Thesis Pondering

As I work, or just sit and sip my tea, I am thinking. Continuously roiling around in the cavern called the Brain of Joyce is the question of my thesis. What great world altering question will I ask – and answer. I keep having to kick myself (secretly I’m a masochist) to remember that I am not required to come up with an answer, and that what may actually happen is that I ask more questions. In all likelihood it should. No?

Okay, okay then – what one question will I ask? Based on the work of the past month, in combination with the work I have done previously I definitely think it must involve gender, specifically the female gender. Because I am also fascinated by the whole construction of whiteness I will need to come up with a focus that involves the two.

At least it is now getting narrower. -sigh-

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Paper Model

Monday I spent several hours prepping two canvases. While waiting for coats of gesso to dry, I played with an Elle magazine. First I cut out a model and stuck her to the wet coat of gesso.

Stuck in a field of white gesso.
Stuck in a field of white gesso.

I then glued her on to some card and created a standup paper doll from the model.

Model on the move.
Model on the move.

I will make more and see what comes of them. (My camera converts whites into pinks, and I don’t know if it is trying to tell me something.)

I also shopped for balsa and ply for the dollhouse.

Baby Lips

Looking through a Vogue magazine today – awesome photography, styling and clothes. Earlier in the day I had a conversation with an artist friend about that very thing. She and I both agreed that looking through fashion magazines was a simultaneous experience in pain and pleasure. Pleasure in the glossy pages, the beautiful models, the imagination of the photographers and obvious skill in setting up shots. Pain in the guilt and feelings of inadequacy as we each admitted to gauging our own body self-image against what we saw on the pages. And then feeling bad about having done that. My friend admitted that she first became aware of doing that when she was 13 or 14 years old.

How young does this enculturation begin? Because it is a process of enculturation – I think where a person becomes so comfortable with the ideas that they fail to question them any longer.

Baby Lips, found image and acrylic paint, 2008
Baby Lips, found image and acrylic paint, 2008

As a side note the Vogue magazine (US edition) barely had any models that were not white. One would think that if 37.6 percent of the US population does not identify as white that to be fair there would be approximately that many models within the covers. What I am reading about whiteness being more about class and economy seems like a valid argument. Enter Marx.

White Trash

Introduction:

After several discussions about the concept of white trash in early 2008, I wrote in my notes on October 28 that it appeared to me that the notion of white trash is constructed to distract from the real issue. I noted my thought that if society can talk about white trash, then society can say in a manner “see?…we are talking about whiteness.”

Only days later a printed chapter from the book White Trash: Race and Class in America (1997) was handed to me to read. The chapter written by Annalee Newitz titled White Savagery and Humiliation, or a New Racial Consciousness in the Media.

Navel Gazing?

Newitz writes on page 133:

Partly as a result of criticism directed at whiteness by civil rights groups and minority intellectuals for the past several decades, whites are slowly undergoing a transformation which involves reevaluating racial stereotypes. Not surprisingly, however, this reevaluation is causing an internal instability within whiteness. It has generated a stereotyped white Other which is called, among other things, “white trash.”

Of note in this quote is Newitz’ use of the term “whiteness.” At this point in the book the term whiteness is used as if it is an understood concept. In addition it is used as if it is an accepted term. Something like using the term “bundt pan” to describe a specific cake baking dish. Also, the phrase “stereotyped white Other” introduces the notion that whites too -poor things- can also be the Other. There are two questions here. Is “whiteness” an accepted term, and can those labelled as “white” also be Other?

While there are several ideas in this chapter worth mentioning, one in particular bothered me. Newitz discusses (pg 147) the idea of “new abolitionism.” Most often associated with Noel Ignatiev and David Roediger. Newitz quotes from Race Traitor:

The key to solving the social problems of our age is to abolish the white race, which means no more and no less than abolishing the privileges of the white skin…The existence of the white race depends on the willingness of those assigned to it to place their racial interests above class, gender or any other interests they hold. The defection of enough of its members to make it unreliable as a predictor of behaviour will lead to its collapse…Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.

She interprets and sums up this passage as “whites must abolish themselves for humanity to be free” (147). Newitz does go on further to explain that this is not her position, but I found the interpretation to be troublesome. I acknowledge here that this literal position is not necessarily that of Ignatiev, Roediger or Newitz.

The idea whispered in my mind for some time simply nagging at me. It took some time for me to work this out, but I may be able to give the nagging feeling some words at this point. It feels to me like a type of arrogance and self-centeredness. Almost as if whites are so important, or at least have made themselves to be so incredibly necessary to the rest of the world that for anyone else to be free “whites must abolish themselves.” It becomes a kind of navel gazing. I could be completely wrong about this at this point, but I think it is worth looking into.

(As a side note, in talking about white trash one is sure to invoke Greenberg’s ideas about kitsch.)

Dyer’s White

Introduction

In preliminary searches on the concept of whiteness the work of Richard Dyer repeatedly surfaces. Dyer has written several books on the subject.

White

There are several important ideas contained within Richard Dyer’s book White (1997). Within this blog format I will pull out a couple. Richard Dyer calls his project one of “making whiteness strange” (4). That whiteness should become marked rather than invisible. Dyer explains that whiteness is recognized in relation to the representation of the non-white1 (11). He invokes both Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark (1992) and Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), since both these authors works “suggest that white discourse implacably reduces the non-white subject to being a function of the white subject” (13). Can we then say that both white and non-white are defined by the spaces where they meet? I have wrestled with this previously in a recent paper. “In works such as Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915) […] the blackness of the square is understood in relation to its white ground. Discussion about Black Square is centered on the black square as the subject of the painting, while the white ground remains unnamed.” What I think is also important here is that the positioning of non-white in relation to white (foreground and ground dichotomy enters the discourse too) provides a way for the white to remain unnamed, not the subject of deconstruction or analysis.

Dyer does express some concerns with the whole project. He lists several. The first he calls the “green light” problem (10). Where writing now gives whites to do “what in any case we have always talked about: ourselves” (10). Then there is what he calls “me-too-ism” (10). A type of navel gazing where whites are able to say in essence “we are part of a group too.” Also contained in me-too-ism is “the sense that being white is no great advantage, what with being so uptight, [and] out of touch with our bodies” (10). In addition to the previous ideas there is also the new oppressed group, the white man who can’t get a job (10). Dyer expresses a fear that “talking about whiteness could lead to the development of something called ‘White Studies’” (10). However, he is not fearful that is will “dislodge [whiteness] from its centrality and authority,” but that it might lead to a new type of “assertiveness” (10). Dyer also identifies guilt as a problem. He does think that the solution is to acknowledge the wrongs, but not allow guilt to become a block since the display of guilt expresses a “fine moral character” (11). Guilt becomes an expression of what whites are and by implication that others do not have such “fine moral character.”

Further on Dyer explores the use of film in asserting whiteness, which he precedes this with the role of photography in asserting and affirming the construct of whiteness. He explains the historical belief that photography could reveal the inner nature of a person (104). He also discusses eugenics before and after discussions on early ideas of whiteness related to high morals, purity, higher thinking (in males, not females). As well Dyer talks about the importance of lighting and positioning the white person in photography and other imagery. What interested me in this passage was the insertion of the term eugenics. Photography “was a central tool of the eugenics movement, whose focus was the improvement of the human race through control of breeding” (105). This passage is a direct reminder of a piece I titled Hitler Would Love You (2009). The inspiration for the piece comes from an image similar to the following that I had seen on the Internet. Both HWLY and the source image also refer to sight (which Dyer also delves into with a discussion on the primacy of sight and its contradictions).

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bundesarchiv_R_165_Bild-244-64,_Bestimmung_der_Augenfarbe.jpg
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bundesarchiv_R_165_Bild-244-64,_Bestimmung_der_Augenfarbe.jpg
Eye colour chart. (Know the source? Please contact me.)
Eye colour chart. (Know the source? Please contact me.)
H.W.L.Y., 2009, Human hair, glass, ply, plaster, acrylic
H.W.L.Y., 2009, Human hair, glass, ply, plaster, acrylic

Choosing/selecting a person, as meeting a standard of worthiness, based on eye and hair colour as an indication of their “fine moral character” is absurd. (Also brings to mind the work of Michael Euyung Oh and his arbitrary choices.)

How can whiteness be deconstructed without turning the discussion into a massive cosmic hole? How can whiteness be shown to be a marked position and at the same time remove racial labels? How can each person, regardless of the race they identify with, feel dignity without being barricaded by guilt or pride?

—–

1 Richard Dyer explains his uncomfortable use of the terms “white” and “non-white”: see the sub-section titled “The Politics of Looking at Whiteness” in White, London: Routledge, 1997, middle of page 11.

—–

Dyer, Richard. White. London: Routledge, 1997. Print.

Normman

Introduction:

In thinking about the previous post More Trash Talk I am reminded about a particular work by Izhar Patkin titled Norman; the Average American Male (1981). The work was part of an exhibition by Maurice Berger in 1987 called Race and Representation (excerpt), which showed at Hunter College Art Gallery, New York.

What I am thinking of are the quotes by Rothenberg, Terry, Wray and Newitz (Castle 4):

  • “It is always whiteness that is centered and assumed. Difference is understood in relation to it.”
  • “To be white in America is not to have to think about it.”
  • [Whites] “stand as unmarked, normative bodies and selves.”

Patkin

Patkin’s piece is based on the published work of gynecologist Robert Latou Dickinson and sculptor Abram Belskie who modeled statues to represent the average American male and female (emphasis mine).

Firstly, “Normman” (the Dickinson/Belskie models) emphasizes the naturalness, the normalcy of the European body/face. Because the models were initially shown in Manhattan’s American Museum of Natural History (1945), the models behave as an institutionally sanctioned statement about what normal is. The statement essentially says that if your physique does not look like these models then you are not normal. In addition, they assert that as normal bodies they are centered (not marginal) and unmarked.

Also, I think it is important to note the language initially used by the news magazine Time in describing the introduction of the models to the public at the AMNH as sexualized and objectifying. Time described “Norma” (the female version) as a “taller, lustier type.” The article also compares Norma to the Greek ideal.

Patkin created idealized re-presentations from the statues of the American physique in a series called Norman, the Average American Male (1981). Berger in writing for the catalogue (excerpt) describes Patkin’s treatment as shattering the myth of what normal is. Norman has been displaced from his pedestal.

And still….as I wrote this post I thought of Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth and an image I had seen with a statue on it. After a quick google I find Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo (1999). Fifty-four years after the original Normman and Norma. What does Wallinger say of his work? While there is discussion of the way Christ may have looked, Wallinger apparently says, “I wanted to show him as an ordinary human being” (emphasis mine).

– – – – –

Work Cited

Castle, Charles S. “’White Trash’ Identities, Media, and Popular Culture: Redefining White Hegemony in Contemporary American Culture.” Cultural Landscapes 1.1 2007 3-33. Columbia College Chicago. Web. 2009.

More on White Trash

Introduction:

Exploring the idea of “white trash” further I found the article by Charles Castle titled “White Trash” Identities, Media, and Popular Culture: Redefining White Hegemony in Contemporary American Culture (published in Cultural Landscapes by Columbia College Chicago in 2007).

Invisibility

Castle introduces the reader, with several quotes from other authors, to the idea that “whiteness” is generally invisible. “It is always whiteness that is centered and assumed. Difference is understood in relation to it” (Rothenberg 2 qtd. in Castle 4). “To be white in America is not to have to think about it” (Terry 120 qtd. in Castle 4). [Whites] “stand as unmarked, normative bodies and selves” (Wray and Newitz 3 qtd. in Castle 4).

Castle’s position is similar to that of Wray and Newitz in their assertion that the way to contribute to the dismantling of whiteness (racialization) is to expose the dialogue, the institutionalization, the material, as well as the cultural practices that hide whiteness and essentially make it invisible. The goal is to “make whiteness visible to whites” (Wray and Newitz qtd. in Castle 5). Castle also uses a quote from Frankenberg (in discussing the identity of white trash): “The naming of whiteness displaces it from the unmarked, unnamed status that is itself an effect of its dominance” (29). It is here again that there is an acknowledgement that whiteness needs to be named. This whole process in turn seems to continue to entrench the idea that there are different races.

It becomes a kind of paradox. To talk about and expose the present construct of whiteness (what it means and what it is) in order to again make it invisible. Although in attempting to articulate what needs to happen here, I am tempted to suggest that this should not be the goal (and these authors may also be saying that). What seems necessary to me is to recognize difference (with a sense of the awesome diversity of this planet), but to not use that difference to oppress or dominate.

Pulling a few other relevant ideas from this article it becomes apparent that the whole notion of whiteness is very complex. For example Castle states:

Being white is not something I choose, and the related manifestations of privilege are not something that I consciously take and, therefore, do not have the option of not taking. Privilege is something that society bestows. Unless I speak and challenge the conventions which continue to give me privilege, I will continue to have it no matter how much I try to live my life outside it (6).

Another idea that deserves to be mined is the notion that the elite use etiquette to ostracize and create a lower social Other (white trash) in order to dominate and control (10-11). What comes to mind is the the use of the the term “lady”, as well as the definitions of “Mrs.” and “Miss.” For instance a portion of the definition (Oxford) of lady is “woman belonging to the upper class or fitted for it by manners, habits, and sentiments” (emphasis mine).

Castle also discusses the commodification of white trash where whiteness buys select portions of the white trash identity, which in turn constructs whiteness. It is not a question of being born into whiteness (although I think this still does happen too, which Castle acknowledges when he earlier says that he does not have the option of not taking the bestowed privilege), but being able to buy into it (14,15).

Castle concludes his article by asserting that the appropriation of a white trash identity in popular culture serves to continue to make whiteness invisible. He explains that positive white trash images (rather than stereotypical dirty imagery) serve to embed a positive construct of whiteness essentially acting as a distraction (by becoming a spectacle) to keep societies (white?) eyes away from the the notions of institutional whiteness.

The main question here as I understand it (and this has come to mind many times now) is how to discuss and dismantle the construct of whiteness (as lived and experienced), without continuing to uphold and affirm the same construct.

– – – – –

Work Cited

Castle, Charles S. “’White Trash’ Identities, Media, and Popular Culture: Redefining White Hegemony in Contemporary American Culture.” Cultural Landscapes 1.1 2007 3-33. Columbia College Chicago. Web. 2009.

An Ovum Start

Seminal Text, 2010
Seminal Text, 2010

As an aside, I created this small book this past summer. Daily, weekly I encounter the phrase “a seminal text” or “make sure you include it in your reading, it really is seminal.” To clarify how I see a seminal text, I made one, since the other books refered to as seminal really had nothing to do with semen.