Saturday, January 22, 2011

Thesis Extract: Place and Class as Resticting Reading in Two Digital Texts

Social class is depicted in the narratives of Façade and Last Meal Requested using visual, written and audile materials. Class is represented in speech accents, urban environments and neighborhoods. These combine within systems of representation that depict class and place as interdependent. The distinction between an exclusive or impoverished neighborhood is one example of how place defines the representation of class, related to the reader via characters and narrative events in the digital texts. As the reader explores the texts and encounters the places depicted, class restricts and qualifies interpretations and responses to narrative. Relying on pre-existing knowledge regarding place, such as the historical or contemporary economic or social classes associated with particular locations in the urban United States, the texts combine elements from the symbolic repertoires of these locations to address the reader. In this way, class is envisioned in the narrative of the texts as a criterion for reading, whereby in order to interact with the text the reader must recognize and understand particular depictions and distinctions of class, and in turn what the text demands of them as a reading subject. The upper-middle class characteristics of Façade and the class conflicts and contrasts of Last Meal Requested are two examples I discuss in order to explain the role of place in the narrative depiction of class, and how each restricts and ultimately creates conditions for reading in these digital texts.

South Central Los Angeles is a place that frames a section of Last Meal Requested in reading. In a single section of the text a video loop of the police assault on Rodney King in 1992 is arranged in three small windows, while audio recordings taken from the documentary South Central Voices are linked within the same frame. Each of these elements contributes to a representation of place, one that is heavily tempered with class distinctions. The hand-held camcorder video of the beating of Rodney King, an Afro-American man, by white LAPD officers, places the reader in a first-person visual perspective as a witness to the event. In the narrative context of the text, the King beating video is monumental as it is the only repeated moving image on the screen. In reading the video is emphasized on the screen through repetition (looped and multiple examples) and therefore provides a defining central point to the section of the text. The repetition acknowledges its iconic status, as a summary of the ethnic and class divisions between authority and society in the southern Los Angeles area at the time.

In Last Meal Requested a set of relations is established around place as a determinate of class. The reader must negotiate the text according to a pre-existing relationship between classes and place, as no character from a subaltern perspective can assume authority according to place. In the section dominated visually by the silent looped video of police beating Rodney King, a female voice with a heavy regional accent states, “I’m a single parent and I do have a four year old son and I do know that his life is not going to be as valued as much as his playmate who happens to be white” (Last Meal Requested). In both the words and diction the speaker presents a subaltern position in the conflict with a society (Last Meal Requested); as a woman, of limited education and belonging to an ethnic minority. From the same section of the text, a male voice with a standard educated American accent describes how,

When the indictment came forward Judge Roy Bean dismissed the indictment immediately and said, there is no law that says it is against the law to kill a Chinaman and that kind of relational distance still exists today. White people have a certain priority in measure of life compared to non-whites in our society (Last Meal Requested).

In this utterance a sense of authority is conveyed in regards to the assessment and explanation of events through the educated accent of a male speaker with an exterior perspective to those events described. The regional accent of the female speaker is internalized within the subject as experience the event and with a linguistic connection to South Central Los Angeles. While the educated male speaker is neutral within the larger frame of the United States as far as place is concerned. The exterior and authoritative character of the male voice provides a contrast to the female voice. The material qualities of the audio are meaningful in the narrative, and they reflect the content of the statement, “white people have a certain priority on measure of life” (Last Meal Requested), based on a value of the standardization of language. This pattern is repeated throughout the audio of Last Meal Requested.

In a similar situation to Last Meal Requested, the use of accents in Façade indicates class-based associations related to place. The Façade characters speak English from the urban, affluent United States, which places them in a particular set of contexts. Wealth, education, etiquette and sophistication, often through the knowledge of expensive commodities, accompany the contexts suggested by the accents of Grace and Trip. Grace’s lines are spoken in an educated North American urban accent, more specifically an Inland North East dialect. Grace’s slightly higher status accent compared to her partner Trip indicates the background the character was born into, which is, according to Trip, with “a silver spoon” in her mouth (Façade). Trip’s accent is slightly less polished, opening up the address of the text based to his lower middle class background, which is something the character is ashamed of and to which the reader must respond to on several occasions. As I have already mentioned, class difference between the two characters is central to the narrative development of Façade. The accents of each of the characters, as well as those of the respective parents when they leave a message on the telephone answering machine, (Trip’s mother with her working class drawl or Grace’s father with his clipped pronunciation), further contextualizes the characters and narrative action in relation to broader narrative class-based associations. Accents are a sound element in Façade that are read according to class-based stereotypes. Accent provides the reader with additional information regarding the actions of characters as well as contexts for the places in which they perform these actions.

The neighborhood location of Façade demonstrates further how place restricts readings according to class. From the window leading out to a balcony in the apartment of Grace and Trip the reader is visually, if not spatially, exposed to a downtown 90-degree panorama of high-rise apartment buildings with a waterfront. Upon the water are jetties where large yachts are moored. Their “fabulous home” as Trip describes it, is implied to be situated in a wealthy area of a large North American city, possibly Chicago (Façade). The balcony view in Façade contextualizes the apartment in relation to pre-existing narrative associations with place. These associations prompt Grace’s feelings for her home-life being out of place when she addresses to the reader:

GRACE: (little sigh) You know, everybody says the view from our balcony is fantastic...
JIM: yes
GRACE: (little sigh) So everybody loves this view...
(JIM picks up a player's drink.)
GRACE: but I'd really rather see some trees or something... a natural green would enhance the colors of the room so much better.
TRIP: uhh... (Façade)

Grace contextualizes the visual vocabulary related to the view when she integrates it into the domestic life of her marriage to Trip. The general context for the view, as a luxurious place devoid of nature, is a source of tension in the relationship of Grace and Trip, and it’s meaning is dependant on the conflicting interpretations given to it by each of the characters. Grace expresses negative feelings for the view, as it does not “enhance the colors of the room” (Façade). The reader (JIM) complies with Grace’s assessment of the view, by responding with a “yes”, and a deeper context in relation to place is opened in the image of the “natural green” (Façade).

Figure 1: Part of the view from the balcony window in Façade

The exterior of the apartment, its literal façade, with its obvious signs of wealth and status, are the antithesis of what Grace desires. However, the place outside the apartment frames and therefore limits the entire narrative, including the characters and all their actions. The view from the balcony is the edge of the apartment and provides its sense of location. The view and the place it suggests restrict the reader to within the stereotypical contexts of wealth, status and material success, which dominate over the simplicity of nature Grace desires. Place related to the contexts of wealth determines much of the reader responses to the narrative, coupled with the depictions of class that drives the dialogue between the characters.

Class distinctions must be acknowledged by the reader of Façade in order for its narrative to move forward. While the character of Trip comes from a lower-class background, his pretensions and admiration for the upper-class contexts of Grace sets up a defining theme for how the narrative can be responded to by the reader. The telephone ringing is an example of how class distinction is introduced to the reader/guest, and s/he has to respond to its depiction according to a set number of options. There is first the clear idea that Trip courts the ‘high class’ life in a much more active way than does his partner Grace;

TRIP: Grace, no, I want --
GRACE: Trip, please dear, don't be rude.
GRACE: It's probably just the execs at work inviting you to another one of your precious 'high class poker games'.(Façade)

The condescension attached to the word “precious” is an attempt to degrade Trip in the eyes of the reader/guest, but at the same time it introduces his value of higher-class status. A major source of the image of a higher class status are Grace’s parents, who are idolized by Trip in such passages addressed to the reader as “TRIP: No, no no no no no, you've got to understand, Grace loves expensive furniture, she was totally spoiled growing up […] you should see the inside of her parent’s house” (Façade). The class pretensions of Trip continue throughout the phone-ringing episode in Façade, with his desire to speak to Grace’s parents,

TRIP (frustrated sigh)
ANSWERING MACHINE: You've reached the fabulous new home of Grace and Trip. Leave us a message!
ANSWERING MACHINE: Grace, this is your father, I thought I'd call to see how my lovely daughter is doing.
TRIP: Oh, it's your parents! I'll get it – (Façade)

Trip’s desire to speak to his wife’s parents is contrasted with the way he contradicts Grace’s assessment of his own parents; “GRACE: Anyhow, Trip's parents... They're sweet people, really down to earth -- -- (interrupted) TRIP: Uhh, no, they're ignorant, they wouldn't know what a cumberbund -- (interrupted)” (Façade). The distinction between Grace and Trip’s parents, the executives with their poker games, the etiquette’s of dress and the location of “the fabulous new home of Grace and Trip” provide the narrative frame from a class perspective for reading Façade. If the reader resists this frame, either by contradicting the importance placed on class by Trip, or conversely the desire to escape class distinctions by Grace, then the narrative stops with the reader/guest likely to be ejected from the apartment.

The visual and audile elements in the representation of place and class in Façade and Last Meal Requested restrict readings. The visual indicators in Façade set it in an upper-middle class area, possibly Chicago. Similarly, Last Meal Requested represents class and ethnicity in relation to the amateur video of the Rodney King assault, a well-known historical event that is linked to South Central Los Angeles and the riots of 1992. With its character accents, the audio of Façade combines with the visual indicators of place, such as the riverside location of the apartment, to frame narrative in an upper middle class, urban, North American setting. The reader must respond to this depiction of class, in its visual and audile forms, as it is an important part of the narrative development of Façade. Likewise, the depiction of class in Last Meal Requested, particularly in the sense of class divisions, is a central element in how the reader can combine and interpret the elements of the narrative. Social class in Last Meal Requested is depicted in speech accents, vocabulary and images, which combine to result in an overall sense of geo-social location. The character accents of Last Meal Requested support a clear divide between lower class victims of violence and oppression and the higher-class experts who comment on them. This division enables connections to be made in the reading of the narrative between the violence depicted in the visual images and the words of the audio.

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