He is a walking paradox: a loner who desires the crowd, “a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito,” a spectator who casts off his air of detachment, a skeptic who can experience states of childlike wonder, “an ‘I’ with an insatiable appetite for the ‘non-I.’” More gaze than body, he is a phantom of the arcade, “a mirror as vast as the crowd itself . . . a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness” (Baudelaire, “Painter,” 9). Who is this person? “Observer, philosopher . . . —call him what you will,” the flâneur is the modern man par excellence, an urban stroller who will always be encountered, en passant, in the act of capturing “the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent”—that is, the contradictory, enigmatic, and elusive condition otherwise known as modernity (13).
In the urgency of what sounds initially like an auteur’s command, the fictional “Director” of Adrienne Kennedy’s 1973 play-within-a-play, An Evening with Dead Essex, discloses the unnegotiable terms of his own captivity before the phantasmal image.
It is in the frequent repetition of a one-word imperative from the Director—to “flash”—that its operational binding (as the instruction by which to advance photographic images in a slide projector) can be perceived to shred. The demand is at once a managerial spur for his actors to make headway in grasping their subject matter, and an abyssal first step in the momentum of the collective going-under necessitated by its deepest realization.
What is the impact of remapping one site of mass entertainment—in this case, vaudeville—on wider assumptions and conversations about modernity? And what are the challenges to a settler scholar of popular culture—in this case, me—contributing to the return of Indigenous figures in this historical venue to broader visibility?
Joan Didion begins her 1968 collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem with W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming” printed in full as an epigraph; the title and the long quotation underscore Didion’s perception of the rupture of the 1960s: a revolution—sexual and political—of which she was skeptical. As she explains in her preface, she “had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed.” Later in the same book, in the essay “On Morality” she argues that the “ethic of conscience” as a measure of a writer or anyone else’s morality was an “insidious” metric; neither the individual’s intention nor—as will be discussed in this essay—the form of the work conferred “any ipso facto virtue.” Scholars of modernism have not been so careful.
This article is the final installment of a special series on the Visualities blog exploring digital archives connected to modernism’s visual cultures. Contributors to the series introduce and model the uses of online resources spanning art, film, media, book history, print cultures, and more.
Originally constructed in 1817, Auburn Correctional Facility in Upstate New York stands as the oldest continually functional maximum-security penitentiary in the United States. I doubt that its designers would have predicted that 200 years later the US would come to incarcerate more people than any other country in history. We currently make up only 5% of the world’s population, but confine about 21% of its prisoners.