More on Amy Schumer and Twelve Angry Men

In my last post, I discussed the Inside Amy Schumer parody of Twelve Angry Men. I want to say more about both today, because the more I think about it, the richer I think it is.

As I mentioned last time, I think part of the richness of the parody is how much it picks up on metaphors of citizenship and physicality that are already present the original film, just not so explicit. The jurors are representative men, and as such their physical imperfections represent them as average citizens. They get to do the things average citizens get to do. Speak. Vote. And voting’s less explicit daily analog, weigh in on an issue.

However, perceived physical imperfections in women often mark them as less than, and result in their being ignored and simply unrepresented. They cannot speak, or are unheard if they do. Amy plain jane amy sSchumer often mines exactly this vein, as exemplified in the Miami Vice parody “Plain Jane,” where the eponymous character (see picture) states, in voice-over, that she is “invisible to the perfect” and, in fact, other characters sit on her because they literally don’t see her on a bar stool. One picture is worth a thousand words; see this great clip here.

Well, um. I think the richness of the parody, though, is exactly how much it works within the ambiance of the original film, which is two-fold. Yes, looks are democratized; no one has to be handsome or hot to weigh in. But something else happens in the film about looks as well. Looks are also made a symbol of the inner man. And it is precisely the reliance on image as marker of inner worth that has particularly hit women hard—they are the carriers of it.

What do I mean about looks being made a symbol? I alluded to it briefly in the first post. Most of the characters look slightly odd in some way; only Henry Fonda has a classic symmetrical look—and his impressive looks mark him as morally better, and as the leader.

Outer looks as a symbol for the inner man is quite intentional in the film. I watched the Criterion 12 angry men jammed togetherCollection of Twelve Angry Men and, for anyone interested in film art, there is a highly informative second DVD included that includes interviews with (among other people) cinematographer John Bailey. Several interviewees mention the cinematographer Boris Kaufman, who director Sidney Lumet worked with to create a slightly eerie claustrophobic effect. Indeed, the pictures smash the people together to create a kind of “society and conformity oppress us” feel. (And, as a dance fan, I have to say that one memorable scene, below, where all the jurors distance themselves physically from a hold-out who wants a guilty verdict, and their moral disapproval is shown by distance and silence, looks highly influenced by the physical presentation of ballet.)12 angry men ballet

So, although there are plenty of words in Twelve Angry Men, film art has meant that meanings are often carried through images rather than words. The status of movies as a central art of the twentieth century has meant that images are more and more important to us. Nineteenth-century books are often a word torrent (390 pages is nothing!) with a single graphic in the frontispiece. In twenty-first century Web pages, on the other hand, images are often both frequent and gargantuan. Moreover, on news sites especially, the picture is often shorthand for the entire thing, rather than the headline. One’s looks, also, have increasingly become a short-hand symbol for the entire person. This is true for both women and men, but Schumer tackles the grittier issue facing women, of being invisible depending on how one looks, or being mediated only by your physicality, with no representative place in the world if you don’t have a physicality deemed acceptable. And this is partly a gender problem, but also part of a cultural turn toward image rather than words.

Amy Schumer and Twelve Angry Men

There has been a lot of talk in the critical world about the parody of the film Twelve Angry Men in the comedy show Inside Amy Schumer. (See, readers, I not only write blogs but I read a lot of blogs on Slate, Salon, and New Yorker, all of them abuzz with praises of this parody. It ran a few months ago, but I thought I would at least sing the praises of Inside Amy Schumer before I see her film Trainwreck.)

If you didn’t see/read the media hoopla on this and don’t watch the show, a bit of background: the parody takes the claustrophobic room with a jury sequestered inside from the 1950s film Twelve Angry Men, but instead of debating the guilt or innocence of an accused murderer, it is Amy Schumer herself who is on trial. The accusation: whether or not she is sexy enough to have a TV show. (Alas, although the episode-long parody was available for streaming in May, it now seems to be behind a pay wall, but do check YouTube or Comedy Central for clips. I’m at least giving you a picture that gets the point across. Here on the right, the parody; on the left below, the original, with a special inside amy s 12 angryshout-out to the actor in the center who parodied Lee J. Cobb, the original actor pictured alone on the left. Of a group of great parodists, he was the best.)

Most of the critical conversation has centered around the hilariously accurate mirroring of the film’s 1950s milieu: the black and white film, the clothes, the fan blowing air around in the age before air conditioning, the histrionic debates. Several, notably Salon’s Katie McDonough have gone a bit deeper, noting that the parody hits deeper than skits usually do by pinpointing the pain underlying men’s objectification of women.

12 angry menI want to put out another aspect that I think makes this parody kind of profound, one curiously uncommented on by anything I’ve seen so far. And that is the physicality that the 1950s film shares with the meaning of the parody. I saw the movie many years ago but I remember vividly being struck with the irregularity of the men’s faces in the film. They have wens. They have lumps (bulbous areas in both their faces and bodies). They have tics. Not only that: almost everybody is characterized by large waistlines, receding hair, unattractive lee j cobbeyeglasses.

I don’t say this to diss the guys’ overall appearance. In my initial viewing, I remember thinking something along the lines of “that’s how ordinary people looked in the 1950s.” Not a movie star style of attractiveness: these guys look more like Ralph Kramden or Ed Norton (if dressed in suits) than like 1950s icons of handsomeness Gregory Peck or Paul Newman. (Or for that matter, Henry Fonda, who, as the leader who is the voice of reason and charity, is the only actor with a symmetrical, handsome face. I have to disagree with Salon that the actors look like the originals: many of them strikingly do, but the actor in the “Fonda” role is just as asymmetrical and odd-looking as the others.)

And of course, if you do take them as very ordinary in looks, that’s an unstated part of the point. They are the very ordinary citizenry. They are called upon to do justice as interchangeable, unremarkable parts of a functioning democracy—the jurors. They start out dismissive of that responsibility (most of them want to get it over with as soon as possible, although they are weighing a death sentence). They do, though, in the end, through argument and debate, perform that justice. For all its focus on anger and hostility, the film seems to believe in the possibility of ordinary citizens serving justice (….as long as they have a good leader).

That subtext—that looking ordinary is a marker for an ordinary citizen—and that citizens might be called upon to do duty always implicitly theirs but seldom explicitly requiring action, even if they want to go to a ball game—forms an unspoken commentary in the parody. Because they are trying Amy Schumer for not being “bangable” enough to be on television. By extension, they are weighing whether ordinary women get to be public women with a public voice. (Yes, I know it’s television, but it is a metaphor for point of view and voice here, and also given the content of Inside Amy Schumer.) And it’s quite clear that the democracy of the body they enjoy—they get to speak and have a vote no matter how they look— is a) so implicit that they don’t even think about it and b) something they only grudgingly and ambiguously extend to her.


Let Us Now Consider Walker Evans, Part II

A few days ago, I wrote on American Photographs, an exhibit of the Depression-era photographs of Walker Evans, and my surprise at seeing how different these often-reproduced pictures looked in a museum setting. Well, readers, today I’m going to discuss Evans’s interest in symbols, and then what has become of representations he influenced.

Many of the pictures Evans took of businesses have a symbol that conveys the trade conducted Walker evans, shoeshinealong with the words telling viewers what was done there. The semiotics of such representation interested him. Many of his representations work with symbols and semiotics—so much so that I actually did a bit of research ‘cause I was curious to see if anybody had written about this aspect of his work. It doesn’t look like it has been. So, briefly, I’m going to!

Remember semiotics, reader? They are a type of symbol that conveys meaning without words. If you see a cluster of pink of red valentines (in chocolate boxes, cards, or balloons) in the local drugstore, for example, you do not need to be told “they are for Valentine’s day.” A pink or red valentine is associated with the holiday enough for the connection to be made wordlessly—purely by the symbol.

I think he is playing with symbolism in this intriguing photograph. Obviously, this is a photography Evans, entry to photography studiostudio, of a sort. The manicules point to the door where would-be portrait subjects walk in. (The idea of “photos” overwhelms the picture, to me, but it appears to be the entry to a driving school as well.) Like many of his photographs, it is of a business. But it’s also a photograph, unlike the others, that is about photography: the studio mirrors and recapitulates the actions of taking a picture. You walk into a dark place that seems to be in some way reminiscent of the aperture of a camera. Indeed, it is an aperture, in the sense of opening.

So Evans, early in his career, is having fun with the idea of photography and what auteur and subject do to make a photography. It’s even multiply determined, with the two manicules putting the entrant into their sights.

But the legacy of his photography has become, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, divested of play of European influence, or theory. Weather-beaten signage and old advertising logo’s like those pictured by Evans have been, for several decades now, a preferred décor in mid-level burger joints (those that proudly describe themselves so).

Indeed, what most struck me about this exhibit was the change in what the representations evoke. The same qualities that represented income inequality in the 1930s—the poor, weather-beaten quality of the wood and signage—now represents a sanitized past in those mid-level restaurants. A cheery past where 5¢ a photograph means that objects and services back then were cheap as water, easily affordable, and for everybody.

The forms are thus a fit subject for nostalgia. What they embody in these restaurants is a type of American optimism that takes posted, weather-beaten signs and prices as a guarantee of obstacles overcome, because stuff was so laughably low in price—and because history tells us that the hardships of the 1930s were eventually overcome. Perhaps this décor is a form of wish that obstacles in the present will also dissolve.

Let Us Now Consider Walker Evans, Part I

This post is going to continue my museum adventures. Last year, I went to the Museum of Modern Art to see American Photographs by Walker Evans, an exhibit that recreated his ground-breaking show of the 1930s, also at MOMA. (Last year’s exhibit celebrated the 75th anniversary of that exhibit, also called American Photographs.  The photographs were later captured in his book with James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, on southern sharecroppers during the 1930s.

For most of us, a lot of these photographs are quite familiar, particularly of the farm families in Alabama. Evans, Allie Mae BurroughsThe photograph on the left, of Allie Mae Burroughs, for example, I think of in the same category as Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother (below on the right); a kind of “we look at the 1930s poor and in them, see the human face” moment that have served as examples of American photography in the American century as long as I’ve been an adult. They exerted a lot of influence. Lange-MigrantMother02




So the surprise I’ll be talking about in this blog is how different they looked from what I thought I had gazed on so frequently, and how different Evans’s photography seemed as a result.

First, most are tiny. I include here a shot of MOMA’s book commemorating the exhibition, which displays a sheet of contact prints. Most of the photographs are Evans, book cover showing tiny imagesthe size of one of these prints.

And to top it off, they are surrounded by a great deal of white matte backing that dwarfs the image, so that the entire representation is about 8 ½ x 11, surrounded by silver frame. Part of the impact of seeing poverty in these two photographs has always been the “we look at the poor and see their human face” reciprocal gaze (or, semi-reciprocal semi-gaze).

But the size of the Evans photographs nearly obviates the possibility of reciprocity, as if we were looking through the wrong end of the telescope. (I have also included a picture of the Burroughs photograph on the wall—yet even that doesn’t convey the full effect of all that white space surrounding the figure. shot on the wall) The original size distances us from the subjects far more than their more conventional reproduction—as bigger—does.Evans, allie mae burroughs in context framed

The American Photographs project always seemed like an offshoot of American realism and filled with sympathy toward those portrayed. The sizing makes it clear that these are as much representations of another piece of realism, though—the scientific specimen—as much as of the human face. Evans seems much less sympathetic toward them as a result.

The museum’s notes on the exhibition also decenter these photographs slightly from an American context, making it clear that Evans was influenced by French photographers and their work documenting the working class. In fact, that piece of the exhibit shifted my idea of what Evans main reciprocity focus was: more on the art of other photographers then on his subjects, perhaps.

Part II soon!

Carrie Mae Weems is Wow, Part III

For my final post on photographer Carrie Mae Weems (see here and here for earlier posts on the recent retrospective exhibition of her work), I want to look at her “Constructing History” series. In it, she reappropriates iconic images from the 1960s to the near present, staging them with her students in tableaux and photographing the result.

At times, her image is fairly close to that of the iconic photographs, Suspended Belief, of Kent State killingssuch as the one from the National Guard-student confrontation at Kent State over the Vietnam War in the 1970s (first two images). Kent_State_massacreAt other times, like one representing the Dallas motorcade in which President Kennedy was shot (second two images), Weems makes a stylized version that foregrounds its very iconicity—it’s an image frozen in time and seemingly partly about its own fame. “Constructing History” shares concerns with “From Here I Saw What Happened” in that both are about a kind of photographic intertextuality:  how do we see these pictures in time?  Who speaks in these pictures, and who speaks back?

Unlike the earlier projects I’ve written about, however, “Constructing History” is fairly recent. The images were made in 2008, unlike “American Icons,” which is a product of the late 1980s, and “From Here I Saw What Happened,” which was done in the mid-1990s. What I particularly like about it is that it makes her concerns very explicit–how we each embody and have our own perspective on history. And, unlike her earlier series, it is not photographic only; the tableaux are available for viewing as well as the images made from them. (Part of the process of making them is shown in a video from Art21, the wonderful site about contemporary artists. The video also shows more images than her Web site does.)

In the tableaux and the photographs, Kennedy motorcadeher students embody and take on the perspective of people from the past; moreover, we see the tableaux in a slightly different perspective than that of the original photographs. The series plays with the literalness of three-dimensionality to make it a metaphor: We each have our own perspective on, and bring another dimension to, events. In that way, her work is not only about inclusion of other perspectives; it is about making inclusion real by literalizing the variance in perspective.

The Art21 video links the concerns of “Constructing History” with her earlier concerns of reappropriating images and telling different stories as a result. The first major blow, about Kennedy assasinationI have to share one of the stories in the video here. When Weems first developed her “From Here I Saw What Happened” series, Harvard University (which owned some of the original daguerreotypes) threatened to sue her. Then, after some legal wrangling, they dropped the suit but wanted a payment each time one of the Weems images was used. And the end result? They bought the Weems photographs.

Good on them at last. What a fitting arc of history.


Carrie Mae Weems Is Wow, Part II

In a recent post, I talked about the photographer Carrie Mae Weems and the recent retrospective of her work, which I had the great good fortune to see, in particular a series called “From Here I Saw What Happened…and I Cried.” But as I said, she has a tremendous body of work and I want to comment on several of them. Today, I’m going to focus on several images from an earlier series, “American Icons.” (Her web site contains links to representations of most of her work, including a lot not in the retrospective; I’ve linked to it through these posts. Go see, reader, go see.)

“American Icons” is a series of photographs of rather ordinary American domestic interiors…with racist figurines placed among them as decor. Mini-models of what were once called minorities, or worse. African-Americans as cooks and porters; Asians as exotic Orientals…you get the drift. Weems’s cultural commentary follows from what I’ve just described here: these figures are casually grouped among the ordinary and quotidian. Interpretation: racism is ubiquitous, ordinary, so common and so casual in the domestic space we don’t see it until it is specifically called out. And, racial Others are commodities for work and amusement: these figurines are their proxies, naturalizing servitude and exoticism.

But. (Or, maybe I should say “and” instead.) One of the things I love about Weems is her ability to comment on multiple levels. I don’t think the (one-time) ordinariness of racism is the only message here. One of the images that struck me most forcefully was a photograph of two African-American cook figurines placed in the kitchen. American icons figure I want to write aboutSomething about the juxtaposition of these figures with the kitchen implements around them seemed extraordinarily meaningful to me. I love the use of everyday objects for their symbolism. So, let me do the meta thing and say what I think their symbolism is, and why.

First, these figurines are tiny. As you can see from the photograph, they are only slightly taller than the counter molding. Their tininess doesn’t seem like a simple representation of actual size: it seems, given the way they are juxtaposed against the molding, a meaningful element in itself. (The molding almost serves as a way to measure their height vis-à-vis the ordinary kitchen items that surround them.) The extreme miniturization gives them a slightly uncanny quality when they are frozen in a large photograph. A companion photograph shows another cook who is even smaller. american icons, even smaller mammyThe placement of the photographs together gives the impression that these figures—and the racism they symbolize—is static or shrinking. Frozen. Not growing, even if being named (in a sense) through this portrayal.

Then there is that juxtaposition. The first thing that struck me, actually, was the placement of the two figures underneath the common kitchen item known as a whisk. Why did it strike me? After all, it’s commonly used to mix things together (eggs and milk; flour and water; and so on), so it’s in almost every kitchen. However, in my childhood my mother more commonly, colloquially, called it a beater–as in “hand me the egg beater.” This may be a regionalism (egg beaters are more commonly the electronic kind, I think), but I grew up in Eugene, Oregon, 100+ miles away from Carrie Mae Weems’s birthplace of Portland. So if it is a regionalism, it may be one she knows as well.

So the African-American figurines are placed below something whose reference term reminds one of slavery—a beater. Once that leapt into my mind, the other implements—again, very common—seemed designed to make viewers think of the cruel treatment of African-Americans under slavery: the iron (given the context, it made me think of the “branded with red-hot irons” in Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom), and other kitchen implements that are about tearing and mangling—the grater, for example. These images seem to work almost in the way poetry does, leading to a chain of associations. In this case, the associations are not about the nuture a kitchen could evoke, but about punishment: beatings and branding. The flesh (of the cantaloupe) cut open.

If the groupings seem poised next to things whose name and function could evoke slavery, they seem, of course, frozen in some time before the Civil Rights Movement. (As indeed they are in a larger sense: the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s rendered the casual domestic placement of such figurines unacceptable.) Why?

I think it’s because they seem to be always underneath a light source that they can’t seem to reach. A light source—the electrical socket—is insistently in the pictures, but not in a way meaningful or accessible to the figurines. It’s only visible, in fact, to the viewer. Particularly in the photograph of the couple, the beater is their closest element, not the light sockets. If we draw out the chain of associations, light (the Civil Rights movement as new dawn, illumination, power) is just out of reach for these characters. One could even extrapolate a harshness: they are unable to plug in to a power that is there, but not within their grasp.

Again, it is a tribute to Weems’s work that this chain of associations can be so evocative. Soon, I’ll post a third observation, about her representations of history generally.


Carrie Mae Weems Is Wow, Part I

For the past several years, a retrospective of the works of the photographer Carrie Mae Weems has been traveling the country, opening at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, traveling to Portland, Cleveland, Stanford, and ending up in 2014 at New York City’s Guggenheim Museum. Your Meta-ist recently saw it there.

And what a head-blow-back experience it was.

Some overall context first, gentle readers. Weems is an African-American photographer who has been showing her work since the late 1970s. Her work is sometimes autobiographical—she is frequently her own model, and her family was the subject of an early photographic series represented in the retrospective. One of her most famous set of photographs, The Kitchen Table seriesweems_untitled_woman_playing_solitaire_1024, charts a relationship through love and breakup using herself as a central figure, and she has said that it is an attempt to show “the other of the other”—black women.

Her stated mission is to make African-Americans stand in for the human, rather than being marginalized and relegated to standing for just one cultural group. One of the mind-blowing things about the retrospective is how much she succeeds. Her work is also—more importantly—concerned with the larger realms of culture and history. (And, she generously places much of her artwork for viewing on her web site, which shows entire virtual galleries, including much that was not in the retrospective. So, lucky you, reader! Hasten on over.)

So, I want to focus today on a series from the late 1990s entitled “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried.” This is a series of reappropriated and recontextualized photographs, anthropological debate(mostly) 19th-century daguerreotypes of black people that Weems has framed, tinted with a wash of red, and superimposed with text. The photographs are bookended with photographs of an African princess, who is the putative speaker of the text. It is she who pronounces the title in the series, opening with “From Here I Saw What Happened”—she is gazing upon the US African diaspora from a stance in Africa, presumably. From there, the viewer walks through a group of photographs that are cultural stereotypes for the most part, reading variously “you became a scientific profile…a negroid type…you become Uncle Tom, John, and Clemens’ Jim” and so on—ending with “And I Cried,” as the princess bemoans the plight of her people.

As we move in time through the photographs, though, the princess’s “voice”—the text—refers to black achievement along with victimization. The photograph of a relief of Civil War soldiers, for example, is superimposed with “restless after the longest winter you marched & marched & marched”; a photograph of the 1960s Civil Rights protests carries the line “In Your Sing Song Prayer You Asked Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?” However, achievement is mixed with struggle and a resistance by a dominant culture that does not yield easily, if (according to these photographs) at all.

Except for one. The African princess’s voice falls silent in one photograph, where the superimposition is not text, but music notations, song girlover a picture of a young woman in a starched dress. The net effect is of a wonderful, music-filled silence: it’s almost shocking that suddenly the voice of the text goes missing. A host, literally, of possible interpretations sprang into my mind. First, it seems the first time that the portrayed person is granted an inward subjectivity that is not defined by servitude or the African diaspora. Second, it implies an inward space of art that is not about struggle or pain, but about something beautiful and burgeoning. Third, it brought immediately to mind the chapter headings of W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk, which are characterized by a musical staff and notes along with lyrics of spirituals and, of course, the text of the book (see example below). It’s a beautiful moment of intertextuality, a kind of homage to DuBois and his insistence that music was one of the treasures of black American life—and that African-American-created music Chapter opening of Souls of Black Folkwas as dignified an art form as writing. (Weems was instrumental in the creation of a peony dedicated to DuBois, so let us keep that in mind as we analyze.) Fourth, it marks, I think, the place where the “American” in “African-American” becomes dominant. The young woman portrayed is conversant with Western music; it defines her as much as ancestry.

Of course, darker interpretations come to mind as well. It is the first time a character is unvoiced, which could be interpreted as a photograph about a robbed identity, not a burgeoning one. One could read the photograph as the superimposition of Western culture and attendant false consciousness over the African roots of the people—the silencing of the princess, as it were.

One could, but I don’t. There is such a dignified stance and level gaze in the photograph that I think we are to admire and observe her subjectivity and pass by with silent respect. The point to me is that Weems’s work offers such a multiplicity of reads. So, more to come.

I would love to know what the music is. Any reader having an idea, please e-mail me!

East Regards West: The Art of Leonid Sokov

I’m going to talk today about the artist Leonid Sokov. Not a household name, you say? In my world, his work was displayed nearly all last year in the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers. It was the first major show devoted to Sokov, who was born in 1941 in the former USSR and emigrated to New York in the 1980s.

Sokov is most famous for juxtaposing iconic figures from the former USSR with iconic figures from the West. hammer and dollar signSculptures of Western art, for example, approach iconic sculptures of Soviet leaders. Lenin and western scruptureMarilyn Monroe disports with Stalin. (Some of these images are also on his Web site.)  To quote the Zimmerli’s Web site: “Soviet nonconformist artists deviated from the officially prescribed patriotic style of Socialist, creating their ‘unofficial art’ following Stalin’s death in 1953 until Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika in the late 1980s. Sokov is associated with Sots Art, one of the most influential developments within Soviet nonconformist culture and prominent during the 1970s and 1980s. Sots artists mocked the regime’s efforts to control all forms of creative expression by distorting and defacing recognizable elements of Soviet propaganda in their work.”

So while much of his work gives you exactly what a viewer might expect from an artist who came to maturity in the former USSR—one sculpture of a face, for example, springs into motion whenever a viewer passes, because the eyes begin to move from side to side to spy on every passing form—a lot is tantalizingly ambiguous. The iconic Russians and the iconic Americans, for example, are staged in a meeting ground in which their fame or notoriety is the common element, not their respective economic and social arrangements. Who won the Cold War, then?

My favorite sculpture—and one in which, more importantly, I think you can find a key to these juxtapositions—is one in which Mickey Mouse stands on a hammer and sickle. The crossed hammer and sickle, of course, was the symbol of the USSR. Uncrossed, each provides a platform for one of Mickey’s feet. Remember, these are big feet; Mickey is shod in outsize clown shoes.

But it’s the spatial arrangements that are so interesting. This is a small—almost tiny—sculpture. Mickey seems to be bracing against the hammer and sickle, almost vibrating with a kind of tensile strength. So in one read, he has vanquished the USSR and its symbols. Not to belabor the symbolism, but a potent symbol of consumer capitalism (Mickey is one of the most ubiquitous and recognizable symbols of the West, and a commodity himself in a thousand cartoons and Mouseketeer hats)—has trod upon the USSR’s discredited symbols. They are underfoot. He is victorious.

Except that the tensile way in which he braces himself seems ambiguous. It prompts another read of the USSR’s symbols. Think of what the hammer and sickle are, divorced from the flag. Before the hammer and sickle were crossed on a flag, they were the tools of working people. So—despite a somewhat threatening look to Americans—they are the common implements of, well, carpenters and farmers. The tools of common guys and ordinary gals.

If these are the tools of common guys and gals, might it be said that they support Mickey, rather than provide fodder for the dust under his feet? That elements in common use are the buttress upon which his fame and power rest? After all, Mickey Mouse gained his popularity because millions of common guys and gals would buy a ticket to see his antics. Those ticket buyers, those viewers, those people who watched the cartoons and set the mouse ears upon the heads of their children, are his foundational support. So when the West won, when the Wall fell, it was because of the adherence of common folk–carpenters and farmers and their like–to the pleasures that Mickey symbolizes.

The Kindle, Part III: Love Song and After

Hello, readers! For the last two posts, I’ve discussed how I feel about one e-reader, the Kindle: my love and its diminishment. Well, today, I’ve going to discuss a category I hinted at in Part II: the role of book covers in how we feel about what we read. In a way, I feel like I’m betraying the text in doing this—I think of myself as a person to whom content matters, not image. Yet that is part of why I was somewhat surprised by my feeling that books seemed more generic in e-form than enclosed in covers dedicated to them. Analyzing the reasons for my surprise is, hey, part of the meta this blog is dedicated to.

Often, Kindle covers mirror those of the paper book. See for example, the two pictures snapped-from-my-own-Kindle covers of Jo Baker’s novel Longbourn and W.J.T. Mitchell’s Seeing Through Race.   (They are ghostly given Kindle’s limited palette, so I show the printed book cover image as well.)  Covers, of course, often give a nice visual symbol of the inside. Baker’s retelling of the events of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice through the eyes of the servants—a telling of their story, rather than that of Elizabeth and Darcy—is well represented by the stilted, partial view of a serving woman pictured just at the moment of walking into our view.



longbourn cover




Mitchell’s idea of race as a medium seen through, and his larger discussion of the role of media and frames in determining what we see, is nicely captured by a photograph that causes viewers to, well, use intervening media to see what might not be seen without it.

WJT kindle

Seeing through Race cover





But my re-picking up a Kindle has also led me to realize that an increasing number of e-books are opting for generic covers. See, for example, the cover of Laura Lippman’s mystery novel In Big Trouble, which seems to have been chosen to get across the idea that this is a, well, generic book.


A cover like this doesn’t do justice to Lippman’s nicely individuated detective series, which is replete with vivid cultural detail about Baltimore and a feisty heroine who lives in the upper level of a bookstore (how’s that for symbolism!), and sculls on the Patapsco (

Even so, In Big Trouble’s here-I-am-a-generic-book-cover has nothing on my download of Mary Seacole’s 19th-century autobiography The Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, which is almost horrifyingly generic.


Indeed, I find the obliteration of Mrs. Seacole herself in favor of a mobile phone almost shocking. (Probably because in my dissertation life I work a lot with nineteenth-century slavery in the Caribbean and its related ideas of the circulation of people-as-commodities, as slaves were. When I first saw this cover I nearly fell over at what seemed to be an inadvertent symbolism—the mixed-race Mrs. Seacole as part of the circuits of exchange, just as a telephone would be.) To be fair, this is from the bibliophile and student’s friend, Project Gutenberg, (, which allows downloads of many a free e-book. The cover is probably intended to represent the circulation of an e-book, not Mrs. Seacole. Mary_Seacole_Drawing

Still. Wouldn’t the drawing of her been a nice cover?

Where am I now with my Kindle? A fondness, not a love. It is convenient and wonderfully so. But it doesn’t contain the whole reading experience. For that, I still want physical pages, discrete objects, and covers.

I think my love, its cooling, and its partial reinstatement are representative of where we are now with the history of the book and digital humanities. No question that the digital humanities are a wonderful resource for many things: keeping vulnerable treasures intact in virtual form (old books, old scrolls and so forth) and enabling unprecedented access come to mind. But remember, physical books are also a technology for carrying knowledge. One that has worked for a very long time. The power of the physical book is not going away any time soon. Its younger sibling, the e-book, stands with it in a row of empowering technologies for spreading the word.

The Kindle, Part II: Why the Bloom Went Off the Rose

So readers, in Part I of this post, there I was, downloading books to my Kindle and loving it.

And then came a period in which most of my reading wasn’t available on e-books. (Although a lot of stuff is on Kindle, a lot also isn’t. So for a long time, my Kindle languished.)

Recently, I went back to it. To my shock…it no longer seemed like a Big Bright Book of Life. It seemed gray and nondescript. Even unworthy of holding so many multifaceted stories.

Why? I was anguished to think of something that had once given so much pleasure suddenly turning so…unappealing.

Well, several reasons, I think. And all of them very related to how we experience books, text, and book jackets. First, in the intervening period (about a year), I saw enough iPads to see what Genuinely Bright e-readers looked like. The bargain Kindle screen is a kind of grayish brown, rather than white.

Second, and more importantly, the text is undifferentiated in one container. Although each book downloads separately, of course, you as a (human) reader pick up just one object to access any number of books. In a new print book, by contrast, there is an anticipatory buzz in picking up a special object, neatly enclosed within covers designed specifically for it, that really doesn’t occur with a Kindle. I had just been in an extended period of reading books where every separate readable object I picked up was a separate narrative enclosed in covers specifically designed for it.

Covers, although secondary to the text, are highly important in giving a sense of the text—another level of anticipation. Covers exist as part of the download of an e-book, of course, but they are pictures on a screen rather than protective, encompassing borders between the book’s contents and the world.

Also, e-books often open to the first lines of text, bypassing the cover entirely. I have to specifically press buttons to go to the cover, rather than seeing it automatically, which makes the book less specifically identified.

And the third reason, the big reason, is related to the second. The all-together, undifferentiated container suddenly made all e-books within the Kindle look generic. I felt like I was engaged in some reading equivalent of buying generic paper towels at the Acme: reduced to an ugly package, a bare bones contract, and ultimately, contents that weren’t…quite…as…good.

And part of that was fed by the nature of the books I’ve been reading in the transition period between graduate school and new position. I have dealt with this period by reading an incredible amount of mystery novels. (I think the sense that there are clues and ultimately a satisfying ending comports well with the search for a job, actually—all tantalizing clues until the final piece of the puzzle—an offer—occurs.)

Mysteries are a kind of generic fiction, of course. A bad deed, investigators dedicated to seeing it punished, and a number of clues and strong plot (and good characterization, if you’re lucky). In that, they are like paper towels; you can buy very good ones or a bare minimum to meet the genre requirements. In book form, mysteries feel solid and have an exciting a new one quality, to me. In a Kindle, less so.

So I had a period of feeling trapped in the land of the generic paper towel, book division.

For more on book covers and their role in the e-book reading experience, see Part III, coming soon!