Domesticating Dissent: Consuming Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash at San Quentin in 1967, with Carl Perkins right (image from Field Trip South).

Johnny Cash at San Quentin in 1969, with Carl Perkins right (image from Field Trip South).

In 1957 Johnny Cash played a concert at Huntsville State Prison in Texas, the first of Cash’s roughly 30 prison concerts that railed on the American penal system and cemented Cash’s populist politics.  Two these concerts were committed to vinyl: Live at Folsom Prison was released in 1968 and At San Quentin a year later, and the set lists are a masterful musical confluence of messages of religious redemption, the challenges of love, and the sobering realities of prison life.  Cash cultivated a rebellious image that has expanded since his death, but he never spent more than a night in jail (all for misdemeanors); nevertheless, he is now painted as a hard-living, stylish, and thoughtful renegade expressing resistance to inequalities and repressive social values.

Jim Marshall's picture of Cash at San Quentin (image from NME)

Jim Marshall’s picture of Cash at San Quentin (image from NME)

Cash secured pop culture stardom by the time of his death in 2003, and since his death Cash has become a compelling mass-consumed symbol.  One of the most famous images of Cash was taken at the San Quentin concert, when photographer Jim Marshall requested “a shot for the warden” and Cash gave him the finger.  The image has been endlessly reproduced, including ads run by Cash’s label in 1998, tattoos, smartphone cases, posters, stickers, and numerous t-shirts. Read the rest of this entry

The Final Choice: The Materiality of Last Meals

In 2012 Gary Carl Simmons sat down for an enormous meal including a Pizza Hut Super Supreme Deep Dish pizza; 10 8-oz. packs of Parmesan cheese; 10 8-oz. packs of ranch dressing; one family size bag of Doritos; 2 large strawberry shakes; two cherry Cokes; one super-size order of McDonald’s fries; and two pints of strawberry ice cream.  By about 4:45 one observer reported that he had eaten roughly half of the nearly 30,000-calorie feast before he was marched off to the Mississippi death chamber.  At 6:16 that evening he was declared dead after he was executed by lethal injection for a grisly 1996 murder.

Henry Hargreaves' interpretation of John Wayne Gacy's last meal (image from )

Henry Hargreaves’ interpretation of John Wayne Gacy’s last meal (image from New Zealand Herald)

The last meal has become a standard ritual in the contemporary execution, an oddly fascinating public episode in the final moments before society passes its ultimate judgment on one of our own.  Today the ritual of a final meal and the last words of the condemned are the only particularly public dimensions of a death sentence.  Last meals seem to provide us a final idiosyncratic insight into the mind of the irredeemable; they provide exceptional clarity for the notion of “comfort food”; and the ritual itself may rationalize capital punishment or even humanize the ultimate sentence.  The final meal is symbolically fascinating because it balances a fine line between, on the one hand, human compassion and fascination for irredeemable citizens, and, on the other hand, a vengeful mob instinct that bourgeois execution ideology hopes to deny. Read the rest of this entry

American Apparel and the Politics of “Natural Beauty”

The unshorn mannequins in Soho's American Apparel window (image from American Apparel NYC).

The unshorn mannequins in Soho’s American Apparel window (image from American Apparel NYC).

This week an American Apparel store in New York secured a flurry of attention after it installed female mannequins whose sheer lingerie reveal dense pubic hair.  The Valentine’s Day window display in the American Apparel Soho store includes three mannequins in sheer white underwear exposing netherhair and nipples.  The international media attention has focused on American Apparel’s calculated history of “shock” advertising, and delicate sensibilities may stop at this point and choose not to survey the range of the corporation’s provocative advertising, much of which is not-safe-for-work.  American Apparel has been predictably superficial in its defense of the mannequins as symbols of “natural beauty” that confirm the “rawness and realness of sexuality.”  In the hands of American Apparel the unshorn mannequins are marketing mechanisms that are, at best, an ironic illumination of ideological beauty standards.  American Apparel’s mannequins underscore our social uneasiness with deviations from unexpressed feminine beauty ideals; they certainly emphasize how complicated it is to address such deep-seated ideologies in consumer space and in the hands of corporations like American Apparel.

An ad for American Apparel's transgendered and transsexual model search.

An ad for American Apparel’s transgendered and transsexual model search.

American Apparel fancies its mannequins are statements of a novel notion of uncontrived, “natural” beauty.  In a press release last week the company indicated that “American Apparel is a company that celebrates natural beauty, and the Lower East Side Valentine’s Day window continues that celebration.  We created it to invite passerbys to explore the idea of what is ‘sexy’ and consider their comfort with the natural female form.”  American Apparel’s defense of the “natural female form” is a strategically uplifting celebration of “real life” bodies, and perhaps it inches away from the notion of beauty materialized in super model aesthetics.  For instance, last year the firm ran ads with a transgendered model and was crafting campaigns with more transgendered and transsexual models.  The corporation has likewise long argued that it refutes the clothing industry’s ideological notion of beauty, suggesting last week that the hirsute mannequins reflected the philosophy of “our advertisements which avoid many of the photoshopped and airbrushed standards of the fashion industry.” Read the rest of this entry

Roadside Desperation and the Aesthetics of Panhandling

A roadside panhandler in the midst of winter (image from J. Ronald Lee).

A roadside panhandler in the midst of winter (image from J. Ronald Lee).

In the past decade a host of panhandlers have stationed themselves along American roadsides, off-ramps and street corners appealing to drivers for support.  Panhandling has resided at the fringes of urban consciousness for centuries, and now the desperation of the unemployed, homeless, and impoverished is a commonplace fixture along American roadsides.  Stationed along busy thoroughfares, patrolling the medians, and standing vigil on expressway ramps, roadside panhandling sounds some age-old challenges of poverty even as it adds the new wrinkle of taking aim on the unquestioned sanctity of car culture.

California streetside panhandler (image from ).

California streetside panhandler (image from joshuaseye).

Personal ill fortune is a familiar display in the fashion, bodies, and handmade signs dotting early 21st century streetsides, and some communities aspire to render that desperation publicly invisible.  The presence of impoverishment and panhandlers in public space has long vexed ideologues: Some urban centers have tried to abolish “aggressive” panhandling (spearheaded by a 1987 Seattle ordinance, and now followed by over 100 cities including Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Evanston, Illinois, and San Antonio), and a few communities have tried to expressly outlaw or manage roadside solicitation (e.g., Ocala, Florida, Montgomery County, Maryland, Durham, North Carolina).  Much of this apprehension responds to no especially concrete threat, even though most communities cite ambiguous worries about danger to pedestrians.  Instead, the effort to legislatively control roadside solicitation reflects that uncomfortable class and privilege anxieties are fueled by the visibility of our most desperate neighbors. Read the rest of this entry

The Time Capsule Effect: Pristine Abandonment and the Ideal Ruin

Stepping into the 1960s shoe store "time capsule" (image from tadaw).

Stepping into the 1960s shoe store “time capsule” (image from tadaw).

Sometime in the late-1960s the proprietors of a modest shoe store closed its doors, leaving the stock neatly stacked along its walls.  It remained there apparently untouched until a year ago, when a descendant opened the doors to find a mountain of shoe boxes and footwear and a typical small business seemingly as it had been left the day it was shuttered.  Shoe collectors’ hearts leapt at the prospect of the magical specter of “old store stock” in its original packaging transformed to the status of “vintage.”  The implied riches of the assemblage on ebay have captured much of the popular curiosity with the little store, but the more fascinating story is the “time capsule” effect of the assemblage and similar “pristine” abandonment spaces, not simply the allure of a pair of vintage wingtips.

Shoe boxes line the walls of the preserved shoe store (image tadaw).

Shoe boxes line the walls of the preserved shoe store (image tadaw).

Ruins are material and aesthetic vehicles for the imagination, sometimes simply for a “lost time” and in other hands as moral statements about the collapse of cities, industry, or communities.  The undisturbed shoe store is an example of perhaps the most compelling of all abandoned sites: the “time capsule” left as it “really was” in an un-staged moment arresting the flow of a distant material life.  The archetype for the time capsule site is Pripyat, the nuclear city rapidly abandoned in April, 1986 after the Chernobyl disaster.  Tours now venture to Pripyat to walk amidst the detritus of everyday life and the specter of disaster apparently arrested in time. Read the rest of this entry

Branding Urban Decline: Style and the Imagined City at Urban Outfitters

Repaired denim overalls from the Urban Renewal line (image Urban Outfitters).

Repaired denim overalls from the Urban Renewal line (image Urban Outfitters).

Observers who doubt marketers’ capacity to package nearly any concept may be impressed by the ambition of Urban Outfitters’ “Urban Renewal” line.  Urban Outfitters aspires to make the notion of urban renewal a desirable style that signifies a “totally one-of-a-kind” vintage aesthetic disconnected from urban displacement and decline.  The branding is perhaps an irreverent or innocent play on Urban Renewal’s symbolic link to urban youth culture, invoking “streetstyle” in the strained ironic juxtaposition of “new one-of-a-kind vintage.”  Yet Urban Outfitters is a carefully constructed “lifestyle” brand consciously selling a caricature of urban decline to a youth demographic that their CEO described in 2012 as “the upscale homeless person” with “a slight degree of angst.”  Urban Outfitters aspires to evoke the authenticity of urbanity by linking urban decline and displacement to a style embodied in its “vintage condition” wear.

The aesthetics of youth angst as imagined by Urban Outfitters (image Urban Outfitters).

The aesthetics of youth angst as imagined by Urban Outfitters (image Urban Outfitters).

Urban Outfitters has a reputation for appealing to hipster chic, catering to the consumer who is indifferent to being labeled a hipster.  Most consumers accused of being hipsters are raiding thrift stores and flea markets, constructing makeshift assemblages of mixed styles and old things and typically skirting the charge of being labeled “hipster,” but the Urban Renewal line promises genuine vintage (or a persuasive reformulation of it) without descending into the flea market.  Nevertheless, because the vintage shopping experience occurs in “real” places outside consumer space, the Urban Renewal line often refers to its garments’ spatial or social roots.  Urban Outfitters’ British web site, for instance, invokes the garments’ ambiguous American origins by touting the Urban Renewal line as a “vintage destination” that offers everything from “one-off finds in LA warehouses to awesome pieces from the world’s most obscure flea markets.”  The Urban Renewal line’s “vintage mechanic shirts” do not come from a specific place, but they secure some origins by implying class roots that evoke their salvage from proletarian closets.  The Urban Renewal garment descriptions on its American web page routinely herald their “handcrafted” production in Philadelphia, where the chain was established near the University of Pennsylvania campus in 1970.  Ironically, the neighborhood was transformed by genuine urban renewal that a University archival exhibit refers to as “a lasting public relations disaster” addressed by the 1990’s introduction of local retailing that included Urban Outfitters. Read the rest of this entry

Race and Global Subcultures: Materiality, Style, and Metal Fans in Botswana

A Botswana metal fan performs (image Frank Marshall)

A Botswana metal fan performs (image Frank Marshall)

Some observers suggest that mass culture has homogenized once-clear lines of difference, with the marketplace reducing difference to a rich range of pre-manufactured “resistant” styles.  Yet South African photographer Frank Marshall’s work on metal subcultures in Botswana provides an exceptionally compelling statement on the aesthetics of race, empire, and mass culture.  Marshall’s images of African metal fans illuminate the question of precisely what constitutes difference in a 21st-century consumer culture:  a stock of universal commodities and popular symbols circulate through a global marketplace, somewhat counter-intuitively producing social formations like the utterly multicultural and international metal subculture that includes Botswana’s metal fans. Read the rest of this entry

Ruins and Race in a World War II Ghost Town

A water tower still rises above the vacant Elko tract (image Ben Swenson).

A water tower still rises above the vacant Elko tract (image Ben Swenson).

Perhaps the most distinctive ruins of the Cold War lie east of Richmond, Virginia.  In 1943 a decoy airfield was constructed by the 1896th Engineer Aviation Battalion to confuse potential aerial attacks on the US Army Air Corps based at nearby Byrd Field in Henrico County.  The battalion constructed a series of artificial structures and a fake runway arranged much like that at Byrd Field.  Yet a compelling if somewhat more complicated story is provided by the tract’s post-war history and its interpretation in the subsequent half-century.

In February, 1947 the state bid to purchase the decoy airport tract in Elko from the War Assets Administration with the intention to build an African-American mental hospital.  A streetscape, drainage, fire hydrants, and a water tower were erected, yet by June 1954 the Richmond paper had reported that “$500,000 of utilities are rusting at Elko.”  In October 1955 the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star reported that the state was beginning training of “the grounds and buildings department of the proposed Negro training school and hospital at Elko near Richmond,” but in February, 1957 the Governor approved a switch of the hospital’s site from Elko to Petersburg.  The unfinished ghost landscape left behind remains an overgrown empty grid today attesting to measures of arrogance, racism, and distorted historical memory that distinguish Cold War America. Read the rest of this entry

Saving Doctor Who: Transience, Canon, and the Missing Episodes

A 16 MM film canister from "The Evil of the Daleks" (image from wikimedia).

A 16 MM film canister from “The Evil of the Daleks” (image from wikimedia).

Geekdom has spent much of this year celebrating the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, which is one of the most prominent and long-lasting of all popular cultural fandoms.  The impending regeneration of the 11th Doctor at year’s end and the November showing of Who’s 50th anniversary show have lent some elevated excitement to Who followers.  Yet perhaps the most interesting development in Who fandom is the search for lost Doctor Who programs destroyed in the 1960s and 1970s.  Television shows like Doctor Who were once destroyed as a standard practice, and the lost episodes have since become Who grail.

In an otherwise transient popular culture, Who fans hope to recover and breathe new complexity into an oeuvre that is already exceptionally complex.  For various fans, the missing episodes may harbor some new insights into one of television’s most deconstructed series; for many the search itself and the scholarship on the lost episodes is a central dimension of Who’s committed fandom.  The corporations seeking out the same episodes are eager to sustain fan interest in the missing programs (BBC had a “Treasure Hunt” program seeking lost shows), but corporate interests revolve around the profits such shows may harbor in a renewed lease on life as DVD’s and iTunes downloads.  That question of what is meaningful is actually quite similar to the skepticism often directed at scholarship (including archaeology) that seeks out, preserves, and celebrates apparently mundane everyday life. Read the rest of this entry

Archaeological Blogging: Beyond Stones-and-Bones and Pseudo-Knowledge

blogging-archaeology-e1383664863497Last week the House Science, Space and Technology Committee convened to debate the existence of alien life.  This is perhaps a compelling scientific question (formally the hearing was titled “Astrobiology: Search for Biosignatures in our Solar System and Beyond?”).  Nevertheless, the committee’s current membership has normally been reluctant to acknowledge any rigorous scientific insight that might upset their narrow personal visions of the world.

The subject of this month’s Blogging Carnival is the good and the bad of archaeological blogging, and they may both revolve around how blogs represent archaeology as a rigorous and creative science.  On the one hand, a popular digital discourse can produce a richer, more compelling, and still-rigorous archaeological scholarship that can shape and interrogate concrete policy-making.  On the other hand, the blogosphere admits some observers who are dismissive of scholarly rigor and eager to champion a shallow populist notion of science. Read the rest of this entry


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