VISUAL SCAPES: CRISIS, DECISION, AND GLITCH
EDITED BY LINDSEY HOLMES AND HANNAH HOPKINS
Celebrating his life, Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Paul Robeson” ends with Robeson, “Warning, in music-words / devout and large, / that we are each other’s / harvest: / we are each other’s / business: / we are each other’s magnitude and bond.” This year, our connection to activism, art, and one another has largely taken place on or in front of a screen. We lose and find ourselves in storytelling that opens worlds of possibility. Like always, many of our most radical acts of resistance or political action have arisen through memory, through the stories that we tell to and about one another that reminds us, as Brooks writes, that we belong to one another.
The reviews in this section take up an array of texts that engage subversive cultural memory and performance, giving presences to valences of the visual in the world of everyday resistance. With foci ranging from marginal archives to online chat rooms and more, these reviewers prompt us to think about what stories reveal about legacy, power, identity, and embodiment. What narratives have been occluded from visual landscapes of our performance culture? What does it mean to create and represent a speculative reality? What might its relationship be to this world? When we adopt cultural work for streaming media, how do storytelling and connection change?
I.B. Hopkins explores the contemporary drama in his review of Underground, Monroe, & The Mamalogues: Three Plays (2020) by Lisa B. Thompson, playwright and associate professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Thompson’s plays, while grounded in the lived experiences of middle-class Black men and women in the US, do not shy away from experimentation. Whereas Underground seems to be firmly rooted in the long, contradictory history of Black resilience and masculinity, both Monroe and The Mamalogues engage with the gendered experience of Black middle-class women and motherhood. At times, the latter two plays take up the registers of the surreal, the epic, the supernatural, and the metatheatrical. Hopkins’s insights into the trio honor each play’s specific cultural, temporal, and spatial contexts while highlighting critical threads of Black life and place-making that run through the collection as a whole.
Reviewing the film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (dir. George C. Wolfe, 2020), Taylor Johnson gives shape to the electricity and range of the film’s central performances by Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman as well as the film’s adaption of August Wilson’s 1984 play. The film focuses on one powerful 1927 recording session in Chicago, and Johnson argues that what the film audience may perceive as an uncomfortably slow pace is remedied by Davis’s and Boseman’s vibrant, intimate performances. As blues artists, Ma Rainey (Davis) and Levee Green (Boseman) inhabit the world of the 1920s recording industry with “acrobatic” navigation skills: they resist and challenge racist, patriarchal norms, pushing the boundaries of their creativity as artists. Johnson writes that these portrayals of such pivotal figures in blues music history are dynamic and arresting and that these “exhaustive performances” were handled so masterfully renders them all the more immersive.
Brice Ezell’s review of Taylor Nygaard and Jorie Lagerwey’s Horrible White People: Gender, Genre, and Television’s Precarious Whiteness (2020) explores the shifting landscape of popular TV programming in the era of streaming platforms. Nygaard and Lagerwey contend that the post-recession production of “quality” or “peak TV” programming, despite its proclaimed liberal and subversive content and message, works to center whiteness. This can be seen with the emergence of a new trope “in the subgenre of ‘quality’ television”—the “horrible white person”—a morally ambiguous character that is simultaneously also the quintessential victim of neoliberal income disparities. While Ezell praises the author’s sophisticated critiques of new television’s whiteness, the relationship between the depictions of horrible white precarity and the re-energized far-right movement remains less clear for Ezell.
Haley Eazor and Debarati Roy surface questions of legacy, violence, and the role of the vigilante hero in HBO’s 2019 series Watchmen, Damon Lindelof’s adaptation of Alan Moore’s 1986 graphic novel. Taking up affordances of re-visioning the iconic series in a new medium, Eazor & Roy attend to Lindelof’s visual and narrative conversation with Moore’s page, highlighting the fragmentation of time and space that “coalesce and intertwine as seamless material remainders of various embodied pasts.” Here, Watchmen’s cast of masked vigilantes and everyday civilians—including new characters that remix the Watchmen story for a new generation—contend with identity and legacy in the face of embodied pasts and presents riddled with loss. Eazor and Roy scope Lindelof’s tools to bear witness to the complex interplay of race, power, memory, and identity in a world that is always already reinscribing its legacies of violence.
In a review of Monica Hanna and Rebecca A. Sheehan’s edited collection Border Cinema: Reimagining Identity Through Aesthetics (2019), Oscar G. Chaidez notes how the volume works to destabilize natural identity categories through a reading of aesthetic innovations in “border cinema” that emphasize the haptic, embodied experience of film over the more traditional visual and/or sonic registers. In Chaidez’s review, distinct geographies of global borderlands are reflected in a diverse set of essays on issues ranging from femicides at the US/Mexico border to the composite nature of cultural geographies of post-WWII Europe. Sensory experience is explored as a central analytic by the authors of the collection, who emphasize that borders are not just divisions on a map but also “legal, temporal, or otherwise, and they physically exert their force on the bodies of immigrants.”
Iana Robitaille’s review of Daniel Y. Kim’s The Intimacies of Conflict: Cultural Memory and the Korean War (2020) also takes up issues of biopolitics, borders, and visual media. Robitaille writes that Kim’s analysis destabilizes conceptions of the Korean War as a discrete event by “uncovering the Korean War—and the ‘assemblages of [cultural] memory’ it has provoked—as the nexus of an emergent US empire, Cold-War racial politics, and constellation of interracial affective bonds.” Kim takes up film, literary, and historical documents spanning multiple decades. Robitaille expertly limns a vast array of works and ends by emphasizing Kim’s notion of a “literary politics of identity” that might open up a space for solidarity among Americans, Koreans, Asian Americans, and people of color.
In her review of Legacy Russell’s Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto (2020), Hannah Hopkins underscores Russell’s urgent call to reimagine what bodies can do and be in digital space. Russell’s “glitch” is multitudinous: on its face an error or bug in the system, the glitch opens up new ways of engaging the body, gender, and identity informed and sustained by our networked reality. She examines the historically whitewashed project of cyberfeminism and deploys incisive, inclusive exploration of creative work to demonstrate the urgency of Black feminism and Black cyberfeminism specifically in creating and expanding new worlds. Russell’s work as a curator and artist takes center stage in her engagement with an array of artistic practices that problematize the distance between life online and offline, suggesting that the new worlds we create are a vibrant coalition of both.
These reviewers trace the moments of crisis, decision, and glitch in the seemingly everyday. In attending to questions of remix and reimagination across genres, they remind us of the ever-present call to take up everyday anarchy in service of one another. In a year that has often left us isolated, the visual scapes of our everyday anarchy remind us that we are all with and for each other.