Sunday, July 22, 2012

Graphic Texts, Then and Now

Over the past two years, I've been working as the editor for Music:Interview, a new series from Wesleyan University Press featuring books that creatively anthologize "the most provocative and resonant interviews by a significant figure in music." A project in the series I'm particularly excited about is Stephen Farina's Reel History: The Lost Archive of Juma Sultan and the Aboriginal Music Society. While the book introduces musician Juma Sultan and his performances with the Aboriginal Music Society from the 1960s and ‘70s, it is also an exciting experiment in form. It dynamically combines oral history, the graphic novel, audio recording, and film to narrate the story of Farina's own encounters with Juma Sultan and to make sense of Sultan's decaying but extraordinary archive of historical reel-to-reel tapes, 16 mm films, and posters from the heyday of black nationalist politics and avant garde jazz. Reel History is Wesleyan's first "digital-born" book--that is, it is available an e-book only--reading it was a new experience for me, since it invites a range of readerly engagement. One moment you are following Farina's story-telling in words, the next you encounter a visual montage (sequential panels evoking Sultan's body movements as he reminisces and laughs). Along the way, you can click on links that play clips of the music being discussed, or you can watch a silent movie of the AMS rehearsing. It is truly a book illustrated for readers in a digital age, used to moving between text, video, and audio with ease.

Coincidentally, I've been reading another older work, for a class I'm about to teach on social justice and the New Deal, that also experimented with illustration and narrative, albeit in a very different way: Lynd Ward's Vertigo. Ward was a printmaker who combined wood engraving and a strong commitment to social justice to create a series of "novels without words" in the 1930s. I had never heard of Lynd Ward until he was recommended to me by a friend, but his work is extraordinary, representing a kind of moving picture, with the "movement" created not by visual illusion or mechanical device--or even a layout of frames, typical of comics and graphic novels--but rather by a reader's own engagement with narrative flow. Each page holds one illustration, exquisitely-rendered: establishing scenes of city streets, characters in various settings, conversations, dreams, close-ups of faces and expressions. When taken together in sequence, they tell a complex story. In an earlier work, Wild Pilgrimage, Ward interestingly used different colors--red to indicate interior thought and black to indicate exterior action; in Vertigo, he dispensed with such cues, putting everything into the composition and sequence of the images. Sometimes, you don't know what's going on for several pages, but then with one expression or twist, it all becomes clear.

Finally, thanks to Andrew Sullivan's blog at the Daily Beast, I was made aware that the Folio Society is re-publishing William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (1929) in the way that Faulkner originally intended, with different colored text indicating different time periods. The Sound and the Fury is a complex, layered book, with the same story told from multiple points of view and with abrupt shifts in narrative style and time period. Faulkner had originally hoped to use colored ink to help readers negotiate these shifts, but the publisher refused, so he had to rely on roman and italic type instead. Now, we can experience the book graphically in ways we could not in the original Random House editions.

I've been reading a lot about reading lately, but I have not come across scholarship that addresses the processes of reading a graphic text in the way that, say, Wolfgang Iser or Stanley Fish have addressed the more conventional word text, or art historians have made sense of looking at a painting. I'm fairly certain that this is due only to my ignorance, so I'd appreciate any recommendations for such criticism and theory in the comments. In the meantime, happy "reading," whatever that entails.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Tag-Team Audiencing

We tend to think of audiencing as a rather prescribed set of activities: purchasing a ticket, entering a theater of some kind, and watching/hearing a performance. But there are all kinds of alternative audience practices that challenge this model, either out of necessity or defiance. In Listening and Longing, for instance, I wrote about the practice of lingering outside concert halls to catch the muted strains of performed music inside, or drawing out the experience of a performance through various kinds of reproduction: writing and re-reading detailed descriptions in diaries, or purchasing sheet music or scripts of works and trying to re-create them.

I just realized the significance of another alternative practice. Harry Belafonte, in his new autobiography, My Song, writes about how he and Sidney Poitier, as young struggling actors in post-War 1940s Harlem, would go to the theater: "We started going to the theater once or twice a week, splitting the cost of a single ticket. One of us would go in for the first half, come out at intermission and pass the stub, along with a plot summary to the other. We saw some theater that way, and agreed that seeing half of each play taught us more than not seeing a play at all." (60)

Remarkably, I had just read Patti Smith's account of the same practice when she was living with Robert Mapplethorpe in New York City in the 1970s. This is a fascinating way to encounter a performance. All audiences set up a performance and then collectively interpret it afterward through conversation and criticism--but in this scenario, the performance itself is a dialogic construction, made from individually-experienced fragments, imagined together. If you believe that audiences are secondary, only receiving the primary event of performance, then this sort of tag-teaming is simply a clever way to report "what happened" among those who can't afford more than a ticket. However, if you believe that audiences in some way constitute the performances they encounter, then tag-teaming presents some very interesting questions about how texts might be understood, crafted, and made meaningful in their re-telling. 

Of course, we do this all the time. When a group of people is watching television and one person leaves for a moment to get a snack or use the bathroom and then asks, upon returning, "What did I miss?," he will piece together the narrative from experience, memory, and whatever irritated descriptions he receives. What I like about tag-team audiencing is the positive investment in the process; both Belafonte and Poitier planned to relate half the play to the other and knew that their collective understanding depended on it.

Jonathan Sterne has described the phonograph as "a machine to hear for us." In many ways, tag-team audiencing functions similarly; both Belafonte and Poitier provided playback for each other. Belafonte doesn't talk about how he, or Poitier, grew to enjoy the descriptions they gave each other as much as seeing plays, but that wouldn't be impossible to imagine. 

Friday, July 13, 2012

Summer is the Time for Reading

I'm never going to make it onto the Hot Guys Reading Books blog (fascinating concept in the history of reading, no?), but I am a guy who is presently engaged in reading books. Lots of them. During the academic year, while I deal with the non-stop demands of teaching, committee-work, and administration, I rarely have time to read. Still, every year, there are about a dozen or so new books on fans and audiences that I really must read, a situation that puts the pressure on me during my breaks from teaching to take them all out of the library. I rarely get through the whole pile, but with due diligence I do begin to acquaint myself with some of the latest interesting work in the field. Maybe there needs to be a Harried Professors Reading Books blog.

This summer, I've been trying to catch up with recently-published books on popular music by Will Hermes, Patti SmithKevin Fellezs, Claudio Benzecry, William Roy, John Street, Steven Feld, Kiri Miller, and Harry Belafonte. I've already reviewed Hermes' Love Goes to Buildings on Fire and will talk about some of the others, soon, on this blog.

Of course, while I've been focusing on music, I've been noticing a host of books on audience that have been cropping up in other fields. Just quickly, for example, here are a few books about ardent reading that I ardently wish to read:

Michael Millner, Fever Reading (University of New Hampshire Press, 2012)

"Drawing on a rich archive of scandal chronicles, pornography, medical journals, religious novels, and popular newspapers, as well as more canonical sources, Michael Millner examines the panics and paranoia associated with “bad reading” in the United States from the late eighteenth century to the Civil War. Weaving into his analysis a model of emotion recently developed in cognitive psychology, he provides the back-history to our present-day debates about “bad” reading and shows how these debates—both in the past and in the present—are in part about the shape of the public sphere itself."

Birgit Brander Rasmussen, Queequeg's Coffin (Duke University Press, 2012)

"The encounter between European and native peoples in the Americas is often portrayed as a conflict between literate civilization and illiterate savagery. That perception ignores the many indigenous forms of writing that were not alphabet-based, such as Mayan pictoglyphs, Iroquois wampum, Ojibwe birch-bark scrolls, and Incan quipus. Queequeg's Coffin offers a new definition of writing that comprehends the dazzling diversity of literature in the Americas before and after European arrivals. This groundbreaking study recovers previously overlooked moments of textual reciprocity in the colonial sphere, from a 1645 French-Haudenosaunee Peace Council to Herman Melville's youthful encounters with Polynesian hieroglyphics.

By recovering the literatures and textual practices that were indigenous to the Americas, Birgit Brander Rasmussen reimagines the colonial conflict as one organized by alternative but equally rich forms of literacy. From central Mexico to the northeastern shores of North America, in the Andes and across the American continents, indigenous peoples and European newcomers engaged each other in dialogues about ways of writing and recording knowledge. In Queequeg's Coffin, such exchanges become the foundation for a new kind of early American literary studies."

Barbara Hochman, Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Reading Revolution (University of Massachusetts Press, 2011; recently won the 2012 DeLong Book History Prize from SHARP: The Society for Authorship, Reading, and Publishing)

"Uncle Tom's Cabin" and the Reading Revolution explores a transformation in the cultural meaning of Stowe’s influential book by addressing changes in reading practices and a shift in widely shared cultural assumptions. These changes reshaped interpretive conventions and generated new meanings for Stowe’s text in the wake of the Civil War.

During the 1850s, men, women, and children avidly devoured Stowe’s novel. White adults wept and could not put the book down, neglecting work and other obligations to complete it. African Americans both celebrated and denounced the book. By the 1890s, readers understood Uncle Tom’s Cabin in new ways. Prefaces and retrospectives celebrated Stowe’s novel as a historical event that led directly to emancipation and national unity. Commentaries played down the evangelical and polemical messages of the book.

Illustrations and children’s editions projected images of entertaining and devoted servants into an open-ended future. In the course of the 1890s, Uncle Tom’s Cabin became both a more viciously racialized book than it had been and a less compelling one. White readers no longer consumed the book at one sitting; Uncle Tom’s Cabin was now more widely known than read. However, in the growing silence surrounding slavery at the turn of the century, Stowe’s book became an increasingly important source of ideas, facts, and images that the children of ex-slaves and other free-black readers could use to make sense of their position in U.S. culture."

Monday, July 2, 2012

Cultural Concepts of Fair Play

In the recent Anthropology NewsYağmur Nuhrat of Brown University wrestles with the concept of "fair play," drawing on her ethnographic research among Turkish soccer fans. In "Making Fairness in Turkish Football," she argues that we tend to think of fair play as defined by game rules and promoted as a celebrated ideal of "olympism" and known more colloquially, at least in the U.S., as "good sportsmanship." There is even an International Fair Play Committee that recognizes acts of fair play in "elite sports and sports for all." But Nuhrat explains how this framework is a lot more complicated than it seems. In particular, she uses the example of Alpay Özalan, a player on the Turkish national team in the 1996 Euro tournament who refused to foul a Croatian player in a crucial moment, thus winning a Fair Play award but also losing the game for his team. Fans explained bitterly to Nuhrat that "fair play" could have included a "tactical foul." Since Özalan ignored the good of the team and the nation and appeared to gain personally from it, he had not played "fairly" at all. Nuhrat concludes that "Identifying a universal right or good is but one way to approach ethics...The principles of Fair Play and Olympism ethics exist in a tenuous relationship with alternative conceptualizations of fairness. It is futile and impossible to evaluate in isolation the components of the web in which fairness is couched because it is this socially shifting web which makes fairness on the ground in concrete social sites; through the mouths and practices of football actors, be them footballers or cabbies."

While Nuhrat's piece does not address fandom specifically as a cultural construction, her analysis does present a new perspective on how fans construct the meaning of the events in which they participate, and how that may or may not coincide with the meanings that players enact or that leagues and officials attempt to institutionalize. This isn't "resistance" in the cultural studies sense of the term, but it is an example of the complex ecology of participation (to use Nuhrat's phrasing, the "socially shifting web") in any sporting event.

This is promising anthropological research for those of us who are thinking about the behaviors and values of sports audiences.

In my ignorance of Turkish names, I erroneously assumed that Yağmur was a "he." Since initially posting, I have gone back and corrected the pronouns. My apologies, Yağmur!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

I Love (Listening to Music In) New York

People can usually recount the music that they first loved. There is usually a song or a work or a genre that unexpectedly stopped them in their tracks, became the object of fascination, and transformed their thinking or behavior, staking out new directions for listening, selfhood, and social interaction. (In fact, it's the subject of a new call for papers over at the IASPM-US blog). Of course, as we tried to show in the My Music Project, first-loved music music doesn't always have to be in the form of a single work or follow the prescriptions of genre. Often, the musical experiences that end up changing our lives when we are young are the result of both random discoveries and careful choices, a complex accumulation of encounters that reflects our developing needs and personalities. Each of us is constantly building "idioculture" of sound that declares who we are and who we want to be.

For those lucky enough to have grown up in a rich musical context--shaped by access to a supportive teacher, a decent radio market, a wide-ranging parental record collection, or a city supporting diverse music scenes--one's musicality can develop in especially interesting ways. Such is the case with Will Hermes, a senior critic for Rolling Stone editor and NPR contributor, who, in Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, describes an amazing time of transition in New York City's musical history between 1973 and 1977, a time when he was lucky enough to participate, however tangentially. While the book's organization--episodic paragraphs covering diverse music scenes of New York, year by year in five chapters--might seem only slightly more engaging than researching the Village Voice concert calendar, Hermes transforms that mundane chronological framework with commentary that is detailed, self-deprecating, and touchingly enthusiastic. He's admirably both a critic and a fan in this history, and without getting into the whole "aca-fan" ("crit-fan"?) thing, it works.

Avant garde jazz, latin jazz, fusion, salsa, minimalism, electronic music, disco, rock, proto-punk, hip hop--it all gets equal attention in each year, allowing us to see the same musicians as they develop their different art forms over time and also enabling us to map their chance encounters and deeper interactions. Hermes' carefully constructs our awareness of historical simultaneity by juxtaposing on the page performances, recording sessions, block parties, underground dances, acid trips, bar fights, and burgeoning partnerships happening the same night in separate neighborhoods and boroughs, or even down the street from one another. Hermes did not experience himself everything he writes about (he was 14 years of age in 1975 and not exactly of clubbing age), but even an adult with all the money and time in the world could not have done so. Instead, he presents New York's changing musical life with an wide-enough scope (what he calls "panoramic, telescopic, superhero vision") to best account for the historical transformations underway in the city. We learn of Hermes buying records at The Music Box on Union Turnpike in Queens, seeing the Ramones at Hammerheads bar on Long Island, failing to get into Studio 54, and adopting Peter Frampton-style hair to get girls. But we also learn about the "First Latin Soulrock Fiesta" at Yankee Stadium in 1973; the legendary fight between The Dictators' Dick Manitoba and transvestite singer Wayne County at CBGBs in 1975; the financial struggles of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson as they prepared a production of Einstein on the Beach. We see a young The result feels personal but shared; it's a kind of collective becoming-a-fan story, noting a moment when many different people, unknown to each other in a huge, damaged, and unpredictable metropolis, used music as a means for cultivating new meaning and negotiating their survival. For more on the book, go to the book's multimedia blog.

That brings me to a quick mention of another book I just finished, appropriately, right after Loves Goes to Buildings: Patti Smith's Just Kids. It is a surprisingly touching and poetic memoir, describing her early years in New York City with then-struggling artist Robert Mapplethorpe. As with Keith Richards' Life, I was struck by how much the act of listening to records meant to Smith. She and Mapplethorpe barely had enough money for food most of the time, but throughout the book, their few cherished records seem to provide them the inspiration to go on:
We didn't have the money to go to concerts or movies or to buy new records, but we played the ones we had over and over. We listened to my Madame Butterfly as sung by Eleanor Steber. A Love Supreme. Between the Buttons. Joan Baez and Blonde on Blonde. Robert introduced me to his favorites--Vanilla Fudge, Tim Buckley, Tim Hardin--and his History of Motown provided the backdrop for our nights of communal joy (45).
That's a collection Hermes--and perhaps many other New Yorkers--would understand.