Everyday Semiotics

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Spit and image

Once again closing the gate after the horses have come home, today I pause to contemplate the photograph of Eliot Spitzer that was all but ubiquitous, at least in the media sources I regularly consult, the day after after the New York Times broke it's big story March 10:

The original image of course fits the well-established-in-politics "stand by your man" photo op; but in more than one place, including in the Gazette, the image was cropped to leave out Mrs. Spitzer and focus on Eliot's Jim Carey-esque expression.

For comparison, an image of Spitzer on a good day:


Knowing a thing or two about how press photographers shoot, I know that the frown photo must have been culled by the Associated Press from a hundred or more images. A conscious decision was made to circulate this mug.

It hurts to even look at this picture, to imagine oneself moving one's jaw thus. His ears stick out. Spitzer looks like a Muppet. And his eyes, as at least one report noted in type as well as picture, are glassy. He has no doubt been crying, or is about to break down.

This is a picture that would normally be discarded. One reason press photographers take so many pictures is because people often don't photograph well, and it takes several tries to catch them at the right angle, with their eyes open and their mouths not all agog.

What inscribes this image so that it was not left out but instead moved to the top of the pile?

Clearly, this man's shame is palpable in the contortions of his face. It's a story with a bit of smut in it, and so a touch of the disgusting is appropriate. The worse the subject can be made to look, the better.

Perhaps there's something of the freak show here, too; the tradition of grotesquerie.

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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Ape and essence

The latest cover of Vogue, picturing an African-American basketball player and a white Brazilian supermodel, has stirred up the requisite amount of controversy.

At this point in the game, the objections to such an image are obligatory, utterly predictable. They are, now, part of the text.

What is the text?

It is one in which we are quick to take offense at anything remotely suggestive of racial stereotype (and this image is not a remote suggestion, it is the real McCoy). It is one in which the expected response must be repeated by the media as much as it is voiced by the enlightened.

It is certainly a text that relishes in stating the obvious: the fact that Lebron James looks like King Kong grabbing Gisele Bundchen’s Fay Wray. (Note how the quintessential scream of the monster snack/rape victim is supplanted by the suppliant supermodel smile.)

It is a text that must founder in watching Ving Rames portray a member of a technologically-advanced ape species in Tim Burton’s “Planet of the Apes” remake.

It is a text that is worn out but still current, doubtlessly perpetuated more by media that must comment and analyze Don Imus ad nauseum rather than let him fade.

Where does this text come from? In this case it might have started out accidental. James himself is untroubled by the image.

"Everything my name is on is going to be criticized in a good way or bad way," James told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "Who cares what anyone says?"

Then it proceeded to the editors, who would have instantly realize the buzz and titillation it would create.

Vogue spokesman Patrick O'Connell said the magazine "sought to celebrate two superstars at the top of their game" for the magazine's annual issue devoted to size and shape.

"We think Lebron James and Gisele Bundchen look beautiful together and we are honored to have them on the cover," he said.

Then it proceeds to the man of the street, for mixed reaction, and to the editors of other publications for condemnation.

I’m almost hesitant to comment on this image myself because all it does, and all its cloud of accompanying type does, is perpetuate human anxiety. But also I’m compelled to state that fact. Here is a seme with incredible signifying power, and I would be remiss not to write about it here.

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Carrying coals to High Castle

Juliana Frink and Nobusuke Tagomi have both killed people, after which they both reflexively consult the I Ching and come to very similar realizations about the Inner Truth and its keen disassociation from their reality.

Curiously, these two characters, both peripheral and both homicidal by necessity, wrap up “The Man in the High Castle.” (By way of explaining that “peripheral”: Juliana’s action takes place miles away from everyone else’s; and aside from her broken marital relationship to Frank Frink, she does not connect with other characters in the cleverly incidental ways every other character does. Tagomi is literally on the sidelines of an historic meeting between radical peace-seeking German and Japanese factions.)

It’s by way of Juliana and Tagomi that the novel becomes selfconsciously postmodern. (It is postmodern throughout, but not (explicitly) selfconsciously so up until the last 30 pages.) Consulting the oracle (using coins rather than the usual yarrow stalks, which must be significant in some way beyond my Western grasp), Juliana discovers, effectively, that she is in a novel. It’s not true, the hexagon reveals, that Germany and Japan won World War II and divided the spoils of America.

The novel-within-novel, the inverse parallel, “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” composed with painstaking consultation of the oracle by Hawthorne Abendsen, is truth, and the reality of “The Man in the High Castle” is false. (Of course the world of “Grasshopper” is not our world or strictly speaking the inverse parallel of Juliana’s world. In the short passages we see of it, we learn it is absurdly utopian.)

The purpose of the peripheral characters in “High Castle” seems to be to come to such world-shifting realizations. Take for example another one: Paul Kasoura, is at first amused when he’s given a decorative pin, crafted by Frank Frink and Ed McCarthy and grafted him by Robert Childan. The piece seems worthless because it has no historicity, that is, has none of the appeal to a Japanese cultural appropriator that a Mickey Mouse watch would.

But then Kasoura realizes it has something else, something more fundamental to the prewar Japanese spirit, that is, wu, which we may as well equate to Frederic Jameson’s “aura.” Perhaps because this strikes Kasoura, or his colleagues, too close to home, Kasoura recommends that the only thing to be done with such original work is to duplicate and kitschify it.

Tagomi does not – cannot – derive the same sense of wu from Edfrank jewelry. I submit this is because of his actions during the invasion of his office.

Killing, for him as for Juliana, shifts his perceptions permanently into the realm of historicity, which for the sake of argument I’ll pose as the opposite or foil of wu. Both are fantasies, values ascribed to an object by its observer. But historicity hinges on a perception of the object’s role in a historical moment, whereas wu is dependent on perception of something like the eternal soul of the artist suffusing the artwork. Juliana and Tagomi become shut off from wu and sealed in historicity because their actions constitute or continue such historical moments. Tagomi defends two men working to prevent a new holocaust (using an already historically-inscribed Civil War-era revolver that may or may not be a counterfeit, ho ho!), while Juliana unwittingly stops a Nazi assassin.

Juliana is frightened until she realizes Joe Cinnadella isn’t an abusive boyfriend but a Nazi assassin. She is cold to the fact that she’s committed manslaughter, intent on the fact that she’s protected Abendsen – whose historical import, I must note, she perceives rather than understands. An important distinction, I think. She knows Abendsen and his novel are a big deal, but she doesn’t finish reading “Grasshopper” until after killing the assassin and a few hours before meeting Abendsen in person.

Tagomi has a more visceral reaction, turning to the I Ching immediately and grapping for the next 24 hours with his action’s implications. Meeting with the German consul, Tagomi suffers a heart attack. I think this happens because there are irreconcilable forces in him, forces of historicity and wu, not annihilating each other or necessarily damaging each other but bumping into each other and immobilizing each other.

What exactly is Tagomi doing by refusing to extradite Frank Frink, secret Jew, to German for extermination? Historical forces lay claim to this action, as do spiritual ones. Tagomi doesn’t know Frink (although Frink very likely produced his revolver, if in fact the revolver is a fake). He’s probably signed countless other such extradition papers. But in this case his refusal to sign is merely to spite the German consul, to retaliate for the invasion and for the moral upheaval it has caused him personally. He’s saved a total of three lives by now, but he still has taken one.

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