacent court house's probate and deeds offices are filled with old documents
listing the names of enslaved person in Wilkes County (I'm drawing on these for a book I'm writing on narratives of slavery in the region). One could probably determine with confidence the names of persons sold in the market. Would a simple tablet of names suffice, along with an inscription honoring all those whose names are unknown? Or would this site call for a more complex work of public art, developed through a process that actively engaged the descendants of enslaved persons and slave owners alike?

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Ancestral "Garden" of Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier (Visual Artist

Atlanta-based visual artist Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier at times speaks of the “garden” of her imagination, deeply embedded in family histories, to which she returns again and again.
I’m especially interested at Linnemeier’s deployments and interrogations of photographic media, often in conversation with painting, collage, and textured surfaces, in the making and exploration of this garden of the imagination. The garden image is a deeply resonant one: so often, gardens have subtle histories that span the generations, linking grandmothers, daughters and grand-daughters through common purpose, labor and aesthetic decision-making, in ways that may scarcely need to be spoken of but which are profoundly meaningful. Many of the photographs out of which Linnemeier plants and harvests her garden are mined and appropriated out of painful, violent histories: these include racist or lurid stereoscopic images produced by white photographers. Linnemeier is committed to rediscovering in these colonial images dimensions of beauty, dignity and spirituality that had long seemed entirely obscure. In images of the southern black “Mammy” for instance, she finds echoes of the sacred Afro-Atlantic priestess, the “Mambo.” She speaks of her work as a “great altar” that binds different different sites and moments in space and time. This too seems akin to the work of the gardener, who may juxtapose a wide range of plants and flowers from near and wide, nurturing them all in a productive tangle. I am reminded that among the Achuar, an indigenous people of the Upper Amazon, women speak of the plants in their gardens as their “other children,” whom they must sing into life, just as they sing to nurture their human offspring. Linnemeier’s garden of the imagination is filled with comparable sacred charges, whom she sings into being with her remarkable incantations.

She takes us into this dynamic memoryscape in her short video at:

One of her most interesting installations, Miss Sisi's box, moves from a Mississipi plantation to the magical summoning up of Chiaka, the eldest African female elder in the New World. Lynn's mytho-documentary takes off from this sculptural work:

The first elder wrestles with the predicament of never having been initiated, of having been cut of from the songlines of the ancestors. The work of the artist, it would appear, is to help reconstitute these long ruptured lines of continuity, to once again link distant ancester, near ancestor, past and present, self and posterity in dynamic, productive associations. The boxes of the installation open their doors, and through these opens we are invited into what the artist terms "fissures in time" through which we and the ancestors are mutually enlivened. Like a vibrant garden, the installation is a "heterotopia" that cannot be grasped from a single vantage point, but which must be walked through, peered into, settled into, and nurtured again and again.

See Lynn's blog at:

Paul Stopforth's new Robben Island series

Many of us in the Cultural Production program have long been fascinated by the art of the South African-U.S. artist Paul Stopforth, whose works are featured on our program website and brochure. Since 2003, his series on Robben Island series (the notorious former political prison off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa) has brilliantly encapsulated so many of the problems and challenges that are key to our interdisciplinary program: the fragile and contested status of memory work, the capacity of visual practices to help excavate our “buried lives,” the relentless interrogation of the material forms through which human consciousness is constituted, and the healing power of art and aesthetics in the wake of collective tragedy and human rights atrocities.

I’ve been intrigued to see since 2005 the increasing use of vibrant color in Stopforth’s work:

As he reworks and develops motifs from his work as artist in residence on Robben Island, Stopforth seems to have moved away from the milkwash-based near monochrome palate of his early “Island” series, visible at:

Or rather he has returned to the more chromatic palette (as well as the forays into pointilism) that we associate with his earlier work.

In addition to the formal technical motivations for this post 2005 shift (the new works do look wonderful!) the deepening use of color in exploring the Robben Island imagery seems to track with Stopforth moving beyond the artifactual detritus of the island’s human-built interiors towards engaging more and more with the broader maritime ecology of the island and its environs. Perhaps this shift is correlated with a kind of cultural “settling” that has take place on and around Robben Island, as the immediate wounds of Apartheid, while not forgotten, are to some extent subsumed in subsequent histories and as some of the scars are eased (if never fully effaced) by the passage of time and the healing encroachment of nature.

This shift to more color and wider environmental imagery seems to be associated with Stopforth’s move to diptychs and the complex forms of mirroring (visual and conceptual) that this binary format permits. In the right panel “Another Country” (2007):

for instance, the stark inset of the cell block, guard tower and inner courtyard is encased within life-giving evocations of sea scape and brilliant sunset, which seem to move into the frame of the inset itself, implying perhaps that nature is beginning to reclaim the island’s human-built carcereal spaces. In turn on the work’s left panel, we glimpse in a car’s side mirror the same prison courtyard (inverted) up against a rock pile, surrounded by a comparable evocation of seascape and landscape.

In contrast to the other works in the series, the remarkable Gate diptych of mirrored trees has no immediate signs of human-made artifacts:

It would appear to frame the entire series, which is appropriate inasmuch as the long-lived tree, although battered by the maritime elements, has seen and lived through the island’s Apartheid and post-Apartheid histories. Can one read the endlessly proliferating branches of the tree as allegories for the intricate sinuous channels of memory itself, as inverted roots that link past, present and future on the island (and in South Africa more broadly) in ever-more mysterious ways?

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Cuture Combat! grad student conference

We've been having quite an interesting conversation on line about the title of the upcoming Cultural Production graduate student conference, scheduled for March 14, 2009: "Culture Combat: Provoking the Social Imaginary." Some CP-ers are a bit concerned over the militarist-sounding word, "Combat." Especially given the extensive militarization of language and culture in our recent history, what precisely does it mean to deploy this term so "provocatively"? (It certainly has a more edgy in-your-face quality than, say, "Culture as Contest" or "Culture Conflicts" would have had.) Are there some echoes of the Bismarkian "Kultur Kampf" (Culture Struggle) as well as the video game "Mortal Kombat" in the phrase?

In any event, there seems to be unanimous excitement over Cp graduate student Bryce Peake's poster design ( see above) which recasts the Boston skyline in urban gritty wall art mode, with the energy of a sunburst playfully radiating out of the hard core city. And much anticipation over the keynote address by Wayne Marshall (ethnomusicologist and DJ extraordinaire):

Learn more about the conference at:

Submissions are most welcome!

Steve Miler's Health of the Planet project

I’m fascinated by artist Steve Miller’s recent project “Health of The Planet,” in which he X-rays diverse Amazonian flora, giving the Brazilian rain forest, and by extension our entire planet, a medical checkup. In Miller's words, "The Patient is the Planet." See:

For Michel Foucault the “gaze” of western clinical biomedicine (which preceded the actual emergence of X-ray technology) presupposed the privileged power/knowledge of the physician, who possessed unique capabilities for interior-directed expert looking into the body of the patient. Miller in this series, however, seems to be liberating the X-ray from its standard position as a technology of expert power/knowledge, by rendering these images in forms that are accessible to a worldwide lay audience.

How are we to understand the seductiveness of these images, deftly fabricated so as to evoke a sense of spiritual wonder in the viewer? (Consider, for instance, the print #3, "Roots,: in which the right-most tendril reaches out towards the light; or the delicate progression upwards of the elements in print #7, Solo Saco Velho; or the playful fairy like beings atop #14, "Night Orchard") My guess is that these motifs of yearning tends to evoke a sense of common destiny among all who view the images. I'm struck as well by the repeated hints of human form in these shadow works. The net effect is continuous transpositions between the natural world and the human body. A poignant example is #6, "Jaca" (reproduced above) which could be read as a parent nurturing a child. So, although Miller proclaims that the "patient is the planet", his patient would equally appear to be all of humanity itself.

As we enter 2009, the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origins of Species, and approach Charles Darwin's 200th birthday on February 12, Miller's project is an exquisite, if painful, exploration of the glories of biodiversity and the looming cataclysm of mass species extinction.

Slavery, Monuments and Universities

What sorts of monuments should colleges and universities erect to encourage reflection about their slavery-intertwined pasts? The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill campus has a small monument on its campus (the "Unsung Founders Memorial" by the contemporary Korean artist Do-Ho Suh) that in part commemorates the enslaved. This low-to-the-ground modest monument consists of a disk held up by scores of African-American figures in relief; the inscribed words note that the "Class of 2002 honors the university's unsung founders...the people of color, bond and free, who held build the Carolina we cherish today." The monument is shaped liked a table and is surrounded by four stones which serve a rough-hewn chairs. The assemblage stands just next to the university's better-known, and much taller, monument to students who served as Confederate soldiers.

It is a fine little memorial, and I like its emphasis on the dignity of ordinary working persons. Yet at the same time it throws into relief some of the challenges of honoring those whose histories have been largely obliterated from the historical record. No persons are honored by name; the men of women and color in question are represented only by unnamed figures who, like Atlas, labor together to hold up the sky. Would it have been so difficult (from university and legal records) to identify by name at least some of the African-Americans who labored, in slavery and freedom, on the university’s original structures? The word “slavery” is conspicuously absent from the assemblage. One wonders about the negotiations and decision-making processes that resulted in these omissions.

Names matter. As Thomas Lacquer reminds us in his paper, “Memory and Naming in the Great War.” an important series of political and cultural transformations underpinned the historic shift in naming practices associated with military memorials from the early modern period (in which only generals and senior officers by and large were named) to World War I memorials, in which in principle all the fallen were honored.

At Emory University in 2000-2001, my students and I developed a series of exhibitions to honor enslaved persons whose labor helped to build the Emory College in its early years. See:

It seemed important to us, and to the African-American descendant families with whom we partnered, to identify as many enslaved people as we could. We established the names of about 50 people who were held as slaves in ante-bellum Oxford, Georgia, and in a few cases were definitively able to demonstrate that specific enslaved persons labored for the College. We first drew up a single document listing all these names to hang in the exhibition, until some students and community members pointed out that this looked too much like slave manifests. The class then made specific and discrete framed documents for each enslaved person, to hang on a wall of the exhibition.

The exhibitions and associated public programs were powerful indeed. But there is no permanent memorial to these enslaved persons on Emory’s campuses. In recent years, a number of northern universities that were financially embedded in the profits of the Atlantic slave trade have engaged in thoughtful reviews of this fraught history. Have these efforts led to physical memorials? I’m curious how many campuses across the country have such monuments?

See the UNC library's on line exhibition on slavery in the university's history:

which includes a downloadable student-written "Slavery walking tour" of the university, and a page on the Unsung Founders memorial:

The "Bench by the Side of the Road" Project

This past August, Ellen and I visited Charleston, SC, and went out to see the recently dedicated bench on Sullivan's Island, the first of many benches to be placed by the Toni Morrison Society. (See the official page on this at: )
The accompanying plaque declares that Sullivan's Islands was a major point of transhipment during the Atlantic Slave Trade; and the "nearly half" of all African-Americans are descended from enslaved persons who first were brought through the island.

The bench project is inspired by Toni Morrison's famous comment in an interview some years ago about the lack of monumental markings of the victims of slavery, the slave trade and Jim Crow in this country, reproduced in the plaque shown above" "There's no 300 foot tower. There's no small bench by the side of the road."

Any project marking these unacknowledged histories is of course laudable, yet in a couple of respects this intial instance does seem to be a bit flawed:

1. To begin with, the bench itself is banal. A simple black metal bench of the sort that might be found, as an artist friend sadly remarked, in any Home Depot. Why couldn't the bench be designed, or least painted, by a creative artist, celebrating in effect the brilliant artistic and cultural legacies that flourish in the Afro-Atlantic world amidst the enduring legacies of the slave trade? I appreciate that there are often virtues in simplicity and under-statement. Yet in this instance couldn't the Toni Morrison Society find a way to support the work of visual artists (especially artists of color). One is certainly struck by the irony of a "respectable" monument to the slave trade, that politely blends into its surroundings; no one passing by the bench would notice it, unless they were looking for it (Ellen and I spent about twenty minutes searching for it.) We had just seen the extraordinary urban slave quarters at the Aiken-Rhett mansion in Charleston and wondered at the vivid brilliant colors still visible on the internal walls, which so destablize the usual assumptions about the white-washed or monochrome interiors of slaves' domestic spaces; wouldn't it be something to have some defiant color animating the bench?

2. The plaque's assertion that "nearly half of all African Americans have ancestors who passed through Sullivan's Island" is an often-repeated one, but would be appear to be without historical foundation. My understanding is that there are only scattered references to a "pest house" in late 18th century Sullivan's Island, and that the vast majority by enslaved persons were brought directly in the Charleston port itself. As much as one appreciates the desire for an equivalent site to Ellis Island (a site itself deeply embedded in mythos), surely on matters as vitally important as the slave trade, there's an imperative to strive for as much fidelity as possible to unassailable historical documentation (granted, of course, that the historical record of slavery and the slave trade is often incomplete and corrupted by various interested parties!)

Having said all this, it is certainly a moving thing to see the bench, and we are all surely grateful to the National Park Service for in effect hosting this site. Sitting upon it and gazing out into the water, it a beautiful place to contemplate Morrison's magnificent ouevre as well as the many thousands gone. In the shadow of Jim Crow, in which benches were highly politicized spaces from which so many were excluded, there's an undeniable genius in dedicating benches upon which all are welcome.

Yet, I can't help but hope that the next benches dedicated by the TMS will be a little more provocative, a little more celebratory of the power of art (especially African-American art) and a little more careful with the (always contested and contestible) historical record.

Standing or not Standing at Handel's Messiah

I was struck last night at the marvelous performance of Handel's Messiah at Symphony Hall in Boston that many, perhaps most of the audience in the Orchestra seats did not stand at the Hallelujah chorus. (Looking around it appeared that the majority of those in balcony seats were standing.) So far as I can recall, at every performance of Messiah I've previously attended nearly everyone stood for the chorus. So I'm curious if there is generally less willingness to stand in Boston than elsewhere, or if there's more diversity on this matter than I've realized. The program of the Handel and Haydn society devotes a page to the question, in carefully neutral terms, suggesting that audiences probably did not stand for the first 40 years of Messiah performances, indicating that there is no evidence that George II really stood at any early performance, and noting that conductors Robert Shaw and Christopher Hogwood oppose standing as it distracts "from Handel's powerful opening of the chorus"). The program text politely concludes that "both practices" [to stand or to sit] "remain very common among Boston's music lovers."

This had led me to ponder what the pleasure is in standing for the chorus, for me and perhaps for many others. It is a miniature ritual, of course, and thus part of the pleasure lies in submitting oneself to a greater structure that transcends the self and any given moment in time. I think I've always felt the pleasure of partaking in Durkheimian collective effervesence while participating in the audience standing en masse. This pleasure was a bit diminished seeing so many people seated last night, although I suppose one could take greater pleasure in being part of the restricted group that chooses to stand. There is a populist edge to the practice, and the fact that some conductors complain about it perhaps makes it even more desirable?

I see that there's a certain amoung on line about the to stand vs. not to stand debate, including:

My limited observations from last night suggested that the further back away from the stage audience members were sitting, the more likely they were to stand (in the first 15 rows or so, I could see only a single solitary woman standing). So presumably we were seeing an instance of small group social dynamics; perhaps most of those inclined to stand were unwilling to take the plunge without accompanying persons standing in front or beside them?

I'd be most interested if others have insight into this minor ritual phenomenon?