March 6, 2000
Volume 52, No. 24
Wood has appetite for 'Consuming Visions'
by Cathy Byrd
It's been less than two centuries since the magic of film was discovered. In the 1850s, photographs became reproducible, and 1895 marked the advent of moving pictures.
These inventions enabled us to capture "reality" in a visual medium that profoundly changed the way people perceived and interacted with the world around them. In a course this spring called "Consuming Visions: American Ways of Seeing," Ph.D. student Amy Wood engages students in examining the development of visual technologies and how they affect life today.
Specifically her class is looking at what Wood describes as "new ways of seeing." "We are interested in exploring the dynamic relationship between photography and film, advertising and television, and the emergence of commercial capitalism and consumerism in this country," she explained.
Wood remarked how, since the 19th century, visual media have become accessible to a larger public. "Photography is more democratic than traditional visual arts," she said. "Anyone could photograph and be photographed. Movies similarly became a cheap and accessible form of visual consumption."
Students in Wood's class see multiple ways in which an increasingly visual culture has reflected and shaped evolving concepts of race, religion, gender and morality in America.
Her students are reading books that address some of those issues. Anne Friedberg's Window Shopping is an analysis of early visual media in a European context. The book provides a theoretical framework for a discussion about urban experiences in America that anticipated the coming of film.
In Cheap Amusements, author Kathy Peiss documents how immigrant, working-class women in New York at the turn of the century consumed commercial amusements as a means to assimilate into dominant American culture. Lynne Spige's Make Room for TV will be consulted for an idea about how television assumed the central role it did in American domestic life in the 1950s.
Students will look at the way photography became tied to broad political and social agendas. Their reference point is Alan Trachtenberg's Reading American Photographs, which offers analyses of photography in various historical contexts in the United States. Wood will also introduce the class to early cinema through film shorts like The Great Train Robbery, The Unseen Enemy and The Cameraman.
To complete their analysis, the class will turn to the latter part of the 20th century and consider how new visual technologies, particularly television, may have created "postmodern" ways of seeing. "Postmodern" visuality, Wood suggested, might typically involve perceptual fragmentation, a constant flow of imagery and blurring of reality and representation.
"We will be questioning whether these modes of visual consumption signify a visual revolution or rather a continuation of the visual experiences of modernity," she said.
Wood, who completed undergraduate studies in European literature and philosophy, has a master's in Southern studies. She's now a fifth-year doctoral student of American Studies in the Institute of the Liberal Arts. Her dissertation, "Spectacles of Suffering: Religion, Enter-tainment and Violence in the New South, 1880-1930," examines the ritual performance of racialized mob violence and white supremacy as spectacle within the New South. Her writing elucidates why lynching occurred with such frequency and intensity in the post-Reconstruction South and how mob violence came to be enacted as mass spectacle.
"I analyze the intersections and interactions between lynching and other forms of spectacle at this time, including religious iconography and ritual, photography, cinema and other popular forms of communal and commercial amusement," Wood said.
"Consuming Visions" explores similar relationships between the spectacle of new visual media and evolving conceptions of race, morality and gender. According to Wood, there's evidence that new media at the turn of the century ritualized, consecrated and gave shape to ideologies of white, masculinist supremacy and interclass solidarity in America.