Turner’s old “meeting place between savagery and civilization” isn’t supposed to be a zero-sum game; it is virtually always understood to be a transitory phase, an early chapter in the story of progress. For those that count as people in such stories, the frontier is a challenge to be met and a potential which must be brought to fruition. The story of the frontier will end when the savagery recedes, replaced once and for all with the civilization. The frontier is full of dangerous animals, untamed rivers, and wild Indians, but it bends towards a time when the only wolves and the bears left will be in the zoos, safe crossings will have been forged upon every river, and the Indians have all been placed on reservations, their children hauled off to be white-washed in the boarding schools. The frontier isn’t supposed to last. It is supposed to end. It is supposed to end in civilization.
But what if the frontier doesn’t want to end?
What if the agents of that frontier do not fade into America’s past, to become mere fables of a bygone era? What if those agents do not walk calmly back out and into the wilderness at the end of the movie, as John Wayne does at the end of The Searchers, knowing as his character did, that he character didn’t belong safe inside a well kept home. What if one of those agents insist on sticking around to crash the dinner parties of the civilized world? Worse yet, what if they want to teach the youth about the ways of the wilderness?
This, I gather, is the central question of “The Power of the Dog.”
One might, of course, be inclined to put another question ahead of this one, a question about the sexuality of men who live much of their lives so far from the company of women, but of course this too is a question about what people do well beyond the reach of ordinary virtue and what happens when someone from that world brings their wild ways back into the world of ordinary virtues.
Folks may have grown accustomed to thinking of cowboys as the manliest of men, but there are plenty of reasons to doubt whether that means what we might imagine it does within our safe and civilized – and very hetero-normative – world. It’s damned uncomfortable question; what are those cowboy’s doing out there? The last major movie to ask that question broke a mountain. This one crashes our dinner party.
And then it wants to spend time with our son!
It might seem incongruous, the possibility that the cowboyest of cowboys in this story could be so, so very not like we imagine cowboys to be, but this too just makes the central villain of the story that much more of a threat to the civilization we might have thought he helped to create. He didn’t vanish with the frontier, and he welcome the changes of the civilization he helped to create. The man doesn’t smell right. He doesn’t talk right. Maybe, he doesn’t even fuck right!
What the Hell is to be done about him?
Yeah, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.
This last December (2021) I spent a few days in the Rasmuson library at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. They had an interesting display on statehood just outside one of their public entrances. It’s 21 total posters. (Is that the right word?) Kind of a nice tight introduction to the subject. I took pictures to share with my own students.
Thought I’d share them here too.
One of the more interesting themes brought to the fore in this series would have to be the complaints about exploitation by outsiders. The word “colonialism” even makes an appearance. Of course there is something more than a little ironic about the appearance of these themes in the rhetoric of whites just a few generations into America’s own entrance into the region, but then again, there is probably something ironic in my own swing at this issue, sitting as I am in Inupiat territory a couple generations further into that process colonization.
Meta-Irony, the white liberals burden!
I have enhanced the clarity of most of these pictures a bit and tweaked the lighting where necessary to try and reduce the light glare in a few of them. My main goal was to make the writing as clear as possible. I think you can make most of the main text out if you embiggen the pictures.
One of the most profound moments in American history came in “the Revolution of 1800.” This phrase refers to the election of 1800 in which Democratic Republicans gained majorities in both the House and the Senate as well as winning the Presidency, effectively wresting control of both the executive and legislative branches of government from the Federalists who had retained it since the Constitution first went into effect. This may not sound like much of a revolution. After all, that is just what the Constitution tells us will happen when an election. They takes over the relevant seats of government, and if that means control government switches from one faction to the next, then so be it. That is how republican government works.
It is one thing to put that plan of action on paper, and it is quite another to put it into practice. The peaceful transfer of power from one party to another is by no means a forgone conclusion, as many people from all over the world can tell you. Those voted out of office, do not always leave peacefully. Sometimes they never leave at all. Given the rancor between the newly formed parties, and the scale of conflict occurring during the Adams administration, it was by no means a forgone conclusion that the plan of the Constitution would be followed. Could those behind the alien and sedition acts really be expected to surrender power to those who had produced the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions? The answer was by no means obvious.
What makes the revolution of 1800 significant is the fact that it took place without violence.
Oh there were plenty of efforts at manipulation to be sure. Lots of games in the counting of the votes. Still more games played in the effort to control the judiciary going forward. At the end of the day, however, the Federalists respected the outcome of the election, and they peacefully surrendered control of American government to the Democratic Republicans.
Someone (Oscar Alajandro) one from Venezuela recently put together a video on our little town in the edge of nowhere. My fiance assures me that it’s worth watching. I can see a few errors (For example, there are definitely more communities north of us than he suggests), but overall, it’s certainly an interesting view.
In my last post, I wrote about the notion of outer space as an extension of the western frontier in American popular culture. I mentioned in passing the connection to Native Americans and the dispossession of their lands. As a follow up, I thought I might comment on a little story connecting all three themes in one narrative.
“When NASA was preparing for the Apollo project, they did some astronaut training on a Navajo Indian reservation. One day, a Navajo elder and his son were herding sheep and came across the space crew. The old man, who only spoke Navajo, asked a question, which the son translated: “What are the guys in the big suits doing?” A member of the crew said they were practicing for their trip to the moon.
“The old man got really excited and asked if he could send a message to the moon with the astronauts. Recognizing a promotional opportunity for the spin-doctors, the NASA folks found a tape recorder. After the old man recorded his message, they asked the son to translate. He refused. So the NASA reps brought the tape to the reservation, where the rest of the tribe listened and laughed, but refused to translate the elder’s message to the moon.
“Finally, NASA called in an official government translator. He reported that the moon message said: “Watch out for these guys; they’ve come to steal your land.”
It’s a great story, but if you’re like me, you have to spend a moment or two wondering whether or not it’s true. Turns out, the answer is ‘no.’ According to Snopes, the joke appears to have come from Johnny Carson. It was part of his monologue on July 22, 1969. Of course it is possible, that Carson’s writers picked it up from an earlier source. There just doesn’t seem to be any evidence for it.. In any event, there is no record of this with NASA or any of the other Federal Agencies that might have been involved at the time. So, the story is very unlikely to be true.
It’s damned telling that the Carson camp thought to put this joke together back during the days of the space race. They clearly got the connection between the western frontier and the space program. They even got the violence implicit in westward expansion. They got all of this in the service of a joke intended for a mainstream American audience.
These weren’t activists; they were comedy writers working on a relatively non-partisan show, and they decided that it would be funny to compare the Apolllo moon landings to the dispossession of Native Americans. Judging by the longevity of this gag, it would appear that they were right.
The thing is, this joke is only funny if people get the connection between exploration and colonization, if they know that someone planting a flag in ‘new’ territory has generally meant someone else gets screwed.
It’s almost as if awareness of systemic racism isn’t limited to critical race theorists.
In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner published his famous paper, “The Significance of the Frontier in American history.” In it, Turner bucked the prevailing historical wisdom of the day to say that American history was in fact quite distinct from that of Europe, and that this was due to the existence of the frontier. The opportunity to move freely into unoccupied land, and the struggle with nature to carve civilization out of that land, that wilderness, gave America and Americans a unique character.
…according to Turner, at any rate.
Suffice to say, the Turner thesis caught on, not just in the historical professions, but also throughout American popular culture. One can hardly imagine western fiction without it, or even the lyrics of mainstream country music. So, when I say, according to Turner, I of course mean, “and a whole lot of other people right along with him.” The Turner thesis has become so ubiquitous it would be hard to find a single genre of artistic expression or a vein of American politics it has not influenced, or for that matter a person who doesn’t invoke its themes from time to time.
To say that all of this is problematic is putting it rather mildly, and countless books have been written exploring the many problems of the frontier thesis, just as countless books have been written applying it to various aspects of American history.
Needless to say, Native Americans have come up a few times, particularly in reference to that notion of free and unoccupied land so central to the frontier thesis. We’ll save that for another post.
…or maybe 10 other posts.
One of the most interesting problems with the frontier thesis has to do with the timing. See, most people would reckon that the frontier was basically closed by 1893, not too long before that, to be sure, but by most accounts, it was certainly closed by 1893. So, if that frontier is what makes America and Americans unique, then what do we make of everything that comes after its closure? If the frontier was the driving force in American history, then what is significant about America and Americans long after the became an ex frontier?
To raise the question in a more practical tone; if the original is already gone, then can we find another? What is the new frontier?
Yes, that question has been asked many times by many people.
Various answers have been offered.
What has me thinking about all this today is a recent visit to a museum, The Spirit of the West Museum in Scottsdale, Arizona. More specifically, I am thinking of one of the exhibits on the second floor of this museum. It is entitled, “From the Mountains to the Moon,” exploring the life work of the artist Paul Calle. The man was an amazing artist, and the exhibit carries a good deal of his work, much of which deals with themes quite closely connected to the frontier, but what specifically gives the exhibit its title is the contrast between his many paintings of mountain men, and his depiction of the Astronaut, Neil Armstrong, taking man’s first step onto the moon. This might seem a Hell of a leap, from Mountain Men to the moon, but of course, there are certain elements of continuity.
You can see these traces of continuity in at least two of the paintings in this exhibit, along with the narratives attached to them. The first of these is entitled “The Great Moment.” It is most remarkable for its presence in an exhibit otherwise filled with western Americana (and a few other things to be sure), but the mere presence of this great painting alongside so many depictions of mountain men, Indians, and western landscape creates an interesting juxtaposition. It is enough to get someone asking, how and why did this piece get here?
“This painting of my friend Neil Armstrong by my friend Paul Calle combines for me the best of two worlds. NASA’s technological achievements and an artist’s exquisite interpretation of it. It looks as beautiful today as it did forty years ago, and it will one hundred years from now.” – Michael Collins, Apollo 11, Command Module Pilot
So, how and why did that painting get here?
Well, the best explanation can be found alongside one of Calle’s more typical pieces.
“I have always liked the image of mountain man John Colter his moccassin clad foot first stepping on the newly fallen snow of the Yellowstone Valley to the Moon boot of Neil Armstrong stepping in the dust of the Moon’s surface at the Sea of Tranquility. Two worlds apart, yet each of a new frontier. – Paul Calle
It’s rather surprising to find out just how often a U.S. citizen can be told to go home or asked about where she (really) comes from.
It’s also infuriating
Contrary to popular opinion, a word doesn’t become Spanish by adding an [-o] to it. Using this construction does however make most any word irritating to her.
This can be useful, amusing, or painful to you, depending on the details.
Rolling your Rs can be damned difficult.
A speedy-Gonzalez voice is not funny. (She told me to add that it’s also kind of racist.)
Taking a Mexican girl to a Mexican restaurant is not likely to impress her. You may hear comments such as “rice doesn’t really go with this” or “why would you put lettuce on that?” Also, don’t be surprised if she prefers Italian food, Shabu Shabu, or Korean BBQ.
Date her long enough and you may yourself ruined for an awful lot of Mexican restaurants.
It turns out that an awful lot of famous Mexicans are actually Spaniards, and apparently that makes a difference.
What a lot of us assume to be Mexican accents are actually northern Mexican accents. And apparently, this too matters.
Anything you say about Mexico, Mexicans, or Mexican culture is racist. Anything she says about white people isn’t. This is how girlfriend privilege trumps white privilege.
…and it does.
Don’t be surprised if music you think of as Mexican strikes her as redneck country music, or at least the south of the border equivalent thereof.
Christmas is celebrated on Christmas Eve.
Because of course it is.
Virtually every western you’ve ever loved has some Mexican character vamping up the stereotypes to the point of personal embarrassment.
She will feel that embarrassment first.
Then you will feel it more.
You will probably pay dearly for every tongue-in-cheek comment you make in this post.
“When I first viewed Ken DeRoux’s ‘Be Afraid,’ it was wrapped up around a cardboard cylinder with bubble wrap, evoking the qualities of both protection and vulnerability I associate with art. As I watched it unfurl, I saw each ‘stripe’ with its symbols or partial quotation revealed as carefully as it was doubtlessly assembled.
“You are seeing it suspended, specifically by safety pins. From an artist who devotes himself to the language of representation – light, shadow, horizon, perspective – I assume purpose for each element of this work.
“Suspend your evaluation for a moment while we look at the language of representation. This is not a flag, it is a banner. Specifically, it is a confederation of ‘banners’ in the newspaper sense of lead quotations. This is cloth, not tapestry. There is no weaving or even binding of the images; they are held together in loose collage by the beautifully ironic safety pins.
“The left edge of the banner is significantly more irregular than the right, suggesting the effects that wind has on a deployed banner. That, in conjunction with the purposeful irregularities in the body of the banner, is effective in portraying an image of embattlement.
“I don’t look at art to ‘figure it out.’ So I don’t pretend that subtle observations were intended by the artist except to the extent that he certainly expected observations. Here are a few observations. The largest quotation, and one of the two written bottom to top as opposed to left to right, is from Condolezza Rice. I suspect the reason for her prominence is that her quote is far more specific in items to fear than the generalized warnings of the other figures. In that sense, her observation has the stark qualities of a symbol, most of which appear at the periphery of the banner. By the way, the only other citation written vertically is also from the State Department. Is this because the execution of foreign policy must take a different, more specific direction than the more generalized ‘slogans’ of elected officials?
I am fascinated by the safety pins. Is our ‘safety’ only possible by considering the compilation of these warnings and symbols? Is our ‘safety’ the coming together symbolized by the clear visual reference to the American flag – the symbol of our Union? On the other hand, do the safety pins represent the current status of our union as a people, as in ‘only held together by safety pins?’
“Despite the title of the work, the symbols do not appear to be aimed at fear. They seem almost cartoon like, as does the sole terrorist figure. It seems to be more a work of inquiry than intimidation, to the point that the title ‘Be Afraid’ could as easily be “Be Aware.’
“The prediction is that this work will be controversial. I think it will be conversational if we enjoin one another to hold our evaluation until we are done thinking.”
The occasion was Whalefest, which was held at the beginning of this November. My colleague, Linda Nicholas-Figuroa, turned me on to this gathering a couple years ago, and I found the event both enjoyable and instructive. So, I was excited to hear that the conference was back on for this year.,
We attended most of the regular conference panels by zoom, but they still had a few in-person events, hands-on stuff (necropsy goodness!) and out-doors (whale-watching). I love the area. So, my baby and I packed our cameras and headed down there with a colleague and a couple students.
I just watched an interesting presentation by Antero Garcia called; “Dungeons & Dragons in an Era of Terror, Nationalism, and Gamergate.” Academic discussions of role-playing games (RPGs) interest me for several reasons. It’s a chance to connect interests that I normally experience in different parts of my life (gaming and scholarship on the one hand, and storytelling in gaming and storytelling in other contexts on the other). So, I was excited to see a new source on the topic.
A copy of one of Antero’s books is on the way, but in the meantime…
This talk is a bit of an intellectual shotgun blast. Antero is busy introducing a broad range of themes and analytic tools for much of the presentation, so much so that his main point is barely taking shape at the end of the video here. Still that point, namely that race and gender politics (among other things) are very much a part of the gaming experience is a good one. I wish he had spent a little less time introducing his key terms and more time developing this main theme, because it’s definitely worth considering.
One thing that struck me about this presentation is a point that Antero makes a couple of times in here. He says that players are “supposed to enact racial practices” in games like Dungeons and Dragons. Take for example the following section of the Youtube transcript which starts at the 41 minute mark:
“Oftentimes when I had sit at the table play with other people if someone was a dwarf they would see an elf who’s play who is at their table and say I don’t like elves right and you were supposed to enact racist practices towards other races within the game right if you’re a human you’re skeptical of orcs right if you’re an elf you don’t like dwarves there is there is racism built into the system in terms of the attitudes you’re supposed to carry with other people”
Here we have the basic case for taking fantasy racism seriously. I am amazed at the number of players who don’t see this connection, but perhaps some folks are just being a little too defensive here. We don’t have to give up our dice or even our magical axe of kobald-slaying, but perhaps we could be asked to entertain the idea here that it matters when we choose to tell stories, interactive stories, set in a world where race and racism are built into the setting.
What struck me most about Antero’s presentation is that the norm here strikes me as significantly less obvious than Antero suggests. It may be that he oversimplified the matter in a hasty delivery, and I do think his point is essentially sound, but as presented, this does strike me as an oversimplification.
Simply put, I don’t know that players in an RPG feel an obligation to play their characters as expressing racist attitudes towards other fantasy races within a given setting. It might well be that players are expected to run their characters on the assumption that such attitudes are pervasive in the worlds where they live, and the significance of such beliefs are serious boosted by a degree of objective differences between the races which is often hard-wired into the games, but players are normally free to shape their own character’s attitudes within such a world as they see fit.
Simply put; players are free to buck the racist world in which their characters live.
Simply put (2.5 edition): Players are free to emulate the heartwarming story of Gimli and Legolas, a dwarf and an elf who somehow find it within themselves to become friends despite the enmity between their races.
But does this happen often, you may well ask?
Yes, it does.
In fact it happens so often it gets a little tiresome. I recall once seeing a satirical bit on some gaming site in which the author complained that not all drow needed to be chaotic good rangers. Misunderstood orcs abound, and odd friendships are outpaced if anything but unlikely romantic couplings. If anything, it is sometimes a problem to see just how often and how easily players set aside the stereotypes built into fantasy races and rise above racist attitudes with an ease that belies even the social realities of the fantasy setting (let alone the hardwired elements of racial character built into the game). Sure, people sometimes play the stereotype. That does happen. But they also play against it. That happens too. So, it doesn’t really work to say of any given dwarf and any given elf in a campaign setting that the players running them are supposed to enact racist attitudes towards each other. It’s at least a little more complicated than that.
One way of thinking about it might be to suggest that the issue enters the discourse in the form of a presupposition rather than a normative principle. The players are expected to act as if their characters are immersed in a world within which elves and dwarves are likely to hate one another. What they are to do about it is another matter. Moreover, players are usually free to imagine the specific history of their own characters as they see fit, which means in practice, they can easily come up with reason to make themselves the exception. “…oh yes, I’m a dwarf, but I was raised by a kind elven lady who took me in after I was orphaned in the last orc war.”
You get the idea.
Players are not necessarily expected to run their characters as racists; they are supposed to run them as characters in world saturated with racism. That this is a world in which race is also assumed to be real certainly does complicate any efforts to buck the system, but the reality is easier to ignore in role play than it would be presumably to rise above racist in a world where race is real and everyone else takes racial differences very seriously.
So, does this solve the problem?
Are we in the clear now?
No guilt here?
Roll a die 20!
Unfortunately, no, this does not settle the issue. It just makes it more interesting. The problem now is what do we get out of the various performances people enact in role-play? Is a player who imagines his character as the exception to fantasy bigotry really delivering a kill shot to the influence of racism in his life or that of the other players at his game table? Or is he just enjoying a catharsis, perhaps even building up some cheap moral licensing credentials? Will his performance help the other players to see through racism in their own lives, or will they all emerge from the game a little more comfortable with their own prejudices?
The answer to these questions aren’t clear to me, and I suspect the answer varies within the details. Hell, I don’t even to suggest that the answer varies between one player and another or one campaign and another; I mean, the answer may vary between one moment and the next in a single game. It might well be that a player running a fantasy half-orc expresses some genuine social awareness in her decision to spare the elven prisoners in the wake of a hostile encounter, views which match her thinking in real life, …only to give vent to some real malice when she BBQs a hobbit later that evening. The relationship between the players at a game table and the characters on that table and within the game universe is always complex, and real world issues cannot be mapped directly from one to the other, but neither can we say that what happens in game stays in game, so to speak.
It matters that race is built into so many game systems, and yes, we should be concerned about that, but we can’t say once and for all that a player running an elf-loving dwarf is any more enlightened than a player reveling in the chance to commit fantasy genocide with his Paladin heading off to slighter every last goblin from the dark swampland..
Okay, maybe we can draw some judgements about the guy running that Paladin.
In the long run, I suppose the real question is what does it mean that a significant portion of the public regularly chooses to interact with each other on the basis of fantasies in which race is real and racism is pervasive? That’s a damned good question. The question is at least a little more interesting when we acknowledge that these people are free to shape their own attitudes towards the issues of race and racism within these fantasy worlds.