Television

Q&A with Brenda R. Weber, Author of Latter-day Screens

weberBrenda R. Weber is Professor of Gender Studies at Indiana University, editor of Reality Gendervision: Sexuality and Gender on Transatlantic Reality Television, and author of Makeover TV: Selfhood, Citizenship, and Celebrity, both also published by Duke University Press. Her newest book, Latter-day Screens: Gender, Sexuality, and Mediated Mormonism examines how mediation of Mormonism through film, TV, blogs, YouTube videos, and memoirs functions as a means to understand conversations surrounding gender, sexuality, spirituality, capitalism, justice, and individualism in the United States.

You mention in the acknowledgements that two of your close friends—fellow non-Mormons who also grew up surrounded by Mormon culture—thought writing the book was a mistake. What was it that allowed you to move beyond their fears (and perhaps your own) and continue on with the project? 

One of the things I try to capture in the memoir section of the book (coming at the end) is the way that Mormonism influenced practically every aspect of my growing up in Mesa, Arizona, because the religion has such a strong set of beliefs practices, and behaviors—through things like what one can eat or drink but also about your use of time and your perceived friendliness. It also set limits on how hard I could think (and still be considered nice) and what exactly I could aspire to become professionally and personally, and it absolutely forbade the legitimacy of LGBT loves or lives. So for me and my other non-Mormon friends, we lived with a constant sense of a very powerful presence that could be felt and could judge us but couldn’t really be detected or blocked, like the air we breathe. It had a way of seeping into us and taking up residence in our bodies. I think my friends and I dealt with this largely by not dealing with it—we left town, moved on, grew up. Writing the book meant dismantling a coping mechanism I had used for nearly 30 years, and my friends were concerned about no longer having this capacity for separation.

As with most of my projects, it was my fascination with learning that made me move beyond those fears. Instead of turning my back and mind on those people and beliefs that had governed my childhood, I became truly interested in understanding the history, culture, and media representations of Mormons, both mainstream and fundamentalist. It was a wonderful way to purge a lot of childhood ghosts, but I do still have anxieties that I can never again go to a high school reunion and I’ve pretty much been de-friended by all of my LDS friends from childhood. And I want to emphasize, this is not something I could have done as a child or a teenager. I needed to be an adult with enough certainty about me that taking a part a necessary scaffolding wouldn’t undo a broader sense of my self.

Images and ideas of Mormonism, or what you call “mediated Mormonism,” are quite powerful cultural tools: You describe mediated Mormonism as a “lens” through which we can see the inner workings and mechanics of American culture. What do you see as particular to the Church of Latter-Day Saints that allows its representations to have this powerful clarifying effect? 

Latter-day ScreensAs an American religion born in the nineteenth century, Mormonism came alive as new possibilities in media were also born. Religion scholars have long talked about the advent of the printing press as presaging both the Protestant Revolution and a spread and diversification of Christianity. Mormonism nicely illustrates this story as well, fittingly in the New World of the Americas where the book is set. The Book of Mormon was first published in Palmyra, New York in 1830. Joseph Smith ordered a run of 5,000 copies (at a cost of $3,000), which is an astronomical number and cost for that time period. But the print run tells us a great deal about the rise of book culture in the United States, the zealous emergence of a number of new religions in this time period, the rise in literacy across more rural parts of the United States, and the general affordability of publishing in this period.

I had an opportunity while researching this book to visit E. B. Grandin, the print shop that made The Book of Mormon, now turned into a site staffed and run by the mainstream LDS Church. While there, I was astounded that if I stood on tippy toes at the back door, I could see the Erie Canal, which was like an information super highway in the nineteenth century, moving goods and in this case ideas across the country and into Canada. With the spread of the book soon went the spread of missionaries, because this has always been a very proselytizing religion.

This circulation of Mormon missionaries and ideas served to crystalize Mormonism as a recognizable “thing” in the culture, what in the book I call Mormonism as a meme. Broader American and even international culture has not always looked on Mormonism in a positive light, but it is often referenced to do a larger symbolic work. So, as we see in the case of Big Love or Sister Wives, fundamentalist Mormons are called upon to serve as “American everymen” who live their lives a little differently. They become proxy figures for asking if there are limits to the American experiment.

You argue that the struggles against norms taking place inside and around Latter-day screens actually become accelerants for social justice. For instance, you discuss how Utah’s dismissal of their case against the polygamous Brown family from Sister Wives coincided with the state’s issuing of licenses for same-sex marriages. What potential (and limitations) do you see in cultural media like reality television to become agents of change in broader legal and political spheres? 

978-0-8223-5682-0_prWell, culture has always been an agent in the legal and political sphere, so it’s not like this is a new thing. Fighting to eradicate slavery, for instance, brought forth a whole new set of protest literatures from slave narratives to sentimental novels.

But as I discuss in my 2014 book Reality Gendervision, people love to hate on TV, particularly reality TV. And don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to critique, but I don’t think it is the medium itself that is to blame. Perhaps I have convinced myself as a media scholar, but I think the issue is really about critical thinking skills and media literacy. The more people can think critically, the more all kinds of media can be used in beneficial ways.

In the book, you describe the kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart as a “cultural meme,” serving as a sign of the ultimate innocent victim who meets the affective demand to be “happy” after trauma. How do you see these same demands– for innocent victims who don’t “hold a grudge”—working in our own cultural and institutional logics surrounding sexual assault and violence? Is Smart as a meme a direct mirror for our larger culture, or an exaggeration that allows us to see ourselves more clearly?

I see the image of Elizabeth Smart as absolutely an outlying representation, particularly in an era of #MeToo that asks survivors of sexual assault to claim their stories and to be willing to share their feelings of anger about them. Also, I want to be clear that I don’t fault Elizabeth Smart for her affect. I have no idea what her actual feelings are inside, and she may well have a different emotional experience that she, rightfully, does not divulge as part of her public persona. Or maybe she doesn’t. I wouldn’t want to be understood as saying that Smart is wrong in being happy but that the effect of her affect (if you want to put it this way) is to suggest she will never attack. This, in turn, reinforces normative notions of heteronormative femininity that suggest a woman’s value is heightened through her willingness to put others before herself, including their emotional needs. I use a line in the book from Judith Freeman’s excellent memoir The Latter Days (2017) about receiving instructions on femininity as a young Mormon girl. Freeman and others were given an example of sitting in a church pew and not feeling well. If this happened, they were advised, it would be far better to throw up in your purse than to ask others to stand up so that you could get to the restroom. Better to barf in a handbag! That’s the kind of gender identity at the heart of the happy affect I examine in the book.

You close your book by discussing LGBT+ Mormons and their relationship with media as a space for self-recognition, working against patterns in the church where a denial of self-knowledge is often a condition of subjectivity, like in the show My Husband’s Not Gay. Do you think that twenty-first century social media can accomplish this self-representation in a new way that television cannot?

I wouldn’t say that it is mutually exclusive (either television can do it better or social media does) but cumulative. When I use the phrase Latter-day Screens, this is exactly what I’m getting at – that cultural ideas, impressions, and images are produced through a conversation between different media platforms (television, feature film, memoir) and through both high and low, professional and amateur production, all coming together in these relatively coherent symbols that are labeled “Mormon.”

Ideas change through continual and repeated exposure to an idea. Just this week, for example, a new television show popped onto my TIVO, called Trapped: The Alex Cooper Story (Lifetime, released September 28, 2019). It offers a made-for-television version of the 2016 memoir Saving Alex, written by Alex Cooper. Cooper writes about being raised LDS and coming out to her parents, who in desperation, forcibly put her in reparation therapy. It’s a brutal, sad story with a triumphant ending. But Saving Alex is not a singular story—there are many memoirs about LGBT+ lives and loves and the hardship of living as gay and Mormon, many of them self-published, many others serving as the backbone of film or television representation (as for instance in The Falls: Testament of Love or Latter Days).

Social media is critical to all of this because it is immediate and it is amateur, meaning one doesn’t require a ten-million dollar budget and backing from Hollywood before telling one’s truth, or testifying (a key tenet of Mormonism). Mediation, as we discussed in the first question, here serves as quintessentially Mormon, or, as many of the people who create media content around Mormonism say, “As out-Mormoning the Mormons.” Dan Reynolds, the lead singer of Imagine Dragons, says it most powerfully in the documentary Believer,

There’s one thing my Mormon values have taught me since I was young. It’s that no matter what the world says about who you are, what you believe, still do it. A hundred percent. That spirit was the spirit that carried me through my mission. I felt like I was baring my truth regardless what anyone thought about me. That’s all because of Mormonism and my parents, they all prepped me for this moment now. A determined Mormon is a scary thing, I will tell you that. Because they don’t stop. I knocked a hundred doors to get into one door. I knocked a thousand doors on my mission. If there’s one thing I can guarantee it’s that I will continue to knock this door until somebody answers.

That’s on page 21 of my book, if anyone wants to read more!

What is something you hope readers will take away from this in-depth account of the various ways in which Mormonism circulates in our media?

In terms of media, I hope that readers perceive the clarifying capacities of Mormonism, when we understand it as both a way of seeing and a way of thinking. Really, my book is not so much about Mormons as people or Mormon ideas. Instead, it’s about Mormonism as an idea. Decoding its many values is a bit like taking apart a complex engine, in that we really begin to see and understand how bits and pieces work together to create something far bigger than the sum of its parts.

In terms of the overall project, I hope that readers see that everyone has a story worth telling, and I hope they understand my regard toward actual Mormon people as being not judgmental but also not completely sympathetic. For me, my experience with the influence of Mormonism helped me understand the workings of hegemony, a critical term within gender studies that is often used and seldom defined. But basically, hegemony has to do with the invisible systems that compel people not only to act in ways opposite to their self-interest but also to believe those power relations are superior to other ways, so they champion their continuation. I had a hard time understanding how I could never have been formally schooled in the values of Mormonism yet knew the codes so well I had internalized them. Writing this book allowed me to understand that hegemonic process more and in so doing to be free of them in some ways.

Read the introduction to Latter-day Screens free online and save 30% on the paperback edition using coupon code E19WEBER.

 

 

New Books in September

Summer’s almost over, which means it’s time to start to replenishing your reading list! Celebrate the start of a new academic year with us by checking out this diverse array of books arriving in September.

Acknowledging the impending worldwide catastrophe of rising seas in the twenty-first century, Orrin H. Pilkey and Keith C. Pilkey outline the impacts on the United States’ shoreline and argue that the only feasible response along much of the U.S. shoreline is an immediate and managed retreat in Sea Level Rise.

Brenda R. Weber’s Latter-day Screens examines the ways in which the mediation of Mormonism through film, TV, blogs, YouTube videos, and memoirs functions as a means through which to understand conversations surrounding gender, sexuality, spirituality, capitalism, justice, and individualism in the United States.

Self-Devouring Growth by Julie Livingston shows how the global pursuit of economic and resource-driven growth comes at the expense of catastrophic destruction, thereby upending popular notions that economic growth and development is necessary for improving a community’s wellbeing.

In Under Construction, Daniel Mains explores the intersection of infrastructural development and governance in contemporary Ethiopia by examining the conflicts surrounding the construction of specific infrastructural technologies and how that construction impacts the daily lives of Ethiopians.

Elizabeth Freeman’s Beside You in Time expands bipolitical and queer theory by outlining a temporal view of the long nineteenth century and showing how time became a social and sensory means by which people resisted disciplinary regimes and assembled into groups in ways that created new forms of sociality.

Terry Smith—who is widely recognized as one of the world’s leading historians and theorists of contemporary art—traces the emergence of contemporary art and further develops his concept of contemporaneity in Art to Come through analyses of topics ranging from Chinese and Australian Indigenous art to architecture.

Henry Cow by Benjamin Piekut tells the story of the English experimental rock band Henry Cow and how it linked its improvisational musical aesthetic with a collectivist, progressive politics.

Davina Cooper’s Feeling Like a State explores the unexpected contribution a legal drama of withdrawal—as exemplified by some conservative Christians who deny people inclusion, goods, and services to LGBTQ individuals—might make to conceptualizing a more socially just, participative state.

In Making The Black Jacobins, Rachel Douglas traces the genesis, transformation, and afterlives of the different versions of C. L. R. James’s landmark The Black Jacobins across the decades from the 1930s onwards, showing how James revised it in light of his evolving politics.

William E. Connolly links climate change, fascism, and the nature of truth to demonstrate the profound implications of the deep imbrication between planetary nonhuman processes and cultural developments in Climate Machines, Fascist Drives, and Truth.

Cara New Daggett’s The Birth of Energy traces the genealogy of the idea of energy from the Industrial Revolution to the present, showing how it has informed fossil fuel imperialism, the governance of work, and our relationship to the Earth.

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New Books in May

Jump-start your summer reading with one of our new titles this May!

In Coral Empire Ann Elias traces the history of two explorers whose photographs and films of tropical reefs in the 1920s cast corals and the sea as an unexplored territory to be exploited in ways that tied the tropics and reefs to colonialism, racism, and the human domination of nature.

The contributors to Remaking New Orleans, edited by Thomas Jessen Adams and Matt Sakakeeny, challenge the uncritical acceptance of New Orleans-as-exceptional narratives, showing how they flatten the diversity, experience, and culture of the city’s residents and obscure other possible understandings.

The ChasersRenato Rosaldo’s new prose poetry collection, The Chasers, shares his experiences and those of his group of twelve Mexican-American Tucson High School friends known as the Chasers as they grew up, graduated, and fell out of touch, conveying the realities of Chicano life on the borderlands from the 1950s to the present.

In Queering Black Atlantic Religions Roberto Strongman examines three Afro-diasporic religions—Hatian Vodou, Cuban Lucumí/Santería, and Brazilian Candomblé—to demonstrate how the commingling of humans and the divine during trance possession produce subjectivities whose genders are unconstrained by biological sex.

Written in 1937, published in Spanish in 1973, and appearing here in English for the first time, Freddy Prestol Castillo’s novel You Can Cross the Massacre on Foot is one of the few accounts of the 1937 massacre of tens of thousands of Haitians living in the Dominican Republic.

Book Reports

In Book Reports, a generous collection of book reviews and literary essays, rock critic Robert Christgau shows readers a different side to his esteemed career with reviews of books ranging from musical autobiographies, criticism, and histories to novels, literary memoirs, and cultural theory.

The contributors to From Russia with Code, edited by Mario Biagioli and Vincent Antonin Lépinay, examine Russian computer scientists, programmers, and hackers in and outside of Russia within the context of new international labor markets and the economic, technological, and political changes in post-Soviet Russia.

In Camp TV Quinlan Miller reframes American television history by tracing a camp aesthetic and the common appearance of trans queer gender characters in both iconic and lesser known sitcoms throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

The coauthors of Decolonizing Ethnography integrate ethnography with activist work in a New Jersey center for undocumented workers, showing how anthropology can function as a vehicle for activism and as a tool for marginalized people to theorize their own experiences.

In Work! Elspeth H. Brown traces modeling’s history from the advent of photographic modeling in the early twentieth century to the rise of the supermodel in the 1980s, showing how it is both the quintessential occupation of a modern consumer economy and a practice that has been shaped by queer sensibilities.

In Figures of Time Toni Pape examines contemporary television that often presents a conflict-laden conclusion first before relaying the events that led up to that inevitable ending, showing how this narrative structure attunes audiences to the fear-based political doctrine of preemption—a logic that justifies preemptive action to nullify a perceived future threat.

In Anti-Japan Leo T. S. Ching traces the complex dynamics that shape persisting negative attitudes toward Japan throughout East Asia, showing how anti-Japanism stems from the failed efforts at decolonization and reconciliation, the U.S. military presence, and shifting geopolitical and economic conditions in the region.

The Cuba Reader

Tracking Cuban history from 1492 to the present, this revised and expanded second edition of The Cuba Reader presents myriad perspectives on Cuba’s history, culture, and politics, including a new section that explores the changes and continuities in Cuba since Fidel Castro stepped down from power in 2006.

The Fernando Coronil Reader, a posthumously published collection of anthropologist Fernando Coronil’s most important work, highlights his deep concern with the global South, Latin American state formation, theories of nature, empire and postcolonialism, and anthrohistory as an intellectual and ethical approach.

The extensively updated and revised third edition of the bestselling Social Medicine Reader (Volume I and Volume II) provides a survey of the challenging issues facing today’s health care providers, patients, and caregivers with writings by scholars in medicine, the social sciences, and the humanities. It will be a great addition to courses in public health, medicine, nursing, and more.

Catherine Waldby traces how the history of the valuing of human oocytes—the reproductive cells specific to women—intersects with the biological and social life of women in her new book The Oocyte Economy.

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New Books in September

Welcome to September! As the new academic year begins, we’ve got some great new books for you to dig into.

978-1-4780-0081-5Imani Perry’s Vexy Thing recenters patriarchy to contemporary discussions of feminism through a social and literary analysis of cultural artifacts—ranging from nineteenth-century slavery court cases and historical vignettes to literature and contemporary art—from the Enlightenment to the present.

Providing a history of experimental methods and frameworks in anthropology from the 1920s to the present, Michael M. J. Fischer’s Anthropology in the Meantime draws on his real world, multi-causal, multi-scale, and multi-locale research to rebuild theory for the twenty-first century.

In Jezebel Unhinged Tamura Lomax traces the historical and contemporary use of the jezebel trope in the black church and in black popular culture, showing how it disciplines black women and girls and preserves gender hierarchy, black patriarchy, and heteronormativity in black families, communities, cultures, and institutions.

978-1-4780-0021-1.jpgGathered from Rafael Campo’s over-twenty-year-career as a poet-physician, Comfort Measures Only includes eighty-eight poems—thirty of which have never been previously published in a collection—that pull back the curtain in the ER, laying bare our pain and joining us all in spellbinding moments of pathos.

In Garbage Citizenship Rosalind Fredericks traces the volatile trash politics in Dakar, Senegal, to examine urban citizenship in the context of urban austerity and democratic politics, showing how labor is a key component of infrastructural systems and how Dakar’s residents use infrastructures as a vital tool for forging collective identifies and mobilizing political action.

Gunslinger-50Edward Dorn’s Gunslinger is an anti-epic poem that follows a cast of colorful characters as they set out the American West in search of Howard Hughes. This expanded fiftieth anniversary edition of Dorn’s wild and comedic romp includes a new foreword by Marjorie Perloff, an essay by Michael Davidson, and Charles Olson’s “Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn”.

In Technicolored Black feminist critic Ann duCille combines cultural critique with personal reflections on growing up with TV as a child in the Boston suburbs to examine how televisual representations of African Americans—ranging from I Love Lucy to How to Get Away with Murder—have changed over the last sixty years.

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New Books in May

The semester is ending, graduates are heading off to bright futures, and we are bringing out more great scholarly books. Check out the titles we have coming out in May.

In Althusser, The Infinite Farewell Emilio de Ípola proposes an original reading of Althusser in which he shows how Althusser’s oeuvre is divided between two different projects: that of his canonical works, and a second subterranean current of thought that runs throughout his entire oeuvre and which only gained explicit expression in his later work.

978-0-8223-7079-6.jpgIn Cow in The Elevator Tulasi Srinivas uses the concept of wonder—feelings of amazement at being overcome by the unexpected and sublime—to examine how residents of Banglore, India pursue wonder by practicing Hindu religious rituals as a way to accept and resist neoliberal capitalism.

In Fugitive Life Stephen Dillon examines the literary and artistic work of feminist, queer antiracist activists who were imprisoned or became fugitives in the United States during the 1970s, showing how they were among the first to theorize and make visible the co-constitutive symbiotic relationship between neoliberalism and racialized mass-incarceration.

978-0-8223-7130-4.jpgSusan Murray’s Bright Signals traces four decades of technological, cultural, and aesthetic debates about the possibility, use, and meaning of color television within the broader history of twentieth-century visual culture.

In Colonial Lives of Property Brenna Bhandar examines how the emergence of modern property law contributed to the formation of racial subjects in settler colonies, showing how the colonial appropriation of indigenous lands depends upon ideologies of European racial superiority as well as legal narratives that equated civilized life with English concepts of property.

Lyndon K. Gill’s Erotic Islands foregrounds a queer presence in foundational elements of Trinidad and Tobago’s national imaginary—Carnival masquerade design, Calypso musicianship, and queer HIV/AIDS activism—to show how same-sex desire provides the means for the nation’s queer population to develop survival and community building strategies.

978-0-8223-7087-1.jpgIn Ontological Terror Calvin L. Warren intervenes in Afro-pessimism, Heideggerian metaphysics, and black humanist philosophy, illustrating how blacks embody a metaphysical nothing while showing how this nothingness destabilizes whiteness, makes blacks a target of violence, and explains why humanism has failed to achieve equality for blacks.

In Empire of Neglect Christopher Taylor shows why nineteenth-century British West Indian letters were remarkably un-British by exploring how West Indians reoriented their affective, cultural, and political worlds toward the Americas in response to the liberalization of the British Empire and the resulting imperial neglect.

A sensitive ethnography of psychotherapy in Putin’s Russia, Shock Therapy by Tomas Matza offers profound insights into how the Soviet collapse not only reshaped Russia’s political system but also everyday understandings of self and other.

Drawing on over 300 prosecutions of sex acts in colonial New Spain between 1530 and 1821, in Sins against Nature Zeb Tortorici shows how courts used the concept “against nature” to try those accused of sodomy, bestiality, and other sex acts, thereby demonstrating how the archive influences understandings of bodies, desires, and social categories.

978-0-8223-7109-0.jpgIn On Decoloniality,Walter D. Mignolo and Catherine E. Walsh introduce the concept of decoloniality by providing a theoretical overview and discussing concrete examples of decolonial projects in action. The book launches a new series of the same name.

The contributors to Territories and Trajectories, edited by Diana Sorensen, propose a model of cultural production and transmission based on the global diffusion, circulation, and exchange of people, things, and ideas across time and space.

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The Pleasure of Sport: Readings for the Olympics

In anticipation of the Olympics starting this weekend, we wanted to share some of our books and special issues on sports. Did we touch on all of your favorites? Let us know in the comments.

Iddrhr_125n the most recent issue of Radical History Review, “Historicizing the Politics and Pleasure of Sport,” (#125) contributors explore how and why sport, paradoxically, leads to empowerment and disempowerment, inclusion and exclusion, unity and division. The issue features cutting-edge research on gender and sexuality, sport in the Global South, neoliberalism, race and ethnicity, and stadiums as sites of urban politics and national identity. The issue also includes a reflection on sport and art, book review essays, contemporary analysis on #BlackLivesMatter and sport, and a forum of scholars who use sport to teach radical history. Read the introduction, made freely available.

ddsaq_105_2A 2006 issue of SAQ: South Atlantic Quarterly, “The Pleasure Principle: Sport for the Sake of Pleasure,” (105:2) is a great read to prepare for the 2016 Olympics. Sport represents a singular source of social belonging and communal enjoyment—sometimes as intense as religious faith. “The Pleasure Principle” contributors address the issue of sport as a form of pleasure, contending that sport, like any form of popular culture, reveals a lot about the society in which it appears. Examining sports through various theoretical lenses, including Marxist, feminist, and poststructuralist, and from numerous disciplinary viewpoints—history, sociology, cinema studies, literature, and cultural studies—this special issue demonstrates the complexity of contemporary sports culture. Read Amy Bass’s “Objectivity Be Damned, or Why I Go to the Olympic Games: A Hands-On Lesson in Performative Nationalism” to learn why the events that transpire in a fortnight of international athletic competition should never be underemphasized, simplified, or dismissed merely as performative pomp and circumstance, or check out the introduction to the issue by David L. Andrews.

978-0-8223-4856-6_prMany of the athletes competing in the games will be truly transnational citizens, playing on a team in one country, while trying for Olympic glory under the different flag of their birth. Sports like soccer, baseball, and golf have tremendous global appeal. Rachael Miyung Joo’s book Transnational Sport: Gender, Media, and Global Korea looks in particular at Korean athletes and events and explores how global sport has helped shape what it means to be Korean.

978-0-8223-5563-2_prThe last time cricket was played at the Olympics was in 1900, but players and organizers are trying to get it included in a future games. To understand cricket, both the game and its cultural context, read C.L.R. James’s classic Beyond a Boundary, originally published in 1963 and republished in a handsome 50th anniversary edition in 2013. Writing in The Nation, Mark Naison called it, “a book of remarkable richness and force, which vastly expands our understanding of sports as an element of popular culture in the Western and colonial world.”

978-0-8223-4276-2_prThe Cuban baseball team has been the most successful national team at the Olympics since 1992, winning the gold medal three times and the silver twice.  The Quality of Home Runs is Thomas F. Carter’s lively ethnographic exploration of the interconnections between baseball and Cuban identity. Suggesting that baseball is in many ways an apt metaphor for cubanidad, Carter points out aspects of the sport that resonate with Cuban social and political life: the perpetual tension between risk and security, the interplay between individual style and collective regulation, and the risky journeys undertaken with the intention, but not the guarantee, of returning home.

Enjoy the games!

 

Scholarship Should Be Fun, Dammit!

We are thrilled to present today’s guest blog post by Janine Barchas and Kristina Straub, co-authors of “Curating Will & Jane,” featured in Eighteenth-Century Life. The article addresses the curation of Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Here, Barchas and Straub discuss non-traditional forms of scholarship and how delightfully fun they can be to work with.

“Fun” might not be the first word that comes to mind in association with curating a serious museum exhibition for the Folger Shakespeare Library, but we have been using it a lot lately in reference to our work on Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity, opening in Washington, D.C. on 6 August 2016. Will & Jane looks at literary celebrity historically as well as in real time, focusing on the 200-year marks after the deaths of these authors to explore the processes by which two great writers became literary superheroes. At the time of this exhibition, Shakespeare logs in at 400 and Austen at 200 years, so we are witnesses to a new milestone in their fame. A solemn moment? Well, only if bobbleheads make you feel reverent. Will & Jane brings together high and low culture, juxtaposing precious art objects with the mundane and even ridiculous, to tell a story about how literary celebrity works in 200-year cycles.

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Figurines of Richard III with different actors’ faces

We are literary nerds, an Austen scholar and a theater historian working on Shakespeare in the 18th century, so our definition of fun inevitably encompasses the pleasure of historical research and discovery, and there is plenty of that in Will & Jane. As curators we were struck again and again by the parallels between the afterlives of these two very different authors. Dozens of porcelain figurines depicting Richard III in the same pose (although with three different actors’ faces) taught us an important lesson about material production and fame: repetition makes celebrity. In the 20th century, the medium shifts to the electronic, as the same repetition effect is created for Austen in the spectacle of a damp-shirted Colin-Firth-as-Darcy emerging countless times in YouTube reenactments of that famous scene in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice which has inspired numerous spoofs and restagings.

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Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in the BBC Pride and Prejudice TV Mini-Series

the shirt

“The Shirt”

Once word got out that our exhibition would display “The Shirt” worn by Firth in the making of this scene, the New York Times and New Yorker each joined in the spirit of our exhibition, smartly making sport of the centrality of this garment to Austen fandom. Prompting, however indirectly, a satire in the New Yorker is the stuff that doth overflow any academic’s cup!

Will and Jane’s respective ascensions to literary greatness were each kicked off by media extravaganzas marking, roughly, the 200th anniversaries of their life and work. In 1769, actor and entrepreneur David Garrick organized a Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford-upon-Avon. In 1789, John Boydell opened the popular Shakespeare Gallery, the first museum dedicated to the Bard. The television “bonnet drama” of the 1990s is to Austen as these 18th-century public spectacles were to Shakespeare. Assisted by Hollywood, the BBC awarded Austen, and her characters, special star status as she approached her bicentenary. As literary historians, we take great pleasure in these moments of resemblance and the discernment of patterns in the history of literary fame.

Our scholarly desire to understand Will’s and Jane’s literary celebrities often, however, led us away from the literary, indeed, to some extent, even away from books (although books as material objects tell many fascinating stories in our exhibition). The heady rush of discerning the historical traces of celebrity in advertisements for laundry soap and gin, in household objects like rolling pins and salt and pepper shakers, in children’s games and babies’ board books definitely carried a different kind of pleasure than the traditional printed page. Standing in the vaults of the Folger and looking at shelves of what our spouses call tchotchkes and ban from our mantelpieces at home in the interests of good taste taught us a lot about material culture and celebrity, but it was also just plain fun. So was wading through hordes of Austenalia, including shoeboxes and a finger puppet of Mr. Collins as a mouse, at the Goucher College Library. Not only were plastic action figures a nice change of pace from the printed page, our research for this exhibit allowed us to indulge in a cheekiness that is usually off-limits for sober scholars. Will & Jane encouraged us in a kind of play that made us participants, performers in as well as observers of fan culture.

Naturally, our preparatory labors over the last three years leading up to the exhibition have not been utterly painless. We’ve weathered freak snow storms during site visits, endured the grit of travel and monastic accommodations, and participated in what seems like a lifetime’s worth of planning meetings, conference calls, and assessments. We’ve drafted and redrafted so many texts, promotional statements, and brochures that our waking thoughts now seem to consist entirely of label fragments. Yet, at every conference presentation or press interview our enthusiasm for this exhibition remains genuine. At a time when the Humanities are under scrutiny and so many of us cannot get jobs, we’ve been unabashedly enjoying ours. We hope that some of this joy is contagious and, with a little luck, infects even the general public.

We hope visitors to the Folger will join us in the long-running performance of literary celebrity that is Shakespeare and Austen. It is a performance about longing, about the desire to see, touch, feel, and know all there is to know—in this case about two writers about whom we actually know very little. That’s why, for 400 years in Shakespeare’s case and for 200 in Austen’s, fans have written sequels, adapted their texts into a variety of genres and media, painted portraits, and generally imagined as much as can be imagined about their personal lives and loves. If, at times, the performance tips into parody, travesty, and even kitsch—all the more fun for us and the many visitors whom we hope will join us at the Folger between August 6 and November 6, 2016.

Meanwhile, and for those who like to mix their sweet intellectual delights with scholarly fiber, take a look at our account of the exhibition just published by Duke University Press in Eighteenth-Century Life. The article “Curating Will & Jane” will prepare you for all the serious facts behind the fun.

Read the article, made freely available throughout the exhibit.

Mad Men Comes to an End

Mad Men Mad WorldThis week the final episode of the television series Mad Men aired on AMC. The smart show about an advertising firm in the 1960s is a favorite with academics. In 2013 we published Mad Men, Mad World: Sex, Politics, Style, and the 1960s. Edited by Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky, and Robert A. Rushing, the collection of essays explores the groundbreaking drama in relation to fashion, history, architecture, civil rights, feminism, consumerism, art, cinema, and the serial format.

The editors and many of the contributors to Mad Men, Mad World have been blogging about the series for years. Posts for each episode of seasons 4 through the first part of season 7 are on Kritik. For the final episodes, the team has moved to Public Books. Lauren Goodlad blogs about the series finale today. She has a few words on Mad Men’s overall importance to television.

“When it first took the world by storm back in 2007, Mad Men was unlike anything else on television. Whereas The Sopranos, the show that elevated Matthew Weiner to a writer of note, had cultivated a hybrid postmodernism, Mad Men’s continuous narrative arcs and multi-plot ensembles evoked the serialized realism of the nineteenth century. And whereas The Wire recalled Dickens in taking the modern city for its subject, Mad Men has always been more focused on its characters than on New York City, Madison Avenue, or even the Sixties. Then too, in a way reminiscent of Flaubert, Mad Men has combined “a relentless exposure of social pathology with a surface allure culled from the most glittering self-representations” of its period palette.”

If you’re still working your way through the series, pick up a copy of the book and read it alongside. If you’re planning to teach the series now that it is complete, Mad Men, Mad World makes a great, accessible textbook. And if reading about Mad Men makes you hunger for other works in the aca-fandom genre, check out The Sopranos by Dana Polan and On The Wire by Linda Williams.

TV Viewers Fight to Save Soul!: An Excerpt from Gayle Wald’s It’s Been Beautiful

Its Been BeautifulIn It’s Been Beautiful: Soul! and Black Power Television, Gayle Wald mines the political, cultural, and affective archive of Soul!, a groundbreaking public-television program that combined black performing arts with frank talk about identity and social revolution. Airing weekly beginning in fall 1968, Soul! in its inaugural season created a welcoming space for both established and up-and-coming figures, including James Baldwin, the Last Poets, Roberta Flack, Sam and Dave, and Betty Shabazz. But midway through its first season, the Ford Foundation—a crucial underwriter of the program—abruptly withdrew its support, leaving the show—and producer Ellis Haizlip’s plan to take Soul! national in 1970—in the lurch.

In this passage from It’s Been Beautiful, Wald writes about how viewers fought back to save Soul!, mirroring, in both their eloquence and the warmth of their regard for the program, Soul!’s own respectful and warm address to the black community.

The variety of written appeals to Channel 13 was impressive. Some were typewritten; others were handwritten or, in the case of letters from children, illustrated. Some were from representatives of groups of workers or specific communities; others spoke for families or individuals. A letter from Port Jarvis, New York, began with the salutation “Dear Ellis.” A black serviceman stationed at Fort Tilden, in Queens, composed his letter while he watched: “I am listening to LeRoi Jones and it sounds good. It is wonderful to hear my people expressing themselves in many ways (asides from rotting).” One viewer praised Soul! as “a particularly relevant vehicle for those of us in the white community,” and specifically singled out the Last Poets’ “Die, Nigga!!!”, writing that “the power and majesty of that segment beggars description.” The director of a juvenile detention facility in Orange County, New York, wrote to say that Soul! was important to his wards. Peter Long, Loretta Long’s husband and public relations director at the Apollo Theater (yet another connection to the Harlem venue), weighed in with a heartfelt note about the ways exposure on Soul! had jump-started his wife’s career, and pledged the Apollo’s continued collaboration with the show.

Letters in defense of Soul! issued from high and low. Ralph Bunche sent a telegram; an inmate of Monmouth County Jail, in New Jersey, sent a letter that bore the warden’s stamp of approval. A Brooklyn writer who identified herself as a “soul sister” wrote that Soul! was “the only show catering to the task of our generation (young).” Seven people from Jamaica, Queens, signed a letter that said: “Keep ‘Soul’ and educate, entertain, and maybe save a few false fire alarms, whitey’s head, stores, and my sanity.” “T.V. really was never for me before,” wrote a grateful female viewer from Rego Park, New York. “In my opinion, ‘Soul!’ is too relevant to the social viewing needs of a group of minorities of the New York area as large in number as we are to be taken away.” Another writer, identifying herself as “a widow woman” who had scrubbed hospital floors to educate her three grown children, concluded, “I think Soul is not only entertaining, but empowering, enlightening and hopefull [sic].” A Long Island City woman submitted an appeal in the form of a poem:

My family has a five-hundred dollar

colored television set

that we turn on
     once a week
Thursday
     9 p.m.
     Channel 13
     SOUL!
Because it’s the only for real thing on T.V.
Dig it?

It’s Been Beautiful will be published in March. You can preorder now from online or local bookstores, or save 30% by ordering directly from us. Call 888-651-0122 and use coupon code E15WALD.

New Books in February

It’s hard to believe how fast January flew by, and February’s already here! We have a lot of great new books coming out this month, on a variety of subjects. Check them out below!

Okeke Agulu cover image, 5746-9Written by one of the foremost scholars of African art, Chika Okeke-Agulu, and featuring more than 125 color images, Postcolonial Modernism chronicles the emergence of artistic modernism in Nigeria in the heady years surrounding political independence in 1960.

Recycled Stars, by Mary R. Desjardins, considers the how female stars’ images and persona acquire multiple meanings as they circulate across media. Focusing on the rise of television and gossip magazines in the 1950s, and on stars like Lucille Ball and Gloria Swanson, the book explores the play between familiarity and novelty that new media use to appeal to audiences.

Thompson cover image, 5807-7In Shine, art historian Krista Thompson analyzes photographic practices in the Caribbean and the United States to show how African diasporic youth use the process of creating images to represent themselves in the public sphere and to communicate with other Afro-diasporic communities.

Hagar Kotef’s book, Movement and the Ordering of Freedom, examines the roles of mobility and immobility in the history of political thought and the structuring of political spaces.

In The Color of Modernity, Barbara Weinstein focuses on race, gender, and regionalism in the formation of national identities in Brazil.

Zhang cover image, 5856-5The Impotence Epidemic, by Everett Yuehong Zhang, is an ethnography of impotence as a medical and social phenomenon, in which the author argues that the recent increase in Chinese men seeking treatment for impotence represents a shift in changing sexual attitudes in capitalist China.

In Loneliness and Its Opposite, Don Kulick and Jens Rydström argue that for people with disabilities, being able to explore their sexuality is an issue of fundamental social justice. The authors analyze how Sweden and Denmark engage with the sexuality of people with disabilities; whereas Sweden hinders sexuality, Denmark supports it through the work of third-party sexual helpers.