Sumita Chakravarty — Associate Professor of Media Studies, The New School
I’m going to lay out a few of the processes that I took, or the steps, the journey — in a way — in this observational trip that we did. I start with this particular slide and what I’m doing here is a kind of a word play. I started with OBJECT AMERICA because that’s the topic that we were given. I wanted to see what those words evoke for me. And so it’s OBJECT AMERICA, Object as America, Objects in America, America Objectified, and America as Objective.
I do want to say that the two perspectives that I will be employing, or that I did end up employing, were those of my discipline – Media Studies – and of the fact that I was born in another country, and therefore have a particular relationship and history with America and the idea of America. That’s the intersection that I wanted to explore.
OBJECT AMERICA means to me seeing the object in context. I looked at this compound word and it made me think of our first meeting with Ellen Lupton. She presented the Model 500 telephone as an American invention by an American industrial designer whose product then rapidly got disseminated all over the world. Clearly, I was familiar with the telephone long before I came to the United States. I’m originally from India where I grew up, and the solidity — the materiality of this object — that to me signifies a consumerist haven, so to speak.
In other words, objects equaling America as a society — and here the association of sleek yet functional objects as quintessentially American — held sway for a long time. Although that doesn’t seem to be any longer the case — and hardly anything is made in America. That was not true about 25 years ago or so.
OBJECTS (IN) AMERICA. Here I’m thinking of technologies and the “Made in America” slogan of recent years to bring back a lost era of American manufacturing and production. That idea ofOBJECTS (IN) AMERICA is just to look at all of the relationships.
AMERICA OBJECT-IFIED. suggested to me a somewhat less exalted notion of America and implied a kind of self-commodification that the culture is often prone to. America has been objectified by everybody you can imagine. And, of course, that process is something America also does to itself.
AMERICA AS OBJECT-IVE. Given that this is still the wealthiest nation on earth — the most powerful, and the most technologically advanced — it is not surprising that reaching America or being American is still the objective of significant numbers of people in developing economies. In previous years, man people from Europe have made America their objective, more recently it’s been from the less developed world.
My next process was to think about the telephone and look at it as a media studies scholar. To me, the fundamental idea of my discipline is to understand mediation. I wrote my disciplinary home is media studies, which is really a loosely constituted and highly diverse field defining methods of observation. My discipline is like the proverbial description of the elephant by six blind men; each touches one part of the creature and takes it for the whole.
What I’m saying is that, I did my observation my way — and it may not be absolutely the primary way that people are doing it, but a good number are. What I find fascinating and true about this analogy is the inherent doubleness, or rather triple-ness, of an observation. An object — weather an an elephant or a telephone — is at once a physical fact, a mediated image, and a symbolic or meaning laden entity. I observed it’s physicality or materiality, it’s representation as an image, and it’s symbolic or semiotic functions. How much of my observation has been accomplished through which specialized instruments — since that is the topic of the panel.
My specialized instrument was, first of all, the Model 500 telephone itself. I looked at it both as a material and an aesthetic object. Then, my specialized instruments were stories told about this or similar versions of the heavy black telephone. This came out in ’49 and it was an improvement on the Model 3 or 2. That is a continuum, in some sense. So those stories. Then the third were the graphics that featured this telephone and those told me about its practical and symbolic function, so by graphics I mean any kind of image making and drawing etc. of the telephone: my own or anybody else’s.
My most important specialized instrument is critical analysis and reflection.
I suppose that’s what we are paid for as, you know, academics, so I wanted to put all those. I needed that to put all of these other things together. So to establish the specificity of the Model 500 telephone as a medium, I tried to find out its key attributes, and this is what I came up with: communication and miscommunication, sender and receiver, voice and visuality, male and female, entropy and redundancy, materials solidity and message fragility, love and death, and, you know, give you examples of this.
This leads me to have a particular definition of the telephone as a kind of narration. The somewhat wobbly vehicle that, in its inherent vulnerability to interception delay misunderstanding or disguise, dependably delivers the conditions of instability that make narrative possible. So I’m really fascinated or intrigued by the fact that what is this sort of, you know, a functional instrument is really, you know, and our assumptions about it are almost always undercut. You know, communication is never completed and it’s never perfect, right?
I started to look at telephonic texts and the telephonic film. How is the telephone represented in popular culture, popular culture narratives, and particularly films? Of course, there are hundreds and hundreds of films in which the telephone as object appears frequently as part of the mise en scène or as a crucial element of the plot. But what I wanted to do is show you very short clips of two films, one from the late 1940s from Hollywood and the other from 1950s Bombay cinema, and to sort of, you know, one is called Sorry Wrong Number (Am I running out of… two minutes?) okay, and the other one is called Wellborn. So, at least I can show you one of them.
I’ll stop it there and just quickly show you, as you can see a murder’s being, she’s overhearing a murder, right? This is in Hindi. So this one, he is from a very high upper caste and she’s from the untouchable caste, and he’s expressing his love for her over the telephone. And of course he can’t see her reaction because she knows this love is doomed. Same kind of thing in the other one, so again that mismatch of visual and verbal cues is what I was pointing to. Just to finish up… So, what I’m saying is that, although there is ambiguity and mismatch of visual and verbal cues, the telephone, as a medium of communication, is always, you know, fundamentally premised on connection and this fantasy of connection. And that brings me back to the American dream and the idea of America as this kind of, you know, part fantasy part reality. And as I say, as my film examples suggest, the telephone, like America, is an ambiguous object conveying both communicative promise and message fragility, love and fear, the expected and the unknown. OBJECT AMERICA, therefore, is best seen as a paradox. Thank you.
Sumita Chakravarty is Associate Professor of Media Studies at the New School. Her research interests include media theory, media and globalization, film and national identity, digital cultures, and the history and philosophy of media technologies. Sumita is currently working on a book on the intersections of media and migration with the working title, Unsettled States: Towards a Media History of Migration. She is also the curator of the website http://migrationmapping.org, devoted to extensive archiving of news, information, and multimedia resources on the subject of global migration.