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REPRESENTATIONS OF VIOLENCE IN CONTEMPORARY US: Conference Workshop: Representations of Violence

Workshop Title: Representations of Violence in Contemporary American Popular Culture

Acknowledgement: This workshop is part of UEFISCDI grant PN-II-RU-TE 2014-4-0609, Representations of Violence in Contemporary American Popular Culture (project coordinator: Assoc. Prof. Mihaela Precup).

Workshop Description: This workshop seeks to investigate the presence of violence in the urban space of the US, with particular focus on its representation in contemporary popular culture. In recent American public life, violence has gained unprecedented visibility as a consequence of the emergence of the “post-network era,” where new technologies give audiences access to the news throughout the entire day, well beyond the previous 8pm-11pm “prime time” slot (Lotz, Beyond Prime Time, 2009). The evident difficulty of monitoring the extraordinary speed and scope with which images and texts circulate today has led to a new culture of spectatorship, where violence occupies the same page as gossip journalism, and real-life suffering is more accessible than ever. Topics such as police brutality, sexual assault, violence against members of minority cultures are present on the first page of newspapers, on twitter and facebook feeds, in popular films, television series, comics, and other popular culture products. American unrest can be followed in real time by an international audience, and the incongruity between what this audience thinks they are witnessing and what the American legal system produces as an interpretation of what the public is witnessing is evidence of the rupture between the presence of violence in popular culture and the actual social consequences of that visibility. Several cultural critics have drawn attention to this particular issue and its ramifications. Marita Sturken has emphasized the commodification of violence (Tangled Memories, 1997; Tourists of History, 2008); Nicholas Mirzoeff has attempted to find a way to counteract the “banality of images” (Watching Babylon, 2005) and to locate “a comparative decolonial framework” (The Right to Look, 2011) for the field; Geoffrey Batchen and Mick Gidley (Picturing Atrocity, 2011) insist that photographs of violence have the potential of producing social change, but also warn that a vocabulary for the reading of certain images of torture has not yet been produced.

Highly mediated acts of violence are often read as both local problems produced by a specifically American set of factors, and as a more universal “human” problem, as questions arise about the more general ethics of the law enforcement system. However, it is evident that the circulation of news about the United States often trumps the circulation of stories from Africa, Asia, or Eastern Europe, for example. The disproportionate visibility of American violence on the international scene has led to a paradigmatic reading of America as a place of excessive violence, where lenient gun laws, racism, sexism, and other types of discrimination testify to the malfunctioning of American democracy. It also suggests the existence of a worldwide hierarchy of trauma, where the United States occupies the first place of interest, while the rest of the world lies significantly lower on the scale of representation.

Against this background, in this workshop we will ask questions such as: What are the main tropes of the representation of urban violence in contemporary US popular culture? How are stereotypes associated with violence in certain urban spaces reworked in popular culture products such as TV shows and series, films, comics, popular literature and music etc.? What does the overwhelming presence of violence in American popular culture teach us about the ways in which violence can be stopped? How can visibility lead to social change? How can we, as academics, contribute to an enunciation of popular culture that places violence in a context that helps reduce incidents of murder, torture, rape, and brutality? How can public opinion be swayed in a significant way by the presence of violence in popular culture? How can we prevent the slow erosion of empathy that is produced by the excessive visibility of violence (Sontag 1972, 2004)?

 

Workshop Structure

 

Chair: Prof. Tunde Adeleke, Iowa State University

E-mail address: tadeleke@iastate.edu

Respondent: Dana MihÄ?ilescu, University of Bucharest

E-mail address: dmihailes@yahoo.com

 

This workshop may be divided into two 90-minute sessions.

Session 1

 

1.      Maria Sabina Draga Alexandru

Institutional Affiliation: University of Bucharest

E-mail address: msdalexuk@yahoo.co.uk

Title: A Tale of Two Cities: Spike Lee's Representations of Hood Violence from New York to Chicago

Abstract: This presentation will focus on the evolution of the visual imaginary and of the structures of representation used in approaches to violence in Spike Lee's cinema, with an emphasis on two hood movies situated at the extremes of his career: Do the Right Thing (1989) and Chi-Raq (2015). In them, this emblematic director of African American culture and its difficult positionings within the general American cultural space traces a geography of urban violence in two neighborhoods that have become sites of interracial conflict: New York's Bedford Stuyvesant are in Brooklyn and Englewood on the Chicago South Side. Starting from Geoffrey Batchen and Mick Gidley's observations on the potential for social change that photographs/images of violence have (in Picturing Atrocity, 2011) and from Robert Gooding-Williams's analysis of the visual impact of stereotypical images on the culture and politics of race (Look, A Negro!, 2006), I will analyze Spike Lee's questioning whether there has been an increase of and/or a change in the dominant representations of hood violence from the 1989 New York to the 2015 Chicago and whether the media (central in the formation of the society's racial imaginary, as shown in Lee's 2000 movie Bamboozled) has contributed in any way to changing such representations and to promoting peace.

Bio: Dr. Maria-Sabina Draga Alexandru is Associate Professor of English at the University of Bucharest, Romania. Her main research interests are: global/transnational writing in English, postcolonialism, ethnic American literatures, gender studies and the area of intersection between postcolonial and postcommunist literatures. She has published articles in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Comparative Literature Studies, Perspectives: Studies in Translatology, Commonwealth Essays and Studies. Some of her latest books are: Identity Performance in Contemporary Non-WASP American Fiction (Bucharest: University of Bucharest Press, 2008); Postcolonialism/ Postcommunism: Intersections and Overlaps (co-edited with Monica Bottez and Bogdan Stefanescu, Bucharest: University of Bucharest Press, 2011; Between History and Personal Narrative: East-European Women’s Stories of Transnational Relocation (co-edited with Madalina Nicolaescu and Helen Smith, Vienna and Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2013); Performance and Performativity in Contemporary Indian Fiction in English (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2015).

 

2.      Name: Brîndu??a Nicolaescu

Institutional Affiliation: Bucharest University, Faculty of Political Science

E-mail address: brindusanicolaescu@gmail.com

Instances of contemporary urban (post)violence in dystopian movies: The Giver and The Road

 

Abstract: In the classic dystopias there is a striking binary opposition between the City, usually seen as a perfect machinery - an ordered artificial space run after the taylorist principles - and the rest of the world: the urban outskirts in decay (eg the south of Illium in Player Piano) and the undesirable wilderness (separated by a Wall, like in Zamyatin’s We, or more remote, like the exotic Reservations in Brave New World). In contemporary dystopian scenarios we encounter a dissolution of the city, moreover in post-apocalyptic projections, where violence is taken for granted as the main premise of a shattered universe. I attempt to analyse the ways two contemporary film adaptations (after dystopian works of fiction) depict differently the re-configuration of the inhabited world with a special focus on the universal human condition – the utopian uniformed artificial community apparently replaces the complex entity of human “settlement” in The Giver (2014) and, to the other extreme, The Road (2009) envisages a hopeless eschatological vision, where the city has ceased to be visible as such, in other words only its violence maintains visibility by means of iconic remnants.

 

Bio: Dr. Brîndu??a Nicolaescu is a lecturer dr. at Bucharest University, Faculty of Political Science, where she teaches ESP, Academic Writing and Literature and Politics. Her current research interests are literary criticism, narratology, dystopian fiction as social critique, creative methodologies of teaching Academic Writing.

 

 

 

 

3.      Name: Karina PÄ?trÄ???canu

Institutional Affiliation: University of Bucharest

E-mail address: karina.patrascanu@yahoo.com

Title: Guns and Whores: Prostitute Archetypes and the Simplification of the Undesired in Taxi Driver and Sin City  

Abstract: The aim of this paper is to look at the perfunctory way in which popular culture translates the reality of sex-trafficking, by separating into categories and simplifying the condition of  one of the most exposed and vulnerable social groups, namely prostitutes, whose lives are defined by violence and abuse. By focusing on Frank Miller's Sin City, the film version, and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, I analyze two of  Russell Campbell's archetypes, discussed in his book Marked Women. Prostitutes and Prostitution in the Cinema, namely the Avenger prostitute and the Baby Doll, respectively. While the two archetypes can be seen in contradictory terms, with the Baby Doll figure eager to please, in these specific films they are both constructed as objects for the male characters, surrounded by, as well as producing violence. As such, no matter how independent and strong Gail is in Sin City, for example, she still submits to Dwight,  her only true love. Moreover, Sin City presents with the opportunity to discuss the Avenger archetype in its group identity, when confronted with dangerous and violent situations, with the Girls of Old Town sticking together, much in the same way crime TV shows often depict prostitutes as a closed family of sorts, where the girls keep silent and take care of their own. Glossing over origins and reasons, and failing to produce a solution for the issue of prostitution, products of popular culture borrow from stereotypes of femininity in order to construct types of prostitutes, ultimately adding to the general  misunderstanding of how prostitution functions and its consequences on its victims.

Bio: Karina PÄ?trÄ???canu is a graduate student in the American Studies Department, Foreign Languages and Literatures Faculty, University of Bucharest. Her main research areas are queer and gender studies, mainly from a popular culture perspective, while at times looking into representations of other minorities in both mass media and literature. Recent interests revolve around the political as actor in the way in which society is molded and reshaped. To that end, she wrote her BA paper on Bush's administration war on terror, with the title "Intersections of Political and Media Rhetoric. Shaping the American National Sentiment Toward Terrorism". She has participated in several student conferences, such as the 2014 and 2015 CONSENSUS Student Conferences in Suceava, the 2015 Symposium of  Students in English, held by the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures of the West University of Timisoara and the 2015 annual student conference held by the American Studies Department  of the University of Bucharest.

 

 

 

 

Session 2

 

1.      Name: Drago?? Manea      

Institutional affiliation: University of Bucharest

E-mail address: dragos.manea@lls.unibuc.ro

Title: Violent Expansions: Manifest Destiny (Chris Dingess, 2013–) and the Aesthetics of the Weird City

Abstract: Manifest Destiny (Skybound Comics, 2013–), Chris Dingess’ subversive reimagining of the 1804–1806 Lewis and Clark expedition, raises several important questions with regards to the ethics and aesthetics of weird fiction. The comic book series, created and written by Dingess, with art by Matthew Roberts and Owen Gieni, finds the American explorers battling various fantastical creatures – including giant frogs, sentient duck-like creatures and vampire-like beings – as they set out to chart and civilize the Louisiana territory. Their encounters with such monsters – and our experience of their adventures – create a variety of effects, from the horrific to the humorous to the unsettling.

My paper is largely interested in the last of these effects and examines Manifest Destiny as a work of weird fiction (although it is certainly not the only genre that the graphic narrative draws on), with a particular focus on the construction of the Fezron city, the first major non-human settlement encountered by the explorers.  The series, I argue, is grounded upon a formal realism which makes it highly effective in depicting scenes of horror, whose defamiliarizing effect can rely on combining conventional, highly-realistic settings, characters or tableaux with strange elements that pervert yet do not render them unrecognizable (one such example is the last page of issue 5, a spread that depicts a forest infected by a flower-like creature that has turned the insides of both men and wildlife plant-like. The creatures depicted – a bear, a squirrel, a snake, some men, among others – are at once instantly recognizable and markedly strange, which helps create a feeling of profound unsettlement and defamiliarization). In conversation with critics and writers such as S. T. Joshi, Brian Richardson, James Phelan, and Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, I attempt to explore the formal strategies adopted by the series in order to create scenes of weird fiction, as well as their ethical implications both within the narrative and outside of it.

Bio: Drago?? Manea is an assistant lecturer at the University of Bucharest, where he teaches seminars in British and American literature, translation, and academic writing. His main research interests include the adaptation of history, cultural memory, and the relationship between ethics and fiction. His publications include “Arenas of Memory: Spartacus and the Remediation of Historical Narratives” (in Spartacus in the Television Arena: Essays on the Starz Series, ed. Michael G. Cornelius, McFarland, 2015) and “Bad Girls from Outer Space: Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s Saga and the Graphic Representation of Subversive Femininity” (with Mihaela Precup, in Bad Girls: Recalcitrant Women in Contemporary Pop Culture. Eds. Julie A. Chappell and Mallory Young, forthcoming).

 

2.      Name: Mihaela Precup

Institutional Affiliation: University of Bucharest

E-mail address: mihaela.precup@lls.unibuc.ro

Title: From Small-town Bunker to Big Bad New York: Violence, Survival, and Urban Culture in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix, 2015)

Abstract: This paper examines the representation of violence in the urban space in the first season of the 2015 Netflix comedy series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, whose protagonist is one of four “mole women,” a term used by the media on the show to refer to the female survivors of a preacher who kidnapped them and kept them in a bunker for fifteen years. Having emerged from the confines of her underground prison to a world which not only had not been erased by an apocalypse, as the preacher had claimed,  but had also made significant technological advances, Kimmy decides to make a fresh start and moves from Durnsville, Indiana, to New York.

The urban space is introduced as an extraordinary opportunity to break away from the “victim” image that had been attached to Kimmy by the media, but soon reveals itself to be home to random acts of violence perpetrated by more or less adorably quirky characters. Kimmy is bubbly and naïve, but also “strong as hell,” as the intro puts it, and her perspective on the city is absorbing because it comes from a unique place of gratitude and celebration for surviving sexual abuse and lengthy incarceration. A space of opportunity, but also broken dreams, the diversity of the city offers Kimmy the freedom to express her own particular brand of quirkiness, as well as her PTSD, in one of the not-yet-gentrified neighborhoods. However, New York is also a dangerous space where race-related violence is present, as Kimmy’s gay black friend Titus Andromedon, finds that he is better treated when he wears a werewolf costume, and Kimmy’s employer hides her Native-American origins. In this paper, I will be working at the intersection of trauma theory and city studies to examine the contribution Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt makes to the understanding of violence and survival in the space of the city.

Bio: Mihaela Precup is an Associate Professor in the American Studies Program at the University of Bucharest, Romania. Her main research interests include American graphic narratives, memory, trauma and autobiography studies. Her most recent publications are Mourning Women. Post-mortem Dialogues in Contemporary American Autobiography (University of Bucharest Press, 2014) and  “That Medieval Eastern-European Shtetl Family of Yours”: Negotiating Jewishness in Aline Kominsky Crumb’s Need More Love (2007), Studies in Comics (December 2015). She guest edited (with Rebecca Scherr) a special issue on War and Conflict of The Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics (Routledge, June 2015).

 

3.      Iulia Nentu

Institutional Affiliation: University of Bucharest

E-mail address: iulia.nentu@yahoo.com

Title: The Cold Blooded Russians in the American Film Industry: Russian Violence Stereotypes in Rocky IV (1985) and The Avengers (2012)

Abstract: The urban space, as represented in contemporary American films, has allowed for the emergence of diverse cliché lifestyle layers – from the glamorous highlife and VIP gossip, to the merciless ghettos and the mafia-ruled “underground” life, in which violence is a prerequisite. This paper focuses on the latter side of the American city, trying to analyze the way in which violence has been portrayed through the filter of national stereotypes.

In the 1985 Rocky IV, the Soviet Union’s best boxer made history in the American popular culture, by violently reflecting the Russian power. The fact that he is also a Captain in the Soviet Army brings deep symbolism to the story, and rings a bell to the 2012 spectator when watching The Avengers, with the Black Widow (who is also a superhero in American comic books) being kidnapped by the Russian mafia, and interrogated by General Georgi Luchkov, former KGB agent who displays an image of power even by only showing up in an army uniform. The image of the violent Russian has been, in these cases, influenced by the American – Russian political relations starting with the Cold War period, and the stereotype of the cold blooded Russian still seems to be at hand for American screen writers when in need to illustrate violence.

 

Bio: Iulia Nentu is a PhD candidate in English philology at the University of Bucharest. Her PhD project focuses on the image of the Russian in Post-1945 American fiction and non-fiction.

 



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