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Archive for the 'American Studies' Category

Monday, December 11th, 2017

Book Giveaway! American Literature in the World: An Anthology from Anne Bradstreet to Octavia Butler

“This is a vital anthology, both in conception and execution. For students and faculty alike, it will create an unprecedented sense of the dynamic force fields of American literature. I’m especially impressed by the anthology’s fluid movement across media platforms and geographical divides.”
–Rob Nixon, Princeton University

This week, our featured book is American Literature in the World An Anthology from Anne Bradstreet to Octavia Butler , edited by Wai Chee Dimock, with Jordan Brower, Edgar Garcia, Kyle Hutzler, and Nicholas Rinehart. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

Wednesday, November 16th, 2016

An Interview with Gayle Rogers, author of “Incomparable Empires”

Gayle Rogers, Incomparable Empires

“But we should ask ourselves why we (and anyone, globally) might wish to study foreign literatures? To make ourselves better, more well-rounded humans? That’s a lofty and often immeasurable goal. To understand better the cultures that we fear, the cultures of the markets our country is entering, to understand our own syncretistic pasts? All complicated, too. And then, how much is enough?”—Gayle Rogers

The following is an interview with Gayle Rogers, author of Incomparable Empires: Modernism and the Translation of Spanish and American Literature:

Question: What was the role of empire in shaping how Americans saw themselves and their culture over the past century?

Gayle Rogers: I have always had a profound interest in the Spanish-American War of 1898, the “splendid little war” that set into motion many trends that are still unfolding in our contemporary moment. I came across this amazing speech from 1899 by William Graham Sumner, a famous sociologist and anti-imperialist. It was called—and this is not a typo—“The Conquest of the United States by Spain.” Sumner believed that this new stage of American imperialism, marked by the country’s first overseas interventionist war, would ultimately ruin the country, just like imperialism had ruined Spain over the course of several centuries. He claimed that the United States had “beaten Spain in a military conflict” but was “submitting to be conquered by her on the field of ideas and policies.” In other words, we were on a course to become the new Spain—a formerly great empire that had gradually lost all of its foreign territories (including large swaths of the United States itself) and, at the turn of the twentieth century, found itself bankrupt, broken, and largely forgotten on the world stage.

This notion that a growing empire would cause America’s cultural ruin led me to the larger issues that this book takes up: namely, the relationship between geopolitical power (often exercised through imperialism) and literary eminence. A common narrative holds that the United States was a minor or second-rate literary scene at least until the late 1800s—that we were derivative, that we mostly imported British and French texts that held higher and more enduring cultural value. And then, we emerged onto the global literary stage right around the moment that we began acquiring overseas territories, consolidating our new territories and states in the west and southwest, and intervening all across the western hemisphere. In essence, against Sumner’s claims, American empire meant the birth of a globalized American literature.

Q: So, greater empire, greater literary prominence?

GR: The Spanish-American War looks like a well-placed axis in which the United States surges and Spain declines, with geopolitical and literary fortunes neatly yoked together in both cases. Of course, it’s not so simple, and as I knew from reading a good deal of literature of the early twentieth century, many leading authors believed that such a narrative was either horribly misleading or, if accurate, the signal of a terrible future for America in particular.

Q: To what extent are the imperial fortunes of Spain and the United States unique, or how do they speak to larger cultural or literary questions?

GR: I realized that this case study—the U.S. and Spain—actually framed a host of larger issues about the way we write literary histories: the models and assumptions we rely on, the trajectories and paths we follow in them. The modernist author John Dos Passos looked at the state of literature in the mid-1910s and concluded that great eras of empire actually strangle fruitful literary production, and so, he hoped that America’s new empire would quickly collapse in order to allow its literature to truly flourish. He saw a model in post-imperial Spain, where his peers like the novelist Pío Baroja were headlining what he believed was a new golden age of Spanish letters in the wake of an empire’s collapse.

(more…)

Monday, November 14th, 2016

Book(s) Giveaway! 3 New Books on New York City!

This week we are very excited to be featuring three new titles in New York City history: In Pursuit of Privilege: A History of New York City’s Upper Class and the Making of a Metropolis, by Clifton Hood; A History of Brooklyn Bridge Park: How a Community Reclaimed and Transformed New York City’s Waterfront, by Nancy Webster and David Shirley; and the revised edition of A History of Housing in New York City, by Richard Plunz with a foreword by Kenneth T. Jackson.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of each book to one lucky winner! To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, November 18 at 1:00 pm.

Thursday, June 16th, 2016

Guadalupe Stays Street

The Other Catholics

“Independent Catholics do things like this all the time. They step in when ordinary Catholics of whatever stripe need something and the big churches can’t or won’t provide.”—Julie Byrne

The following post is by Julie Byrne, author of The Other Catholics: Remaking America’s Largest Religion. Originally written just before Christmas, Byrne’s essay explores how independent Catholic clergy fill a niche when Roman Catholic official policies leave people on the sidelines:

It’s the night before Christmas Eve, but I’m a bit of a goddess girl, so the Virgin of Guadalupe remains an all-Christmas, all-year saint for me. I pay attention to her appearances around the city.

This year, as for the past few years, the parish of All Saints gathered with Queens community members for a midnight celebration of Guadalupe’s feast day in the streets of Long Island City.

All Saints and its pastor Father Mike Lopez are independent Catholics, part of the United American Catholic Church. Most of the Long Island City participants were Roman Catholic. So why weren’t they attending their own parish celebration? Good question. A few years ago, the local Roman parish declined to continue the traditional late-night street fiesta. The Guadalupe confraternity called Father Mike. “We have to keep it going,” confraternity members said. She’s the people’s saint.” Father Mike told them that he was independent. It didn’t matter to them. They just wanted a priest.

Independent Catholics do things like this all the time. They step in when ordinary Catholics of whatever stripe need something and the big churches can’t or won’t provide, from a wedding to a baptism to a popular (perhaps worrisomely unregulated) sacred block party. I don’t question the big churches’ reasons. But factually speaking, nature abhors a vacuum, and so does religion. Where there is Catholic lack, independent Catholics often fill it.

Father Mike himself lived this dynamic. I had the chance to hang out with him a few weekends ago in East New York. He grew up locally and always loved both the streets and the church. Eventually a Vincentian brother on track to be ordained a Roman Catholic priest, Mike fell in love and left the seminary to marry and have kids. After some fortuitous encounters, he realized he could be a Catholic priest and be married, since many independent churches allow clerical marriage. Keeping his day job in New York City law enforcement, Father Mike founded All Saints a few years ago.

Like most independent parishes, All Saints rents space for mass — and turns it into an ecumenical opportunity. They need the worship space. Ridgewood Presbyterian in Queens welcomes the vitality. Now the younger Latin@-and-everybody All Saints often joins with the older mostly-white Presbyterians for community events.

All Saints is at 5914 70th Avenue in Ridgewood, Queens, New York City.

Father Mike says everyone is welcome. All Saints can handle all the worrisomely unregulated situations just fine.

Que Viva La Virgen de Guadalupe!

Thursday, April 21st, 2016

Man-O-Manischewitz — Roger Horowitz on Kosher Wine and Its Popularity among African Americans

Sammy Davis, Kosher USA

With Passover beginning tomorrow and with people starting to break out the Seder wine, we thought we’d share an excerpt from Roger Horowitz’s chapter “Man-O-Manischewitz,” from Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Other Tales of Modern Food. In this excerpt, Horowitz recounts the story behind the surprising popularity of Manischewitz and other Kosher wines among African Americans during the twentieth century. As Horowitz explains, the sweetness of Kosher wine was comparable to the homemade wines that many African Americans made. He also looks at how the wine companies began to market their products directly to African American consumers.

In addition to the excerpt below, here is a clip of Sammy Davis Jr. pitching Manischewitz Almonetta Wine:

Monday, April 18th, 2016

Book Giveaway! Kosher USA, by Roger Horowitz

This week we are featuring Kosher USA: How Coke Became Kosher and Other Tales of Modern Food, by Roger Horowitz.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Kosher USA to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, April 22 at 1:00 pm.

Here’s what Andrew Smith writes:

“You don’t have to be Jewish to love Roger Horowitz’s Kosher USA! It is three-stories in one: a family narrative within a history of kosher within the industrialization of the American food system. Well researched, insightful, and delightful–even for goyim.”

You can also read the chapter, “My Family’s Sturgeon”:

Thursday, January 21st, 2016

Colin Dayan’s Ethics Without Reason

With Dogs at the Edge of Life

Simon Waxman of the Boston Review recently wrote an excellent reaction/review to With Dogs at the Edge of Life, by Colin Dayan, “Colin Dayan’s Ethics Without Reason.” We have a short excerpt from his article here, and we can’t recommend the full article highly enough.

Colin Dayan’s Ethics Without Reason
By Simon Waxman

Dayan, a longtime friend of Boston Review and valued contributor to the magazine, has explored related matters in our pages before. Her discussions and conclusions are often unsettling, questioning “the pretense of humane treatment” promoted by organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and humane societies, which routinely and systematically kills the animals of whom they market themselves as protectors. Dayan also is not a supporter of animal rights, which, like the human equivalents that inspire them, can foster in their bearers the quality most desired by the elites who seek to control and exploit them: docility. Meanwhile, the rights paradigm legalizes punishment of those animals that must be lived with, as opposed to above. In essence, the animal rights agenda has enshrined in law the social acceptability of the dumb, pocket-sized accessory who can only breathe and eat—and, then, only with a human hand to feed it—while subjecting to suspicion and penalty any animal of vigor, independence, intelligence, and, yes, capacity for danger.

Alongside her perhaps-surprising misgivings about rights, Dayan harbors sympathies that many abhor. One chapter of With Dogs at the Edge of Life traces the life, legal struggle, and philosophy of Bob Stevens. A downhome pit bull breeder, Stevens has been prosecuted by the state of Louisiana for distributing dogfighting films and earned the enmity of preening urban pet owners who like to dress up their twelve-pound toys and parade them at parties. These owners lack something that Stevens, for all his hard edges, does not: “admiration and respect for an animal’s sheer bodily strength, fierce intelligence, and courage,” which “promise a reciprocal engagement that has been lost in most human experience.”

Dayan’s goal is not just to scrutinize the pieties of animal rights activists, however. Doing so is an element of a larger project in which the boundary between human and non-, between reason and simply being together with other beings, becomes unstable. Following displaced and disdained dogs, purged from increasingly genteel cities everywhere, Dayan pursues a critique of enlightenment itself, particularly that version on which capitalism is founded. “Through the dogs’ eyes, we sense a world devoid of spirit, ravaged of communion,” she writes, inspired by films shot from the standpoint of dogs. These animals who once owned the city alongside human residents are no longer welcome among “the high-rise developments, the spruced-up neighborhoods of the neo-Western globalized citizen.”

There are no answers, easy or hard, in With Dogs at the Edge of Life, and this, finally, may be the point. “The bold enmeshing of humans and dogs—and the seagulls, pigeons, chickens, and cats in their midst—requires that we suspend our beliefs and put aside our craving for final answers.” The answers are themselves the problem. We have—by force, persuasion, and trickery—been drawn to a single answer: money and the comforts it buys. Call it progress in the capitalist mode. The issue of this progress is visible everywhere, from the comfort of killing law never seen in action, to the comfort of gleaming cities devoid of untamed life, to the comfort of faith in a human reason that eradicates all ambiguity and mystery. Indeed, one of the starkest, most material visions of this progress is the puny, slavish body of the dog lived above rather than with.

The full article can be read at the Boston Review website.

Thursday, December 3rd, 2015

Shrek in Casablanca, Ben Affleck in Tehran: American Culture in Middle East Circulation

In the following video, Brian Edwards, author of After the American Century: Ends of Circulation in Cairo, Casablanca, and Tehran, takes two cases where American cultural products make their way to the Middle East and North Africa, where they are taken up by publics in ways their producers never imagined. Edwards asks how culture circulates now, when the reputation of the US is continually changing, and when the pathways cultural products travel are unpredictable, accelerated, and full of diversions.

Monday, November 30th, 2015

Book Giveaway! After the American Century, by Brian Edwards

This week one of our featured books is After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East by Brian T. Edwards.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of After the American Century to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Wednesday, December 4th at 1:00 pm.

After the American Century offers a fascinating tour of the appropriation and deployment of American popular culture in a globalized, restless Middle East.” — Marc Lynch, author of The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East

After the American Century is a book of exquisite audacity.” — Hamid Dabashi, Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature, Columbia University

Friday, November 6th, 2015

Themes from The Con Men

The Con Men

“This book came about because both Terry and I are New Yorkers who came here from other places. There are the known mechanics of this city, and then its underground economy. We came to The Con Men as a way of making sense of this untaxed and unauthorized world.” — Trevor B. Milton

This week, our featured book is The Con Men: Hustling in New York City, by Terry Williams and Trevor B. Milton. In today’s post, Trevor B. Milton looks back at the genesis of the book, and explains some of the key threads that tie the book’s many stories together.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of The Con Men!

Themes from The Con Men
By Trevor B. Milton

This book came about because both Terry and I are New Yorkers who came here from other places. There are the known mechanics of this city, and then its underground economy. We came to The Con Men as a way of making sense of this untaxed and unauthorized world. There is something in this book for everyone who has ever resided in this city, something familiar to all who walk its streets. New York City is the unit of analysis; con artists and hustlers are the bi-product.

New York City is rugged, aggressive, and competitive, yet it is also one of the most desirable cities in the world, with broad boulevards, tree-lined avenues, yellow and lime-green cabs darting hither and yon, and frantic crowds moving along busy streets. And though New Yorkers constantly complain about trash, traffic, trains, and any number of other hassles, most of them readily acknowledge that they live in one of the greatest cities in the world. Among its many finer points, New York offers access to the best museums and cultural institutions and an intelligentsia unmatched anywhere. New York, New York: a city so nice they named it twice… (more…)

Thursday, November 5th, 2015

Cop Cons

The Con Men

“I asked Frank if he would volunteer any stories of police corruption. ‘So is there such a thing as a police con? Or a police hustle?’ Frank smiled so big that I couldn’t see his eyes. ‘Of course.’ He slouched in the bench and folded his arms, allowing some of the memories to come to him. ‘Well, the con is like, the con is the classic good guy/bad guy. That’s the con. That’s the biggest one.’” — Terry Williams and Trevor B. Milton

This week, our featured book is The Con Men: Hustling in New York City, by Terry Williams and Trevor B. Milton. When most people think of con games, they tend to think of the kind of three-card monte that they’ve seen in movies. However, as this excerpt from The Con Men reveals, con games can happen in a wide variety of circumstances, and con artists can be people from all walks of life.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of The Con Men!

Wednesday, November 4th, 2015

The Con Game

The Con Men

“To be honest, I wanted to get some of the cash the man flashed. I had greed in my heart, and that’s what got me into trouble.” — Terry Williams

This week, our featured book is The Con Men: Hustling in New York City, by Terry Williams and Trevor B. Milton. In today’s post, Terry Williams describes his first encounter with a con game in New York, how he was duped, and how this experience led him to study con games in his scholarly work.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of The Con Men!

The Con Game
By Terry Williams

I first got involved in a con game by chance: I happened to be strolling down the wrong street at the wrong time. However, stumbling into a con made it possible for me to better understand how the con game might be studied in an urban setting.

I was a young student at the time, with only five dollars in my pocket, trying to find my way around the city. On this particular day I became a modern version of Voltaire’s Candide, only instead of finding my fortune I found myself standing on an isolated city street explaining to two strangers why I could be trusted.

Let me go back to the beginning

I saw a man standing near 125th Street. He stopped me to say that he was not from New York (he had an accent), was lost, and needed my help. He showed me a piece of paper, which upon a brief inspection listed an address close to where we were standing, but as I tried to look more closely at the paper, he took it from me and handed it to another passerby with the same question. This time, however, he took out a wad of money and made a generous offer for help finding the address on the paper. He said he had been given $10,000 of insurance money after his brother lost his leg in an accident. He just wanted to “get some pussy before I leave the city.” I didn’t see exactly how much money he had, but it was a big bundle of bills and he said he would give some to both of us if we helped him. (more…)

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2015

Con Artists and Hustlers

The Con Men

“The con artists and hustlers in this text possess a rare set of utilitarian values and have an unmatched knowledge of the city’s landscape and a sophisticated skill set that has taken years (or a lifetime) to acquire. We think of them as sage opportunists because they are able to match their abilities exactly to the opportunities presented by the city’s shifting economy.” — Terry Williams and Trevor B. Milton

This week, our featured book is The Con Men: Hustling in New York City, by Terry Williams and Trevor B. Milton. To get the feature kicked off, we have an excerpt from the book’s introduction, in which Williams and Milton explain who con artists and hustlers are and begin to describe exactly what it is they do.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of The Con Men!

Monday, November 2nd, 2015

Book Giveaway! The Con Men: Hustling in New York City

The Con Men

“This terrific ethnography explains that cons and hustles are no longer the preserve of roguish proletarians in loud suits and painted ties. Everybody wants a bargain, and creative capitalism makes mugs of us all.” — Dick Hobbs, Times Higher Education

This week, our featured book is The Con Men: Hustling in New York City, by Terry Williams and Trevor B. Milton. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its authors on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of The Con Men. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, November 6th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Thursday, October 22nd, 2015

What’s Wrong with Nostalgia — Gary Cross

Consumed Nostalgia, Gary Cross

“The problem with modern nostalgia isn’t that it longs for the past rather than the present or future; the trouble is that it fixates on stuff and thus short-circuits what memory can do for us.”—Gary Cross

Earlier this week, the History News Network published an essay by Gary Cross entitled It’s Ok to Love Your ’64 Mustang but Here’s What You’re Missing. The essay builds upon Cross’s recent book Consumed Nostalgia: Memory in the Age of Fast Capitalism, which examines the ways in which nostalgia separates and divides us across generational lines.

In the essay for the History News Network, Cross argues that people often become nostalgic as a result of anxiety about rapid change and they feel a need to reclaim a sense of of childhood wonder or teenage freedom. He argues that a kind of consumer modern nostalgia began in the United States in the 1930s and then accelerated in the 1970s with a renewed interest in the 1950s. While Cross argues that “objects of memory certainly meet a need by helping people recover the past; and collecting can bring together those who have little else in common but a shared memory.” He concludes his essay by expressing concern about what has become a commercialized nostalgia:

The problem with modern nostalgia isn’t that it longs for the past rather than the present or future; the trouble is that it fixates on stuff and thus short-circuits what memory can do for us. Some of this is probably inevitable. Few of us are mystics and, as in religion, most of us require “relics” to share and help us reach back to the past. But, in the end can commercialized nostalgia meet our needs? My obsession with the commodities of my childhood cannot be shared with my younger brother, much less with my children; they are just different. This longing separates me from communities and pasts beyond my personal experience.

But can’t the modern nostalgic impulse transcend all this? It can if we use things of memory to engage with the past, not merely regress into a romantic memory of childhood “innocence.” If we converse with that past, and bring a full and honest consciousness of our present lives into our encounter with the past, nostalgia can reveal something about ourselves as we are now and also show us how the world has actually changed. Such a conversation with the past might help us get over our obsessions with our childhoods. In fact, nostalgia need not be childish; it can bring us the pleasure of growing in our understanding of ourselves and of the larger world from the vantage point of grown-ups.

Friday, September 11th, 2015

Memory in a World of Fast Capitalism — Gary Cross

Consumed Nostalgia

“We all live in and are shaped by a world of fast capitalism, and therefore of consumed nostalgia, but we need not be consumed by it.”—Gary Cross

In this excerpt from the conclusion to Consumed Nostalgia: Memory in the Age of Fast Capitalism, Gary Cross examines how our fascination with and fetishization of consumer goods from our youth both enhances and distorts our understanding of the past and the ways in which memory brings us together and divides us:

It’s clear that for practically all of us, memory requires things of mem­ory. But these things are means that become ends, that is, fetishes or projections of ourselves. They can and should, I think, instead be instruments to reach fresh insights and understandings. Ulti­mately, is this not what a collection of old toys or watching old TV should do for us?

This can happen when we use things of memory to engage with the past but not regress into the past, especially into a childhood of lost adventure and/or simplicity. If we converse with that past, bring a full and honest consciousness of our present lives into the encounter with what has gone before, nostalgia can reveal some­thing about ourselves now. And through “repetition”—going back to where we came and thus to whom we have been—we can make our understanding of ourselves clearer and more accurate. This may happen if we are willing to let that past tell us something we hadn’t expected, to allow a new standpoint to emerge.36 Such a return might even lead to an acceptance of self (finally getting over our obsessions with the pains and resentments that go along with many childhoods or longings to return to the good ol’ days), and there is no reason why it might not also lead to what the famous psychologist Erik Erikson called “ego integrity,” a self at peace with its past selves.

But again this will take place only if we allow those objects of memory to go beyond their materiality and to tell us something about our relationships. I repeatedly saw the revered old car or toy (especially in men) disguise a shared experience with a dad or brother, positive or not. But this need not be the case. Returning to a teenage memory through the teenage car can lead to a deeper self-understanding. And what we may learn about our relation­ships may take us beyond the tribalism of modern consumption.

(more…)

Thursday, September 10th, 2015

Gary Cross on the 5 Characteristics of Consumed Nostalgia

Gary Cross, Consumed Nostalgia

In the following excerpt from his introduction to Consumed Nostalgia: Memory in the Age of Fast Capitalism, Gary Cross defines five elements that make today’s “consumed nostalgia” so distinct and contradictory.

1. Today nostalgia binds together not community or families but scattered individuals around seemingly ephemeral things that are meaningful to them personally. How many of our holiday rituals today are really about religious or national ideas? Few of us cele­brate ancestors, even our departed parents. Much contemporary nostalgia is built on briefly popular consumer goods that unify, however loosely, narrow age groups. Instead of places or events shaping these brief “generations,” goods link otherwise separated our nostalgic novelty culture individuals. Nostalgia today is increasingly about microidentities. In fact, consumed nostalgia lets us “put on” multiplicities of iden­tities across the movement through life. It has been fashionable for a long time to call this postmodern, but what I am describing goes beyond plural identities and denial of universal “narratives” and national identity. These “postmodern” nostalgias are even more fragmented and ephemeral, constructed as they are around things, often very silly ones, and the memories and sensualities that these things evoke. They create personal meanings, but they also isolate and divide us.

2. Today’s nostalgia is less about preserving an “unchanging golden era” than it is about capturing the fleeting and the particular in its “authenticity.” In everything from our snapshots to our strange attempts to reenact the Civil War experience, we try to make the “there and then” into the “here and now” in pristine specificity and accuracy. We preserve that unguarded “cute” moment of our former toddlers in snapshots, not iconic family-portrait photo­graphs shot by professionals. Reenactors wear wool uniforms in July encampments at Gettysburg, and some insist on not wear­ing underwear to capture the authentic experience. These activi­ties have replaced the rituals of building monuments, attending ceremonies, and hearing inspired speeches as the reenactors’ predecessors did a hundred years ago. We have substituted the “authentic” for the symbolic. Even more germane here: we no longer seek heirlooms (literally “a device for interweaving genera­tions”) as a gesture of family or group continuity. Because of weak­ened family bonds and the transience of things, fewer of us hand down household treasures to children. And these remembrances are far less standardized—gone are the stylized family photo­graphic portraits, Victorian china cabinets, and ancestors’ needle­work. Something new has happened. Instead of symbols that link us across generations, we seek exact and personal remembrances of our own pasts or at least “authentic” representations of our families—informal snapshots and children’s artwork, for exam­ple. This quest for the authentic is how we moderns cope with the fleeting—not by denying change and death in dreams of a timeless age but by capturing “our moment” in our snapshots, songs, dolls, and cars. All this satisfies our longings for the personal connec­tion, but it often is an authenticity impossible to share with others or to pass down to our children. And, I suspect, for many it is a poor substitute for the “eternal.”

(more…)

Wednesday, September 9th, 2015

Guys Toys and “Girls” Dolls — Gary Cross on Consumed Nostalgia

Chewbacca, Consumed Nostalgia

Star Wars was a boys’ peer-group fantasy, continually changing, as did the boys (mostly), who quickly entered and left the target age group. Unlike the westerns, whose stock characters and plots were shared by multiple generations of American males, Star Wars belonged primarily to the kids of that time.”—Gary Cross

As the Star Wars franchise ramps up for the new movie and what will surely be a new bonanza in action figures and merchandise, we turn to Gary Cross’s Consumed Nostalgia: Memory in the Age of Fast Capitalism. In the following excerpt from the book, Cross examines the history of action figures and their gendered nature:

At the beginning of the 1960s, novelty toys and dolls for both boys and girls were dominated by diverse action figures, led by G.I. Joe and the long but forever changing Barbie fashion dolls. Although Hasbro’s G.I. Joe appeared first in 1964 as a miniature of the real soldier that most American boys expected to grow up to become (in an era of general military conscription), by the mid­1970s the Joes had become fantasy figures that changed continu­ously (first in the 1970s to “Adventure Teams,” abandoning military themes during the unpopular Vietnam War, and then to miniature “Super Joes,” science-fiction action figures in 1976).

G.I. Joe’s transformation was followed by a generation of action figures, beginning with the miniatures and props of George Lucas’s Star Wars trilogy (1977–1983). Even more than the sci-fi play of the 1930s, Star Wars was a boys’ peer-group fantasy, continually changing, as did the boys (mostly), who quickly entered and left the target age group. Unlike the westerns, whose stock characters and plots were shared by multiple generations of American males, Star Wars belonged primarily to the kids of that time.

The action figure was not only a peer-driven kids’ obsession, but it emerged from the quintessential ephemerality of a movie series. Though seen repeatedly by millions of children, the Star Wars mov­ies were set in a particular time—a media moment in the fast capi­talism of modern entertainment (that could be repeated in rere­leases in theaters and on TV as well as on VCR/DVD copies), not a socioeconomic era. This was even truer of a new spate of TV action cartoons that, like Star Wars, spun off action figures and play sets: He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and the Transformers appeared in 1983, followed by the Dino Riders and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 1988. It is toys like these, taken from the media moments of a generation ago, that draw the Gen-Xers to today’s toy shows. Tomorrow’s shows will be different. Fathers and sons may strive for shared obsessions … but the narrow duration of the media moment of each fad limits cross-generational sharing.

The girl’s story after 1960 differed in many ways. In 1959, Ruth Handler of Mattel introduced a doll in Barbie that has dominated girls’ play worlds over the past half-century far more thoroughly than did G.I. Joe. Handler found that when she abandoned moth­ers’ memories of their own dolls and images of the ideal child, she could appeal directly to the modern girl’s fantasy of freedom and fun. Barbie liberated the girl’s play from maternal standards and introduced her to the wider world of peer consumerism.16 Bar­bie continually changed her wardrobe, furnishings, vehicles, and “friends,” resulting in a rich array of novelty for successive gen­erations of girls. All this created an endless demand for Mattel’s Barbie products, taking the doll line (as tentatively practiced in the Patsy dolls of the 1920s) to new heights of fast-capitalism sophisti­cation. Even when she faced competition from Jem/Jerrica, Bratz, and the American Girl collection, these doll lines too (eventually) imitated the Barbie model.

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Thursday, May 28th, 2015

Thursday Fiction Corner: Colson Whitehead on Coney Island

A Coney Island Reader

With summer just around the corner, we thought we would devote this week’s fiction corner to one of the season’s icons: Coney Island. Specifically, here is Colson Whitehead’s very particular take on the neighborhood and the beach, which was included in the recently published A Coney Island Reader: Through Dizzy Gates of Illusion, edited by Louis J. Parascandola and John Parascandola.

Whitehead’s essay “Coney Island,” gives a stream-of-consciousness account of a typical day looking at both the good and the bad, and of course, screaming on the Cyclone. Whitehead writes:

A rollercoaster is your mind trying to reconcile two contradictory propositions. Earth and space, cement and air, city and sea. Life and death. Choose quickly. The city and the sea don’t get along, never have. Two trash-talking combatants, two old bitter foes.

Thursday, March 26th, 2015

Two Early Chicago Films Heading to Blu-Ray

The following post is by Michael Smith, co-author with Adam Selzer of Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry

In the introduction to Flickering Empire, Adam Selzer and I quote film scholar Susan Doll who said that it is Chicago’s “best kept secret” that it served as the nation’s filmmaking capital prior to the rise of Hollywood. That the vast majority of the films made in Chicago prior to 1920 have been either lost, destroyed or are otherwise difficult to see partly accounts for Chicago’s neglected status in the official film histories. Fortunately, the two most important Chicago-made silent films discussed in our book have both been recently restored and will receive re-releases on home video in HD in the next year. These releases will hopefully go some way towards giving Chicago the credit it deserves for the important role it played in our nation’s film history. The two films in question are:

His New Job—The one and only film Charlie Chaplin made in Chicago is this delightful 20-minute comedy short, the first he made for Essanay Studios (before fulfilling the rest of his contract at the company’s California branch). The plot sees Chaplin’s familiar “Little Tramp” character showing up to audition for a part in a movie at “Lodestone Studios.” The interior stages at Essanay in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood essentially play themselves as Lodestone and the movie thus becomes a fascinating peak into the process of silent moviemaking, at times achieving a near-documentary quality. The Tramp gets a job first as Production Assistant, then as a carpenter and finally as an extra in what appears to be a prestigious “period” film set in 19th century Russia. Of course, he wreaks havoc on the set and the entire production soon devolves into a state of slapstick anarchy. His New Job will be released on Blu-ray by Flicker Alley in Summer 2015. In the meantime, you can watch an unrestored version of the film here:

Within Our Gates—The earliest surviving feature film directed by an African American is this incendiary drama by the legendary Oscar Micheaux. Evelyn Preer plays Sylvia Landry, a young black woman from Chicago who tries to raise money to save a school for black children in the rural south. Micheaux’s story alternates between scenes taking place in the north and south as well as the past and the present in order to generate a suspenseful climax — a lengthy flashback to the events that led to Sylvia’s adoptive parents being lynched by an angry mob. This lynching scene is intercut with an equally horrifying scene where a villainous middle-aged white man attempts to rape the young Sylvia before recognizing a scar on her chest that identifies her as his own illegitimate daughter. The clever intercutting of this climax intentionally unpacks the racist ideology of the climax of D.W. Griffith’s similarly constructed The Birth of a Nation. Within Our Gates will be released on Blu-ray by Kino/Lorber in February 2016. In the meantime, you can watch an unrestored version of the film here: