Friday, May 26, 2017

Exclusively gay, remarkably famous: The "fabulous potency" of Truman Capote and Gertrude Stein.

Assistant professor of English and women, gender, and sexuality studies at Wake Forest University

Truman Capote and Gertrude Stein should not have been famous. Both secured their reputations between the Wilde trials and Stonewall, when the most widely available understandings of homosexuality were inversion and perversion, and when censorship prevented the public discussion of homosexuality except in terms laced with shame, disapproval, and disgust. Yet both Capote and Stein were exclusively gay, with long-standing domestic partnerships that they made no attempt to hide. Both wrote works that directly discussed homosexuality and had a queer aesthetic. And the homosexuality of both was irreducible from their public reputations. Nonetheless, Capote and Stein were mass-market celebrities, well known even to those who had not read their books and those who did not read fiction at all. They earned scorn as well as praise, but their presence was undeniable. At a time when other gay public figures were persecuted for their sexual orientation and either remained closeted or censored, or had their careers stifled by homophobic scandal, Capote and Stein somehow profited from being gay.

Capote’s and Stein’s successes resulted from an oscillation between what I call the “broadly queer” and the “specifically gay”: between a nonsexual queerness that riveted a mass audience and specific signals of homosexuality that were easily understood by those alerted to their own sexual dissidence. I use these terms to distinguish between homosexuality and other traits, behaviors, and phenomena that are degraded or otherwise viewed and treated as counter to the dominant order.

In the twentieth-century United States, male homosexuals were consistently at the bottom of the male scale, thanks to the inversion model, which views homosexuality as the adoption of behavior typical of the opposite sex. By these lights, gay men aped women, a subordinated class, and such aping left them even less valid and less valuable than women themselves. Nonetheless, male privilege still functioned for gay men, and wealth, fame, and other assets might raise their status. Lesbians both shared in the subordination of women and, thanks again to inversion, received especially bad treatment as social outsiders. The act of aping men might be endearing, as such masquerade strove to increase value and might heighten a woman’s femininity if pitched at the right angle. But if such women extended themselves past the purlieus of cuteness and threatened male privilege—if, for instance, tomboys grew into bull dykes—they were badly punished, unless they had other assets that were sufficiently valued by the hegemonic order to excuse their perversion.

Under this regime in the twentieth-century United States, especially before the women’s and gay rights movements, the specifically gay was almost always broadly queer, but the broadly queer was only sometimes specifically gay. Both Capote—an effeminate, precocious southerner who made a show of his strangeness—and Stein—a large Jewish expatriate who was markedly disinterested in being conventionally attractive and who associated with avant-garde artists—were extraordinarily broadly queer in their appearance, behavior, public persona, and the form and content of their writing. This broad queerness interacted in complex ways with their specific homosexuality and with the trope of the decadent, unconventional artist—one way that queerness may be celebrated, or at least tolerated, by the dominant order.

If such flamboyance were readily available as a form of heterosexual passing, then Capote and Stein would not be so unusual. Yet Stein is the only canonical American lesbian writer before the 1980s who directly references homosexuality in both her public face and her work. Though the greater visibility of male homosexuality led to a greater number of publicly gay writers, Capote is nonpareil in the centrality of homosexuality to his public persona. Many pre-Stonewall writers now regarded as publicly gay, such as Tennessee Williams and James Baldwin, were closeted both in their persona and their work until after gay liberation. Although Williams was more than ten years older than Capote, he was not gay “at large” until after Stonewall. Before the 1970s, Williams’s overtly gay-themed work, such as the 1948 collection One Arm and Other Stories (New York: New Directions), was sold only behind the counter at specialized bookstores in a brown paper wrapper. Male gay writers who refused the closet either found their careers forestalled or did not become mass-market celebrities.

Although they sometimes used their notoriety to advance their careers, Capote and Stein were not masterminds who carefully engineered their public personae. Much of their “fabulous potency” was largely beyond their control, and their success, like most fantastic gifts, came at an appreciable cost. Stein’s eventual mass-market triumph with The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas would trigger writer’s block through 1933 and ’34, a grave debility for a writer as productive as Stein, and would cause her to run to her poodle for existential affirmation, as detailed in the sequel, Everybody’s Autobiography: “I am I because my little dog knows me.” And Capote would never recover from his early stardom, which progressively overshadowed his writing, transforming him from a celebrated author into pure celebrity, and then, perhaps, into freeze-dried celebrity crystals, with no liquid in sight.


Jeff Solomon is author of So Famous and So Gay: The Fabulous Potency of Truman Capote and Gertrude Stein. Solomon is assistant professor of English and women, gender, and sexuality studies at Wake Forest University.

"Balancing biographical accounts with highly salient readings of a number of their works, So Famous and So Gay offers smart, surprising insights into the ways in which Truman Capote and Gertrude Stein achieved cultural prominence in spite of the homophobia that kept other openly gay writers of the period out of mainstream literary culture. A daring, suggestive, and intensely interesting book."
—Lisa Ruddick, University of Chicago

"In So Famous and So Gay, Jeff Solomon amasses a treasure trove archive—literature, reviews, biographies, photographs, interviews—from which he examines the gayness, strangeness, and celebrity that combusted to create the queer precocity of Truman Capote and Gertrude Stein. At once critically expansive and insightful, this book is also a good story. Like Stein and Capote, Solomon is an engaging stylist in his own right. Read to learn, read to enjoy (imagine that!)."
—Ken Corbett, author of A Murder Over a Girl

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Art Practice and Protest.

Assistant professor of art history at The Ohio State University

In 1950, Japanese political parties and grassroots organizations began to stand up and fight back against the Reverse Course, the conservative shift in policies of the American Occupation. Art rapidly became an important avenue for protest, and at the forefront of this intersection was the reportage movement. "Reportage painting" (ruporutāju kaiga) referred to a style of politically motivated left-wing art that sought to depict sites of political action, often in a surrealistic style. In Justin Jesty’s words, “Reportage became more than a style: it was a social practice which aimed to realize alternative communities through research and art.” Reportage artists represented events such as the Lucky Dragon Incident, wherein a Japanese tuna-fishing trawler was irradiated by an American hydrogen bomb in the Bikini Atoll, as well as urgent social issues such as impoverishment in rural villages and the Allied Occupation forces’ planned expansion of the Tachikawa airfield into adjacent farmland.

The expansion of the Tachikawa airfield provoked large-scale protests that became known as the Sunagawa Struggle. Popular anger and protest were so vociferous that the plans for the expansion of the base were eventually abandoned, although the governments of the United States and Japan had formally agreed to the development. For Japanese artist Nakamura Hiroshi (born 1932), the expansion of the Tachikawa base resonated deeply. Sunagawa No. 5 (1955) became his most famous artwork, and it helped build momentum for activism in Japan by heightening awareness about political events, by elevating the stakes of the event, and by moving art into the realm of the social – a new and radical turn coming while Japan was still under Allied Occupation.

Nakamura’s painting is a polemical indictment of the pivotal events of the Sunagawa struggle that captivates viewers through the use of montage, the highly animated depiction of bodies, and through its political currency. The title Sunagawa No. 5, for example, rather than referring to a series, ties the work closer to the site of action: “No. 5” makes reference to 5-chome, the fifth block in the district where the protest was taking place. This is where Nakamura himself participated in the demonstrations. At this pivotal time, protests were ongoing from 1955 to 1959. Student activists, residents, and Labor Party members joined forces as never before and clashed with the state police. Sunagawa became a meaningful site in terms of exploring the limits and possibilities of political selfhood in relation to larger issues of political hegemony. The powerful dynamic between art and artists had demonstrated that solidarity could bring about change. This is a dynamic that can be felt in North America today.

Following the election of Donald Trump, activism is similarly growing. The Women’s March of January 21, 2017, has been noted as the biggest march on Washington; but perhaps more importantly, the march brought into the streets millions of people in scores of cities who had never participated in a protest of any kind. The National Humanities Alliance reported that record-breaking calls and letters preserved and even increased funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities. These actions show that the people are practicing — practicing to become active voices against the state.

Participating in one protest might not change the world, but is in an act that encourages the mind and the body to shift the terrain of what is considered politically normative. Indeed, in Nakamura’s case, it was participating in the protests at Tachikawa that motivated him to complete a painting. Similarly, art groups today have rapidly formed in response to Trump’s rhetoric and policies. Indecline, an anonymous anarchist street art collective, produced a series of sculptures depicting Donald Trump nude, with a plaque that reads “the emperor has no balls.” Another artist, Illma Gore, has completed a pastel drawing of Trump nude, entitled “Make America Great Again.” Other artists have become, like Nakamura, organized members of artistic wings of the political movement. Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman created an artist-run super PAC, For Freedoms, which encourages artistic protest. Their collaborations have included billboards that display the words “Make America Great Again” superimposed over photographic reproductions of the Selma to Montgomery marches that took place in 1965.

As Jacques Rancière notes, “Art and politics each define a form of dissensus, a dissensual re-configuration of the common experience of the sensible.” Rancière sees genuine art and politics as capable of creating new relations between the visible and the invisible, potentially liberating bodies from their assigned places and breaking with the “natural” order of the sensible. Under these lights, we can recognize the potential explicit and implicit effects of protest art: it expresses the outrage of the people, documents key political events, and shifts the terrain of acceptability and normativity. Just as in 1950s Japan, anti-state artworks today are at once an expression of solidarity and a call to action, one that contributes to the growing movement for change.


Namiko Kunimoto is author of The Stakes of Exposure: Anxious Bodies in Postwar Japanese Art and assistant professor of art history at The Ohio State University.

"Kunimoto’s manuscript is exactly what the field of Japanese postwar art needs at this time."
—Alicia Volk, University of Maryland

"Eschewing group-centric approaches, The Stakes of Exposure focuses on four artists whose aesthetic politics figure postwar bodies in struggle, vulnerability, desire, and connection. Namiko Kunimoto's analysis navigates between history, historical art literature, and theoretical touchstones through her lucid readings."
—William Marotti, UCLA

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Imagining Another Television.

Assistant professor of film history at Sarah Lawrence College

The term “utopia” is most often used to refer to a place (most frequently an imaginary one) as it was in Sir Thomas More’s book of the same name. More’s Utopia (1516), of course, was followed by plenty of other representations of “perfect” societies. There is no single motivation behind such representations: at times they are driven by critical or satirical intent, at others by a practical program that the author seeks to undertake in reality, but in some cases, purely by a desire to imagine what it might be like to live differently, or what the future might hold. Moving beyond the realm of the literary, the term is also frequently applied to a particular orientation or attitude, often pejoratively: one dismisses as “utopian” plans that seem impossible to achieve or that fail to adequately consider the reality of the present in their aspirations for the future.

But what if we were to think of utopia not so much as an imaginary place that can be represented or a future condition to aspire to, but rather as a mode of thinking? In his Valences of the Dialectic, Fredric Jameson explains how one might apply “utopia as method,” a thought process through which “what is currently negative can also be imagined as positive in that immense changing of the valences that is the utopian future” (423). Utopian thinking, then, would entail imagining how what currently exists could, through our imaginative projection of its development or its future, be the basis of something better, the initial condition of a more positive future state. This way of thinking, however, need not be identified with the formulation of actual utopian plans: it is not necessarily a way to decide on a course of political action (although it may be used as such), but rather a way of testing the boundaries of our imaginations, of discovering how our own historical situation determines how we can envision our future, and hence becoming more aware of how ideologically constrained and contingent our sense of what is “reasonable” or even desirable is.

My intervention in Utopian Television: Rossellini, Watkins, and Godard beyond Cinema is to posit that a “utopian method” can be applied not only to speculative thought, but also to artistic practice: to be a utopian in this sense would not mean creating representations of imaginary ideal places or of the future, but rather transforming what exists in a way that imagines what it might be in the future. I argue that Roberto Rossellini, Peter Watkins, and Jean-Luc Godard, in their works for television, are doing precisely that: they identify elements of television that were present in Western Europe in the 1960s—on an institutional level, a technological level, and a formal level—and imagine how these might become components of a different, better kind of television. They take from the institutional structures and discourse constitutive of European television the concept of “public service”—the idea that television should not be seen primarily as a means of entertainment or a lucrative business, but rather a means for education and civic engagement. On a technological level, they draw out the implications of conceiving of the image not as an object but as a transmission, a form of communication that travels from one place to another but also from one individual to another, and consider the possible advantages of its placement in the home. Finally, on a formal level, they imitate the forms that had become typical of television by this time: an emphasis on speech and “talking heads,” but also the sense of proximity to the real, if unfiltered, immediacy characteristic of television news programs.

What makes their works “utopian,” however, is the fact that all three directors alter the meaning and functions of these elements: they detect a potential in television as it exists that is not being fully exploited, that is limited by the current political and ideological conditions in which it exists. Their works thus do not claim to create or represent the future, but enact what Jameson calls “revalencing”: public service becomes not an ill-defined and often hollow concept to serve as cover for the goals of the state/party or an extension of patronizing, universalizing plans to “uplift the masses,” but rather an imperative to critique the state and its policies (as in Watkins’s The War Game) by shocking the spectator with horrific images. Television’s status as a communicative transmission and its placement in the home are used not to create a false sense of intimacy or to function as the extension of state power into the living room (as it was in the hands of Charles de Gaulle), but rather to meditate on the meaning of “communication” and how media usually forbid it, or to invite the viewer to consider how television may function as a disciplinary mechanism (as in Jean-Luc Godard and Anne Marie-Miéville’s two television series, 6 x 2: On and Under Communication and France tour détour deux enfants). The forms developed by television to convey a sense of reality and immediacy are both undermined and exploited by Watkins, insofar as his precise replication of them to depict fictional (or past) events suggests their constructed character while still taking advantage of their aesthetic power. Rossellini, meanwhile, takes television’s affinity for speech to an extreme, replacing the talking heads of newscasters or presenters with lengthy discourses from great scientists and philosophers (in Blaise Pascal and Cartesius, among others), at once imitating television and radically refusing its commitment to short attention spans and easily digestible material.

Television as it exists thus becomes the raw material for the imagining of what it might be: its current characteristics, even if they seem to be largely negative, are not negated but rather dialectically transformed, drawing out their promise. The process, however, remains speculative: in other words, none of the three directors actually changed television’s practices or its character as an institution (and only Rossellini had any conviction that this might be possible). They show us—and here we find another key component of utopianism—an “impossible” television, one that cannot exist, due to a wide variety of economic, political, and ideological factors, on a wider scale than their individual experiments. A utopian television, then, is one that does not exist, or that exists only in something like an imaginary or provisional form. It is the fact that it does not and cannot exist on any wider scale, though, that gives it its critical power, leading us to inquire as to why this might be the case, and to imagine what kind of media we want and need. This lesson is perhaps more relevant than ever today: while the public service, state monopoly model of television that dominated Europe in the 1960s is now a distant memory, media institutions, technologies, and forms are changing faster than ever, opening up new opportunities for rethinking and reinventing the roles they play in our lives. Their development will, of course, depend largely on how they can be monetized most effectively, and those who own and finance them will certainly act in accordance with the profit motive. Rather than rejecting the forms of media that develop in this context though, we would do well to look for their utopian potential, using them to think our way out of them. To do so is in fact necessary to avoid the “bad” kind of utopianism, which would simply imagine that one could, ex nihilo, conjure something better than what exists. Instead, we must look for the raw materials out of which we could fashion that which we wish for within those things that seem, at present, the most hostile to our dreams of a better future. Only when we attempt to do this will we begin to see how much those dreams are bound up with the futures imagined for us by the likes of Silicon Valley, Wall Street, or the Department of Defense—and thus be able to free ourselves from them.


Michael Cramer is assistant professor of film history at Sarah Lawrence College.

"Both theoretical treatise and intellectual history, Michael Cramer’s intervention matches the utopian vision of its subject as he efficiently and astutely navigates us through the thorny politics of art cinema."
—Karl Schoonover, University of Warwick

"Michael Cramer's fine book explores those paths not taken that define a genre, that interplay between film and TV pioneered by Rossellini in service of a now utopian social pedagogy. Peter Watkins' understudied work, along with Rossellini's experiments—unfamiliar to those who only know him through the early masterpieces—throw a wholly new light on Godard himself, and Cramer's luminous readings of the works are as stimulating as his overall theorization of this new, or perhaps missed, form."
—Fredric Jameson, Duke University