Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Posts tagged “Font

Off to See the World

One might think that the American version of a show called The Amazing Race (CBS, 2001-present) might be somewhat sensitive to ethnicity, given the potential misreading of its title. Sadly, however, the show (currently in its 19th season) continues to exhibit signs of ethnocentrism as it shuttles contestants around the globe on a race around the world.

Assuredly, part of the problem manifests in the contestants themselves, who rarely, if ever, show large amounts of cultural sensitivity and/or knowledge. (It should be noted that there are certainly exceptions to this rule, but the general lack of awareness seems to be somewhat surprising given that contestants have had numerous opportunities to learn from past racers’ mistakes and although some have learned the value of doing research on a country or picking up a guidebook, none seem to grasp the utility of learning foreign languages or customs. To be fair, the situation may be admittedly more complex with producers having control over which teams are actually selected to race—I am not a conspiracy theorist, but it seems like selected teams do not have distinct advantages [e.g., nobody reports spending extended amounts of time overseas] and it is entirely possible that producers do not select teams who prepare in this fashion.) Perhaps unwittingly perpetuating the stereotype of “ugly Americans,” discourteous behavior is most often exhibited by teams/racers 1) yelling at foreign cab drivers (in English) and getting frustrated when said drivers do not understand the racers (even when the racers resort to speaking as they would to a child or an elderly person), 2) becoming upset that locals do not instantly know the location of some destination in the city (e.g., a specific plaza, street, or shop), or 3) complaining about India or China (size, poverty, food, smell, crowding, etc.).

Worse, perhaps, the show itself presents as a sort of extended travel narrative, painting the contestants as little more than tourists who zip from location to location, participating in challenges that are little more than thinly-disguised vacation package day trips. Ostensibly grounded in the traditions, customs, or ritual of the current location, the challenges that racers face (called roadblocks and detours) demonstrate little respect for the practices upon which they draw and definitely do not ask the racers to internalize the importance of the activity in the lives of those around them. Instead of asking racers to truly engage on a meaningful level, one might argue that the racers are, as Dean MacCannell suggests, “simply collect[ing] experiences of difference” (again, we need to question the role of editors/producers as such internalization may in fact occur for racers but such a transformation is never highlighted in the on-screen interviews, unless the reaction is so over-the-top as to be insincere). Moreover, building upon thoughts mentioned elsewhere in Lisa Nakamura’s chapter “Where Do You Want to Go Today?” one can see that, from a Western (in this case, American) perspective, The Amazing Race is constructed on pillars of Otherness, exoticism, and foreignness.

The Amazing Race – Season 19, Episode 1

Take the above scene, for example, that features a font designed to invoke associations of “Asian culture” imprinted upon paper umbrellas, set in a temple. Putting aside the issue that the task at hand has nothing to do with any of the Asian “props,” the font itself is incredibly problematic as it represents Roman (i.e., Western) letters that are constructed out of faux brush strokes—a type of writing that finds a home in no Asian culture on Earth. Second only to the typography used on the stereotypical Chinese take-out container (see image to the right) in familiarity with a Western audience, the font used in The Amazing Race demonstrates just how shallow the program really is.

On a larger level, however, the show also demonstrates no small amount of Orientalism as it works to legitimize Western culture, often presenting local culture/customs in a tone that invokes terms like “quaint” or “backward.” (Although primarily focused on America, one might also note that the show’s host, Phil Keoghan, expands the narrative slightly, presenting a form of acceptable/valued Otherness in the form of a man who presents as White but speaks with a New Zealand accent.) The exotic nature of the locations/tasks is also often conveyed through their status as spectacle.

Chipmunk Adventure Clip

Watching the main titles, one can almost ignore the distinctly (yet ambiguous) “ethnic” soundtrack and compare the images to those of other travelogues. In particular, The Chipmunk Adventure (1987), a movie made for children, seems striking in its presentation of cultural icons from around the world, suggesting that The Amazing Race is not the first media product to treat foreign people in this way. This treatment, aspects of which are also mentioned in Vijay Prashad’s The Karma of Brown Folk, alludes to the trope of “forever foreigner,” which suggests that although dominant American culture may tolerate, absorb, or incorporate aspects of other cultures, titillation derives from the notion that one is participating in activity that is perpetually Othered and will never be as “American” as apple pie (amusingly, and perhaps rightly, Jennifer 8. Lee argues that this phrase should be changed to “American as Chinese food“) and country music.

Instead of taking the opportunity to truly educate an American audience about the complexities and joys of life abroad, The Amazing Race pushes an ideology that, in large and small ways, reaffirms just how great it is to be American. With a television as passport, we are able to visit distant lands (from the comfort of our couch, no less) and accrue knowledge, if not understanding. We watch for an hour a week and come away feeling worldly, content to accept the manufactured diversity on screen (through composition of racing teams and locations) as substitute for the real thing as we reassure ourselves that we, as White Americans, truly represent the amazing race.

Something in the Air Tonight

Something in the Air Tonight – PowerPoint Slides

1660 was a year of great upheaval in England, with the beginning of the English Restoration marked by the ascendancy of Charles II to the throne. That same year, another event—lesser known, although no less revolutionary—occurred, which would affect the future of Science forever:  the invention of air.

Now I don’t mean that someone found a container and mixed together 78% Nitrogen, 21% Oxygen, and some other stuff. Air as a gas had existed for millennia. And I don’t mean air as an idea or concept. Rather, I mean the invention of air as an object of inquiry—something that could be studied and was worthy of such scrutiny.

Using the recently invented vacuum pump as an experimental apparatus, Robert Boyle published a book called New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall, a volume that aimed to describe the properties of air. Although this milestone may seem somewhat uninteresting to non-science geeks, the thoughts forwarded in this work formed the cornerstone of Boyle’s Law, which would later become incorporated into our fundamental understanding of how gasses behaved in closed systems. In short, Boyle’s publication helped to change the way in which we saw the world, rendering the once-invisible apparent, if still ephemeral.

But when we think about air today—if at all—we don’t stop to ponder how it works. We just know that it does. We instinctually know that creating a small vacuum at the top of a straw will cause the liquid below to move up due to a pressure differential and this, in many ways, demonstrates the true power of science, for many of its principles are simply accepted as truth.

In her book Always Already New, Lisa Gitelman draws a parallel between the adoption of scientific knowledge and acceptance of media, arguing that both must fight to prove themselves and, having done so, proceed to weave themselves into our lives until they become unremarkable and it becomes difficult for us to ever imagine how we functioned without it. Divorcing media from technology, Gitelman suggests that a key point in understanding the impact of media is describing the social experience that arises around new forms of media and tracing how these experiences evolve over time. Indeed, the transitions between introduction, acceptance, and banality often tell us much about the socio-cultural context in which media reside, with concerns inevitably transitioning from “What is this new technology replacing (i.e., what is lost)?” to “What are the health implications (e.g., is this going to give me cancer)?”  to “What are the implications for the community (e.g., will this bring about the apocalypse)?”

Gitleman further argues that as we forget the social processes that govern media, allowing its protocols to become invisible, media gains a sort of authority and legitimacy, as the state of being influenced by media becomes “the way it always was” even though it wasn’t. Take a second and think about how protocols surrounding media—all media, not just new media—have become incorporated into your life. How do you interact with media? What are the rules (official or otherwise) that govern such behavior?

In front of us is a sampling of the ways in which we might interact with media and, latent in these actions, is a set of protocols that instruct our behavior. But, more than just guiding our interaction with the media, Gitelman argues that these protocols also serve to update and stabilize our sense of the abstract public, with communities rising around shared ritual. Another way to think about this is that we ascertain our position in the community by locating ourselves within an ecology of practice.

In some ways overlapping with community bounded by taste, we see that similar patterns of interaction with, or response to, media helps to delineate those who are like us from those who are not. Speaking of taste how many of you prefer the ad to the left? The right? No preference?

In late 2009, IKEA decided to change its font from Futura to Verdana, a process that has little, if any, inherent significance. The switch, however, provoked no small amount of discussion online, with ardent supporters arguing against equally strident naysayers. Aesthetics aside, the interesting take home message from all of this is the way in which fonts—and typography in general—represent precisely the type of incorporation that Gitelman was talking about with respect to media. As media becomes naturalized, we tend to focus on the content such that methods of production become invisible. When we encounter text, we register what is said before we think about how it’s presented. To quote Adrian Frutiger,

“If you remember the shape of your spoon at lunch, it has to be the wrong shape. The spoon and the letter are tools; one to take food from the bowl, the other to take information off the page…When it is a good design, the reader has to feel comfortable because the letter is both banal and beautiful.”

Gitelman goes on to introduce other forms of inscription, namely recorded sound and new media, suggesting similarities between the cultural relationships that surrounded both sets of protocols.

“Whole new modes of inscription—such as capturing sounds by phonograph in 1878, or creating and saving digital files today—make sense as a result of social processes that define their efficacy as simultaneously material and semiotic.”

We see resonance between the early Dictaphone and speech-to-text input software like visual voicemail or between the gramophone and code-to-speech programs like auto-translation. Gitelman warns, however, that inscriptive media also are inextricably connected to history and attempts to examine these artifacts historically are necessarily affected for we are studying the process of inscription through the products those processes produced! Problematic, to say the least. I suggest that the first step to successful study is to attempt an understanding of the factors that guide our inquiry:  our primary sources for understanding the phenomenon of recorded sound come from print, which means that we must necessarily question the relationship of print to recorded sound at the time.

How did these two media forms coevolve, abut, and compete? If we accept Habermas’ position that the protocols of print media and speech were ensconced in public life and that recorded sound helped to reshape the public, we immediately see the need to question written accounts of recorded sound.

Ultimately, Gitelman’s point is that the socio-historical investigation of media presents a dense and complex web of associations for the would-be researcher, with recorded sound intersecting with family structures, gender, economic demands, and socio-political concepts. The introduction of recorded sound, like that of new media, necessitated a corresponding response in established social structures as it floated out from the gramophone and through the ether, leaving a trail of revolution and restructuring…just like the last time we invented air.