Volume VIII, Number 1, Spring 2012

Introduction by Zsófia Anna Tóth and Zoltán Vajda

This volume entitled American Studies and Visuality – on the Horizon of Information Society contains the collected papers presented in English at the conference of the same title that took place at the University of Szeged, May 6-7, 2011. The organization and realization of this conference was facilitated by the Project named „TÁMOP-4.2.1/B-09/1/KONV-2010-0005 – Creating the Center of Excellence at the University of Szeged.” This collection of papers in English is complemented by the ebook entitled Amerikanisztika és vizualitás. Metszéspontok az információs társadalom horizontján, published by AMERICANA eBooks, which contains the papers that were presented in Hungarian at this bilingual conference, and the two volumes form a whole together.

In his study entitled “On the Visual Dimension of Sympathy in Thomas Jefferson’s Moral Philosophy,” Zoltán Vajda argues that Jefferson’s understanding of sympathy exhibited visual features, yet in varying degrees, depending on particular conditions, and that visual perception becomes relevant in his sentimentalism, joining sympathy with morality. For Jefferson, the visual aspect of communicating sympathy was a concern and related to the problem of the moral sense. The author also makes a strong case for Jefferson’s understanding of blacks’ skin color as an impediment to communicating feelings and hence evoking sympathy. At the same time, it is argued that, for Jefferson, the nation is already a community based on affection and sympathy and hence appears as a sentimental community whose members are connected into coherence by bonds of sentimental affection. Hence no visual stimuli are required to trigger affection or sympathy for moral scrutiny among them since already existing communal ties ensure its presence.

Ágnes Zsófia Kovács, in her essay “The Uses of Architecture as a Metaphor for the Critique of American Culture – Henry James’ The American Scene and Edith Wharton’s Italian Villas and Their Gardens,” proposes that Henry James’ and Edith Wharton’s works have always been deeply invested in problems of seeing and understanding and discusses how, for them, viewing and visuality serve as modes of criticism of American life, style and taste. The paper examines the interaction of the visual and the cultural in The American Scene and Italian Villas, respectively. It is argued that for James and Wharton in particular architectural descriptions bear the marks of their authorial techniques and are also invested with their concerns about Modern America while also articulating their respective critical attitudes to American modernization.

In „American Identification: A New Approach to Film Scoring,” Gergely Hubai explores the ways in which American film scoring differed from the European tradition during the mid 20th century and presents this lesser discussed aspect of what makes the visual culture of the United States so uniquely different from that of Europe. For example, while Hollywood alone produced so many movies that composers and musicians could make a career out of solely working for the cinema, none of the European centers of filmmaking could produce enough features to warrant such a career, what is more, European musicians were usually active in the field of concert music likewise and often regarded their work for films as inferior commissions or while American composers (or music departments) followed a manufacture model, their European counterparts worked more in line with guild methods.

In his article entitled “The Transmediality of the Self: Desubstantiation, Fantasy and Terror in and through African American playwright Adrienne Kennedy’s Characters,” Attila Kiss argues that the representational techniques Adrienne Kennedy employs thematize the realization that subjectivity is articulated not only through narrative patterns but also through the specific visual imagery and memory of culture. The investigation focuses on her pluralized and desubstantiated characters and how the heterogeneity of the postmodern self as well as the social and performative constitution of subjectivity occurs through the multimedial fabrication of the social self. This analysis of the mediality of the different representations of subjectivity reveals that visuality in general, and the visual cultural imagery of American society in particular, play an important role in the constitution of social identity. Subjectivity is thus presented by Kennedy as a product of transmedial encounters, and her dramas demonstrate how the cultural and dramatic or theatrical category of character is a performative ideological device, a medium among the several other channels through which the constitution of the subject is performed.

In her essay “The Interplay of Film and Theatre in Adrienne Kennedy’s A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White,” Gabriella Tóth discusses Adrienne Kennedy’s one-act play, A Movie Star has to Star in Black and White (1967), which is deeply rooted in three classic films from the golden age of Hollywood: Now, Voyager (1942), A Place in the Sun (1951) and Viva Zapata! (1952). The protagonist of the play, an African American woman named Clara, is struggling with an identity crisis in which her subjective ontological apocalypse is linked with the images conveyed by contemporary Hollywood representations of women. Clara is in a catatonic state of mind: first, she identifies with great white cinema stars; then, she criticizes the very same hegemonic white power she has identified with previously. The paper argues that Kennedy’s oeuvre exemplifies the way postmodern African American drama (re)theatricalizes African American plays by subverting traditional representations of colored people and instead of staging racial issues according to the rules of stage realism, Kennedy poeticizes the struggle for Black identity by dramatizing the social performance of subject formation and, at the same time, by deconstructing the very notion of a dramatic character.

Lívia Szélpál, in her article “Images of the American Suburbia,” presents the ways in which the cultural and social criteria of the changing suburbia as well as the image of the real suburbia is in contrast with the representation of suburbia per se in American movies, additionally, it is also revealed what kind of an impact commercial reality has on its image in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956), The Graduate (1967), Ice Storm (1997), The Truman Show (1998), American Beauty (1999) and Stepford Wives (2004), all seen as referential points in a historical perspective. The paper argues that, while in the 1950s, these were typical commuter suburbs – almost totally residential –, today they look like independent cities with high-tech industries and shopping malls since a radical change took place in the socio-political status of the suburbia after the 1990s. Thus, contemporary suburbia has become increasingly heterogeneous, commercial and transnational, a new city with shopping malls and entertainment facilities, in contrast with the old stereotypical suburbs of residence and uniformity. The paper aims to shed a new light on the suburban landscape by focusing on the comparative investigation of the setting as well as the historical setting, the plot and the mis-en-scène, and characterization, all in the light of their response to historical events as well as on the representation of family life and the recurrent symbols of the suburbia as markers of its new image.

In her study entitled “Trans-culturing Jane Austen: The Mollywood Adaptation of Pride and Prejudice,” Irén Annus explores how Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is reworked and reinterpreted within the realm of Mormon culture and how this story is recreated in a 21st century, American film that is directed by a Latter-day director. The paper investigates the ways in which this film can be interpreted as an example of trans-culturation while also building on Arjun Appadurai’s framework of global cultural flows and examining how this film is connected to global mediascapes, located within global ideoscapes and it also aims to unfold the film’s dimensions within ideologically positioned ethnoscapes.

Nóra Borthaiser, in her article entitled “Blinded by the Desk Lamp: Object Values and Consumerism in Pixar Animations,” argues that Pixar animations are interested in technology and they generally depict anthropomorphized objects while their stories take place within urbanized settings. It is revealed that – while being rather anti-consumerist – the Toy Story films (Toy Story (1995), Toy Story 2 (1999), Toy Story 3 (2010)) and WALL-E (2008) (as well as most Pixar animations) usually successfully manage to breathe life and individuality into objects, still, these objects have various layers of value in the matrix of consumer society, and eventually, these quite successful films are generally only psychological tricks functioning as commercials for the merchandised mass-produced commodities leading to booming real-life consumerism.

In her study entitled “The Effect of Information Society on the Representation of Femmes Fatales in American Visual Culture,” Zsófia Anna Tóth discusses how information society affected the representation of femmes fatales in American visual culture, especially in Hollywood films made during the 1990s. By primarily concentrating on the figures of Catherine in Basic Instinct (1992), Meredith in Disclosure (1994) and Bridget/(Wendy) in The Last Seduction (1994) it is argued that, although managing information has always been a significant aspect of femme fatale figures, within information society this aspect got enriched with multi-expertise in various technical and technological fields as well as with intellectual and educational improvement and possibly ensuing physical ‘side effects’ (masculinity, androgyny), as well. The femmes fatales within information society are much more able, competent, successful, and in effect, more dangerous or apparently even more aggressive than their predecessors. By the 1990s, a new type of cinematic female type emerged that fused the independent woman figure with the femme fatale and who became more and more represented within the context of work, what is more, this figure was often a powerful career woman. These women are all this type, the new femme fatale, who stepped out of the dysfunctional domestic sphere (typical of film noirs) into the public sphere and the job market: an independent professional woman, a sexually confident person and a complex female/feminine subject who possesses professional as well as sexual power, and who is, in fact, the ‘child’ of information society.

Anna Kérchy, in her article “Changing Media of Enchantment: Tracking the Transition from Verbal to Visual Nonsense in Tim Burton’s Cinematic Adaptation of Alice in Wonderland,” examines how/whether the intermedial shifts accompanying the transmission of a literary text to a visual medium, – and (progressing from image to moving image to 3D CGI live-action animation) to a predictably unreliable computerized/digitalized visual medium that depicts mimetically ‘what has never been’ – bring about changes in our predominant modalities of experience that affect our perception of reality, as well as our strategies of make-believing, the dynamic interaction of our imaginative willingness and reluctance, and our interactive ways of making sense, and making up nonsense. The focus lies on Tim Burton’s 2010 cinematic adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice-tales with the aim to explore the different modes of dis/enchantment that media change – the adaptation’s transition from verbal to visual (means of effecting) nonsense – effectuate.

In his essay entitled “Becoming the New Socialite? Facebook, Transmedia and Storytelling in the Age of New Media,” Zsolt Kelemen discusses the effect of transmedial storytelling on contemporary American fiction in the age of new media, how it requires a more active and interactive audience and how it changes traditional content consumption. For example, it is emphasized how Bret Easton Ellis ‘revolutionalized’ fiction writing by starting to use social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, when writing Imperial Bedrooms. At the same time, moving beyond analyzing transmedia, the paper also argues that Facebook has become a site where a possible new subject-formation is taking place producing hyperreal (human) beings and personas as well as stories (about themselves) – other narratives. It is stated that, in our age, the hyperreal is closer to us than ever and we have to be aware that a story we follow might not be what it seems while the new socialite is greatly involved in the advantages of new media being an apt user of technology and a participant of network society.