Daumier on Reading

There’s a lovely online exhibition devoted to Honore Daumier’s representations of reading in his work as the kind of grand pere of editorial cartooning. I’m struck by the way in which Daumier represents reading as a

Not now, dearest, I'm reading

Not now, dearest, I'm Reading

social activity. Of course, there are a number of representations of reading as something that draws people into isolation. As, for instance, this piece on what appears to be man and wife together in a cafe.  This seems to fit what I’ve often taken to be the individualistic character of reading in the modern world (and, to be frank, this doesn’t seem all that different from someone sitting at a table texting or reading email while ignoring his wife or girlfriend or friends;  reading draws us elsewhere, so all the fretting that goes on about the internet damaging our social relationships may be nothing new)

On the other hand, I’m struck by the number of Daumier pieces that emphasize what I would describe as the sociality of reading, the ways in which reading is an occasion for bringing people together.  For instance, this piece with two men reading the paper together:

She did What????!!!

She did What????!!!

There are actually more of these kinds of images in the exhibit, suggesting that reading becomes a kind of occasion for sociality rather than isolation.  (Of course, it’s France, right?  Hard to know if similar images could have played in Peoria).  Still, I’m intrigued by the ways in which reading becomes a social event.  I’ve suggested in some of my work in progress that book readers in contemporary society represent a kind of social subculture with a variety of signs and forms of cultural currency.  Are you reading, what are your reading, with whom are you reading, where are you reading.  All these form a system of signification that allows readers to form a kind of social sub-group within and around their taste for books.  Far from being individualistic, reading is a cultural practice with its own distinct forms of sociality.

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Holiday Inn Priorities in Place

I don’t use this blog to flack for businesses (I think it’s illegal on WordPress anyway).  However, I thought I’d point to this program that Holiday Inn Express helps sponsor that supports Reading is Fundamental.  (I’ve elsewhere complained that reading isn’t really fundamental in any precise sense, but who’s complaining).

Too bad I didn’t know that my recent stay at HIE in Philadelphia could have helped the readers of tomorrow.

Side note:  The Holiday Inn Express in midtown philly was really an exceptionally nice stay.  Great and friendly service, good breakfast, comfortable rooms, everything really close.  And they aren’t even paying me to say this.

Summer’s Guilty Pleasures: Tears of the Sun

I am a sucker for brainless Bruce Willis vehicles, but I’ll blame Tears of the Sun on my son, Colin. (Ok, I admit it was my money that rented it). Tears of the Sun falls in to the general time honored genre of films and novels that are set in the context of racial difference but really serve to obsess over the continuing moral drama of whiteness and its discontents. Think Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves, or Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man, or Leonardo Dicarpio in Blood Diamond, or for that matter Conrad, Kipling, and Fenimore Cooper. What gets me about these films, and Tears of the Sun seems especially egregious, is that all the moral wrestling with the curse of whiteness becomes, SURPRISE, yet another occasion for championing the moral ascendancy of white people. As if we say to ourselves “Look how hard I’m trying to be good, and humble, and true, and right, and how hard I am trying to atone for past racial sins; I must really be better than everyone else after all.”

Ok, I will admit that I liked the shoot-em-up scenes as much as any good war movie, and overall I can’t complain about the entertainment. But basically this movie was The Searchers (or maybe The Last of the Mohicans) dressed up in anti-racist drag. Bruce Willis and his band of commandos go to save the white missionaries and doctors caught in a Nigerian war zone. Predictably the doctor is gorgeously beautiful (and apparently French, perhaps a gesture toward globalization but more likely a gesture toward cross-national white solidarity), and we know that she and Bruce Willis will sleep together when they get back to base (which they don’t, actually, but we see them fly off together into the sunset on a helicopter. Let your imagination go to work). The film tries to develop a moral drama in which Bruce Willis “does the right thing” by risking himself and his men to disobey orders and try to rescue the Nigerian refugees in the doctor’s charge, one of whom, SURPRISE!, just happens to be a Nigerian prince who is being sought by rebel leaders of the coup d’etat. (The coup d’etat, generally, is a trope for Africanity in the American cinematic imagination). American individualism and rejection of authority becomes the source for global redemption.

I can live with all this since I like a good hokey story as much as the next guy (witness my oft-stated delight in Uncle Tom’s Cabin). But like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the film’s moral center becomes not really despair that attends a decade long civil war in Africa, or even a meditation on the variously subtle ways in which Western powers have contributed to the violence and instability of African nations. It becomes instead a meditation on the gloriously self-sacrifical superiority of white people. When, at the end of the film, the lead African female actor weepily looks into Bruce Willis’s bloodied face and repeatedly tells him how much God loves him and will bless him, I half expected the Nigerian nationals to pull out their American flags and start singing God Bless America. The film seemed to suggest that moral and ethical choices are occasions for narcissistic self-display. It also struck me as a propaganda piece for American interventionism. Released in 2003, perhaps we were still on the edge of believing that our guns and our good intentions could make the world a better place. Cf Iraq.

These things aside, I still like a good shoot-em-up, and I’m still a sucker for brainless Bruce Willis vehicles. Against all my better instincts.

For more of this summer’s guilty pleasures see:

Black Snake Moan–June 30th

A Movie Miscellany (Lars and the Real Girl, The Orphanage, and The Happening)–July 15

Hard Times with Hard Times–July 10

Summer’s Guilty Pleasures: A Movie Miscellany