Brett Kavanaugh threatened us with the revenge of a (presumably apocalyptic) whirlwind yesterday if–what? If we don’t believe him? In an effort to dispel that mini dust storm in advance, we scoured the Reps archive today for essays that might help clear the air. The special forum “Crime, Lies, and Narratives,” from shortly after 9/11 (another great time of national name-calling and angst), offers three such essays, perfect for weekend reading:
by Trisha Urmi Banerjee
The essay begins:
It is at least ironic that the characters and narration of Jane Austen’s Emma articulate excessively their preference for verbal and temporal economy. Clever Emma, who admires Mr. Martin’s proposal letter to Harriet for being “strong and concise; not diffuse,” observes later that charades “in general cannot be too short.” And at the end of dinner at Randalls, “while the others were variously urging and recommending, Mr. Knightley and Emma settled it in a few brief sentences” (122). It might surprise us that at the novel’s turning point, “a few minutes were sufficient for making [Emma] acquainted with her heart” (382), were it not the case that by this time, we have already heard the phrase “half a minute” ten times.
Aversion to waste and surplus takes perhaps its most glaring form in the frequency of the expression “to throw away.” When it appears outside dialogue, the phrase is always either ironic or negated. Suspicious Emma thinks Jane’s “caution was thrown away,” but that discretion successfully conceals the secret engagement to Frank (158). And we know that Mr. Elton, who arrives at Mrs. Bates’s house “so hot and tired that all [Mrs. Elton’s] wit seemed thrown away” on him, rather escapes than misses out on any so-called “wit” (429). The phrase’s early appearance teaches us that “danger” in Emma will be posed not by murder or intrigue but by waste, for “by Mr. Elton, a young man living alone without liking it, the elegancies and society of Mr. Woodhouse’s drawing room . . . were in no danger of being thrown away” (21). Incessantly, as if anxiously, the narration provides confirmations of safety from such danger: “The anxious cares, the incessant attentions of Mrs. Weston were not thrown away” at the Crown Ball where Mr. Knightley’s dancing “was not thrown away on Harriet” (306, 307).
The threats of waste here arrive in packages that announce the emptiness of their contents, assuring us that we can throw them away. But the possibility of waste is less easily dismissed when it threatens human beings. “Oh! But, dear Miss Woodhouse! [Jane] is now in such retirement, such obscurity, so thrown away. Whatever advantages she may have enjoyed with the Campbells are so palpably at an end!” (263). Here in passive voice, “thrown away” leaves unspoken the truth to which Mrs. Elton alludes, but like every Austen reader, she knows that future “advantages” can await Jane only in the right marriage. Indeed, a person’s safety from being thrown away in Emma is always constituted by an appropriate submission to the conjugal imperative—“appropriate” meaning something particular to each spouse. When Mr. Elton leaves Highbury to find a wife and returns with Mrs. Augusta Elton, we learn that “the story told well: he had not thrown himself away” (170). If the story of Emma tells well, perhaps it too avoids waste—perhaps for it, as for the snubbed Harriet, “to know that [Mr. Elton] has not thrown himself away, is such a comfort!” (252). Aversion to waste, especially within and surrounding the dominating context of marriage, would supersede or at least equal aversion to anything else.
Like the marriages that occur over the course of the novel, the parts of this argument number four. Part 1 applies the methodology of quantitative economics to model the dynamic between waste aversion and marriage in Emma, illustrating how its ending is a demonstrable utilitarian ideal. This illustration undergirds part 2, which argues that Emma advances the moral philosophy underlying the capitalist outlook that classical political economy began to theorize in the years leading up to the novel’s publication. Part 3 reveals the entwinement of political economy with economy of language, explaining how the novel’s concision works in tandem with its verbosity to iterate qualities of the free market that are in tension with the standards of maximum utility highlighted by the model. Whereas parts 2 and 3 rely primarily on the model’s conclusions, part 4 considers the model’s form, using it to understand the relation between the temporality and referentiality of the novel’s discourse.
The novel suggests several economies and numerous exchanges and congruities among them. There is first the capitalist economy as understood in the political economic theory that, as part 2 argues, informs the novel’s moral philosophy—a region’s system of producing and consuming goods and services. That economy has both a homologue and an analogue within the novel. The homologue is a conjugal economy that is composed of putatively rational actors seeking to maximize marital satisfaction. The analogue is a verbal economy involving the allocation of lexical efficiencies and inefficiencies (concision and diffusion). The nexus among these three economies is “economy” without an article: waste aversion, the result of economizing or being economical. Within both the homologue and the analogue of the economy—each one an economy—arise instances of economy. And, as parts 2 and 3 elucidate, it is the very nature of these instances that enables each economy not only to act as a parallel of the other and of the capitalist economy but also to iterate and advance capitalism’s dynamics and moral philosophy. Finally, underlying the entirety of the novel’s discourse and significantly modulating its free-market argument is a particular management of narrative speeds—what part 4 refers to as a temporal economy.
The very singularities of Emma that allow the perception of these economies also render it the quintessence of interrelations among economies and economics throughout Austen’s oeuvre. What emerges is a distinct and comprehensive account of Austen’s relation to contemporaneous economic theory (a relation much debated and theorized), of economy in her verbal and narrative style (much presumed and relatively little theorized), and of the correspondences between these two phenomena. Some of Emma’s singularities also help to delineate the entwinement of capitalist values with formal characteristics of the novelistic form generally. Likewise, the application of economic methodology to understanding Austenian economy evinces the potential of quantitative modeling to illuminate the forms and philosophies of literary texts. Continue reading …
By proposing a quantitative game-theory model of the marriage plot in Jane Austen’s Emma, Trisha Banerjee demonstrates that free-market moral philosophy underwrites Austen’s representation of matrimony and key formal elements of her writing—particularly, matters of verbal profusion. Her famed stylistic “economy” is revealed to be structured by the emerging capitalist economy that Adam Smith theorized in The Wealth of Nations. Establishing the correspondences among several kinds of economy, the essay unites economic and formal approaches to Austen’s work.
TRISHA URMI BANERJEE recently received her PhD in English from Harvard University. Her current book project theorizes the relation between the dorsal surface of the human body and fundamental narrative structures.
by Bettina Varwig
The essay begins:
There is a notational oddity in the autograph score of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata 199, “Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut” (My heart is swimming in blood). Instead of writing out the word “heart” every time it appears in the text, at several points the composer used the familiar heart symbol—not exactly shaped like the physical organ, but apparently as instantly recognizable then as it is now. In some instances, the abbreviation may have resulted from pragmatic considerations of space, but in others clearly not. Instead, perhaps Bach was invoking, in an inconsequential and semi-private manner, the rich significatory potential of this pictogram. Already by the early seventeenth century, the heart image had come to appear frequently in a variety of contexts, from courtly chivalry and religious iconography to sets of playing cards, encompassing an extensive field of associations and meanings. Severed from the human body, the organ could be subjected to a dazzling variety of treatments, as in the extraordinary Emblemata sacra (1622) by the German Lutheran theologian Daniel Cramer. In this widely distributed volume of devotional emblems, the heart appears in no fewer than fifty different scenarios, demonstrating its protean capacity to stand in for the believer’s life, soul, conscience, consciousness, memory, earthly existence, or inner self: the heart as a rock being softened by God’s hammer, a winged heart escaping from the claws of earthly demons up to heaven, the heart with a seeing eye, Jesus inscribing his name on the heart, the heart adrift in a stormy sea, a burning heart filled with cooling liquid from the Holy Spirit, the heart’s mettle being tested in a hot oven, and so on.
As the seat of life and the source of sin, the heart in the Christian tradition mediated between flesh and spirit. It could taste, sing, sigh, and melt; it could be given to God or cleaned out and inhabited by Christ. And so one might also imagine a heart “swimming in blood,” as the German poet Georg Christian Lehms wrote in his cantata libretto of 1711; a text set to music not only in 1714 by Bach but also two years before by his German contemporary Christoph Graupner, and subsequently heard by congregations in Weimar, Cöthen, Leipzig, and Darmstadt. Lehms’s poem draws on a long-standing Christian devotional tradition that conjoined hearts and bodily fluids, in visions of faithful hearts crying blood or sinners’ hearts drenched in waters of fear. But what was it like to be a body whose heart could undergo such procedures? What kind of physiology underpinned the veracity of these formulations? Simply casting them as poetic flights of fancy would mean disregarding the fundamentally embodied nature of such metaphors, which acquired their meaningfulness precisely through a more or less tangible link to a perceived corporeal reality. In heeding Gail Kern Paster’s call for an “interpretive literalism” in approaching early modern tropes based on bodily parts and functions, we might instead start from the assumption that experiences of seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century bodiliness were historically particular in such a way that they could give rise to this kind of imagery without too great a sense of rupture or alienation. If Lehms’s poetry strikes some present-day listeners as “repellent,” this response may exactly map out the distance to be traversed in order to recover those past modes of being-in-the-body that could produce and sustain such language.
Recuperating these historical forms of bodiliness has formed a key preoccupation of early modern scholarship at least since Thomas Csordas’s programmatic call in 1990 for a focus on “embodiment” in the study of human cultures, approaching the body less as a text to be deciphered than as the locus of lived experience. Of course, as Mark M. Smith has recently reminded us, any claims toward the recovery of a usable, consumable sensory past, potentially culminating in “lickable text, scratch-and-sniff pages, touch-and-feel pads” to convey an authentic historical experience to present-day readers, must be treated with extreme caution. My argument here, too, stays well clear of an attempt to recreate for current listeners any of those past corporeal habits of which a careful historical investigation might offer some glimpses; music already went through its own “authenticity” debate some decades ago, after all. Still, Bruce R. Smith’s invitation to “project ourselves into the historically reconstructed field of perception as far as we are able” can seem particularly intriguing in the case of music, since it not only encompasses the duality of presence and pastness in uniquely challenging ways but also ostensibly performs that effortless merger of sensation and meaning, both of which it produces in abundance, every time it sounds. Past musical practices and sound worlds in this sense offer an especially promising access point for a historical inquiry that aims to steer a course between the two extremes of positing the body either as pure presence or as mere representation.
In the early modern context, such an exercise in retro-projection initially requires a fundamental repositioning of the category of “body,” by which that post-Cartesian self- contained entity separate from the mind is refigured instead as “body-mind,” or, in Susan James’s terminology, “body-soul composite.” The wealth of physiological and psychological processes that constituted these body-souls comes into sharp focus when setting out to reconstruct the ways in which music acted upon or within them. Since the historical record is frustratingly slim with regard to actual flesh-and-blood listeners caught in the act, their experiences of engaging with music (in particular in the context of a worship service) are pieced together here from a range of theological, scientific, and musical sources chosen for their proximity to the German Lutheran milieu inhabited by Bach. If, as Daniel Chua has observed, by the middle of the eighteenth century music would by and large come to be understood as only that which is heard, it is this later reduction to the acoustic that needs to be reversed (unthought and unfelt) in order to recapture how music’s sounding materials reverberated not only through “throats, mouths, lungs, ears, and heads” but also through hearts, guts, and limbs, as well as spirits and souls. Although the study of music as a performed, sounding activity has recently become something of a new orthodoxy within musicology, and this focus on performance has made the bodies behind (or, rather, in) music more immediately tangible, those bodies are still in need of much more nuanced historicization. Like James Q. Davies in his recent study of nineteenth-century virtuosity, I suggest that acts of musicking, in their capacity not just to reflect but to generate particular modes of inhabiting the body, offer a hitherto underused resource in coming to grips with the animate bodies of the past. What I envisage, then, is a kind of somatic archaeology that pushes Elizabeth Le Guin’s proposal of a “carnal musicology” to a new level of fleshliness. Such an approach might thereby begin to address that “huge gap in early modern sensory history” to which Penelope Gouk has recently alerted us, moving toward a radically revised, somatic ontology of early modern music making. Continue reading …
This essay proposes a somatic archaeology of German Lutheran music making around 1700. Focusing on a single cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach, it sets out to reconstruct the capacities of early modern body-souls for musical reverberation, affective contagion, and spiritual transformation.
BETTINA VARWIG is Lecturer in Music and Fellow of Emmanuel College at the University of Cambridge. She is the author of Histories of Heinrich Schütz (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and is currently working on a book project entitled An Early Modern Musical Physiology.
Sawyer Seminar on Linguistic Anthropology and Literary and Cultural Studies: Translation/TransductionThis first of seven two-day seminars exploring the potential of a set of concepts, tools, and critical practices developed in the field of linguistic anthropology for work being done in the fields of literary and cultural criticism takes place Wednesday and Thursday, September 12 and 13, from 5-7 pm in 370 Dwinelle Hall, UC Berkeley. With presentations by Susan Gal (Chicago) and Elliott Colla (Georgetown) on September 12, and by Mairi McLaughlin (Berkeley), Saul Schwartz (Berkeley), and Toby Warner (Davis) on September 13. For information on the seminar’s working group and background readings, please contact Michael Lucey (email@example.com) or Tom McEnaney (firstname.lastname@example.org).
by Julie Stone Peters
The essay begins:
On the morning of January 9, 1649, Sergeant-at-Arms Edward Dendy rode into Westminster Hall, surrounded by an entourage of officers and followed by six trumpeters on horseback, with more than two hundred Horse and Foot Guards behind them. Drums beat in the Old Palace Yard, the trumpeters sounded their horns in the hall, and the crier announced the “erecting of an High Court of Justice, for the trying and judging of Charles Stuart King of England.” Eleven days later, the two great gothic doors opened to a space transformed. The trial’s managers had torn out the hall’s ramshackle barriers and the booksellers’ and milliners’ booths that lined its walls and constructed a central raised stage flanked by galleried boxes, whose decorative columns supported balconies fronted by ornately carved balustrades. They had spread Turkish carpets on the tables and platforms and hung yards and yards of scarlet draperies from the elevated seating at the back of the stage. And they had built, at the center, a three-tiered dais with a trio of armchairs, the furniture adorned in gold-fringed, tasseled crimson velvet and studded with precious metals. Into this magnificently appointed space marched several hundred guards bearing brilliantly gilded “rich partizans” and “javelins” decorated “with velvet and fringe.” With them was the sergeant-at-arms, holding aloft the great golden mace of the House of Commons, and behind him a sword bearer carrying the Sword of State brought from the Westminster Jewel Tower. Those in charge had issued an order: even outside the precincts of the court, the presiding judge was to be referred to only by his new title: “Lord President of the High Court of Justice.” As the sixty-seven commissioners serving as judges ascended to their scarlet-draped seats, the “Lord . . . of the High Court,” in a “black Tufted Gown” with an inordinately long train (carried by an entourage of attendants), paraded toward his dais amidst the sea of begilded and velvet-fringed javelins. This was hardly the austere mise-en-scène one might expect from the “godly Puritans” who had mounted their coup d’état and put their king on trial—in part, at least, in the name of stamping out ceremonial idolatry and the gaudy pomp of the vainglorious Stuarts.
When the Rump Parliament brought Charles to Westminster Hall in 1649, no reigning monarch had ever before been subjected to a public trial. The unprecedented step of staging the trial publicly was, of course, a bid to legitimize the overthrow (or at least shackling) of the monarchy through the appearance of legality and public consensus. The Parliament that had voted to try Charles consisted only of those who remained after a radicalized army had forcibly barred moderate members from entering the House of Commons and abolished the House of Lords. The Westminster Hall setting would help quell doubts about the trial’s legality. To hold such a trial in Westminster Hall was to appear to follow the long line of parliamentary trials that had been held there, and to remind the public of Parliament’s ancient judicial power. Moreover, Westminster Hall stood for principles of transparency and public accountability. Those in charge (said Colonel Thomas Harrison) despised cloak-and-dagger “privat[e] violence” and all such “base and obscure undertakings.” The largest public space in England (with a capacity of thousands), Westminster Hall had been chosen (the principal Parliamentary newspaper declared) because it was “a place of publicke resort, . . . the place of the publicke Courts of Justice for the Kingdome.” There, all would be “open, and to the eyes of the world,” and “all persons without exception, desirous to see, or hear” would be welcome: rich or poor, merchant or gentry, Presbyterian, Independent, Leveller, or even Royalist. The trial would represent the English people as a whole: the very body in whose name the court had come into existence.
Scholars have largely accepted this political account, explaining away the trial’s elaborate ceremonialism (usually mentioned only in passing, if at all) as a transparently straightforward attempt to strengthen its bid for legitimacy. But a political analysis does not fully account for either the grandiosity of the trial or the details of its unorthodox staging. One of the central goals of the religious radicals who put Charles on trial was in fact the elimination of spectacular rituals, Popish images, vestments, ornaments, and other “Idols of the Theatre” from churches, court, entertainment venues, and other public places. Why did the men who planned the trial’s staging and effects, mostly fervent iconoclasts wary of spectacular display and committed to visual sobriety and frugality, spend so much time and money on staging the trial as an elaborately theatrical, magnificently appointed, outrageously costly ritual (gorgeous vestments and all), when such a spectacle would appear to violate some of the most important principles for which they stood?
Unlike previous scholars (who have largely focused on the trial’s legality, its political consequences, or its literary and visual representation), I attempt to answer this question by focusing on the visual and visceral unfolding of the trial itself, looking closely at spatial arrangements, icons, and scenic configurations in order to explore the theological meaning of its densely symbolic, visual, gestural, sartorial, iconographic, and aural staging. When I describe Charles’s trial, or other legal events and practices, as theatrical, I mean two related things: first, that they draw on techniques not exclusive to but elaborately developed in the institutional theater; second, that contemporaries often identified such events and practices as theatrical, through a highly inflected constellation of terms that associated them with the institutional theater and related forms of enacted entertainment (spectacle, show, tragedy, stage tricks, and more). These terms and the attitudes they convey both shaped and reflect the meaning of the events they describe and are key to understanding them. Continue reading …
The trial of Charles I (said mid-seventeenth-century radical Protestants) was “a Resemblance and Representation of the great day of Judgement.” Situating the trial in its theological and iconographic context, viewing it as an expression of broader Puritan performance culture, this essay offers a close reading of its staging, arguing that we should view the assertion that the trial resembled Judgment Day not as an abstract theological aspiration but as a concrete description of the trial’s visual, spatial, and dramatic representation of the Last Judgment.
JULIE STONE PETERS is the H. Gordon Garbedian Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where she teaches on a range of topics in the humanities, from drama, film, and media to law and culture. Her most recent book is Theatre of the Book: Print, Text, and Performance in Europe 1480–1880. She is currently working on a historical study of legal performance.
JULIE STONE PETERS
Staging the Last Judgment in the Trial of Charles I
Heartfelt Musicking: The Physiology of a Bach Cantata
TRISHA URMI BANERJEE
ANDREW M. SHANKEN
Unit: A Semantic and Architectural History
Afteraffect: Arabic Literature and Affective Politics
Upcoming in Representations 144: Whitney Davis on Franz Boas’s theory of “the beholder’s share,” Roger Grant on the musical origins of affect theory, Ewan Jones on Swinburne and the poetics of waste, Kate Brackney on “Planet Auschwitz,” Julián Heffernan on ancestrality and extinction in Daniel Deronda, and a Field Note from Robert Sharf on the famous cats of physics and Buddhism. (Coming in November.)
–This slightly mysterious mention of us in Mathias Énard’s novel Compass, winner of the Prix Goncourt in 2015 and published in English last year:
Énard’s character Franz is here referring here to a fictional Representations article, written by another character, Sarah, entitled “The Wine of the Dead Sarawak,” which Énard himself says was inspired by Peter Metcalf’s classic essay “Wine of the Corpse, Endocannibalism and the Great Feast of the Dead in Borneo,” published in Representations 17, Winter 1987.
The Los Angeles Review of Books called Compass a “brilliant, elusive, outré love letter to Middle Eastern art and culture.” We’re reading it now to confirm.
Wildfires to the north of us here in Berkeley, extreme heat just beyond our fog belt, and drought in parts of the globe usually saturated this time of year prompted us to look through our archive for essays that deal in one way or another with views of nature. Among the many relevant pieces, our search revealed a pair of fine-grained essays on the 18th-century naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon:
Noah Heringman’s Deep Time at the Dawn of the Anthropocene argues that the concept of deep time is essential to the intellectual history of the Anthropocene—the name widely (though not yet formally) used for our current geological epoch. Buffon’s Epochs of Nature, one of the earliest secular models of geological time in Enlightenment natural history, uses inscription as a metaphor to mark the advent of biological species, including humans, in the course of earth history. The Anthropocene extends this project of writing ourselves into the rock record. Buffon makes a productive interlocutor for the Anthropocene because he is one of the first to examine climate change and related constraints on human agency in the context of deep time. Heringman examines Buffon’s natural history and associated Enlightenment discourses of primitive art and culture to gain a purchase on the challenges of scale posed by the Anthropocene.
Joanna Stalnaker’s Description and the Nonhuman View of Nature also looks at Buffon, but her focus is in counterpoint to Heringman’s. In her essay, Buffon is discussed in tandem with the poet Jacques Delille, Buffon’s near contemporary, whose innovative practices of description call into question our modern opposition between literature and science, raising the issue of how literature might be transformed through attention to nonhuman views of nature.
Read them together–in the shade if you can find it.
by Jeffrey Knapp
The essay begins:
“This isn’t right.” Almost as soon as the man resembling Martin Luther King Jr. has begun to speak, he interrupts himself in frustration. “I accept this honor,” he’d been saying, “for our lost ones, whose deaths pave our path, and for the twenty million Negro men and women motivated by dignity and a disdain for hopelessness.” What does he think isn’t right? Is it the racial oppression he has been evoking? Or is it the felt inadequacy of his words to that injustice? As the man turns away from us, we find that he has been speaking into a mirror, and that he is frustrated in the immediate context by his efforts at getting dressed . “Corrie”—it is King, we now understand, and he’s not alone; his wife Coretta is with him—“this ain’t right.” “What’s that?” she asks, entering from another room. “This necktie. It’s not right.” “It’s not a necktie,” she corrects him, “it’s an ascot.” “Yeah, but generally, the same principles should apply, shouldn’t they? It’s not right.”
This opening to Selma announces the complexity not only of the movie itself but also of the genre to which it belongs—the historical film. First, there is the tonal instability of the scene, which swerves from the tragedy of “our lost ones” to the comedy of the ascot. Then there is the rhetorical switch from King’s earnest and formal speech to the colloquialism of his “ain’t” and the domestic ease of his “Corrie.” As the film reviewer Michael Sragow comments, these transformations seem intended “to signal to audiences that we’re in for an intimate, maybe irreverent look” at King; in general, A. O. Scott argues, Selma is dedicated to “restoring” King’s “human dimensions.” But the start of Selma also briefly confuses us about the meaning of a word that one might have assumed was the last one the movie would want us to feel confused about: “right,” as in “the right to vote,” “the right to assemble, and demonstrate,” “equal rights,” “civil rights.” “I don’t like how this looks,” King says of his ascot: what’s troubling him seems to be an aesthetic, not a moral offense. Another change in emphasis apparently neutralizes that distinction. When Coretta replies that the ascot “looks distinguished and debonair to me,” King clarifies that his objection has all along had a moral dimension to it. “You know what I mean,” he says to his wife: the ascot makes it seem “like we’re living high on the hog dressed like this, while folks back home are . . . It’s not right.” Just as King wants the language of his speech to match the weightiness of its subject, so he’s concerned that his clothes reflect his social commitments; in aesthetics as in ethics, he believes, “the same principles should apply.” Yet the disorienting shifts of focus in this first scene nevertheless emphasize the potential for principles to become misaligned. Something else “isn’t right” at the start of Selma: the man who speaks these words, the British actor David Oyelowo, is after all merely pretending to be Martin Luther King Jr., and for a moment we might think that he’s expressing nothing more than his dissatisfaction with his performance. The opening to Selma seems, in other words, to anticipate two sorts of skeptical responses to the film: first, that Selma falls short as a historical recreation, and second, that it does so because of its trivializing overinvestment in such merely aesthetic questions as how the recreation “looks.”
These are indeed the very charges that have been leveled against the film, although they have centered less on the portrayal of King than on the representation of another historical figure in the movie, Lyndon Johnson. In an editorial for the Washington Post, the former Johnson aide Joseph Califano Jr. argued that
the makers of the new movie Selma apparently just couldn’t resist taking dramatic, trumped-up license with a true story that didn’t need any embellishment to work as a big-screen historical drama. As a result, the film falsely portrays President Lyndon B. Johnson as being at odds with Martin Luther King Jr. and even using the FBI to discredit him, as only reluctantly behind the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and as opposed to the Selma march itself.
In Selma, Califano charged, aesthetics “trumped” ethics: the producers, screenwriter, and director felt “free to fill the screen with falsehoods, immune from any responsibility to the dead, just because they thought it made for a better story.” Even reviewers more sympathetic to the film have agreed with Califano about its misrepresentation of LBJ. Though praising Selma as “the best depiction of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s,” Albert R. Hunt nevertheless added that “it needlessly, and erroneously, casts Johnson as a reluctant supporter of the Voting Rights Act”; so, too, Ari Berman characterized the film’s account of Johnson as “unnecessarily one-sided.” What troubled all three critics was how “needlessly,” in their view, the makers of Selma had set their aesthetic desire for dramatic “embellishment” against a moral “obligation” to “the facts.”
Proponents of Selma have by and large declined to defend the historical accuracy of Johnson’s portrayal in the film, instead choosing to criticize the very demand for accuracy as hopelessly naive. “Did ‘Selma’ cut some corners and perhaps tilt characters to suit the needs of the story?” David Carr asked. “Why yes—just like almost every other Hollywood biopic and historical film that has been made.” Differentiating Selma from “a documentary or even a dramatized history,” Jamelle Bouie defined it as “a film based on historical accounts, and like all films of its genre, it has a loose relationship to actual history.” Consequently, Bouie added, “it’s better to look at deviations from established history or known facts” in Selma not as defects but rather “as creative choices—license in pursuit of art.” “I’m not a historian. I’m not a documentarian,” Selma’s director Ava DuVernay similarly maintained in a televised interview with Gwen Ifill: “This is art. This is a movie. This is a film.” According to the reviewer Bilge Ebiri, the only relevant terms for judging the rightness of historical films are aesthetic ones: “These movies are not documentaries, nor are they acts of journalism. . . . They’re narrative works, and just like any other narrative work, they need to be true to themselves.”
“Every year,” the film scholar Jeanine Basinger wearily complained when asked to comment on Selma, “I know someone is going to call me about distortion of history when we hit the Oscars.” But there’s a reason that the objection keeps recurring. If it’s a mistake to look for accuracy in historical films, then why do historical films bother with accuracy at all? Although DuVernay rejected the label of documentarian in her interview with Ifill, that is exactly how she began her directorial career, with the hip-hop documentary This Is the Life (2008)—and her next project after Selma was a documentary on the US criminal justice system, 13th. What’s more, historical verisimilitude mattered enough to DuVernay in making Selma that she meticulously reproduced the look and feel of the sixties in her film, chose actors who bore an uncanny physical resemblance to the figures they played, and even spliced actual documentary footage of the final march to Montgomery into Selma’s recreation of it. In the same interview where she claimed that she was no more of a historian than a documentarian, DuVernay expressed her dismay at the “jaw-dropping” ignorance of moviegoers regarding the events her film “chronicled,” and she hoped that her movie would help Selma “resonate with people in the way that it should as being just such a cornerstone of democracy.” Prominent participants in the march have indeed championed the film as historiography. “Everything” except the film’s “depiction of the interaction between King and Johnson,” Andrew Young has said, “they got 100 percent right.” But then how could historical accuracy not be an issue for a film that ends with King’s proclaiming, “His truth is marching on”? The tensions between fact and fiction in Selma are anything but incidental to the movie: they instead reflect the irreducibly hybrid nature of the historical film.
Is it possible to argue that a mix of fact and fiction is necessary to Selma and to historical films generally? Continue reading …
Every historical film must contend with the possibility that its viewers will be scandalized by its mixture of fact and fiction, but no recent historical film has faced such pressure to justify its hybrid nature as Selma has, in large part because no recent film has taken on so momentous and controversial a historical subject: the civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The renewed urgency of the issues Selma dramatizes, along with the film’s own commitment to the “moral certainty” of the civil rights movement, helps explain why Selma wavers in a self-defense that links the fictionality of its historical reenactments to the purposely theatrical element of the marches themselves. But politics are not the only problem for fiction in Selma, and to show why, this essay compares Selma to an earlier historical film, The Westerner (1940), that openly flaunts the commercial nature of its fictionality.
JEFFREY KNAPP is the Eggers Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and a Faculty Affiliate of Berkeley’s Film and Media Department. He is most recently the author of Pleasing Everyone: Mass Entertainment in Renaissance London and Golden-Age Hollywood, published in 2017 by Oxford University Press.
by Aglaya Glebova
The essay begins:
“This is where we should go on vacation—in winter. What snow, light, mountains!” These lines were written by Aleksandr Rodchenko to his wife, Varvara Stepanova, from the White Sea-Baltic Canal, which was then being constructed by prisoners at an eponymous forced labor camp, one of the Soviet Union’s first, where more than twenty-five thousand—and possibly as many as fifty thousand—inmates lost their lives from 1931 to 1933. Had the photographer not yet seen the atrocities of the camp? Was he highlighting holiday pleasures in case his letter was read by someone other than its intended recipient? Rodchenko’s pronouncement is so utterly damning in its willful ignorance of the human toll of the construction of the canal as to render any possible justifications moot. This description of a gulag—bracketed, to top it off, with declarations that the sun and the air are “wonderful”—effectively bars any interpretive engagement. One’s only recourse, it seems, is to denounce Rodchenko’s deliberate blindness to the grim efficiencies of the state machine.
Yet I open with this letter not to offer additional evidence against the artist. Rather, while keeping the letter’s dismaying omissions firmly in mind, I want to move past the screen that its glibness presents and focus on what it reveals about Rodchenko’s time at the canal: there he experienced a landscape, a place. Descriptions of nature—uncharacteristically for Rodchenko, since he was hardly enamored with the romantic notions of an earlier century—fill his brief letters home, and landscape appears, far more forcefully than ever before, in his photographs from the canal. These images of nature are remarkable in the context of the ideological climate from which they emerged. As the first Five-Year Plan (fulfilled in four years, 1928–32) unfolded, the Soviet state looked for ways to rationalize both the breakneck industrialization and mass repressions—developments joined at the hip, for the latter powered the former—that it undertook. The philosophy that underwrote both was the call for the complete transformation of the existing “old” world into a “new” socialist universe. The ideology crystallized and reached its apex in the rhetoric surrounding the White Sea-Baltic Canal project and its policy of “reforging” (perekovka), the term coined at the time to denote the discourse of molding both criminals and landscapes resistant to Soviet rule into productive, socialist beings through labor. The environment became, in essence, the most obdurate class enemy of the socialist state, whose intent was to transform the landscape’s sublimity and unpredictability into a pliant, rational, and productive entity. If, as the by-now canonical way of thinking in art history has it, landscape helps naturalize ideology, what happens when a state declares that nature must be radically, even totally, refigured? And how, then, might we begin to explain the aesthetic of Rodchenko’s canal landscapes, their quasi-romantic qualities above all? Continue reading …
In this essay art historian Aglaya Glebova traces the evolution of landscape imagery in Aleksandr Rodchenko’s photographic oeuvre, focusing especially on images produced during his journalistic trip to the White Sea-Baltic Canal, one of the first Soviet forced labor camps. Through close reading of photographs, she argues that Rodchenko’s abandonment of avant-garde aesthetics, in particular the emphasis on photography’s transformative powers and its medium-specificity, in these images did not represent a shift toward socialist realism but, rather, held critical potential in the face of contemporaneous official censure of formalism and “contemplation” in both science and art.
AGLAYA GLEBOVA is Assistant Professor in the departments of Art History and Film and Media, as well as the PhD Program in Visual Studies, at the University of California, Irvine. She is currently completing a book on Aleksandr Rodchenko and photography under Stalin.