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Few artifacts are more compelling than the twisted body of Otzi, the 5300-year-old man removed from Alpine snow in 1991. Archaeologically, Otzi is a unique snapshot of a life and a distinct moment, his assemblage revealing Copper Age materiality, his body telling the story of life in the Alps over five millennia ago, and his story illuminating a violent moment and a fascinating death story in which Otzi apparently met his end in a mountaintop murder. Otzi has been the subject of over 20 years of scientific investigation, archaeological discussion, and popular curiosity, and he is now celebrated in liqueur, snow globes, and assorted trinkets as well as an Otzi Village outdoor museum and a museum in which Otzi’s preserved body stares back at the curious. He has also been reconstructed continually for over 20 years, and that process underscores that facial and bodily reconstruction may invoke scientific accuracy but it is perhaps more about imagining human familiarities across the breadth of time.
Otzi’s five thousand years in the ice preserved him exceptionally well. Nevertheless, much like many other archaeologically recovered human forms such as unwrapped mummies, bog bodies, or skeletal remains, Otzi’s discolored and misshapen remains bear the unmistakable traces of human form—limbs, facial aesthetics, fingernails, toes—even as his distorted body aesthetically distances him from the present. Otzi is somewhat uncomfortably like us even as his millennia-old body betrays its distance from us in the present.
One way we can imagine Otzi’s story is through the series of facial and bodily reconstructions done over more than 20 years. Such reconstructions have become a staple of popular archaeological narratives: the unveiling of an anonymous teen cannibalized at Jamestown, Virginia featured a facial reconstruction; Richard III’s remains were shared in Leicester in February alongside a forensic approximation; the purported face of Alexander the Great’s father Philip II has been reconstructed with a disfiguring eye injury; and scans of French King Henri IV’s skull—removed from his grave in 1793 before being identified two years ago–were used to produce a facial reconstruction of Henri, who died in 1610.
Otzi has been interpreted with a surprisingly broad range of faces. A rich scholarly literature examines the specific methods used to reconstruct facial forms with skeletal remains, but most of it revolves around “accuracy” in some objective physical form. It is not clear that the reconstructions of Otzi or any of these other subjects need to stake a claim to absolute accuracy, though; instead, they illuminate the distance between past and present, particularly the archaeological artifact that displays its historical distance. On the one hand, the Otzi reconstructions over 20 years cast the same body in a vast range of forms and illuminate the methodological complications of accurate reconstructions; on the other hand, though, the many faces of Otzi may be more important as efforts to evoke and imagine an inaccessible human experience and fashion a subjectivity for this anonymous corpse.
Facial reconstructions are artifacts in their own right, distinctively neither archaeological things nor pure contemporary constructions. On some level reconstructions are simply emotionally evocative mechanisms that fashion a corpse or skeleton into some bodily familiarity. Facial reconstructions have no particularly concrete interpretive purpose except to evoke human familiarity. For instance, when the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology unveiled its new Otzi reconstruction in 2011, the museum’s director indicated that “This accurate yet sensitive representation of Ötzi will fascinate and stir people around the world. It gives our history a face, in the truest sense of the word.” Germany’s National Geographic editor celebrated the newly imagined Otzi, proclaiming that “now we can finally look him in the eyes and recognise, to our amazement, that he is really one of us!”
On another level beneath the somewhat shallow embrace of our common humanity, a reconstruction gives an artifact—a partial skeleton, a mummified body, a corporeal form otherwise stripped of its subjectivity–a human identity. In his analysis of the “personification” of Otzi, John Robb has argued that this is “our act of supplying what we feel to be the essential dimensions of any body which are missing here.” Otzi is an archaeological artifact who comes to us as an anonymous dead person whose personhood and story are animated by archaeological narrative and a facial or bodily reconstruction. Otzi’s skin and soft tissue make him an especially powerful symbol of such personhood, having recognizable material traces of humanity and rich archaeological evidence to weave a fascinating life story. The nameless Jamestown teen, in contrast, is a fragmented skeleton recovered outside a discrete burial context who could easily be depersonalized, but she has been wound into a compelling narrative about the boundaries of human desperation.
In 2008 a National Geographic editor suggested that such reconstructions “make some people, particularly scientists, squirm. Why? Because they are primarily art.” National Geographic itself featured a graphic novel style depiction of Otzi’s death drawn by Bulgarian comic artist Alex Maleev, but it weaves a story reasonably true to the archaeological analysis. In contrast, the reconstructions of Otzi are compelled to wield some measure of methodological and interpretive flexibility.
Archaeologists are probably not especially apprehensive of art as much as art weaves emotional, idiosyncratic, and fragmentary narratives that aesthetically and textually expand conventional archaeological interpretation. Facial and bodily reconstructions probably add little or nothing to our archaeological analysis, but they lend a powerful emotional dimension to the archaeological interpretation of a human body and life. Such narratives and facial reconstructions risk lapsing into ideologically distorted notions of individuality and focusing on a single life in isolation from a broader social and historical context. Nevertheless, reconstructions provide an interesting artifact that illuminates how archaeology breathes humanity into a corporeal artifact like Otzi, the Jamestown victim, and the scores of skeletal humans recovered by countless archaeologists.
Peter Acs, Thomas Wilhalm, and Klaus Oeggl
2005 Remains of grasses found with the Neolithic Iceman “Ötzi.” Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 14(3):198-206. (subscription access)
2010 Anatomical models and wax Venuses: art masterpieces or scientific craft works? Journal of Anatomy 216(2):223-234.
Juan Gabriel Bridaa, Marta Meleddub, and Manuela Pulinac
2012 Understanding Urban Tourism Attractiveness The Case of the Archaeological Ötzi Museum in Bolzano. Journal of Travel Research 51(6):730-741. (subscription access)
2012 Ötzi the ice mummy’s secrets found in DNA. New Scientist 213(2854):10. (subscription access)
Walter F. Kean, Shannon Tocchio, Mary Kean, and K. D. Rainsford
2013 The musculoskeletal abnormalities of the Similaun Iceman (“ÖTZI”): clues to chronic pain and possible treatments. Inflammopharmacology 21(1):11-20. (subscription access)
Andreas G. Nerlich, Beatrice Bachmeier, Albert Zink, Stefan Thalhammer, and Eduard Egarter-Vigl
2003 Ötzi had a wound on his right hand. The Lancet 362(9380):334.
John Prag and Richard Neave
1997 Making Faces: Using Forensic and Archaeological Evidence. Texas A & M University Press, Austin.
Alois G. Puntener and Serge Moss
2010 Otzi, the iceman and his leather clothes. CHIMIA International Journal for Chemistry 64(5):315-320. (subscription access)
2009 Towards a Critical Otziography: Inventing Prehistoric Bodies. In Social Bodies, edited by Helen Lambert and Maryon McDonald, pp 100-. Berghan Books, New York.
2005 Facial approximation: a review of the current state of play for archaeologists. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 15(4):298-302. (subscription access)
2009 History of facial reconstruction. Acta Biomed 80(1):5-12.
2004 Forensic Facial Reconstruction. Cambridge University Press, New York.
2010 Facial reconstruction–anatomical art or artistic anatomy? Journal of Anatomy 216(2):235-250.
Otzi South Tyrol image Kennis © South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, Foto Ochsenreiter
Otzi comic image from National Infographic
Otzi Museum image South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology
The landscape of contemporary bourgeois materiality is dotted with a legion of craft breweries, microbreweries, and brewpubs busily fermenting myriad new recipes targeting the upwardly mobile palate. The consumers of these modest breweries are increasingly well-versed in beer styles, the ingredients and chemistry of brewing, and the distinctions of regional styles and particular breweries. We are now in the midst of American Craft Beer Week, which is being celebrated May 13-19, and this celebration of handcrafted beers illuminates bourgeois consumption patterns, the idiosyncracies of bourgeois taste and style, and even the politics of craft beer consumption.
The bourgeois that have descended on craft breweries encompass a broad swath of social groups whose consumption revolves around material taste and stylistic distinction. This effort to craft distinction in material things is not especially uncommon, but bourgeois consumption tends to avoid shows of sheer affluence itself; that is, novelty, an appeal to progressive rationality (e.g., shopping green), and perceived individual stylistic distinction drive contemporary bourgeois consumption. This picture of bourgeois consumption stands idealistically opposed in the bourgeois imagination to the homogeneity, function, and thrift that fuel mass consumption, and the tendency to avoid shows of wealth stands opposed to the pretentious material affluence associated with the uber-wealthy (compare the counter-cultural capitalists David Brooks calls “bourgeois bohemians.”) To be bourgeois is to possess refined tastes even in the absence of genuine affluence, so it is not purely a show of material wealth as much as it is both material and social capital shaping consumption. Consequently, this definition of the bourgeois could reasonably include upwardly mobile yuppies, hipsters, indebted university students, and older educated urbanites.
Artisan foods from cheeses to chocolates have secured a market foothold by appealing to the educated palate, and beer appears to have been especially successful securing a place in bourgeois and aspiring bourgeois foodways. In March, 2013 the US had 2,360 craft breweries (which includes 1124 brewpubs, 1139 microbreweries, and 97 regional craft breweries). The central challenge for these small breweries is simply to dent consumer consciousness in a marketplace crowded with designer porters, and breweries wield a variety of symbolic mechanisms to secure consumers’ cultivated palettes. Bourgeois taste cherishes novelty and the symbolic capital derived from demonstrating mastery of beer knowledge and being an early adopter of a particular brew. Much of the microbrew rhetoric points to the cultivation of such discerning palettes, a mechanism that fashions bourgeois drinking as educated and individual. The Brewers Association, for instance, suggests that the “hallmark of craft beer and craft brewers is innovation. Craft brewers interpret historic styles with unique twists and develop new styles that have no precedent.” They stress that “Craft beer is generally made with traditional ingredients like malted barley; interesting and sometimes non-traditional ingredients are often added for distinctiveness.”
Some brewers paint themselves as fringe firms, hoping to evoke some of the imagined outsider status consumer subcultures routinely cherish. The Lagunitas Brewing Company’s offerings, for instance, include “Censored” ale: “Originally called the Kronik, this beer was censored by the federal label-approving agency … they claimed the word had some sort of Marijuana reference. We slapped a `Censored’ sticker on it as a joke and they accepted it.” Lagunitas crafts a distinctively independent California personality, indicating their mission has been “driven unseen by an urge to communicate with people, to find our diasporidic [sic] tribe, and to connect with other souls adrift on a culture that had lost its center and spun its inhabitants to the four winds to wander lost and bereft with a longing to re-enter the light. Beer, we have learned, has always been a good lubricant for social intercourse!” Other breweries hope to secure out attention with a cleverly named brew: Indiana’s 3Floyd’s Brewery makes a “gushy undead” pale ale it calls “Zombie Dust”; California’s Buffalo Bills Brewery offers up “Alimony Ale”; and Middle Ages Brewing Company makes a barleywine it calls “Druid Fluid.”
Chicago’s Wicker Park touts itself as having “the most complete set of beer oases in Chicago.” The neighborhood celebrates the presence of two “cicerones” amongst these craft bars (a beer consumers’ version of a sommelier), both of whom have been certified to have “the knowledge and skills to guide those interested in beer culture, including its historic and artistic aspects.” The cicerone certification identifies “a person with demonstrated expertise in beer who can guide consumers to enjoyable and high-quality experiences with great beer.” One of these cicerones lords over Bangers and Lace, a bar and restaurant “with the feel of a Midwestern lodge” that serves up bangers (i.e., sausages) and lace (i.e., the “Brussels lace” foam that clings to a beer mug). The nearby Moonshine brewpub likewise touts their brewmaster. Moonshine accents his “outsider” status by dubbing him a “renegade brewer” and underscores his brewing skills by noting that he “studied at North America’s oldest brewer’s academy, Siebel Institute, as well as the world-renowned Doemens brewer’s academy in Germany.”
Boutique beers are often difficult to find and more expensive than macrobrews, but craft beer is in many consumers’ minds a more economical option than options such as wine. A drinker at the Lagunitas Brewing Company told AdWeek that “for five or six dollars, we’d rather drink really good beer than mediocre wine.” This fashions craft beer more as a reflection of an educated palette than affluence alone. Simultaneously, craft beer is fashioned in somewhat contradictory forms as part of an “every-man’s” tradition of drink, which clumsily situates craft brews in a working-class heritage. This runs somewhat counter to craft breweries’ tendency to frame consumption as a reflection of cultivated individual taste; where working class drinking fosters homogeneity, bourgeois consumption celebrates novelty and individual discernment distinguishing the consumer. This contradiction awkwardly negotiates bourgeois consumers’ own acknowledgement of their social and material homogeneity; even as they drink a novel IPA and embrace a distinctive sense of style, they share dress, taste and values.
Craft brewers invoke “community” in a variety of somewhat ambiguous ways that evade the distinct class of consumers who patronize such breweries. A January, 2013 survey found that “fully half of craft beer devotees are interested in locally made beer, while 25 percent are interested in purchasing craft beer only where it’s brewed.” Indianapolis’ Triton Brewing Company celebrates its values of being “a creative outlet in the form of a traditional, community-based production brewery located in the heartland of Indiana. The shareholders, employees, and libations of Triton Brewing Company embody exemplary strength of character, resolute integrity, and consistent quality in all their forms.” The Brewers’ Association likewise celebrates their local connections, indicating that “Craft brewers have distinctive, individualistic approaches to connecting with their customers.” The Lagunitas Brewing Company’s founder indicates that “What will help us in the long run is that essentially we are not in the same business as the multinational brewers. We are selling community, and they are selling liquid.”
Many craft breweries root themselves in a place through historical reference. San Francisco’s 21st Amendment Brewery cleverly links their business to the city’s early 20th century heritage, when “there were about 40 breweries operating just within the city limits.” Those breweries were “the local gathering places. Places to exchange ideas, debate politics and philosophy. Places for families to come together on weekends. Places that provided something unique—hand crafted beer that was different at every brewery and that defined the taste of a neighborhood. In 1920, Prohibition wiped out this culture and put the `local’ out of business. … But with the passage of the 21st Amendment, repealing Prohibition, we, as a society, were able to begin the slow climb back to reclaiming the essence of the neighborhood gathering place. At the 21st Amendment, they celebrate the culture of the great breweries of old, making unique, hand crafted beers, great food, and providing a comfortable, welcoming atmosphere that invites conversation, interaction and a sense of community.” Like 21st Amendment, FEW Spirits is an Evanston, Illinois distillery that plays on prohibition history by taking takes its name from Evansville temperance reformer and suffragist Francis Elizabeth Willard.
Craft breweries are a common feature of the contemporary upwardly mobile urban landscape. For instance, Chicago once had more than 50 Schlitz “tied houses,” pubs that sold beers from just one brewery, and many now house new businesses in urban neighborhoods. Increasingly more breweries are being turned into homes, commonly marketed as “brewery lofts.” Los Angeles’ Brewery Arts Complex, for instance, is a former Pabst Blue Ribbon plant that was re-tooled into homes and studio spaces that are rented only to artists. The E&B Brewery Lofts in Detroit are residential lofts in the former Eckhardt and Becker Brewery, which operated in the building from 1891 to 1969 and now also houses the Red Bull House of Art. The Gund Brewery Lofts in LaCrosse, Wisconsin break from the model of brewery lofts as artists’ havens, instead offering low-income housing.
The craft breweries’ modest share of the American marketplace belies the appeals of craft beers that potentially reach well beyond even a broadly defined bourgeois. This week the Das Ale Haus blog reported on the faux craft label beers produced by macrobreweries intent on securing an ever-expanding slice of America’s alcoholic palette. For instance, labels like Goose Island and Blue Moon borrow from much of the symbolism and advertising rhetoric of craft breweries but are owned by Anheuser Busch and Molson-Coors, respectively. Where craft beers may have mastered a certain narrative that macrobrewers are eager to capture, macrobreweries have the profound advantage of marketing and distribution networks and the capacity to sell their products at low prices. Yet the macrobreweries face declining domestic and imported beer sales while craft beer profits steadily increase, and craft beers have secured much of their success from young consumers: A 2013 study found that consumers aged 25-34 are craft beer’s primary market, with 50% of the demographic consuming craft beer, and 43% of millennial and Gen X consumers prefer the taste of craft beer to domestic. The same study concluded that the craft beer market of $12 million in 2012 will reach $18 billion by 2017, international markets such as Australia reflect similar trends.
Clown Shoes Tramp Stamp label image courtesy Clown Shoes Beer
Durham Craft Beer image courtesy lpolinski
Elysian Brewing label image courtesy firstwefeast.com
Schlitz tied house image courtesy kendoman26
Shipyard Brewing Company image courtesy brentdanley
This weekend I am in Chicago at the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference and delivering this paper examining the relationship between identity in post-segregation society and the legions of contemporary groups that see themselves as marginal. This revisits some of the issues I raised in my December 2012 post on hipsters but focuses on the relationship between, on the one hand, the erosion of ideological frameworks for identity—Blackness in particular, but also patriarchy, middle class, and urbanity—and, on the other hand, contemporary consumer collectives like hipsters that willingly embrace “marginality.”
In 1957, Norman Mailer lamented the hipster, the White youth who had become alienated to a society that had delivered depression, global war, the threat of nuclear apocalypse, and stultifying post-war homogeneity. Mailer argued that for these disillusioned Cold War hipsters, “the only life-giving answer is to … divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots.” Mailer dubbed the hipster “the White Negro,” because these disaffected White youth ostensibly divorced themselves from bourgeois discipline and appropriated African-American dress, music, and style, finding an “authentic” emotional experience in African American life. Mailer suggested that “in this wedding of the white and the black it was the Negro who brought the cultural dowry. Any Negro who wishes to live must live with danger from his first day, and no experience can ever be casual to him.” Mailer suggested that Whites were fascinated by Blacks’ unfettered emotion in the face of totalizing marginalization and felt similarly oppressed by a “slow death by conformity.”
From the vantage point of early 21st-century post-segregation consumer culture, the rejuvenated specter of the hipster again evokes marginalization and the quest for authenticity. Popular observers commonly reduce contemporary hipsters to a hollow caricature or see nothing especially consequential in yet another fringe social collective, but hipsters reflect the collapse of essentialized identities once anchored by the likes of racial subjectivity. In the vacuum created by the assault on race, masculinity, and the bourgeois, the hipster is a symptom of a widespread desperation to secure renewed authenticity once provided by those very ideologies. During the Cold War Mailer suggested that hipsters divined such authenticity in African American life, which posed a dramatic break from White bourgeois materialism and post-war homogeneity. Sociologist Ned Polsky was among the observers who argued that such a break simply thieved diasporan style and culture, arguing that “in the world of the hipster the Negro remains essentially what Ralph Ellison called him–an invisible man.” Yet hipsters did not simply appropriate African diasporan culture; rather, hipster culture crystallized Whites’ perpetual romantic fascination with the unfeigned authenticity of Black emotional experience and confirmed White envy of Black survival in the face of totalizing marginalization.
In the midst of a post-segregation society more than a half-century later, contemporary hipsters stake out a position that remains rooted in marginality, but they appear to have been joined by the breadth of American society in their claim to peripheralization. Cold War and contemporary hipsters share a common subcultural impulse to distinguish themselves through material style, but seemingly the full breadth of contemporary society has carved out its own stylistic niches. The erosion of racial, patriarchal, and bourgeois subjectivity has produced a very distinctive 21st-century hipster alongside a host of other social subjects—doomsday preppers, the Tea Party, the Occupy movement–seeking some substantial foundation for selfhood that expresses their experiences and ambitions. “Seeing” marginality is no longer especially challenging; indeed, archaeologies that aspire to “see” distinctive marginality risk reproducing an essentialism that Cold War White hipsters and Norman Mailer imposed when they romanticized Black emotional authenticity and racial experience. James Baldwin tempered such romanticism over the hipster’s creative construction of self when he argued that “a Negro man … had to make oneself up as one went along … in the not-at-all metaphorical teeth of the world’s determination to destroy you.” The challenge is to “see” structural processes of marginalization in everyday material life without lapsing into a romanticized picture of myriad socially marginal groups creatively crafting their authenticity.
Like many fringe groups before them, contemporary subcultures feel somehow alienated to an ambiguous “mainstream.” That mainstream may always have been more ideological than objective reality, and the perceived descent into universal marginality is at best contrived. However, the mainstream was long anchored by ideological bedrocks like Black difference that have now been unraveled by 21st-century hybridity, even as we remain persistently attached to material and cultural distinction; the hipster is simply one collective amongst us aspiring to craft a position in a society that seems hostile to our distinctive ambitions. Once a contested power relationship that produced distinction through concrete structural inequalities, marginality is now celebrated for its animation of consumer creativity and self-identification.
Precisely what defines a hipster today is ambiguous, and it is as much a slur, a transparent ideological notion, a youth culture demographic, and a marketing category as it is a coherent social subjectivity. The contemporary stereotype of hipsters revolves around materiality: for instance, hipsters wear vintage clothes from thrift shops or retro style from chains like Urban Outfitters that manufacture patina, and they accent such clothes with Chuck Taylors and Wayfarers; they embrace “low-brow” materiality like drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon or smoking European cigarettes to disguise their class standing; and like all subcultures they are fervent music consumers. Richard Florida suggests that these youth live in “hipster havens” like Wicker Park and Williamsburg, which, in his words, “attract a relatively affluent crowd—that doesn’t want to appear too affluent.” Yet these characterizations are in many ways simply a social caricature if not a marketing category that through popular repetition aspires to assume its own authenticity (for a compelling study of Wicker Park, see Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City)
It would be easy to dismiss hipster discourses as superficial fashion critiques, but the anxieties over present-day hipsters betray more deep-seated apprehensions over the shallowness of contemporary consumer politics. Christy Wampole’s New York Times piece “How to Live without Irony” laments the superficial materiality of the hipster, who “tries to negotiate the age-old problem of individuality, not with concepts, but with material things.” This critique romanticizes a counter-culture steeped in intellectual creativity, strategic politics, and some sort of common politicizing experience, but this idealized activism is an awkward fit to 21st-century society: the “mainstream” is an ambiguous if not ideological target; and the guise of authentic, shared oppression fueling strategic politics idealizes collective resistance. Wampole and many other observers remain romantically attached to a notion of “pure, unfettered subjectivity” in which human agency places us outside relations of power and marginalization, a position from which critical political activism is launched against marginalizing mainstreams.
Hipster materiality mines the detritus of dead aesthetics to craft contemporary distinction, but many observers dismiss such consumption as pallid mimicry of historical styles. In 2008, for instance, Adbusters’ Douglas Haddow theatrically lamented, “An artificial appropriation of different styles from different eras, the hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture lost in the superficiality of its past and unable to create any new meaning.” Under the hateful banner “the Hipster Must Die,” Christian Lorentzen similarly complained that “hipsterism fetishizes the authentic and regurgitates it with a winking inauthenticity.” Yet hipsters’ tactical fabrication of style from the shreds of popular culture may be what we all have done across the breadth of consumer society: that is, we all fancy ourselves creatively reconfiguring the commercial symbolism pinned on brand goods, store devotion, seasonal styles, and popular culture instead of inheriting our sense of self from art, faith, and Culture. The former are dismissed as inauthentic and meaningless, but hipsters may be mining those historical symbols consciously recognizing they are hollow; that is, it may well be that the appropriation of “dead,” once-authentic styles is in fact intended to signify nothing concrete beyond the idiosyncratic display of material style.
Such styles emptied of their historicity may be what Fredric Jameson referred to as the “perpetual present” in which “all that is left is to imitate dead styles.” Individualized creativity lies at the heart of contemporary hipster materiality, yet it does risk coming in the absence of especially concrete collective consciousness. Where the Cold War hipster fetishized the electric vitality of unfiltered Black emotional experience, the contemporary hipster may be seeking the fantasy of unfettered creative expression in the face of mass cultural conformity. Such individual creativity is then subject to the withering and unpredictable logic of hipster taste, which is geared to idiosyncratic aesthetic novelty and emotive instinct more than rationality, historical reference, or a concrete notion of stylistic politics.
Despite the absence of concrete hipster standards, the hipster risks serving consumer capitalism as a stylistic arbiter for mass culture. Indeed, marginal collectives from Metal fans to Whovians to hippies have become the foot soldiers for mass marketers, divining novelty from the subcultural fringes and delivering it to marketers. Hipsters, for instance, fixate on retro style and patina that pervades the contemporary marketplace. Rather than outsiders, hipsters instead loom as marketing mercenaries in a world of heterogeneous styles in which resistance, deviance, and rebellion are handed over to mass culture and reduced to consumable fashions.
Observers critical of de-historicized hipster retro persistently accuse hipsters of in-authenticity. Douglas Haddow, for instance, laments that hipsters are “a lost generation, desperately clinging to anything that feels real, but too afraid to become it ourselves. We are a defeated generation, resigned to the hypocrisy of those before us, who once sang songs of rebellion and now sell them back to us. … The hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture so detached and disconnected that it has stopped giving birth to anything new.” In this overwrought moralism, the hipster is the symptomatic tip of a mass cultural iceberg that has become stalely self-referential, utterly insincere in its politics and emotions, and alienated to a public life.
Yet perhaps hipsters are not imitating marginality as much as they are willfully inhabiting it and claiming the crowded fringe as an empowering social position. This is in some ways like the break their peers hoped to make from Cold War homogeneity when they embraced Black marginality and feeling. However, the fantasy of “being Black” was at best an awkward fetishization; while it took aim on race by recognizing marginalization as a social process and not an essential identity, only Whites enjoyed the privilege of performing Blackness across the color line.
There is a lesson here for archaeologies of marginality that presses us to push beyond essentialization even as we acknowledge the power of such categories, the allure of material distinction, and the tension of “mainstream” social mores. Archaeology illuminates marginalization processes, not simply marginal peoples: contemporary cityscapes, for instance, are the legacy of racist urban renewal programs with lasting effects touching dispossessed African Americans as well as transplanted hipsters. Rather than articulate the challenge as “seeing” marginal peoples in these past and present landscapes, perhaps the question is instead how to problematize a romantic notion of alienation that allows us to imagine ourselves apart from a social mainstream. Alienation allows us to fantasize an authentic self who can somehow be made “visible” in the midst of totalizing marginality, which risks evading the social and ideological construction of selfhood: Mailer’s hipsters, for instance, remained White despite their earnest desire to repudiate “every social restraint and category.”
In this sense, contemporary hipsters offer a particularly interesting 21st-century intervention that warily avoids normalizing standards and empties symbols of agreed-upon meaning. We may only be able to define hipsters because mass culture assiduously constructs them as a consumer demographic or the building blocks for urban engineering, because nearly nobody actually admits to being a hipster. While The Simpsons can parody hipsters with the confidence that we will recognize the stereotypes, the people who are cast in the category persistently attempt to escape stylistic and behavioral labeling. Romantic alienation to the mainstream, the allure of authentic selfhood, and perceived position on the margins animates many contemporary social collectives like hipsters, yet in the case of hipsters it is an utterly tactical politics and subjectivity whose materiality may signify nothing especially concrete. This may be a reflection of a post-segregation, digital consumer culture in which subjectivities are increasingly fluid, but we nevertheless remain products of historically deep-seated marginalization that fringe groups routinely evade at their own peril. Even in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, for instance, Mailer suggested Cold War hipsters attempted to “exist without roots,” a move that risked ignoring the historical depth of anti-Black marginalization. Archaeological analysis can very clearly “see” such marginalization, and with some reflective imagination we can more critically understand rich experiences of marginality and acknowledge genuine agency without lapsing into romantic pictures of authenticity and selfhood.
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Berlin hipster image courtesy paulamarttila
Biking fashion image courtesy Lorena Cupcake
Hipster Dust image courtesy Hipster Dust
London Street art image courtesy Chris.Jeriko
Wicker Park cafe image courtesy Joel Mann
Wicker Park shop window image courtesy avrenim_acceber
Williamsburg real estate sign image courtesy EssG
In the wake of World War II, suburbs sprang up on the outskirts of American cities, prefabricated and interchangeable homes that reflect postwar social, disciplinary, and material homogeneity. Boosted by Federal Housing Admininstration and veteran’s loans, banks provided loans for 10 million new homes between 1946 and 1953, and Americans set off for the suburbs to settle scores of standardized structures on urban outskirts.
When we imagine such suburbs, we invariably envision solidly middle-class families in the midst of homogeneous neighborhoods, a picture that rarely includes people of color. Access to America’s suburban utopia was denied to most African Americans: realtors, bankers, and urban planners crafted an ideologically distorted, racially restricted American Dream in the suburbs while they championed urban renewal projects that gutted the Black city. The Black experience of postwar suburbanization is a complicated presence on the contemporary landscape: the heritage of urban renewal is reflected in failed projects and abandoned cityscapes that many city governments now want to raze anew. However, an especially interesting dimension of that story is reflected in the Flanner House Homes neighborhood in Indianapolis, Indiana, a history that is now in danger of being forgotten if not displaced.
The suburban experience is routinely painted in homogeneous material and social terms for good reason. Perhaps no suburb better depicts that homogeneity than the original Levittown, the Long Island New York community where the Levitt Brothers built 17,447 homes by 1951. The FHA encouraged suburban planners to restrict the sale of suburban homes to Whites, calling Black residents “adverse influences,” and the Levitts embraced that advice. Bill Levitt rationalized the firm’s racial covenants restricting sales to Whites only with the argument that “As a Jew, I have no room in my mind or heart for racial prejudice. But the plain fact is that most whites prefer not to live in mixed communities.” In 1960, Levittown’s 82,000 residents included not one African American, making it the single largest universally White community in America.
Levittown was an extreme example that concealed the one-million African Americans who became suburbanites in the 1940s and 1950s. For instance, African Americans had settled north of Detroit in the 1920s on vacant farmland in the Eight Mile-Wyoming area and built modest houses; such “self-built suburbs” constructed by their owners accounted for one-third of all pre-war homes, crafted over time from recycled materials or pre-cut Sears houses and without much planning by local governments. Yet as suburban developments sprang up on city outskirts apprehensive White suburbanites formed municipalities and established anti-Black residency covenants that restricted home sales to Whites (a pattern already tested in Indianapolis itself in the 1920s; compare such covenants in Kansas City and in Seattle).
The Flanner House Homes project was one distinctive response to the racist boundaries on post-war suburbs. Flanner House was founded in 1898 as a “settlement house” agency to assist Black residents arriving in 19th-century migrations and subsequently in the Great Migration. The city’s African-American population increased by almost 500% between 1860 and 1870, and in 1900 nearly 10% of the city’s population was African American. Boosted by Southern migration, that population more than doubled in the first two decades of the 20th century, increasing from 15,931 in 1900 to 34,678 in 1920.
In 1936 Tuskegee-trained Cleo Blackburn was hired as the Flanner House director, advocating a strong “self-help” mantra that would remain the Flanner House philosophy through the Depression, post-war decline, and the Civil Rights movement. In 1944 Blackburn directed the construction of a community cannery, health center, nursery, and gardens at its 16th Street headquarters. In 1945 Survey Graphic reported on the new center, indicating that Flanner House “has built a new settlement on the edge of what former U. S. Housing Administrator Nathan Straus called the worst Negro slum in America. It has been instrumental in constructing a new health center nearby. It is operating perhaps the largest community gardening and canning project by and for Negroes in the United States.”
A 1946 study of the neighborhood directed by Blackburn examined 454 Black households on the city’s near-Westside and agreed that the neighborhood was “one of the most unsightly, unsanitary, and deteriorated sectors in the entire city of Indianapolis,” and the homes “needed major repairs and few of them had adequate plumbing facilities.” Blackburn indicated that “the majority had given up hope for any possible improvement,” and he advised that it “is urgently recommended, that the clearance, planning, and redevelopment of this area under the Redevelopment Act of 1945 affords the only hope of correcting the conditions existing in the area. … Immediate steps should be taken by the Indianapolis Redevelopment Commission to declare the area blighted and to acquire, clear, and redevelop it.”
Created in 1944, the Indianapolis Redevelopment Commission was willing to raze the whole of the Black near-Westside, though it had relatively little plan for what to do with the uprooted residents. While most American cities accepted federal funding and built public housing for the scores of families displaced by urban renewal, Indianapolis persistently rebuffed federal funding for such construction under the guise of supporting local contractors. While the African-American near-Westside languished, 9000 new homes were built between 1940 and 1942 to support wartime workforces in Speedway and Warren Township, and 52,000 new homes were built in the city in the 1950’s, but nearly all were in neighborhoods inaccessible to African Americans.
Blackburn proposed tearing down a swath of homes and building “sweat equity” housing in which male head of households constructed their homes and the homes of their neighbors (women could not participate in home construction). The Redevelopment Commission purchased a 178-acre tract north of Crispus Attucks High School in November 1946, referred to as Project A, and after displacing the residents (none of whom were guaranteed acceptance into Flanner House Homes) they turned it over to Blackburn and Flanner House. Construction began in 1950 by a series of men whose families had been exhaustively reviewed by Flanner House, leaving Flanner House solidly peopled by middle-class African Americans.
Flanner House Homes was distinctive for its focus on African Americans in a moment when White urbanites were migrating to the outskirts of the city, but it was simultaneously novel spatially in its simulation of suburban space and its placement within the city. While similar homes were being built on Indianapolis’ rural outskirts, the Flanner House Homes sat just north of the city’s central “Mile Square.” Like many of the suburban homes they borrowed from stylistically, the houses are roughly 975-square foot spaces with standardized footprints and one of four basic street facings. There was nothing that especially distinguished the Flanner House Homes from any house in the White suburbs, and that may well have been Blackburn’s intention. These African-American homes were utterly typical suburban forms that reproduced the very middle-class values that were simultaneously staking a claim to the city’s suburbs. The city’s lone predominately Black suburb was the Grandview community, which was established on the city’s northwest side in the late-1950s. The stylish suburban ranchers and relatively standardized homes were derisively referred to in the local press as the “Golden Ghetto.”
There is nothing especially diasporan about the Flanner House home forms, a direct reflection of the African-American commitment to American middle-class values in particular and the American home ownership dream in particular. The homes might be cast as a reflection of Blackburn’s Tuskegee training, which was profoundly shaped by Booker T. Washington’s accomodationist philosophy, and Blackburn did indeed chart a circumspect and non-confrontational course in local race relations. However, this risks reducing all African-American heritage merely to essentialized diasporan forms and ignores the allure of suburban home ownership and agency in African-American experience.
Flanner House Homes was in some ways a tragic testament to the persistence of racism in Indianapolis. By 1964 the project had built just over 300 homes, and while the city persistently pointed to Flanner House Homes as a success story, it did not remotely address housing problems in Indianapolis and its racial segregation did nothing to address the racism that prevented people of color from moving into other Indianapolis neighborhoods. Realtors refused to show homes to Black households; banks were unwilling to extend loans to African Americans able to pay; and the near-absence of restricted income public housing provided African American few choices for housing. To make matters worse, the imminent arrival of Interstate-65 construction in 1965 would remove 4700 homes, of which roughly half were African American (and in view of Flanner House Homes). Richard Pierce’s compelling study Polite Protest: The Political Economy of Race in Indianapolis, 1920-1970 concludes that when Indianapolis began to enforce laws against housing segregation in the late 1960’s, “Whites no longer needed racial covenants and neighborhood associations to block African American movement into white neighborhoods. The economic gap between whites and African Americans had grown sufficiently that economic realities provided the most effective barrier.”
Flanner Homes was named a National Register Historic District in 2003, but in 2013 Indiana Landmarks named Flanner House Homes and the neighboring Philip’s Temple one of Indiana’s Ten Most Endangered Historic Places. In 2012 the neighborhood first found itself under fire from the Indianapolis Public Schools, which owns Philip’s Temple but hopes to tear down the 1924 church to build a parking lot for Crispus Attucks High School.
The Flanner House homes were recently under fire from the retailer Meijer, who hoped to acquire and demolish 35 of the 181 Flanner House Homes just north of the neighborhood. Meijer removed their bid this week, and the neighborhoods’ resistance and Indiana Landmarks’ advocacy was critical. Nevertheless, the targeting of the neighborhood reflects that the homes’ apparently prosaic form masks their significance as a reflection of color line privileges.
For more details:
Listen to Amos Brown’s interview with residents and local preservations on Afternoons with Amos
Videos of original Flanner House residents and Flanner House can be found at the Flanner House youtube channel
Cleo W. Blackburn
1946 A Study of 454 Negro Households in the Redevelopment Area, Indianapolis, Indiana. Unpublished manuscript.
Carolyn M. Brady
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Flanner House Study Committee
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David M. P. Freund
2007 Colored Property : State Policy and White Racial Politics in Suburban America. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Kevin Fox Gotham
2000 Urban Space, Restrictive Covenants, and the Origins of Racial Residential Segregation in a US City, 1900-1950. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 24(3):616-633.
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2006 Seeing the Invisible: Reexamining Race and Vernacular Architecture. Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture 13(2):96-105. (subscription access)
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Indianapolis Redevelopment Commission
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Kenneth T. Jackson
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M. Ruth Little
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Timothy Maher and Ain Haas
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Charles S. Preston
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Roger William Riis and Webb Waldron
1945 Fortunate City. Survey Graphic XXXTV(8)
Flanner house Construction, yard construction, street scene, and women and children in living room images courtesy Flanner House (Indianapolis, Ind.) Records, 1936-1992, IUPUI University Library Special Collections and Archives
Levittown aerial view image image courtesy MarkGregory007
Today the Jamestown Rediscovery Project reported on the archaeology of a teen girl who was apparently butchered and consumed by fellow colonists in the winter of 1609-1610. Most of the instant press coverage revolves around the evidence that the body was butchered, with mandible cut marks and skull fragmentation reflecting a somewhat clumsy dismemberment of the body during a winter in which about 80% of the settlement’s residents died. Our collective fascination with this girl’s fate obliquely humanizes her even as we paint a sympathetic if uneasy picture of the fellow settlers who cannibalized her. The story of “Jane,” as Jamestown refers to her, paints the emotional incomprehensibility of human nature while simultaneously rationalizing the desperation that would have led these first settlers to consume one of their own number.
Cannibalism holds a powerful grip on human imagination for perfectly understandable reasons: to consume another human’s body is nearly always constructed as one of the most universal of all violations, driven only by absolutely total desperation, radical ritual, or simple tragic madness. Cannibals have been a staple of popular discourse for much of the colonial period, but the specter of the cannibal was routinely invoked as an ideological caricature of colonial peoples. William Arens’ 1979 study The Man-Eating Myth was a skeptical reaction against the ideological weight of cannibal narratives, with Arens rejecting nearly all accounts of cannibalism in virtually any time and place. Cannibalism certainly has been wielded to stigmatize various colonial “Others,” and contemporary uneasiness with cannibalism has led most scholars to be circumspect about the subject. Yet a wave of archaeologists have argued quite persuasively that the aversion to acknowledging cannibalism ignores quite significant evidence for it. Compelling examples reach back over 780,000 years ago at the Spanish site Gran Dolina; 100,000 year-old Neandertal remains at Moula-Guercy were clearly cannibalized; Walter Hough’s 1901 claim for Anasazi cannibalism is accepted by many contemporary scholars; the Colorado site Cowboy Wash dates to AD 1150-1175 and has been interpreted by one team as containing human fecal remains (coprolites) with identifiable human tissue remains alongside tools with human blood residues and bones suggesting cannibalism; and in winter 1846-1847 the well-known Donner party consumed members of their group when stranded in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Armed with the mangled remains of this anonymous young woman and a historical case for such desperation, the Jamestown case weaves an exceptionally compelling human narrative. Archaeological narratives about cannibalism typically redeem the victims, humanizing them in the face of an unutterable end and providing an articulate narrative that rationalizes or tries to explain their death. That rationalization often finds a motivating force for cannibalizing another person, such as starvation, a move that obliquely redeems the cannibals as well as the victims. Jamestown ReDiscovery, for instance, refers to this girl’s remains as the earliest evidence of “survival cannibalism” in the colonial New World, eager to underscore that this cannibalism was driven by utter desperation. The team’s Scott Whitaker is one of the team scholars who march through a precise and persuasive forensic analysis of the skeletal evidence, focusing on Jane’s death as a scientifically analyzed process.
Such a rhetorical maneuver tends to evade the emotional incomprehensibility of consuming a human, which may in fact be our fundamental curiosity about such a fringe practice. The image of the young woman’s skull and awkward cut marks used to open her cranial vault push the limits of rationality for many us and may be a dimension of the girl’s story that archaeological rationality simply cannot resolve. However, archaeology can address the mechanics of dismemberment, and in the Jamestown case the skeleton is somewhat ineptly butchered and tends to reinforce the Jamestown assessment of this as the depths of desperation.
The story of this girl is part of the Smithsonian exhibit Written in Bone: Forensic Files of the Seventeenth-Century Chesapeake, and her death makes a compelling archaeological narrative that may show how the discipline shares its findings. The team at Jamestown has honed their skills sharing such stories in a wave of fascinating YouTube videos and well-timed press releases in advance of the Smithsonian exhibition. The Jamestown press releases feature a facial reconstruction of the cannibalized girl, a method that has little genuine scholarly purpose but is an alluring vehicle for imagination in a museum gallery or a mass media article.
The line between circumspectly tapping into collective fascination and skirting the professional review process can be problematic. For instance, a 2000 American Antiquity paper by Kurt E. Dongoske, Debra L. Martin and T. J. Ferguson scolded a team at Cowboy Wash for publishing their findings in the popular Discover magazine under the title “American Cannibals” prior to having the data peer-reviewed. The team at Leicester University was criticized in some circles for likewise failing to present their findings on the Richard III excavation in peer-reviewed scholarship before orchestrating a internationally covered news conference. Jamestown’s press included such hyperbole as the Daily News‘ headline “Cannibal Colonists!: Remains at Jamestown show early American settlers ate each other” and Vanity Fair‘s snarky headline “Cannibalism at Jamestown is Most Interesting Thing to Happen at Colony since A.P. U.S. History Trip.”
There is perhaps good reason to sympathize with the settlers who consumed this dead young woman in a moment of “survival cannibalism.” Yet cannibalism resides at the boundaries of human experience, attracting our fascination even in the face of Jamestown’s picture of the colony’s true desperation. We cannot articulate that fascination in especially settled forms, so much of what this and other archaeologies of cannibalism do is provide a firm mirror into the vast breadth of human nature.
1979 The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy. Oxford University Press, New York.
Alban Defleur, Tim White, Patricia Valensi, Ludovic Slimak, and Évelyne Crégut-Bonnoure
1999 Neanderthal Cannibalism at, Ardèche, France. Science 286(5437):128-131.
Kelly J. Dixon, Shannon A. Novak, Gwen Robbins, Julie M. Schablitsky, G. Richard Scott and Guy L. Tasa
2010 “Men, Women, and Children Starving”: Archaeology of the Donner Family Camp. American Antiquity 75(3):627-656.
Kurt E. Dongoske, Debra L. Martin and T. J. Ferguson
2000 Critique of the Claim of Cannibalism at Cowboy Wash. American Antiquity 65(1):179-190.
Fernández-Jalvo, Yolanda, J. C. Díez, Isabel Cáceres, and Jordi Rosell
1999 Human cannibalism in the Early Pleistocene of Europe (Gran Dolina, Sierra de Atapuerca, Burgos, Spain). Journal of Human Evolution 37(3-4):591-622.
1977 The Ecological Basis for Aztec Sacrifice. American Ethnologist 4(1):117-135
Rachel B. Herrmann
2011 The “tragicall historie”: Cannibalism and Abundance in Colonial Jamestown. William and Mary Quarterly 3rd series 68(1):47-74.
J. S. Kidd
1988 Scholarly Excess and Journalistic Restraint in the Popular Treatment of Cannibalism. Social Studies of Science 18(4):749-754.
Patricia M. Lambert, Banks L. Leonard, Brian R. Billman, Richard A. Marlar, Margaret E. Newman and Karl J. Reinhard
2000 Response to Critique of the Claim of Cannibalism at Cowboy Wash. American Antiquity 65(2):397-406.
Richard A. Marlar, Banks L. Leonard, Brian R. Billman, Patricia M. Lambert, and Jennifer E. Marlar
2000 Biochemical evidence of cannibalism at a prehistoric Puebloan site in southwestern Colorado. Nature 407:74-78.
2001 The Edible Dead. British Archaeology 59
Christy G. Turner, II and Jacqueline A. Turner
1992 The First Claim for Cannibalism in the Southwest: Walter Hough’s 1901 Discovery at Canyon Butte Ruin 3, Northeastern Arizona. American Antiquity 57(4):661-682.
Facial reconstruction image from StudioEIS; Photo: Don Hurlbert, Smithsonian
Mandible with cuts image from Don Hurlbert, Smithsonian
Skull with cut marks image from Don Hurlbert, Smithsonian
Perhaps the most compelling abandonment art evokes emotional absence, the literal loss of people if not whole ways of life that once inhabited the buildings, communities, and discrete places in ruin art. Mental hospitals and schools, for instance, are routinely featured by photographers because they once housed emotionally intense experiences, be it the depths of mental illness and the despair of incarceration or the innocence of childhood and the hopefulness of education. Those powerful but ephemeral feelings are in some ways heightened in hindsight by the decay of the buildings themselves, whose decaying shells help us see change and imagine what has been lost. In many cases ruined spaces aesthetically evoke social “illnesses,” like the stigmatization of mental illness and the health care abuses implied in the shell of an asylum; the decline of industry underscored in an abandoned factory; or the changes in mass leisure and post-war suburbanization that led to the collapse of grand city theaters.
Few abandonment sites paint more compelling if idiosyncratic emotional absences than Holy Land USA, a Waterbury, Connecticut religious park that closed in 1984. Abandonment art routinely depicts amusement parks, whose ruins cast a captivating aesthetics of imaginative play and imply a certain innocence. Yet Holy Land USA breaks from the conventional amusement park in both its subject matter and the materiality of the decaying park. The park has been the focus of numerous abandonment artists and urban explorers drawn to the host of eroding Holy Land dioramas. Amusement parks often figure in abandonment art since its meanings are rooted in pleasure even as their ruins tragically underscore the advance of nature.
Holy Land USA is also a compelling symbol of faith, and perhaps even more so in decline than it may have had at its height as a tourist attraction in the 1960s and 1970s. Abandonment artists routinely examine churches, which symbolize something ostensibly timeless, capture the depth of hope invested in some spaces, and evoke both the consequence of faith and the decline of religion. Like amusement parks littered with aesthetically novel and fascinating things, churches provide exceptionally powerful aesthetic spaces, especially in decline: church spaces can be visually arresting, often-monumental shells through which light streams in captivating ways through now-absent congregations. Just as amusement parks often reveal the shifts in mass-consumed leisure in the 21st century, churches document the 20th-century city, forlorn in many neighborhoods depopulated by choice and circumstance alike. Abandonment art paints churches as symbols of the collapse of the urban core, and the ruin’s symbolism as a dead space shallowly intones the decline of religion itself.
Holy Land USA was the inspiration of Waterbury lawyer John B. Greco, a devout Catholic who began construction of the park in 1956 with the ambition to “bring people closer to God.” Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and various biblical stories were represented by unique, handmade figures and structures whose mixed scales, hand-crafted style, and decorative deities might be interpreted as both kitsch and craft. The park was roughly akin to the sacri monti (i.e., sacred mountains) that dotted Italy during the late 15th and early 18th centuries. Like Greco’s Holy Land, the sacri monti recreated the Holy Land for pilgrims unable to venture to the near East. Greco and a team of volunteers made the park’s dioramas representing Biblical moments including Bethlehem, Daniel in the Lions’ den, and the hilltop of the Crucifixion, crafting the exhibits from whatever they had on hand. In 2005 the Hartford Courant indicated that the distinctive Holy Land ruins “featured a non-working, doorless upright freezer housing a statue of Jesus with the Sacred Heart, and a Garden of Eden display consisting of naked mannequins — Adam and Eve — amid fake plants inside a mobile home.”
Greco had traveled in the Near East and visited some of the spaces represented in his park, but the park borrowed from popular cultural symbolism and pure imagination alike. The park’s hillside, for instance, was covered with an illuminated Holy Land USA sign like the Hollywood letters, and in 1997 a Boy Scout project restored the letters. Yet other displays like Herod’s Palace had no stylistic reference to any classical architectural form and instead looked like a modest shed laid out on a putt-putt course. After Greco’s death the park was inherited by a Catholic religious order, falling into disrepair even as its idiosyncratic style attracted photographers and repelled style arbiters. In 2002, for instance, the New York Times indicated that “the gray plaster Temple of Jerusalem, affectionately called `unhistorical and funky’ by one local religious scholar, now more closely resembles a prop from a Japanese monster movie.” The Times described the park as “Catholic-oriented religious kitsch — much of it miniaturized and built with scrap machine parts.” The Daily Show dispatched Stephen Colbert to the scene in 2002, examining the disagreements over the park’s preservation and the projection of kitsch onto faith.
Unlike kitsch, though, Holy Land USA certainly seems not to have been fabricated as intentionally garish excess; instead, it looms as heartfelt folk art whose symbolism seems melodramatic only because it was proselytizing, and appeals to the soul rarely are articulated with subtlety. Pictures of Greco’s park now expose its hand-crafted essence of chicken wire figures, recycled plywood, machine parts, and paper mache now eroding into the Connecticut hillside. In 2008 the eroding 56-foot cross planted on the hilltop was replaced by a 50-foot steel cross, but the remainder of the park appears to be in relatively rapid decline. The ruins of Holy Land USA depart from utterly commercial material shows of faith consumption (e.g., The Holy Land Experience), and in its decline Holy Land USA paints a compelling aesthetic of faith and folk art. Like the most compelling ruins, it provides a visually arresting evocation of absence, in this case evoking the proselytizers and pilgrims who once trooped through the park.
Holy Land USA References
Deserted Religious Theme Park Izismile
Help Save Holy Land USA facebook
Holy Land Shaun O’Boyle
Holy Land USA agilitynut
Holy Land USA Amy O’Neill
Holy Land USA bdodge
Holy Land USA Bill Franson Photography
Holy Land USA Center for Land Use Interpretation
Holy Land USA Deserted Places blog
Holy Land USA Huffington Post
Holy Land USA I Think that I Would Die
Holy Land USA Institutional Green
Holy Land USA New England Journal for Aesthetic Research
Holy Land USA Roadside America
Holy Land USA Roadside America flickr page
Holy Land USA This is Connecticut
Holy Land, USA: From place of pilgrimage to creepy destination Washington Times
Holy Land USA Then and Now jenniferrt66 flick’r page
The Catholic Transcript Online 2008 Cross May Spark Revival of Holy Land USA. The Catholic Transcript Online
Frances Chamberlain 2001 The View From/Waterbury; A Hilltop Landmark Undergoes a Revival. New York Times 4 November.
Martin Kearns 1986 Man Who Built Waterbury’s Holy Land USA Dies. The Hartford Courant 11 March:B1.
Ann Marie Somma 2005 At Holy Land USA, A Vision Crumbles: Waterbury’s Faded Monument Of Religious Kitsch Is Still Controversial. Hartford Courant 28 August.
Paul Zielbauer 2002 A Sight That Inspires Ambivalence; Ruins of a Religious Park Await Restorers or the Bulldozer. The New York Times 12 November.
Good Samaritan Inn image courtesy Cousin Dave
Holy Land USA sign image courtesy Nick See
It has become cliché to acknowledge that nearly everything can be commodified: for instance, a legion of dating sites sell the chance to engineer a love connection; the most common of all substances—water—is bottled, sold, and branded with astounding popularity throughout the world; and insurance policies have long placed exchange values on limbs and lives alike. We of course live in a global consumer society that values things—concrete objects, but also social relations, and even experiences and ethereal emotions–in economic terms. Such exchange values do not determine material meaning, and we have not been captured in the vortex often referred to as “false consciousness,” but exchange value has an enormous influence on how we define a breadth of materiality.
Contemporary parents are simply one market niche inundated with commodities that start parental consumption before conception itself (for instance, see the ultrasound picture frames or the ovulation predictor kits). For those seeking more agency over that moment of conception a host of sperm banks hawk designer genetic material. Buying and selling sperm is theoretically no different than peddling any good, be it a comic book or blood: we exercise some amount of shoppers’ discretion to buy Silver Surfer or consume A-positive. The blood is not trafficked in a purely laissez faire marketplace, but it has some genuine exchange value even if we cannot buy a liter at the local marketplace.
Sperm banks cannot be reduced simply to sites of commodification. For many consumers, sperm banks are not social engineering and aesthetic vanity: instead, many couples or individuals cannot otherwise parent children because of infertility or because they are something other than the normative straight couple. Nevertheless, much of the public discourse on sperm banks has revolved around the commodification of sperm and the ways this illuminates the complicated union of technological progress and consumer culture.
A contemporary consumer can peruse many sperm banks’ offerings online, and if we have the money we have enormous freedom to select the personal and genetic characteristics we hope to pass on to our children. Exchange value attempts to sidestep ethics and reduce meaning to rational profit, but hawking sperm inevitably devolves into a thorny set of emotional and ethical questions over how we distinguish between “good” and “bad” sperm. On the one hand, sperm shopping is an individual consumer decision theoretically no different than the attribute assessment any of us would exercise shopping for shoes or a car: that is, we exercise our personal tastes as we compare shoes in terms of function, style, and cost. On the other hand, we do not really “shop” for our children’s genetic attributes from a grocery list or with the sense that we can control eye color, personality, intelligence, or appearance. We somehow trust such things to faith, accept that they remain out of our control, and do not believe that power over this or any other medical procedure is (or should be) restricted by class. Sperm banks, though, offer the chance to micro-manage genetic attributes for a price, which charitably might be termed “choice,” but it may more soberly be interpreted as reproducing latent xenophobia, cultural stereotypes, structural class and social inequalities, and deep-seated prejudices.
Most of the sperm samples provided by Fairfax Cryobank are in their “graduate” category and come from men who “are in the process of earning or have completed a post college graduate degree.” The donor descriptions craft a predictable range of attractive personality profiles that stress their donors’ claims to “genius,” but the most distinctive dimension of the profiles may be their invocation of a variety of popular cultural caricatures. Donor 4317, for example, has “a Masters degree in Astronautical Engineering” and he “values honesty and considers himself a very patient man. … A Clark Kent look-a-like, he is quite handsome with beautiful, soulful brown eyes and an enticing sweet smile.” The “Clark Kent” characterization invokes a disguised super hero confident in his inner strength who may be both man and super-man; Donor 2790 has “been compared to the actor Josh Groban”; Donor 2781 “resembles a young, clean-cut Jim Carrey”; Donor 2792 “resembles a young Marlon Brando”; “He’s been told that he resembles Ben Affleck, though the lab staff thinks that Donor 2770 is the more handsome of the two. This donor is a real head-turner”; Donor 2782 “is definitely a staff favorite. His dashing, James Bond-like looks certainly make him a ‘10’”; Donor 2774 “resembles a young Stephen Baldwin”; and “With his clean-cut looks, his eyeglasses, and his black hair parted on the side,” Donor 2777 (like Donor 4317) “looks like a modern-day Clark Kent.”
Fairfax is not alone in their effort to link popular cultural symbols with their samples. California Cryobank, for instance, offers a service that specifies the donors’ celebrity “look-alikes.” The description for Donor 13476, for instance, is labeled “Lost in Conversation – Or in His Eyes” and likened (with Google image links) to “Ewan McGregor (young), [and] Joshua Jackson”; and Donor 13385—described as “The Man Behind the Mask” who “even built his own Iron Man costume”—is likened to “James Franco, [and] Orlando Bloom.” The spoof sperm bank Fame Daddy even promised to deliver the sperm of celebrities from aristocrats to soccer players. Yet European Sperm Bank USA explicitly resists celebrity look-alike-donors, arguing that their donors “are not a fantasy to be packaged and sold in California as celebrity clones. … We think that physical features are not the only important criteria to be considered in selecting a donor. Our team really gets to know a donor during the year that he is enrolled in our program. …These are the kind of fine men with proven character who you want to choose to make such an important genetic contribution to your family. You should not choose a donor because a marketing person thinks he can be packaged and sold as a celebrity look-a-like!”
All of the sperm banks include identification of the donor’s “ethnic background” and “ancestry,” and the assessment of those characteristics invokes deeper prejudices than warm feelings for Ewan McGregor and Clark Kent. Fairfax Cryobank’s Donor 4533, for example, is described as Caucasian, his ethnic background is German-Norwegian/Swedish-Norwegian, and he “has the quintessential attractive Nordic appearance. He is tall and lean, and keeps fit through regular exercise and athletic activity. His handsome physical qualities are in keeping with his overall charming demeanor.”
Charlotte Kroløkke’s 2009 study examines how Cryos International positions its Scandinavian donors as “Vikings,” invoking a fascinating albeit stereotypical Viking heritage that gravitates toward a White Scandinavian ideal. The Cryos donor code-named Busk is a Danish archaeology PhD who is described in a staff assessment as “a very tall and strong build guy with broad shoulders and with his blond hair and blue eyes, his physical experience resembles the classical Viking. The Viking mentality, though, seems far gone and is replaced by an intellectual, reflected and sophisticated personality.” Cryos has tempered much of this transparent Viking rhetoric and embraces a multicultural and politically correct sperm shopping process; in various ways, every sperm bank accommodates its consumers’ prejudices by outlining physical, social, and cultural attributes that define a consumer’s idealized child attributes. Genome Resources, for instance, displays a relatively typical banner graphic with an African-American man, White woman, and a baby that implicitly underscores the sperm bank’s political commitment to a breadth of families. Fairfax Cryobank allows consumers to search donors using something it calls “FaceMatch,” a photographic similarity program that “uses the shape of facial features to find a resemblance between the photo you upload and the photos of our donors. FaceMatch uses shapes but not colors.” Most of the sperm banks evade the latent prejudices in such consumption choices and instead frame them as a consumer’s desire for a donor with “similar” physical appearance to the parents themselves.
Sperm banks labor to dodge the xenophobic dimensions of many consumers’ deep-seated prejudice for an “ideal” donor. Sperm banks specify the most detailed physical attributes of donors—wavy hair, eye color, skin tone, height, shoe size–as aesthetics that we assess in much the same way we decide on shoe color. Cynthia R. Daniels and Erin Heidt-Forsythe’s thorough and thoughtful 2012 analysis of sperm bank donors found that in 2006 80.4% of donors then identified to ethnicity were White (as compared to 66.4% of the US male population); only 3.5% of donors were Black, though they account for 12.2% of the male population. Sixty-five percent of donors have a college degree (as compared to 26% of the male population); while 23.8% of American men are obese, only 5.1% of donors are similarly overweight; and donors were more than four times as likely as average men to be over six feet tall.
In 2011 Cryos International stopped accepting donations from redheads, with Cryos director Ole Schou arguing that “Our stock is about to explode. We have just too many on stock in relation to the demand for the time being.” They simultaneously were not accepting more Scandinavian donors unless they had brown eyes, with Schou indicating that “What we need is brown-eyed Scandinavians/Caucasians and Mediterranean donors and other ethnicities and races. … The problem is that we are located in Scandinavia and ‘harvest’ donors here but we supply to more than 65 countries all over the whole world. They don’t always want Scandinavian donors out there.” This is perhaps simply the logical result of “market demand,” and it could be argued that the same choices are part of all courtship, but the sperm banks provide a new level of control over such factors.
Many sperm banks spin compelling stories about their donors that the sperm banks frame as being just as important as mere aesthetics. NW Cryobank, for instance, provides hand-written essays by donors in which content is perhaps not as important as the literal appearance of a donor’s hand-writing that somehow evokes their personality (e.g., see Donor 1263’s essay). Cryos International includes childhood images of many of the donors, such as Abild posing in Superman pajamas (many more services do the same, often for an additional cost). Cryos also offers interviews online, so for those who found Abild’s Superman jammies wonderful they can then hear his actual voice. Such mechanisms tend to defuse the notion that sperm shopping is simply latent xenophobia or a design to produce a superhuman, and it clouds distinctions between genetic and non-genetic attributes.
In 2007 The New York Times’ David Brooks lamented that sperm banks were simply bourgeois genetic engineering: “Shoppers can use these sites and select much better genetic material than would be possessed by someone they could realistically lure into bed. And they can more efficiently engage in the national pastime — rigging our childrens’ lives so they’ll be turbocharged for success.” Indeed, sperm banks provide a potentially uncomfortable measure of the embrace of reproductive technology and the marketplace, but his position risks ignoring that many families would not exist without sperm banks. The thornier challenge is in the union of profiteering with assistive reproductive technologies like sperm donation and egg harvesting.
2007 Selling genes, selling gender: egg agencies, sperm banks, and the medical market in genetic material. American Sociological Review 72(3): 319-340. (subscription access)
2011 Sex Cells: The Medical Market for Eggs and Sperm. University of California Press, Berkeley.
Cynthia R. Daniels and Erin Heidt-Forsythe
2012 Gendered Eugenics and the Problematic of Free Market Reproductive Technologies: Sperm and Egg Donation in the United States. Signs 37(3):719-747. (subscription access)
2009 Click a Donor: Viking masculinity on the line. Journal of Consumer Culture 9(1):7-30. (subscription access)
1998 The birds, the bees… and the sperm banks: How lesbian mothers talk with their children about sex and reproduction. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 68(3): 400-409. (subscription access)
Lisa Jean Moore
2002 Extracting Men from Semen: Masculinity in Scientific Representations of Sperm. Social Text 20(4):91-119. (subscription access)
London Sperm Bank ad image courtesy mpieracci
London Sperm Bank banking crisis ad courtesy Joe Hughes
Sperm Donors Needed ad image courtesy baratunde
When it was unveiled in 2011, the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial on Washington D.C.’s National Mall was widely heralded as a fitting artistic, historical, and national recognition of America’s most prominent civil rights advocate. Like every inch of memorials on the National Mall, the King monument was subjected to a rigorous review process. Martin Luther King Jr. is a historical figure, but his history is fresh in our collective memory; King evokes some of the most fundamental inequalities in American life; and many Americans have invested profound sentiments in their visions of King that no monument could hope to accommodate. Monuments aspire to represent symbols in timeless aesthetic form, so King’s representation in a single material form evoked significant discussion: with King’s installation on the Tidal Basin he became the first Black American situated on the nation’s front porch, ostensibly making a statement about human rights and the color line for the remainder of time.
The most prominent protectors of King’s heritage have been his descendants, who have legal “rights of publicity” to King’s likeness and his words not construed as public performances. MLK’s visage and voice now pitch the likes of McDonald’s, Mercedes-Benz, and Alcatel with the approval of and payment to his estate. King’s most famous words, the “I Have a Dream” address delivered in 1963, have been legally defined as a performance delivered to a limited audience: as such, it is copyrighted by the King Estate and EMI Publishing and available in complete form only when purchased as a DVD.
King has fallen into an ambiguous position between historical figure and commodified brand. King’s estate is not necessarily guilty of hawking a world of Martin Luther King, Jr. knick knacks adorned with his image, but they have often zealously controlled his image and words in a way few other historical figures are guarded. King’s estate aspires to manage his symbolism across a vast range of discourses ranging from hamburger ads to historical scholarship to physical and aesthetic representations of King. In 1999, for instance, the King estate negotiated a tentative agreement with the Library of Congress to sell King’s papers for $20 million (and a $10 million tax deduction) that King’s son indicated was “substantially below market value.” That deal fell apart, though, and in 2006 about 7000 of those items were going to be sold at auction before funds were raised to keep them in Atlanta at Morehouse College.
Planning for the King Memorial began in earnest in 1998, when Congress authorized King’s fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, to form the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Foundation. The Foundation paid roughly $2.7 million to the King children to use his likeness and quotes on the monument, with the estate halting the memorial’s fundraising in 2001 when it required payment for the use of King’s likeness and words. Last week the estate required the foundation to re-name itself “The Memorial Foundation” and drop any reference to King.
The discord over King’s memorialization is not simply aesthetic anxiety about the artistic virtues of a statue; instead, it is apprehension about how such figures in collective memory are given popular meaning and how scholars, artists, and marketers attempt to control and distort those meanings. For most observers, King is fundamentally distinct in his “celebrity” status from Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and Justin Bieber, but he shares an awkward legal ground with them hawking products, dispensing philosophical insights, and producing profit. We live in a moment in which Napoleon and George Washington are peddling men’s underwear; Queen Elizabeth’s image plugs a bank; Jack Kerouac celebrated khaki; Gandhi, Picasso and Edison are among the historical figures selling Apple; and in the most unethical leverage of historical figures Hitler sells tea. Meanwhile, Abe Lincoln is killing vampires, Socrates lends a hand on Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and Doctor Who has met up with Vincent Van Gogh and numerous other historical figures. Nevertheless, that continual erosion of the sacrosanct historical figure has rarely threatened to include Martin Luther King, Jr., who has yet to travel through time, find his way into fan fiction, or be plastered across a vast range of goods (at least legally).
The Root’s Jack White soberly acknowledged that the King estate may deserve to profit from King’s words and image just as much as Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, or Michael Jackson’s families. However, White underscores that social justice, faith, and philosophical uplift cannot be priced and exist somehow outside the marketplace. Still, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between, on the one hand, an artist peddling creative skills, a craftsperson selling their wares, or a multinational selling mass-produced foods, and, on the other hand, public scholars, intellectuals, and activists pressing for social justice. Many contemporary political voices are indeed musicians, artists, and actors and actresses, a pedigree that includes Ronald Reagan, Angelina Jolie, Jon Voight, Chuck Norris, and Bono, so the lines between social activism, partisan politics, popular culture, and commodification is increasingly ambiguous.
Simply representing Martin Luther King’s consequence in American society in a material form is itself complicated enough—that is, how can King’s social and philosophical importance be rendered in a massive memorial landscape without reducing it to caricature? Many communities have invoked King as a symbol of civil rights and African-American heritage through street naming. Derek Alderman’s 2006 study of MLK street naming found that by 2003 more than 730 American towns had some street named after Martin Luther King, Jr. (overwhelmingly in the South). In 2002 Alderman also examined the politics of naming in a study of the 110 schools named after King.
Other communities have commissioned statuary that places the nearly universally recognizable face of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the landscape. King statues or memorials include the Martin Luther King Memorial in Buffalo (1977); the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Seattle (1991); the Yerba Buena Gardens Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in San Francisco (1993); the Landmark for Peace Memorial in Indianapolis, Indiana (1994); Omaha Nebraska; Charlotte, North Carolina; Roanoke, Virginia; Sherman, Texas (1987); Santa Clara, California; Fort Wayne, Indiana (2011); the University of North Florida campus in Jacksonville, Florida (2012); Oakland, California; and Racine, Wisconsin (1995) (compare the Smithsonian Inventory or waymarking.com for more examples). Some of these have sparked local tensions, such as a King statue in Rocky Mount, North Carolina that was removed in 2005 because African Americans deemed it “arrogant” and it had been made by a White artist (two years later it was returned to public space). King’s face and physical form are a powerful symbol, but they are a remarkably complex symbol.
King is part of what Erika Doss refers to as “memorial mania,” a move towards publicly memorializing much of our heritage, a mania that is driven by anxiety over what we should collectively remember. King’s statuary presence in increasingly more communities may reflect a widespread anxiety about racism and an effort to symbolically resolve racist heritage in many places; however, the widespread invocation of King may also be a clumsy invocation of King’s own philosophy and heritage that displays his form—the literal sign representing King—as it is evoking King’s activism for racial justice.
As with many other King monuments, the Washington memorial has received a significant amount of aesthetic commentary revolving around over how a statue represents such a complex figure. For instance, The Atlantic’s Michael Crosbie criticized the memorial, in part because its entrance through a “mountain” passageway is an “obtuse” reference to the quote “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope,” which is borrowed from the “I Have a Dream Speech.” The entrance leads visitors to a monumental stone statue of a stern King with what what Atlantic Cities referred to as an “almost constipated facial expression.” The King statue sits removed from the mountain, and Crosbie suggests that few visitors comprehend that symbolic allusion, arguing that “when you first see this carved mountain it might remind you of a ride at Disneyland, or a miniature Mount Rushmore.”
The Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott likewise suggested that the memorial was “stuck uncomfortably between the conceptual and literal”: that is, the memorial weaves a compelling rhetorical allusion to hope being extracted from despair, but Kennicott also is skeptical that visitors can capture the complex allusions, or perhaps that the statue itself cannot provide them in intelligible form. In the physical reality of moving around the memorial landscape, Kennicott suggests that visitors find that “it turns out to be a rather tricky thing to base architectural design on rhetorical tropes. Especially King’s rhetoric. The master orator was remarkably inventive in his metaphors and eclectic in his sources.” The New York Times’ Edward Rothstein simply dubbed the memorial “a failure” based largely on its overdone “grandiosity.”
Aesthetics are inevitably hard-pressed to satisfy every audience, and translating the complex philosophical sentiments and oratory of King to a material form is certainly challenging. Michael Crosbie’s most interesting lament is that the “stone of hope” quote replaced the original plan for the quote “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Crosbie suggests the latter quote linked Jefferson, the Civil Rights movement, and Lincoln and Emancipation, who sit in proximity alongside each other, but the King Memorial in its present form risks being a memorial to King, not to the civil rights movement, the centrality of race in American life, or African-American heritage.
For all the complaints, though, the memorial has a constant stream of visitors who do not seem especially unsettled by the aesthetic conventions used to represent King. For many of those visitors, the King estate’s effort to control his symbolism likely passes without much notice, and they may be most invested in King simply getting a foothold on the National Mall. In that role, King may have become the public symbol of African America, and the stream of visitors to the new Washington memorial may interpret King and his broader philosophical entreaties for racial justice in many ways the estate and a King statue cannot control. Perhaps any symbol can be reduced to a commodity, including Martin Luther King, Jr.; maybe the estate has risked reducing one of the 20th century’s most prominent thinkers to a romanticized symbol; and possibly the complexity of King’s rhetoric escapes many of us and is not especially amenable to even the most fluid piece of granite. But King has become part of popular discourse, some with profound consequence that confronts racism and inequality and some that may risk reducing King’s activism to simplistic forms. In either form, it is unlikely that the King’s estate’s best efforts to manage that symbolism are ever going to completely control how we see Martin Luther King, Jr.
Derek H. Alderman
2002 School Names as Cultural Arenas: The Naming of US Public Schools after Martin Luther King, Jr. Urban Geography 23(7): 601-626.
2006 Naming Streets for Martin Luther King, Jr.: No Easy Road. In Landscape and Race in the United States, ed. Richard H, Schein, pp.213-36. Routledge, New York.
Derek H. Alderman and Owen J. Dwyer
2004 Putting Memory in its Place: The Politics of Commemoration in the American South. WorldMinds: Geographical Perspectives on 100 Problems, eds D.G. Janelle et al, pp.55-60. Kluwer, New York.
2010 Slavery and Its Memory in Public Monuments. American Art 24(1): 20-23.
Guillermo G. Caliendo
2011 MLK Boulevard Material Forms of Memory and the Social Contestation of Racial Signification. Journal of Black Studies 42(7):1148-1170.
2012 Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Bernard K. Duffy and Richard D. Besel.
2010 Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” and the Politics of Cultural Memory: An Apostil. ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews 23(3):184-191.
Owen J. Dwyer
2000 Focus Section: Women in Geography in the 21st Century: Interpreting the Civil Rights Movement: Place, Memory, and Conflict. The Professional Geographer 52(4):660-671.
Victoria J. Gallagher
1995 Remembering Together: Rhetorical integration and the case of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. The Southern Communications Journal 60(2):109-119. (subscription access)
2006 Deconstructing Racism One Statue at a Time: Visual Culture Wars at Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Austin. Visual Arts Research 32(2): 28-31. (subscription access)
King Memorial image courtesy cooper.gary
From the mountain of despair image courtesy victor408
View into MLK Memorial image courtesy ctankcycles
King Memorial tourists image courtesy ehpien
Birmingham MLK statue image courtesy jimmywayne
Seattle King Memorial image courtesy Chas Redmond
Indianapolis Landmark for Peace image courtesy WikiProject Public Art
Popular culture has been graced by Vikings, cowboys, Roman legions, and gangsters for well over a century, but the historical serial has apparently found a fresh audience on cable television. The newly popular historical drama features captivating historical narratives, dramatic past personalities, lyrical dialogue and plots, and beautiful scenery personified by the likes of Rome, The Tudors, Deadwood, The Borgias, Spartacus, Boardwalk Empire, and, most recently, Vikings. This new wave of programs weaves a fascinating, if unsettling story about society past and present: In the midst of seemingly timeless moral and ethical quandaries, society seems persistently materialistic, violent, and carnal, but paradoxically beautiful and compelling.
The most recent entry into the surprisingly cluttered historical series landscape is Vikings. The first filming of the Norsemen’s story was apparently 1928’s The Viking, a full-color silent movie replete with pillaging, the beautiful love interest Pauline Starke, and Leif Ericson’s conversion to Christianity. Kirk Douglas’ 1958 The Vikings told the story of Ragnar Lodbrok’s murder of the King of Northumbria during a raid, leaving his widow pregnant with Ragnar’s son, who is eventually spirited away by the Vikings only to be pitted against his half-brother.
Portrayed by Ernest Borgnine in 1958, the role of Ragnar is now former Calvin Klein underwear model Travis Fimmel. This new Ragnar was one of People magazine’s sexiest bachelors of 2002 and began his acting career playing Tarzan in 2003. Vikings shares with most of these shows a fascination with such a stylish past punctuated by fabulous wardrobes, alluring settings, costly graphics, and beautiful people prone to persistent nudity. At some level the genre’s visual beauty invested in sumptuous wardrobes, picturesque settings, and the casts’ bodies is a distraction from the historical details of events that unfolded in vastly more prosaic forms and without the resolute dynamics painted in most of the plot lines. Historical narratives have always been a staple of popular fiction, the silver screen, and television, routinely reminding society of timeless human attributes and challenges while obliquely and sometimes clumsily commenting on contemporary social life. The genre features many real historical figures, and like the overdone material landscape of the genre most of the familiar historical personages are painted as morally polarized characters who are self–interested (Deadwood’s Al Swearengen), hyper-violent (Spartacus’ gore is cartoonish), nearly always gorgeous (The Tudors’ Jonathan Rhys Meyers fails to scratch the surface of Henry VIII’s obesity), and eagerly carnal (Rome). These characters are hyperbolized versions of ourselves projected onto the already-monumental likes of Julius Caesar, the rebel leader Spartacus, and Henry VIII, oddly appealing for their mastery of the dark and extreme dimensions of human nature.
We know relatively little about some of these figures, and much of the dramatic detail of their lives and societies are submerged in dense historical documents or simply inaccessible altogether. The shows toe an ambiguous line between historical narrative and liberal reinterpretation projecting scholarship onto a breadth of popular media, with the History Channel acknowledging that the Viking age is “a topic that has always resonated with our viewers through our historical documentaries. Hopefully it’s very appealing to a core young male audience — I think there are some parallels to some of the video games that are being played today by young men.” Indeed, the basic formula for Vikings is not all that different from Game of Thrones: Game of Thrones is a fantasy historical serial that shares the splashy visuals, captivating plot lines, and brutality and sexuality that appear to have characterized the Roman world, the American West, and English courts over two millennia.
That complicated interchange between popular culture and scholarship has long made many scholars wary of such shows, and the marriage between historical accuracy and dramatic effect is inevitably complicated. Deadwood creator David Milch noted in 2005 that “I’ve had my ass bored off by many things that are historically accurate. … this is not a piece of nonfiction.” The genre does indeed distort real historical facts for shows’ own dramatic interests and ideologically distorted purposes, but Monty Dobson made the case for Vikings that “I get that it’s fiction. It is not a conference paper or journal article and let’s face it, if it were no one would watch. … Dramatizations like Vikings can spark people’s curiosity and move them to learn more about the subject. We just have to be willing to embrace their curiosity. As archaeologists and historians, we have the best stories in the history of humanity at our fingertips, and yet we are too often unwilling to share them, and can be terrible storytellers.”
Sometimes such representations are charged with deeper ideological distortions. In 1960, for instance, a group of classical scholars protested the film Spartacus, arguing that “the manufacturers have crammed enough sadism, violence, bloodshed, and sex to keep their adolescent audiences tittering happily. … The political bias underlying left-wing author Howard Fast’s Spartacus–a shallow, rather silly and thoroughly uninformed piece of parlor pink propaganda–has been faithfully reproduced in left-winger Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay. Spartacus, the perennial hero of international Communism, leads the exploited proletariat in which all virtues are vested, while a jaded, decadent, and `fascist’ bourgeoisie is riddled with all the vices.” Lars Walker sounded a similar note on the unacknowledged politics of historical programming when he criticized Vikings’ portrayal of autocratic Viking rule in a society Walker argues was quite democratic. Walker argued that “this is not in any way an accurate depiction of the political system of the Vikings. Rather, it’s an expression of the tropes to which lazy contemporary scriptwriters are prone. Every story has to be about some dynamic young person (who wants freedom) in conflict with a hidebound old conservative, who lives by oppression.” This may not be quite the profound ideological contest Walker divines, but he is correct that there is something emotionally satisfying albeit contrived about the tension between the young “Viking warrior and farmer who yearns to explore—and raid—the distant shores across the ocean” and the authoritarian “local chieftain … who insists on sending his raiders to the impoverished east rather than the uncharted west.”
All of these shows have some consultant historian(s), but the referents for the genre are often ambiguous and scattered historical facts projected onto earlier popular cultural referents and the random creative instincts of producers, writers, and designers on the shows. The Vikings’ costume designer, for example, conducted preliminary research “mainly at Scandinavian museums, which are exemplary in the way they show all the great findings, and although a lot of the fabrics have rotted, there are a lot of artifacts and jewelry. … I built up a very general picture of how they looked, but I discovered that perhaps there wasn’t enough there to sustain visual interest for nine episodes. I had to take a leap of faith. Overall, I think you just try to be as true and as original as you can and take some liberties to make it interesting.” Entertainment Weekly concluded that “Male or female, the clothes say a lot about the Viking,” with the costume designer noting that “`If you were a Viking, you murdered people who were your enemies for the greater good of something else. Paganism … is a culture, it’s a different way of looking at the world, and I think that even in a little way I managed to convey that through the clothes. That would be my slogan for the T-shirt: These people were different.’”
Actually the slogan might instead be that these people are the same as us: the Romans, Tudors, Vikings, and cowboys populating historical serials are compelling but predictable personalities that ultimately distill much of our own society into its most caricatured representations. The act of interpreting these experiences and characters—literally making movies and television series, or writing historical novels consciously framed as distinct from us–may be what actually makes them seem alien; we ultimately see ourselves in these narratives even as we are distanced from the unsettling violence and mutable moralities such shows paint.
The lush beauty of these shows and their skill compressing complex events into rapidly paced narratives allows us to experience their fundamental brutality, selfishness, and violence as entertainment detached from our society. As accurate history they are of course not especially useful mechanisms; the mining of visual mechanisms and rhetorical plots from earlier films, shows, and novels imitates that which was a shallow construction in the first place; and the moral and political messages of these shows are often rather shallow. Yet as compelling stories they are still consequential as confirmation of pasts that persistently tug on contemporary imagination.
References (both subscription access only)
John Mack Faragher
2007 HBO’s “Deadwood”: Not Your Typical Western. Montana: The Magazine of Western History 57(3):60-65, 96
Harry C. Schnur, Harry L. Levy, Paul MacKendrick, Agnes K. L. Michels, James A. Notopoulos and William H. Stahl
1960 In the Entertainment World: Spartacus. The Classical World 54(3):103-104.
The Italian photographer Gabriele Galimberti is an anthropologist of sorts, capturing and comparing individual people in relatively universal moments—Coffee Surfing: In Search of Sips of Happiness features people drinking a cup of coffee; Delicatessen with Love tells the story of grandmothers and their favorite dishes; and CouchSurfing documents a year Galimberti spent on strangers’ couches throughout the world. The projects are visual narratives that compare people across all social stations and lines of geographical and cultural difference, invoking common humanity around mostly universal acts like eating, sleeping, and parenting.
His series Toy Stories cleverly weaves material things into this narrative and visual mechanics. Galimberti took pictures of children with their favorite toys, straightforward images of children with a few toys in their own spaces. Most of the toys are quite familiar, and the rooms might be in nearly any place, so the project paints a picture of considerable commonalities. The narrative in this and many of Galimberti’s other projects tends to revolve around leveling distinctions and difference: plastic dinosaurs, for instance, patrol the distant reaches of Malta, Malawi, and Texas; Barbie reigns over bedrooms in Haiti, the Philippines, and Albania; Lego is found in Alaska and South Africa alike; and fabulous cars are part of the landscape in Iceland, Latvia, and Thailand.
It is difficult to instantly look at any of Galimberti’s images and know the child’s class standing or where they live, and of course that is one of the project’s most interesting implications: all of the dimensions of identity that we take for granted as being marked by our things and our bodies are not especially clear if plausible when we ponder an image of a kid and their toys. Some places are distinctive—the sub-bathed path of Maudy’s home in Zambia, or the well-appointed bedroom of Tyra in Sweden—but they are difficult to reduce to facile class and nationalist caricatures. The goods that fill these global toy boxes are not surprisingly highly standardized, so the project does not ignore that children—and the parents buying their toys–are increasingly socialized in a universal marketplace. Some toy assemblages and spaces in the project seem stylish, fresh, and perhaps even costly, while others have the patina of extensive play and inhabit spare spaces. Yet Galimberti argues that in general the images reflect that children are universally much the same and simply “want to play.”
The intimacy of Galimberti’s images, the hint of children’s proud innocent possession, and the implication that such modest toys are more than mere commodities in the hands of a child makes for a compelling visual study of material things. The project ends up being a measured yet complicated critique of global consumption. On the one hand, the multitude of Barbie’s and the Barbie-pink bedroom of Julia in Albania underscores the utterly total reach of the marketplace into every child and parent’s life. On the other hand, though, it is hard to reduce these children simply to automatons, because the images give them grace, happiness, and naivety that seems truly universal and seems unlikely to be vanquished simply by mass-produced plastics. The project delivers a thoughtful anthropological moment of self-reflection by making us contemplate how we see ourselves and others mirrored in such otherwise mundane things.