“Captain America and Bucky, Too: From Super Soldier to Iconic Embodiment of a Super Power-Origins, Evolution, and Historical Revisionism”
Since World War II, America has increasingly come to define itself and to be identified by its popular cultural icons. In particular its superhero figures have provided a mythic underpining and popular idiom to express and transmit reductionist versions of foreign policy objectives and clichèd statements of fundamental national values. The extent and power of the superhero as the focus of an identifying set of symbolic representations was made clear by the official response to a derisory article on the Bush administration’s “War on Terrorism” that appeared in the German news magazine Der Spiegel in early 2002. In the article, the administration was analogized to the “Masters of the Universe,” and the cover illustration depicted Bush himself as the reincarnation of Rambo, and his national security advisors as various other superheroes. Far from being offended by the comparison, the Bush administration reveled in its association with the fictional icons of national power, and through the U.S. ambassador ordered thirty-three poster-sized blow-ups of the magazine’s cover. The earliest of the superheroes who would come to wield powers beyound the reach of mere presidents was created on the eve of America’s emergence as a superpower, at the outbreak of World War II (1941), in the form of a 4-F recruit who acquired superhuman powers, transforming himm into an invincible fighting machine, when he drank a secret serum. Dubbed “Captain America,” he becomes a “terror to spies and saboteurs,” a giant, blond figure, who is patriotism personified. He wears a red, white, and blue costume with a large white “A” on his forehead, not simply wrapping himself in the flag, but essentially becoming an animated American flag.
The Captain America figure waned in the post-war years, was revived briefly to combat Commies in the mid-1950s, but not having sufficient scope in which to exercise his vast powers, went into early retirement by the end of the decade. His contemporary incarnation is within the context of historical revisionism.
In 2002, in the time-honored cinematic tradition, a “prequel” to the origins of Captain America was released by Marvel comics entitled “Truth: Red, White, and Black,” which reveals that the first Captain America was a Black Army recruit, who was one of a group of African-American soldiers who were used as guinea pigs to test the super serum before it is administered to the white recruit, Steve Rogers. But the picture is not so uncomplicated as a mere desplacedment of one Captain America by another by way of disclosing a racist cover-up of the true story, for presently, the Black Captain America coexists with a rejuvenated white one, who is currently pursuing international terrorists in a five-part series entitled “The Extremists.”
The paper will focus on the origins and historical evolution of the Captain America figure and examine the character’s symbolic significance as the embodiment of a civil religion of patriotism and a faith in the nation#s transcendent, divinely-ordained power that reflects an ambivalent national ideology of militant jingoism, adventurism, sacred crusading for the democratic way of life, unilateralism, embattled paronoia, and commitment to the rule of law that political scientists have called “The Captain America Complex.” It will also be concerned with how contemporary racial tensions are reflected and imaginatively played out in the rivalry of the competing racial champions who bear the Captain’s legacy. I anticipate the use of slides drawn from the compic texts to supplement the presentation of the paper.
Framing Women: 19th-Century Gender Iconography in Tableaux Vivants
In the course of the nineteenth century, tableaux vivants –- the immobile arrangement of living human bodies in order to represent a framed piece of visual art -- became a widespread fashion in a variety of artistic media and social contexts, including Victorian melodrama, evening-long public tableau shows, and private parlor theatricals in the homes of middle-class families. The planned paper will look at different manifestations of physical embodiment of the visual arts by ascribing to tableaux vivants the position of a mirror of Victorian social and aesthetic norms. Although a minute detail of 19th century cultural practice tableaux vivants and their underlying mechanisms indirectly shed light on central gender issues and domestic politics of the period.
Cyberspaces and Metropolises: The American City in (Science) Fiction
In my talk I will be focusing on one of the icons most frequently related to American culture: The Metropolis.
By drawing on cultural studies and feminist/post-structuralist film theory, I will analyze representations of the (American) metropolis in Science Fiction film in general, and in the cyberspace/cyberpunk genre in particular. The films I will discuss will range from Metropolis by Fritz Lang to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner to the first two films from the Matrix series: The Matrix and Matrix Reloaded.
I am particularly interested in how the image/icon of the Metropolis becomes a carrier of meaning that goes beyond its physical structure:
How, the city in the case of Metropolis becomes what is already implied in the name itself: the (meter)Mother(-City): a substitute for the non-existent mother.
In Blade Runner, on the other hand, we will find out that the city is used to represent a postmodern future society, that is essentially and almost exclusively urban.
However, I am particular interested in the cyberspace genre, where the city is used for two different effects: While in earlier cyberspace films (e.g. Johnny Mnemonic) urban iconography, that resembles streets and skyscrapers, is used to represent cyberspace, in later films, e. g. The Matrix series, the city actually becomes cyberspace.
By looking at these films and their representations of urban environment, I will try to come to some conclusion about the status of the metropolis in present American culture.
"Instrumentalized Icons: On Their Development and Inconsistency."
In my paper I would like to raise questions about the nature of iconic representation and the instability of iconic meaning. Where do we place icons within traditional categories of semiotics? In which end of semiotic triangles should we locate them? In order to find answers, I will a) focus on the development of the Pocahontas figure on the early American stage and the changing roles that she personifies in three different plays, and then make a transition to b) the discursive use made of icons in pragmatic instrumentalizations in a few selected statements by Ishmael Reed and his rhetorical strategies, which are based on notions of conjuring and ultimately a cosmology of Voodoo, in which loa-icons are neither good nor bad but powerful tools at the magician's disposal. Their "meaning," then, is ultimately pragmatic and cannot be limited to representamen, object, or interpretant. The nature of this function is most succinctly demonstrated in the inconsistency of Reed's commentary on iconic figures such as Jimmy Carter, Elvis Presley, and others, when he has no qualms about first setting them up as role models and then criticizing them (or vice versa). This iconic instability can only be explained in a historicized context of pragmatic application.
Da Boyz in da Hood. Remarks on the Icons of American Hip-Hop Culture
In my paper I seek to analyze the following icons of American hip-hop culture: the ghetto (and its particular manifestations – Bronx, Brooklyn, Compton etc.) and the hip-hop heroes – Tupac Shakur, the Notorius B.I.G. and Eminem.
I shall start with the necessary brief description of American hip-hop culture, its division into breakdance, graffitti and rap music, and its purely ethnic origins and political engagement. The main focus of this part of the paper will be rap music. I will try to summarize philosophical insights on rap proposed by R.Shusterman (see his, Art. Infraction: Goodman, Rap, Pragmatism, „Australasian Journal of Philosophy” Vol. 73, No. 2; June 1995; Rap Remix:Pragmatism, Postmodernism and Other Issues in the House, “Critical Inquiry” 22(Autumn 1995); and Performing Live. Aesthetic Alternatives for the Ends of Art., Ithaca, 2000.). I will also put forward rap music’s relation to the music industry and examine its absorption by non-American societies, which is a key to understanding its ability to replicate and modify its cultural icons.
The second part of the paper will cover the issue of the icon of the ghetto. The ghetto is thus a place where rap music originated in the 1970’s and it is also a place where every “true” rap artist should come from in order to gain respect. I will show how the icon of the ghetto (or “the projects”) reflects (and in some ways reinforces) the so-called “dialectics of exclusion” (see R.Shusterman, Ghetto Music, JOR:Winter 1992, pp.11-18). In this particular case it relates to black pride in America mixed with exclusionary ghetto chauvinism. Many particular manifestations of this icon such as Compton, described by hardcore rap supergroup N.W.A [Niggaz With Attitude], and Ice T’s South Central, will be examined. I will also show how this icon has influenced artists from beyond American rap genre and even from beyond the rap genre itself (i.e. pop artist Jennifer Lopez explicitly taking pride in being raised in Bronx in her hit single Jenny from the Block).
In the remainder of my paper I will take into consideration the question of rap heroes. I will argue that figures such as Tupac and the Notorius B.I.G.– now known by every teenager living in any country where MTV can be watched – are not only icons for Afroamericans (for whom they are a great help in solving the question of the black identity and - to put it crudely - a proof that you don’t have to be white to achieve fortune and admiration ) but also for many other cultural/ethnic groups worldwide. I will also reflect on the problematic status of the icon of the white rapper, Eminem.
I shall conclude with general remarks on the cultural and political aspects of those icons, on aporias that inhabit them (i.e. that some of them can simultaneously express black racism and serve as a tool to preserve the presumption of black’s inferiority) and also on some problems concerning the aesthetic study of this subject and the political value of including it in the curriculum.(see T.Brennan, , Off the Gangsta Tip: A Rap Appreciation or Forgetting about Los Angeles, “Critical Inquiry” 20 [Summer 1994]: 663-93., H. Bloom, The Western Canon, New York 1994, R.Shusterman, Popular Art and Education, “Studies in Philosophy and Education”13: 1995.)