Communal Principles in Arts, Crafts, & Technology

October 15, 2017 § 1 Comment

In 2012 Google premiered a commercial failure called Glass. The wearable eye-glass computer sought to seamlessly merge together life and technology as indicated in the advertisement demo below.

This ad speculates how Glass could have shaped the everyday lives of urban dwellers—allowing them to more easily schedule their days through voice activation software, know the weather forecast by simply looking out the window, navigate the city and its bookstores (despite obvious signage for where the genres are located—lazy bum!), keep track on how close their friends are nearby, and achieve peak hipsterdom by impressing others with their minimal ukulele skills. Upon its arrival, Glass was swiftly met with criticism. From its ugly, cumbersome design to its creepy apps that allow the user to take a photograph by winking or identify strangers just by looking at them, Google Glass became immediately embroiled in debates on utility and privacy. Its costly price of $1500 also didn’t inspire many consumers to line up at the stores. In 2015 Google announced its discontinuation, then revived it in 2017 as a tool to aid factory workers. Regardless of this niche usage today, however, Google Glass’s failed legacy in the public domain expresses current human needs for distinctions between everyday life, technology, and labor. These may occasionally overlap, but a person’s desire to break apart this chain of activities failed to be considered by Google’s tech team.

Such distinctions for the orders of social life were similarly interrogated in the late nineteenth century. In an era of growing distrust in machines and industrial capitalism, the Arts and Crafts movement arose to critique its contemporary moment. Rejecting machine-driven precision and mass-produced commercialism, William Morris and his company of craftsmen emphasized instead natural, rhythmic aesthetics based on floral and organic shapes of the natural environment. These functional, hand-made objects of exquisite intricacy were put in sharp contrast to the stark styles of industrial urbanism and the grim depictions of realist art. Based on the assumption that workers in factory systems were becoming severed from the earth and alienated from their own human nature, Morris advocated for a unification of art, life, and labor in the service to society. In essence, Morris believed that creating and being surrounded by beautiful wallpaper, bedding, chairs, etc. could uplift the spirit of the masses. Furthermore, by beautifying the everyday and quotidian, Morris thought that humans would be able to relearn their relationship with the natural world and nourish the foundations for a more just community. His vision for this future was likewise articulated in his 1890 utopian romance News from Nowhere or an Epoch of Rest.

In this text, the narrator William Guest inexplicably wakes up in a communist future where private property is abolished, gender and class equality have seemingly been met, and both life and work coexist as extensions of pleasure. Everyone is also really really pretty. Their beauty is so intoxicating for the narrator that even the persistently “sunburnt face” (179) of his love interest Ellen does not give him pause (or raise concerns about a potentially untreated skin cancer). Morris’s assumptions that a person’s daily immersion within attractive gardens and buildings could be edifying thus extend to a very transformation of the human appearance itself. But more crucially, the function of beauty and nature in Morris’s novel is to create a more harmonious community.

These art and social theories are put into practice throughout the novel as the narrator freely wanders the landscapes of England alongside his “neighbors” and encounters the incredible freedoms now allowed. Yet although the “art of work-pleasure” (160)—that unification of art, life, and labor—foregrounds the daily activities of Nowhere’s inhabitants, technology remains in distinct and separate spheres. Men and women may be able to work together now, but machines must be kept elsewhere doing the tedious labors that humans do not want to perform any longer. This separation of labor allows for a closer connection with the natural environment for Nowhere’s human community, but what is peculiar about this development is that the people must relearn how to work in the fields and create crafts from these very industrial machines (199). As such, a return to a communally-oriented human nature within the environment depends on the service and then subsequent displacement of technology.

Can today’s technology in our post-industrial age educate us toward similar tasks? It seems difficult to think so, especially considering the ways in which capital, commercialism, and technology have all led to the environmental catastrophes we now face. Perhaps, however, there is still a utopic underpinning in the design of technology itself and its ability to cultivate a community, even if such a community may be based on one’s ties to a consumer product. This utopic promise has been most notably expressed by Apple, leading one critic to even call Steve Jobs the William Morris of our time for his insistence on uniting user-friendly function with pleasurable aesthetic design—not to mention that organic eponymous logo.

In contrast to Google Glass’s affluent hipster dude, Apple often advertises its products for their ability to bring people together from a variety of cultural backgrounds. Consider this year’s iPhone 7 commercials below.

On the one hand, these advertisements demonstrate the interests of capitalism to reach as many diverse and global locales as possible. On the other hand, though, these commercials may be read for their thematic concerns, which hold similarities to the utopian romance News from Nowhere. What we see in these ads are expressions of joy in labor, beauty, travel, leisure, and love. These expressions are indeed necessitated by a capitalist undertaking to sell these products, but the cultural imagination of these ads also suggest the ways in which technology, like nature, may germinate goodwill. Technology may have largely supplanted nature today, yet one thing is clear: the hope in a benevolent human community remains unyielding.

Sources:

Morris, William. News from Nowhere and Other Writings. Penguin Classics, 2004.

—Cameron Clark

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Looking Forwards, Going Backwards

October 8, 2017 § 6 Comments

Once my Australian friend Nick began his new job in corporate, he started talking in jargon. Like, all the time. Midway through coffee a little while ago, his phone rang: ‘Okay, okay. Okay. I’m going to run the numbers in the hope that we can move the needle. Going forward, let’s take this offline.’ Nick was moving through a vague world of ‘actionables,’ ‘synergizing’ with his co-workers, and ‘jockeying for position’ with new clients for ‘outcome-specific goals.’ Asking for some sort of translation for this businessspeak was doubly confusing: most of the time, Nick answered questions about business jargon with more jargon. It’s not the inexplicability of the jargon per se, it’s that the closer you look at what a worker like Nick does for eight hours a day, five days a week, you see that the jargon more often than not comes to constitute the work itself. Organizing work and talking about work is the work.

'I'm the Company's Registered Acronym Promoter but I've yet to be given a job title.'

In 2013, the activist and anthropologist David Graeber defined predicaments like the above as offshoots of the ‘phenomenon of bullshit jobs.’ Writing in Strike Magazine, Graeber maintained that the decline across the twentieth century in jobs in industry and manufacturing occurred simultaneously with a massive increase in the administrative sector. Since the end of the second world war, we have seen ‘the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing,’ along with ‘the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations.’ For Graeber, these jobs doubled back on themselves in an administrative loop. They existed for no reason besides validating themselves as valuable work.

Graeber’s article touched a nerve, and had as its implicit backdrop other cultural critiques of humdrum office life. Around the time of the millennium, social satires like Office Space and The Office began to appear on the cultural scene. There is a peculiar cultural fascination with the sheer inexplicability of corporate life. Beyond the tired jargon and acronyms, corporate situations were funny because the daily lives of office workers didn’t make much sense. Or, more accurately, it made sense to those countless souls working in offices already, who saw an image of their lives reflected back at them; for the rest of us, office life was simply perplexing, and therefore ripe for satire. Watching The Office, the viewer is drawn in by how the characters fill out the time of the day: congregating around the water cooler for a few minutes, playing jokes on each other, circulating emails that seem to contain little of value. Against a color palette of monotonous, endless grey, the denizens of The Office, in any logical universe, could seemingly complete their work much faster than the time for which they are legally contracted. A friend of my wife’s who works for a large accounting firm admitted that she could easily complete her fulltime job in one to two days a week. The trick then is to figure out ways to pad out the work until the clock runs down. As in The Office, the work of employees is narrowed to consultations, checking emails, and organizing meetings—essentially vague tasks made oddly legible in a world of increasing efficiency and key performance indicators. What was most significant is that the world of offices often only makes sense in reference to itself: emails are about setting up meetings, meetings refer back to past consultations, and consultations lead to more emails.

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Is this what the great utopian thinkers of yesteryear dreamed of for the future? I’m not referring to the bleak dystopias of the twentieth century, but those optimistic utopias of the Victorians. In Looking Backward 2000-1887 (1888), Edward Bellamy constructed a futuristic utopia where all citizens enter an ‘industrial army’ at twenty-one, performing only useful labor for their working lives before retiring at the age of forty-five. After that point, people are free to pursue art, science, music, painting, or anything else that engages their interests. Against current preoccupations to limit the working day or the working week, Bellamy limited the working life. In Bellamy’s Boston of the early twenty-first century, labor is centered around the production of material things, the economy is centrally planned, and ‘service-industry’ jobs are almost non-existent. What’s more, as everyone has the same income, social distinctions have evaporated. Obviously, the year 2000 looked a little bit differently to what Bellamy imagined; if anything, the Y2K sensation made us wonder if our machine overlords could even get us to the new millennium in one piece.

The point here is not to lambast Bellamy for failing to predict that automation would most certainly not set us free, but to recalibrate our diagnoses of modern life with the aid of these sometimes-quaint utopias of the future. While Graeber doesn’t refer to the nineteenth-century utopians, his examination of bullshit jobs nicely pinpoints the inexplicability of corporate work. ‘How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour [sic] when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist?’ Graeber asks. Such jobs don’t exist in Bellamy’s Boston of the future. In contrast to Looking Backward, ‘work’ in corporate environments is more about managing the expectations of your superiors, understanding the internal dynamics of the office, and figuring out the business lingo that produces this bizarre world. If Bellamy’s protagonist in the year 2000 looked back at the late nineteenth-century, then it seems rather apt that we do the same in our current moment. But rather than critiquing the social ills of the Victorians, Looking Backwards can give us some indicators of what a future might look like sans bullshit jobs.

–ajon8090

Sources

David Graeber. ‘On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs.’ Strike Magazine. August 17, 2013.

Edward Bellamy. Looking Backward 2000-1887. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

From Coal to Code: Feeding the Machines

October 1, 2017 § 2 Comments

What’s the difference between mining coal and writing computer code? According to Michael Bloomberg, the obvious answer is: a lot. In response to concerns over the devastating loss of coal jobs in regions highly dependent on the industry, Bloomberg urged compassion for the displaced workers but also suggested that we need to be realistic about their options. “You’re not going to teach a coal miner to code,” said Bloomberg at a 2014 conference, “Mark Zuckerberg says you teach them to code and everything will be great. I don’t know how to break it to you…but no.” Bloomberg’s comments have been perceived as a sign that he is an out-of-touch elitist who thinks coal miners are intellectually-stunted yokels. This is likely true about Bloomberg, but the assumption on which these comments are based is shared by plenty of people who are not members of the U.S. plutocracy—the assumption that coal mining and computer coding are fundamentally different jobs. Coal mining is blue collar, coding white collar; coal mining is industrial, coding postindustrial; coal mining is rough, manly work, coding is for skinny nerds.

Coal Miners

 

The Kentucky company Bitsource has set out to show that the gap between the industrial and the postindustrial is not unbridgeable. The web and app design company was started in 2015 by Rusty Justice and Lynn Parish, both of whom had spent 40 years in the coal industry. In what was admittedly an act of desperation in the face of increasing unemployment, the men started the company with the help of a coder friend Justin Hall and selected eleven formers miners (out of over 900 applicants) to learn code. Of those eleven, ten still remain, and the company is doing well, despite existing biases (i.e. potential clients assuming that former miners are intellectually-stunted yokels). While Bitsource is a small company whose impact is currently minimal, they have created a much-needed spark of interest in retraining programs for unemployed workers in coal country. Other companies plan to get on-board with the development of what is rather ingeniously being called Silicon Holler. The biggest barrier to this development is the lack of broadband internet access in the region. Kentucky already has an active program called KYWired that is addressing the problem, but they will likely need subsidies from the federal government to create a broadband infrastructure expansive enough to make Silicon Holler a success. This would require the Trump administration to stop pretending it’s bringing back the coal jobs and start thinking about what the region actually needs.

Image result for samuel butler erewhon

What’s so different about coal mining and computer coding anyway? Both tasks are, after all, in service to our machine overlords—at least that’s the way the Victorian writer Samuel Butler suggests we might see it. In Butler’s 1872 satirical utopian novel, Erewhon, an adventuring young man in search of fortune comes across a lost civilization that had once reached a high level of technological advancement but had decided centuries earlier to destroy all advanced machinery. The decision had been prompted by the work of a  professor, who suggested that machines already possessed a certain form of consciousness and would undoubtedly evolve to become a superior race. The professor argues that while it may not seem that machines are acting of their own will, they are already adept at getting men to serve them. He uses the example of the massive coal industry needed to keep the steam engines going: “Consider […] the colliers and pitmen and coal merchants and coal trains, and the men who drive them, and the ships that carry coals—what an army of servants do the machines thus employ! Are there probably not more men engaged in tending machinery than in tending men? Do not machines eat as it were by mannery?” The professor sees the coal workers as an army of domestic servants, running around frantically to get dinner on the table for their insatiable mechanical masters.

But this is not the only way that humanity serves the machines, according to the professor. In addition to keeping them fed, it also acts as their agent of evolution. Humans, in continually seeking technological improvement, are not only ensuring the machines’ survival, but also the latter’s advancement as a species. While it may seem like humans are doing this for their own benefit, this is merely an illusion: “It would seem that those thrive best who use machinery wherever its use is possible with profit; but this is the art of machines—they serve that they may rule. They bear no malice towards a man for destroying a whole race of them provided he creates a better instead; on the contrary, they reward him liberally for having hastened their development […] but the moment he fails to do his best for the advancement of machinery, by encouraging the good and destroying the bad, he is left behind in the race of competition; and this means he will be made uncomfortable in a variety of ways, and perhaps die.”

In short, our machine overlords have cleverly wedded their own advancement as a species to humanity’s economic survival, thus ensuring that they will never be neglected.

Humans may think that we have actively chosen to move away from the coal industry because we’re concerned about climate change, but it is likely that our mechanical masters have simply developed a more refined palate. They are now turning their noses up at the black lumps they once craved and are demanding the more delicate flavors of wind and sun. One thing is certain: they have developed a ravenous appetite for code. As machines continue to advance as a species, their human menials will undoubtedly be expected to serve up an ever-increasing supply.

Most coding is not about solving intense conundrums or making exciting breakthroughs. It’s mostly about keeping things running. It requires a specialized skill and a lot of patience. In this way, WIRED contributor Clive Thompson has argued, coding generally looks less like the creation of Facebook and more like “skilled work at a Chrysler Plant.” These solidly middle-class jobs, Thompson suggests, might be taught through high school vocational programs and at community colleges.

I say: let’s do what we need to do to keep our machine overlords fed. I don’t want to see what happens if they get hungry.

–utopianfictionblog

Sources:

“Hillbillies who Code: the formers miners out to put Kentucky on the tech map” by Cassady Rosenblum. The Guardian. 21 April 2017.

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/apr/21/tech-industry-coding-kentucky-hillbillies

“Can You Teach a Coal Miner to Code?” by Lauren Smiley. WIRED. 18 November 2015.

https://www.wired.com/2015/11/can-you-teach-a-coal-miner-to-code/

“The Next Big Blue-Collar Job is Coding” by Clive Thompson. WIRED. 8 February 17.

https://www.wired.com/2017/02/programming-is-the-new-blue-collar-job/

Erewhon; or, Over the Range by Samuel Butler. Penguin, 1985.

 

Ghost Ships, Ghost Ships Everywhere…

September 24, 2017 § 3 Comments

Growing up on an island in the Atlantic, I spent summers reading adventure stories. One such tale was Brian Jacques’ Castaways of the Flying Dutchman. In this young adult fantasy novel, a boy stows away on a ship: the Flying Dutchman. The ship’s crew is a depraved lot, and most fearsome of all is Captain Vanderdecken. One day Vanderdecken curses God for inclement weather, and an angel descends on the ship, scourging all but the faultless boy (and his dog). The ship’s crew is doomed to wander the seas for all eternity, never to make port, while boy and dog conversely must wander the earth, spreading goodness wherever they go.                                    cotfd

The myth of the ghost ship and its doomed crew is remixed again and again in maritime tales. The polar vessel in Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner comes to mind, with its glowing seraphs and reanimated corpses. Here, too, exists a lone survivor, who must wander the globe sharing his cautionary tale. We see ships of similar make in Poe’s story “MS. Found in a Bottle­­”—whose ghost ship gives off a “dull, sullen glare of red light”—and again in his novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Such ships are spooky to say the least, often emitting a ghastly radiance, and seem to portend disaster for those who sight them.

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                “Upon the very verge of the precipitous descent, hovered a gigantic ship”                    MS Found in a Bottle by Byam Shaw c. 1909

Perhaps the best-known contemporary nod to this myth appears in the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise, where the story of the Flying Dutchman is conflated with that of Davey Jones’ Locker, the guardian of which gathers the souls of the dead-at-sea. Krakens and maelstroms are also par for the course in these films, yet this is in keeping with older, more literary nautical adventures.

original

While there are many iterations of the Flying Dutchman myth (including a German opera by Wagner!) the unifying element seems to be that the sailors are exempt from the ruins of time and barred from return to land. In Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas, Captain Nemo’s submarine may be considered one such ship. This mysterious craft emits a phosphorescent glow, which readers learn is due to the engine’s mechanisms, and not an otherworldly curse. Still, mysteries abound regarding not only where, but when Nemo is from. Like many a ghost ship captain, Nemo eschews dry land in favor of the ocean depths. You might have noticed, too, that Captain Nemo enjoys playing creepy organ music, as does Captain Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Nemo’s existence is an isolated, liminal one, and as such, he and his ship may be seen as ghostly; indeed, he promises Dr. Aronnax “he who enters the Nautilus is destined never to leave again.”27twenty_thousand_leagues_under_the_sea27_by_neuville_and_riou_027

 What is it about seafaring that encourages storytellers to include these ships in their narratives? Perhaps ghost ships are a caution against hubris in the face of the ungovernable ocean, or of loving the sea too much.

–Elena Britos

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Metamorphosis and Mirrors

September 17, 2017 § 1 Comment

[Please Note: This text contains minor spoilers for the 2017 television series “Twin Peaks: The Return.”]

The season finale of “Twin Peaks: The Return” earlier this month created a seismic ripple amongst David Lynch devotees of the Internet. The proliferation of detail-obsessed fan theories, wikis in at least six languages, and thoughtful analytic pieces speaks to the twisted depths of Lynch’s vision in his reboot of the cult 1990s television series. While the show’s terrain is undoubtedly multidimensional, its intricacies depend on a foundational, age-old motif: dual identity.

While doppelgängers have always been important to the “Twin Peaks” universe, Lynch takes it a step further in “The Return” with the introduction of Tulpas: manufactured alternate identities. A Tulpa takes on the exact appearance (with shifts in minute physical details) of a character, but is actually a construct unknowingly advancing evil while the “real” person is trapped somewhere—in another body or alternate dimension. This play on identity undergoes a number of interesting permutations with the show’s central character, FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan). There is 1) the “real” Dale Cooper, known and adored from the original series, 2) his evil doppelgänger, “Bad Cooper,” 3) a manufactured Tulpa, Dougie Jones, 4) Dougie Jones’ evacuated body, which is reinhabited by the “real” Dale Cooper in a dormant, barely verbal state; and, eventually, 5) the reawakened Dale Cooper who, after entering an alternate dimension, becomes someone named Richard. In this shifting landscape, one can never know who is real and who is a Tulpa, not the real characters or the Tulpas themselves, and oftentimes not even the viewers.

twin-peaks-showtime-three-dale-cooper-kyle-maclachlan-david-lynch

Bad Cooper, Dale Cooper, and Dougie Jones (Showtime)

Indeed, any fan of Lynch will recognize doubles as a long-standing interest of the surrealist filmmaker; Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway wholly depend on structures of duality and split existence. But this preoccupation with multiple identities seems to have particular resonance in the world of contemporary television. Jill Soloway’s award-winning series “Transparent,” for instance, revolves around the story of Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor), a transitioning transgender woman who, while exploring the complex (and increasingly unlikely) process of sex reassignment surgery, must make peace with her hybrid identity.

The FX original series “The Americans” offers a more politically oriented site for thinking about metamorphosis: two Soviet spies passing as Americans (as well as happily married) near the end of the Cold War. Additional examples are not hard to find: Walter White/Heisenberg (“Breaking Bad”), Don Draper/Dick Whitman (“Mad Men”), and Tony Soprano (“The Sopranos”), who struggles to reconcile his public role as brutal Mafioso with his inner sense of morality and humanity.

That the theme of metamorphosis is central to so many recent television shows is significant, I think. TV has emerged as a medium that not only offers easily digestible entertainment, but also produces serious art, in some conversations even rivaling film as today’s cinematic experience of choice. And perhaps it is no surprise that in an increasingly digital and fragmented culture, creatives have taken up questions of refracted identity, code-switching, and constructed worlds through a medium that is itself somewhat paradoxical: consisting of isolated parts while also sustaining a long-form narrative whole, a combination that has produced a telling term that yokes the consumptive and temporal—binge-watching.

Perhaps, though, it is not merely technology that is fueling inquiry into questions of identity and self-definition in today’s cultural mainstream. As we become an increasingly global society, boundaries separating countries and cultures are less and less defined (or else more fervently reinforced). It may be productive to consider an earlier era that blurred geographic borders through an increase in travel: the 19th Century. In 1859, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species spawned a crisis of faith in the Western world, exploding people’s notions of what it means to be human. The rise of expeditions into new territories and confrontations with indigenous cultures exposed a seemingly infinite variety among human beings and the natural order.

Identity crisis may indeed be one impulse behind the contemporary revival of the 19th Century as a site for artistic inquiry. A particularly inspired example of such bridging of periods can be found in A. S. Byatt’s 1992 novella Morpho Eugenia, which presents Victorian-era social critique and romance through a modern, hybrid form. The story’s protagonist, William Adamson, admits to being “doomed to a kind of double consciousness” after returning to England from a voyage in the Amazon (28). Throughout the novella, William is jockeyed between a host of tensions and dualities: settling into domesticated married life vs. pursuing his life’s work in the jungle; writing a book on natural science vs. editing his father-in-law’s book arguing for the existence of a divine creator; lusting for a woman who is physically alluring vs. one who is intellectually stimulating.

In his book on the behavior of ants, William lays out “some more abstract, questioning chapters” according to a series of possible headings: “Instinct or Intelligence,” “Design or Hasard,” “The Individual and the Commonwealth,” “What is an Individual?” (126). These questions have DNA in cultural artifacts from as recent as the television shows discussed above to as distant as Homer’s Odyssey (a source text that’s taken up in Morpho Eugenia and, appropriately, adapted to suit the novella’s own ends). After sketching out William’s chapters, the text shifts into the actual pages of his book, where he considers “the utility to men of other living things.” He writes, “one of the uses we make of them is to try to use them as magical mirrors to reflect back to us our own faces with a difference” (127).

In “Twin Peaks: The Return,” Lynch ends one of the final episodes with a brief, unsettling shot of Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), in an unspecified location, staring aghast at her own mirror-image.

twin-peaks-the-return-part-16-audrey

Audrey Horne (Showtime)

Where is she? What year is it? Design or Hasard? What is an individual?

We look to science and religion and art. We look to others and, ultimately, to ourselves. But perhaps the longer and harder we look, the farther away we are from knowing, and the more we demand from the image reflected back to us.

Jennifer Gutman

Source:

Byatt, A. S. “Morpho Eugenia.” Angels & Insects. Vintage International, 1994.

Le Guin on blogging, women in science fiction, and more

September 13, 2017 § Leave a comment

Interesting article about Ursula K. Le Guin’s blog and her new book, No Time To Spare in this week’s issue of The New Republic.

Not-so-Genius of America: Adolphe Yvon’s Utopia Dismantled

September 9, 2017 § 1 Comment

One of my favorite places to spend random Saturday afternoons is the St. Louis Art Museum. I’ve spent many hours wandering the various galleries during my countless visits there, but I always stop to take a look at one painting in particular—Genius of America by French painter Adolphe Yvon. One might think that I’m in love with the work based on this fact, but, bluntly stated, I hate it. This work serves not only as a cruel reminder of where America once was, but is revelatory of the lack of progress that America has undergone since the painting was completely in 1858.GeniusofAmerica

Genius of America by Adolphe Yvon, 1870

My sentiments regarding the work are actually shared by many. The painting was replicated on a much larger scale in 1870 at the request of Alexander Stewart, was displayed in Stewart’s Grand Union Hotel, but has since been donated and is currently housed in Albany, New York’s State Education Building. The unveiling of the mural in its current home brought forth much controversy and this article delves into details about those issues, so there is no need for me to reiterate. I will, however, fill in a few gaps in an effort to uncover how Yvon’s vision of America, particularly as a perspective from the outside looking in, is grossly utopian.

It’s no secret that America has always been hopeful with regards becoming, and remaining, the best at everything. This includes having the best education system, the most powerful military force, maintaining peace amongst the nation’s citizens (a stark deviation from the previous goal), and being in the forefront of scientific advances. All of that sounds amazing, except said quest for being the best as a nation has been historically a quest to maintain “Anglo racial superiority,” as Dr. Dana Nelson articulates in her book The World in Black and White: Reading ‘Race’ in American Literature, 1638-1867. Nelson notes, “Between 1800 and 1850 America witnessed a simultaneous surge in scientific professionalization and expansionist fervor which cumulatively resulted in the Anglo-American theory of Manifest Destiny” (92). The ideology of which Nelson speaks is precisely what is depicted in Yvon’s Genius of America and greatly contributes to the problematic nature of the painting that stems far beyond what first meets the eye. For the sake of time, and my sanity, I won’t fully dissect every single aspect of the painting but instead, I’ll opt to pinpoint the major figures that prove to be “not-so-genius.”

Firstly, let me take a second to expand upon the argument that has already been presented in the aforementioned article with regards to the depiction of the slave essentially being pulled up, presumably out of slavery, by the white man. Slavery was abolished in 1865 and this painting was completed in 1858. Yvon was being incredibly optimistic by presenting the slave/master relationship in this way, especially since many would argue, myself included, that slavery still exists but in the form of other manifestations of systemic oppression (please watch the film 13th directed by Ava DuVernay, if you haven’t already). Furthermore, this depiction is not wholly an issue simply because of the realities of slavery, but also because it requires one to believe that Black people in America need to be saved by their white counterparts to be truly liberated. The Black man in the painting had to be physically lifted in order to stand as if his own strength wouldn’t suffice, which alludes to the Anglo-American view of the power of “white.”

Secondly, turn your attention to the image just above the uplifting of the slave—the Native Americans admirably looking at the central figures, which represent balance, order, and truth for America. The “discovery” of America, which led to the massacre of Native peoples and the subsequent marginalization of those people to the point of psychological, financial, and physical oppression, proves to be the antithesis of what is presented in the painting. It might sound like I’m only referring to 1492, but I’m also referring to the 21st century. According to the United States Census Bureau, “26.6 percent of single-race American Indians and Alaska Natives were in poverty in 2015, the highest of any race group. For the nation as a whole, the poverty rate was 14.7 percent.” The admiration in the eyes of the Natives in this painting thus serves as a slap in the face to those it represents. This depiction serves as an utter disregard to the cruel history of Native peoples since the practice of manifest destiny befell American and is an undeserving gesture towards optimism.

Finally (for now), the figure in the bottom left corner of the painting is said to represent the torch of war being extinguished. On the New York State Museum website, they suggest that this image is symbolic of the end of the Civil War, which couldn’t possibly be true since the war had not commenced until years after the original painting was produced. The reference to a specific war is not the issue, however. What is troublesome is the fact that not only can America not seem to stay out of wars involving other countries, but within America, the nation is always at war with its citizens. From the American Indian Wars, to the Civil War, to the less overt wars such as the War on Drugs, marginalized people in America have perpetually been targeted and oppressed for the sake of maintaining Anglo-American power and the fulfillment of the prophecy of manifest destiny. Yvon’s insistence that peace was a part of the “genius” of America completely ignores the realities of what America truly represents both then and now.

The deeming of America as being “genius” by Yvon was incredibly unrealistic and is still nowhere near a reality. While the aforementioned points are not an exhaustive list of the not-so-genius of America, consider them a point of departure for conversations about how America is viewed from the outside-in as well as from the inside-out.

– Amanda Wicks

Sources:

“FFF: American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month: November 2016.” census.gov, 2 Nov. 2016,  www.census.gov/newsroom/facts-for-features/2016/cb16-ff22.html

“The Genius of America.” New York State Museum. http://exhibitions.nysm.nysed.gov/geniusofamerica/symbolism/index.php

Nelson, Dana D. The World in Black and White: Reading ‘Race’ in American Literature, 1638-1867. Oxford University Press, 1992.

Yvon, Adolphe. Genius of America. 1870. New York State Education Building.

 

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