Between Stereotypes and Stories

written by Anna P.H. Geurts

Historians such as myself love a good story. And while they usually look for these stories in old manuscripts or eyewitness accounts, they won’t say no to the odd amusement park every now and then.

One of the older themed amusement parks of Europe is the Efteling in the Netherlands. Some of the attractions at the Efteling are based on specific stories, such as Rapunzel or Pinocchio. Others are based simply on ideas, images or types that circulate in the European cultural imagination. The idea that trees might come alive, for instance, or that dragons guard treasures. But also ideas about a mysterious orient, or an inhospitable Africa.

The problem with these latter images is that they were created to justify the conquest of these regions and the use of violence against them. And in the present day, they still support power differences between different areas in the world.

What’s more: I would argue that for a visitor to an amusement park, there is nothing much amusing about simply seeing stereotypes repeated. Surely, we want to be surprised at least a little, in order to really feel entertained?

However much I admire the Efteling, it certainly has its store of such stereotypical imagery. The dark ride Carnaval Festival may be the most well-known container of these images. Like Disney’s It’s a Small World, it features national buildings and national ‘types’ of people from around the world. That means that the very essence of the ride is a celebration of cliches. Some of these cliches are, however, fairly harmless: a choir of Dutch frogs, for instance. In other scenes, the designers have responded creatively to these cliches, like they responded creatively to the talking-tree idea mentioned earlier. This is where Carnaval Festival is at its best. The cliches are used for a visual joke, or they are turned into something beautiful. I remember being in awe as a child of the Japanese masks that were on display, the Scottish bagpiper, the shadow play with kites, or the arctic ceiling.

A third type of scene on this ride, however, has been using cliches in a much more problematic manner. The room representing the makers’ idea of ‘dark Africa’, for instance. The human figures which elsewhere on the ride are mostly just friendly (and blue-eyed, even in Mexico or Hawaii!), here had a stupid look on their faces (and no irises at all). They sported exaggerated lips as found in the ‘Sambo’ or ‘coon’ characters, and facial piercings that, although in vogue in Europe now, were probably meant to stand for anything but civilisation by the makers of the ride in the 1980s. They lived in a forest, were perpetually engaged in warfare (or else perhaps a symbolic demonstration of masculine prowess), brandishing spears and shields, and were observed by several colonial figures in khaki (or were the Africans threatening some of them? This always remained a little ambiguous).

Although the scene also included several humorous components, it may be clear why it has attracted criticism ever since opening to the public. It propagated a historical colonial image of Africa and was as such also very much out of tune with the rest of the ride, that instead focused on contemporary touristic imagery. It therefore suggested to the average European visitor that all of Africa is a forest, and that when travelling there they would be met by a troupe of silly bush warriors and – still – a colonial regime.

When the ride closed for a major technical overhaul, therefore, the Efteling also adjusted this scene, as well as several Asian ones.

The scene now looks like this:

Much has been done to meet the critics. Still, this visitor wonders whether the designers of the overhaul have really understood their critique.

Not only have some harmful stereotypes remained unchallenged and some new ones added. Why, for instance, are these African characters the only ones who are situated in uncultivated ‘nature’? Why, also, is an entire continent conflated into one scene, as if cultural distinctions do not matter when it comes to Africa, while the entire ride is premised on such cultural distinctions? For instance, we find a central-African rainforest and a tropical ape (an Indonesian Orangutan?) together with a South-African flag. The new music composed for this scene even seems to be Caribbean – ‘Black’, too, after all?

But equally, the spokespersons for the Efteling do not show much awareness of what this is all about. In interviews, they speak of an anti-colonial criticism coming from people who did not grow up with the Efteling: as if those hurt by the depictions cannot be Dutch or Flemish nationals; as if appreciation and critique cannot go together; and as if, most surprising of all from a commercial viewpoint, one first needs to ‘learn’ about the Efteling in order to join in the fun.

Equally, they suggest that colonial imagery has only become harmful in recent history. The ride had to change, they say, because it no longer fitted the present ‘diverse’ day and age. But surely, the entire point of colonial imagery, from the very start of colonisation onwards, is that it would harm the colonised? The world has always been a diverse place, and the ride has always attracted criticism. Only perhaps the Efteling is now finally seeing the commercial potential of attracting a more diverse group of visitors?

Finally, the new figures are presented as a great improvement because instead of nose-rings, they now wear ‘traditional African costume’. However, it is precisely the idea of Africa as a ‘traditional’ place – stuck in time – that has justified and still justifies colonial exploitation. (I am not entirely clear what is wrong with the piercings, by the way. Only that some view them as backwards, which may again invite a view of Africa as primitive. But should we go along in seeing piercings this way?)

As said, some harmful stereotypes remain, in the Efteling, not just in Carnaval Festival but in other rides, too.

Still, this year has seen a bright light on the horizon. Two more attractions based on colonial ideas have just closed for renovation and it seems that these, in contrast to Carnaval Festival, will not continue the old pattern of presenting stereotypes but introduce two more fundamental changes.

Firstly, the Adventure Maze and Monsieur Cannibale will shift perspective 180 degrees. Rather than continuing to be based on European images of the colonised, they will be based on the cultural heritage itself of a formerly colonised region. They will spotlight two stories from Sinbad the Sailor’s cycle of adventures, written probably in western Asia or Africa in the early modern period.

Even better: they will not just be based on simple types or cliches that float around in the cultural imagination but on actual stories, with plot, characters, and a lot of space for different interpretations and ways of enjoying them: like the tales of Rapunzel or Pinocchio that we see on display elsewhere in the park. I look forward to seeing the Efteling embody these stories to their fullest.


About the photos: Promotional photos by the Efteling, used here for review purposes with reference to the Berne Convention and the doctrine of fair use.

Reading for Feelings 

written by Carlijn Cober

I have to admit that I rarely read works of literary fiction in order to obtain knowledge about a fictional world, or plot, or historical time period, or even to appreciate the skill that goes into producing a text. Similarly, in the case of theoretical works, I often find that my interpretative work coincides with a desire to experience a sense of connection or kinship. My confession is this: I read for feelings. I want texts to move me, hit a nerve, or touch upon something that makes me feel like myself and, temporarily, not exactly like myself. 

The title of this piece has the same title of my PhD-project: Reading for feelings. This title has a twofold meaning. Firstly, it refers to a method of reading affects and emotions in a text. After reading Toril Moi’s work I feel inclined to say ‘focus’ (perhaps we should settle on the phrase ‘the question of how to?’). Secondly, my title describes the act of reading literature in order to feel. It is these two forms of affective reading experiences I am exploring in the work of Roland Barthes at the moment. Although reading for feelings is intuitive in daily life, difficulties arise once I ask myself: How to? How do you read a text for feelings? 

Affective Ties

In Hooked: On Art and Attachment (2021), Rita Felski writes: “In its most obvious sense, attachment denotes an emotional tie”. These affective ties, she argues: “are often stronger in academia than elsewhere” yet “rarely acknowledged in critical writing”.i I have been working on the French literary theorist Roland Barthes for the last couple of years, and have found that he displays strong affective attachments to literature and theory in his academic writings from the last years of his life. In her chapter for Critique and Postcritique (2017), Namwali Serpell has pointed to Barthes’s development from “a paragon […] of critical distance from the text” towards a scholar “whose personal experiences started to invade his analyses of the text”, thereby offering us a “model for […] phenomenological reading”. Serpell stresses the performativity of Roland Barthes’s use of language, as his work on cliché allows the reader to feel the redundancy of cliché. This notion of performativity draws attention to the effect of the text on its readers. The emotions that the text describes on the one hand and the emotional effects the text has on its readers on the other are intertwined in the case of works such as A Lover’s Discourse and Camera Lucida, due to the fact that the text not only describes emotions, but transacts them. This close connection between textual structures and its effect on readers raises even more questions: How does Barthes manage to make us feel and think, and moreover make us feel and think with him? What are the particular “attachment devices” that encourage readers to relate to these texts emotionally? How can theoretical texts pierce through a distant, rational, symptomatic approach?

Emerging attachment

I will now turn to the late works of Barthes for an emerging theory of literary attachment, before analyzing Camera Lucida as a case study. It is particularly in these late works, written after the death of his mother, that he explored a style of writing that could reinvigorate personal, affective experiences as a source of theoretical knowledge.ii In the midst of his bereavement process, he realizes that emotion pervades both everyday experience and artistic experience. He says: “like love, mourning affects the world” – echoing Sartre’s theory of the emotions.iii I want to argue that Barthes’s affective state of mourning had far-reaching theoretical and methodological consequences, as it set him on a path to take affect as the heart of his approach. 

In his Mourning Diary he observes that that to him, literature is an emotional catalyst, and as a locus of identification. He writes: 

Which is what literature is: that I cannot read without painwithout choking on truth, everything Proust writes in his letters about sickness, courage, the death of his mother, his suffering, etc..iv

“For me, at this point in my life (when maman is dead) I was recognized (by books).”v

Frustrated by his experience of “hard-heartedness” while grieving, he turns to reading Proust as a “tutor-text”, asking Proust “How to love?”.vi His engagement with Proust in Mourning Diary attests to a readerly attachment that is not concerned with aesthetics or hermeneutics, but with an affective-didactic dimension, as Lucy O’Meara has also described in her book on Barthes’s teaching practices at the Collège de France.vii This affective experience leads him to theorize that this is the function of the Novel, as he notes in one of his lectures months later: “Novel: a means of combating the hardness of heart, acedy. This last figure of ‘acedia’ is interesting here, deriving from the Greek ἀκηδία: lack of careviii Exploring his affective reading experience further, he argues that in novels “there are zones of love that magnetize” – perhaps Barthes also described an attachment device here in articulating how certain parts of the text drew him closer.ix

Pathetic Criticism

Ultimately for Barthes, what was at stake in his later works was the language of critique, which he aimed to change radically by countering what he referred to as the hardness of scientific language with, I quote: “emotion, sensitivity, generosity, ‘heart’”.x In his lecture notes on Proust and Joyce from March 10, 1979, Barthes briefly sketches the possibility of a type of literary criticism that would analyze texts for their ‘pathos’ or emotional impact, which he proposes to name, tongue-in-cheek: “Pathetic-criticism”, or “critique pathétique”.xi I will read the entire fragment for you here:

First, this: it wouldn’t be impossible to theorize a reading—and therefore an analysis, a method, a mode of criticism—that would be concerned with or start out from the moments of a work: powerful moments, moments of truth or, if the word doesn’t frighten us, moments of pathos. […]

→ Pathetic criticism: rather than logical units (structural analysis), would start out from affective elements → one could go so far as to judge the values (the value) of a work on the basis of the power of its moments—or of a moment. […]

For me, I know that there are pathetic elements in Monte Cristo from which I could reconstruct the whole work (I’ve thought of doing a course on that novel) → Presuming we’d be willing to devalue the work, to not respect the Whole, to do away with parts of that work, to ruin it → in order to make it live.xii

Barthes’s suggestion is to re-construct the text based on moments of affective force – moments that bring me to tears, that “I cannot read without pain, without choking on truth”. What we see here is that an affective, personal experience is mobilized as a theoretical intervention, similar to how contemporary scholars within queer studies, affect studies, and not to forget postcritique have done these last couple of years. From the method Barthes sketches here and that I would like to develop further, the intervention is also methodological: to conjoin theory and affect, method and feeling from the framework of postcritique. 

How to?

The question, still, is how to read a text for emotion? Here Felski’s Hooked offers one of the most concrete answers to the question of how to do research into literature and feeling, when she suggests that a postcritical interpretation could examine three possible lines of inquiry: 1) Representations of affect (“emotional states of characters, how musical lyrics conveys melancholy, how a painting captures intimacy); 2) solicitations of affect (how an artwork encourages certain kinds of emotional response); 3) how we feel towards works of art–specifically those we care for, as distinct from those that irritate us, bore us, leave us cold.xiii

I decided to take these three questions as the structural grid for my investigation into emotion, using them as a model in reading Barthes’s final published work: Camera Lucida (1980). In what follows, I will take you through my version of reading for feelings based on Felski’s suggestions in Hooked, starting with a personal reading of how I feel towards this work of art and working my way up to the narrative devices that solicit this response.

Reading for Feelings

It took a while for me to come to care for this book. Somehow it is only now, while dealing with a loss of my own, that I feel the emotional pull that other scholars and readers have noted for years.xiv The first thing I notice this time is that the text feels personal. There is something in this text that reaches out to me like a punctum, and invites me to feel alongwith this melancholic, grieving figure.xv This time, the text has attached itself to me before I grew attached to it. Reading Camera Lucida feels like a child has clung to my leg, pleads with me not to leave, immobilizes me with its weight. It has an arresting quality, as though it is asking me to stop whatever intellectual work I am doing and to mother it, care for it. As with the punctum, it has reached out to me, and I am made defenseless.  

Arguably, the text feels personal because it depicts exceptionally private feelings. Barthes’s book on photography is simply saturated with grief. Written just after his mother’s death on October 27th, 1977, Camera Lucida is as much an investigation into photography as it a reflection on what film theoretician Eugenie Brinkema has described as “the peculiar unending pain of loss”.xvi But the way it depicts this grief is subtle, it is scattered through the book (like ashes) through references to loneliness, sadness, nostalgia, the “funereal” quality of photograph, the conclusion that the essence of Photography is “that-has-been”, and by the desire to make his mother feel present again by shuffling through photographs, trying to recognize her ‘true’ likeness.xvii

I try to find out how it has this effect on me, and find three textual mechanisms that solicit this effect: the rhetorical figure of the noema (a rhetorical figure), affective citation (an intertextual device), and lastly what I would like to call the affective structure (a narratological feature) of the text. Given the time, I will only describe this last figure of affective structure. By affective structure, I mean that the structural properties of the text carry an emotional quality that is able to affect its reader. In the case of Camera Lucida, the text consists of 48 interlocking notes that range from 1 to 4 pages in length. It is not a linear, progressive literary work. Instead, every chapter feels like a re-visitation, like a musical piece is moves along variations on a theme. It is precisely in this structure of the text that I see a parallel with how the experience of mourning is structured, namely as the reliving of a particular moment of loss, replaying the difficult moments over and over again, ‘ruminating’ on shared experiences. At the core, this is a narratological approach into affect, but theoretically informed by trauma and memory studies, illness narratives, narrative medicine and romance studies This affective structure might explain why readers feel they are made part of this grieving figure’s mourning process, as they too are caught in a textual structure of mourning work – revisiting the same painful idea over and over again (“the photograph as that-has-been”), and dwelling on mortality (“my own future death”).

Productive misattachment

Now I want to take a step back from reading for feelings as an academic practice and look at how this type of “pathetic criticism” is already being practiced in everyday life. Needless to say, the practice of reading for feelings is not contained to a scholarly model. Perhaps it even edges closer to ordinary reading practices, the types of reading we do for the love of stories, not theories. One of the forms this reading mode can take is shown by Barthes-translator Kate Briggs (also this year’s recipient of the Windham-Campbell prize), who has tried out Barthes’s pathetic criticism as a method for her creative writing students. The result of the exercise is a reconstruction of Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo based on “a transcription of [22] readers [ranging from age 16 to 82] who spoke about the moments that solicited an affective response. Moments when readers smiled, cried, sighed or held their breath, had to look up from the text, re-read, found beauty. Together these fragments create “a map of the zones of affective intensity in the novel.xviii She referred to this as “a process of productive misattachment”, since, she argues: “You have made [the text] address you. And now you love it because it addresses you, because it reads as if it had always been written for you.”.xix It is an act of “loving someone’s work so hard that it is altered in the process”.xx

Pulse points

Another form of pathetic criticism can be found in the practice of Shared Reading, specifically in the principles of The Reader in Liverpool. Their mode of reading focuses on the “pulse points” of literary texts, which they define as moments that make your heartbeat shift. They can be: “words, phrases or moments in the text that provoke a strong response, challenge an assumption or shift your thinking”.xxi They argue that it is by holding these moments of emotional force open for personal connections that reading creates what they refer to as ‘liveness’, and texts begin to take on personal meaning for the individual.xxii A similar sense of ‘liveness’ is described in Rita Charon’s The Principles of Narrative Medicine, when she argues that close reading “revolutionizes the reader’s position in life from being an onlooker […] to becoming a daring participant in the emergence of reality.”xxiii

Concluding

The common factor between all of these approaches is that the emotional engagement with literature forges strong personal connections to literary works. The main affordance of this reading mode that can be identified from these examples is that is sheds light on how the novel affects contemporary readers, and generates a mode of criticism that explores the value of a text through its ability to affect contemporary readers. Relating to a text on a personal level, through deeply felt affective experiences, gives rise to the possibility to read beyond social, temporal, political, racial, class and gender differences. Concluding, reading for feelings opens up to literary criticism as an attached, affective practice. 



i Felski (2021): 28. 

ii Polanyi (1962): 16. 

iii Barthes (2012): 126. 

iv Barthes (2012): 177.

v Barthes (2012):133. Similarly in The Pleasure of the Text, he describes that “The text chooses me, by a whole disposition of invisible screens, selective baffles: vocabulary, references, readability, etc.; and lost in the midst of a text (not behind it, like a deus ex machina) there is always the other, the author.” Barthes (1975): 27. 

vi Roland Barthes (2012): 178. 

vii O’Meara (2012): 74.

viii Barthes (2011): 14. 

ix Barthes (2011): 14. 

x Barthes (2011): 163. 

xi Barthes (2011): 63.

xii Barthes (2011): 108

xiii Felski (2021): 29. 

xiv Elkins (2007): 23-24.  

xv Elkins (2007): 23. I am inclined to call him Barthes, but it would be safer to say ‘Barthes’, in line with the discussions on whether or not to trust the authenticity of the narrating ‘I’ in Camera Lucida. At the same time, since I am dealing with ‘the personal’ as a concept, it feels mistrusting and suspicious to separate ‘Barthes’ from Barthes – especially given his suggestion that the subject of writing arises especially in écriture, which would tighten the bonds between the voice that arises from this text and the subject I identify as Barthes. I also have to add that during my reading, I proceed ‘as if’ I am unhindered by any theoretical knowledge about the death of the author. While reading, this ‘I’ who speaks to me emerges as Barthes. It is the only Barthes or ‘Barthes’ I know.

xvi Brinkema (2014): 76. 

xvii Barthes (2000): 5-23. 

xviii Briggs (2015): 126. 

xix Briggs (2015): 126. 

xx Briggs (2015): 118. 

xxi Read to lead handbook, p.22. 

xxii Read to lead handbook, p.22, 36.  

xxiii Charon (2016): 166. 

Works Cited

Barthes, R. (2000) Camera Lucida: Notes on Photography. London: Vintage Books.

Barthes, R. (2011) The Preparation of the Novel: Lecture Courses and Course Notes at the   

Collège de France, 1978-79 and 1979-1980. New York: Columbia University Press.

Barthes, R. (2012) Mourning Diary. New York: Hill and Wang.

Barthes, R. (2018) A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. London: Vintage Books. 

Briggs, K. (2015) ‘Practising with Roland Barthes’, in: L’esprit créateur, 55(4), pp.118-130. 

Brinkema, E. (2014) The forms of the affects. Durham: Duke University Press.

Charon, R. et al (2016) The Principles and Practice of Narrative Medicine. Oxford: Oxford 

University Press. 

Elkins, J. (2007) ‘Camera Dolorosa’, in: History of Photography, 31(1), pp.22-30. 

Felski, R. (2021) Hooked: Art and Attachment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

O’Meara, L. (2012) Barthes at the Collège de France. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Polanyi, M. (1962) Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-critical Philosophy. Chicago: 

University of Chicago Press. 

De Macht van Streuvels

Door Christophe Van Eecke

[Een iets langere versie van dit essay verscheen op Mappalibri, september 2021]

Honderdvijftig jaar Stijn Streuvels wordt door uitgeverij Lannoo gevierd met een (in het huidige ontletterde tijdperk beslist) gedurfde heruitgave van vijf kardinale romans van de grootste Vlaamse auteur van de vorige eeuw: Langs de wegen (1902), De Vlaschaard (1907), De blijde dag (1909), Het leven en de dood in de ast (1926) en De teleurgang van de Waterhoek (1927, herwerkt 1939), in moderne spelling maar met compromisloos behoud van Streuvels’ innovatieve taaleigen dat in vele honderden woordverklaringen op een vlotte manier wordt ontsloten. Wij lazen twee van deze edities, Langs de wegen en De teleurgang van de Waterhoek, en stellen vast dat Streuvels vandaag nog even radicaal, overweldigend en eigentijds is als meer dan een eeuw geleden.

Streuvels is een universeel auteur. Hij schrijft over kleine, alledaagse mensen in de klei van de Vlaamse polders, maar hij doet dat met de allure van een mythologie, waarin het hier-en-nu van hard labeur en de concrete plaatsing in herkenbare Vlaamse landschappen de mythologische en universele tendensen perfect in balans houden. Net zoals men dat ook vindt bij de Russische meesters of een Faulkner of Thomas Hardy, die uiteindelijk ook streekgebonden verhalen met universele allure schreven, en net zoals Hamlet zich afspeelt in Denemarken en de Decamerone in Firenze, en niets van dat alles in Abstract Universeel Nergensland, zo is het Vlaamse landschap voor Streuvels het decor voor wereldliteratuur. Binnen concrete Vlaamse situaties schept Streuvels immers een machtig panorama van de menselijke conditie, waarbij hij de grootste complexiteit aan emoties en motivaties, vaak geworteld in atavistische aandriften die onder het dunne laagje menselijke beschaving loeren, in de harten en geesten van gewone mensen legt, en daarmee benadrukt dat de grootsheid van de menselijke tragedie geen correlatie heeft met de sociale positie die men inneemt of de plaats waar men toevallig is geboren. Het menselijke is universeel en men vindt het aan het hof zowel als in de hofstee.

Donkere regenboog

Dat panorama wordt bijna letterlijk uitgespannen in Langs de wegen. Het boek heeft een misleidende titel: het doet vermoeden dat men een reeks schetsen van het Vlaamse dorps- en landleven kan verwachten. Niets is minder waar: de titel verwijst naar de levensweg, en in deze buitengewoon meeslepende roman, die als in één geut op het blad lijkt te zijn gelopen, vertelt Streuvels het verhaal van Jan Vindeveughel, die als paardenknecht op de boerderij van boer Hoste werkt wanneer hem het bericht bereikt dat zijn vader is overleden. Hij keert naar huis terug om zijn erfenis te ontvangen, en dan blijkt dat hem de lege huls van de ouderlijke boerderij is nagelaten. Hij besluit het land te beginnen boeren, huwt met buurvrouw Vina, en krijgt met haar verschillende kinderen.

Jans leven wordt echter overschaduwd door het noodlot: het gezinsleven, en met name de kinderen, ontwikkelen zich tot een last, en stap voor stap, met onafwendbare fataliteit, verliest Jan alles wat hij ooit had. Hij vervloekt de dag dat hij bij boer Hoste vertrok en ploetert machteloos voort in een leven dat zich, met bittere spot, steeds verder verwijdert van de goede dagen die ooit zijn jeugd kenmerkten. Langs de wegen ziet het leven als een tocht in een bootje dat van de oever wordt afgeduwd, zonder mogelijkheid tot navigatie, en dat steeds verder afdrijft, weg van de veilige oever en dieper in de woestijn van een blinde open zee waar langs alle kanten slechts leegte is. Het is een wereld zonder asiel, zonder beschutting, zonder luwte.

De stroom van de roman, die niet in hoofdstukken is opgedeeld en zich dus als een onverstoord gestaag en met fatalistische beslistheid voortstuwende rivier ontwikkelt, brengt Jan en de lezer van een relatief idyllische jeugd als paardenknecht naar een abjecte oude dag waarin Jan, verarmd en vervuild, in een hol onder de grond woont. Bijzonder hard zijn de passages waarin zijn volwassen zonen van seizoensarbeid in Frankrijk terugkeren en brutaal de spot drijven met hun bijna volledig blinde vader. Met zijn laatste krachten keert Jan daarna terug naar de boerderij van boer Hoste, om te moeten vaststellen dat de tijd ook daar niet is blijven stilstaan en dat de mooie dagen van zijn jeugd voorgoed verdwenen zijn.

Langs de wegen is een donkere en bittere roman. Toch is het ook een opwindende en meeslepende leeservaring. De lezer leeft intens mee met Jan, die stoïcijns slag na slag incasseert. Bovendien zal de aandachtige lezer ook een allegorische laag in de vertelling vaststellen. De universaliteit van het verhaal wordt benadrukt door de manier waarop de narratieve boog van Jans leven als het ware in het ijle hangt. De roman begint niet met de geboorte van Jan maar start met een beeld van Jan die ontwaakt op de hoeve van Hoste en naar het veld trekt om te werken. De roman eindigt ook niet met Jans dood maar met het beeld van de oude en versleten Jan die zich, opnieuw op de hoeve van Hoste, te slapen legt – ongetwijfeld om daar te sterven, al zegt Streuvels dat niet expliciet. De twee absolute ankerpunten van geboorte en dood zijn de lezer onthouden, maar worden vervangen door een ontwaken en een inslapen die een symbolisch begin en einde vormen. Hierdoor krijgt de narratieve spanningsboog van de roman een emblematisch karakter, als een volle regenboog waarvan de twee voeten in het niets vervliegen, alsof ze roerloos in de lucht hangt, zonder verankering.

Deze ingreep geeft een tijdeloze allegorische lading aan het verhaal, dat nooit minder dan radicaal concreet is maar toch tegelijk ook een rauwe wanhoopskreet is over de futiliteit van het menselijk bestaan in gevecht, niet met nachtegalen, maar met de brutaliteit van het leven op een meedogenloze planeet, omgeven door veelal harde mensen in een goddeloos universum. Langs de wegen is niets indien niet Nietzscheaans in het donkere visioen dat de auteur met keiharde literaire helderheid oproept.

De Ingenieur en de Helleveeg

De Teleurgang van de Waterhoek speelt zich af op de grens tussen Oost- en West-Vlaanderen. Daar ligt, langs de oevers van de zich in kronkels om zichzelf wentelende Schelde, het vergeten gehucht de Waterhoek, waar de mensen sinds generaties op zichzelf leven in een samengehokt cluster van huizen waarbinnen een kleine groep families zich in langdurige inteelt diepe wortels in de bodem hebben gegraven. Zoals Streuvels het in het eerste hoofdstuk schildert, voltrekt het leven in de Waterhoek zich als in een doek van Bruegel, met dezelfde soort karakterkoppen in de hoofdrol. De leider van deze kleine gemeenschap is Broeke, biologische stamvader van zowat de helft van alle inwoners.

De moderniteit komt onuitgenodigd aankloppen wanneer de kleine luiden van de Waterhoek het bericht ter ore komt dat ter hoogte van het gehucht een brug over de Schelde zal worden gebouwd en dat de helft van de Waterhoek zal worden onteigend om een nieuwe steenweg aan te leggen. Daarmee begint een gevecht op leven en dood tegen de verandering, waarbij het oeroude gehucht brutaal in de twintigste eeuw wordt gerukt en Broeke alles in het werk stelt om de bouw van de brug te saboteren. Een tweede stoorfactor is de onverwachte terugkeer naar de Waterhoek van Mira, een buitenechtelijke kleindochter van Broeke die al snel alle mannen en jongens rond haar vinger windt, en niet in het minst de jonge ingenieur Maurice, die op de bouw van de brug moet toezien maar zich tot ontsteltenis van zowel zijn mentor-professor als zijn moeder in zijn ongeluk stort door een huwelijk te willen aangaan met de boerse helleveeg Mira die, althans volgens Broeke, het kwaad in haar lijf draagt.

Het contrast tussen de oude en de nieuwe wereld wordt door Streuvels prachtig scherp gesteld in dit ongerijmde paar: Maurice, een jonge ingenieur met stadse manieren die in de zomp van de weilanden hopeloos verliefd wordt op Mira, die als een wulpse deerne door het landschap danst en met de allure van een femme fatale mannen vreet. Met grote psychologische precisie schetst Streuvels hoe Maurice heen en weer wordt geslingerd tussen zijn verlangen naar Mira en een bijna perverse onderdanigheid tegenover zijn engelachtig heilige maar dominante moeder, die trouwens als een onzichtbare schikgodin op de achtergrond blijft en via manipulatieve missives de gebeurtenissen probeert te sturen.

De door Streuvels met lyrische directheid beschreven vrijerijen van Maurice en Mira behoren tot de opzienbarende passages waar katholiek Vlaanderen zich indertijd in verslikte en die de roman een schandaalreputatie gaven, net als de passages waarin Streuvels in weinig bedekte termen suggereert dat de fatsoenlijke burgerjongen Maurice zich op zijn hotelkamertje aan ontredderde masturbatie te buiten gaat terwijl hij de film van zijn ontmoetingen met Mira voor zijn geestesoog afspeelt. Het gebruik van herinneringen, dromen en andere mentale beelden geeft het boek trouwens een zeer filmisch karakter, net als de levendige vleselijke poëzie waarmee de besmuikte pastorale idylle van ongelijke liefde in de polders wordt opgeroepen. Die intense visuele kwaliteit van Streuvels’ proza geeft het gevecht van Maurice tegen de demonen van de lust de directheid van een koortsdroom.

Duivelswerk

Streuvels tekent in deze roman echter vooral een episch gevecht tegen de demonen van de modernisering, die onder meer wordt gesymboliseerd door het rechttrekken van de kronkelende loop van de rivier en het oprichten van de pijlers waarop de brug zal komen te rusten. Naarmate de veranderingen een fataler en onafwendbaarder karakter aannemen veranderen ook de verhoudingen binnen de gemeenschap. Broeke blijft tot op het laatst hopen dat de hele santekraam van de brug in gruzelementen in elkaar zal stuiken en verdwijnen in het slijk van de polder terwijl andere bewoners mogelijkheden zien om voordeel te halen uit de nieuwe woningen die zullen worden gebouwd op de onteigende gronden. Achterbaksheid, kuiperijen, maar ook moord en doodslag ontwrichten het leven in de Waterhoek.

Dat alles wordt met instemming geobserveerd en niet zelden tersluiks georkestreerd door binnenvetter Broeke, die gedurende de hele roman blijft vasthouden aan zijn taak om mensen met een pont de Schelde over te brengen, bijna als een eigentijdse Charon die dode zielen over de Styx voert. Aan het eind van de roman keert hij, alleen en verlaten als veerman op zijn pont, de stoet de rug toe die bij de feestelijke opening over de brug trekt. En blijft hij hopen op het ultieme cataclysme dat dit duivelswerk van het aardvlak zal vegen. Maurice zijn inmiddels de schellen van de ogen gevallen: zijn weerspannige jonge bruid wordt voor heropvoeding naar zijn moeder gestuurd terwijl hij zelf naar Congo vertrekt om daar een nieuw leven op te bouwen op een plaats waar de schandvlek van zijn onzuivere huwelijk hem niet kan achtervolgen.

Alles samen leggen deze elementen een archetypische polariteit in de roman: het mannelijke en het vrouwelijke principe staan tegenover elkaar, niet alleen door de overbeschaafde hitsige melkmuil Maurice hulpeloos in de klauwen van de wellustige Mira te laten vallen, maar ook door de onhandige en brute patriarchale manipulaties van Broeke in de polder te contrasteren met de subtielere machinaties van de grootsteedse moeder die haar matriarchale invloed via erfrecht en sociale contacten laat gelden. Dat betekent trouwens ook dat de symbolisch mannelijke en vrouwelijke kwaliteiten in gradaties over personages van beide geslachten zijn verdeeld. De moeder van Maurice is een vrouw die de moderniteit en rationele manipulatie vertegenwoordigt (het Apollinische in Nietzscheaanse termen). Maurice is daarentegen net zwak door zijn beschaving en zijn seksuele hulpeloosheid. Mira domineert door haar seksualiteit maar symboliseert het ontembare kwaad (het Dionysische in Nietzscheaanse termen). Broeke vertegenwoordigt de archaïsche patriarchale orde, maar blijft uiteindelijk verweesd en verslagen achter, vechtend tegen windmolens.

De constructie van de brug is het embleem van deze strijd. Van de moeizame worsteling om de eerste pijler te laten oprijzen uit het slijk van de Schelde tot de uiteindelijke feestelijke opening van de brug zien we de langzame triomf van de moderne beschaving (het Apollinische, rationele, mannelijke principe) over het lage land (het Dionysische, ongetemd wellustige, vrouwelijke principe). Op die manier worden de Waterhoek en haar omliggende landen een theatrum mundi waarop de hoofdfiguren hun emblematische rol spelen: een allegorische representatie van universele menselijke tragiek – een procedure die Streuvels trouwens ook in Het leven en de dood in de ast zou gebruiken.

Universele adem

Net als Langs de wegen is De teleurgang een boek dat de lezer naar adem doet happen. Streuvels lezen is als ondergedompeld worden in een oceaan: zijn machtige vertelkunst slokt je op en neemt al je zintuigen in beslag, in die mate dat het lezen staken voelt als het ontwaken uit een trance. Indien hij niet had geschreven in een taal die op het wereldwijde literaire forum als weinig meer dan provinciaal mag gelden, was Streuvels ongetwijfeld brede roem ten deel gevallen. Wie naar parallellen zoekt in de internationale literatuur komt dan ook niet zozeer uit bij andere auteurs van het landleven, maar bij de modernistische meester D.H. Lawrence.

Wat Streuvels en Lawrence delen is de mythologische adem waarmee ze hun concrete en eigentijdse verhalen tot leven brengen. Ook Lawrence situeerde zijn romans in reële landschappen die hij persoonlijk goed kende. In edities van zijn werk worden zelfs kaartjes bijgeleverd waarop de literaire wereld die hij schiep over de concrete dorpen, landhuizen en steenkoolmijnen heen wordt gelegd om te illustreren hoe dicht alles bij de werkelijkheid staat. Maar door de kracht van zijn visie en de eigen manier waarop hij zijn taal in nieuwe bochten wrocht, maar toch te allen tijde eminent leesbaar en meeslepend bleef, wist Lawrence een literatuur te scheppen die zowel literair als filosofisch (en in zijn geval met name in relatie tot de menselijke seksualiteit) nieuwe inzichten blootlegde.

Streuvels doet iets zeer gelijkaardigs: de Vlaamse polders die hij kende en waarin hij leefde waren een decor waarbinnen hij de universele en tijdeloze slag om het bestaan tekende, in grote meesterlijke halen en met een viriele directheid en kracht (iets wat hij met Lawrence deelt). Zowel Streuvels als Lawrence (maar ook Faulkner, en Twain, en de grote Russen, en zowat alle klassieke moderne auteurs) zijn streekauteurs. Wat hun romans onderscheidt van de streekroman (als genre) is de filosofische reikwijdte van wat ze vertellen, en uiteraard ook de weergaloze taalkracht waarmee ze hun panorama’s te boek stellen.

Streuvels’ vertelkracht is zonder maat. Zijn figuren springen levend van het blad. Zijn Mira dartelt met helse schelheid door de kamer terwijl je leest. Het zweet op het lijf van de jonge Jan Vindeveughel kun je ruiken en proeven. De ruggengraat van Maurice smelt in je hand bij elke blik van zijn muze. En op elke bladzijde, in elke fatale ontwikkeling van het schouwtoneel van het leven die hij voor je geestesoog tovert, confronteert Streuvels je met je eigen menselijkheid, en met de vraag hoe het voelt om hier en nu, in de klei van dit lijf in dit land, in dit huis, en met deze kaarten die het lot je heeft toebedeeld, je eigen weg van de wieg naar het graf te stampen, in volle wetenschap dat het maar een keer kan, dat er daarna niets meer is, en dat het kort, heel kort duurt, en verdomd veel pijn kan doen, maar toch tegelijk een weidse duik in de wereld is, en dat het kan schetteren van schoonheid in de zon. Dat is wat literatuur doet. En daarom moeten we Streuvels lezen.

Touching Me Touching You

written by Vincent Meelberg

One thing social distancing has taught us is how important touch is for us human beings. When people do not have the possibility to physically touch other people they can develop a condition called touch starvation or touch deprivation. Touch starvation increases stress, depression, and anxiety, which in turn may result in serious health problems such as headaches, depression, and chronic pain. 

And yet, touch seems to be a rather neglected human sense that, at least until recently, we took for granted. Vision, on the other hand, is usually regarded as the most important means by which human subjects acquire knowledge regarding the world, and ever since the visual turn theory has focused on that sense primarily. Hearing, too, is increasingly regarded as a sense worthy of study as well. Touch, however, remains rather undertheorized, at least in cultural studies.

Nevertheless, on October 4, 2021, the US physiologist David Julius and the Lebanese-American molecular biologist Ardem Patapoutian received the Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of the receptors of nerve cells that allow us to feel heat, cold, pain, and touch. Thanks to these receptors the nervous system is able to detect what the positions of our bodies are, where the arms and leg are, to feel the heat of a warm drink, or the sun on our faces. Without these facilities we would not be able to survive, as through touch we are able to establish contact with the outside world. Also, touch enables us to manipulate and interact with our environment. And interpersonal contact, let alone intimate contact, depends on touch as well. Touch thus seems to be rather important after all, and the pandemic has reminded us of its importance.

Touch is crucial for direct interpersonal contact. According to Matthew Fulkerson interpersonal contact can be established through what he calls affiliative touch: affiliative touch involves contact through touch with another person. Direct affiliative, interpersonal touch is quite intimate, sometimes erotic even. Caressing another person’s body, or kissing someone else’s lips, are examples of quite intimate and affective acts of affiliative touch. 

Affiliative touch can also be distal, indirect, or mediated. This may sound paradoxical, but Fulkerson explains that “[…] through touch we are sensitive to pressure waves and vibrations, as well as other similar signals, and these stimuli are capable of travel through media just like light and sound waves. It thus makes sense that our touch receptors could bring us into contact with distal objects or features, especially when there is a strong mutual informational link between the distal object and our bodies supported by our exploratory actions” (Fulkerson, Matthew. 2014. The First Sense: A Philosophical Study of Human Touch. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p. 150). 

And this is how cultural practices such as theatre and musical performances work. These practices establish interpersonal contact through distal affiliative touch. Sounds touch the eardrums, as well as the entire body, of the audience. The actual physical presence of actors on stage can almost literally be felt. We feel the movements of dancers in our own bodies while watching a dance performance. And this is an experience that cannot be had, at least not in the same manner and with the same intensity, by watching or listening to a recording of such performances. These recordings simply do not have the capacity to touch an audience in the way a live performance can. Experiencing performances via recordings only may ultimately even lead to touch starvation as well, albeit of a different kind. 

Despite the somewhat derogatory comment made by the Dutch Secretary of Health, Hugo de Jonge, that one can easily compensate for not being able to visit live performances during the pandemic by watching a DVD, live performances are essential to our mental health. They are not only essential because artistic practices in general may be beneficial to both practitioners and audiences alike, but also because these performances allow for different ways to be touched, to be caressed by the physical presence of performers on stage. Live performances create possibilities for affiliative touch, and as such may help to prevent touch deprivation. In short: in times of social distancing the performing arts are sorely needed.

Shot on iPhone: Apple’s World Picture

By Niels Niessen

The following text is the introduction to a longer essay published in Advertising & Society Quarterly (2021). The full text can be read here.

On January 9, 2007, at the Macworld Expo in San Francisco, Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs launched the iPhone. In fact, Jobs started his presentation by announcing three revolutionary new products: “an iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone, and an Internet communicator. … So three things … Are you getting it?” The crowd is getting it. “This is one device, today Apple is going to reinvent the phone” (Figure 1). Jobs then continued to demonstrate the iPhone in his signature style, mindfully switching from a Beatles song to Bob Dylan, from a phone call to the photo album, and from a sunny weather forecast to an equally sunny outlook on Apple’s stock. One thing Jobs only mentioned in passing is that the iPhone is also a camera, albeit initially only with two megapixels (MP), and without flash or auto-focus. Almost a decade later that camera became one of the main vehicles driving Apple’s brand identity.

Still from the 2007 keynote event at which Steve Jobs launched the iPhone.

Apple’s advertising of its phone-as-camera, and more generally Apple’s promotion of its brand through photos and videos shot on its devices, took flight with its World Gallery campaign (Figure 2). The campaign was launched in 2015 as part of the marketing of the iPhone 6, by now with an 8MP camera, true tone flash, and phase detection autofocus. For a period of two years, the World Gallery displayed photos shot by iPhone users on billboard ads in urban centers across the globe. The campaign further included print ads, short videos shot by users, and the 2016 TV commercial “Onions,” in which a girl rises to fame thanks to her iPhone. The World Gallery campaign was produced by TBWA\Media Arts Lab, which since 2006 has been Apple’s bespoke creative agency. In 2015, at the Cannes Grand Prix festival for advertising, the campaign won a Golden Lion in the outdoor category, as the jury considered Apple’s campaign a “game changer.”

Apple’s 2015 World Gallery campaign

This essay takes the Shot on iPhone campaign as a lens onto Apple’s new American Dream, designed in Silicon Valley and manufactured in China, under terrible working conditions. The essay asks: What do the images featured in the World Gallery have in common, other than the camera on which they were shot? And what inspiration did Jobs take from Edwin Land, the co-founder of the Polaroid Corporation and the inventor of in-camera instant photography? Taking the World Gallery as its focal point, the essay demonstrates that advertising has always been integral to Apple’s business operations.

The World Gallery is a fascinating campaign. The campaign is modern and postmodern at once, in that it attaches a material product (the iPhone) to an immaterial world view (Apple’s brand image) expressed through images made by means of that product (the iPhone camera) but in such a way that the product’s materiality is effaced (the iDream). And the campaign is analog and digital at once: smartphone photography printed in magazines and on billboards. In a social media era of viral and targeted advertising, in which “messages sent to large groups of people in one swoop” are no longer considered cost effective, Apple advertises with a good old one-message-fits-the-globe strategy.

Don Draper in Mad Men (AMC): “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness.”

On that campaign’s modern side, we have traditional billboards that reassure people that whatever they’re doing, it’s ok, you are ok—to paraphrase fictional advertising genius Don Draper in television show Mad Men’s pilot episode “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (in which Don explains the principles of the 1960s American Dream industry, Figure 3). Advertising, as Welsh social and cultural critic Raymond Williams wrote, is “the official art of modern capitalist society.” In his 1980 essay “Advertising: The Magic System” Williams argues that modern advertising works like magic. By this he means that advertising spins a web of associations around a commodity while obscuring the material reality in which that commodity is produced and consumed. That magical smoke screen is also at work in the World Gallery. The campaign manages to obscure the iPhone’s material reality to the point no iPhone is actually seen in the campaign, and only the iPhone’s feelremains (Figure 4).

Apple’s World Gallery

At the same time, and on the campaign’s postmodern side, the iPhone’s absent presence expresses Apple’s design philosophy. According to this philosophy, technology becomes intuitive to the point it self-effaces in people’s use of it. In this respect, the iPhone is present in every picture, in the crisp aesthetics that carry the “hyperrealism” of advertising photography to the digital age. In his 1991 book Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson refers to postmodernism as an “age that has forgotten how to think historically.” Apple’s world picture, its belief in a world made better by design, is the epitome of this postmodern logic detached from historical materiality. The iPhone is designed to be a weightless technology that intuitively yields to the eternal present of digital media streams. The material reality magically veiled in this timeless flow is a capitalist reality, in which on the production side the earth is mined and labor exploited. Meanwhile, on the side of consumption, the iPhone facilitates the control capitalism of data-mining platforms like Google and Facebook, whose digital infrastructures interpellate—i.e., at once address and create—the smartphone user as a dividual. This dividual is what becomes of the individual under control capitalism and its datafying logic: a posthuman subject who is scattered and shattered to the point they’re no longer in-dividual, undivided. The material reality of that scattered dividual contrasts sharply with Apple’s world picture, at once romantic and digital in its aesthetic, of technology as second nature (Figure 5).

Apple’s World Gallery

The essay has six sections. Section one analyzes the World Gallery. Section two situates the World Gallery within Apple’s advertising philosophy from the late 1970s to the 2020s. Section three argues that Apple’s advertising strategy over the years has become integral to its product design. Section four juxtaposes Apple’s new American Dream to the material reality of digital era capitalism. Section five imagines how people in, say, 125 years from now will look back on the launch of the iPhone. Section six is about apples. Throughout, moreover, the essay is a visual essay that captures Apple’s world image, the feel of its phone—with, in conclusion, a personal touch that I shot on my own iPhone.

For the full essay follow this link.

Niels Niessen is a Researcher in Arts and Culture Studies where he works on the research project Platform Discourses: A Critical Humanities Approach to Tech Companies

Coping with trauma: Marvel’s WandaVision (2021)

Written by Jonathan Zackor

Content Warning: mentions traumatic events relating to death.

Trauma often refers to something unspeakable, something that cannot be named. It constitutes an “event outside the range of human experience”, per the definition of the American Psychological Association (1987: 250, through Brown). Trauma disrupts, invades, alienates, haunts. It poses a threat: the fearful anticipation of losing control, for example over personal safety; and has an immense impact on everyday life, relationships, and self-image. Vulnerable or affected people, therefore, might try to hold onto the few fragments that offer to counter this threat, and might even use coping mechanisms that are, upon first look, detrimental to well-being (maladaptive). Furthermore, it is quite common to obsess about means to take back control, for example by utilizing a self-written narrative that re-establishes boundaries (Caruth 1995, King 2000). To help manage overwhelming emotional experiences, people might also regress into ‘safe spaces’ that can take on many different forms: holding on to fictional narratives that allow an escape from the present reality might be one of them. 

This essay explores a text from popular culture that fits into the space of specifically female trauma, pain, and the attempt to rebuild a life’s narrative: Marvel Studios’ WandaVision (2021). Its main protagonist Wanda Maximoff, situated in the American town Westview, is forced to deal with her violence- and grief-related trauma. The narrative of the series plays out in the space of the American suburb and is furthermore anchored onto popular culture sitcom narratives ranging from the 1950s up until 2010. This text investigates the following: With the help of superpowers (telekinesis, energy projection, hypnosis) that Wanda possesses, she equipped her environment with an array of fictional narratives and is,  therefore, the driving force behind it. This enables her to act out a safety fantasy that is assumed to be related to the traumatic events that she endured. Trauma, and especially female trauma, is rarely part of the popular media discourse (Ahmed 2004, Brown 1995). Yet, it is pertinent to WandaVision. This TV series is situated in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (a superhero film franchise that is from here on abbreviated as MCU). MCU films usually follow a strict formula of fast-paced action and are centred around influential male characters. Conflicts that obstruct a character’s happiness and their eventual solution are often paired with at least one epic fight scene. WandaVision, while somewhat relying on previous MCU material, now takes a different route. The focus on a female heroine makes space for the portrayal of a narrative that relies on the female sphere.  

WandaVision takes place in a constructed sphere can be assessed from two perspectives: the inside and the outside. Within the diegesis of the series, a certain sense of reality is established and the outside space only serves to call attention to the indeed “constructed fictional space” of Westview. The inside is characterized by its suburban space and sitcom narrative, which draw heavily upon cultural intertexts. As the series’ narrative progresses, it is made clear that the environment is protected from threatening outside forces through a boundary force field. The ‘living’ characters appearing in this space consist of the members of Wanda’s little family: her husband The Vision who also appeared as her partner in previous MCU material, and in later episodes their two children. Some recurring ‘neighbourhood characters’ also appear. While the former drive the series’ narrative forward, the latter only appear to fill up the suburban space to establish and resemble a form of reality. Throughout the series, it is revealed that Wanda is in fact in control of the boundary and the environment. She furthermore is in full control of the actors in the space; she can manipulate their emotions, thoughts, and actions. In the constructed fictional space of Westview, Wanda can live happily and peacefully in the bubble of a suburban home with her husband The Vision. They both have the desire to live out the full range of human experience, and to “grow old together” (Episode 8 “Previously On”). While in the past her time with The Vision had always been restricted by time and outside responsibilities (see Infinity War 2018), Wanda deliberately adds another component to the constructed space that allows for an illusion of time passing: the sitcom narrative, embedded in the suburban environment.

In some contemporary cultural media texts, suburbia is far more than a setting or backdrop but rather emphasized so much that it becomes the subject of the story” (Coon 2014, Huq 2013). Coon formulates suburbia as “a concrete spatial arrangement that shapes the everyday lives of the majority of Americans and expresses many of the hopes and fears embedded within American society.” Furthermore, the idea of a perfect suburban life exists in the collective imagination of millions of Americans. With the trauma that Wanda endured in the past, it seems likely that this space might serve as a means to re-establish boundaries in the fight of managing overwhelming emotional experiences. It finds social recognition, is made stable through all sorts of rules that govern behaviour, and outlines a certain way of living, which is described by Betty Friedan in her feminist work The Feminine Mystique (1963). Friedan talks about the restricted lives of women living in the domestic space of suburban homes: having to give up on personal dreams and careers to serve their husbands and bear children, and getting married early. While being occupied all day, every day with various tasks to be done around the house, the unhappiness of women comes from a place of unfulfillment. This, however, creates a stable narrative for Wanda. Her mental space that is desperate for stability and a peaceful, strictly regulated environment, can thrive in the strict role that she assumes, simply because it does not require her to make independent decisions. Wanda only needs to follow rules, without a Self to maintain. Furthermore, Wanda with her ‘superhero’ powers and her synthezoid husband need to fit into Westview’s society. Revealing their ‘outside-ness’ is not only a cause for concern, but the consequential pressure that comes from having to fit in becomes a recurrent theme throughout the series – which can only be countered with strict adherence to established norms and the alignment with the shared values and identities of their community (Coon 104, 109). When Wanda seals herself into this mind-numbing, but safe space, she can disavow and reject all negative and traumatic thoughts (Caruth, King). Which is exactly what Wanda longs for.

“When episode 1 begins we’re immediately thrown straight into WandaVision’s sitcom format. Therefore, as the audience, we’re completely sealed into this world as if the rest of the MCU doesn’t exist” (ScreenCrush 2021). This quote points towards the stylistic break with previous MCU material, but also towards WandaVision’s exceptional intertextual layers that contribute to its immersive power. The narrative of (almost) every episode grafts onto sitcom narratives that have been part of popular culture (Black 2021, Dalton and Linder 2005). Together with the characters, the audience travels through a history of sitcoms on the screen, starting in episode 1 with the 1950s sitcoms Leave It To Beaver (1957-63) and I Love Lucy (1951-57), up until sitcoms like The Office (2005-2013) and Modern Family (2009-2020). The inspiration of these shifting sitcom intertexts is reflected in every episode in a distinct vibe and narrative style. It also serves to show Wanda’s environment as being constantly in flux: characters have diverse fashion styles, the living environment varies, and most notably there are profound changes to the stylistic mise-en-scene that includes framing and colour. | In the past, television was often considered to offer escapism from the shackles and troubles of everyday life, while also reflecting on prevalent social norms. The portrayal of a specific image about gender roles, for example, consolidated it into a social practice (in this instance, Haralovich describes the female ‘homemaker’ of the 1950s). Therefore, similar to the suburban discourse adhering to the “reality of the illusion”, one must once again follow the rules and consequently give away control. As the form of the narrative changes in each episode, characters gain different agencies. Most visible is the process of our heroine from being the constricted housewife to openly talking in an interview format similar to Modern Family about themes like depression and relationship troubles. As alluded to in a previous paragraph, the sitcom narrative also serves as the illusion of time passing. Over the course of nine episodes, the characters are made to live through seven decades, which are indicated by the sitcom narratives. ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­

The typically American core substance of the series brings an interesting angle to Wanda’s persona. Episode 8, for example, reveals that Wanda has a deep emotional connection to sitcoms. During her childhood in the fictional country Sokovia, she and her family would often watch American sitcoms together to improve their English-speaking skills, before a bombing destroyed their home and resulted in the death of the parents. By anchoring her constructed environment of Westview onto sitcoms, Wanda allows herself to look back to a time and place where she felt safe and loved, and finds comfort in that place of the past. She imagines, and from there on, creates the utopian world where she is safe, protected, and reunited with deceased loved ones, such as her husband. In the land of sitcom narratives, where, no matter what, episodes end happily, every confrontation or conflict is resolved peacefully, and there are no major threats, Wanda has the ability to construct her peace. As she says herself as a child: “At the end of the episode, you realize it was all a bad dream. None of it was real” (Episode 8). 

In the almost Lacanian imaginary of Wanda’s safety fantasy where she shuts out reality to avoid facing her trauma, the audience is curious about pulling away the curtains to reveal the coherent picture behind. In the eighth episode (“Previously On”), Wanda is forced to work through her memories by an outside threat, and has to relive her trauma. While the series is already saturated with cracks that disrupt the illusion, there are two instances with significant, intended shock moments for both Wanda and the knowing audience that serve as painful reminders of past traumatic deaths of her loved ones. This episode then delves even deeper and allows an intense perspective into the pain and grief upon losing the people closest to her. Wanda suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the psychiatric syndrome that arises out of the experience of trauma. She experienced the death of her loved ones: both of her parents, later her twin brother Pietro (Avengers: Age of Ultron, 2015), her husband The Vision (Avengers: Infinity War, 2018); and she is also responsible for multiple deaths due to not being able to handle her incredibly intense powers (Captain America: Civil War, 2016). Her husband was there for her when she was working through the grief caused by her brother’s death. But after the Vision was murdered, Wanda has nothing and no one, except the massive wound caused by her many losses.

The testimony that is embedded in the series’ narrative is situated in a feminine sphere, as WandaVision’s story is told from her point of view. The immersive atmosphere of the series itself and the “show” Wanda puts on, allows for the engagement of the audience with her trauma and even creates a space for self-identification and self-insertion. The whole series is saturated with Wanda’s pain. In Ahmed and Stacey’s text about Testimonial Cultures (2001), they describe a recent trend or even a “desire to testify (that) now pervades contemporary culture”, that the series follows. This includes the desire of wanting pain to be recognized, even felt by others. Elaine Scarry, furthermore, suggests that pain is a bodily trauma that resists or even ‘shatters’ language and communication. Recalling trauma’s disruptive nature that was mentioned in the introduction, the moments of impact and its consequences are painfully inscribed on the body (Ahmed 23). In the last episode, it indeed becomes visible that the inhabitants of the suburban sphere (that act out desired scenarios), experienced Wanda’s pain with her. This pain literally haunts their thoughts (Caruth, Brown).

The series’ narrative, however, also demonstrates that Wanda’s pain and trauma act as agents and motivation of her extraordinary abilities. Precisely because of the trauma she experiences, and having no one to help her with the “endless nothingness” that she feels, she finally exerts control over her powerful abilities that cause harm to people before. The fact that Wanda’s control over her powers apparently grows stronger through the traumatic events that are inflicted upon her but that she manages to live through, suggests that one can grow stronger and more resilient despite traumatic events. One might find something positive in a world that otherwise seemed hopeless and empty. While WandaVision is part of popular culture – therefore, its narrative is clearly dramatized for the sake of entertainment – it still might give hope and power to trauma survivors.  

The original version of this essay was handed in for the course American Popular Culture that is part of the BA-Programme of Arts and Culture Studies.

References

Ahmed, Sara. “Introduction: Feel Your Way.” The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Edinburg UP Ltd, 2004, pp. 1-20.

Ahmed, Sara. “The Contingency of Pain.” The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Edinburg UP Ltd, 2004, pp. 20-41.

Ahmed, Sara, and Jackie Stacey. “Testimonial cultures: An introduction.” Cultural Values, Vol. 5, No. 1, January 2001, pp. 1-6.

Avengers: Age of Ultron. Directed by Joss Whedon, Marvel Studios, performance by Elizabeth Olsen, 2015. Film.

Avengers: Infinity War. Directed by Joe Russo and Anthony Russo, performance by Elizabeth Olsen, Marvel Studios, 2018. Film.

Black, Jack. “Suburban Heroes: Utopia and Trauma in WandaVision.” CST Online, Feb 26 2021, https://cstonline.net/suburban-superheroes-utopia-and-trauma-in-wandavision-by-jack-black/. Last accessed 05 May 1.22 am.

Brown, Laura S. “Not Outside The Range: One Feminist Perspective on Psychic Trauma.” Trauma: Explorations in Memory, edited by Cathy Caruth, The John Hopkins UP, 1995, pp. 100-112.

Carlson, Eve B., et al. “Chapter 7: Relationships Between Traumatic Experiences and Symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress, Dissociation, and Amnesia.” Trauma, Memory, and Dissociation, edited by J. Douglas Bremner, and Charles R. Marmar, American Psychiatric Press, Inc., 1998.

Caruth, Cathy. “Trauma and Experience: Introduction.” Trauma: Explorations in Memory, edited by Cathy Caruth, The John Hopkins UP, 1995, pp. 3-12.

Caruth, Cathy. “Recapturing the Past: Introduction.” Trauma: Explorations in Memory, edited by Cathy Caruth, The John Hopkins UP, 1995, pp. 151-157.

Captain America: Civil War. Directed by Joe Russo and Anthony Russo, Marvel Studios, 2018. Film.

Coon, David R. Look Closer: Suburban Narratives and America Values in Film and Television. Rutgers UP, 2014.

Dalton, Mary M. and Laura R. Linder, editors. The Sitcom Reader: America Viewed and Skewed. State U of New York P, 2005.

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1963.

Gottdiener, Mark. The Theming Of America – American Dreams, Media Fantasies, and Themed Environments. Westview Press, 2nd Edition, 2001.

Haralovich, Mary Beth. “Sitcoms and Suburbs: Positioning the 1950s Homemaker.” Quar. Rev. of Film & Video, Harwood Academic Publishers, Vol. 11, 1989, pp. 61-83.

Huq, Rupa. “Women on the Edge? Representations of the Post-War Suburban Woman in Popular Culture to the Present Day.” Making Sense of Suburbia through Popular Culture, London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013, pp. 133–159.

King, Nicola. Memory, Narrative, Identity – Remembering the Self. Edinburgh UP, 2000.

Rodin Gary, et al. “Chapter 5: Trauma, Dissociation, and Somatization.”  Trauma, Memory, and Dissociation, edited by J. Douglas Bremner and Charles R. Marmar, American Psychiatric Press, Inc., 1998.

ScreenCrush. “WandaVision: What’s the Point?: Everything Explained + Full Marvel Series      Breakdown.” YouTube, 16 March 2021,                                       https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kr_ChCww4SU. Last accessed 10 June 2021.

WandaVision. Created by Jac Schaeffer, Marvel Studios, 2021. Television series.

Het vrouwelijk genie: Artemisia’s kracht en passie

Door Anneke Smelik 

In het najaar 2021 vindt een tentoonstelling plaats over de geniale zeventiende-eeuwse kunstenares Artemisia Gentileschi in het Rijksmuseum Twente (26 Sept – 23 Jan)

De zus van Shakespeare

Als jonge student in de jaren zeventig engageerde ik me met de opkomende vrouwenbeweging. Vrouwen stelden de vraag: waar zijn de vrouwelijke wetenschappers, schrijvers en kunstenaars? Dezelfde vraag hield vijftig jaren eerder al een modernistische schrijfster bezig, nadat een man tegen haar had gezegd dat een vrouw ‘nu eenmaal’ geen genie kon zijn. Virginia Woolf fantaseert over een vrouwelijk genie: Judith Shakespeare. In een essay in Een kamer voor jezelf uit 1929 beschrijft zij de mogelijke levensloop van de imaginaire zus van de toneelschrijver William Shakespeare. Hoe slim ook, op school zou zij niet zijn toegelaten. Ze zou door haar ouders ontmoedigd zijn om zelf te leren lezen, schrijven, en studeren. Als ze al ambities had om het theater in te gaan, zoals haar grote broer, dan mocht ze als vrouw niet acteren. Ook had ze geen levenservaring kunnen opdoen door buitenhuis te werken of naar de kroeg te gaan. Woolf vervolgt Judith’s fictionele leven: ze liep weg van huis om te voorkomen dat ze op jonge leeftijd uitgehuwelijkt zou worden. Maar onbeschermd door een vader of echtgenoot zou ze vermoedelijk ongewenst zwanger zijn geraakt en zelfmoord hebben gepleegd vanwege de schande. Of ze zou in het kraambed zijn gestorven. Een treurig leven voorziet Woolf voor intelligente en creatieve vrouwen uit de midden- of hogere klasse.

Kunstenaressen

In de tweede feministische golf duiken geesteswetenschapsters de musea en archieven in. In alle hoeken en gaten hebben zij heel wat vrouwen opgediept: heldinnen, schrijvers, schilders, componisten, wetenschappers. Aha, ze waren er wel! De geschiedenis kon herschreven worden. Dat was het begin van vrouwenstudies in de jaren zeventig en tachtig: een immense revisie van de geschiedenis om plek te maken voor de vrouwen die er altijd zijn geweest maar in de vergetelheid waren geraakt. 

Zo werd Artemisia Gentileschi herontdekt in de tweede feministische golf. Najaar 2021 vindt een tentoonstelling plaats in het Rijksmuseum Twente in Enschede: Artemisia, Vrouw & Macht. De geniale uitzondering noemt Germaine Greer haar in 1979: een prachtige en krachtige vrouw uit de vroegmoderne tijd die prachtige en krachtige vrouwen schilderde. Dit was de grote ontdekking; hier was het vrouwelijke genie. De evenknie van Michelangelo, Rembrandt of Van Gogh, of, nou ja, eerder van tijdgenoot Caravaggio met wie zij hevig concurreerde. In de afgelopen decennia is veel onderzoek naar Artemisia gedaan, naar haar leven en haar schilderijen. Vele werken zijn herontdekt, opnieuw aan haar toegeschreven en gerestaureerd. Ze is inmiddels zo bekend dat haar voornaam volstaat net als bij beroemde mannelijke schilders. Artemisia is in de canon der groten opgenomen. Zij staat symbool voor de grote vrouwen die in de geschiedschrijving vergeten of weggemoffeld zijn.

Een vrouwelijk perspectief

Artemisia’s schilderijen staan bekend om het vrouwelijke perspectief. Als je bijvoorbeeld haar schilderij Jaël en Sisera (1620) aanschouwt, dan is het duidelijk wie wel of niet kijkt en handelt. We zien een forse vrouw in weelderig vlees in een mooie zijden jurk, die ernstig kijkt naar de slapende, hulpeloze man die daar ligt met blote benen en een kwetsbare buik. De scène speelt zich af in licht en donker, het chiaroscuro dat zo typerend is voor de barokke schilderkunst. Vastbesloten heft Jaël haar hamer hoog op om die het volgende moment met kracht op de tentharing in Sisera’s hoofd te slaan. Artemisia verbeeldt hier een gewelddadige heldin uit de Bijbel, net als bij haar beroemde Judith onthoofdt Holofernes (circa 1618-20). Het is niet het zwaard of het bloed dat uit de hals van de man gutst dat dit schilderij zo indrukwekkend maakt, maar de vastberaden blik van de Bijbelse heldin Judith, vol opgekropte woede, geholpen bij haar daad van gerechtigheid door haar dienstmaagd. 

#MeToo

Vanaf de jaren zeventig is Artemisia een icoon voor het feminisme: als briljante schilder, maar ook omdat zij de traditionele vrouwenrol afwees. Haar persoonlijke leven speelt een rol in haar voorbeeld voor de vrouwenbeweging van vandaag. Nu lijkt het misschien alsof feministen met een anachronistische blik naar het verleden kijken, maar dat is niet helemaal juist. De kunsthistorica Mary D. Garrard laat zien dat feministische ideeën al in de vroegmoderne tijd de ronde deden, ook al bestond het woord nog niet; de fameuze ‘querelles des femmes’. Van Christine de Pizan’s Het boek van de stad der vrouwen uit 1410 (ook een herontdekking in de tweede feministische golf!), langs de geschriften van Italiaanse en Franse dames uit de hogere klassen, tot Anna van Schurman in Nederland: overal schreven vrouwen over hun achterstelling en bepleitten ze gelijkheid voor vrouwen en mannen in bijvoorbeeld huwelijk of toegang tot onderwijs. Ook Artemisia klaagt in haar brieven vaak over haar achtergestelde positie als vrouw. Artemisia schilderde bewust moedige heldinnen om te laten zien dat vrouwen niet minderwaardig waren. 

Artemisia’s schilderijen dienen vaak als iconisch beeld voor vrouwen die zich verzetten tegen seksueel geweld. Vooral het beroemde werk waarin de Bijbelse heldin Judith samen met haar dienstmaagd Holofernes onthoofdt, is symbool geworden voor vrouwelijk verzet, als ware het een @MeToo werk avant la lettre. In Italië ging dit beeld in 2017 viraal op sociale media, en het jaar daarop ging dit beeld viraal op sociale media nadat in de V.S een rechter werd benoemd in het Hooggerechtshof ondanks goed gefundeerde klachten over seksuele intimidatie (Garrard, blz. 68). Hieruit blijkt hoe roemrijk het persoonlijke verhaal en de schilderijen van Artemisia zijn voor nieuwe generaties vrouwen. De verkrachting op jonge leeftijd door een leraar die haar perspectief in de schilderkunst moest bijbrengen, een oudere vriend van de familie met een vrij losbandige reputatie, is een bekend gegeven door de goed gedocumenteerde rechtszaak die erop volgde. De (weliswaar ambivalente) steun van haar vader en familie zijn belangrijk geweest om dit verhaal een andere wending dan gebruikelijk te geven: in plaats van de schuld bij het slachtoffer te leggen, is hier sprake van verzet. De schuld ligt duidelijk bij de verkrachter die veroordeeld werd. Artemisia pleitte zichzelf gepassioneerd vrij van schuld, hoewel haar reputatie als ‘gevallen vrouw’ er voor de rest van haar leven onder heeft geleden. 

Voorbij de mannelijke blik

Dat Gentileschi het opnam voor vrouwen zie je niet alleen in de werken waar sterke en moedige vrouwen een man vermoorden, zoals Judith en Jaël, maar ook in haar schilderijen waarin de vrouwen object zijn van de mannelijke blik. Vaak gaat het om het Bijbelse verhaal van Bathseba en het apocriefe verhaal van Suzanna; vrouwen die door mannen begluurd worden bij het baden. Dit zijn geliefde thema’s in de schilderkunst omdat ze het mogelijk maken een naakte vrouw te visualiseren. Bathseba en Suzanna zijn kuise vrouwen die hun eer bewaken, ook al worden ze door de mannen valselijk beticht van overspel. Het zal duidelijk zijn dat deze verhalen resoneren met Artemisia’s eigen ervaringen. Op de tentoonstelling Artemisia, Vrouw & macht is een Suzanna te zien uit 1622; een schilderij dat pas recentelijk aan haar is toegeschreven. De twee oudere wellustige mannen zitten dicht bij de badende Suzanna, op het punt om haar te grijpen, maar zij wendt haar betraande blik omhoog: kijkt ze angstig, verdrietig, hulpeloos? Het is moeilijk te zeggen, maar belangrijk is dat Artemisia voor het grootste deel Suzanna’s naakte lichaam verhult, doordat die met haar armen en doeken probeert haar eigen lichaam te beschermen. 

Zelfbewust

De herontdekking van Artemisia Gentileschi’s werk sloeg in als een bom: dit zijn schilderijen waarin vrouwen zich met kracht verzetten tegen het mannelijke perspectief. De kracht zit ’m in de forse, sterke vrouwen die Artemisia neerzet; dit is geen frêle vrouwelijk schoon, maar stevige, krachtige lichamen die met passie van het doek afspatten. Vaak schildert zij twee vrouwen die in solidariteit opereren, zoals Judith en haar dienstmaagd. Het zijn vrouwen die zich onttrekken aan de mannelijke blik, vrouwen die boos of brutaal terugkijken, die handelen en zelfs moorden. Artemisia’s leven en werk laten zien dat er een eeuwenlange traditie is van verzet van vrouwen tegen seksueel geweld. Zij is ook een inspiratiebron omdat zij zichzelf afbeeldt als een zelfbewuste schilderes die trots is op haar werk. Zo maakte ze meerdere zelfportretten en zou ze Judith in het schilderij Judith onthoofdt Holofernes hebben gemodelleerd naar zichzelf. In Holofernes zou haar verkrachter Agostino Tassi te herkennen zijn. Ook in het werk Jaël en Sisera zien we een bekende; het gezicht van Sisera zou trekken hebben van Caravaggio, de schilder met wie Artemisia in hevige concurrentie verwikkeld was. En die strijd gaat ze met verve aan.

Als we nog eens goed kijken naar Jaël en Sisera, dan zien we in de kolom van steen op de achtergrond dat Artemisia triomfantelijk haar naam en de datum van vervaardiging in het Latijn heeft geschreven met de mededeling dat zij het schilderij heeft gemaakt. Kortom: zij verbeeldt hier niet alleen vanuit een vrouwelijk perspectief een moorddadige vrouw, een Bijbelse heldin die haar volk redt, maar stelt zich ook zelfbewust en trots op als schilderes. Vanwege haar tegendraadse kunstpraktijk en prachtige schilderijen met krachtige vrouwen is Artemisia tot op de dag van vandaag een feministisch icoon. 

Gebruikte literatuur

Mary D. Garrard, Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art, Princeton University Press, 1989.

Mary D. Garrard, Artemisia Gentileschi and Feminism in Early Modern Europe, Reaktion Books, 2020.

Germaine Greer, Vrouwenwerk, Meulenhoff 1980; vertaling van The Obstacle Race, 1979. 

Virginia Woolf, Een kamer voor jezelf. Chaos, 2018. Vertaling van A Room of One’s Own, Bloomsbury, 1929.

The World Under Lockdown: Empty Spaces in the Photographs of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Written by Airin Rezazadeh Farahmand

Before 2020, we probably needed to rely on science-fiction movies and dystopian novels to imagine a global pandemic. By now, however, we are all well aware of what a world stricken by an infectious disease looks like. In late 2019, a number of pneumonia cases of unknown etiology were reported to the World Health Organization by Chinese authorities. Soon after, it was discovered that the cases were caused by a new virus (now familiar to all of us by the name COVID-19) that apparently has succeeded in crossing the species barriers. The anxieties over the rapid spread of this new virus was well reflected in the title of CNN’s report, published on 7 January 2020: “A mysterious virus is making China (and the rest of Asia) nervous. It’s not SARS, so what is it?”. This new virus was not nerve-wracking only for Asia. Proven to be highly contagious, it quickly turned into a global concern.  In the space of a few months, the virus caused a global pandemic, which is still on-going as I’m writing these lines today. 

Although the outbreak evoked different responses in different countries, the common reaction was the emergence of new norms and regulations. Handshaking was considered too dangerous. Face masks and gloves became part of daily outfits. Access to public spaces was limited and large gatherings were prohibited. The outbreak not only heralded fundamental changes in the ways people used to live and interact with each other but also changed the meaning of social spaces drastically. With people being advised to stay at home, work remotely and avoid unnecessary commuting, internet communication replaced face-to-face interaction. The ramifications of living in this new world, highly reliant on virtual spaces, were reflected in a number of cultural practices including photography. Photos capturing empty public spaces as the result of the imposed lockdowns proliferated social media soon after the start of the outbreak.  The photos of these emptied out spaces became an effective way of documenting the visual impact of the pandemic on our daily lives.  Like most crises captured in modern times, the camera not only became a tool of documentation, providing factual accounts of what was going on in the world, but also shaped a visual narrative through which the pandemic was framed. 

It is important to note that emptiness should not be taken at its face value, as it is never devoid of cultural and social significance. Courtney J. Campbell,  Allegra Giovine and Jennifer Keating, for instance, in their book Empty Spaces: perspectives on emptiness in modern history, show how emptiness is not merely an indicator of the absence of the usual content of life, but rather  a sign of disruption in more abstract qualities that are deeply implicated in our economic, political and social systems (5). Similarly, by depicting cities without human subjects and deprived of their social function, the photos of empty public spaces reflect on our anxieties of living in a highly globalized world, where the likelihood of a biological disaster threatening our very existence as human species seems more real than ever. These anxieties are not a new phenomenon. In fact, they have been repeatedly depicted in fiction, most notably in post-apocalyptic and dystopian movies. Therefore, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the images of empty spaces depicting the recent pandemic bear strong resemblance to the already-existing ones in popular culture. The iconic opening sequence of Francis Lawrence’s 2007 movie I am Legend starts with an aerial shot of New York City that is peculiarly vacant. The protagonist journeys through the deserted streets of the city which have clearly fallen into decay and have been taken over by nature. Similarly, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011), uses the same strategy to show how the spread of the virus has disrupted normal daily life. In shots that interestingly share a great deal of similarity to the photos depicting the recent pandemic, we see empty gyms, conference rooms, churches and stations indicating the interruption of the normal flow of everyday life.

In his analysis of the American zombie series The Walking Dead (AMC, 2010–) and the British production Survivors (BBC, 2008–10), Martin Walter explains that emptiness in these types of movies is used as a way of commenting on the structures of our contemporary capitalist society.  According to Walter, the familiarity of these spaces raises critical questions about the efficiency of the previous order which has clearly failed. As he puts it, “the repeated motif of journeying through empty landscapes conveys ideological viewpoints on capitalist spaces. These spaces increasingly address both a ‘perturbed familiarity’ and discourses of global (in)security” (134). Therefore, emptiness in these movies raises critical concerns about the reliability of the capitalist system that has left us vulnerable to threats such as a global pandemic. Similarly, Dora Apel argues, “by depicting our technologically advanced civilization in states of ruination and decay, post-apocalyptic narratives render our own society as other and encourage us to ask whether the empire of capital represents lasting progress or a road to decline” (152).

The fear of the so-called “next pandemic”, the one that will bring humanity to the end, is engraved in the popular culture of our time. The recurring theme of dystopian futures as a result of human activity in post-apocalyptic fiction, mirrors concerns over many pressing issues among which globalization, rapid technological advances, public health, safety, surveillance, (in)security and the possibility of human extinction stand out.  The photos of empty cities following the corona crisis, therefore, rely in part on the familiar iconography of the previous cultural products to form their visual narrative and evoke a sublime sense of fear in the viewer. Emptiness, in this context, is a key visual trope that addresses the same concerns and issues regarding the structures of our contemporary societies that are raised in fictional works. It gains its meaning when the depicted public spaces are compared to their pre-pandemic state when they were filled with people. In this sense, emptiness becomes a crucial aesthetic tool that dysfunctionalizes our social spaces, presenting them as eerie and uncanny. Freud used the term ‘uncanny’ (‘unheimlich’ in German, literally ‘un-homely’) to suggest a psychological origin for the eerie, peculiar feeling of fear that arises from the confrontation with something familiar that has suddenly turned into its opposite. Accordingly, the uncanny is located on the margin between real and unreal, constantly stressing the boundaries between the two. Similarly, in the photos of empty public spaces, popular destinations marked by their crowd suddenly have turned into unfamiliar venues with almost no human presence. The familiarity that lies at the heart of these barely recognizable spaces, stripped off their social function, adds to the uncanny quality of these photos. 

In his seminal work The Architectural Uncanny, Anthony Vidler uses Freud’s notion to explain the spatial characteristics of the places that can provoke this feeling of uncanniness in the visitors. As Vidler explains, what stimulates the feeling of uncanny in the space, is not related to particular spatial conformations as this feeling is not a property of the space itself. Rather, it is in its aesthetic dimension and is created when a space that pretends to offer the utmost security suddenly opens itself to the secret intrusion of terror (3). Uncanny as an aesthetic quality of space is what renders it strange due to an alien presence. It is, as Vidler puts it, “a representation of a mental state of projection that precisely elides the boundaries of the real and the unreal in order to provoke a disturbing ambiguity, a slippage between waking and dreaming” (11). If we look at the photos of the pandemic, emptiness seems to create a liminal space between reality and fantasy. Although the settings have remained the same, the absence of the usual crowd indicates the presence of an alien Other that disallows us to freely enter into these spaces. Being marked as unsafe, these public spaces, without their crowd, look almost like private properties. The emptiness in the photos, therefore, seem to ignite curiosity in the viewers to ask themselves what will happen to public spaces? What will remain of them? These questions are indeed important since they guide us to begin thinking about our conditions as human beings living in the twenty-first century. The photos, therefore, become the spatial visualization of a breakdown in our contemporary world systems by suggesting that emptiness might become the new normal. By visually referencing the already-existing apocalyptic images in popular culture, they build on our contemporary anxieties regarding the possibility of human extinction by emphasizing the human absence in urban settings. It may be too naive to believe that such a thing would be the case. However, even if we accept this prophecy as a form of cultural exaggeration, the criticism that is directed towards the capitalist system that has shaped our century is still very valid and mirrors deep concerns that are inherently embedded in the zeitgeist of our era.

Works Cited:

Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely (MIT press, 1992).

Courtney J. Campbell, Allegra Giovine, and Jennifer Keating, eds., introduction to Empty Spaces: Perspectives on Emptiness in Modern History ( University of London Press, 2019).

Dora Apel, Beautiful terrible ruins: Detroit and the anxiety of decline (Rutgers University Press, 2015).

Martin Walter, “Landscapes of loss: the semantics of empty spaces in contemporary post-apocalyptic fiction” in Empty Spaces: Perspectives on emptiness in modern history, eds. Courtney J.Campbell, Allegra Giovine, and Jennifer Keating (London University Press, 2019), 133-51.

Black Panther Transmedia: The Revolution Will Not Be Streamed

Written by Niels Niessen

The following text is the introduction of a longer essay published in the Journal for Cinema and Media Studies (2021), https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/idx/j/jcms/18261332.0060.506/–black-panther-transmedia-the-revolution-will-not-be-streamed?rgn=main;view=fulltext.

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and the Black Panther figure of Marvel’s comic book universe were both created in 1966. There was no direct link, however, between the political organization that Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton launched in October that year and the introduction of the first superhero character of African descent a few months earlier in May, in an issue of Fantastic Four (vol. 1, no. 52), which was authored by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Introducing the Black Panther in Fantastic Four, no. 52 (Marvel Comics, 1966).

As Lee states in a 2009 interview:

It was a strange coincidence because, at the time I did the Black Panther, there was a political party in the country— mostly Black people— and they were called The Black Panthers. And I didn’t think of that at all! It had nothing to do with our character, although a lot of people thought there was some tie- in. And I was really sorry— maybe if I had to do it over again, I’d given him another name, because I hate that confusion to be caused. But it really had nothing to do with the then-existing Black Panthers (cited in Clark 2018).  

The 2018 film Black Panther directed by Ryan Coogler also does not make explicit reference to the Black Panther Party. But the film’s promotional materials do indirectly invoke the historical reality in which both Black Panthers appeared in the late 1960s cultural air. One of the film’s promotional posters depicts T’Challa— the reigning Black Panther— in visual citation of the iconic 1967 portrait of Huey P. Newton, seated on a throne, a rifle in one hand, a spear in the other (a photo that in turn was a mockery of colonialist portraiture). Moreover, one of the film’s trailers contains remixed samples of Gil Scott- Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televized,” a track from 1970, which is also the year Black Panther Party membership reached a peak. In this trailer, as the Black Panther flies across the screen, a male voice- over cites the following, tuned to the beat of Vince Staples’s “BagBak” (2017):

            You will not be able to stay home, brother.
            You will not be able to plug in, turn on, and cop out. . . .

            The revolution will not be televised. . . .
            The revolution will be live.

Marvel thus links its Black Panther universe to the long history of African American struggle. These offhand gestures beg the question of how Black Panther’s mainstream Afrofuturism holds up to the political activism it invokes. Does the film merely commodify revolutionary discourse, and wouldn’t such commodification prevent the film from constituting an “act of civic imagination,” as Henry Jenkins has called the film? (Jenkins 2018) Doesn’t Black Panther’s production by Marvel, a subsidiary of Disney, by definition preempt the film from its claim to politics— especially when recalling the imperative of turn-of-the-1970s Third Cinema that a political film must also be made politically? And how to square Black Panther’s imagination of a never-colonized Black nation with Achille Mbembe’s analysis of “Blackness” as a discursive product of colonization?

Addressing these questions, it is important to acknowledge the wide acclaim Black Panther has received from within the African American community. During a special event in Harlem’s Apollo Theater, Ta-Nehisi Coates described the film as “Star Wars for Black People,” sharing with the audience that he “didn’t realize how much [he] needed the film, a hunger for a myth that [addressed] feeling separated and feeling reconnected [to Africa]” (cited in Beta 2018). Similarly, Tre Johnson writes that Black Panther’s greatest legacy is that Black viewers find “a cultural oasis that feels like nothing we’ve seen before” (cited in Johnson 2018). And as Jenkins observes, Black Panther offered “a shared myth desperately needed in the age of Trump: the film inspired many different forms of participatory culture . . . as people fused its iconography into their personal and social identity” (Jenkins 2018).

So yes, following its release, Black Panther has undeniably manifested itself as a political-cultural event, but this does not, of course, prevent a critical reading of the film. That critique is the gravitational point of this essay. I argue that, taken on its own, the Black Panther film only marginally integrates its offhand promotional references to the history of African American resistance. Despite its multiracial cast and strong female characters, Black Panther at the end of the day is built on a conventional Hollywood logic, while its plot purports an anthropocentric American Dream narrative in which humanity masters nature through technology. (Figure 2)

Figure 2. Technology as second nature in Black Panther (Marvel Studios, 2018).

Yet the film cannot just be considered on its own. The film emerges out of and inscribes itself into a transmedia franchise that in recent decades has evolved as a platform for rethinking African American identity in the post–civil rights era. This has been the case under the authorship of Christopher Priest (who wrote the 1998 Black Panther comics volume on which the movie was largely based), Coates (who picked up the comics’ authorship in 2016, starting with A Nation Under Our Feet), and Kendrick Lamar (who cocurated the film’s soundtrack, including the hit single “All the Stars,” performed with the American singer SZA). As Coates writes elsewhere, in Between the World and Me (2015), the dreamed synergy between nature and technology at the heart of the American Dream is an all-too-human construction torching the planet, socially and literally (Coates 2015).

Figure 3. Black Panther’s science fiction of a nation shielded from global heating.

The Black Panther film revels in such phantasmagoric synergy, telling a fairy tale of an extractive utopia, while it has no sight for the exploitation of bodies and ecosystems that marks the reality of every mining economy (Figure 3). In that light Black Panther is like, say, Apple’s new American Dream, in which technology is posited as second nature and which was equally designed in California. Only when the film is considered in the light of its broader transmedia universe does its superhero texture open to the speculative potential that Michael Gillespie and others have embraced as central to film Blackness. As I will argue in the final section, “The Fire in the Sky,” at those moments Black Panther invites its transmedia traveler to think through what Mbembe calls the “Becoming Black of the world” (Mbembe 2017).

Niels Niessen is a Researcher in the Arts & Culture department.

For the full article and bibliographic references see:

https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/idx/j/jcms/18261332.0060.506/–black-panther-transmedia-the-revolution-will-not-be-streamed?rgn=main;view=fulltext

“My Age Really Doesn’t Matter”: Norms on Young Motherhood

By Marijke Sniekers

This article has been part of the ‘Women On The Timelineprotect, initiated by Anouk Wolkotte and Charlotte Hermanns.

Daniëlle[1], an 18-year-old mother, speaks of becoming a mother: “It really doesn’t matter whether you are young or old. It’s all new and will be hard at times.”Young mothers continuously need to prove that they are great moms, successful and that they deserve respect like any other woman/mother/youngster. They often need to fight stigmas and stereotypes of being incapable of raising children, being a moral and socioeconomic problem and a risk to themselves and their children.

The ‘problem’ of young motherhood (under the age of 24 years) in the Netherlands seems not so big, considering the low numbers of young mothers in the country. Teenage fertility rates in the Netherlands are the second lowest in Europe, and among the 10 lowest in the world. In Dutch society in the 1950s, young motherhood was common. The mean childbearing age for women has risen from 24 years (1970) to 30 years (2019). Nowadays, young motherhood is uncommon and undesirable.

Until 1955, women were legally ‘incompetent’ and could be laid off from civil service once they married. Equal pay for equal work was legalised in that year. Since then, norms about women’s economic independence have started to change. From the late 1980s, women have entered the labour market in large numbers, leading to current high labour market participation of women. Unfortunately, women still receive unequal pay for equal work, experience an unequal gender and age bias in selection for and promotion at work (‘glass ceiling’), and face discriminatory practices at work due to pregnancy. Expectations for women have not changed much in terms of work-care balance and the gender division of labour. Women are commonly expected to become mothers.

Dutch norms on motherhood, education and employment constitute a motherhood ideology of viewing women as child carers and men as breadwinners. This means that mothers should be the main carers, should always be present for their children, and should focus primarily on their children’s needs. Unlike in most European countries, heterosexual couples in the Netherlands commonly conform to the 1.5 wage earner model, according to which men usually work full-time and women part-time in so-called ‘mother contracts’ of work during children’s school hours. Women generally perform the unpaid care and household tasks, even when they also have full-time paid employment. Formally, parental leave days have increased for fathers in paid employment. However, in reality are men reluctant to take leave, because of traditional role patterns at home, because work culture does not facilitate it and because of a lack of role models.

Young mothers are caught in the middle of such stereotypical, dominant gender patterns and norms around motherhood, care and employment. On the one hand, as youngsters they are expected to be in school and continue with paid employment. On the other hand, as mothers they are expected to stay at home and care for the children. You are a good mother if you take care of your child yourself and are there for your child. Young people are expected to complete the highest possible education, after which they find a job at that level and in that sector. After that they can settle down with their partner and have children.

Such dilemmas and norms regarding the socioeconomic independence of young mothers were the focus of my PhD study, for which I spend time with young mothers. Daniëlle (quoted above) explains that any first-time parent experiences difficulties and struggles with new responsibilities and structure in daily life. Femke explains how lack of support from a partner made raising her child difficult, because she could not share the responsibility with someone else: “I had to rely on myself and have been sacrificing my own needs”. Manon and Agnes say that combining school and work with caring for children is hard, since their parents cannot babysit (they have their own jobs) and day-care is too expensive or does not match their working hours on weekends and evenings as a nurse. Their stories illustrate that it is not their young age, but circumstances such as being a new mom, a single parent or working parent that led to problems in their lives.

Attending education or going to work is often a practical puzzle for many young mothers, especially single ones. Manon says: “I had a night shift at my work, and when I came back, I made my child his sandwiches, took my child to school and then his teacher said: ‘You look bad.’ And I said, ‘I haven’t slept yet.’ That was hard.” Some women say that they do not have children to have them cared for by day-care or relatives. They feel a strong need and pressure from people around them to be present for their child, instead of completing their education or working. Floor wants to be a role model to her child, which is expected of her from a motherhood perspective. However, this is ‘bad’ from a motherhood ideal, because working and earning wages means she cannot take care of her child herself all day. Even with policies and subsidies in place, young mothers still face contradicting norms. Studying and working parents can receive subsidies for day-care, but schools and the state do not offer free childcare facilities, so young parents have to pay for private childcare services. Policies and organisational structures that are supposed to increase young people’s socioeconomic independence are, in reality, counterproductive.

Schools, particularly, are not used to students with children. Daphne says: “I was lucky to give birth during Christmas holiday, so I could go back to school two weeks later.” Other student-mothers are lucky to have a teacher that gives extensions for deadlines or extra assignments when the women had to stay home, because their children were ill. However, schools are usually not very flexible in assignments and attendance, and do not provide for maternity leave. Student-mothers do not want any study delay, because that means that they will have to pay back their student grant. Getting into debt because of an education is not a pleasant prospect.

Student grants together with fears of not completing the education within the time limit required for the grant, make young mothers often choose for a practical vocational study (BBL) (instead of theoretical vocational, Bachelor’s or Master’s studies). “I’m smart enough to do a Bachelor’s degree, but my child will be two and I want another child. Combining a Bachelor and a child is harder than doing vocational studies with a child, and vocational is fine too for a job and raising two children” says Valerie.

Young mothers like her are more likely to opt for the practical vocational education (BBL), because at the short term it provides them with work experience, job guarantee and wages they need to provide for their children. For better long-term opportunities, it is, once having started to work, hard for young mothers to get back to school after a few years when their children have reached the school-age of four years. This means they get stuck in a low paid job in which they can hardly plan their own working hours and have to work weekend and night shifts. A low paid job also means that they need to pay all their earnings to the day-care centre. Furthermore, the jobs young mothers end up with when doing a practical vocational study are often jobs in health care of elderly care, affirming traditional gender roles of women as carers.

Despite the developments since the fifties and the policies and subsidies that are in place, these young mother’s stories show the ongoing need to contest gender and age stereotypes leading to inequalities. We need to recognise different values and experiences. Even though young mothers exert agency, this is not enough to reconcile conflicting norms on their own and solve structural problems individually. Dominant norms should not stand in the way of people who walk different pathways than what is commonly expected. This column is based on the results of the study Acknowledging the agency of young mothers: A qualitative study into young, motherhood and socioeconomic independence by Marijke Sniekers


[1] The names of the women are pseudonyms.