Kipp Normand refers to himself as a “junk artist,” one of many “found object” artists who re-purpose the prosaic and discarded things littering the landscape. Normand follows in a rich line of late-20th and early 21st-century artists who have delivered the death rites to “high art,” with many celebrating the aesthetics of trash itself.
In one sense, this transgressive move complicates what constitutes detritus and art alike, forcing us to contemplate aesthetic conventions. At another more interesting level, though, Normand’s creations capture a broadly based social practice of recycling, fetishizing, scavenging, rehabilitating, and repurposing commonplace things. The Indianapolis-based Normand acknowledges that “refuse is my muse,” providing a telling read on stylistic innovation and material narratives. For an aesthete, the artwork itself is the point of departure, but the process by which Normand and his peers make art—that is, the assembling of scattered discards that have become vacuums of meaning—is perhaps more interesting than the actual creations themselves.
On the one hand, this fabrication of meaning from discarded things that have been purged of consequential meaning is perhaps typical of contemporary consumption. Nearly 30 years ago, Frederic Jameson imagined a world of “nothing but stylistic diversity and heterogeneity.” Jameson prophesied a world in which there was no “normality” against which all styles could be judged; that is, stylistic innovation is no longer possible: all that is left is to imitate dead styles. In this assessment, normative codes had been replaced by myriad private if not individual styles. Jameson’s picture may be borne out by the consumption of discards: that is, thrift shops, mass-produced retro, flea markets, online markets, and trash artists have complicated what is a discard.
On the other hand, this artistic production begs the thorny question of precisely what defines trash and what sorts of meanings we seem compelled to project onto it. Trash invokes the meaninglessness of rot and decay, which theoretically happens to all things and has often been construed as a sort of death. Trash tends to retain its power and cling to meaningfulness when it is symbolically visible or materially dangerous; for instance, hazardous materials, aesthetically unpleasant litter, un-recycled plastic bottles, foul smelling discards, and abandoned buildings retain some agency that is lost by the eroded thing that returns to the earth.
Found things are often classed as “trash” simply as a rhetorical maneuver compelling us to define waste and aesthetics. Trash artists have a broad range of concrete political interests reaching beyond the question of what defines art, including environmental consciousness, hoarding, biodegradation, and recycling; however, they tend to share a broad common interest in giving meaning to detritus and preventing it from becoming invisible or unseen. Indeed, this is precisely what archaeology does: we excavate discards and invest them with new historicized meanings that at least implicitly illuminate who we are or how we see contemporary society.
Gillian Whiteley’s study Junk: Art and the Politics of Trash calls the artists who construct meaning from discards “bricoleurs.” The bricoleur assembles meaning from fragments, as when Kipp Normand makes “sculpture and collage images out of things I find around our city. I spend a lot of time by myself making things out of broken and discarded objects.” While artists had worked with found objects since the early 20th century, such works became a recognizable oeuvre after the 1961 Museum of Modern Art exhibit “Art of the Assemblage.” Often referred to as assemblage artists or upcyclers, such three-dimensional collage incorporating found objects and discarded things is commonplace and reaches from the toniest art galleries to the pages of Etsy. A 2011 Sotheby’s auction of assembled art pretentiously referred to such works as the products of “hunting and gathering” that reflect a primal urge to collect and define the mysterious, meaningless, or misplaced.
One effect of this improvisational consumption style is that we could perhaps fancy that we are all “bricoleurs” fabricating the world to our own stylistic whimsy. Indeed, his studio’s web page is simply one of the sites that emphasize that “Normand has no formal training in art.” This rhetorical maneuver obliquely situates Normand’s vision in experience, which we all possess and articulate in our living room decorations, refrigerator art displays, and everyday fashion. Normand’s mission finding “stories in discarded things” may not be fundamentally different from retro shoppers who are likewise cannibalizing styles and investing them with new meanings. The dilemma is that this apparently democratic embrace of creativity risks repudiating critical analysis of style, aesthetics, and art because experience seems beyond intellectual challenge.
Jameson suggested that we were entering a moment in which we perpetually seek a historical past, which is reflected in the mining of dead styles. Jameson suggested that art in this context was about “the failure of the new,” an inability to imagine ourselves in new ways that step beyond historicized styles. The postmodern lament that there is “nothing new” is perhaps overdramatized, but contemporary style certainly is pervaded by romanticized nostalgic representations.
Normand himself quite consciously focuses his trash compositions on a heritage that is materialized in discards characterized by patina, lost functions, and the absence of “new-ness.” This artistic trend is certainly mirrored in broader consumer culture styles including old school gaming, vintage bowling shirts, pin-up dress, retrofuturism, throwback uniforms, Eddie Rockets retro diners, and a store named after Bettie Page hawking retro dog collars. Normand’s ambition to project historicized, locally distinctive meanings onto salvaged things is at odds with this nearly meaningless “retro” style that loosely evokes a past that comes from popular culture rather than critical historical consciousness. When a local television commentator referred to Normand as a “hipster artist,” it risked reducing the bricolage aspect of Normand’s work simply to a shopping style.
Kipp Normand apparently hopes to evoke the fabric and lost lives of a historical city with its detritus—indeed, a very archaeological sentiment. Like such assemblage artists working with trash, many archaeologists aspire to provide a critical insight into social and historical realities that may be activist, subversive, and oppositional. This runs directly against the tendency to transform such realities into pleasant and consumable styles purged of historical substance and reduced to hollow aesthetics. Heritage in this moment risks becoming a commodity, but trash—the most material vestiges of our march across time—may provide a particularly powerful mechanism to rethink art and heritage alike.
Discard Studies has an inventory of artists who work primarily with trash; compare Integral Drift’s blog posting Regarding Trash; the blog Rubbish; Everyday Trash‘s inventory of “artistic trash”; Scott Hocking‘s web page; the trailer for the movie Waste Land; and Schwitters in Britain
For more on Kipp Normand, visit the Harrison Center flickr sets for the show TRASH, Kipp’s Studio, and Kipp Normand. Also see the trailer for Jonathan Frey’s short film Kipp Normand, the WISH-TV profile, Dressing Indianapolis, and his Indy Arts profile.
2001 The Death of the Author. In The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent B. Leitch, et al. pp.1466-1475. Norton, New York.
Stephanie Foote and Elizabeth Mazzolini
2012 Histories of the Dustheap: Waste, Material Cultures. Social Justice MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
1998 The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-1998. Verso, New York.
Museum of Modern Art
2004 Roth Time: A Dieter Roth Perspective.
2010 The Iterable Gesture: A Study of Contemporary Strategies of Re-enactment. Unpublished Thesis proposal submitted to the Faculty of Visual Culture in Candidacy of the MA Art in the Contemporary World (NCAD).
1979 Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value. Oxford University Press, New York.
2010 Junk: Art and the Politics of Trash. I.B. Tauris, London.
Center for Environmental Education Plastic Bag art image courtesy sielju
Fanfare for Bill Cook image courtesy Indiana Landmarks
This month the most committed Doctor Who fans descended on the Los Angeles Marriott for Gallifrey One, the 24th annual gathering of Whovians in Los Angeles. On the one hand, these Doctor Who fans share a commonplace geek satisfaction with their sense of distinction from the mainstream. A Who fan who grew up in Detroit noted that “As kids we loved anything Science Fiction from Star Trek to Space 1999 … we were weirdoes. But that was okay. It was a badge of honour. Really. SF was not as `popular’ then as it seems to be now, and British SF was probably deemed even odder.” Patton Oswalt’s analysis of contemporary geeks inventories a typical range of geek obsessions confirming that “I was never going to play sports, and girls were an uncrackable code. So, yeah—I had time to collect every Star Wars action figure, learn the Three Laws of Robotics, memorize Roy Batty’s speech from the end of Blade Runner, and classify each monster’s abilities and weaknesses in TSR Hobbies’ Monster Manual.” Oswalt admits the satisfaction he got from “quietly being tuned in to something dark, complicated, and unknown just beneath the topsoil of popularity.”
On the other hand, though, Oswalt is among the observers who have prophesied the death of that very subculture, lamenting “Fast-forward to now: Boba Fett’s helmet emblazoned on sleeveless T-shirts worn by gym douches hefting dumbbells. The Glee kids performing the songs from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And Toad the Wet Sprocket, a band that took its name from a Monty Python riff, joining the permanent soundtrack of a night out at Bennigan’s. Our below-the-topsoil passions have been rudely dug up and displayed in the noonday sun.”
Once utterly invisible outside a circle of the most committed fans, in 2012 Entertainment Weekly heralded Doctor Who as a “global geek obsession”; this week al-Jazeera bought three seasons of Doctor Who; and in 2011 Doctor Who’s sixth season was the most downloaded television season on iTunes. In some observers’ minds, this long-awaited ascent to mainstream popularity spells the death rites for the Doctor Who geek as a distinctive voice and identity. Contemporary Doctor Who fans risk being not marginal at all, and in this respect they share quite a lot with comic books fans, science fiction geeks, anime fans, or role-playing gamers who all have secured significant footholds in popular culture: San Diego Comic-Con is now among the most influential of all mass media and marketing events; television is littered with a variety of series that openly invoke science fiction and celebrate geeks; anime and manga aesthetics pervade popular culture; and role playing games have become a massive industry whose impression can be seen all over popular culture. Once embracing something esoteric and disinteresting to the masses, geeks now have effected a complete reversal that witnesses them as the leading edge of style: rather than being disparaged as outcasts, geeks have become an energizing fringe fueling mass culture.
“Geek” is commonly referred to as a “subculture,” but that term is sloppily wielded in popular usage and tends to refer to nearly any distinctive social collective. In scholarly terms a subculture reflects and expresses social contradictions through oppositional style and social practice. Subcultures use material style and social practice to express and attempt to resolve the contradictions of mainstream culture: that is, weeping angel t-shirts, “Bad Wolf” bumper stickers, and sonic screwdrivers are utterly politicized symbols signaling social identity and distance from mainstream social codes. Doctor Who fans, like most members of self-identified subcultures, are energized by their self-perceived marginalization, if not the belief that they have been denied some unfettered experience by the normative values of “mainstream” society.
Not every geek is eager to relinquish their distinctions from the mainstream. Blogger Maryann Johanson, for instance, prophesied the underside of Doctor Who’s broader following when she lamented retailer Hot Topic’s embrace of Doctor Who merchandise: “Hot Topic is a U.S. chain store that pops up in malls to serve kids who want to buy a premanufactured notion of cool instead of developing their own personalities. If the vice president and general merchandise manager for Hot Topic is excited about Doctor Who, it can only mean that the Doctor is on the verge of tedious ubiquitousness in America.”
Johanson seems to be apprehensive that the unfeigned passion fans have invested in Doctor Who will be undone by the marketplace. Her wariness of “premanufactured cool” suggests the marketplace will inevitably redefine consequential if not deviant symbolism and reduce it to transparently commodified edginess. This is precisely what Dick Hebdige cautioned was the universal fate of subcultures. Hebdige’s classic study of punk style argued that subcultural aesthetics are re-defined by marketers in ways that neutralize anxiety-invoking distinctions. Those subcultural material forms—goth makeup, Rastafarian garb, hippie tie-dye shirts–become simply an aesthetic expressing no especially substantive social or political statement. Indeed, Hot Topic reduces fringe symbolism to a hollow style: pre-distressed shirts featuring the likes of Black Sabbath, David Bowie, or Joy Division evoke a historical fringe; pre-shredded jeans labor to conceal their wearer’s bourgeois status; and Batman earbuds invoke all the style and none of the pathos of the Caped Crusader.
Yet Hot Topic is far from the only company to charge into Doctor Who marketing. The founder of Her Universe—“a place for fangirls to step into the spotlight and be heard, recognized and rewarded”–told the Today show that Who merchandise was selling briskly, admitting that “`I never thought I would see it grow this much. … Girls would come up to me saying they wanted ‘Doctor Who’ shirts and I didn’t know how I could make it work logistically with the BBC in London.” But she was approached by BBC Worldwide’s own aggressive marketers because, according to their Director, “`She has a pulse on this demographic and on knowing what girls want.’”
The flood of Doctor Who merchandise reaching from toys to t-shirts to aquarium Daleks may indeed confirm that Doctor Who has been reduced to an aesthetic targeted to a particular consumer “demographic.” Doctor Who looms in this picture as an ambiguous symbol of aesthetic distinction; in contrast, geeks embrace something symbolically esoteric that is outside the mainstream. For some nervous fans, the passion they feel for Doctor Who or any other geek symbol hazards appearing irrelevant in the face of marketers’ dedication to profit.
However, it may be exactly the opposite: that is, perhaps the geek has now become valued by marketers precisely because geeks identify those social and stylistic niches into which people invest deep feelings. This no longer frames the geek as a unique entity, a stereotypically obsessive fan without connections to broader popular cultural discourses or politics. In an essay in Guerrilla Geek, Rory Purcell-Hewitt argues for something he dubs a “post-geek” that is quite along these lines. This post-geek is an assertively hybrid identity that does not fix geeks’ position within a particular subcultural niche: “the post-geek is one who has stepped beyond the barriers of the geek subculture, openly embracing philosophies and aesthetics from a multitude of cultures.” Contemporary geeks do indeed routinely poach on a rich range of popular cultural symbols—simply survey the cross-fertilization of symbols in Doctor Who shirts such as “Doctor Pooh,” “Gallifrey Road,” or “Doctor’s Eleven” that cannibalize other popular cultural geekery. That symbolic hybridity includes fans’ (and marketers’) conscious references to the show’s historical canon: Doctor Who evokes a half-century of programming and a distinctive retro aesthetic that the BBC’s avalanche of Doctor Who merchandise and DVDs routinely links to the newest episodes and storylines. This hybridity may be the geek’s elimination of their own uniqueness; that is, geeks and other subcultures are no longer isolated entities but wired hybrids thieving style and meaning from a range of discourses.
Doctor Who’s ascent to mass popularity certainly was fueled by the collapse of once-formidable barriers to Doctor Who access: much of Doctor Who’s run came in the context of a pre-cable TV world, the absence of mass-produced VHS tapes or VHS players, divides between the UK and US programming, and fandom organized around communities communicating through local clubs, modest conventions, and fanzines. Today, in contrast, a vast range of programming and linked marketing are accessible to nearly anybody with computer and/or cable access; BBC is systematically releasing every shred of Doctor Who programming on DVDs alongside branded books, audiobooks, and magazines; Who fans gather at massive conventions like Chicago TARDIS, Lords of Time (Australia), Regenerations (Swansea), and the official convention in Cardiff; fan communities are exceptionally well-connected online in sites like Gallifrey Base; and an enormous volume of online retailers specialize in commodities that are somehow cast as “geek.”
Subultures are not resisting any clearly defined mainstream, because normative social and stylistic codes are simply too dynamic and reside in ideology more than practice. Many geeks, though, hold onto the caricature of a normative mainstream to rationalize zealously guarding their unique identities, castigating newcomers as poseurs and warily patrolling the boundaries of the authentic canon. Perhaps the flood of Doctor Who DIY-er goods are the vanguard of material authenticity, or seeing the original Doctor Who late at night on a fuzzy black-and-white TV grants some fans some experiential privileges. But there was of course never a moment of “authenticity” untouched by the media, since Who fandom is based on a mass media product. Contemporary consumer culture is perhaps no longer populated by distinct collectives crafting individual styles in isolation; rather, we live in a world of heterogeneous styles in which appearances of resistance, deviance, and rebellion are simply a fashion. Geeks may be the preeminent creative spirits in such a moment, distinctive for their capacity to find the symbolically rich niches in mass culture like superheroes, Battlestar Galactica, and Doctor Who.
Piers D. Britton and Simon J. Barker
2003 Reading Between Designs: Design and the Generation of Meaning in The Avengers, The Prisoner, and Doctor Who. University of Texas Press, Austin.
1979 Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Methuen, New York.
2010 Triumph of a Time Lord: Regenerating Doctor Who in the Twenty-First Century. I.B. Tauris, London.
2012 Humanism of Doctor Who: A Critical Study in Science Fiction and Philosophy. McFarland
Jefferson, North Carolina.
2000 Inside Subculture: The Postmodern Meaning of Style. Berg, New York.
Steve Redhead, Derek Wynne, Justin O’Connor (eds.)
1998 The Clubcultures Reader: Readings in Popular Cultural Studies. Blackwell, New York.
John Tulloch and Henry Jenkins (eds)
1995 Science Fiction Audiences : Doctor Who, Star Trek, and Their Fans. Routledge, New York.
2011 Expatriate! Expatriate!: Doctor Who: The Movie and Commercial Exploitation of a Multiple Text. In British Science Fiction Film and Television: Critical Essays, eds. Tobias Hochscherf, James Leggott, and Donald E. Palumbo, pp. 128-142. McFarland and Company, Jefferson, North Carolina.
Rats have enormous symbolic power: rats have long appeared in popular culture as loathsome symbols of the power of nature, impoverishment, and disease. The rat has won our grudging respect for its enormous skill to survive in a vast range of conditions, oddly linked to humans by our shared evolutionary successes. Rats have gone wherever humans have gone, living and invading alongside us, occasionally surfacing from alley and basement margins to remind us of our waste, inequality, and deadliness as they nocturnally feast on our garbage.
Consequently, rats have often been used as rhetorical if not ideological devices. On February 16th my local newspaper, The Indianapolis Star, joined in a two-century journalistic tradition of wielding the rat as an emotional symbol when it reported on rats’ migration into homeless camps in the city. The article opened by circumspectly applauding the resourceful rat, intoning that “You rarely see rats because they’re sly and nocturnal, so if you do happen to catch a glimpse [of] one and it’s daytime, then whoa — you’ve got rats.” Indianapolis’ homeless camps have, in the newspaper’s assessment, been the victim of “serious rat infestations … and a nasty one,” but for the Star it is “an ironic one, too, because its cause, say homeless outreach workers and county health personnel, is a cadre of well-intentioned people who deliver food to the homeless on a daily basis. Professional advocates wish they would stop.”
In this analysis, the rat figures as a rhetorical mechanism weaving a story about homelessness, and the Star’s moralistic narrative casts rats and homeless people alike as opportunistic if not parasitic. The rat becomes a surprisingly complex symbol in this telling: “Rats may be symbols of poverty, decay and disease, but they also signify a certain abundance, or at least that there’s some extra food lying around.” Rats are cast less a symbol of affluence as much as they invoke predatory relationships of rats on humans and the homeless on society: “Professional advocates for the homeless wish volunteers wouldn’t bring food — and not only because excess food attracts rats. To-your-door food deliveries make life more comfortable for the homeless, make them less inclined to come into homeless shelters where professional counseling and other services are available to them, help that could improve their lives long-term.”
The Star’s shallow sympathy for homeless people mirrors a broader social picture of the homeless as predators. Rats and the homeless are painted in symbiotic relationships, becoming nearly interchangeable symbols. In 2011, for instance, Honolulu’s mayor likened the homeless to a “rat invasion,” arguing that the rejection of legal prohibitions on homelessness “`was a complete disaster because now people are out there suffering from their mental problems without us having the ability to coerce them into either the treatment that they need or into a zone that isn’t in conflict with everybody else’s rights.’” Massive displacements of homeless camps are routinely legitimized by reference to the presence of rats (in a similar fashion, Occupy protestors and their camps have been cast as predators by focusing on the rats in their midst).
Rats make easy emotional vehicles to caricature homeless people, but a handful of archaeologists have been conducting systematic material and social analysis of homelessness that pushes beyond facile stereotypes. The Indianapolis camps the Star lamented have been studied in a project directed by my colleague Larry Zimmerman, who has presented this work with Jessica Welch and Courtney Singleton at the World Archaeology Congress conference and published the research in World Archaeology, Archaeology, and Historical Archaeology. They and a Cultural Heritage class produced a facebook site and book on one of the most prominent Indianapolis homeless communities. The Indianapolis project suggests a series of modest everyday interventions in homeless services—providing can openers and socks, for instance, and understanding the everyday physical pathways of homeless people—that expand on simply warehousing homeless people into an undifferentiated shelter industry. Rachael Kiddey and John Schofield have conducted a similar project in Bristol that they have extended to York as well. These and a series of similar projects (e.g., Jason De Leon’s archaeology of illegal immigration) approach archaeology as an applied scholarship focused on social justice that uses material analysis to inform contemporary politics.
Homeless communities inevitably require a complex range of services, but superficial stereotypes like the Star’s lament over rats simply prevent effective strategies to address the needs of people living on the streets. Homelessness and rats both provoke significant anxiety: the former reveals the liabilities of inequality and how society cares for its own, while the latter flourishes in the midst of that very inequality. Archaeology provides no resolution to the deep-seated structural conditions that have fanned homelessness, but it provides a model for systematic and reflective analysis of material conditions that avoids shallow characterizations of complex realities.
Randall Amster and Martha Trenna Valado (eds.)
2012 Professional Lives, Personal Struggles: Ethics and Advocacy in Research on Homelessness. Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland.
2002 “Rats Are People, Too!” Rat-Human Relations Re-Rated. Anthropology Today 18(3):3-8. (subscription access)
2008 Adomizen: A Foucaultian Archaeology of Homelessness in Washington, D.C.’;s Monumental Core. Master of Arts Thesis, Georgetown University.
IUPUI Issues in Cultural Heritage Seminar
Rachael Kiddey and John Schofield
2010 Digging for (Invisible) People. British Archaeology 113.
2011 Embrace the Margins: Adventures in Archaeology and Homelessness. Public Archaeology 10(1):4–22.
2004 Inequality, Poverty, and Neo-Liberal Governance: Activist Ethnography in the Homeless Sheltering Industry. University of Toronto Press, Toronto.
Larry J. Zimmerman, Courtney Singleton, and Jessica Welch
2010 Activism and creating a translational archaeology of homelessness. World Archaeology
Larry J. Zimmerman and Jessica Welch
2011 Displaced and Barely Visible: Archaeology and the Material Culture of Homelessness. Historical Archaeology 45(1): 67-85. (subscription access)
Homeless Archaeology youtube video’s
Homeless Heritage York blog
Providence Rhode Island Camp image courtesy lehcar1477
Cincinnati camp image courtesy a.r.briggs
The internet is littered with distinctive if not outright odd collectibles: a brief survey of web collections uncovers assemblages of bars of soap, moist towelettes, toasters, air sickness bags, and belly button lint. Even such unusual collections have two fundamental dimensions: first, they are driven by pedagogical goals—their universe of things teaches or illustrates something–, and, second, they reconfigure, critique, imagine, and impose some idealized order on the world. Some collectors can reflectively articulate how their things reflect their experiences and visions of the social world, and others are perhaps somewhat more caught up in the magnetism of their things or their hunt; nevertheless, most collections are fundamentally distorted mirrors of how the world should be, the anxieties life provokes, and the consequential dimensions of our lives.
Marching into the universe of collectors is now an army of Russians snapping up the fragments of the meteorite that fell near Chebarkul and Chelyabinsk on February 15th. Some of these “collectors” (and their international counterparts) are simply driven by the perception of potential profit to be made hawking meteorite fragments, and that is often intensified by their own financial desperation. Collectors of space debris prize such intergalactic detritus, and there is apparently some genuine market value to these things: a 23cm fragment of the Seymchan meteorite recovered in Siberia in 1967 sold in New York for $43,750 in October, and a piece of a meteorite that “pulverized” a New York cow in 1972–the world’s only known meteorite fatality–sold for $1375.
It is now infeasible to distinguish between meteorites as things with exchange value and objects whose meaning resides outside market values. Nevertheless, the attraction of a collected meteorite, Doctor Who toy, or movie poster (and every other material collectible) have distinctive symbolisms that are not reducible to exchange values. Meteorites invoke the power of nature’s unpredictability, which is mirrored in the wave of media coverage last week contemplating how humans can control such random interstellar debris collisions. Waves of people are now preparing for various impending apocalypses, so one asteroid mining company has found a receptive audience for its warning that “many asteroids pass by Earth with little or no warning. We were not exaggerating. … While not every approaching asteroid may be detected, and with little warning not all can be prevented, in this case a little warning would have prevented many injuries, and quelled the panic that followed” (underline in original). Absurd conspiracy theories about the Russian meteorite as American weapons testing, Biblical apocalypse, and alien invasion are ultimately efforts to explain seemingly inexplicable events.
In 1794, Italian abbot and geologist Ambrogio Soldani wrote one of the first scientific studies of meteorites when he published On a Shower of Stones that fell on the 16th of June at Siena. Soldani’s analysis documented a June, 1794 meteorite shower on Siena, Italy and assessed some of the fragments that had formed in the “high clouds.” This moved the explanations of such phenomena toward their cosmic origins, a point argued most influentially by Ernst Chladni, whose 1794 study On the Origin of the Pallas Iron and Others Similar to it, and on Some Associated Natural Phenomena argued for the spatial origins of meteorites. The “Pallas Iron” (usually known as the Krasnojarsk meteorite) was a 1500 pound Russian meteorite collected in 1772 by Peter Simon Pallas.
The first collectors were mostly museums driven at least explicitly by scientific discovery. However, when Chladni analyzed the Siena meteorite fragments in a 1797 study, he noted that fragments of the meteorite were being actively sold to English tourists. Chladni accumulated his own collection and prepared a catalog of it in 1825, with most eventually passing to museum collections. In 1913, Field Museum geology curator Oliver C. Farrington linked meteorite collecting to museums and high culture, intoning that meteorite collecting “may easily be shown to be a measure of civilization.” Farrington reasoned that a map of meteorite collection points “is almost exactly a map of the Caucasian race; or, in other words, of the civilized peoples. … A map showing the location of meteorite falls would also serve in a general way for a map of the museums of the world; and the presence of museums is well known to be a mark of the highest culture.”
Perhaps the most famous American meteorite is the Willamette meteorite, a 32,000 pound meteorite that was first documented by Europeans in the early 20th century. The legal ownership of the meteorite was turned over to the Oregon Iron and Steel Company in 1905 and purchased by a collector who subsequently turned it over to the American Museum of Natural History in 1906. Known to native peoples as Tomowanos, the meteorite became the target of a Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) claim to return the meteorite to Oregon native peoples. In 2000, the Museum signed an agreement with the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon ensuring permanent access to the meteorite by tribal members, which includes annual ceremonies conducted in the museum documented in the community’s facebook page.
The fascination with such debris likely has always revolved around its material evocation of the primal elements of the universe and mysterious if not inexplicable dimensions of nature and the cosmos. Possessing such an object—and explaining it—secures some meaning of power over an otherwise fickle and uncontrollable nature. The explanations may be purely scientific dissections of the chemical origins of meteorites and spatial debris, which provides some measure of explicability over otherwise unpredictable meteorites. Yet even then meteorites sound oblique but unsettling warnings about the power of nature: after all, the Chicxulub Crater in the Yucatan peninsula was formed by an asteroid collision that inflicted mass extinctions roughly 66 million years ago.
The fascination with such objects certainly is fanned by their exchange, by it was not created by the market: in the case of space debris collections, the curiosity over the thing and its invocation of nature’s power preceded a marketplace dealing in such things simply as interchangeable commodities. When fragments of the Willamette meteorite have been offered for sale at auction, indigenous people have been at odds with sellers, including one quoted in 2007 as indicating that “The beliefs of the Grand Ronde [Oregon indigenous peoples] should not preclude science or the commerce of meteorites” (the fragment eventually fell short of its pre-sale estimate and was not purchased).
The collection of such objects that materialize efforts to secure symbolic control over life is somewhat akin to Gabriel Moshenska’s study of World War II collections of shrapnel. During World War II, children collected, traded, and in somes cases curated shrapnel to “cope with the upheaval and brutality of total war.” Moshenska argues that shrapnel collecting was distinct from other material collecting in its effort to negate and domesticate wartime violence if not assume an active if symbolic role in the war. Like meteorites, every piece of shrapnel was uniquely twisted into its contemporary form reflecting its own peculiar origins. Shrapnel was free for collecting with no long-term ambitions to trade the fragments for anything other than different shrapnel, so it escaped the impression of marketplace values (although shrapnel is now traded on ebay and in collector communities).
All collecting involves some aspiration for control in the way assemblages are used to categorize the world and social life, and objects associated with violence in the case of shrapnel or nature’s unpredictable fury in the case of meteorites certainly aspire to establish some control over the things we cannot control. Any rock bears the symbolism of deep geological time, and many people collect geological specimens that weave this story of time and geological complexity. Yet meteorites invoke that primal depth of time and nature while underscoring its unpredictability and reflecting that some people are wary of scientific explanations. For many such observers, meteorite fragments are less about exchange value than their symbolic illumination of the depths of nature and humans’ absence of control over nature.
Oliver C. Farrington
1901 A Century of the Study of Meteorites. Popular Science Monthly 58:429-433.
1913 Meteorite Collecting and Collections. Proceedings of the American Association of Museums VII:11-15.
1995 Siena, 1794: History’s Most Consequential Meteorite Fall. Meteoritics 30(5)540-541.
1996 Ernst Florens Friedrich Chladni (1756-1827) and the origins of modern meteorite research. Meteoritics and Planetary Science 31(5):545-588.
U.B. Marvin, and M.L. Cosmo
2002 Domenico Troili (1766): “The true cause of the fall of a stone in Albereto is a subterranean explosion that hurled the stone skyward.” Meteoritics and Planetary Science 37(12):1857-1864.
G.J.H. McCall, A.J. Bowden, and R.J. Howarth
2006 The History of Meteoritics—Overview. In The History of Meteoritics and Key Meteoritic Collections: Fireballs, Falls, and Finds, edited by G.J.H. McCall, A.J. Bowden, and R.J. Howarth, pp.1-13. London Geological Society, London.
2008 A Hard Rain: Children’s Shrapnel Collections in the Second World War. Journal of Material Culture 13(1):107-125.
Benld car seat image courtesy Shsilver
Krasnojarsk image courtesy Jon Taylor
Natural History Museum image courtesy H. Raab
Willamette 1906 image courtesy wikipedia
Willamette AMNH image courtesy Meteor
Few scholarly pursuits seem as visually arresting as archaeology: archaeological sites are often located in idyllic settings, artifacts can be captivating, archaeology labs invoke the power of science, and archaeologists routinely illuminate fascinating experiences. The compelling and often spectacular aesthetics of archaeological sites and artifacts make archaeology a staple for the press and a broader range of popular discursive spaces like blogs and video. Yet for some scholars the stereotypical visual representations of archaeology in the media reduce complex scholarship to its most hackneyed aesthetics. For some archaeologists, the focus on particular sorts of images betrays a deep-seated media (if not popular cultural) ignorance of all the complex nuances of archaeological interpretation. For some archaeologists the press and popular commentators inevitably distill archaeological scholarship to shallow and simplistic points whose liabilities and complications are glossed over by distracting if captivating images.
This has all been underscored in the last week since Richard III was recovered from a Leicester parking lot. Over a half millennium after he was dumped in a corner of a friary, Richard III has become a visual symbol of sorts, with images of the archaeological site, his corporeal remains, and his reconstructed visage suddenly familiar outside a tiny circle of academics. A google image search for Richard III turns up scores of Richard III paintings alongside images of his skull, facial reconstructions, pictures of the likes of Laurence Olivier, Ian McKellen, Kevin Kline, and Kevin Spacey portraying the lost monarch, Richard III memes, and even Richard III manga. What Richard III symbolizes in these representations is complicated: Richard’s images may be ambiguous signifiers for archaeology, science, and heritage, but much of the press coverage may represent nothing more than aesthetically arresting images and a fascinating if shallowly told story. However, there are some truly compelling reasons we are drawn to these remains that have more to do with our imagination about the past than shallow media theatre.
The news coverage of Richard III has seized on predictable elements to weave a compelling story: the ignominy of a monarch’s remains residing haphazardly in a hole in a parking lot; Michael Ibsen—a 16-generations-removed descendant of Richard III—covering a swab with his DNA-soaked saliva so that science might confirm the fate of the long-dead King; the radar survey of the parking lot (oddly enough, supervised by re-enactors in period armor), which guided the well-placed excavation units; the emotionally involving images of battle wounds, Richard’s curved spine, and bodily post-mortem humiliation; and the chance to look “into the King’s eyes” through the facial reconstruction.
It is somewhat unfair to cast the Richard III narrative as a typical archaeological story: though this is hard for Americans to fathom, for the British Richard III is in many ways a mythic figure who has now been given a material form by archaeology. Richard III’s remains fan what Michael Shanks refers to an “archaeological imagination“ mediating between past and present and turning these monarch’s bones found in a multicultural Midlands parking lot into a compelling narrative. They may be unique in their newly secured status as royal remains, but Richard III and the popular consumption of his new archaeological narrative illuminates many commonplace challenges of archaeological representation and underscores how archaeological stories secure a footing in public discussion.
Much of the reaction against the Richard III archaeology revolved around the sense of archaeological theater crafted by the Leicester press conference. For instance, Times Higher Education questioned presenting the preliminary Richard III findings in a press conference prior to peer-review; The Guardian’s Paul Lay likened the press conference to “a cerebral X Factor” and suggested that the “University of Leicester, while rightly proud of the forensic skills of its archaeological team, has milked this for all it’s worth, abandoning impartiality”; and Cambridge historian Mary Beard skeptically tweeted over the historical relevance of the project and was answered by a hale of tweets critical of her apparent contemptuousness for the popular interest in the project.
The discussion over how archaeology becomes part of popular discussion revolves around a few things raised by the Richard III project. First, it illuminates what we think is “significant”—for archaeologists, the friary and monarch’s bones may assume different meanings than they do for media or the masses. The University of Leicester’s Lin Foxhall cautioned against resisting popular interest in Richard III, arguing that “For academics to suggest that the only important questions are the ones we ourselves formulate is arrogant and patronizing.” Second, it may simply bring into question what is archaeology at all—in some press coverage, archaeology does appear to be a particularistic story-telling mechanism that merely seizes on neat things like bones and valuables. Third, at what point is archaeology sacrificing scholarly rigor to allow a complex story to be boiled down to its most simplistic elements? Fourth, why are we fascinated by these bones at all? Even if we establish that this is indeed Richard III–and that case seems persuasive to me–archaeologists are still left to answer why these bones and so many other artifacts have such power and how we should wield that power in public space.
Some of the apprehension comes from observers who worry that research agendas are driven by media or University administrators. Historian Catherine Fletcher, for instance, was cautious that “Amid the excitement over Richard III we should be conscious of how news values shape the history we see on TV and in the press. Imagine that the Leicester archaeologists had uncovered not a royal grave, but a grave of some peasant farmers, results from which completely changed the picture of what we know about human nutrition in the fifteenth century. Not so glamorous, but just as important in understanding the past – perhaps more so. … In an environment where marketing, PR and generating ‘impact’ are increasingly important for universities, it’s worth stopping and thinking about the values of historians, journalists and TV programme-makers.” Institutions like universities are eager to demonstrate “impact”: in the UK, impact is defined by the Research Excellence Framework system as “all kinds of social, economic and cultural benefits and impacts beyond academia, arising from excellent research.” The system assessing “impact” rates universities and has significant funding implications, so the term is by no means without political and material consequence. In the US, many universities and state and federal agencies are equally committed to demonstrating “civic engagement,” so many archaeologists in the US and UK alike are encouraged or even required to demonstrate the pertinence of scholarship.
Charlotte Higgins’ analysis of the press conference in The Guardian took aim on how “impact” distorts scholarship, arguing that the Richard III project is “rather a limited avenue of historical research that seems to have much to do with the dread word `impact’ – in which academics are supposed to show that their work has `real-world’ effects, whatever that might mean, though often interpreted to include public recognition and media coverage. The affair as a whole – notwithstanding the undoubted integrity, skill and commitment of the individuals at work – seems to me to have been managed in a way that is more about fulfilling the dead-eyed needs of the Research Excellence Framework (the highly contentious new scheme for assessing university research) than with pursuing a genuinely intellectual field of enquiry.” Bristol archaeologist Neville Morley likewise cautioned about the pressure to demonstrate “impact” and court popular media shape scholarly questions: “the publicity fluff is a means of getting funding for more serious research, and can probably all be counted under ‘Impact’ in order to justify spending public funds–the public would be indifferent bordering on hostile to the idea that researching late medieval health is a worthwhile activity, but happy to pay for the disinterment of someone they’ve heard of. But at what point does the publicity game take over, and the need for a gimmick to ‘justify’ the project start becoming the real driver of the project?”
For some academics, imperatives to address “impact” and “engagement” hazard turning academics into hucksters for their projects and melting the perceived distance between profit-driven institutions and the “pure knowledge” of the academy. Paul Lay sounded such a caution in The Guardian, noting that the Richard III presentation “does shed light on the future of history in this country. The University of Leicester, while rightly proud of the forensic skills of its archaeological team, has milked this for all it’s worth, abandoning impartiality … aware of the need to make the widest public splash in these days of impact. Leicester city council’s involvement, too, smacks of the imperatives of urban regeneration and ignores the fact that Richard found only death in the city where he will now be buried.” The implication is that such codes distort the scholarly process by making research take a form profoundly influenced by politicians, university administrators, local tourism boards, and the press instead of scholars.
Likewise, Mary Beard’s reaction was not especially critical of the scholarly conclusions as what she saw as the commercialism of the University of Leicester “overpromoting itself.” While Beard was blasted for her apparent self-righteousness, she sounded a common academic discomfort with “university commercial style marketing — the posters on campus telling you that the Uni of X is a `global leader’/`in pursuit of excellence’/`making great ideas come true’ or whatever. We’re universities for heavens sake, not companies — and we will be judged by our results, not by slogans. The first thing I saw when I looked at my screen was an absolute forest of logos proclaiming `University of Leicester’ … getting the brand out there.”
Some observers questioned the move to present the results in public before peer scholarly review, and Lin Foxhall agreed that “No responsible academic wants ‘publication by media’, especially when the media, not the scholars, control dissemination. Had we not been certain that our results were sufficiently robust to stand up to the normal processes of academic peer review, we would not have authorized a press conference.” Yet Mike Pitts’ “Digging Deeper” blog argues that the Leicester press conference was in many ways a confirmation of archaeology’s long-term embrace of public discourse, and the “press conference” was more like an academic conference than a shallow media presentation. Pitts suggests that much of the tenor of the Leicester press conference was in fact much like an orderly academic conference and not at all like the stereotype of a press conference. After an introduction, “Six specialists then talked about their respective fields, starting with Richard Buckley on the archaeology, with pictures on a screen. At major presentations at the Antiquaries, selected people in the audience are pre-warned that they will be asked for comment. So in Leicester, we had prepared reactions from six people, followed – as at the Antiquaries – by questions from the floor. If that sounds like an academic conference, it was like an academic conference. The major difference was that Leicester was better than a typical group of talking academics. … Each presentation followed logically from its predecessor, and they added up to a coherent story that was brought to a conclusion by Buckley.”
Pitts argues that while many historians and other academics may be new to sharing their research with the media and public, archaeologists have long been accustomed to sharing their material with the public long before peer review, including countless archaeological site tours, myriad local media stories, and museum exhibits. Lin Foxhall reminded observers that from the very outset of the project the Richard III analysis was being fervently followed, and while they knew there would be popular curiosity, the “extent or intensity of global media interest in the story surprised us, and has been almost unrelenting since then. We were very cautious in our initial announcement. We made clear that far more research was needed, that many different lines of evidence had to be explored and the results brought together.” As Foxhall argues, the Leicester team certainly was under unique pressure from a variety of quarters to share the results of their analysis and eager that those results did not get publicized by anyone other than the research team itself.
University of Bristol archaeologist Mark Horton admitted some reservations that the orchestrated presentation was “a bizarre way of going about things,” but Horton was persuaded by the data and concluded that “it is jolly good fun, and any archeological find that captures the public’s imagination in this way has got to be a good thing.” Horton provides one of the most powerful summaries of the excavation’s long-term significance when he connects the more than 500-year-old monarch’s bones to contemporary Leicester, which he recognizes as “one of the UK’s most multicultural cities. Here is British history that can be embraced by the people of Leicester, whatever their ethnic background. The remains will stay in the city, providing local excitement and a heritage buzz for years to come. Our history lessons will return to focusing on the kings and queens of England.”
What the Richard III findings once again underscore is that what we define as “significant” is inevitably shaped by the imperatives of politicians and state ideologues, the unpredictable imagination of popular interest, and scholars’ own experiences outside the academy. It is perhaps true that how University administrators respond to such directives is different than how scholars in the academy view them, and we all manage how we share our knowledge in distinctive ways: some of us focus on what we provide to students, others may conduct community-based projects, and some may embrace dynamic media-driven projects, but few academics can be stereotyped as the ivory tower scholar sequestered in the university working on some ancient text that is irrelevant to the rest of society.
Yet the press in particular and public representation in general can provide challenges: reporters can be immensely willful and even a little bit over-important, they virtually never know anything about archaeology, and many archaeologists are wary after having stories twisted into forms we did not really intend. Much of the press’ attraction to archaeology fixes on its powerful visuality and materiality, which provides a compelling aesthetics as well as a truly tactile sensory dimension to narratives about alien places and peoples in the past, but those visuals, captivating details of the past, and the inexpressible imaginative curiosity they foster sometimes ignore the challenging stories archaeological scholarship can tell. It appears that the University of Leicester Archaeological Services tried to control the initial facts and telling of this particular story, knowing that what people make of it in popular culture is now out of their hands despite an effort to scientifically paint the case for attribution. This will indeed mean that some recounting of the story will lend it some narrative flourishes if not outright ideological interpretations, but the Leicester archaeologists probably aspired simply to control the fundamental facts of the archaeological analysis. That is sure to be simplified in some tellings and distorted in others, but this is simply what happens when powerful things evoke rich and contested pasts.
We might conclude that archaeology is a poor fit to the “sound-bite” logic of most mass media and that any entrance of archaeological scholarship into popular culture inevitably simplifies it and hazards stripping it of all rigor. However, given the permanent public curiosity in archaeological data and narratives and the many governments that are committed to public scholarship, we are compelled to think about how we can share our interpretation. The problem with “real archaeology” is that it happens over long spans of excavation and analysis boredom punctuated by insights that sometimes simply surface in random conversations, are spurred by colleagues and community constituencies, or slowly emerge in the lengthy process of writing and delivering papers. That archaeological process is not especially amenable to many media representations that aspire to cut directly to the heart of a story and illustrate it with incisive quotations and captivating images. Instead, archaeology is less like HBO and a lot more like C-SPAN: that is, we work at the pace of real life while television, newspapers, and the internet slice that monotonous everyday life into its most apprehensible and interesting moments providing spectacular summaries of prosaic lives. We do not need to go the route of PT Barnum descending to mere performance artists, and we do not need to become Heinrich Schliemann weaving exciting but utterly contrived tales of discovery that simply portray who we wish to see in the mirror. But we do need to do our best to present archaeological knowledge in thorough and systematic ways and take advantage of the chances we get to tell people about all the compelling stories archaeology provides beyond finding a lost monarch’s bones.
Richard III excavation images courtesy University of Leicester
Richard III at Madame Tussauds courtesy mharrsch
This week no archaeological story has received more press than the confirmation that a skeleton excavated in Leicester in September 2012 is indeed the mortal remains of Richard III, the last Plantangenet King of England. Archaeology often is aesthetically compelling and provides a fascinating narrative, and in this case a thorough and compelling scientific study and the tale of a king slain in battle, ending his line in the ignominy of an anonymous hastily dug grave, is especially captivating. The presentation of that data on Monday—and some observers’ qualms about how such scholarship is presented in public space—actually sound some interesting questions about the public presentation of archaeology.
Richard III’s two year reign ended in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field, which ended the War of the Roses and ushered in the Tudor dynasty. Richard’s corpse reportedly was stripped, thrown across horseback, and taken to nearby Leicester, where it was on view in the church of the Greyfriars and subsequently buried. The church itself was razed during the 1530’s dissolution of the monasteries, and for over four centuries Richard’s mortal remains were lost.
In September 2012 the University of Leicester Archaeological Services conducted an excavation in a parking lot at the likely Greyfriars site. The Leicester archaeologists were sober about the likelihood they would recover Richard III, but they recognized the site would certainly provide medieval and post-medieval material, and they conducted a radar survey and the subsequent excavations. Against all odds a skeleton was identified on the first day of excavations. The remains had severe wounds and a pronounced skeletal curvature suggesting the body could be that of Richard III, and carbon dating, osteological analysis, and DNA testing with Richard’s living descendants demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that the body was indeed that of Richard III.
The University of Leicester was justifiably proud of their ULAS excavation team, and on February 4th they had an elaborate public program at which the Leicester scholars presented the results of their analyses. The unveiling of the rich archaeological data and the fascinating detective tale conducted by the Leicester archaeological team was good theater, and I was among the archaeology geeks who woke up before daybreak to watch the news being streamed and monitor twitter as the analysis was shared publicly for the first time.
Yet a few voices have expressed chagrin at the corporate overtones of a scholarly presentation that for some critics seemed orchestrated for the benefit of university fund-raising or to boost Midlands’ tourist business. For instance, Mary Beard complained in The Times Literary Supplement that “What put me off was a nexus of things to do with funding, university PR, the priority of the media over peer review, and hype … plus the sense that–intriguing as this was, a nice face to face moment with a dead king–there wasn’t all that much history there, in the sense that I understand it.” Bristol Professor Neville Morley whined that “I know it’s all about money; the publicity fluff is a means of getting funding for more serious research … But at what point does the publicity game take over, and the need for a gimmick to ‘justify’ the project start becoming the real driver of the project?”
The Leicester team’s scholarship certainly is rigorous, well-defended, and absolutely compelling, and many of the critics at least circumspectly accepts their conclusions. Yet Neville Morley is skeptical if not contemptuous of the project’s significance, arguing that “the newsworthiness of an archaeological discovery is probably in inverse proportion to its actual significance, certainly if the excitement about this one is anything to go by. On balance – and in the absence of any of the detailed evidence – it looks like it is the body of Richard, but I don’t think that tells us anything very interesting either way.” The Guardian’s culture blogger Charlotte Higgins reduced the press conference to interesting but shallow artifice meant to demonstrate public impact, raise money for the University, and masquerade as “good” scholarship: “Yes, no doubt it will help the department secure funding (which is surely what all the jamboree was about, in the end). All of that is fine. But it’s not really history, not in any meaningful sense.”
What these comments reveal has nothing to do with the scholarly impact of the Leicester project. These relatively isolated voices refuse to accept that some essential dimension of good scholarship can in fact be informed by popular curiosity. As Morley and Higgins retreat back to the ivory tower, most academics like the scholars in the ULAS are actively part of their communities and doing rigorous scholarship that weighs popular curiosity and does not have the audacity to suggest that there are some timeless scholarly questions impervious to the sands of time or the sentiments of society. The University of Leicester page detailing the excavations is indeed a clever and thorough presentation that recognizes the popularity of archaeology as well as this particular historical narrative, and their telling is good science and good story-telling.
These kinds of scholars resisting popular culture are increasingly rare, repelled by the impression of the popular on any academic scholarship. Some academics want to present their research, science, and knowledge in particular sort of conventional forms and are not warm to the notion of press conferences and half-hour television shows. Beard ostensibly fears that such orchestrated presentations untrack the scientific process, expressing reservations over “a complicated bit of scientific analysis being given its first outing in a Press Conference, not ever having been through the process of peer review. DNA evidence is tricky and any scientist would want their results peer evaluated before going completely public. … But the idea of the publication of research by press conference isn’t one I feel very comfortable with (as a member of the public, I want not just a story, but a validated story).” But this aside is really only a smokescreen for her anxiety over “the question of whether media interest starts to set research agendas. This runs through many areas, but especially archaeology. … I’m quite prepared to believe that this skeleton is Richard III (he’s where we would have expected him after all) — but he is part of a climate which pushes people to celebrity history and archaeology, and may even detract from more important work that doesn’t have that glitz.”
The increasingly common presentation of archaeology in popular media and as a media-friendly face for the academy inevitably casts archaeology in stereotypical ways. Can television shows or thorough press conference like the ULAS session actually capture a complex archaeological analysis? Maybe the more challenging question is instead can archaeology make the complexities of past experiences and materiality interesting in a more satisfying way than popular culture? I believe in scholarly rigor and understand that complex historical and academic narratives cannot be easily reduced to palatable popular representations, but every archaeological and historical narrative is inevitably itself “incomplete” or might be interpreted in fresh ways by other scholars. I am not very sympathetic to the judgmental voices that believe archaeology in particular and academic knowledge in general must take a highly specific form, and it at best suggests a lack of creativity to be unable to fathom that interesting and academically relevant research questions can be asked of essentially any material data.
Theoretically we are all receptive to the idea that we should raise imaginative children who explore the world and creatively daydream about who they are and can become. We all realize that such daydreaming and imagination are what happen as children play, so adults typically try to find toys that provide rich possibilities for play. There are myriad reasons particular toys are favored by many kids—the overwhelmingly weight of marketing, the sway of popular culture, and the impression of other kids all matter–, but the most popular toys provide a breadth of play possibilities, revolve around compelling symbolism, and accommodate the unpredictable creativity of children.
The practical challenge with toys is that most parents are not especially enthusiastic to encourage their own children to push the envelope on moral codes, dominant ideologies, and proscribed gender, social, and political roles. Yet children use toys to literally play with their own sense of selfhood, crafting and testing their class, sexuality, ethnicity, gender, materiality, and every other possible dimension of self as they become social animals sharing the creative dimensions of play. Anybody with the ethnographic experience of parenting realizes that kids know that all rules are made up and imposed by adults; those dominant rules may cast the world in terms a kid finds disinteresting (or even disempowering), so play often repudiates imposed rules. Yet for plenty of parents and moral ideologues, manufacturers and thoughtful adults need to monitor and perhaps control the “play possibilities” provided by various toys so that playing with those toys will produce particular types of desirable adults.
Barbie presents an especially rich range of play possibilities: Barbie is a bodily form that materializes gender and sexuality, dimensions of selfhood that even the youngest children recognize, but that creative window provokes widespread adult anxiety. Many apprehensive adults caution that Barbie does not provide a “realistic” role model, which may refer to her embrace of consumption, her relationships with men, or her physical form. That complaint is worth taking seriously, but it risks misunderstanding the richness of play, which is not necessarily goal-directed and often actively avoids “reality”; and it hazards misunderstanding the breadth of factors alongside toys that shape how we view gender, sexuality, and any other dimensions of selfhood. A truly “realistic” toy, much like a television show true to the pace of everyday life, would simply be boring, but toys that hyperbolize some recognizable dimensions of the real world—like Barbie’s bodily form—provide more interesting frameworks for play.
Many of the criticisms of Barbie and how it frames children’s play revolve around the distorted bodily form of the doll and Barbie’s breast-to-hips ratio. Those critics may feel vindicated by the startling appearance of Ukranian model Valeria Lukyanova, who has reshaped her body to resemble Barbie (in her telling, the radical makeover was effected completely through one breast surgery, a liquid diet, and extensive gym trips). Lukyanova first drew attention in April 2012 when Jezebel remarked on the Ukranian’s distinctively artificial, doll-like look and a series of online observers fixed on the model’s “inauthenticity.” Lukyanova seems to draw particular ire for her proud pronouncements that she is a “living doll,” with her own web page describing her as the “real life Barbie doll of Russia.” Lukyanova exclaims that “I’m happy I seem unreal.”
This may be nothing more than one person’s odd appeal for media attention to support her career lecturing on New Age spirituality, but Lukyanova is not alone adopting the guise of a doll. Forbes ridiculed the spate of Ukranian women modeling themselves on the beauty ideals of dolls, calling it a “Barbie doll syndrome” in which women reveal or perhaps try to attain “impossible standards of beauty.” The Kyiv Post reported on Lukyanova and friend Olga Oleynik as well as Anastasiya Shpagina, who wears dense anime-style makeup, and there are enough of these “human dolls” that EXpose Barbie takes illuminating these people as its central mission.
The apparent wave of Ukranian women imitating doll aesthetics follows in a line of women who have sculpted their bodies with the same goal, and Cindy Jackson is perhaps the best-known of those figures. Jackson’s book Living Doll details Jackson’s quest to fashion herself in the image of Barbie, because “Through Barbie I could glimpse an alternative destiny.” Sarah Burge likewise has physically modeled herself on Barbie with the intervention of over 100 surgical procedures, and when “she married husband Tony three years ago, she dressed as a Barbie.” For many horrified observers, this is not self-empowerment—which is certainly how Jackson and Burge present their extensive surgeries–but instead a dismaying alienation to one’s own body. Perhaps even more unsettling is a surgical “vaginal rejuvenation” procedure referred to as “the Barbie” in some quarters that is a radical labiaplasty removing the entire labia minor. While the dismay over plastic surgery focuses on women’s cosmetic surgery, American Justin Jedlica has spent over $100,000 fashioning himself into a likeness of Ken.
It is difficult to fathom precisely how a toy like Barbie shapes any given child’s vision of themselves, but certainly Barbie has had a profound influence on how we see beauty and gender. The sort of uncertainties about beauty and sexuality that challenge many adolescents probably do not fuel the overdone cosmetic surgery careers of caricatures like Valeria Lukyanova, but clearly some people have significantly unsettling anxieties about their bodies and selves that can be fanned by Barbie symbolism. Nevertheless, Barbie sometimes looms as an easy target that is sloppily used to refer to a broad range of ideologies embedded in the discourses that socialize children. In November, 2000, for instance, Time’s Amy Dickinson took aim on Barbie when she noted that “Women my age know whom to blame for our own self-loathing, eating disorders and distorted body image: Barbie.” The reality, of course, is more complicated and reaches into the heart of a patriarchal society whose ideological values are reproduced by Barbie and a universe of discourses and material things.
In Mattel’s earliest testing with parents the company found that parents were apprehensive of presenting their children with the breasty adult toy. In a marketplace flooded with infantilized baby dolls, Barbie broke radically with the norm and encouraged children to envision adult womanhood. To negotiate parents’ concerns about the sexualized implications of Barbie, Mattel has long argued that Barbie demonstrates how to be a well-disciplined adult woman in control of her own destiny, and advertisements have always coached kids to take aim on their parents by “selling” the doll based on that positive adult role model status. Mattel hired Ernest Dichtler to conduct testing on the doll to gauge how it would be received, and Dichtler suggested Mattel must “convince Mom that Barbie will make a `poised little lady’ out of her raffish, unkempt, possibly boyish child. … Remind Mom what she believes deep down but dare not express: Better her daughter should appeal to a man in a sleazy way than be unable to attract one at all.” Dichtler’s advice seems somewhat at odds with itself, advocating style and adult agency even as it preyed on parents’ anxiety that a daughter might need to wield their sexuality to secure some of their ambitions. The very first Barbie ad appealed expressly to girls with a focus on fashion consumption and the suggestion that girls should imagine they will one day be “beautiful like you.”
It is notoriously difficult to assess how much any single toy shapes how adults later view themselves, so studies of Barbie cannot provide much clarity without simultaneously examining a whole range of other elements. In 2004, for instance, Tara L. Kuther and Erin McDonald conducted a study of Barbie based on interviews with sixth-grade through eight-grade boys and girls and concluded that most girls consider Barbie’s body “unrealistic”: “The girls viewed Barbie as the image of perfection, and perhaps too perfect, yet she defines physical beauty.” Yet what might actually constitute “realism” or “perfection” is unclear, and what may be most interesting is that children believe some sort of idealized authenticity can be secured. Kuther and McDonald expressed genuine surprise at the number of children who related stories of what they referred to as “torture-related play,” which included cutting the dolls’ hair, painting them, or removing limbs. Casting this as “torture” risks sounding unintentionally judgmental, and such creative modification of toys in general and Barbies in particular is likely familiar to any parent. Anybody who has surveyed boxes of Barbies being sold at flea markets will realize that secondhand Barbies exhibit a wide range of creative hair styles, magic marker tattoos, and horrific injuries received in Barbie camper fires. Kuther and McDonald suggest that such “torture-related play may reflect girls’ ambivalence about their female status and the societal notions of femininity and beauty,” but all societal norms inspire some ambivalence, so the deeper question is specifically what about gender and sexual norms inspires apprehension among the children playing with Barbies and how does Barbie fan (or quell) such apprehensions.
In a 2000 study in Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, Jacqueline Reid‐Walsh and Claudia Mitchell argue that children play with Barbie in a vast range of non-sanctioned ways, an argument also made by Erica Rand’s Barbie’s Queer Accessories. Reid-Walsh and Mitchell do not dispute that children may receive problematic messages from Barbie discourses, but they also argue that for many children playing with the doll was a positive experience. Rather than polarize Barbie’s meaning in play, they advocate for a position that acknowledges the ideological incorporation performed by the doll while acknowledging the ways the doll provides an empowering imagination of women’s ambitions. In her founding moments, Barbie was certainly politically forward-thinking in some critical and empowering ways for at least one generation of children. For instance, Barbie initially did no housework, a reflection of founder Ruth Handler’s ambition to have Barbie model lofty ambitions for a young, professional working woman. Through 1963 39 additional outfits and over 36 fashion Paks were introduced for Barbie, and with the exception of the 1963 “Barbie Baby-Sits” outfit Barbie did not do any conventional domestic labor. In 1965, though, several new outfits including “Barbie Learns to Cook” were introduced. In 1970 a girl raised a sign at the Women’s Strike for Equality reading “I am Not a Barbie Doll,” reflecting underlying tensions with the play options and gender constructions Mattel was providing. Barbie remains effective in the face of such protests because she ambitiously invokes some traditional and comfortably familiar notion of gender roles even as she embraces the ambitions of women. Yet Barbie was at least in her earliest years posing a genuine alternative for many women, and even in her more conservative moments some children have turned the doll to progressive ends.
Barbie’s corporeal form, fascination with fashion and aesthetics, and embrace of consumption present some genuine dilemmas, but the focus on toys that might somehow produce a “real girl” risks appearing to endorse a conventional and universal notion of womanhood. Whatever notion of womanhood Valeria Lukyanova is aspiring to reproduce is itself an ideological ideal that is only socially dangerous if it becomes a mass expectation, and given the visibility of models with genetically distinctive bodies we should be wary of the way such aesthetics impact children. Nevertheless, play does not seek especially strategic goals as much as it experiments with possibilities, and a sufficiently creative kid can reconfigure even the most ideologically stultifying Barbie play situations and wreak the creativity that Kuther and McDonald somewhat unfortunately referred to as ”torture play.”
“Real” beauty or womanhood is at best an ideological ambiguity, and toys are perhaps less about clear role model testing as they are about the creativity of assessing societal norms. Productive play seems to include some creative rejections of certain social mores, and in fact many adults chafe against many of those same codes and recognize those against which we cannot push. The invocation of an ideal descended from a plastic toy is ludicrous, and in the hands of even a creative child the “Barbie ideal” is slightly unsettling: understandably, we worry that some children cannot critically assess such public shows of gender and sexuality. Barbie is by no means a “blank slate” onto which a child can imagine anything, but the individual reception of Barbie meanings and broader toy symbolism is rooted profoundly in how parents and adults acknowledge the fluidity of gendered norms and resist a universe of disempowering gender symbolism.
1995 Barbie, my liberator. In Re‐visioning feminism around the world. Feminist Press, New York.
Tara L. Kuther and Erin McDonald
2004. Early adolescents’ experiences with, and views of, Barbie. Adolescence 39(153):39-51. Subscription access.
1994 Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll. William Morrow, New York.
Marlys J. Pearson and Paul R. Mullins
1999 Domesticating Barbie: An Archaeology of Barbie Material Culture and Domestic Ideology. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 3(4):225-259.
1999 Barbie’s Queer Accessories. Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina.
Jacqueline Reid‐Walsh and Claudia Mitchell
2000 “Just a Doll”?: “Liberating” Accounts of Barbie‐Play. Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 22(2):175-190. Subscription access.
On New Year’s Day 1923 a crowd of Whites marched on the Black community of Rosewood, Florida seeking retribution for an alleged assault on a White woman by a Rosewood resident. A group of White men captured an African American, Sam Carter, and shot him and hung his lifeless body, but by January 4th a brewing mob marched on Rosewood, angered by the suggestion Rosewood had provided refuge to Carter. Two Whites were killed in their initial assault, and by January 6 hundreds of Whites had migrated to Rosewood and set the whole town ablaze, with at least eight people eventually dead in the aftermath and nothing left standing.
Like much of the landscape of racism and extra-legal violence, Rosewood appeared to have been easily submerged in America’s historical amnesia about the depths of racist violence. Yet increasingly more of these spaces of shame are now being memorialized in a public acknowledgment of a variety of injustices inflicted on ordinary innocent people. Some of this memorialization involves formal material markers; some involves genuine reparations (e.g., nine of Rosewood’s victims received a financial reparation in 1994); some have been studied anew by the state (e.g., in 2001, Oklahoma conducted an official report on the 1921 Tulsa race riot); and some sites remain largely unacknowledged, submerged in grassroots memory but not yet in something we might circumspectly refer to as “public memory.”
Moments like Rosewood are akin to the fanatical Anti-Black anxieties that exploded in Tulsa (1921), East St. Louis (1917), Houston (1917), Elaine (Arkansas 1919), Omaha (1919), Knoxville (1919), and Chicago (1919), where massive race riots exploded taking aim on African-American communities. Other spaces witnessed the seemingly random, anti-Black terror of public lynchings and mob murders that have now secured some measure of public reflection, and the spaces of public executions, urban displacement, and anti-Black state policies and violence are slowly joining the same discourses.
Many of these moments lost any recognizable footprint on the landscape and were reduced simply to violent aesthetics—images of riot scenes, postcards of lynchings—that appear to contemporary eyes as horrifying but alien experiences of unknown people from a distant moment. Ken Gonzales-Day’s brilliant project “Erased Lynchings” underscores how mundane the landscape of lynching violence was: when the corpses of murder victims are removed from period images, the crowds gathered to witness death are absolutely prosaic and the spaces seem utterly commonplace. Landscapes changed over time, trees were torn down, public spaces took on new shapes, and former prisons were torn down or took on new roles, so much of the visual evidence of riots and lynchings documents spaces that look quite different now.
The now-prosaic landscape risks concealing the horror concealed in many such spaces. Harvey Young has chronicled how many lynching scenes were instantly dismantled and the bodies of victims themselves were dismembered by souvenir hunters who took trees, rope, clothing, and body parts as mementoes of the experience. In 1899, for example, after a Maysville, Kentucky lynching the victim was burnt and the newspaper reported that spectators “carried away pieces of ﬂesh and the negro’s teeth. Others got pieces of ﬁngers and toes and proudly exhibit the ghastly souvenirs to-night.” In 1901, a Terre Haute, Indiana man who had likewise been hung and then burnt was dismembered and his toes sold at the scene as relics. When a reporter visited the scene of a 1911 lynching a few weeks after the Coatesville, Pennsylvania event, he found nearly nothing left: grass was burnt away from the blaze in which Zachariah Walker had been burnt alive, neighboring fences were demolished for souvenirs, and all that remained of Walker fit into a small box. A famous photograph of two men lynched in Marion, Indiana in August, 1930 has two women in the foreground holding swatches of fabric that were likely keepsakes torn from the bodies of the victims. An image of the lynching displayed with a lock of hair and emblazoned “Klan 4th, Joplin MO, 33” is almost certainly hair of the victims that was displayed by the fourth Klan in Joplin.
Ironically, as communities aspired to rationalize an act of mass violence and forget the space in which it occurred, they nonetheless often held onto material trappings that evoked that very event. Young argues that these human keepsakes were distinctive material things that transformed a human into mere materiality but never fully rid themselves of the shadow of human meaning invested in the dismembered corpse. For those unable to attend the lynchings and riots, picture postcards were widely distributed: the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas was documented by a series of postcards documenting a grim spectacle taken over several hours in which 10,000 spectators set Washington ablaze, removed his genitalia, cut off his fingers, and removed his bones.
As the landscape was actively dismantled and declined through benign neglect, communities masked histories they hoped to forget even as those events persistently lurked beneath the surface of publicly condoned heritage. Yet throughout the US and much of the world such traumatic heritage is being placed onto the landscape in concrete forms. These “dark tourism” sites run a gamut of traumatic histories that reveal the absence of a consensus history; Erika Doss argues that memorialization in these contexts does not resolve shame as much as it sparks discussions that bear witness to the dignity of people who fell victim to racist violence. At the Art Race Space conference Doss argued that true shame does not lie in acknowledging and discovering shameful histories; instead, genuine shame is an unwillingness to confront such histories.
James Davidson and Edward Gonzalez-Tennant have contemplated the distinctive quandary of conducting an archaeology of Rosewood in lieu of archaeology at the site itself, whose current owners have denied descendants, scholars, and tourists access to the space, which has remained untouched in the intervening 90 years. Rosewood’s inaccessibility (despite being a Florida Heritage Landmark) has not prevented Gonzalez-Tennant from producing a “Virtual Rosewood” that connects to survivors’ oral histories, census records, a virtual tour, and videos of Rosewood today. Nevertheless, it is likely that people aspiring to forget such heritage recognize the power of archaeology to tell an absolutely compelling and challenging story about Rosewood.
Rosewood may be a distinctive event in some ways, but Davidson and Tennant argue that the American landscape includes numerous more racist riots, and violence is impressed into an exceptionally broad range of spaces that have now received community attention. One such episode came in South Carolina in 1947, when a Greenville taxi driver was robbed and stabbed. A 24-year-old African American, Willie Earle, was jailed, and a line of cab drivers drove to the Pickens County Jail along with a crowd that seized Earle. The crowd dragged Earle from the jail, beat him, and eventually shot him and left him on a roadside near a slaughterhouse. This memorialization process is certainly not without resistance: A 2010 commemorative marker erected at the site of Earle’s death was stolen in April, 2012 (the Rosewood marker has bullet holes in it); the former jail from which Earle was taken is now a county museum, and Jennie Lightweis-Goff lamented in her 2011 Blood at the Root: Lynching as American Cultural Nucleus that the museum says nothing about Earle’s murder.
Other communities have more successfully confronted their histories. In June, 1920 the circus passed through Duluth, Minnesota and a young man charged that his girlfriend had been sexually assaulted by several Black men working with the circus. The police chief lined the laborers along the train tracks the next morning and arrested six of them. A crowd of between 5000 and 10,000 people gathered at the jail and eventually stormed it, dragging out three men– Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie—and hanging them in the street before posing for pictures with the victims’ bodies.
The unmarked graves of the three men were located and markers were placed at the graves in 1991. In June, 2000 the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial committee was formed to acknowledge the lynching, construct a memorial, and use the discussion as a springboard for anti-racist community activism (e.g., see the Memorial Discussion Guide) In October, 2003 the Duluth Memorial was unveiled at the site of the lynching with the figures of Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie as part of a memorial including the Edmund Burke quote “An event has happened, upon which it is difficult to speak and impossible to remain silent.”
In 2006 the Duluth New Tribune editor expressed mixed feelings about memorializing lynchings, arguing that “there were 4,743 documented lynchings in America between 1882 and 1968, almost 3,500 of them black men. Even if memorials are done with decorum, as in Duluth, I don’t know if there should be a marker at every site. Four thousand, seven hundred forty-three memorials in town squares and highway rest stops would be a gruesome reminder across America.” It may indeed inspire apprehension among some people eager to cast racist violence as the products of other communities in distant places, but such a maneuver awkwardly dodges complicity in violence. Many more sites of comparable trauma certainly remain remembered but unmarked; many spaces like riot sites certainly contain concrete archaeological evidence, but in places like Rosewood the threat of that material history provokes apprehension for both undoing racist caricatures and sparking conversations about the impression of such violence on contemporary social life. Many of these landscapes witnessed brief events lynchings that left little material evidence, yet marking such spaces and telling these stories is certainly well within archaeological method. The challenge is less techniques of placing such heritage on the contemporary landscape as it is a challenge to overcome anxiety over the discussions that may follow. Yet the tenor of such discussions in many communities suggests that efforts to conceal such a heritage are always losing battles.
2004 Imagery of Lynching: Black Men, White Women, and the Mob. Rutgers University Press, Piscataway, New Jersey.
2011 Popular Justice: A History of Lynching in America. Ivan R. Dee, Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania.
Roy L. Brooks
2004 Atonement and Forgiveness : A New Model for Black Reparations. University of California Press, Berkeley.
Alfred L. Brophy
2003 Reconstructing the Dreamland : The Tulsa Riot of 1921: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation. Oxford University Press, New York.
James M. Davidson and Edward Gonzalez-Tennant
2008 A Potential Archaeology of Rosewood, Florida: The Process of Remembering a Community and a Tragedy. The SAA Archaeological Record 8(1):13-16.
Dennis B. Downey and Raymond M. Hyser
2011 Coatesville and the Lynching of Zachariah Walker: Death in a Pennsylvania Steel Town. The History Press, Charleston, South Carolina.
R. Thomas Dye
1996 Rosewood, Florida: The Destruction of an African-American Community. The Public Historian 58(3):605-622.
Maxine D. Jones, Larry E. Rivers, David R. Colburn, R. Tom Dye, and William W. Rogers
1993 Documented History of the Incident which Occurred at Rosewood, Florida, in January 1923. Report submitted to the Florida Board of Regents.
2011 Blood at the Root: Lynching as American Cultural Nucleus. SUNY Press, Albany, New York.
2006 A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
2008 American Pogrom : The East St. Louis Race Riot and Black Politics. Ohio University Press, Athens.
Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921
2001 Tulsa Race Riot: A Report by the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Report submitted to the State of Oklahoma.
2005 Emancipation Betrayed : The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920. University of California Press, Berkeley.
2010 Lynchings of Women in the United States: The Recorded Cases, 1851-1946. McFarland and Company, Jefferson, North Carolina.
Stewart Emory Tolnay, E. M. Beck
1995 A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930. University of Illinois Press, Urbana.
Kidada E. Williams
2012 They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I. New York University Press, New York.
2005 The Black Body as Souvenir in American Lynching. Theatre Journal 57:639–657.
Carter-Jackson-McGhie Memorial image courtesy artstuffmatters
Rosewood ruins image courtesy wikipedia
Rosewood sign image courtesy Richard Elzey
In 1979, Ralph Ellison captured the complicated notion of color line visibility and took aim on the apparent contradiction of being both Black and American. Ellison suggested that African America was “penalized not because of their individual infractions of the rules which give order to American society, but because they, like flies in the milk, were just naturally more visible than white folk. . . . In this dark light `high visibility’ and `in-visibility’ were, in effect, one and the same. And, since black folk did not look at themselves out of the same eyes with which they were viewed by whites, their condition and fate rested within the eye of the beholder.”
This week the Art, Race, Space symposium examines the relationship between aesthetics, material culture, and urban space along and across the color line and the complicated notion of visibility, power, and race that Ellison contemplated. Defined narrowly, the conference focuses on a late-19th century sculpture of a freed captive that artist Fred Wilson proposed recasting in 2007, but Wilson’s design was eventually deemed to be an unacceptable representation of the African diaspora. The broader issues that matter beyond Indianapolis revolve around the complicated question of precisely what constitutes Black materiality: that is, how do we see Black materiality, and how should we socially and materially represent Black experience in the early 21st century? How should we fashion the aesthetics of contemporary Black subjectivity filtered through 19th-century racial aesthetics, the weight of 20th-century anti-Black racism, and dynamic 21st-century, post-segregation identity politics?
The story of Fred Wilson’s project E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One) has been detailed in Modern Art Notes, Studio 360, Citizens Against the Slave Image, FredWilsonIndy, the Monument Circle Project, NUVO, Art:21, Kirk Savage’s blog, the Indianapolis Recorder, Art Avocado, Contempartnotes, and my own blog. My own sense is that much of the tension was over the concrete process by which this artwork was selected: that is, established Indianapolis sources of power rooted in class and racial privilege reaching back to the 19th century determined how to represent African American in a monumental piece of art meant to last indefinitely if not forever. In a city that has circumspectly embraced assertive grassroots politics, the monument plan and review process sparked profoundly strong feelings about public representations of African diasporan identity. Wilson hoped to redeem the freedman from the Soldier’s and Sailor’s Monument, where Whites placed him to transparently applaud their ability to secure freedom and forgive themselves for the racism that followed Emancipation. Yet by once again obscuring the process of determining how African Americans would be publicly represented (through no fault of Wilsons’), the review process risked repeating the racist patronage that produced the original statue a century ago.
The freedman was faced with an impossible mission to timelessly represent Black subjectivity, but he sounds a critical message about race in the late 19th century and the subsequent hundred years that revolves around the trope of visibility that Ralph Ellison placed at the heart of American experience. The visual metaphor captures the potential redemption promised by being seen authentically, as we are and can ideally be, and today many people do not consider 19th century racial conventions to be productive ways to make African diaspora publicly visible. Nothing could be more material than the African-American agency and anti-Black racism invested in every square inch of the American city, so the challenge is to recognize that heritage and the White privilege impressed in prosaic bus stops, abandoned lots, homogenous shopping malls, forgettable university campuses, and the Soldiers and Sailors Monument that betrays no consciousness of Blackness and the color line.
What might we make of the freedman in a moment that aspires to fragment the essential Black subject? Contemporary scholars routinely herald the demise of essentialized subjects that have been replaced by fluid identities. The potential death rites to a unified, recognizable Black subjectivity may be a reason for guarded optimism—a signal that anti-racist activism is rendering racialized subjects increasingly untenable and perhaps taking aim on long-disavowed White privilege—but it simultaneously provokes anxiety among White and Black people alike in the face of apparent racial ambiguity if not nothingness. A stable, clearly bounded African diasporan subjectivity is seductive to many of us—albeit for quite different reasons–but it ultimately is an inadequate representation of the dynamism of contemporary diasporan subjectivity.
Like the long-ignored freedman, the city’s broader landscape is an inelegantly evaded material testament to racial privilege: state office complexes, the IUPUI campus, the circuitous ribbon of interstates through the city’s heart, and mundane apartment complexes inhabit what were predominately African-American neighborhoods for more than a century. Nevertheless, these prosaic spaces pass without critical reflection and little or no acknowledgement that they are products of racist spatial engineering. In an early 21st-century post-segregation society, African-American heritage is perhaps more thoroughly masked than it was just a half-century ago. Crispus Attucks High School, Indiana Avenue, and a network of churches, stores, clubs, and homes in the near-Westside was a spatial refuge and the social heart of Black Indianapolis for a century. Consequently, as in most of early 21st-century urban America, much of historically African-American Indianapolis is today spatially displaced, literally erased, or ideologically effaced.
An understanding of the freedman and the discourse over his present-day re-casting needs to push beyond historically specific aesthetics and symbolism and connect him to the 20th and 21st century experience of space and the color line in urban America. The freedman can no longer aspire to being “authentic”: he is rooted in a persistent shared African consciousness and a half-millennium of capitalism and colonization, but African America looms uniquely within and outside the American experience. In a position shaped by African culture, a half-millennium of racist negotiation, the specter of 19th century racial stereotypes, and this post-segregation moment, perhaps the freedman’s burden is to provide us a sober, critical, and potentially redeeming mirror of American life. This what Richard Wright referred to when he pronounced that “the Negro is America’s metaphor” and argued that African American experience was American history told in its most “vivid and bloody terms.”
The conference web page has more information on the symposium. These thoughts are simply my own and do not represent the Conference Committee or other speakers at the symposium. See the PACE Gallery Fred Wilson bibliography for background on Wilson’s work.
1993 Case Study: Mining the Museum. Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution blog.
Rena Bransten Gallery
2012 Fred Wilson Press. Rena Bransten Gallery Web Page.
Callahan, John (editor)
1995 The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison. Random House, New York.
Cooks, Bridget R.
2011 Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum. University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst.
2009 Fred Wilson. Flyover Blog.
Globus, Doro (editor)
2011 Fred Wilson: A Critical Reader. Ridinghouse, New York.
Kitson, Thomas J.
1999 Tempering Race and Nation: Recent Debates in Diaspora Identity. Research in African Literatures 30(2):88-95. (subscription access)
Murray, Freeman Henry Morris
1916 Emancipation and the Freed in American Sculpture: An Interpretation. Published by the author, Washington, D.C.
2010 Letter to the Editor: Sculpture is Appalling. Indianapolis Recorder 16 September.
1997 Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.
Judith E. Stein
1993 Sins of Omission: Fred Wilson’s “Mining the Museum.” Judith E. Stein, Writer and Curator Blog.
2008 Monument image courtesy DRSPIEGEL 14
Monument Circle image courtesy Justin Harter
Monument Peace face close-up images by author
I am traveling in Europe this week, but for those interested in hipster materiality, my piece “Authentic Cool: Global Hipsters and Consumer Culture” is over at PopAnth. I will be back in the states and posting from home again anytime now.