Catch the City Circle Tram, Even for a Few Stops

The other day I went on a short ride on the City Circle tram – literally only three stops – but later, as I was walking down the street on my way towards the rest of the day, I realised that something about the trip had left a lingering impression on me.

Melbourne's City Circle Tram. Courtesty of Mel Tours - Click on link for source
Melbourne’s City Circle Tram. Courtesty of Mel Tours – Click on link for source

The trams are slow and old, they creak like an earthquake, and yesterday when I went back to the city to figure out what it had been that had interested me so much, the audio commentary recording that usually provides patrons with tour information about the city had broken down and been replaced by a fluro-orange clad Customer Services Officer shouting loudly into the crowded tram. When I stepped onto the tram he was midway through an announcement that this particular carriage had been built in 1940, and thus it took longer to break than a newer tram. So when pedestrians and cars cut it off we’d better hold on because there was a good chance we’d all fall over like bowling pins if we didn’t.

Yet despite all this, when I had the chance to get off the tram and cut across the city in a newer and faster tram, I didn’t.

On my initial, three-stop-trip on the City Circle – the one that had sparked my interest – I had been on my way to visit someone in hospital. So perhaps, I reasoned later, the curious impression the trip had made on me was due only to the fact that when visiting someone dear to you in hospital one will take any consolation, however small, from one’s surroundings. Or I supposed, my interest might instead have been nothing more than a simple novelty factor – for having lived in Melbourne for nearly my whole life I have only ever caught the City Circle a few times, and always in a hurry. How else could a three-stop-tram-ride linger in the mind so vividly? Why had the tram impressed me so much?

But yesterday when I went back to the city to find out, I realised that neither explanation was sufficient.

2015-09-28 15.40.53

Much of the value of historical relics like the City Circle tram, old markets, and wooden ships that don’t go much anywhere lies, I suspect, in their ability to remind us momentarily that life wasn’t always the way we experience and understand it now, even in the same city. And the more familiar the place or object in question, the more compelling the message will be. This I suspect, is what had interested me: I catch trams every week, but rarely is there anything so distinctive that will cause a trip to linger in my mind for very long.

Old Ships that don't much go anywhere: Visit the Polly Woodside to be reminded of another time.
Old Ships that don’t much go anywhere: Visit the Polly Woodside to be reminded of another time.

Yesterday, when I stepped off the City Circle for a moment to let some of the crowd get off and the Customer Services Officer began yelling out all the stops to the remaining patrons, I noted instantly the different reaction I had to this situation here, rather than if this should happen on an ordinary tram. On another tram someone yelling would be annoying. There it wasn’t. Far from it, I found myself smiling stupidly at all the remaining patrons who were largely tourists, wide eyed and gripping gripping cameras and maps.

‘Next stop will be Parliament and Burke street’, our guide yelled out when the tram turned off Flinders St. I continued to sit, quite happy to gaze at the carriage around me. I found myself feeling a bit like an imposter, feeding off the curiousity and general good mood of the people around me like some kind of tourist-vampire – for the passengers were mostly tourists who might have been on the tram for the first time and have never seen the city around it. I watched them with interest as they gazed curiously at the view out of the windows that I might, on my way home from work or uni, ignore in favour of a book, or perhaps something compelling on my phone. On this historical tram – as much a tourist venture as a historical relic, true – the viewpoint from inside tram let me see a city I know well from a completely different point of view, and to appreciate it as if I had never seen it before.

inside the city circle

I heard about four different languages around me as people drew one another’s’ attention to the buildings outside the antique wooden-framed windows. The chatter that I could understand was about all the little things that you would have ceased to be curious about if you lived in Melbourne and if you walked these streets every day: the museum and the Carlton Gardens, they are definitely worth a visit. And that sculpture in the Docklands, maybe I should get off and take a closer look.

When the tram broke down for a moment and the Customers Services Officer told us it would be eight minutes before it moved again it wasn’t annoying, like it might be on another tram. It gave me a chance to consider things more closely as I sat on that well-preserved time capsule.

Not long ago I walked past a part of St Vincent’s hospital that has been recently demolished, and found myself unable to remember what had been there before. I’ve been walking past the hospital every day for the last month, and yet, where there is now a bulldozer and a pile of dust and rubble I cannot remember ever having seen anything else. It seemed a shame, I found myself thinking as I sat on the antique tram, that not everything could be preserved so well as this tram. Now, if you will allow me to digress for a moment with a quote that might seem unrelated, I will endeavour soon to wrap up the two lines of thought I am playing with.

In a book I read recently, The Architecture of Happiness by Alain De Botton, the philosopher muses on what it is about beautiful buildings and architecture that excites not only interest, but strong opinion either in favour or against its design;

…we are drawn to call something beautiful whenever we detect that it contains in a concentrated form those qualities in which we personally, or our societies more generally, are deficient. We respect a style which can move us away from what we fear and towards what we crave: a style which carries the correct dosage of our missing virtues. That we need art in the first place is a sign that we stand in almost permanent danger of imbalance, of failing to regulate our extremes, of losing our grip on the golden mean between life’s great opposites: boredom and excitement, reason and imagination, simplicity and complexity, safety and danger, austerity and luxury.

If the behaviour of babies and small children is any guide, we emerge into the world with our tendencies to imbalance already well entrenched. In our playpens and high chairs, we are rarely far from displaying either hysterical happiness or savage disappointment, love or rage, mania or exhaustion – and, despite the growth of a more temperate exterior in adulthood, we seldom succeed in laying claim to lasting equilibrium, traversing our lives like stubbornly listing ships on choppy seas.

To put it less eloquently, we detect in the design of a building, a reflection of the values we either hold dear or reject. An austere cement office block might cause one to feel crushed under the weight of one’s own strict work routine, in the same way that a children’s playground made entirely of grey cement might cause one to doubt the happy-go-lucky and untroubled state that we so often associate with childhood.

british concrete playground

In contrast however, a building that has been designed in a way that is aesthetically pleasing to us allows us to be idealistic about the world for a moment: to see some beauty in it whose existence we might otherwise be inclined to doubt in our often messy day to day lives.

So, to bring these two strands of thought together finally – in the same way that a building can remove us momentarily from our current concerns, historical relics and reminders also have a part to play in inviting us to consider the world from a viewpoint removed from our own: as it might have been for someone in the 1940s riding a creaking tram through Melbourne – one  that ground noisily to a halt if someone in a bonnet walked in front of it on their way to the market. And short of being only a tourist venture, riding on such a reminder can be a useful exercise in keeping ourselves open to different points of view about how the world was, how it is, and how it can be.

Something of this feeling – this temporary obscuration of our own world and point of view with that of someone else – reaches us when we glimpse antique buildings and is likely a part of why we feel so betrayed when they are knocked down.

That antique hat shop on Flinders Street, Melbourne
That antique hat shop on Flinders Street, Melbourne
The interior of the Palace Theatre, on Melbourne's Bourke Street has charmed many concert-goers, and its redevelopment sparked outrage from many
The interior of the Palace Theatre, on Melbourne’s Bourke Street has charmed concert-goers for years, and its redevelopment sparked outrage from many.
Click on image for source.
Click on image for source.

A hint of a useful and often comforting reminder of another time and place, and its ability to pull us temporarily out of ourselves and our own necessarily narrow, day-to-day viewpoint, is lost when these buildings are demolished, and retained when relics like the City Circle are maintained. This is likely why we prefer instances where a compromise is reached: between destroying all traces of history, and keeping up with the demands of the present. In buildings such as the iconic Richmond Dimmeys bell tower, and the old tram depot at the corner of Power Street and Riversdale Road, a compromise has been found by maintaining the façade of an older building in the process of redevelopment into a newer building.

The iconic Dimmeys bell tower and facade in Richmond in 1952 - Click on image for source.
The iconic Dimmeys bell tower and facade in Richmond in 1952 – Click on image for source.
The redevelopment of the historic building has maintained the original bell tower and facade.
The redevelopment of the historic building has maintained the original bell tower and facade.

In this way the reminder of another time and life can remain with us and help us reconsider the world from a different historical viewpoint, even momentarily. Recently, walking around Studley Park in Kew, I stumbled across some plaques with historical information about what used to exist where there is now only grass next to the river. This might seem like a small thing, but it is a key reminder that the world has not, and will not, always be the way we see it now. And this ability is immensely important when considering social changes both past and present, that require one group to be able to empathise with, and see from the point of view of another.

Studley Park in Kew in it's former existence.
Studley Park in Kew in it’s former existence.
Plaques outside the homes of people murdered by the Nazis. Click on image for source.
Plaques outside the homes of people murdered by the Nazis. Click on image for source.

Historical reminders allow us to recognise that the world around us wasn’t always the way we see it now. They allow us to have multiple perspectives of the same experience or place, which as a more general skill, is crucial in making effective decisions. Think of going on a ghost tour of an old prison, or of spending a day at what used to be a bustling gold mine and the immense popular appeal of such things that challenge our day-to-day acceptance of the world as it is at the moment. This transformation of a familiar setting into something unfamiliar has a useful effect. It has something to do with stories – experiencing the novelty or entertainment aspect – something to do with history, and, in its best form, something to do with empathy.

I remember reading, a while ago now, an article about an exhibition designed to put you as directly in the position of someone else – specifically someone blind or vision impaired – by having a blind guide take groups of visitors through a different experience of the same world:

The concept of Dialogue in the Dark is simple: visitors are lead by blind guides in small groups through specially designed darkened rooms. Scent, sounds, wind, temperature and textures convey the characteristics of daily environments – for example a park, a city, a boat cruise or a bar. The daily routines become a new dimension. A reversal of roles is created: people who can usually see are confronted with the sudden withdrawal of their key-sense sight and are taken out of their familiar environment. Blind people are the experts out of their living circumstances, and provide the public with security and a sense of orientation by transmitting to them a world without pictures. The tour itself lasts for about one hour but the effects can last a lifetime.

This struck me as an interesting idea and I found myself wishing that such things might be incorporated more easily into everyday life. So while the City Circle tram is perhaps a stretch from an exhibition so specific in its aims as Dialogue in the Dark, the central concept and effect is the same: the ability to adopt someone else’s point of view, and from that, the ability to encourage and develop empathetic reactions to the world around us.

Understanding of a place can be sadly lacking in public spaces, which is why history is a valuable tool to help us remove ourselves from our own strict routine and point of view, and glimpse a life other than our own. This is incidentally also why flash mobs are so engaging, and why apps like Geocaching are so popular. They revolve around the same idea, of inviting you to see more in your surroundings by seeing the familiar in an unfamiliar context. They break through the wall around your everyday routine and let you in on a secret moment or a different way of seeing a place that might be otherwise very familiar to you.

Flashmob in Melbourne. Click on image for video!
Flashmob in Melbourne. Click on image for video!

With history however, a challenge is created by its visibility since many of the best secrets are hidden away in closed books and require time and effort to uncover. When walking amongst the hustle and bustle of the Queen Victoria Markets for example, it can be easy to forget that more than ten thousand bodies are buried beneath the tourist hotspot, in what was part of the Old Melbourne Cemetery.

I recommend a large billboard, something, perhaps, like this;

2015-10-04 10.05.13

While yes, this obviously needs refinement (and I use it as an example only, for I’m pretty sure there are historical information plaques already at the Queen Vic Markets and my billboard is, let’s face it, pretty crude) such reminders might serve to more effectively keep alive a sense of wonder that is valuable for its ability to jolt us out of our familiar routine of everyday life and remind us of those who lived in the same space as us but who perhaps weren’t as fortunate.

Much of our discontent in our day to day routines seems to come from our ability to lose sense of the idea that what we see as normal is not the same everywhere, and has not always been the same even in the spaces in which we are now living. There is something incredibly valuable about this reminder. In the same way that Alain De Botton often reminds his audience to visit some ruins, I would like to encourage anyone reading to catch the City Circle tram, even for a few stops, and examine the city as a tourist, or as someone from the 1940s. Or go on a walking tour of Melbourne, or maybe a historical tour of an old prison. There are heaps of great events like this happening every day in Melbourne. There is something immensely encouraging about being a stranger in your own city, even just for a short tram ride. As De Botton says in the video above, there are good things to feel small in front of – eternity, time, death – and visiting some ruins or seeing the world as a stranger can help bring this perspective momentarily into focus. ‘It’s good to see modern civilization crumbling to bits, it’s good to see what will happen to us in time’, De Botton continues, not to depress us, but to free us of what he calls ‘that agonising sense of self importance and egoism that is otherwise clinging to us like a bad smell’, and which can make the pressures of everyday worse than they are. This all might seem small, as though I am writing a love letter to a tram. But the ability of small things to charm us is important in a busy world where it is easy to lose sight remains an important ability. So when the corny voice on the last City Circle that I caught announced ‘St Kilda. Where you can soak up the European atmosphere’ it didn’t bother me or seem out of place. It was fitting with the experience of a tourist, or of someone pretending to be a tourist in an effort to see the world differently for a moment.
……

Here are some links for touristing around Melbourne that I came across. Check them out if you have a free weekend to explore the city’s past:

Mel Tours – Walking Tours of Melbourne 

Self-guided Tour of the Queen Victoria Markets, Melbourne. 

Lantern Ghost Tours – Pentridge Prison, Old Melbourne Goal. 

The Flâneur and other Romantic Notions, Part 2 – Romantic Love

In my last blog post, I attempted (somewhat clumsily I must admit) to address a question many arts students are often asked about why they study the things they do, by making a connection between English subjects like Romanticism and the ideas and standards we encounter in contemporary everyday life. In Part 2 I would like to discuss what I think is the most persistent remnant of the French Romantic movement in popular culture today: an exaggerated idea of romantic in which love and tragedy are presented as two of the most fundamental symptoms of human experiences and expression. I would also like to discuss how the origin of both the French Romantic ideal and the current romantic ideal (in modern Western popular culture at least) can be linked to a specific set of historical conditions. This to show how history can shed insight on the present 🙂

Before examining historical events however it would make more sense for me to describe what I think the French Romantic ideal was. Three central characteristics were this:

  1. What seems an almost excessive willingness to embrace passion despite the knowledge that this often involved danger and pain,
  2. The elevation of human emotions as the ultimate form of experience and expression and,
  3. A willingness to involve oneself in tragedy and the ‘madness of love’ precisely because this experience represents the ultimate form of human truth; one that rises above social structures and orders imposed upon the world and the individual.

Reckless passion in the French Romantic ideal acquired a status so holy status as to rival that of the state and the church. Whilst studying French history last year I came across a quote I think captures perfectly this idealistic notion that love and passion rather than religion and politics can make the world better, or ‘save us from ourselves’:

Peter Gay, in The Tender Passsion: The Bourgeois Experience Victoria to Freud vol. 2, wrote that

Romantic eccentricity tended […] to mix dreams of political utopia and hopes of vast religious renewal’.

This is not difficult to understand when one considers how explosive and volatile French politics and society were during the 19th century:

Eugène Delacroix- La Liberté Guidant Le Peuple. The famous painting of the Revolution of 1830 being led by Lady Liberty.
Eugène Delacroix- La Liberté Guidant Le Peuple. The famous painting of the Revolution of 1830 being led by Lady Liberty. Click on image for more info.

1870 wood engraving of the Paris Uprising of June 1832

Lamartine in front of the Town Hall of Paris rejects the red flag on 25 February 1848 by Henri Felix Emmanuel Philippoteaux Click on image for more info
Lamartine in front of the Town Hall of Paris rejects the red flag on 25 February 1848 by Henri Felix Emmanuel Philippoteaux
Click on image for more info

Writing in 1836 between the devastation of the French Revolution of 1789 and the further violence and dislocation that came with the June Days Uprising in 1848, Alfred de Musset encapsulated in his book Confession of a Child of the Century , the pervasive feeling of normlessness, disillusionment, and anomie that affected many during this period.

During the wars of the Empire, while husbands and brothers were in Germany, anxious mothers brought into the world a generation that was ardent, whey-faced and morbidly sensitive. Conceived in the intervals between battles, raised in schools to the beat of drums, thousands of boys exchanged grim looks as they flexed their puny muscles. From time to time blood-spattered fathers would appear, hold them up against chestfuls of golden medals, then put them down again and get back on their horses.

Alfred de Musset, an influential figure in the French Romantic movement.
Alfred de Musset, an influential figure in the French Romantic movement.
George Sand, another influential figure in the French Romantic movement.
George Sand, another influential figure in the French Romantic movement.

To shorten a long story, the 19th century in France was extremely bloody.

It therefore incidentally provided the perfect conditions for the passionate French Romantic ideal to emerge as a response to the disillusionment that would have accompanied periods of violence and political instability. The violence that had brought out the worst in human nature was reinvented in the Romantic ideal as a desire to elevate something (human experience and passion) to a higher level than the institutions, political bodies, and individuals that had so far guided France to overwhelming level of chaos. When Alain Corbin draws our attention to ‘the violence of passionate language in the years after the Revolution [in which] Love becomes ‘frenzy [and] jealousy took the form of madness’[1], this redirection of revolutionary energy into the French Romantic obsession with passionate experience is clear. Corbin continues with ‘emotion was so overwhelming that it made even death tempting’[2] – and this I think is something we can see in not some but many contemporary films, songs, and novels.

Louis Philippe I, in power in the 1830s, was supposed to be a ‘Citizen-King’ in what became known as the ‘Impossible Monarchy’. This period of French history was yet another confusing and frustrating attempt to return stability to a country which had undergone much political change and inconsistency, but one that created a frustrating double-standard: How can a king also really be a citizen?
Louis Philippe I, in power in the 1830s, was supposed to be a ‘Citizen-King’ in what became known as the ‘Impossible Monarchy’. This period of French history was yet another confusing and frustrating attempt to return stability to a country which had undergone much political change and inconsistency, but one that created a frustrating double-standard: How can a king also really be a citizen?

Now, to the present day.

Even at their most over-the-top and excessive, the French romantic ideals discussed above have survived into the present day. We might scoff at how ridiculous and frivolous some romantic prose is, but studying it next to its political and historical context is really interesting. So, in today’s world, I would like to argue that the glorified and sensationalistic fantasy of love as a force of human truth that can unite people over their differences has survived. And not only a little, but a lot.

In hugely popular movies like Titanic and Moulin Rouge!, love as this somewhat abstract but universal idea has the power to override differences that are imposed on the individual – differences like class and race. Part of the storyline of both of these films is the frustration that the wider society as a whole will not accept the reality of such love between members of different social groups.

nothing on earth could come between them
Note the tag line: ‘Nothing on Earth could come between them’
Note the tag line: 'No rules. No limits'
Note the tag line: ‘No rules. No limits’

However in countries like America and Australia, where the violence of the French Revolutions is not present and we do not face the same restrictive measures imposed by the Catholic church and other political bodies, the question must be asked: What set of historical circumstances is supporting the persistence of such excessive and over-the-top ideas?

I would like to suggest that the French Romantic ideal still functions as an antidote, but rather than an antidote to political violence and religious pressure, the modern depiction of love functions as an antidote to the sense of confusion or anomie that globalisation often causes.

Writing about social transformation in the global era Peter Atteslander defines anomie as

an anarchic state of crisis-prone uncertainty affecting a broad segment of the population [that occurs when] cultural interpretative models lose their function’[3].

Despite its many advantages, globalisation can trigger a feeling of anomie in the way that it necessarily confronts the individual with multiple viewpoints and possibilities for how to live. The overabundance of information and perspectives on any given topic that is now easily available in the Information Age can lead to a frustrating sense of normlessness and confusion about ‘truth’, meaning and accuracy. So we defer to feelings which are common and familiar to us all. This makes sense, but nonetheless I feel it should be examined.

Modern films like Titanic and Moulin Rouge! exemplify the ways in which the French Romantic ideal suggested a desire for unity in human relations, for something that would unite people over their differences and divisions, and around something universally recognisable. The revolutionary-like energy of French Romantic fantasies offers a compelling antidote to the increasingly scientific and reductionist ways in which the world is being defined. Human passion in these narratives – rather than spiritual or political fervour or scientific advancement – is something that adds meaning to life even in the face of death. Part of their appeal is the enormous abundance of tragedy that these films contain. Audiences are fascinated by the almost holy depiction of love as the ultimate experience of truth for human existence in an age marked by an increasing sense of anomie, dislocation, confusion and disenchantment. So now that I am rambling, and still unsure how I feel about this – whether it’s a good or a bad thing, or maybe neither – just an interesting thing – I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you see this idea in everyday life around you?

References and further reading: 

This piece is abridged, it was originally submitted as an essay to La Trobe University in 2014.

Pamela Silvan.

[1] Corbin, Alain, ‘Intimate Relations’, in Perrot, Michelle (ed.), A History of Private Life vol. IV: From the Fires of Revolution to the Great War, (Cambridge, Harvard UP, 1990), p. 573.

[2] Corbin, Alain, ‘Intimate Relations’, in Perrot, Michelle (ed.), A History of Private Life vol. IV: From the Fires of Revolution to the Great War, (Cambridge, Harvard UP, 1990), p. 573.

[3] Atteslander, Peter, ‘Social Transformation in the Age of Globalization: A Challenge to Reduce Anomie and to Increase Social Capital’ in International Review of Sociology, vol. 17, no.3 (2007), p. 489.

War photography and propaganda

Originally a neutral term used to describe a deliberate attempt to influence the emotions, attitudes and actions of a specific target audience, propaganda has essentially now become a negative term. One associated with manipulative advertising techniques, distorted images of reality, and outright racism:

American anti-Japanese propaganda poster made during WWII. Copyright information “Tokyo Kid Say”, artist unknown, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-Japanese_sentiment#/media/File:Tokio_Kid_Say.png.

So the other day when my sister sent me these pro-communist Vietnam propaganda posters by Cuban artist René Mederos I was initially taken aback at the first thought that passed through my head: How very beautiful they are.

Como en Viet Nam by Rene Mederos, ca. 1975
Como en Viet Nam by Rene Mederos, ca. 1975
René Mederos, 1969
“Como en Viet Nam, Mes de la Mujer Vietnamita” (Month of the Vietnamese Woman), ca. 1970
“Como en Viet Nam, Mes de la Mujer Vietnamita” (Month of the Vietnamese Woman), ca. 1970
René Mederos, 1969
René Mederos, 1969
“Como en Viet Nam, Mes de la Ofensiva del Tet” Month of the Tet Offensive, ca. 1970
“Como en Viet Nam, Mes de la Ofensiva del Tet” Month of the Tet Offensive, ca. 1970
René Mederos, 1969
René Mederos, 1969
“FNL de Viet Nam del Sur,” 1969
“FNL de Viet Nam del Sur,” 1969
René Mederos, 1969
René Mederos, 1969

The communist cause of the Vietcong is portrayed here as a kind of utopian celebration, with swirling lines and bright colours creating a distinctly reassuring and relaxing impression. I spent quite some time staring at these posters, and a strange sense of peace settled over me. Maybe it is the colours, maybe it is the lines – but it is surely something to do with the otherworldliness of these images that makes them so appealing. Like idealised cartoons of reality, they reflect a highly aspirational vision of revolution and communism as the artist sees it. When I scrolled down to the bottom of the page, the last poster held me captive for quite some time:

René Mederos, 1971
René Mederos, 1971

*1

Ho Chi Minh sits serenely by a riverside, reading books in a warm descending twilight. Perhaps one of the most celebratory depiction of Ho Chi Minh I have seen so far, he sits peacefully unaware of the viewer, silently minding his own business while he reads about how to move his country and his people forward towards a better future.

There is something extremely hypnotic about this image. This is the ‘Uncle Ho’ of the Communist chants, and of poems such as Chu Van’s The Moon Remembers Uncle Ho:

‘Looking at the moon I remember the smiling face of Uncle Ho. Seeing the clouds reminds me of his gray hair.

The wind is like his young hands stroking the beard of the revered and loved Uncle Ho.

The young moon comes out early, in the afternoon.

The moon has waited for the night so many times.

Do not be sad, moon!

Moon, people are busy on the military training ground.

Visit the compassionate soldiers,

Visit the villages of the homeland.

Where the people are, the moon will follow.

Follow the footsteps of Uncle Ho and write a people’s poem,

A happy poem full of the sentiments of Uncle Ho.” *2

After dwelling on these posters for a while and thinking about different representations of war and conflict, my mind wandered to photos of the war. Instantly they provoke a different feeling:

https://www.pinterest.com/pin/311592867945823352/
https://www.pinterest.com/pin/311592867945823352/
https://www.pinterest.com/pin/311592867945823353/
https://www.pinterest.com/pin/311592867945823353/
Hue 1968 | 11 Feb 1968, Hue, South Vietnam --- South Vietnamese Woman Carrying Her Wounded Son https://www.pinterest.com/pin/311592867945812561/
Hue 1968 | 11 Feb 1968, Hue, South Vietnam — South Vietnamese Woman Carrying Her Wounded Son
https://www.pinterest.com/pin/311592867945812561/
US soldier with a South Vietnamese child, Vietnam (Philip Jones Griffiths, 1967) https://www.pinterest.com/pin/311592867945812570/
US soldier with a South Vietnamese child, Vietnam (Philip Jones Griffiths, 1967)
https://www.pinterest.com/pin/311592867945812570/

War photography, like propaganda, is not objective. A mission to inform the public about a conflict is not without a moral stance on that conflict. We see this when we contrast the photos above – all representations of the tragedies of war – with celebratory photos such as this one, of Kamikaze pilots in WWII:

Chiran high school girls wave farewell with cherry blossom branches to a taking-off kamikaze pilot. The pilot is Second Lieutenant Toshio Anazawa of Army Special Attack Unit. Copyright information “Chiran high school girls wave kamikaze pilot,”photographer unknown, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Chiran_high_school_girls_wave_kamikaze_pilot.jpg#filelinks
Chiran high school girls wave farewell with cherry blossom branches to a taking-off kamikaze pilot. The pilot is Second Lieutenant Toshio Anazawa of Army Special Attack Unit.
Copyright information “Chiran high school girls wave kamikaze pilot,”photographer unknown, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Chiran_high_school_girls_wave_kamikaze_pilot.jpg#filelinks

The power of images becomes obvious here, as well as the differences between photography and art, and what can be achieved when the two are combined. A comparison of war photography and propaganda posters points out the complexity of perspective, especially during a war as convoluted as Vietnam. It is certain that there are and were many who believed wholeheartedly in Mederos’ image of Uncle Ho sitting serenely in the forest just as others wholeheartedly did not.

In his lectures about the difficulty of navigating and understanding modern news media, Alain de Botton draws attention to the relationship – or lack of it – between news and art: ‘Information needs to enter our imagination’ in order for it to be useful, he says. *3 He contrasts the sterile and decontextualized news reel with effective pieces of photojournalism: Pieces in which the image advances our understanding by showing us something we didn’t know before, or by challenging us to reconsider any straightforward narrative – especially those concerning war and conflict:

What was he shooting at before that soldier picked up two Vietnamese infants?

What did the soldier in the second photo think of the war before he left home?

What is written in the eyes of the soldier? What is written in the eyes of the child?

Richard Alan also points out that “persuasion serves a public interest when it assists social utility” *4. This is along similar lines as a point that Alain de Botton makes in his aforementioned speech about the impact of modern news media: that bias in the news can serve a purpose when it is directed at exposing injustice. Since bias is something that cannot be removed it should be used as it is in effective photojournalism, rather than as it is in propaganda. This is the ideal, at least.

References: 

*1. Mederos, René, Vietnamese Revolution Art [images], (1969-71) < http://dangerousminds.net/comments/rene_mederos&gt;, accessed 17/05/15.

*2. Chu Van, ‘The Moon Remembers Uncle Ho’, in Norton, Barley, Songs for the Spirits: Music and Mediums in Modern Vietnam (USA: University of Illinois Press, 2009), p. 36.

*3. De Botton, Alain, The News: A User’s Manual [online video], (Talks at Google, 13/03/14) < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A4aAJrJB6h0> accessed 15/05/15.

*4. Alan, Richard, ‘Issues Communication and Advocacy: Contemporary Ethical Challenges’, Public Relations Review, vol. 20, no. 3 (1994), p. 225.

*5.

UNCLE SAM IS DEAD

Summary:

Both a famous and infamous embodiment of American values – specifically the idea that America ‘has a special mission in the world’[1] – Uncle Sam’s long history as a national icon has seen his original purpose as a recruitment tool transformed into cynical expressions of frustration with a faded ideal.

uncle sam 1

Uncle Sam is next.

Copyright information:
Copyright information: “Uncle Sam Wants You For the Nearest Recruiting Station” – by J. M. Flagg. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Unclesamwantyou.jpg.

Uncle Sam is perhaps the most famous personification of America. Used originally in 1917[2] as a recruitment poster for World War I he represents the patriotic ideals used to drive enlistment. But more recently he has become the poster-boy for a growing sense of frustration towards the U.S. government, something that sharpened after Vietnam. A powerful symbol both in support and derision of American values, Uncle Sam has now entered the popular culture often accompanied by a mocking tone. Let us take a closer look at him…

Uncle Sam is pointing at you. YOU! He engages directly with his audience – young men of recruitment age in the lead up to WWI. Addressing them through their sense of patriotism Sam also wears the colours of the U.S. flag. The bold red ‘YOU’ also evokes the flag. His clothes – while respectable – are not as crisp as they could be, and he hunches tiredly forward, lines darkening his eyes. Sam exemplifies America’s self-image of a dedicated and benevolent guardian (an ‘uncle’) working ceaselessly to move the world forward.

He is no longer a young man, but a ‘long-suffering […] good-natured [and] wise’[3] figure, reminiscent in appearance of Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin – Presidents remembered fondly. His egalitarian appeal to ‘YOU’ – to the everyman rather than an unfamiliar elite – is reinforced by his expression, which hovers somewhere between exhaustion and determination. Such feelings are linked symbolically to the meritocratic ideals of average America – that if you work hard enough you will succeed. And by representing both the everyman and the American government, Sam functions as non-discriminative bridge between his audience and the American government.

However, it is this suggestion of a partnership between the everyman and a benevolent government that has allowed Sam to be transformed so effectively from a symbol of pre-Vietnam idealism, to one that represents the era of cynical disillusionment that followed America’s most divisive war. The sardonic tone with which Sam is often appropriated reflects a wider dissatisfaction and loss of faith in not only the U.S. government, but also the mythologies formerly used to wage ‘just wars’ such as World War I and II.

Much of the power the image once had was lost after America’s war in Vietnam shifted the post-WWII image of America as benevolent world protector. Intervention in Vietnam (and more recently Iraq and Afghanistan) destroyed America’s post-WWII status as a nation that didn’t lose wars or commit atrocities, but worked tirelessly for democracy.

This is powerfully evident in Vietnam-era parodies of Uncle Sam, which specifically undermine the egalitarian appeal suggested in 1917 by pointing out that Vietnam was fought predominantly by poor and working-class Americans rather than the American ‘everyman’[4];

Copyright information:
Copyright information: “Uncle Sam Wants You Nigger” – Vietnam Solidarity Campaign. Public Domain, via McMaster University Libraries – http://pw20c.mcmaster.ca/vietnam-solidarity-campaign-periodical-1967.

[5]

And this decline in Uncle Sam’s former patriotic appeal is evident in the words of an African American draftee – ‘I think we were the last generation to believe […] in the honour of war…there is no honour in war’[6]. Another draftee mirrored these words when he called Vietnam ‘the biggest nothing in history’[7].

Not only this, but the national mythology Sam once embodied and the scrutiny of it brought by Vietnam is evident in jarring contradictions such as his 1942 appropriation to recruit not soldiers this time – but nurses to patch up soldiers Sam had  already dispatched.

1 Front_Cover
American National Red Cross, ‘Uncle Sam Needs Nurses’, Illinois Digital Archives, (1942) < http://www.idaillinois.org/cdm/ref/collection/isl3/id/16340&gt; p. 2, accessed 8 September 2014.

‘Nurses of America – we count on you’[8] reads a pamphlet entitled ‘Uncle Sam Needs Nurses’. And modern appropriations such as ‘I Want You…to Get Me A Beer’[9] reflect a further move from cynicism to apathy.  

But it is Uncle Sam’s direct address to the individual is his most powerful characteristic. Individualism being both a celebration and criticism levelled at American culture, his image embodies contradiction. It is simultaneously subtle and blunt, emotional and pragmatic. Having been both the personification of everything right and everything wrong with America, Uncle Sam has become both a subjective and objective figurehead.

Sources: 

[1] Curti, Merle, ‘Uncle Sam as a Missionary’, The Journal of Higher Education, vol. 11, no. 9 (1940), p. 472.

[2] James Montgomery Flagg, Uncle Sam Needs You [image], (1917) <http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/images/tlc0090.jpg&gt;, accessed 28 August 2014.

[3] Merle Curti, ‘Uncle Sam as a Missionary’, The Journal of Higher Education, vol. 11, no. 9 (1940), p. 472.

[4] Christian Appy, ‘A Working Class War’ in Robert McMahon (ed.), Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War,(U.S.A: Cengage Learning, 2008) , p. 251.

[5] Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, Uncle Sam Wants you Nigger [image], (1967) <http://pw20c.mcmaster.ca/vietnam-solidarity-campaign-periodical-1967> accessed 28 August 2014.

[6] Author unknown, ‘An African American Draftee Reflects on the War’s Impact, 1984’ in Robert McMahon (ed.), Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War,(U.S.A: Cengage Learning, 2008) , p. 517.

[7] John Kerry, ‘A Vietnam Veteran Opposes the War, 1971’ in Robert McMahon (ed.), Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War,(U.S.A: Cengage Learning, 2008) , p. 413.

[8] American National Red Cross, ‘Uncle Sam Needs Nurses’, Illinois Digital Archives, (1942) < http://www.idaillinois.org/cdm/ref/collection/isl3/id/16340> p. 2, accessed 8 September 2014.

[9] ‘Uncle Sam Wants You to Get Me a Beer’ [image], (2008) < http://www.zazzle.com.au/uncle_sam_want_you_get_me_a_beer_tshirt-235232917531688370>, accessed 8 September 2014.

Author: 

Pamela Silvan,

La Trobe University,

2014.

Missing Pages

Today I walked past a second-hand bookstore and a book suddenly appeared in my hand (this is pretty much how it happens. I will leave the similarities between second-hand bookstores and alien abductions to another post). A subject in which I had taken a particular interest during my undergraduate degree had been about the conflict in Vietnam, so when I saw The Pictorial History of the Vietnam War printed down the spine of a large and seemingly well-read book I grabbed it. I didn’t flick much through it however, and when I found myself outside I regretted this for a moment when I saw the first page:

the pictorial history of the vietnam war inside cover   the pictorial history of the vietnam war cover

But then, after a few second of standing waiting for the lights to change, I started thinking about something that had always bothered me when studying the conflict at uni:  approximate death counts. I couldn’t help but think how appropriate it was that large successions of pages were missing from a book about a conflict in which – like every war I suppose– the exact total death count remains disputed.

I understand how difficult exact numbers would be to determine. The absence of reliable data to use as comparison points before let alone during a war are only some of the obstacles. Many people have pointed this out, especially in the cases of Vietnam and Iraq (as even a cursory look online will attest).

Charles Herschman, Samuel Preston and Vu Manh Loi draw attention to this in an article in which they attempt to create a more accurate data-based estimate of the total dead in the American war in Vietnam between 1965 and 1975 – a mammoth task, especially for the Vietnamese dead.

‘Although there was a careful counting of the causalities sustained by foreign armies, there are no reliable statistics on the Vietnamese war losses during the “American War”. Numbers from one to three million Vietnamese war dead are frequently reported.’ *1

This raises other issues: There is the issue of counting deaths connected to the war not only in Vietnam, but also in Laos and Cambodia. And then there are long-term deaths that must be taken into account, people who died after 1975 due to war-related causes — exposure to the chemical substances used in the war, food shortages, people who died fleeing the country. I realise that these are probably extensions of what typically goes into a death-count, but they are deaths connected to the war nonetheless.

So it seems there are at least two types of history – one that is written, and rewritten, and corrected, and disputed, and passed on down to the next generation in the hopes that we will learn from it. But then there is one that is harder to grasp, one that is more elusive and that is known and felt most prominently by the families who see those missing people, those missing pages every day.

The fact that guesses have to be made in many instances is one I can understand in terms of practical limitations. But every time I hear that word ‘approximate’ the bits of the puzzle that remain unsolved make the idea that anyone really ‘wins’ a war a strange one at best.

References: 

Barnes, Jeremy, The Pictorial History of the Vietnam War (New York: Gallery Books, 1988).

*1) Charles Herschman, Samuel Preston, and Vu Manh Loi, ‘Vietnamese Casualties During the Vietnam War: A New Estimate’, Population and Development Review, vol. 21/no. 4, (1995), p. 783.