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Judging by its Cover, Part 2

The first section of “Judging by its Cover” consists of pieces that are interested in the cover as a form of compensation, a covering over, as a piece of gorgeous textile can mask or stand in for what one doesn’t want to confront, or what can’t be confronted for whatever nefarious, oblivious, or self-deceptive reason. The pieces are interested, too, in how covers spur questions about what others are thinking and what one’s own book is doing—and what it is about the cover image that links these two epistemic problems to each other. The pieces shore up, finally, the irreverence of asking an image to do for us what we want it to do, to represent for us. Because, as we know, it would be difficult to imagine any image that doesn’t exert its own power regardless of what we ask of it.

This last problem is approached more pointedly in Part 2, in which our authors consider the disjunctions as much as the continuities between the images on their books’ covers and the arguments of those books—and hence, in some cases, understanding the recontextualization of the image as a kind of brutality. The series concludes with a postscript by Rebecca Colesworthy—not only an editor at SUNY Press but also an author of an important book in modernist studies with its own arresting cover—who offers a personal and industrial perspective on the making and meanings of scholarly book covers.

Alix Beeston and Pardis Dabashi


Daniel Morgan

Person running
Fig. 1. Cover, Daniel Morgan, The Lure of the Image: Epistemic Fantasies of the Moving Camera (Oakland: University of California Press, 2021).

I tend not to agonize over cover images. For my first book, Late Godard and the Possibilities of Cinema (2013), I knew I wanted a still from Jean-Luc Godard’s Éloge de l’amour (2001), a film where the first half was shot in black and white 35mm film and the second half on digital video with color heavily manipulated. I used the first color frame of the film. Apart from being a beautiful image, it brought together a range of topics that were central to the book: nature and technology, natural beauty, video and painting.

When I wrote a second book, The Lure of the Image: Epistemic Fantasies of the Moving Camera (2021), I found myself without such certainty. I thought about images of camera technology, but that implied a book focused on production. I thought about frames from famous camera movements (such as the final shot of Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger [1975]), but I could not settle on a broadly recognizable image that also visualized key arguments in the book. Other possibilities presented themselves: a frame from a camera movement in Vertigo (1958) that I discussed at a critical moment, or a color photograph of Orson Welles planning the opening shot of Touch of Evil (1958). Yet while Hitchcock and Welles were important, to put them on the cover felt like a restriction in history and geography that I did not endorse.

The image I used, a frame from Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang (1986), both does and does not work as a cover for the book. It certainly conveys the idea of movement, and it comes from a startling camera movement within the film, an extended horizontal tracking shot that follows a woman as she runs down a road. Yet the sense of movement it conveys, with the blurring of the figure, is that of a body running rather than a camera moving. Despite this mismatch, the image works for me—and it works not so much because of what it shows, or allegorizes, but because of what it acknowledges about the process by which the book came to be.

I describe in the book’s acknowledgments how it took shape in two courses at the two institutions where I taught, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Chicago. The first course saw the core ideas for the book emerge, along with several of the topics that became chapters; the second allowed a refinement of arguments and their testing against a different set of texts and films. Both classes were wildly generative for me, and both had many extraordinary students. One student, Jordan Schonig, was in both. At a moment in which it was not clear to me that I would ever write this book, I proposed that he and I co-organize a conference on camera movement. Jordan designed the poster, and the image he chose for it was the frame from Mauvais Sang that is now the cover of my book.

The cover of The Lure of the Image is not a dedication so much as a broader recognition of the communal activities that go into the creation and development of ideas, the way that books both emerge from and create communities. I wrote the book in conversation with students and colleagues I admired and cherished; the cover pays tribute to the relationships that were central to its production and to my life in those years.


Rochelle Rives

Mannequin heads
Fig. 2. Cover, Rochelle Rives, The New Physiognomy: Face, Form, and Modern Expression (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2024). Features photograph by Peter Weller, “Arrangement of 12 Female Mannequin Heads, Each with Distinct Physiognomy and Period Hairstyle” (1920–30), courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

By the 1920s and early 1930s, about the time Peter Weller’s photograph was taken, the science of physiognomy would have likely been dismissed as an outdated mode of reading a face for signs indicating a subject’s interior emotional state. But in the reference to the “Distinct Physiognomy” of the mannequin heads in the photograph’s caption, the term physiognomy suggests a readable surface—a recognizable, even distinct look or style, if not an artificial form of the human face. In The New Physiognomy: Face, Form and Modern Expression, I explore the plastic form of the mannequin face in addition to other models of faciality that—often serialized, caricatured, wounded, or aged—emphasize the importance of the face as an aesthetic site of ambiguity linked to the distortion of modern vision.

Tracing a basic correspondence between the form of the face and the question of how we read literary and visual texts, I pursue broader questions about the meaning of the face in modernity: what is a face and what does a face do? What sort of vision does a face inspire? For art historian E. H. Gombrich, a face “mobilizes” a mode of viewing that brings “ambiguity, ambivalence and conflict” into the field of vision.[1] For philosopher Gilles Deleuze, the primary characteristic of “faceicity [visagéité]” is the face’s “brilliance,” its possession of “content which . . . rebels against the outline.”[2] The chapters of The New Physiognomy—on artists and writers such as Joseph Conrad, Theodore Dreiser, Mina Loy, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Henry Tonks, John Frankenheimer, and Cindy Sherman—explore this tension between the capacity of the face to both synthesize degrees of feeling into recognizable forms and readable expressions and to disturb that harmony.

Ostensibly shaped within the “outline,” Weller’s mannequin faces literalize Marion Zilio’s recent contention that a face is produced only through the “technics that exteriorize it.”[3] Before 1920 or so, mannequins did not have faces. There were instead dressmaker’s forms that, as ready-to-wear clothing became more available, were increasingly humanized in the “evolution of realism as a display value.”[4] As this realism became associated with more animated bodily postures and various lifestyle activities, mannequin faces were crafted to reflect a sense of character and personality. In Weller’s photo, the faces are positioned at different angles to enhance the realism of their distinct physiognomies, but the torso-less heads do not appear for actual viewing. They put consistent pressure on the outline by looking in different directions, beyond the horizon of the photo, constructing unique and multiple lines of vision. At the same time, these mannequin faces are caught in the abstraction of their own “face-work,” their “display value” based on their ability to project personality as a composite expression of a relatable and readable subject.[5]


Kartik Nair

Stylized image of faces and a a monster
Fig. 3. Cover, Kartik Nair, Seeing Things: Spectral Materialities of Bombay Horror (Oakland: University of California Press, 2024).

Luridly red: that may be your first impression. Then, perhaps, the eyes. Pairs of eyes and halves of pairs; eyes in full and eyes sliced by the sides; eyes that are black, brown, and bloodshot; eyes that look away and eyes that lock with yours. Eyes that bleed as you read: Seeing. Things. Bombay. Horror.

My just-released book explores a cycle of horror movies made in Bombay between the late 1970s and the early 1990s. Bombay horror profaned the prevailing norms of popular Hindi cinema, spawning dozens of films in which bloodthirsty witches, rapacious vampires, serial killers, and haunted televisions terrorized musical romance, marital harmony, and idyllic domestic life. In Jaani Dushman (Mortal Enemy, Rajkumar Kohli, 1979), young brides—played by some of the biggest stars of the era including Rekha, Neetu Singh, and Reena Roy—become victims of a werewolf. The film hammers the sacred vermillion of wedding ritual into the gory cerise associated with American, British, and Italian horror films like Horror of Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1958), Masque of the Red Death (Roger Corman, 1964), Don’t Look Now (Nicholas Roeg, 1973), and Profondo Rosso (Dario Argento, 1975).

Francis Russo designed the cover of my book using a song booklet for Jaani Dushman preserved at the National Film Archive of India. Russo doesn’t just resurrect the lambent lure of this popular pulp cinema. By arranging solid white typeface over and under cardinal streams, he was able to render my principal objects, methods, and arguments both visual and visceral. Looking at the cover, you may feel that you are looking at drops of blood but also something more or other: in the way the blood drips out of the corner of an open eye and into the spaces between letters of the text, you may feel as though you see paint squeezed out of a tube and falling in folds over the canvas on which India’s poster artists traditionally painted. In other words, your eyes are now seeing things: sensing the tactility undergirding fantastical visions, even feeling their own flesh as things you see with.

Turning a thematic obsession of horror films—the genre is, as Carol Clover put it, all about the problem of vision—into a reading strategy, Seeing Things fleshes out a series of materialities by sensing in desolate mansions, ancient curses, and monstrous phantoms the spectral presence of makeup effects, physical props, built locations, and celluloid prints.[6] In the blood that splatters out of bodies in Jaani Dushman, Seeing Things detects the plangent physicality of Eastmancolor film’s dyes. But it also discerns the threat of government censors intervening into the film’s represented storyworld by deleting, damaging, and degrading frames, unleashing a redness that eventually swallows the film’s color design. Thus, seeing things onscreen allows us to enflesh the infrastructural worlds of film production, censorship, and circulation in 1980s India. Like the claw you may notice forming out of negative space at the bottom of the cover, the hand of the censor becomes visible within the horror film as constitutive of—as informing—the local instantiations of a genre’s globally familiar conventions.


Jed Esty

Astronaut floating in space
Fig. 4. Cover, Jed Esty, The Future of Decline: Anglo-American Culture at Its Limits (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2022).

The aim of The Future of Decline: Anglo-American Culture at its Limits was to cut through media blather and incoherent thinking about American decline. Readers and voters are often told that American power is somehow evergreen yet already played out. It’s neither. Readers are told that when America loses its position as “sole superpower” it will lose its identity. It won’t. We have been a dominant power becoming a second-place nation for fifty years. By 2030 China or India will have the largest economy. This is neither a national nor a global catastrophe. Nor can it be evaded by policy or grit. Becoming #2 is the way of history, almost a law of capitalist motion. The question is how to reimagine the narrative of American destiny to avoid the seductions of lost national greatness. How to avoid the British trap—what Paul Gilroy calls “postcolonial melancholy,” that is, the long afterlife of superpower nostalgia?

Stuart Hall argued that UK citizens were trained after 1880 to believe in British supremacy. What was once programmed into British identity could—with the force of newer, better ideas—be deprogrammed. The same is true of the US: at a certain point, national supremacy became the mission of an expanding society that had once framed its mission as democracy, freedom, and prosperity. The process can be reversed, or at least challenged, but only if new generations can be convinced that America is still America—maybe even a better America—when it acknowledges its place within a future multipolar world. A tall order for a short book.

It was hard to imagine condensing this point into an image . . . until I stumbled upon the photographer Hiro’s 1978 work “Apollo Spaceflight Training Suits (Houston, Texas).” Looking at the mythic NASA gear on the rack, dangling like last year’s couture, I could see the pathos of Fareed Zakaria’s “post-American world.” I could see in those bunched, pouchy limbs the once-bloated ego and shrunken estate of American destiny. But it was also a powerful image of can-do tech wizardry and common purpose; the optimistic strain of my thesis was woven into it somehow. Ex-superpowers can still look forward. And they have the choice to put the icons of universal conquest and heroic masculinity back on the rack.

But the Hiro estate would not grant me permission to use the photo. Now stuck on astronauts, I found in the National Air and Space Museum’s digital archives the raw X-ray image now featured on the cover. The designers at Stanford University Press took this spacesuit image, reduced it, spun it down 150 degrees, and thrust it into a black void. The visual allegory of descent was starker than I’d imagined. My goal was to write against the mainstream impulse to catastrophize the loss of American power. To wallow in American supremacism or its loss is to indulge an endemic form of political nostalgia that I call declinism. Such wallowing can only feed conservative impulses, even among liberals. It’s the mirror-image of blithe belief that the world’s future is America’s to dictate. 

But almost everyone who reads, engages, or hears about my book thinks that my optimistic notion of rewiring American nostalgia is itself cock-eyed. This cover tracks to my audience’s skepticism, not to my hope. I think I get it now. The empty, drifting spaceman testifies to the contraction of American horizons in the time of SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic. These latter-day space shots are the projects of billionaires rather than states. Here we find the ideals of a great society inverted and hollowed out. Upside down and inside out, this ghostly traveler seems to embody the displacement of hope and collective action into desperation and individual heroics (strongmen, billionaires, Trump). The image describes the arc of American decline after the Seventies, that is, the Reagan–Clinton conversion of America into a weak-state morass, a deregulated mess.

Nationalism isn’t going to die fast enough for most of us, so the race is on to redefine (rather than abandon) American ideals. Until the future arrives, this purgonaut hangs suspended in time and space—and the suspense is killing us.


Natalia Cecire

A drop of milk hitting the surface
Fig. 5. Cover, Natalia Cecire, Experimental: American Literature and the Aesthetics of Knowledge (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018).

There’s no use crying over spilled milk, but the truth is that the image on the cover of my book, Experimental, misleads. The image, a 1935 instance of Harold Edgerton’s many strobe photographs of a milk droplet breaking, appears in a chapter on the epistemic virtue of precision, a virtue of the technical that always risks receding into irrelevancy, pettiness, or the perverse prosecution of rules for their own sake. Edgerton appears briefly in the chapter on precision because he refined the precision timing of photography for his milk droplets (and other equally iconic photographs, such as those showing a bullet shooting through an apple), as well as for military surveillance aircraft during World War II.

The Edgerton milk droplets are inspired by Arthur M. Worthington’s late nineteenth-century photographs of water, milk, and mercury droplets, generally rendered as engravings.[7] Worthington set up a delicate apparatus that would break an electrical circuit, producing a spark, upon a droplet’s contact with the receiving plate, briefly illuminating the droplet. Edgerton’s more precise strobe photography similarly relied on carefully timed, short bursts of light to capture specific stages of the fluid in motion. For Edgerton, the advance lay not in viewing the shape of the droplet itself (Worthington had done it admirably) but in the greater control over timing that he was able to exercise.

In fact, Worthington’s droplets appear as an opening example in Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s book on a different epistemic virtue, objectivity. For Daston and Galison, it’s Worthington’s deferral of his own senses to an apparatus that would limit his senses by keeping him mostly in the dark that exemplifies the kind of security that (one kind of) objectivity would offer. Yet there is nothing obvious about images of liquid droplets that would tell you, “ah, this is objectivity at work”—any more than they would tell you that one image exemplifies objectivity while another exemplifies precision.

But the Edgerton droplet even further betrays the book’s aims, for, with its dramatic and slightly disgusting milky depiction of motion arrested in time, it stages something that the book largely opposes: the association of the “experimental” with specific, temporally bounded scenes of encounter with material reality, the punctual act of “doing an experiment.” The book turns to epistemic virtues precisely because such imagined scenes of encounter are as inadequate for understanding experimental writing as they are for describing scientific experiment. The cover image thus gives us what we expect experimentalism to mean, more than what it actually is: it is a representation of Edgerton’s endless tinkering with timing, but it is also an erasure of that tinkering, its replacement by the spectacle of its own success.



Rebecca Colesworthy

In my experience there are two kinds of editors: those who (not so) secretly want to be cover designers and those who would rather not be involved in the process at all. I’m a bit of both—and the second only because of the first. It’s because I have strong opinions about cover designs that I sometimes think, for the sake of my own and others’ stress levels, it might be better if I didn’t have a say in them.

If my opinions are strong, it’s in part because they’re not just mine. As Alix Beeston and Pardis Dabashi observe in their introduction, and this cluster confirms, for authors “it’s difficult if not impossible to avoid feeling at least some measure of investment in what the book looks like.” I certainly was as the author of a scholarly book. Now, as an editor at a university press, I try to gauge and mirror my own authors’ investment, to see and judge the cover as they will, based on what I know about their argument and about them from our months and often years of working together. It’s a test of my knowledge, although I also have a cheat sheet: a questionnaire my press gives all authors to gather information about possible cover art, its availability to use, and other covers they like. As with so many things in writing and publishing, when it comes to book covers, examples and models can play a more significant role in achieving an effect of singularity than we might acknowledge. Determining what the book should look like can mean making it look like other books.

At my press, a few cover options are circulated internally for review by the staff assigned to the book before one is emailed to the author for approval. (Sometimes we send authors two, to offer a choice.) We present it as the final cover—“Here it is! Hope you love it!”—but we have been known to make truly necessary adjustments upon request. Changes cost time and money and both are tight, especially given that we need to finalize the cover for website posting and digital distribution six months before the book’s publication date. I have learned to restrain myself from the “endless tinkering” that is eventually, as Natalia Cecire puts it, “replace[d] by the spectacle of success,” above all by reminding myself that one of the options is already successful enough—that it’s fine. Fantastic even. Tinkering does not always pay off, as I’ve learned from asking production to experiment with just one little tweak only to decide the original was better. And, for all the times I accurately anticipate what authors will or won’t like, sometimes our tastes diverge. Ultimately, my colleagues and I want to make authors happy and to get the cover right, to be mindful of how and what every detail could mean in the context of the field given its specific politics, history, and norms of representation.

We depend on authors’ expertise to get it right but our expertise as publishers also comes into play. One of my colleagues often reviews covers with an eye toward how the book will look displayed in a conference exhibit booth. The tried-and-true layout—title on top, art in a box in the middle, author name on the bottom—is one strategy for dealing with image permissions that prohibit overprinting, but it also helps ensure that the title is visible even if the book is in the second row.

Poring over the covers here, I’m struck by a sense of inevitability, as if they could not have been otherwise, even when the essays accompanying them, such as Jed Esty’s and Katherine Groo’s, reveal the chance events, cuts, and choices that shaped their development. A good cover has a way of simultaneously underscoring and erasing the labor of its creation. The screamingly smart decision of Kartik Nair’s cover designer to drip the blood around the title, creating a three-dimensional effect, is so well-suited to the subject that it can disappear as a decision. Daniel Morgan’s image not only “works” but also works seamlessly with the slanted sans serif text; it’s as if the title design came first, serving as a lure both to the viewer and to the figure, who appears to be chasing it. Looking at Dabashi’s Losing the Plot, I think, where else could the title go other than beneath Dietrich’s otherworldly face? Dietrich’s eyes, hair, nails; the impossibly long ash on her cigarette—everything else must serve their illumination. Although the title, too, succeeds in catching a bit of light so that viewers do not lose the plot but rather, enticed, opt to peruse the contents and—hopefully—buy a copy of the book.

Then again, it’s hard to go wrong with good art, which I say not to diminish the work of design but rather to echo Beeston and Dabashi in acknowledging the “arresting” force of images such as the Fateh al-Moudarres painting on Anneka Lenssen’s cover and “Girl on a Freight Car” on Miriam Thaggert’s. Of course, things do sometimes go wrong. Or, if not wrong, then at least differently, as the cover proceeds from production to publication to purchase and makes its way onto different screens and into different hands. Beyond the epistemological question of possible differences between what you see and I see—“the mystery of other minds,” to quote the editors—there is the practical, material question of whether you and I are even looking at the same cover. Returning to this cluster’s opening anecdote about Barnes’s contempt for the color of the original hardback edition of Nightwood, we might put it this way: not all purples are the same purple. When I searched for Barnes’s cover online, I found one used copy of the 1961 New Directions edition for sale that has fuchsia tones, and another copy, just sold, that appears to be deep plum (and that was misdated as 1950). The difference was presumably due to variation in wear and tear, sun damage, and the light in which the books were photographed. As publishing technology has changed in the nearly ninety years since Nightwood was published (and over sixty years since Lustig’s design), the potential causes of variation in a cover’s appearance from one copy to the next have only increased.

Before my office went mostly virtual, we used to circulate physical printouts of cover designs in a green folder. In that form, they were less like the bodiless Valentino dress that graces Anne Anlin Cheng’s cover and more like the cluster of mannequin heads on Rochelle Rives’s. You can imagine what might become of highly saturated covers such as Cheng’s and Rives’s if the color printer was running low on magenta or yellow ink. Now my colleagues and I talk about the differences among our screens—a subtitle that appears to be pinkish salmon here, orangey coral there.

Physical and digital books, offset printing and print-on-demand, cell phones and desktop monitors—the proliferation of ways people disseminate, encounter, and consume books adds contingency to an already fraught process in which both authors and publishers tend to feel more than a minor measure of investment. That contingency, however, is also a relatively small price to be paid for getting as many eyes on the cover, and the book to as many readers, as possible.


[1] E. H. Gombrich, Image and Eye: Further Studies in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (Phaidon: London, 1982), 100.

[2] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 88.

[3] Marion Zilio, Faceworld: The Face in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2020), 69.

[4] See Sara K. Schneider, “Body Design, Variable Realisms: The Case of Female Fashion Mannequins,” Design Issues 13.3 (1997): 5–18, 7, for her account of this development.

[5] See Erving Goffman’s well-known account of “face-work” in “On Face-Work,” in Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior (New York: Pantheon, 1967), 5.

[6] See Carol J. Clover, “The Eye of Horror,” in Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film, ed. Linda Williams (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995), 184–230.

[7] See for example Arthur Mason Worthington, “XXVIII. On the Forms Assumed by Drops of Liquids Falling Vertically on a Horizontal Plate,” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 25.171–78 (January 1, 1877): 261–72, and Arthur M. Worthington, The Splash of a Drop (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1895).