Recently, URI hosted two impressive yet different scholars: Lisa Gitelman, professor of English and Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU, and Claudia Rankine, writer and professor of poetry at Yale. Each spoke to their area of interest; Gitelman discussed how shoes are a metaphor for the industrial revolution and Rankine talked about flipping the script on our expectations of representation based on race, gender, and intersectional identity. Moving between these two talks, from the material product to the representational identity, was a juxtaposition that made both of the talks even more enlightening for me.
To understand this reflection, it will help to know that I am in the process of articulating a dissertation project that considers contemporary American multimodal literature and specifically the reader’s relationship to these books. Essentially, I am interested in the sudden dearth of visually-oriented texts to understand our expectations and assumptions of the book at this moment. I spend a lot of time thinking about the book as a material product and about visual semiology, or what we understand from what we see and interpret visually. Thus, these two talks both concerned with the visual and reproduction in their own ways allowed me to think about my project with fresh thoughts.
Dr. Gitelman’s talk “The Media History of Shoes,” was on September 24, 2018, as a part of the Harrington Forum co-sponsored by the Harrington School of Communication and Media, the English department, and the Department of Textiles, Fashion Merchandising, and Design. Gitelman took the factory-made shoe as her thread through the industrial revolution, copyright and patent law, early advertising, new business models, and the larger idea of “copy;” as she said at the beginning of the talk, “Everything is related to shoes.” While this might seem to be an exaggeration, part of the work that Gitelman does is considering not just the object at the center of her study, in this case the shoe, but also all the aspects of this medium. To help understand this concept, she splits the medium into the technological delivery system, we could also consider this as the material object or the way in which we access content, and the social protocols that surround the object, for example who gets to wear high heels and the idea that being seen barefoot is somehow dirty or improper. This breaking up of her subject allows her to carefully consider more aspects of the shoe than one would think exist when picking a pair to wear in the morning.
The content of her talk was wide-ranging and more than I can easily summarize, but two ideas in particular stood out to me. The first is thinking of manufacturing as “copying.” This seems like an obvious concept, but when we look at the shoe which was once individually handcrafted for each owner to something that was mass-produced, it becomes more closely related to art than simple production. Second is the idea that the factory-made shoe not only fulfilled a “demand” from consumers, but it also served as a proof of concept that a new machine was a good investment for businesses. Techniques and machines are usually something I consider as secondary, a thing that is invented for the sake of getting to the result or product, but Gitelman flipped that idea. Sometimes the machine or technique is the primary goal and the product simply proves that it works. Concerned as I am with the book, this allows me a new way to look at book production, the momentous shift from manuscript to print, and what I hypothesis is again a shift to a more visually-aware book, and how stories sometimes work to prove new techniques as opposed to the idea that techniques are always used only in service of a story.
However, this story isn’t just about shoes. Claudia Rankine visited URI on October 9, 2018, as part of the Honors Colloquium, “Reimagining Gender: Voices, Power, Action.” Her talk, “Contemporary Black Women Artists: Intertextuality and Counter-Narratives” asked us to consider how representations reinforce stereotypical narratives and what we can do to reimagine and reframe. Much of her talk considered projects by and affiliated with “Examining Whiteness.” Rankine is a writer, but her work does not rely on linguistic interpretation alone. She is seen as genre-defying and works in the genres of poetry, essay, drama, scholarship, etc. I have studied her largely because she often juxtaposes visual images with her linguistic images and asks us to read differently. One of the topics that she addressed in her talk was opposing the idea of a racial “neutral” in American discourse, whether that is using the sweeping first-person plural pronoun “we” when talking about a particular interest group, usually the white middle-class and often specifically white middle-class men, or about allowing readers to assume whiteness if it is not explicitly otherwise stated. For me, as a white woman, these are issues that often remain under the surface. Given my positionality, I am not constantly reminded of the assumption of whiteness; I often need to be confronted with my assumptions.
This is exactly what Rankine suggests, that we take opportunities to confront the assumption of a neutral or whiteness. She did not prescribe how this should be done in her talk, but she did show examples from a dubbed version of “Eyes Wide Shut” which points out when black characters were replaced with white actors rather than translating it into a foreign language to revising the front page of the New York Times to point out how framing not only affects our interpretation of a story but how it can change the narrative that is being told. What struck me is the importance of multimodality to these projects. The examples that Rankine showed worked well not because of a single semantic mode, but through the linguistic, the visual, the spatial, and sometimes the aural working together to create meaning. Again, this may seem obvious and is a basic assumption on which I have built my scholarly pursuits, but it was extremely validating to see this relationship implicitly underlined through the examples that Rankine brought forth.
The opportunity to hear both of these scholars in close proximity has allowed me to think not just about their work and the academic discourse I am joining, but also how my own work can consider the work that the book does through its material presence that usually relies upon being seen, the assumptions we come to the book with as readers and how this can be unsettled, and how proving the benefit of a process or technique can justify the product. I knew going to both lectures that I would enjoy the experience and appreciate the ideas put forth, but I could not have guessed how the proximity of the two would also affect my experience.
Catherine Winters is a 4th year PhD candidate focusing on contemporary American narrative under the advisement of Dr. Mary Cappello.