Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Semiotics and the Politics of Representation: How Do You Interpret These Images From American Vampire, Boardwalk Empire, and of Female Marines Ready For Combat?

We are in the third day of our annual fundraiser here at We Are Respectable Negroes. I would like to thank the kind folks who have already thrown some money into the collection bowl. Such gestures are very much appreciated. I am very impressed and touched.

I do not advertise here at WARN. Nor, do I receive compensation for my writing at the various websites, and other venues, which have featured my work.

Instead, I offer up the twice a year begging bowl. I am the worst fundraiser ever because I open my hands and ask that after you take care of home, friends, family, pets, and other commitments, that if you can find a dollar or two to throw into the Paypal collection, I would be in your debt. My online work is a blessing. It is also work and a labor of love. I appreciate all of you and the support you have given me over the years.

If you like and enjoy the type of work I am trying to do here on WARN, please support our fundraiser if you are able. Here is something a bit different for We Are Respectable Negroes. I learn so much for all of you. Please teach me something. I am eager to hear from you all.
As long-time readers of We Are Respectable Negroes know, I am very interested in what popular culture reveals about a given society's political values, norms, beliefs, and order.

Film, TV, music, books, music, graphic novels, art, etc. are insights into our collective subconscious. They all do powerful social and political work precisely because of the unstated assumptions--both by their creators and audience--that come with them.

The fancy term that we use to describe the study of systems of meaning, signs, codes, and how various types of "texts" relate to one another is called semiotics. Semiotics is also concerned with the symbolic power of a text and how its deeper meaning is more important than the surface interpretation.

[I prefer to reduce that very complex and rich concept down to a few questions. In terms of a photograph, what does this image say to you? What is the image communicating to the viewer about society?] 

Images are not neutral. Human beings possess racial and gendered bodies. Images are also products of a given social and political moment: consequently, images reveal to the viewer something about a moment in time (that may or may not be universal).

Individuals read meaning into those images and moments relative to their own social locations and what we as viewers take to be "normal".

Society has a collective set of norms. They work in overt, subtle, implied, and taken for granted ways. We call this "culture".

Anything that challenges those boundaries can be labeled as deviant or "wrong". Some of us embrace difference and the uncomfortable. Other people run away from such experiences. These are the distinctions that help to separate liberal and conservative/authoritarian political personality types. The former is more at peace with discomfort and cognitive dissonance; the latter flees it, punishes it, and represses it as "immoral" and "wrong".

I have been thinking a great deal about what the following three images--and what a given person's reactions to them--reveal about our current post racial, post civil rights, Age of Obama moment, when there is simultaneously both great social progress, as well as ugly reactionary politics. Political and social change involves a tension between push and pull factors. Our present political moment is proving that sociological concept to be very correct.

I see beauty, strength, success, and martial prowess in this image. I struggle with the male gaze, and my tendency, to see these women as warriors--as opposed to "women" warriors. I also want to view these women as subjects and not objects. I also find them very attractive--as women. To view them in a neutral way, I have to resist my dominant male socialization.

It is no easy task to resist the male way of seeing, and centuries of practice where women (and people of color) are commonly denied agency by the photographic and filmic gaze. What do you see? Why would this image frighten and upset some who view it?

The second image is from the second to last episode of this season's Boardwalk Empire. I have suggested that Boardwalk Empire is one of the best meditations on American history and social change in the early part of the 20th century that I have ever seen. Part of that surprise is a function of how the post World War One era is a blank space in contemporary American popular memory. The power of Boardwalk Empire is also in how its writers, consultants, and creators have created a profoundly rich sociological text. 

This image captures the liminal space that black veterans of World War One occupied. These men earned their full citizenship rights through blood. But, a country struggling with expanding whiteness, decided that to do so meant violently oppressing black people through mass racial violence, violence that took the form of the lynching tree and racial pogroms. 

My read of this image "sees" bodies that occupy social positions as second class citizens who are written out of the polity in various ways. Of course, gender is operative here. 

Chalky White, the African-American wrapped in the American flag, has been wounded in a gun battle. 

This union of the United States' flag and the black body is rich and powerful with meaning.

Symbolically, the black body and the American flag are incompatible and not reconcilable with turn of the century norms of white masculinity. To point. Black men in military uniforms were targets of lynching in the post World War One era because the white polity defined itself  against claims by African-Americans on citizenship and belonging. 

My favorite character, Richard Harrow, the "Tin Man" assassin with a heart of gold, has been defaced, literally, by war. The "ugly laws" of the era discriminated against men like Darrow because their bodies were reminders of the horrors of industrial war. 

The broken, handicapped, and damaged were affronts to "civility" and "hygiene". 

Together, both people of color and those veterans were marginalized by early 20th century America. On Boardwalk Empire, the boundaries of the colorline were somewhat dissolved by common cause, friendship, and stigma. 

What do you see in this image?

As a ghetto nerd, I love my comic books and graphic novels. When I come upon something special, I reread it, tap my feet on the ground, and publicly exclaim "damn, that was something special!" 

American Vampire is a comic series by Scott Snyder that establishes a new lore of the undead wherein the vampires of Europe and the Americas are distinctive species. 

While reading American Vampire Volume 4, I saw the below images. I was impressed by how that panel captured the threat, dread, and violent white supremacy of Jim and Jane Crow, while subverting it at the same time. 

As we have seen with the new white racist moral panic that is the "knockout game", the threat of Giant Negroes, black rapists, black people inherently and naturally oriented toward crime, and black thugs, continues to dominate the (white) American collective psyche. As I wrote here, white racist obsessions with black crime have elected presidents in the United States while making fortunes for corporations.  

The text in the following panels may be hard to read. There, one of the American Vampires, an African-American named Calvin Poole, is being harassed by a group of (who we think are) white racists. They jokingly call Poole a "super-nigger" when he resists their threats. When he transforms into his vampire-self to fight these white racists, they learn that their jab and barb was (for them) too true...and puts them at a great disadvantage.

For the White Gaze, all black men are potential "super-niggers". Trayvon Martin, Jonathan Ferrell, and any other black man walking down the street is potentially a threat to white society. They must be shot dead with due diligence and prejudice. 

The knockout game moral panic by white conservatives and their media is dependent upon that logic. 

Tell me. What do you see in this image?  


KissedByTheSun said...

If you're interested in more images that are rich in meaning check out this blog I discovered People of Color in European Art History. It is filled with art from the 1100's to the 1700's that depicts a far more diverse Europe than many of us learned about in school. It also flies in the face of European fantasy movies like Lord of the Rings and Brave which many claim are "historically accurate" for having an all white cast. There are loads of ancient pictures of black folk on there that debunk the myth that we only arrived in Europe during chattel slavery.

chauncey devega said...

Thanks for the link. I think Gates has put out a series of black in Europe too. So different. Members of the Black Diaspora in the U.S. often forget how the White Gaze was operative here, but not necessarily the same way elsewhere--if at all.

The Sanity Inspector said...

I see a scene which reminds me of the finale to Let The Right One In.

The Sanity Inspector said...

My favorite examples of African representation in European Renaissance art are the two sketches the German painter Albrecht Durer made of a black man and black woman, five hundred years ago. The woman was a maid in the home of some Dutch friends of his, nothing is known about the man. The reason they are my favorites is because Durer was famous for his realism, and so the sketches are probably very close to what these people really looked like--a remarkable thing to have from so long ago.

chauncey devega said...

Which one? Last image? Which version of Let the Right One In?

chauncey devega said...

Learning much here. I had not seen those images. Thanks for the tip!

Bryan Ortez said...

The first image of the first women to complete the Marine admission test is one of pride, celebration. These people are extremely proud of their accomplishment, of overcoming what seemed an impossible barrier. Just before these people completed the test, people were discussing adjusting the course to enable success for different bodied persons. Guess who was extremely opposed to this...

I wonder if their male counterparts are celebrating with them. Surely there are some who are, hopefully there are none who are resentful of them.

The second photo reminds me of Black Kettle. He was told by a BIA agent that as long as he flew the American flag, he would be safe from American cavalry. The latter half of the 1800's is commonly referred to in American history texts as "The Pacification of the West." Black Kettle and the various nations of the midwest were deceived, robbed, and coerced by an industrial, commercial society.

The Sand Creek massacre occurred on the Sand Creek reservation. It was a response to Cheyenne and Kiowa raids on local American settlements in the Sand Creek reservation area. There were no buffalo on Sand Creek and the land was barely useful for farming. You can the panic of trying to secure food for your people when there is none to be had.

In Sand Creek, cavalry attacked mostly women and children, most of the men were on a hunting party. As 160+ of his people were shot and stabbed on a misty morning, Black Kettle enshrouded himself and as many who could huddle with him under the American flag.

I think the flag represents the promise of American ideals. Equality, freedom, life.

What did Brother X Squared say, the destroyed body of the black man is the catalyst for white reform, saviorship...

The last image, is the seizing of that freedom. There are always those opposed to the freedom of others. They are not depicted in the first or second image. The first being of accomplishment, the second being the aftermath and sympathy over the conflict, the hope. The last seems to be in the grip of making that change. Will there always be those opposed to fighting for justice, for what is right? The right to exist as an individual?

I would really need more context, but that is just a first reaction. I have other reactions, especially in regard to the last picture.

The Sanity Inspector said...

Just the whole scene of bad guys meeting their end poolside by an avenging monster. The clip I linked is the Swedish one.

chauncey devega said...

I would not have put those images together that way. Impressive. I didn't know about that historical moment w. the BIA. Always learning.