Last weekend a Confederate battle flag rose alongside Interstate-95 in Chester, Virginia. Chester is just south of Richmond, which is surrounded by Civil War landmarks including more than 30 preserved battlefields (e.g., New Market Heights and Chimborazo Hospital), the White House of the Confederacy, and the phalanx of Confederate heroes memorialized on Monument Avenue. Planted by the Virginia Flaggers, the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia provides travelers a passing glimpse of America’s reduction of the Civil War to theater.
It was optimistic if not disingenuous for Free North Carolina to suggest that “The flag will serve to welcome visitors and commuters to Richmond, and remind them of our honorable Confederate history and heritage.” The Virginia Flaggers repeated similar stale platitudes when it reduced the Chester flag to an homage to Confederate heritage, arguing that “Our battles are all defensive…in defense of the honor and good name of our ancestors, and against actions taken to dishonor them and desecrate their monuments and memorials.”
On the one hand, the problem is not with the flag itself: the Confederate flag could be an enormously productive symbol to discuss one of the nation’s most complicated historical moments. On the other hand, it is naïve to suggest that reducing Confederate heritage to this symbol—and a clumsy theatrical event along I-95—can illuminate the war’s historical and moral contradictions. Rather than honor the many people who fought and died for the lost cause, flag-waving performances hazard reducing historiography to mere emotional provocation.
Ultimately the Chester flag is barely even visible from the interstate, but the public theater may have become more consequential (and self-defeating) than the flag display itself. After first decrying the placement of a flag in plain view of countless travelers in his wonderful Dead Confederates blog, Andy Hall conceded that the semi-secluded location made it a much less divisive symbol (see images of the flag in the Richmond Times-Dispatch). By then, though, the flag’s installation had been reduced to media theatre that reduced heritage to shallow talking points about honor and enslavement. Read the rest of this entry
This week in the midst of a government shutdown Eric Cantor and Lamar Smith took a stand in USA Today against archaeology and a swath of ambiguously defined “science programs.” Cantor and Smith argue that the nation should significantly restrict federally supported science projects (especially social sciences), and in a moment of economic hardship such fiscal discipline sounds attractive. However, their superficially reasonable fiscal sobriety masks a deep-seated aversion to critical scholarship and the academy, caricaturing archaeological research and taking aim on all social sciences in the process.
Cantor and Smith’s deceptive assault on National Science Foundation funding singles out disciplines like archaeology that they reduce to luxuries and recreational pastimes. Berkeley Professor Rosemary Joyce provided a measured defense of projects that Cantor and Smith suggest should not be counted among our national priorities. Joyce very thoughtfully acknowledges that “misleading storyline offered in this opinion piece begins with the suggestion that the tiny amount of the Federal research budget dedicated to the scientific exploration of the past is blocking research on urgently needed medical innovations” (compare responses from James Doyle and Adam Smith).
Of course the oddly timed attack from the Hill has little to do with funding priorities and limited funds. Instead, it has much more to do with Cantor and Smith’s anxiety about the culture of scholarship. Cantor and Smith’s opinion piece is transparent rhetoric that grossly misrepresents the academy and caricatures a few archaeological research projects to serve their bolder misrepresentations of scholarship and the academy.
It probably serves little purpose to defend the series of grants singled out by Cantor and Smith, since it leaves their fundamental rejection of social science funding unchallenged. Instead it is more productive to shift the discussion and ask precisely what archaeology is doing well, and for Cantor and Smith we may need to simply articulate what archaeology does at all. Surprisingly, archaeologists are not always especially articulate advocates for the cause, unable to rationalize our discipline beyond advocating for the virtues of knowledge about self, society, and heritage. Those are not bad answers as much as they sound self-serving to an outsider who may have accepted the caricatures of academics as spoiled elitists; that is, we risk appearing unsympathetic to the material realities of our neighbors’ experiences if we simply defend abstract knowledge and archaeological employment. Read the rest of this entry
Last week The Grio examined the impact of the color line on contemporary cycling, a discussion that reaches back to cycling’s primal 19th-century moments. On the one hand, there is an enormous amount of evidence confirming that American cyclists have always included people of color, and a 2013 study on cycling and diversity confirms that cycling’s demographics reach well beyond the caricature of lycra-clad White bourgeois. The Grio’s article covered familiar ground, and it could well describe nearly any collective of riders attracted to cycling for its health effects, competition, and sociality.
On the other hand, though, myriad cycling clubs, national advocacy groups, and the elite levels of American cycling underscore the way the color line persistently shapes the mundane realities of bike riding. The discussion of race and cycling reveals deep-seated anxieties about diversity in cycling circles, and it reaches from the elite levels of the sport to grassroots recreational riders. The discourse on color and cycling is not at all unique; instead, it is symptomatic of everyday racial divides reaching from sport to houses of worship that Americans have historically ignored or avoided. Read the rest of this entry
Numerous movies and TV shows have cities as their backdrop, but the most compelling urban narratives feature the city as a sort of character unto itself. Few cities are more fascinating stages than London, which is awash with iconic landmarks—Big Ben (i.e., the Elizabeth Tower) is an instantly recognizable backdrop for the city if not the UK; Tower Bridge is a commonplace framing shot for London; and double decker buses and black cabs have become aesthetic code for cinematic London. However, BBC’s dystopian crime drama Luther paints London as a distinctively dirty and dark city, avoiding most of the exhausted symbols of the UK capital and instead imagining London as a grey, eroding, and grimy place.
The very first episode of Luther opens in the abandoned KTR Medico warehouse, which the script defines as “A DECAYED, POST-INDUSTRIAL STRUCTURE. Wasteland.” Series creator Neil Cross acknowledges that the series’ intent “was that London would be one of the series’ most important characters,” but Luther’s London is distinctively dark and dirty, mirroring the series’ harsh tale of brilliant if psychotic serial killers and a police detective that is uncomfortably like them. Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz described the Luther settings as a “comic-book-noir” aesthetic that places the familiar tortured detective story in a place akin to “Gotham City, or perhaps Frank Miller’s Sin City, which Luther’s debased, grim London often resembles.” USA Today likewise suggests that exchanging John Luther’s dark tweed and “steely, brooding façade” make Luther “London’s own Batman.” Indeed, Luther is somewhat of a comic aesthetic in its inflated ambition to paint reality in its most grimy dimensions, and BBC One has even produced graphic novel images for the show.
Every metropolis is inevitably a dirty place, but the undersides of city filth have often been represented in popular culture as spaces of stereotypical squalor removed from the city’s heart. Ellen Handy’s 1995 study of visualizations of Victorian slum life argues that the realities of urban filth such as human excrement rarely if ever appeared in photographic or literary tales of the city’s underside; the symbols of filth were often considered unspeakable, implied rather than represented. In 1851 Lord Palmerston addressed the Royal Agricultural Society and told them that “I have heard a definition of dirt. I have heard it said that dirt is nothing but a thing in a wrong place.” Mary Douglas made much the same definition famous in her 1966 classic Purity and Danger, in which she referred to dirt as “matter out of place.” Luther certainly is only one example of the popular discourses that have counter-intuitively turned the banal and unsightly into an arresting aesthetic of displaced things. For instance, the flickr page for the 2011 Wellcome Collection exhibit Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life includes a breadth of abandonment images placing forlorn things in odd places. Read the rest of this entry
Last week Times Square hosted a fashion show of sorts at which three models were decorated as anatomically correct, partially de-fleshed bodies. A day was spent body painting the models with exposed muscles, nerves, circulatory systems, and skeletal elements that rendered them walking anatomical textbooks. Artist Danny Quirk’s inspiration for the Times Square performance was the Body Worlds exhibit, a display of artistically preserved dead bodies. The models were walking advertisements for the exhibit at the Discovery Times Square Museum. Body Worlds complicates facile definitions of death and the corpse, clouds the distinction between entertainment and edification, and underscores the symbolic power of the dead body that has long been clear to archaeologists.
Body Worlds is a series of exhibitions of actual dead bodies preserved through a process called plastination, which replaces bodily water and fat with plastics. The plastinated bodies can be posed in a vast range of imaginative dissections revealing a variety of internal organs and structural features in prosaic activities (e.g., bodies playing poker) and impossible human positions (e.g., a runner with partially detached muscles). The plastination technique was developed in 1977 by Gunther von Hagens, who has managed the Body Worlds exhibitions since their first showing in Tokyo in 1995. The Body Worlds exhibit in New York, which is one of 11 Body Worlds exhibits now, includes a muscular gymnast, a flayed man holding his skin, a pregnant woman with a five-month old fetus, and a smoker with exposed blackened lungs among the preserved corpses greeting visitors.
Quirk’s breathing anatomical specimens and Body Worlds’ aestheticized corpses reinforce archaeologists’ understanding that few artifacts are more compelling than the human body. Yet Body Worlds brings death into the open without actually speaking its name. Instead, it invokes a narrow notion of education, a detached scientific rationality, and a candid curiosity about bodies and mortality. Body Worlds is partly a shallow health public and anatomical lesson and partly an artistic exhibit in which the elements of the works are plasticized flesh and organs. Read the rest of this entry
Last week a Santa Barbara yoga studio devised a novel event called “NWA” (that is, Namaste with Attitude), which they promised would be “ghetto fabulous.” The Power of Your Om (POYO) yoga studio conjured an awkward constellation of color and class caricatures in its pledge to provide “the sounds of Snoop, Nate Dogg, Warren G, Coolio and many more faves. Serious attitude, guaranteed belly laughs and various costumes to be provided. Please come dressed in your favorite ghetto fabulous outfit, snap-back caps, corn rows, heavy lip liner or whatever you can dream up.” For those Santa Barbarans uncertain of their “ghetto” credentials, the studio provided do-rags and included a link to a Wiki page explaining how to be “ghetto-fabulous.” Their facebook page afterward included a host of images of glistening White suburbanites flashing gang signs in a clumsy imagining of “ghetto.”
The California yoga studio is hardly alone for its naive ghetto fantasy, borrowing popular caricatures invoking style, color, impoverishment, and class. While a handful of Santa Barbarans were sweating to Snoop, the web site Ghetto Tracker was unveiled with the promise to identify “which parts of town are safe and which ones are ghetto, or unsafe.” Ghetto Tracker assesses the perils of particular places based on user reviews, which of course does not map any concrete patterns as much as it maps class and color assumptions, impressions, and stereotypes. Ghetto Tracker is not alone among websites and phone apps linking local geographies to criminality: the SafeRoute app includes crime statistics for certain neighborhoods; and Road Buddy likewise uses crime stats to chart what it defines as the safest travel routes. The novel wrinkle in Ghetto Tracker is its projection of racial imagination onto the landscape, allowing users to place their passing impressions, isolated experiences, and unacknowledged xenophobia onto social maps. Numerous pages provide exceptionally detailed geographies of crime—SpotCrime, for instance, plots crime reports by type and location almost instantly—but Ghetto Tracker is a telling if unsettling reflection of how people perceive particular places. Read the rest of this entry
Few reality TV shows are as fascinating and simultaneously unsettling as Storage Wars. Each week a circle of misanthropic auction hunters journey to a self-storage facility and bid on unidentified heaps of suburban detritus abandoned by our neighbors. What is perhaps most compelling about the premise—beyond the real but largely superficial curiosity about the valuables that may potentially lie in any given storage space—is the show’s unsettling picture of material cannibals picking over the remains of middle America.
Lauderdale Self Storage opened in Fort Lauderdale in 1958, and it may reasonably lay claim to being the first US self-storage facility. It was followed by a modest string of self-storage facilities in the 1960’s, and at the end of 1984 there were 6601 self-storage facilities in the US. The Self Storage Association reported in June 2013 that there are now roughly 48,500 self-storage facilities in the US (of 59,500 worldwide), accounting for 2.3 billion square feet at an occupancy rate of 85.3%. An astounding 8.96% of all American homes (10.8 million households) rent at least one storage space.
A rapidly increasing volume of domestic things appear to have found temporary refuge in self-storage facilities as families become overwhelmed by their goods, clean out parents’ homes, divorce or marry, downsize, or are foreclosed. Storage Wars may testify to the overflow of middle-class homes, but it simultaneously captures the myopic optimism that households believe their things will find a place. Storage Wars seems to confirm that the once-transitional nature of self-storage has now seen units transformed into permanent repositories, many of which are eventually forgotten or abandoned and sold off at public auction.
Conscious that most storage assemblages are an array of overwhelmingly worthless household things, Storage Wars nevertheless winks at us to enjoy the fantasy that abandoned storage spaces may be treasure chests of forgotten lucre. To suggest that the florescence of self-storage units reflects an amazing over-accumulation of things is to simply make a thinly veiled moral judgment about our misplaced attachment to stuff. Likewise, at some level Storage Wars shines an unflattering light on over-consumption, but the more interesting question it raises is why do we keep this stuff at all? Storage Wars reveals things people did not or could not part with, irrationally paying storage fees that make the spaces’ eventual abandonment even more mystifying. Read the rest of this entry
A week ago the MTV Video Music Awards celebrated an array of over-the-top visual, bodily, and stylistic performances. The most self-righteous moralizing has been reserved for Miley Cyrus’ awkward entrance into adulthood celebrated with teddy bears, Beetlejuice, and vinyl hot pants, but the collective event staked a clumsy claim to authenticity that has often dogged musicians in particular and subcultures in general. To be authentic implies originality, distinction, and stylistic innovation that springs from a sort of essentialist notion of human experience and raw talent, which is confirmed in “live” performance moments like the VMAs. Two moments at the VMAs—one the celebrated Miley Cyrus dancing sequence, the other focused on the stylings of a member of One Direction–revolve around that ambiguous authenticity and contemporary musical performance.
Musical authenticity has always been closely linked to live performance, but judgmental observers charge that the death rites to such authenticity have been delivered by the likes of MTV. Hannah Montana’s galavant about the Barclay’s Center stage aspired to seem a relatively spontaneous performance reflecting her essential musical skills and instincts, but of course it was as choreographed and constructed as Lady Gaga’s performance moments before Cyrus. A chorus of voices have labeled the Cyrus performance raunchy, crass, or immoral, but Cyrus herself celebrated the fevered discussion—and may even have captured the irrelevance of “authenticity”–when she tweeted that “My VMA performance had 306.000 tweets per minute. That’s more than the blackout or Superbowl! #fact.”
In the northwest of Middle Earth sits the Shire, a modest agricultural community whose verdant landscape was created and densely described by JRR Tolkien, visually interpreted in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and the subsequent Hobbit, and dissected in enormous spatial depth by a legion of committed readers and artists. The Shire is perhaps not “real,” but it is ironically better described and far more appealing than most of the real world. Consequently, fans eager to find such a place flock to the New Zealand sets where Jackson fancied hobbits and elves might live. Half a planet away Soprano’s fans likewise have migrated to a fantasy landscape constructed in popular culture: New Jersey. The world of the Soprano’s references genuine places that have a material presence in the same way as the LOTR sets, but both fabricate a world in which New Jersey, Hobbiton, Mayberry, or Springfield are imagined places constructed from a mix of historical, social, and fantasy referents. Those narratives and the landscapes they reference underscore that the distinction between imagination and reality has long been a contrived dichotomy for many fans. The depth of that fascination is reflected in the enormous number of fans who now flock to the likes of Merlotte’s Bar and Grill, The Seven Seas Motel, The Millennium Centre, Los Pollos Hermanos, Hershel’s Farmhouse, the Bada Bing, Gaius Baltar’s House, the Double R Diner, and the crash site of Oceanic Airlines 815 intent on securing a material connection to their fandom.
Fandoms push beyond enjoyment of a series or film, finding dimensions of their fan passion that they can relate to their everyday lives: the Soprano’s in this case becomes not a soap opera but instead a jarring and personally relevant vision of ethical ambiguity, violence, and desperation. Fandoms weave these philosophical narratives from threads drawn from a rich range of discourses: in the case of Star Wars, for instance, the canon is drawn from the films, which are in turn accented by official novelizations, cartoons, comic books, and games that are themselves reinterpreted by fan web pages, cosplayers, and fan conventions. Such participatory fan cultures draw idiosyncratically from a breadth of official and fan narratives and demonstrate mastery of the particularities of the narrative: the Star Wars fans, for instance, know all the details of the multiple Lucas edits, can identify an Anxarta-class light freighter, and can quote a breadth of Yoda aphorisms. Yet the material experience of fandom is often ignored entirely or reduced simply to purchases of some mass-produced trinkets that accompany nearly every popular cultural franchise (for a European exception, see Stijn Reijnders’ 2011 study Places of the Imagination: Media, Tourism, Culture).
Contemporary fandoms are perhaps most powerfully fueled by their digital forms in fan pages, blogs, and forums: for instance, mega-fandoms like Star Wars, LOTR, Harry Potter, and Vampire Diaries have gargantuan wiki pages that dissect the infinite particularities of the fan passions, and many more modest fandoms have devoted online spaces. Nevertheless, pilgrimage to sites like Dexter’s crime scenes or Bill Compton’s house–a phenomenon that Stijn Reijnders refers to as “media tourism”–is a critical material experience of contemporary fanhood. Fan tourism has become increasingly commonplace, but it is not a 21st-century phenomenon: Nicola Watson details 19th-century literary tourists who flocked to homes and gravesites of famous authors in Britain. Many of these sites have remained in popular consciousness: for instance, tourists began visiting Baker Street in the early 20th century to see the haunts of Sherlock Holmes (the 221B Baker Street address eventually was remodeled in 1990 to become a museum interpreting Holmes’ residence, basing the re-modeling on Arthur Conan Doyle’s descriptions of the imagined home).