May 21, 2014
The last two posts here cracked open the door, just a bit, to some discussion of visual stereotyping and race. I didn’t have any definite plan to open that door further, but it’s interesting stuff, to say the least, and a good way to go for a wider historical field on the subject of graphics and human figure. So let’s just push it open and encounter the dangers within as we may.
I cracked the door, first, with the scrap of superhero doodling at right. Here’s how this sketchbook bit came about: I drew the guy at left and didn’t go on fooling with the hair, so he was left a blond figure — a Captain America, a Johnny Storm, what have you. A few days later I’d drawn a couple of Hellboys on the same page, and there was a hole of blank space remaining between the haggard-looking Hellboy at right, in the detail there, and the earlier blond ‘Cap’ fellow at left. At some point, I thought I’d fill this blank spot in with a dark-haired hero head — a Superman or Bruce Wayne type to offset the blond. The profile I drew, in the offhand way these little undirected things proceed, struck me in a minute as looking vaguely Jewish — not to say like any particular Jew that I could think of. I decided, on no further reflection, that without meaning to I’d tapped the well-worked theme of Superman’s veiled Jewishness, and I added the (ahem) superscription. (Sometime later it occurred to me to Google ‘superjew.’ You’ll find a Seth Rogen Star-of-David/Superman-symbol t-shirt and the interesting history of Dutch club AFC Ajax, among other things that may or may not be useful to know about.)
I cracked this door, too, by raising briefly one challenge that the human figure as internalized object poses to the business of drawing, and of visual depiction generally: that to be a man drawing (or learning to draw) male subjects is one cognitive thing and to be a man drawing female subjects is another. I’m not trying to concoct any kind of general semiotic theory here, and I don’t want to needlessly complicate things for this post, but it’s worth saying (or coming around to again) that when I’m talking about drawing, I’m also talking about reading. Visual depicting, that’s to say, belongs somehow to language, is a kind of writing, and naturally therefore has a ‘reading’ flip-side — always part of what we’re talking about when we talk about ‘drawing things.’ I think that’s kind of basic, and at the same time I think it’s non-obvious and a matter of perpetual effort to understand. I’m certainly far from understanding it. Consciously or not, anyhow, you’re always in the realm of developed & developing conventions, of ready (but not necessarily steady) and somehow systemically inter-coherent patterns & types, when drawing things — all sorts of things, but most especially human things. And I think — to get back to the minor point here — that you’re bound to apprehend and ‘handle’ those conventions that you see as more nearly involved with your own identity, in the web of things in the world, differently than you apprehend and ‘handle’ conventions more separated from yourself, those that you see as external and boundary-setting to your own identity. If that’s true in the matter of representing others & ourselves in gender terms, it’s undoubtedly true in seeing and representing ‘others’ of other kinds & in other terms — as, for example, in terms of race, understood in the usual way.
Seeing ourselves, grasping our ownness and others’ not-our-ownness and representing the distinction to ourselves, is shifting ground, of course. It’s an evolving thing, these boundaries and their terms. That’s partly a function of the fluid nature of individual psychology, one’s bound to say, and partly a function of the fluid nature of what I’m calling here, while trying not to be too general-theory about it, language. So ‘race understood in the usual way’ is a problem, isn’t it? It is, and this is old news. Anyway, it’s not a problem I’m going to explore further here. What I do want to explore a very little is some recent epiphenomena of the language flow, this changing territory of interdependent patterns & types, in relation to the history of Jew-stereotyping.
Hold that thought, though. Let’s go back to the far less noteworthy epiphenomenon of my ‘superjew’ doodle, above. Does he look Jewish really? I think we could get quite a variety of responses to that question from various people. All would necessarily be subjective, but there might be a host of sound objective bases for them, for or against — much depending on the life circumstances of the various respondents. It’s possible, for one thing, that somewhere in the world there’s a Jewish guy who looks just like this. (I think we can rule out any real question of this being, on the whole, a remarkably un-Jewish sketchbook head doodle.) On the other hand, if that hypothetical guy should exist, maybe nobody who knows him in fact supposes he’s Jewish. Or maybe he’s the one guy in a Jewish town that everyone else thinks looks kind of goy. (We are being very hypothetical here.) Whether it looks like a Jew and whether it looks ‘Jewish,’ naturally, aren’t the same question. You can only answer the latter question (but also, to some extent, I’d say, the former) by way of the more or less complex pattern of references, visual & other, to ‘Jewishness’ in your own world.
This gets us into ethically murky waters. (No kidding!) It seems to me that the history of the Christian West and of modernity gives us no room to think of a person inhabiting mainstream supranational information-age culture, in some way, whose ‘pattern of references to Jewishness,’ as I’ve put it, doesn’t incorporate the conventions developed by and for the organs & institutions of antisemitism — out of the period of its twentieth-century European ascendancy, at least. To my mind, this has to be true for non-Jews and Jews alike, but especially for people whose first world (i.e., generally speaking, a person’s primary childhood & linguistic community), like mine, isn’t Jewish. In other words, if I think someone looks Jewish, I have to ask whether I can think so at all without my perception having some partial ultimate orientation to the type(s) antisemites have sought to establish, in visual & other form, for advancing their societal & political projects.
Alright, back to the recent more noteworthy aforementioned epiphenomena. One comes from German newsmedia, early this year. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is caricatured as face-tentacled Pirates of the Caribbean character Davy Jones, and international outcry follows, alleging the cartoon’s implicit antisemitism. That it’s in a German paper (Munich-based, no less) is obviously part of the story.
The other comes from the socially progressive west-coast American music scene, a few days ago. A white rapper, last in the spotlight for receiving an award and taking part in a mass marriage ceremony for same-sex couples at the Grammys show this year, takes the stage at a private party wearing a ‘disguise’ made principally of a dark wig and beard and a large hooked nose. Again, outcry follows soon after.
There’s been no shortage of discussion about these two incidents, and I don’t need to rehash here. It’s worth highlighting, however, a key factor common to them: neither occurs in an environment where antisemitism has mainstream acceptability. Both artists have been quick to deny antisemitic intent, with similar ‘anyone who knows me knows that this is impossible’ lines included in their ‘if anyone was offended’ apologies. As far as I know, there’s no reason to disbelieve either.
What to make, though, of these caricatures? In the one case: an actual Jew (who, you might well say, depending on your frame of reference, doesn’t strongly ‘look like a Jew’) shown as an unscrupulous post-industrial industrialist threatening to take over the world, and in a manner that not only generically recalls Nazi and other presses’ themes of threat of Jewish world-domination up to World War II, but directly echoes visual metaphor of the period. In the other case: a song about living happy without wealth, sung by a character you can read as ironically suggestive of showy tastelessness in wealth — a contrast commonly drawn, hard-working German virtue to innate Jewish phoniness & ostentation, in Nazi propaganda. In both cases: the large, hooked nose and the general sort of hairy grotesqueness everywhere prominent in pre-war antisemitic-press depiction of Jews.
Development of the Nazis’ highly specified visual Jew-stereotype deserves more attention, not only in connection to the larger history of antisemitism in the West, but in relation to stereotypes of other races (e.g., Americans’ of the Japanese during the war, as minor example, and of people of African ancestry for two centuries, as major). Maybe I’ll come back to this in future.
But again, what to make of these two odd, vivid, purportedly innocent, apparent throwback cases? I certainly don’t have any simple conclusion. It is fascinating to consider, though, that part of what we’re seeing here is actually something perversely related, somehow, to suppression of open antisemitism in Western countries. If a virulent social evil like antisemitism is suppressed, is its ‘language’ likely to wither & die through starvation? Or do we find here occasions of a forgotten language’s surprise emergence — through its mere power as language, in some sense — where antisemitism maybe isn’t actually (or consciously) present? Do we observe ‘language’ here tending of itself to re-emerge, to reassert itself — to emerge perhaps where least looked for?