An Answer to Langer and Lopate: Two-Layered Representation in Art Spiegelman’s Maus

2014 Sosland Prize in Expository Writing

Maia Silber


In his essay “Pre-empting the Holocaust,” literary scholar Lawrence L. Langer argues against universalizing the Holocaust by using it to convey deliberate morals or themes. Those who “universalize,” he claims, reduce the particular meaning of the Holocaust in Jewish history to vague metaphors about humanity. Their abstracted, symbolic, and ultimately meaningless representations undermine the sheer horror invoked by literal representations. Yet, for writer and critic Philip Lopate, particularism poses its own problems; his “Resistance to the Holocaust” argues that representing the Holocaust as a unique and unparalleled event mystifies its meaning and detracts from its weight and relevance. A refusal to “universalize” in another sense, comparing the Holocaust to other tragedies, defies the human need to draw parallels and analogies; it might also suggest Jewish superiority. At first glance, it would seem impossible to meet both Langer’s demand that the Holocaust not be abstracted into some universal truth without substantiating Lopate’s fear that it be isolated from the rest of human history. How can the Holocaust be represented at all without violating at least one of these camps of theories?

Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus makes use of the graphic novel genre and the frame narrative to provide one solution to this seemingly unsolvable dilemma. His new artistic approach meets the demands of both theorists by operating on two different layers, universalizing according to Lopate’s sense of the term but not Langer’s. The outer layer presents us with the universal implications of the comic book form, masking the Holocaust through allegory and burying its horrors within a more relatable contemporary story. But once this layer is peeled away, Spiegelman reveals a stark, specific, emotionally powerful and often physically graphic account of one man’s Holocaust experience, stripped of message or moralizing.

Lopate does not defend the universalist desire to tritely symbolize or blur through abstraction, as Langer detests. He does, though, claim that “ insistence upon separatism […] contains a dangerous element of mystification” (266). Quoting Yehuda Bauer, he analogizes the unique to the “mysterious”—if an event cannot apply to the total human experience; it becomes almost magical, existing in a realm beyond our understanding (qtd. 267). Worse, an event that cannot be thematized or contextualized escapes our attention as well as our understanding. Literalizing the Holocaust, preventing it from slipping outside of a geographical, ethnic, and chronological box, puts it “beyond our pity and commiseration” (Bauer qtd. 267). According to Lopate, if nothing can be drawn from the Holocaust besides the specific actions of one group of people against another, then it has no applicability and therefore no relevance to the rest of history or the rest of the human race. Representations of the Holocaust, then, must justify themselves by depicting “universal problems.”

In art, there is no struggle more universal than that between good and evil, and this struggle finds one of its most universally recognized expressions in the comic book genre. The genre seems perfectly suited to depicting brief, neat, and morally unambiguous battles between superheroes and villains. The trope has become so ubiquitous that when presented with the unfamiliar (supernatural powers and futuristic gadgets), we automatically expect the familiar—endless variations of the same basic plot in which the superhero defeats his foe, good triumphing over evil.[1] Thus when Spiegelman chooses to depict the Holocaust in a comic book, he carries these genre expectations with him; we have already been primed to interpret the story as a universal moral one. When Art[2] first proposes the comic book idea to his father, Vladek worries that “no one wants anyway to hear such stories” (Spiegelman, Maus I 12). This concern, that the narrative of a person’s life would not interest other individuals, parallels a larger one on the part of the author—that the narrative of a people’s history would not interest other groups. The narrator also expresses his concern that “reality is too complex for comics” (Spiegelman, Maus II 16). But, if Lopate fears that the unique Jewishness of the Holocaust makes it “mystifying,” the comic genre allows Spiegelman to embrace this nature—after all, comics usually contain otherworldly, magical, or fantastical subject matter—and universalize it (Lopate 266). As with superheroes and villains, the mystifying becomes familiar.

But would this familiarity not, then, confirm Langer’s worst fears— that the narrative of the Holocaust itself becomes lost when placed in a larger context? Not necessarily. It seems that the negative view Langer holds toward universalism comes in part from its tendency to overshadow literal terrors; it prevents the reader from “troubl[ing] to ask what it might mean to be dead while one is still alive” (106). The “truth of [the Jews] ordeal,” as Langer sees it, rests not in the large themes of human nature but in the story of an SS physician who “liked to amputate the arms or legs of Jews to see how long it would take them to bleed to death” (107). And Langer spares no literal horrors in his own account, describing, in addition to the amputations, a baby torn “in two before the mother’s eyes” and a group of Jews being thrown into a pit of acid (103). Only stark, accurate, unadulterated stories like these, he believes, can fully convey the Holocaust’s horror. These stories should hold a place of prominence in a Holocaust narrative; they cannot be subordinated to analysis or covered up by artistic and rhetorical devices.   

The comic book might seem like just such an artistic device, but its implicit use of Lopate’s universalism actually frees Spiegelman to focus on literal representations rather than explicit thematic messages or analysis. The graphic imagery, in both dialogue and illustration, of some of Vladek’s anecdotes would certainly satisfy Langer. Art promises his father that he will tell “your story, the way it really happened,” and he spares no detail in doing so (Maus II, 23). In Maus II, Vladek recalls: “On one appel [one prisoner] didn’t stand so straight and a guard dragged him away. I heard he pushed him down and jumped hard on his neck” (50). The accompanying picture shows a German Guard with his foot above a partially obscured man whose hands flies up in pain. Later, he recalls a group of Jews who “had to jump in the graves while still they were alive… prisoners what worked there poured gasoline over the live ones and the dead ones” (74). The image here takes up the entire bottom of the page; it depicts the open mouths and wide eyes of indistinguishable Jews being consumed by massive flames. Spiegelman captions it with a single boxed-off sentence: “And the fat from the burning bodies they scooped and poured again so everyone could burn better” (72). The placement of images and words highlights the centrality of the violent, physical detail, isolating it from any “universalizing” context. Spiegelman even follows it with a break from the narrative; Vladek conveniently says “Ach! It’s 2:30” (73). The intention to arrest the reader on this image is clear, and the jump back into the present seems jarring.  Earlier, dozens of Jewish bodies pile up around Art, drawing at his desk and becoming overwhelmed by “fifteen foreign editions” and “four serious offers to turn my book into a TV special or movie” (41). The surrealistic image suggests the burden Spiegelman feels to fully convey such horrors as those Langer believes should be represented.

Neither does Maus violate another tenet Langer ascribes to universalism:  its tendency to advocate for an outside moral agenda, which he calls “exemplarism.” This additional dimension to the term would likely offend Lopate as well; both theorists object to representations that convey some particular “philosophy or system of belief or critical point of view” of the artist’s own (107). For instance, the visual artist Judy Chicago uses the Holocaust to advance her feminist ideals (107-114). Though it could be argued that Maus has a message, this message would have to be interpreted largely by the reader; Spiegelman does not provide one explicitly. Rather, when being interrogated by reporters, Art insists that “I never thought of reducing it to a message” and claims not to be “trying to convince anybody of anything” (Spiegelman, Maus II 42). The final part of this speech ,“I just wanted—,” broken off when another character interrupts, suggests confusion and desperation on the part of Art as a character but deliberate ambiguity on the part of Spiegelman as an author (42). Representations of the Holocaust, he suggests, must refrain from stating outright their intent. This refusal to express intent  may be another way to account for Spiegelman’s tendency to abruptly end important parts of Vladek’s narration, coming back to the present instead of pausing for analysis. In doing this, he implies that the author has no literal or figurative place in such unimaginable stories, and can only insert himself into a more familiar context (for Spiegelman, contemporary Queens). 

Thus Spiegelman manages to convey Lopate’s universalism, in that he hints at larger relevance and applicability, without falling into Langer’s universalism, in that he does not evade literal depiction or advocate for some political or moral agenda. Indeed, Lopate’s universalism has more to do with relativism. He claims that “drawing parallels and analogies is an incorrigibly natural human activity;” humans have to be able to compare the Holocaust to other events in order to understand it (265). Specifically, the Holocaust should be compared to other genocides and injustices, for Lopate claims that “a relativistic perspective [is] part of the discipline of competent modern historians” (267). Mentioning the slaughter of Armenians, Bengalis, Cambodians, Russians, Chinese, Nigerians, Ugandans, Hutus, Southern Sudanese, and the people of East Timor, Lopate launches into an analysis of the number killed and method of murder in each genocide (267-268). He concludes that in some cases, the victims of genocide might be ignored “simply because they are Third World people of color” (268).

Spiegelman does not explicitly compare the Holocaust to other atrocities, but he does set up an inherently relativistic framework by employing allegory. In a world where Jews are mice, Germans are cats, and Poles are pigs, comparisons are inherent; the use of animal allegories primes us to view the Holocaust through the “parallels and analogies” that Lopate advocates (265). Moreover, the meta-textual elements of the comic books emphasize the transparency and deliberateness of the allegory; Maus II begins with Art “trying to figure out how to draw” his French wife who has converted to Judaism (11). The humorous quips in the conversation—as Art decides that a “bunny rabbit” would be “too sweet and gentle” for the French—are more than just self-deprecating means for Spiegelman to expose his own construct’s superficiality. If a French woman can so arbitrarily be drawn as a frog or a bunny rabbit or a mouse, she can be anything. If victims and perpetrators of the Holocaust can be likened to animals, they can also be likened to the Hutus and the Tutsis, the Russian peasants and Stalin’s regime.

Again, this method would seem to violate one of Langer’s central objections, that relativistic representations of the Holocaust undermine the suffering of the Jews and excuse the atrocities of the Germans. He scoffs at the notion “that evildoers are not radically different from oneself” because “by evildoers we mean the Germans and their collaborators who tore babies in half and buried human beings alive” (108). Specific acts can only be committed by specific persons, and so to compare these acts to those committed by other groups or metaphorical possibilities would be to undermine the significance of the acts themselves and remove culpability entirely. Moreover, Langer claims that relativism “cannot honor the particularity of the Holocaust in its uniquely Jewish features” (110). It must be viewed as a specifically “Jewish” catastrophe.

Spiegelman’s allegory manages to suggest the possibility of relativism and comparison without excusing the Germans as perpetrators or ignoring the Jews as victims. The words “Jew” and “Nazi” and drawings and symbols associated with these groups appear throughout both books; in Maus I, as Vladek passes a group of Nazis beating and killing Jews, Spiegelman draws him in a panel, surrounded by a Jewish star that looks like an enlarged version of the one sewn on his chest (80). The panel highlights the centrality of Vladek’s Jewishness both to his identity and to his victimhood. Indeed, although the characters are allegorized as mice, we still see Jewish stars and read signs addressing “all Jews” (Maus I 82). In one panel, a reward sign for turning in an “unregistered Jew” even uses a mouse’s head to form one triangle of the Jewish star (Maus I 82). Nazism, too, pervades the books: when Anja and Vladek escape the ghetto, they turn onto a street with multiple paths and wonder “where to go” (Maus I 125). The paths form the shape of the swastika. Thus, just as the literal terrors of the Holocaust lie underneath the universalizing layer of the comic book genre, the actual victims and perpetrators are only thinly veiled by their allegorical disguises.

Spiegelman uses a final layering technique to meet the demands of both Lopate and Langer: the frame narrative. A story-within-a-story directly addresses Lopate’s concerns that graphic representations put too much onus on the reader/ viewer to step into an experience so impossible to imagine. Lopate claims that “it is hard enough in psychoanalysis to retrieve affectively one’s own past, one’s actual memories; to expect to relive with emotion invented memories seems overly demanding” (276).  The inevitable impossibility of completely appreciating incredible suffering not one’s own results only in “blaming oneself if one is not feeling enough” (276). Apparently, many of the graphic depictions that Lopate has observed go beyond Langer’s cold, objective literalism—they turn violence and suffering into spectacle. Holocaust museums, in Lopate’s opinion, “are like a Tunnel of Horrors or a Disneyland park devoted to Jewish Suffering” (276). These attempts, corruptions of literalism, fall completely flat, and seem “gimmicky” (276).

Spiegelman spares us this forced simulation of tragedy by not asking us to step directly into Vladek’s shoes—he asks us to step into Art’s. Thus we are placed not into the unimaginable consciousness of a survivor, but the very relatable consciousness of someone just like ourselves: a modern American trying to make sense of the Holocaust. The character of Art stands in for both author and reader; he adopts each role in relation to Vladek’s story. Maus I opens with a flashback to Art’s childhood, when he remembers complaining to his father about a mean trick his friends played on him. Vladek replies “If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week… then you could see what it is, friends!” (Spiegelman 5). Immediately, we’re confronted with Art’s inability to understand his father’s experience of the Holocaust—this excuses us, or at least prepares us, for our own inevitable difficulties, especially that tendency toward “blaming oneself” (Lopate 276). The aforementioned breaks from Vladek’s narration, besides allowing the emotional impact of horrific events to sink in, also acknowledge the burden that these stories place on the reader; after one such tale, Art remarks that “my hand is sore from writing all this down” (Maus I 40). Once again, this break gives the reader permission— permission to feel tired, overwhelmed, incapable of being fully immersed in the Holocaust. We’re even privy to a conversation with Art’s psychologist, where Art reveals that “Auschwitz just seems too scary to think about” (Maus II 44).

Besides this direct commentary on the difficulty of understanding and representing the Holocaust, the juxtaposition of the Holocaust narrative to the present-day narrative about Art’s family places the reader in a familiar context. After the emotional anecdote of Vladek’s reunion with Anja, Art brings us back to Queens, New York, where his father complains that his current wife “only […] talks about money, always about my will” (Maus I 67). The trivial, petty concerns of a modern middle-class marriage could not be further from the true terrors of the Holocaust and closer to the world the reader most likely inhabits.  They also remove some of the onus to perceive Vladek as merely a victim or a survivor; his present-day self acts as a miserly, cranky curmudgeon who suffocates his wife and frustrates his son. Though the Holocaust narrative of Maus I ends with the arrival of Vladek at Auschwitz, the site of millions’ deaths, the book ends with Art calling his father a “murderer” for destroying his mother’s diary (159). If we can’t make sense of the moral stakes of the Holocaust, we can certainly navigate the domestic conflict of Art’s family.

Again, it might seem that this strategy would offend Langer by tampering with the real, literal experience of the Holocaust, taking it away from its actual victims and survivors. Spiegelman’s narration provides a way to address this concern, for he gives Vladek his due role as a storyteller; we receive the inner frame of the book directly in his voice, grammatical mistakes and all, with few intrusions from Art. Spiegelman writes the narration of the Holocaust entirely in dialect; when Vladek says “the next year father wanted I would again do the same thing,” we can practically hear his Polish accent seeping out of the page (Maus I 47). Spiegelman sometimes portrays himself as a mere faithful scribe; Art just wants to “get it straight” (Maus I 82). The subtitle of the book, “A Survivor’s Tale,” suggests that we view it as Vladek’s story, not Art’s. Besides ensuring that the Holocaust stays in the voice of an actual survivor, such a narration meets Lopate’s demands that artistic representations of the Holocaust “go beyond a sentimental, generic approach to the subject and find a more complex, detailed, personal, and original path” (275-276).

Read back to back, Langer’s and Lopate’s arguments seem to impose an impossible dilemma, as often the hopes of one constitute the other’s fears. If these two views are truly irreconcilable, then the Holocaust can never be represented in a manner not deeply problematic on some level. But Spiegelman seems to overcome this obstacle by innovating in a genre that allows him to compose a story in two layers. In the outer layer, the comic book’s implicit universalism masks the Holocaust through allegory and hides its horrors behind a more relatable and familiar narrative. In the inner layer, though, a stark and powerfully evocative account of one man’s Holocaust experience stands on its own.


Works Cited

Lapote, Phillip. “Resistance to the Holocaust.” Getting Personal. Print.

Langer, Lawrence L. “Pre-empting the Holocaust.” The Atlantic Monthly. Nov. 1998. Print.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986. Print.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began. New York: Pantheon Books, 1991. Print.



[1] When Spiegelman began serializing the Maus comics in 1981, the American comic book field was largely dominated by Marvel and D.C. superhero series. Between World War II and the mid-1980s, the archetypes of the genre were figures like Captain America, Spiderman, and the Fantastic Four. Superman even enjoyed a revival during that time with a 1978 movie adaptation, released the same year Spiegelman began work on Maus. It was not until 1986, five years into Maus’s serialization, that Moore’s Watchmen and Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns redefined the superhero genre by introducing morally ambiguous anti-heroes.

[2] To distinguish between Art Spiegelman as the creator of the book and Art Spiegelman as a narrator/character in his own creation, I refer to the former as Spiegelman and the latter as Art. 

Beyond the Biographical: Modern Meaning in Gilje's Susanna and the Elders, Restored

Jennifer Kim

Amongst her many whimsical and oftentimes tongue-in-cheek modern updatings of famous paintings, Kathleen Gilje’s Susanna and the Elders, Restored (Fig. 1) stands out as a turbulent portrait of a woman victimized by sexual assault. Based on Artemisia Gentileschi’s seventeenth-century oil on canvas painting, Susanna and the Elders (Fig. 2), Gilje’s double-layered image not only depicts a copy of Gentileschi’s original work on its visible surface, but also reveals through X-ray a more disturbing underpainting of violent sexual assault hidden beneath the seemingly innocuous copy in lead white paint. Critics, scholars, and artists—including, most notably, Gilje herself—have interpreted the darkness of Susanna and the Elders, Restored as portraying a biographical account of Artemisia Gentileschi’s defense against her own rape, similar to the Biblical Susanna’s struggle against sexual harassment by two elders. Indeed, Gilje has explained that she intended the painting to “highlight how closely Gentileschi’s own story mirrors that of her chosen subject.”[1] Surprisingly, however, the critical conversation surrounding Gilje’s work focuses almost exclusively on Gentileschi’s personal experience of rape and fails to expand beyond this biographical world, neglecting the painting’s capacity to address not simply the historical but also the modern woman’s experience of the threat of sexual assault in male-dominated societies. Further, in treating the work as strictly biographical to Gentileschi, scholars have largely ignored how Gilje’s updating serves as a contemporary mode of empowerment for women in patriarchal society. This essay will argue that Gilje’s Susanna and the Elders, Restored extends beyond the scope of portraiture by seeking not only to tell Artemisia Gentileschi’s story of sexual assault but also to convey the contemporary woman’s experience of male aggression in patriarchal society. Ultimately, through her work, Gilje empowers women to fight back against the oppressive faculties of the patriarchy.

Gilje’s copy of Gentileschi’s Susanna and the Elders, which occupies the outer surface of the work, depicts the Biblical story of the pious Susanna, who was accosted by two elders at her bath, defamed when she refused to have sex with them, and finally redeemed by the objections of the young Daniel.[2] Gentileschi—and, subsequently, Gilje—portray the men in a dark, imposing band in the upper half of the work, forcing the naked Susanna into a contorted flinch away from their attention. In contrast to the subtle lurking of the elders in the background of this outer work, Gilje’s underpainting depicts them in the midst of an assault, clutching Susanna by the hair. Susanna, in turn, takes part in the violence of the scene. Gripping a knife and screaming, she attempts to defend herself against the preying elders. Perhaps most striking about this startling violence in the underpainting is its similarity to the story of Artemisia Gentileschi herself, who, as art historian John Yau puts it, “had endured such advances, and worse.”[3] At the age of seventeen, she was raped by fellow Baroque painter Agostino Tassi and subsequently underwent a grueling seven-month trial to bring Tassi to justice.[4] In fact, Gilje herself posits in a video lecture that she intended the X-rayed underpainting to depict a portrait of Gentileschi.[5] Drawing from the extensive clerical notes of the trial, Gilje mirrors the specifics of the artist’s assault in several striking facets of the underpainting: Susanna’s defiant head, wrenched back by the leering elders behind her, recalls Tassi’s fierce grip on Gentileschi’s hair in the midst of his attack; her scream echoes the artist’s own; and, most tellingly, the blade clutched in Susanna’s hand parallels Gentileschi’s attempt to wound her violator with a knife.[6]

Gilje’s work seems to relay, at the very least, a faithful rendering of the violence involved in Artemisia Gentileschi’s own sexual assault. Art historian Linda Nochlin in particular takes care to identify the subject of the underpainting with the Renaissance artist, arguing for an even more biographical interpretation of the work; she claims that the viewer wants to believe that the original artist, Gentileschi, created the turbulent underpainting. Nochlin asserts forcefully, “We [the viewers] don’t want to know that Kathleen Gilje, modern ‘restoration’ artist, created a furious and vengeful Susanna beneath the conventional image. We want to believe that the victimized Artemisia did it herself…”[7] From identifying Gentileschi as a victim to framing her as an enraged painter in Gilje’s Susanna, scholars have continuously placed emphasis on the Renaissance artist’s personal story and made Susanna’s historical connection central to its interpretation.

 Yet, the contemporaneity of Gilje’s oeuvre, lauded by art historian Peter Sutton for revisiting old works with “a contemporary, sometimes subversive twist,” seems to point to more modern implications within the work.[8] Indeed, to limit the work to historical portraiture would also limit its possibility of other meanings; in considering the significance of biography to the viewer’s understanding of an artwork, art historian Martin Hammer points out that solely taking into account the personal life of the artist or the subject depicted can serve to detract from our recognition of other messages conveyed through the work.[9] The narrowness of such a biographical interpretation provides little room for the viewer to consider the broader implications a work may offer—and, in the case of Gilje’s painting, a complex image encoded with violence and psychological strife, the choice to ignore these larger themes in favor of Gentileschi’s personal story comes at the cost of the picture’s contemporary significance. By viewing the painting simply as a portrayal of the past, the spectator fails to confront the question of its relevance today.

Through the painting’s unique medium, however, we might draw modern meaning from the work by connecting Gilje’s disturbing hidden image of sexual violence to the psychological turmoil that pervades women’s experiences with sexual assault in male-dominated societies, regardless of place or time. Though some scholars have noted Gilje’s complex layering of both Susanna’s and Gentileschi’s narratives as a means of comparing their stories, none have sought to discuss how this dual image also represents the stories of women today, who lead lives limited by the threat of male aggression. As feminist Jennifer Kabat puts it, “rape is a structure that is part of her [a woman’s] life… Rape affects and confines a woman whether or not she is really raped.”[10] The notion that women’s lives are limited by the fear of rape in patriarchal societies serves as a powerful interpretation for the work at hand. In her violent and hidden rendering of sexual assault, Gilje embodies this inevitable fear present in the psyche of every woman. Similarly, feminist Susan Griffin remarks, “The fear of rape keeps women off the streets at night. Keeps women at home. Keeps women passive and modest for fear that they be thought provocative.”[11] The horror of the underlying image, then, serves to explain the work’s outer layer. In the underpainting, the spectator sees the fear of sexual assault itself, while in the external work, the viewer sees the product of this dread; a voluptuous Susanna crouches, confined by the imposing gaze of the elders that fill the top of the frame. The image of sexual assault so vividly portrayed in Gilje’s underpainting is far from foreign to a woman in patriarchal society today, for it is precisely this fear that limits how she may live her life.

Gilje heightens the expression of this fear by employing a stark contrast between the aestheticism of the surface image and the fragmented turmoil of the underlying work. In Gilje’s updating of Gentileschi’s original Susanna and the Elders, the viewer notes a sumptuousness in Susanna’s form that is noticeably absent from the flatness of the underpainting. The rich shadows that curve along Susanna’s belly and the gentle wrinkles at the swells of her flesh highlight her sexual appeal to patriarchal society, represented here in the leering elders behind her—a notion reiterated in the fact that the Biblical Susanna was an extraordinarily beautiful woman.[12] This aestheticism contrasts starkly with the X-ray of the work, where the two images of violated women in the outer layer and underpainting commingle into one, creating ambiguity about where one Susanna ends and the other begins. The outer figure’s neck and head bleed through to the underlying image, giving the illusion that two heads emerge from Susanna’s chest. Her limbs, too, remain as remnants from the external painting, and serve to distract from the plane of her torso or her curved breast. The image’s lack of color limits any sensual pleasure the viewer may seek to take from her form; instead of the lush peach of the figure’s skin in the exterior painting, her form is rendered a ghostly white. Even the sky, a serene blue in the imposed image, becomes a menacing mass of dark clouds in its underpainting. By contrasting the outer work’s aesthetic appeal with the underpainting’s disturbing depiction, Gilje seems to iterate the intensity of the threat of rape, deep-seated in every woman’s mind, which forces her into a compromising position of confinement.

 Gilje further emphasizes both the contemporaneity and the universality of this notion by empathizing, perhaps subconsciously, with the subject she portrays. Though she explicitly identifies the underpainting figure as Artemisia Gentileschi in her video lecture, she also places herself in the position of the violated woman. In describing the thumbscrews to which Gentileschi was subjected during her rape trial as a truth-telling test, Gilje conflates her own identity with that of Gentileschi’s. She explains, “As a painter, I think how frightening it must have been to have these [thumbscrews] squeezed around my fingers, potentially possibly breaking my fingers, and endangering her gift, the gift of her hands.”[13] Gilje’s confusion of pronouns “my” and “her” relays the artist’s personal connection with the violence that Gentileschi endured and seems to communicate the notion that she crafted the underpainting with her own empathies in mind. The artist thus expands the hidden Susanna’s narrative to encompass not only Gentileschi but also herself and, by extension, all other women who have at one time been threatened by male aggression in a patriarchal society.

Yet, Gilje’s work accomplishes more than simply stressing woman’s universal struggle against a male-dominated society that seeks at equal measures to violate, silence, and limit her. Though columnist Martha Schwendener criticizes the artist as being “good at identifying problems but not so great at offering solutions,” Gilje’s updating ultimately delivers an empowering message to women who live in a world of male antagonism.[14] In the same way that we observe Gilje’s sympathy with Gentileschi’s suffering, we also note her personal identification with Susanna’s defense against her violators, perhaps communicating that though a woman’s struggles within patriarchal society are universal, so too are her strength and agency. As Schwendener notes, the subject’s wielded knife not only recalls Gentileschi’s assault but also alludes to “one of the old tools of the conservator’s trade.”[15] Most likely referring to the conservator’s commonly-used palette knife, Schwendener hits on another of Gilje’s personal connections to the victim in the underpainting: Gilje, an art conservator herself, seems to emphasize her contemporary contribution to the work not only through her reference to the modern conservator’s role in analyzing works of old but also through her own symbolic presence in the painting itself. By identifying with the weapon with which the subject defends herself, Gilje imbues the work with a personal connection to the victim’s strength. In a similar updating of Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes (Figs. 3 and 4), Gilje inserts her own self-portrait in the position of Judith, who decapitates a sarcastic symbol of male aggression—a giant rooster—with a large dagger. In both updatings of Gentileschi works, Gilje seems to take particular care to identify with the subject’s physical defense against male dominance. Similarly to the way she places herself within Gentileschi’s Judith, Gilje seems to inhabit the body she creates in the underpainting of Susanna and the Elders, Restored, reiterating that both the struggles and the strength of the women depicted are not removed from the contemporary female experience in patriarchal societies; rather, these women are to be empathized with and viewed as allies in woman’s resistance against male antagonism.

 This message is perhaps most evident in Susanna’s physicality in the underpainting; though victimized by violent aggressors, she also serves as an unconventional representation of femininity. Instead of lying passively under the male gaze, she is angry, strong, defensive. The fist that clenches her knife reveals this notion particularly forcefully—as art historian Mary Garrard notes, in observing the portrayals of hands throughout art history, “a fist is masculine, an open hand feminine.”[16] Unconventional, too, is the musculature we observe in her tense arms as she defends herself. Though the underpainting’s subject, unlike Gentileschi’s modest Susanna, thrusts her limbs outward and opens her posture to the viewer’s gaze, her body and breasts are obscured from us by traces of the outer work; we instead observe a muscled shoulder in the place where her right breast should be. Her active pose broadens her shoulders and stretches out her figure to dominate most of the frame. Further, we observe a subversion of symbolic male aggression in the knife Susanna wields against her attackers. Traditionally a source of male power, the victim brandishes it as a weapon and defends herself from her violators.

Though this defensive Susanna is only visible through X-ray, Gilje seems to communicate that the empowerment of her form can be communicated to the external world as well. In her video lecture, the artist points out spots of pentimento in the outer work, where the underlying paint has absorbed the outer layer and subtly reveals the shapes underneath.[17] Most visible from the underlying work in the external painting are the outlines of the subject’s open-mouthed scream in the upper third of the work, near the fingers of the dark-haired elder, and the knife she brandishes on the lower right.[18] The two strongest representations of empowerment—the broken silence and the defensive weapon—thus bleed through to the external. This use of pentimento seems to illustrate the notion that the two worlds of the visible and the invisible, the projected and the silent, are inexorably tied. By subtly hinting at woman’s ability to speak out and fight back against male-dominated society, Gilje seems to communicate the notion that women possess the capability to break through the oppressive layer of masculinity, excuses, and intimidation.

Perhaps most significant in understanding the empowerment Gilje imbues within her “restored” scene of Susanna and the Elders, however, is the female perspective and control over representational means that both Gentileschi and Gilje exercise in their depictions of sexual assault. While many scholars have emphasized the similarities between the stories of Susanna and Gentileschi—both of whom were sexually violated and eventually redeemed by trial—they have ignored the patriarchal circumstances of these situations; that is, though the injustices against Susanna and Artemisia Gentileschi were perpetrated by men, the justice enacted was equally within the masculine sphere. It was not Susanna’s own defense of her actions that saved her from defamation; it was Daniel’s objections to the elders’ words.[19] Similarly, Gentileschi’s own trial and Tassi’s conviction would not have been brought about if not for her father, Orazio, who brought the case to court—and who, according to art historian Mary O’Neill, would most likely have dismissed the assault had Tassi followed through on his promises to marry her.[20] Thus, we see that even these seemingly defiant narratives are themselves set within patriarchal realities that fail to empower women against male aggression. It is instead the choice of the female artists, Gentileschi and Gilje, to represent these scenes of assault and violation through their own perspective that lends the works their strength.

By holding command over the manner in which the stories and fears of women are communicated, the two artists remove the power to define woman’s experience from the male sphere and repossess it themselves. According to Gilje, Gentileschi’s depiction of Susanna in Susanna and the Elders proves to be “an unusually sympathetic portrayal of a young woman defensive before her aggressors,” which “contrasts with treatments of the subject by male artists of the time.”[21] This uniquely empathetic depiction of Susanna by a female artist strips the story of its traditionally patriarchal renderings—especially those, such as the works of Rubens, Rembrandt, and Tintoretto, that depict Susanna solely as an object of lust or desire—and reworks woman’s experience of sexual assault from a female perspective. Gilje further intensifies the psychological trauma behind this image of assault through her own striking underpainting, which articulates both violence and torment in a manner that disturbs, not titillates. As Nochlin puts it, Gilje seems to enact a “retribution in pictorial form against the man who raped her [Gentileschi]”; the underpainting’s image serves to repossess the experience of sexual assault by depicting the victimized Susanna’s psychological turmoil and her own strength to defend herself.[22] From X-ray to pentimento, Gilje’s deliberate and complex usages of medium evince her control over the pictorial means through which she depicts sexual assault. In combining Gentileschi’s sympathetic rendering of Susanna with her own perspective, Gilje thus seems to communicate that the ultimate mode of female empowerment lies within woman’s capacity to define her own experiences.

 At first glance, Gilje’s Susanna and the Elders, Restored seems to portray the very specific story of Artemisia Gentileschi, a woman violated and exploited by the male-dominated artistic world of the Renaissance. However, by expanding the work’s scope to the contemporary, the viewer is able to understand its modern applicability and to notice parallels between the story of Gentileschi and the story of women everywhere who live under the threat or lived experience of rape—a woman trapped in between layers of paint, conforming to the societal expectations of masculinity, and unable to claim her experiences as her own. Yet, by portraying woman not as powerless under the authoritative control of man but capable of changing her situation, Gilje offers not a message of hopelessness or entrapment but instead one of empowerment. The power in the works of both female artists, Gentileschi and Gilje, suggests that a woman is not silent; given a paintbrush, she can give form to both her violation and her strength.











Figure List

Fig. 1 – Artemisia Gentileschi (Italian, 1593 – 1656). Susanna and the Elders, 1610. Oil on canvas; 1.70 x 1.21 m.; Pommersfelden; Graf von Schonborn Kunstsammlungen.


Fig. 2 – Kathleen Gilje (American, 1945 – present). Susanna and the Elders, Restored, 1998. Oil on canvas, x-ray; 67 x 47 in.; New York; Private Collection.


Fig. 3 – Artemisia Gentileschi (Italian, 1593 – 1656). Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1611-12. Oil on canvas; 62.5 x 49.4 in.; Naples; National Museum of Capodimonte.


Fig. 4 – Kathleen Gilje (American, 1945 – present). Self Portrait Slaying a Rooster after Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes, 2012. Oil on panel; 61 ¼  x 42 ½ in.; New York; Private Collection.


Works Cited

Garrard, Mary. “Artemisia’s Hand.” In The Artemisia Files: Artemisia Gentileschi for Feminists and Other Thinking People. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Gilje, Kathleen. “Susanna and the Elders, Restored.” http://kathleengilje.com/artwork/321724_Susanna_and_the_Elders_Restored.... (Accessed May 8, 2014).

Gilje, Kathleen. "Susanna and the Elders, Restored by artist Kathleen Gilje." Lecture video, New York, October 2, 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jq2bmbPL7rA.

Griffin, Susan. “Rape: the All-American Crime.” Ramparts, September 1971.

Hammer, Martin. “What’s in a Name?” In The Naked Portrait: 1900 -2007. Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 2007.

Kabat, Jennifer. “Entrapment.” In The Subject of Rape (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1993), 67.

Nochlin, Linda. “Seeing Beneath the Surface.” Art in America, March 2002.

O’Neill. Mary. “Artemisia’s Moment.” Smithsonian Magazine, May 2002. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/artemisias-moment-62150147/?page=2 (accessed May 8, 2014).

Schwendener, Martha. "Masterpieces, Revised by a Playful Restorer." The New York Times, June 28. 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/30/nyregion/a-review-of-revised-and-resto... (accessed April 20, 2014).

Sutton, Peter C. “Dialogues with the Past.” In Revised & restored: the art of Kathleen Gilje. Greenwich: Bruce Museum, 2013.

Yau, John. “Kathleen Gilje’s Bold Challenge.” In Revised & restored: the art of Kathleen Gilje. Greenwich: Bruce Museum, 2013.


[1] Kathleen Gilje, “Susanna and the Elders, Restored,” accessed May 8, 2014, http://kathleengilje.com/artwork/321724_Susanna_and_the_Elders_Restored....

[2] Kathleen Gilje, “Susanna and the Elders, Restored by artist Kathleen Gilje,” online lecture video, 1:38, October 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jq2bmbPL7rA.

[3] John Yau,  “Kathleen Gilje’s Bold Challenge.” Revised & restored: the art of Kathleen Gilje, (Greenwich: Bruce Museum, 2013), 59.

[4] Gilje, “Susanna and the Elders, Restored.”

[5] Gilje, “Susanna and the Elders, Restored by artist Kathleen Gilje,” 8:00.

[6] Gilje, “Susanna and the Elders, Restored by artist Kathleen Gilje,” 8:07.

[7] Linda Nochlin, “Seeing Beneath the Surface.” (Art in America March 2002), 120.

[8] Peter Sutton. “Dialogues with the Past.” Revised & restored: the art of Kathleen Gilje, (Greenwich: Bruce Museum, 2013), 10.

[9] Martin Hammer, The Naked Portrait: 1900-2007. (Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 2007), 22.

[10] Jennifer Kabat, “Entrapment.” The Subject of Rape (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1993), 67.

[11] Susan Griffin, “Rape: the All-American Crime.” (Ramparts September 1971), 35.

[12] Gilje, “Susanna and the Elders, Restored by artist Kathleen Gilje,” 1:44.

[13] Gilje, “Susanna and the Elders, Restored by artist Kathleen Gilje,” 5:55.

[14] Martha Schwendener, “Masterpieces, Revised by a Playful Restorer.” New York Times, June 28, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/30/nyregion/a-review-of-revised-and-resto....

[15] Schwendener, “Masterpieces, Revised by a Playful Restorer.”

[16] Mary Garrard, “Artemisia’s Hand.” The Artemisia Files: Artemisia Gentileschi for Feminists and Other Thinking People (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2005), 18.

[17] Gilje, “Susanna and the Elders, Restored by artist Kathleen Gilje,” 8:40.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Gilje, “Susanna and the Elders, Restored by artist Kathleen Gilje,” 2:25.

[20] Mary O’Neill, “Artemisia’s Moment.” Smithsonian Magazine, May 2002.


[21] Kathleen Gilje, “Susanna and the Elders, Restored.”

[22] Linda Nochlin, “Seeing Beneath the Surface.” (Art in America March 2002), 120.

Colombia: A Case Study of Archaeology and Nationalism

Eunice Lee

Introduction and Overview

In 1850, a small group of state-commissioned explorers set out from the small Colombian town of Zipaquirá with the purpose of mapping out the country’s vast regions and providing information about its inhabitants. This geographic and archaeological campaign came to be known as the Chorographic Commission and is viewed today by many Colombian scholars as foundational in the construction of their country’s identity (Appelbaum, 2013, p. 349). At the time of the expedition, Colombia—or New Granada, as it was then called—faced a precarious future as a young, fledgling nation that had declared independence from Spanish rule only decades prior. It seems unsurprising, then, that much of the Commission’s observations of prehistory and history at key sites attempted to link the current period with ancient epochs, “thus endowing the fragile new republic with a coherent past as well as a cohesive territory” (Appelbaum, 2013, p. 348). In striving to reconstruct a more patriotic history, the Commission at first glance appears to be a product of the government’s deliberately nationalistic use of archaeology to legitimize its rule and cast off Colombia’s colonial past.                                                      This line of reasoning is largely consistent with the argument posited by Philip Kohl (1998), who asserts that the way in which archaeology and nationalism develop in a particular country depends deeply on whether or not that country is a product of post-colonial rule (p. 236). More specifically, the field of archaeology in many post-colonial states is ostensibly shaped by a desire to overcome previous imperialist influences and assert their own nationalistic agenda. At the heart of this conflict between casting off imperialism and seeking a new nationalism through archaeology lies the idea that “control of the past provides a source of legitimization for control of the future” (Kohl, 1998, p. 236). In other words, reinforcing the ideal of a unified, pre-imperialist cultural past strengthens the authority of governments attempting to move beyond their colonial history. While Kohl’s argument has an undeniable logic, it presents a somewhat limited interpretation of the ties between archaeology and nationalism. A closer examination of the Chorographic Commission reveals a much more complex dynamic in which partisan politics, contrasting ideologies, and racial divisions repeatedly confused the interpretation of archaeological findings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These deep-rooted trends have persisted in modern Colombia, leading to the absence of the kind of unified national archaeology posited by Kohl.  With the archaeological debate still largely dominated by a Eurocentric worldview, modern-day Colombians continue to find themselves warring between an anticolonial critique and a pro-Spanish viewpoint in regards to the past. To further complicate matters, the exclusion of native indigenous populations from the creole elite’s concept of Colombian nationhood has remained an unresolved tension. Even the rise of the popular 20th century indigenismo movement failed to create a viable solution to the dilemma of national identity, as many Colombians still associate strongly with Hispanic culture rather than indigenous culture.

An examination of Colombian archaeology as a case study thus illustrates that Kohl’s model is not, in fact, readily applicable to all countries arising out of colonialist rule, as the question of what exactly constitutes “national identity” may be unclear or under dispute. The role often played by archaeology in the construction of national identity and its potential to serve as a means of political and cultural expression accentuate the importance of closely examining the validity of Kohl’s argument. Adopting a more nuanced perspective can allow us to better understand the nature of archaeology and nationalism not only in Colombia itself, but also in other countries similarly arising out of post-colonial rule. Only by challenging Kohl’s model is it possible, therefore, to move beyond the limitations of a deterministic theory and instead recognize that the development of a truly national archaeology is often dependent on a number of complex factors such as clashing political ideologies and varying conceptions of cultural identity.              


Clash of Ideology: Liberals vs. Conservatives                                                                  Returning now to the Chorographic Commission, we may find that a re-examination of this symbolic event proves necessary in order to better understand the complex processes that complicated the expedition’s findings. We will later see that, in large part, these same processes have endured into the present. Although the Commission was not itself a partisan organization, it was “the product of a partisan era” (Appelbaum, 2013, p. 351). In other words, the expedition operated during a ten-year period between 1850 and 1860 during which it was subject to the influences of external political events such as civil wars, regime changes, and a protracted battle between Liberals and Conservatives. Thus, 19th century archaeological research and historical interpretation did not occur in a vacuum; rather, they were profoundly shaped by the specific policy goals of the regime in power and were forced to adapt to the vicissitudes of the changing political environment. While the Liberals favored an anticolonial critique in archaeological interpretation, the Conservatives viewed Spain’s influence as a positive force—a divergence in attitude that only “became more marked over the course of the century” (Appelbaum, 2013, p. 349). This divide soon came to characterize the development of Colombian archaeology and consequently impeded a unified approach in national policy.

Although the expedition members represented a coalition of both Liberals and Conservatives, the expedition was formally commissioned by the Liberal government under José Hilario López and adopted a decidedly anticolonial tone as a result. Manuel Ancízar, one of the members of the expedition, described his emotional reaction to the historic site of Tausa where Spanish conquerors had brutally killed native populations: “I seemed to hear the clamor of the combatants. . . . barren loneliness was all that was left. . . . where once had echoed the songs of innocent Indian women and the laughter of their sacrificed children” (as cited in Appelbaum, 2013, p. 348). As this example illustrates, the Commission’s writers interpreted the natural and human history of the Andean cordilleras in a distinctly nationalistic manner, drawing on a legacy of past revolutionary struggles and an overcoming of imperialism in order to paint a picture of a country with a promising future. The expedition adopted a similar attitude toward its archeological findings of the Muisca tribe, the most important being the Gámeza boulder. Covered in petroglyphs and found at the intersection of the Gámeza and Sogamoso Rivers, this boulder was touted by the creole elite as “evidence that the Muisca constituted a great civilization that practiced… astronomy and maintained a complex calendar” (Appelbaum, 2013, p. 357). By emphasizing the achievements of ancient tribes, the Commission and its sponsors created a link between their own fragile young republic and the great civilizations of its pre-Hispanic past.

While an overtly Liberal view colored the Commission’s findings, an important question to consider is how the larger public chose to interpret the archaeological results of the expedition. Evidence indicates that reactions were heated and riddled by factional conflicts. With former Conservative president Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera emerging as one of its most vocal critics, “the work of the Chorographic Commission was the subject of myriad disputes” in the Bogotá press (Appelbaum, 2013, p. 369). Mosquera publicly attacked the Commission’s writings for being overly critical of the Spaniards and declared that “we Colombians are Spanish, and the son should be just” (Appelbaum, 2013, p. 370). While Liberals imposed an anticolonial intent on the Commission’s findings, the larger community clearly refused to accept these results without question. Some even attempted to assert their own interpretation of the archaeological findings. In his 1895 book Chibchas antes de la conquista española, Vicente Restrepo discounted the supposed sophistication of the Muiscan pictographs and “scoffed at analogies between the Chibchas [Muiscas] and the modern nation,” claiming that the ancient natives had been “timid in the face of Spanish superiority” (Appelbaum, 2013, p. 372). This example clearly reveals that Restrepo, much like other Conservatives, remained unapologetically in favor of a Hispanic-dominated culture. As discussed earlier, the Commission represented the government’s early attempts to form a nationalistic archaeology. However, a multitude of different political agendas and policies pulled this attempt in different directions, confusing the results until neither a nationalistic nor an imperialistic archaeology resulted, but rather a contradictory mixture of both elements.


Role of the Native and the Rise of Indigenismo

            Can we then frame the movement for a genuine national archaeology as a battle of the Liberals against the Conservatives? After all, while the Conservatives defended an obviously pro-imperialist viewpoint, the Liberals ostensibly maintained a much more patriotic stance. To answer this question, we must consider the role of indigenous natives in the Colombian Liberal elite’s construction of national identity. In their written accounts, the members of the Chorographic Commission portrayed Spanish soldiers as “crude thugs,” while the Muiscas were “highly civilized” (Appelbaum, 2013, p. 362). These descriptions emphasized Spanish cruelty during the conquest and portrayed such actions in an unmistakably negative light. Despite their admiration for the pre-Columbian indigenous civilizations, however, the expedition members—in accordance with typical creole elite beliefs—did not translate this sentiment into respect for the contemporary indigenous population. The primary dilemma originated from the fact that mid-nineteenth-century Liberals “exalted the conquered civilizations that they saw as precursors to their own nations, but… identified personally as belonging to the Spanish race that brutally conquered these civilizations” (Appelbaum, 2013, p. 371). Consequently, the Chorographic Commission represented a flawed, non-inclusive version of archaeological nationalism—one in which the 19th-century Colombian elite attempted to construct a national past that refused to acknowledge the historical and cultural influence of the modern indigenous natives it subjugated. Despite openly criticizing the destructive actions of Spanish colonizers, the Liberals thus continued to deliberately exclude indigenous populations from conceptions of national identity.

            Although Colombia’s structural racism was deeply rooted, the rise of the popular indigenismo movement in the 1930s and 1940s offered an opportunity for the country to finally integrate its indigenous population into society. Essentially an “affirmation of indigenous heritage,” indigenismo swept across Latin America and called for “a revival of interest in the position of the Indian” (“Colombian Nationalism,” 2000). Yet despite its massive popularity in other neighboring countries, the indigenismo movement in Colombia proved to be much weaker and more limited by the pre-existing social structure. As J. León Helguera (1974) argues, “indigenismo in Colombia may be seen as part of the search for an authentic national identity [that occurred] within the context of an essentially mestizo-creole Hispanic framework” (p. 1). Because it was unable to ever truly break free from the strict class-based and racial divisions of this “framework,” Colombian indigenismo failed to successfully emerge as a major political or cultural movement.


Historical Perspectives on Indigenous Exclusion

To understand why indigenous culture proved so historically resistant to integration into national identity, we can briefly consider the nature of the initial Spanish conquest in Colombia. Two characteristics become readily apparent: first, the outright refusal of the Spaniards to acknowledge any aspect of native cultures, and second, the extent and severity of Hispanization. Unlike the conquest of Mexican territories in which the invading Spanish culture assimilated some aspects of the native culture, the Spaniards in Colombia “precluded the possibility of even a token cultural symbiosis occurring” (Helguera, 1974, p. 3). Helguera (1974) claims that the Colombian example is therefore unique in comparison to the experiences of other Latin American regions such as Ecuador, Peru, or Mexico that underwent similar colonization periods (p. 4). He credits this divergence to the fact that the indigenous civilizations of Colombia were “mediocre” in terms of overall cultural sophistication when compared to the Aztecs, Mayas, and Incas (Helguera, 1974, p. 3). Unimpressed by what they found in the New World, Spanish invaders in Colombia put an early stop to any kind of assimilation and deliberately isolated the native culture from their own “superior” culture (Helguera, 1974, p. 3). The second characteristic of Spanish conquest—Hispanization—is directly tied to the first. Moving beyond a simple isolation of native culture, the invaders soon began to aggressively impose their own language on the indigenous peoples (Helguera, 1974, p. 4). By replacing native languages with Spanish outright rather than combining with local dialects to create a kind of patois, this rapid and extensive Hispanization proved so effective that “no functional printed grammar of Chibcha survives” (Helguera, 1974, p. 4). Language is a fundamental component of any culture, and the Spanish conquest of both the people and their linguistic heritage effectively eliminated the possibility of a strong native identity surviving into the future.

The well-established segregation of indigenous culture from Colombian national identity is also symptomatic of the historical lack of any stable and continuous state attempt to curate Indian archaeological artifacts, for a nationalistic purpose or otherwise. In fact, the majority of indigenous archaeological collections in the early 20th century fell under the stewardship of members of the Colombian intellectual elite such as Leocadio M. Arango, who assembled native artifacts “in the absence of any official collecting and preservation program” (Helguera, 1974, p. 9). These efforts, unfortunately, were largely amateurish and based on unscientific knowledge—more akin to a hobby than an organized, systematic attempt to catalog indigenous history. However, with the rise of the indigenismo period came new hope for a national policy specifically dedicated to the curating of Indian artifacts. The Colombian government seemingly substantiated this hope with its 1938 decision to create an official Archaeological Service “to begin the rescue and preservation of the nation’s pre-Hispanic treasures” (Helguera, 1974, p. 12). Such an effort indicated a new political attitude in favor of greater conservation efforts. While it is easy to view this event as evidence of a deliberate, state-sponsored initiative to incorporate indigenous artifacts into a national archaeology, it is important to note that “the country’s ‘Official Culture,’ despite its permissive tolerance of the … Indigenistas, remained Hispanic in its core” (Helguera, 1974, p. 14). Consequently, it comes as no surprise that the fall of the Liberal regime in 1945 corresponded to the collapse of the Indigenista Institute. The attempts of the Liberal regime and its intellectual elite to “rescue” pre-Columbian artifacts proved to be superficial in nature and did not accurately represent the larger population’s desire to keep indigenous culture separate from the persistently Hispanic-dominated national identity.


National Archaeology in a Modern Context

What is the character of nationalism and archaeology in Colombia today, and to what degree is it still influenced by the colonial past? Even in the modern era, the country’s national identity is relatively weak in comparison to other Latin American countries (“Colombian Nationalism,” 2000). This lack of a strong unified nationalism has created an environment of cultural vulnerability that allows external forces to intrude and easily take over local historical research. As Rafael Curtoni and Gustavo Politis (2006) note, foreigners have long dominated archaeological research in South America (p. 96). Consequently, a situation has emerged in which Colombians become, in a sense, excluded from the study of their own past.

The current lack of Colombian involvement in local archaeology can be seen as a continuation of trends arising from its colonial period when Spanish intellectuals held sole monopoly over the construction of nationality. In 1861 for example, José Maria Samper “proposed a racial pyramid to arrange and establish the ethnic diversity of the country” which placed the white race at the top of the pyramid and the indigenous populations at the bottom (Curtoni and Politis, 2006, p. 97). At a subconscious level, the old class hierarchy established during this time remains a fundamental part of Colombian national consciousness today. Consequently, a deep-rooted “colonial and racist thinking” has long permeated the study of archaeology and other social sciences (Curtoni and Politis, 2006, p. 96), creating a situation in which even current attempts to fashion a national identity continue to be affected to some degree by cultural racism. In fact, rather than focusing on the pre-Hispanic past, much of the existing archaeology of Colombia finds itself instead tinged with a Eurocentric emphasis.

This bias finds its starkest manifestation in the recent trend to pay greater attention to colonial period archaeology at the cost of neglecting prehistoric archaeology. Within the last twenty years, rather than seeking to legitimize their right to nationhood by exploring artifacts from a pre-Hispanic past, Andean archaeologists seem to be focusing more and more on a period in which Western imperial powers exercised dominion over Latin America. In fact, one of the major components of Andean historical archaeology today is the effort “to restore, stabilize and research the history of churches, monasteries and convents in colonial Andean cities” (Jamieson, 2005, p. 362).  In addition to its role in religious assimilation of native populations, the Catholic Church served as a major political institution during the colonial era and continues to represent an emblem of Spanish imperialism. The focusing of the region’s archaeological efforts on researching and restoring Hispanic religious structures thus illustrates Colombia’s deliberate embrace of its colonial past—a trend that bodes ill for the future development of a truly national and anti-imperialist archaeology.

            Perhaps more troubling, however, is the fact that some scholars actually view this rise in colonial archaeology as a positive trend. For example, Ross W. Jamieson (2005) claims, “the fact that the results of these projects have been extensively published… is particularly encouraging”

(p. 355), and he even expresses hopes that such efforts will “coalesce into an increasingly dynamic… and internationalized effort to understand the colonial period in the Andes from an archaeological perspective” (p. 365). This attitude not only encourages Colombia’s deliberate embrace of its colonial—and therefore pre-independent—past, but also undermines efforts towards a more anti-imperialist approach in cataloguing the country’s history. Thus, Jamieson and other like-minded intellectuals resign Colombian archaeology to a future in which the state’s own unique national identity is essentially subsumed by a more Eurocentric worldview.




            In examining different kinds of states, Kohl presents a somewhat deterministic theory: countries arising out of post-imperialist rule will develop a form of archaeology driven by the desire to forge a new identity separate from their colonial past. A case study of the Colombian Chorographic Commission, however, illustrates that the reality of the situation is much more complex. In Colombia, the study of the past is heavily influenced by a well-established Hispanic culture that is not only tied to the imperialist regime, but effectively excludes indigenous populations from national identity. Consequences of these trends continue to reverberate even today, as evidenced by the emergence of historical perspectives that not only discard an anti-imperialist stance, but seemingly embrace the country’s colonial past. As such, the future of archaeology in Colombia remains uncertain, and the rise of a distinctly unified and inclusive approach to the country’s cultural heritage is little more than a possibility rather than a guaranteed outcome.








Appelbaum, N. P. (2013). Reading the Past on the Mountainsides of Colombia: Mid-Nineteenth Century Patriotic Geology, Archaeology, and Historiography. Hispanic American Historical Review, 93(3), 347-376.


Colombian Nationalism. (2000). In Alexander J. Motyl (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Nationalism (Vol. 2, pp. 93-94). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.


Curtoni, R. P., & Politis, G. G. (2006). Race and Racism in South American Archaeology. World Archaeology, 38(1, Race, Racism and Archaeology), 93-108.


Helguera, J. León. (1974). Indigenismo in Colombia: A Facet of the National Identity Search, 1821-1973. Special Studies Series, 50, 1-17.


Jamieson, R. W. (2005). Colonialism, Social Archaeology and lo Andino: Historical

Archaeology in the Andes. World Archaeology, 37(3, Historical Archaeology),



Kohl, P. L. (1998). Nationalism and Archaeology: On the Constructions of Nations and the Reconstructions of the Remote Past. Annual Review of Anthropology, 27, 223-246.

I Am Become President: The Rhetorical Choreography of Johnson’s Nuclear Propaganda

Yunhan Xu

Compared to the garish pageantry that normally characterizes presidential campaign advertisements, the minimalist approach of President Lyndon Johnson’s “Girl with Ice Cream Cone” commercial stands out. The attack ad, which aired in 1964, deploys an apocalyptic brand of reductionism to mobilize the public against electoral challenger Barry Goldwater. For sixty seconds, the viewer observes a single sequence of a young girl blithely consuming an ice cream cone while a disembodied female speaker delivers a single narrative about the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The dire consequences of nuclear testing serve as a single justification for a Johnson ballot. The simplicity of the advertisement leaves little room for misinterpretation by the audience. Unless the viewer is oblivious to the existential stakes of nuclear catastrophe, he or she has no choice, by the logic of the commercial, but to elect Johnson. Within this conceptual framework, each presidential candidate, Johnson or Goldwater, is respectively exalted as the sole solution to, or sole catalyst of, nuclear Armageddon. Underpinning this advertisement, then, is the notion that democracy is a participatory system that enables citizens in ideological agreement to coalesce strategically. The ensuing micro-political coalition, who champions a cause such as nuclear test bans, then strives to elect a representative, a savior figure, to enact macro-political action.

Clearly, the apocalyptic content of the commercial is ripe ground in itself for criticism and deconstruction. By hyperbolizing the threat of nuclear extinction, the commercial creates a state of existential dread and agitation that compels citizens to supplant their own political will with a supposed collective will, the immediate objective of which is to elect Johnson. This façade of an egalitarian “we,” unified behind a presidential candidate, confers the appearance of a democracy upon a system governed by, and arguably for, the elite. However, although one could extrapolate a problematic model of democratic governance from these observations, it would be remiss to foreground the commercial’s content at the expense of the structure and presentation of its content. What distinguishes “Girl with Ice Cream Cone” from its counterparts is not its condemnation of Goldwater’s nuclear platform per se, but rather its method of condemnation. In particular, the commercial’s use of an unorthodox hierarchy of narrator, child, and audience serves to insulate its truth claims from scrutiny. Neither narrator nor girl acknowledges the audience during their pseudo-conversational exchange. The word “vote” is not uttered until the final seconds of the commercial. Instead, the nuclear rhetoric  of the advertisement is repackaged as dialogue, stripped of electoral context, and depoliticized through visual and auditory diversion. Through this method of veiled information delivery, the commercial’s structure renders the viewer a passive consumer and thereby espouses a coercive vision of democracy that does not encourage, but rather stifles, meaningful political participation.

The image of the girl impassively licking an ice cream cone, which occupies the screen for fifty-three seconds of the one-minute commercial, provides immediate evidence of the commercial’s reductive dynamics. She, the embodiment of naiveté and vulnerability, does not once speak, much less react to the alarmist narrative of the speaker. As she laps up the top of her cone, flecks of ice cream accumulate steadily around the corners of her mouth. Her line of sight never falls upon the audience but rather alternates between the ice cream and someplace off-screen, implying that she is unaware of the camera filming her. This endearing performance of childish vacuity, despite its apolitical veneer, indirectly prescribes a set of political actions for the audience. The viewer is implicitly informed that, if he or she is to safeguard this idealized representation of youth and innocence from an apocalyptic fate, he or she must form a strategic coalition against nuclear testing. Thus, as the sole “plot” of the commercial, the child is deployed to urge the audience to coalesce in support of Johnson. In this case, political coercion does not rely on macabre scenes of destruction and mushroom clouds, but rather the calculated pairing of doomsday rhetoric with the symbolism of future generations.

Moreover, the narrator introduces another enemy besides nuclear detonation through the script and her intonation. Her voice remains high-pitched and sing-song until she delivers the words “Goldwater” and “die.” When enunciating these two words, her pitch falls considerably and develops an ominous timbre. Through this process of vocally coupling Goldwater with the concepts of death and nuclear destruction, the coalition that Johnson has just forged becomes oriented against Goldwater. The commercial’s narrative progression, which takes the form of a pessimistic bell curve, amplifies the audience’s negative impression of Goldwater. The narrator cautions,

Do you know what people used to do? They used to explode atomic bombs in the air…Do you know what people finally did? They got together and signed a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and then the radioactive poison started to go away. But now, there’s a man who wants to be President of the United States, and he doesn’t like this treaty…He even voted against it. He wants to go on testing more bombs. His name is Barry Goldwater, and if he’s elected, they might start testing all over again. (Johnson)

By first presenting the troubling history of atomic testing, then alluding to a diplomatic solution, and finally returning to a grim counterfactual of a regression back to testing, the commercial reminds the audience of their obligation to coalesce in opposition to Goldwater. Thus, the coercive form of democracy proposed by the commercial incorporates a contradictory element of populism that urges collective action against ill-willed elites. It suggests that, although government exists in service of the public good, the act of voting should not be discounted as an instrumental method of ensuring this fundamental duty of democratic institutions. In short, though the government must and will protect its constituency, its constituency must also mobilize within governmental structures in order to protect itself.

Further analysis of the advertisement’s rhetorical tactics exposes the role of gender as a mobilization strategy. The femininity of the narrator’s voice frames the conversation within a maternal context that finds its basis in hackneyed female archetypes. The dialogue is couched in the sort of simpering oversimplification that one might expect of an exchange between schoolteacher and child. The repetition of the interrogative phrase “do you know” is reminiscent of factual, instructive videos that seek to educate, rather than persuade, the viewer. The narrator even makes several allusions to the girl's health and welfare, as though validating the goodness of her motives: “Now children should have lots of vitamin A and calcium, but they shouldn’t have any strontium-90 or cesium-137” (Johnson). The gendered implication of this dialogue is that the speaker is a female caregiver or educator whose authentic concern for the wellbeing of the girl and demonstrated virtue transcend electoral partisanship. In this way, the narrator’s female identity distances the delivery of the script from its underlying political agenda. Furthermore, the girl seems to have been carefully selected for her role as the image of futurity. By designating the poster child of potential nuclear winter as a hapless girl no older than six or seven, Caucasian and wide-eyed,

Nonetheless, what separates “Girl with Ice Cream Cone” from other political campaign advertisements is its structural departure from conventional narrative frameworks. The marketing pièce de résistance of the commercial is the way in which it choreographs interactions among its triad of participants: the girl, the narrator, and the audience. The audience interacts with the girl only by viewing her consumption of an ice cream cone; both are the soundless recipients of information. This interaction is mediated by the narrator’s one-way dialogue, which, due to its coddling tone, is presumably intended for the girl. Yet, the narration is projected from nowhere, a voice without corporeal confirmation. The speaker’s authority is thereby amplified by her physical indeterminacy – she is not a fallible individual, but rather an objective figure enshrouded by ambiguity and impersonality. Despite her physical absence, she is the locus of content. She narrates the apocalyptic counterfactual of nuclear winter, the product of a Goldwater victory, while simultaneously interspersing her narrative with direct references to the child. For instance, after listing a few radioactive isotopes and before explaining the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, she notes, “These things come from atomic bombs, and they’re radioactive. They can make you die” (Johnson). The speaker thus exists in the strange limbo between maternal anxiety and machinelike detachment. The viewer becomes both a witness to and an indirect recipient of the narration. The girl, on the other hand, becomes the embodiment, or simulacrum, of the audience. Though she appears to be the addressee of the narrator’s dialogue, the girl is in actuality a projection of the audience and thereby the medium through which the audience is coddled and manipulated. This hierarchy of speakers and listeners further elevates the narrator into a position of informational authority.

One effect of this rhetorical interplay is to downplay the intrusive “sales pitch” quality typical of political commercials. Instead of imploring the audience directly, the narrator obscures this self-serving intention by speaking to, and thus through, the girl. The girl becomes a prop that enables the narrator to declaim from a position of superiority without estranging the audience through blatant condescension. In this process of information transmission, the viewer is excluded from direct participatory roles. Bereft of a mechanism to critically engage the dialogue between narrator and child, he or she is rendered into a mere spectator and passive consumer of the nuclear narrative. Furthermore, since the content of the commercial is directed toward the child but ultimately intended for the audience, the submissive position of the child is grafted onto the viewer. The audience’s role is relegated to that of spectatorship, an act with little to no propensity for substantive engagement with the content at hand. This pseudo-participatory position is particularly consistent with the voter’s position in the nuclear policy realm; as a spectator of elite decision-making regarding “the bomb,” he or she is incapable of direct intervention.

The broader repercussion of this rhetorical positioning is its infringement upon the political sovereignty of the voter. This is not to suggest that the commercial opposes the notion of popular sovereignty; rather, by instructing the audience to “vote for Johnson,” it encourages the enactment of political agency through electoral channels. And yet, though it does not materially exclude citizens from formal mechanisms of political engagement, the commercial endeavors to dilute the political efficacy of the citizen. The disembodiment of the narrator, the depoliticization of the narrative, and the conflation of audience and child fundamentally alter the nature of the commercial’s reception. Moreover, the synthesis of technical jargon and simpering condescension further distance the audience from the dialogue. Once the presentation of political information is obscured by such rhetorical veneers, it becomes difficult for viewers to extract political insight from the advertisement, much less contest its truth claims. How does one effectively rebut the claim, for instance, that a child’s intake of high dosages of “strontium-90 or cesium-137” may cause death? Thus, the narrative structure of “Girl with Ice Cream Cone” not only omits large swathes of Goldwater’s substantive agenda, but also coerces the viewer into acknowledging its assertions as facts. This form of governance enables opportunistic political bodies to manipulate their constituencies through coercive strategies. And, when the subject matter is as weighty and exigent as the prevention of nuclear apocalypse, such rhetorical mediation functionally removes the “deliberative” aspect of deliberative democracy. By rendering the audience subservient to the disembodied narrator and thus an indirect, obedient consumer of information, the advertisement promotes a vision of democracy in which the informational passivity of the voter coexists uneasily with his or her purported agency to enact political change.

In examining such tensions, one must note that any proposed vision of governance is not comprised exclusively of its political program. Such programs are inevitably presented through rhetorical and audiovisual frames that are saturated with ideological baggage in their own right. For this reason, there exists analytical value in the act of separating the substance of political advocacy from its method of presentation. Improving one’s cognizance of the complex frames through which seemingly simplistic political narratives are delivered is a prerequisite to being not only a vigilant citizen, but also a vigilant critic of the inferred roles that citizens are often pressed to occupy. Furthermore, the method of reorienting our critical gaze from the content of political acts to their rhetorical, audiovisual frames should be adopted beyond the narrow scope of the “Girl with Ice Cream Cone” commercial. This critical method may engender a heightened awareness of how political programs forwarded through commercials, speeches, or other forms of presentations attempt to situate the audience in the broader economy of symbolic exchange between a ruling body and its subjects. Once the variables of presentation and viewership are emphasized in political criticism, we might have better means of engaging and subverting the process of rhetorical coercion inherent to political spectacle.





Works Cited

Johnson, Lyndon B. “Ice Cream.” Advertisement. 1964. Museum of the Moving Image. The Living Room Candidate: Presidential Campaign Commercials 1952-2008. Web. 20 February 2014.

Interpreting the Failure of the Poor People’s Campaign

2014 Lawrence Lader Prize in Expository Writing

Joule Voelz

If history is written by the victors, then the participants of the Poor People’s Campaign were losers indeed. While the legacy of the civil rights movement is punctuated by the victories of the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott and the 1963 March on Washington, few remember the daring but ultimately futile protest organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that brought thousands of poor Americans to Washington, D.C. in the spring of 1968 to erect a tent city and demonstrate for economic rights. Though perhaps understandably forgotten because of the failure of its goals, the Poor People’s Campaign has much to contribute to our understanding of the shifting sentiments and factions that marked the wane of the civil rights movement and the role of media attention in influencing the outcome of national campaigns.  Specifically, national newspapers which had little option to sensationalize the clean-cut, well-organized sit-ins and marches of the early civil rights movement gradually grew in their power to impact public perception of the movement by reporting on the hiccups and disorganization brought on by the late 1960s cultural shift and a growing number of special interest groups. Like the broad-based social media-fueled campaigns of the twenty-first century—take for example the #BlackLivesMatter campaign—the civil rights movement of the late 1960s became increasingly decentralized and lacked a coherent message from a singular mouthpiece. Thus in determining which mouthpieces to report, the national media had an increasingly powerful role in determining whether or not its sympathetic white readership would decide to stand in solidarity with the movement—if it could indeed still be characterized as a single movement.

Unlike many of his previous efforts, which had touched on economic issues but addressed mainly racial discrimination, the Campaign’s originator Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. focused exclusively on economic issues in order to broaden his base of support beyond his core group of African Americans. Calling for an inclusively vague “program that would provide either jobs or income for all Americans,” King managed to attract not only blacks but poor whites, Native Americans, and Mexican-American members of the 1960s Chicano movement.[1] These special interest groups, along with the serial protestor hippies that appreciated King’s anti-Vietnam War stance, made for a cacophony of voices that rendered the movement’s goals murky rather than simple and created a media spectacle that distracted from the objectives of the Campaign. From the beginning, press-publicized fears of racial violence and obvious parallels between the Poor People’s Campaign and the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom built up hype and ultimately drove attention away from the participants’ desire for an economic bill of rights. In the end, the campaign fell apart because of the weight of expectations and the broad, unfocused aims of its participants, both of which—beyond being problems in their own right—fueled media attention that worsened the movement’s reputation and chances for success.

            In early February 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was in the middle of a campaign, organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to build support for his next project, a large-scale camp-in of the nation’s poor in Washington, D.C. to protest for economic rights.[2] Yet while King’s status as an icon of the civil rights movement helped him reach a wide audience, within the movement black leaders disagreed about the goals and strategy of the campaign. Unlike the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at which King advocated first and foremost for an end to discrimination, King deliberately chose to target non-race-specific issues, calling for America to “bridge the gulf between the have and have-nots” and end the war in Vietnam and the “forc[ing] of young black men and young white men to fight and kill in brutal solidarity.”[3] However, these two goals, while related, did not go hand and hand. To been seen later and to great effect, they did not receive equal support even among King’s closest associates, much less his constituency and the broader community of special interests and sympathetic whites. The national and local Washington leadership of the NAACP were at odds about King’s campaign, with the Washington NAACP executive director supporting King while the group’s national treasurer called out King for “his own peculiar kind of brinksmanship” on a campaign that could be “a dangerous thing.”[4] Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP and a speaker at the 1963 march, expressed concern that King’s plan would be tainted by uncontrollable disorder and violence.[5] These leaders, who had five years ago supported King, now feared that King’s choice of broad-based controversial issues and the emerging violent frustration among black youth—demonstrated most sensationally in the 1965 Watts Riots that injured over one thousand people—would doom King’s latest endeavor. [6]

            However, not every leader in the black community was worried about the movement’s potential for violence; in fact, quite the opposite. Stokely Carmichael, the influential, Washington-based twenty-six year-old former leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and originator of the term “black power,” was interested neither in King’s brand of multi-racial “civil rights ecumenism” nor in strict adherence to nonviolent principles.[7] Though King was able to come to an agreement with Carmichael that promised respect for the non-violent terms of the Poor People’s Campaign, the press had already capitalized on the tension between the nonviolent and separatist factions of the black community.[8] By early February, The Washington Post speculated on the “possibility that [King’s] drive [could] be taken over by violent elements or agents provocateur.[9] With the press on the lookout for a violent conflict, public opinion was on alert for any toe out of line.

Not only did the threat of lawlessness tinge the development of the Poor People’s Campaign, the shadow of King’s previous successes—and the years of stagnation that came afterwards—loomed heavy over the movement, which in its preliminary stages already seemed unlikely to accomplish what King had hoped. “What is a greater peril [than violence] to King’s plans,” wrote The Washington Post in February, “is that nothing will happen. Just nothing.”[10] The title of the article alone—“Is King’s Nonviolence Now Old-Fashioned?”—implied that the campaign would be viewed as a final (likely negative) verdict on King’s nonviolent worldview. As the SCLC struggled to unite the factions of the black community, it seemed that King’s legacy would either make the movement or be ruined in the process.

However, just as it seemed that the Poor People’s Campaign would come to define King’s legacy, a startling turn of events shattered the fragile equilibrium of the Campaign’s leadership. On April 4, 1968, having traveled to Memphis, TN, to participate in a sanitation workers’ strike, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed on a motel balcony by James Earl Ray.[11] Yet even as the nation entered a state of mourning and racial violence damaged over one hundred cities, King’s death proved to be a lightning rod of attention for the Poor People’s Campaign, and the weight of expectation on the movement’s impending success or failure only intensified. Two days after his death, the Post reported that “The man is dead. The myth begins. Can it sustain the Movement?”.[12] While King’s legacy and the reputation of the civil rights movement seemed more on the line than ever, his successor Rev. Ralph Abernathy found himself with impossible shoes to fill. The press was quick to point out that despite Abernathy’s role as King’s “wise and solid counselor,” he lacked the gravitas and cult of personality to keep radicals like Carmichael on board with the SCLC’s nonviolent position.[13] With its leader in a hearse on its way to the burial at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the success of the Poor People’s Campaign now seemed to rest on the strength of the goodwill of the diverse coalition King had established before his death.

In the weeks following King’s assassination, it seemed that the public outpouring of grief would be a boon to the Poor People’s Campaign. By the end of April, The New York Times reported that while “it seemed unlikely to many that [before his death] Dr. King could take the immensely broader [than discrimination] issue of nationwide poverty and create…a successful crusade in Washington,” there seemed to be reason for optimism “because of the sympathetic reaction to Dr. King’s death.”[14] Indeed, as Abernathy and the SCLC moved forward with choosing a Washington campsite, preparing construction details, and drafting a list of demands for government officials, an enthusiastic tide of supporters seemed to be joining from all sides.[15] In addition to the 3,000 protestors expected by King, poor residents of Durham, NC, Mexican-Americans from California, and poor whites from Appalachia pledged their support.[16] Planning moved along, and in late April the SCLC issued another characteristically vague list of goals, including “secure and adequate income” and “access to land…[and] capital” for all disadvantaged Americans.[17] As the capstone of the Campaign, the SCLC planned to hold a mass Solidarity Day march on June 19 to make a final united push for their aforementioned goals.[18] However, despite this glimmer of hope, it would soon become apparent that the Campaign’s broad-based support and media attention would work against the interests of the Campaign’s organizers.

Though thousands of supporters determinedly made their way by caravan to Washington, D.C., they would soon find that the camp-in that was the centerpiece of the Campaign would damage the perceived legitimacy of the movement and distract from the economic goals they wished to accomplish. By May 13, Campaign organizers began the task of constructing “Resurrection City,” the “city of plywood and canvas” in West Potomac Park near the Reflecting Pool that would house the 3,000 expected camping-in protestors.[19] As caravans of poor demonstrators arrived from across the country to move into the campsite, the Post marked the fears of District of Columbia citizens of “the possibility of violence and the danger of disease” in the shantytown.[20] Yet despite serious fears, it seemed that the eclectic, hippie style of the protest made it difficult for Washington residents to take the protestors seriously. The Post reported that “throngs of onlookers [swarmed the encampment] to get a look at brightly-colored “rows of huts” painted with slogans including “The Sugar Shack” and soak up the vibe of “soul” music playing from a loudspeaker.[21] In addition, the spring rains created ample opportunities for vivid descriptions of Resurrection City dwellers “slogging through the mud, churned to the consistency of soft ice cream,” thereby confirming fears of health hazards at the campsite.[22] No small wonder, then, that from the beginning Washington politicians felt comfortable accusing the Campaign of “Communist planning” and proposing a bill to “ban unauthorized camping” in the District of Columbia.[23] Compared to the clean-cut nature of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington, to the public the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign seemed disorganized and uncouth.

As the Campaign worked towards its June 19 Solidarity Day march, more structural cracks began to show. Though the Poor People’s Campaign’s great diversity of participants seemed promising as a source of broad-based support for the economic rights push, in fact its cornucopia of special interest groups turned out to be a detriment to the cause. For a campaign already plagued by fears of riots, unruly tangential protests served to undermine its legitimacy. [24] On May 30, 1968, a crowd of four hundred demonstrators rallied outside the Supreme Court to protest a decision by the court that upheld a ban on net fishing for salmon in Washington State, a grievance of many Native Americans. Several protestors were arrested for repeatedly lowering a flag on a pole, and others smashed five windows with rocks. [25] Though less violent when compared to the fears of many whites, the disruption was fodder for the press because it fulfilled the prophecy—however weakly—of disruption and violence. The Washington Post wrote vivid descriptions of how the protestors “besieged” the Supreme Court; “hippies… splash[ed] about in one of the pools”; “a barefoot and bearded white man from Oakland, Calif….lowered the flag”; and one man “began screaming obscenities, flailing and kicking.”[26] Yet although incidents such as this one addressed tangential goals that were not central to the movement, Rev. Abernathy and the entire Poor People’s Campaign suffered from association with this eclectic group with an obscure cause and the event’s portrayal in the newspapers.

The Campaign’s collection of miscellaneous special interests also intensified organizational and logistical challenges among the movement’s factions. On June 6, a press conference with black leader Hosea Williams and Mexican-American leader Reies Tijerina turned into a public squabble when Tijerina announced his plan for a march against America’s continuing recognition of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo—a plan that he had not mentioned to Williams, the Campaign’s direct action coordinator.[27] The incident only elevated tensions between the SCLC and the Mexican-American group (which had already declared its autonomy by snubbing Resurrection City in favor of staying at a local school),[28] while at the same time damaging the Campaign’s public image. In a similar vein, a Native American woman who interrupted Abernathy’s press conference on June 11 to present a “letter of complaint from the National Aboriginal Conference” undermined the Campaign’s chances of selling a coherent narrative to the public.[29]

Amid these mixed messages and disappointing self-fulfilling prophecies of failure, the departure of a major leader further dimmed the Campaign’s chances for success. On June 8, Solidarity Day coordinator Bayard Rustin—who had the main role in coordinating the 1963 March on Washington—resigned from the job because he “was unable to obtain clarification of his role from the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy.”[30] Specifically, Abernathy took issue with Rustin’s unauthorized publishing of a list of the Campaign’s goals—an “economic bill of rights”—to the New York Times in early June, in which he had included urban housing, welfare, and labor unions, but failed to mention the Vietnam War and the demands of other participating minority groups.[31] Once again, the unfocused heterogeneity of the Campaign had proved a detriment to coordination. To the public, Rustin was a symbol of “old-line, respectable, highly organized, labor, church and academic liberalism”; in other words, the type of seasoned organizer whose stamp of approval could convince white moderates of the Campaign’s respectability.[32] This blow virtually opened the floodgates of bad press for the Campaign, now openly afflicted with “aimlessness and loss of momentum,” whose Resurrection City was now being described as a site of “hooliganism, internal bickering, squalor turning unsanitary, dispiriting boredom, [and] aimless demonstrations” that mirrored “confusion at the top.”[33]

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the June 19 Solidarity Day March was the crowning anticlimax for a movement that had already been deflated by unachievable expectations, unfocused goals, and media overexposure. While Rev. Abernathy, Roy Wilkins, Walter Reuther, and Whitney Young (all contributors to the 1963 March on Washington) spoke eloquently to a group of around 40,000 marchers who walked from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, the demonstration lacked the spirit of change that had captivated 200,000 people five years earlier.[34] Washington Post commentators were united in observing a distinct lack of “optimism,” “inspiration,” and “conviction” among demonstrators—all words that could have been easily applied to the march’s 1963 antecedent.[35] When a team of riot-trained police came on June 25 to evict the residents of Resurrection City for overstaying their permit, there were probably few that believed that remaining encamped was still a good idea.[36] Though the Campaign did achieve some small victories, including the inclusion of some two hundred counties on a list qualifying them for free surplus food distribution, no one could deny that on the whole the Campaign had been an embarrassing failure.[37]

In the end, the myth of Martin Luther King Jr. was not enough to support a movement that was deflated by casting too wide a net and trying to mobilize a core constituency that may have been ultimately discouraged at heart. Yet even despite these internal flaws, what ultimately doomed the Poor People’s Campaign was its over-exposure to press coverage that indulged in the Campaign’s scandalous sideshows rather than its central, yet admittedly vague, theme of economic rights for all. With this truth comes the realization that a national movement of any kind is only as powerful as the image that it presents to the public—and that the press chooses to communicate—because the pictures of muddy tents and sound bites of yelling hooligans will tend to drown out calm, well-reasoned arguments by campaign organizers. As the 1960s progressed, the standard of clean-cut students sitting-in politely at lunch counters was overpowered by broader cultural shift that for better or worse moved American popular culture in the direction of long hair, overalls, and a much more ubiquitous, freeform style of protest. Much as the liberation of the 1960s was inspiring for those who happily embraced it at the time, it did not make for the spirit of protest that Dr. King or his successors could harness to convince the media, and thus the moderate white public, of their movement’s legitimacy. When given the choice between reporting on the peaceful demeanor of thousands or a dirty hippie splashing in a pool, the press will always pick the dirty hippie.




“The Goals of the Poor People's Campaign, 1968.” Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Movement 1954-1985. PBS. Accessed May 7, 2014. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/eyesontheprize/sources/ps_poor.html.


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“Watts Rebellion (Los Angeles, 1965).” The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University. Accessed May 6, 2014. http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_wa....


Carey, Bernadette. “Wilkins Fears Riots Could Mar March.” The Washington Post, Times Herald, April 3, 1968. Accessed April 22, 2014. http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpwashingtonpost/d....


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Clopton Jr., Willard. “Mall Is Top Choice for March Campers.” The Washington Post, Times Herald, April 25, 1968. Accessed April 22, 2014. http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpwashingtonpost/d....


Clopton Jr., Willard. “Marchers Warn U.S. On Force.” The Washington Post, Times Herald, June 1, 1968. Accessed April 23, 2014. http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpwashingtonpost/docview/143548468/61449EB3905B4B62PQ/1?accountid=11311.


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Clopton, Jr., Willard. “Rustin Quits March; Tucker New Choice.” The Washington Post, Times Herald, June 8, 1968. Accessed April 23, 2014, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpwashingtonpost/docview/143362239/3B48C075F76D4F13PQ/1?accountid=11311.


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Raspberry, William. “Potomac Watch: March Lacked 1963’s Mood.” The Washington Post, Times Herald, June 20, 1968. Accessed April 23, 2014. http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpwashingtonpost/d....


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Stout, Jared. “Marchers’ ‘City’ Rises.” The Washington Post, Times Herald, May 13, 1968. Accessed April 23, 2014. http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpwashingtonpost/d....


Valentine, Paul W. “343 Poor Marchers Arrested: Abernathy, Aides Offer No Resistance.” The Washington Post, Times Herald, June 25, 1968. Accessed April 23, 2014. http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpwashingtonpost/d....


Valentine, Paul W. “Marchers’ Rift Breaks Into the Open.” The Washington Post, Times Herald, June 6, 1968. http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpwashingtonpost/docview/143583910/2AF6A90D58884DB3PQ/1?accountid=11311.


Valentine, Paul W. “Too Many Factions Sap Poor People’s Unity.” The Washington Post, Times Herald, July 13, 1968. Accessed April 23, 2014. http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpwashingtonpost/docview/143486757/34E719B3CF749FFPQ/1?accountid=11311.


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White, Jean M. “Leadership Crisis Perils Poor March.” The Washington Post, Times Herald, June 9, 1968. Accessed April 23, 2014. http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpwashingtonpost/docview/143331754/FDA5806135844BDAPQ/1?accountid=11311.


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[1] Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted  in “King to Train 3,000 as Leaders for Capital March,” The New York Times, January 17, 1968, accessed May 6, 2014, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpwashingtonpost/d....

[2] Jean White, “King Appeals to Negro Middle Class,” The Washington Post, Times Herald, February 9, 1968, accessed April 22, 2014, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpwashingtonpost/docview/143538901/B41EC983512A4A65PQ/1?accountid=11311.


[3] Martin Luther King, Jr., "Sermon at the Washington Cathedral," Washington, D.C., March 31, 1968, Speech, accessed May 6, 2014, http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/document/sermon-washington-cathedral.


[4] “King Issue Widens NAACP Rift,” The Washington Post, Times Herald, March 20, 1968, accessed April 22, 2014, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpwashingtonpost/docview/143574111/D4D5BC63D9644F21PQ/4?accountid=11311.


[5] Bernadette Carey, “Wilkins Fears Riots Could Mar March,” The Washington Post, Times Herald, April 3, 1968, accessed April 22, 2014, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpwashingtonpost/docview/143527224/5CF633D515C54673PQ/1?accountid=11311.


[6] “Watts Rebellion (Los Angeles, 1965),” The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University, accessed May 6, 2014, http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_watts_rebellion_los_angeles_1965.


[7] Steven V. Roberts, “Five Major Negro Leaders in the Aftermath of the King Assassination,” The Washington Post, Times Herald, April 14, 1968, accessed April 22, 2014, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpnewyorktimes/docview/118293434/FD961E3D270E45EAPQ/1?accountid=11311.; Robert C. Maynard, “Is King’s Nonviolence Now Old-Fashioned?,” The Washington Post, Times Herald, February 11, 1968, accessed April 22, 2014, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpwashingtonpost/docview/143501962/96845296190E447BPQ/1?accountid=11311.


[8] “Dr. King Reported in Pact on Rally,” The New York Times, February 23, 1965, accessed April 22, 2014, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpnewyorktimes/doc....

[9] Maynard, “Is King’s Nonviolence Now Old-Fashioned?”


[10] Ibid.


[11] “Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. (4 April 1968),” The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University, accessed May 6, 2014.

[12] Paul Good, “SCLC Faces Crisis Without Dr. King,” The Washington Post, Times Herald, April 6, 1968, accessed April 22, 2014, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpwashingtonpost/docview/143524726/272BB7E3FA764547PQ/1?accountid=11311.


[13] Ibid.


[14] Walter Rugaber, “Demonstrations: The Poor Prepare to March,” The New York Times, April 28, 1968, accessed April 22, 2014, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpnewyorktimes/docview/118287095/FB83C99AA9384673PQ/1?accountid=11311.


[15] Willard Clopton Jr., “Mall Is Top Choice for March Campers,” The Washington Post, Times Herald, April 25, 1968, accessed April 22, 2014, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpwashingtonpost/docview/143518786/84DC9A21D2724EFAPQ/1?accountid=11311.


[16] Rugaber, “Demonstrations: The Poor Prepare to March.”


[17] “The Goals of the Poor People's Campaign, 1968,” Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Movement 1954-1985, PBS, accessed May 7, 2014, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/eyesontheprize/sources/ps_poor.html.


[18] Jean M. White, “Leadership Crisis Perils Poor March,” The Washington Post, Times Herald, June 9, 1968, accessed April 23, 2014, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpwashingtonpost/d....

[19] Jared Stout, “Marchers’ ‘City’ Rises,” The Washington Post, Times Herald, May 13, 1968, accessed April 23, 2014, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpwashingtonpost/docview/143427249/EDEC44208CAD4D89PQ/1?accountid=11311.


[20] “The Marchers Arrive,” The Washington Post, Times Herald, May 13, 1968, accessed April 23, 2014, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpwashingtonpost/docview/143455194/240E4ACFEFDF4BCBPQ/2?accountid=11311.


[21] Willard Clopton Jr., “Poor Marchers’ ‘City’ Creates Its Own Style,” The Washington Post, Times Herald, May 20, 1968, accessed April 23, 2014, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpwashingtonpost/docview/143415137/FB5ADFFB52CC4BEBPQ/1?accountid=11311.


[22] Willard Clopton Jr., “Marchers Warn U.S. On Force,” The Washington Post, Times Herald, June 1, 1968, accessed April 23, 2014, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpwashingtonpost/docview/143548468/61449EB3905B4B62PQ/1?accountid=11311.


[23] Willard Clopton Jr., “Hill Pushes ‘Camp-In’ Opposition,” The Washington Post, Times Herald, May 3, 1968, accessed April 23, 2014, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpwashingtonpost/d....

[24]Bernadette Carey, “Wilkins Fears Riots Could Mar March,” The Washington Post, Times Herald, April 3, 1968, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpwashingtonpost/docview/143527224/5CF633D515C54673PQ/1?accountid=11311.


[25] “Marchers Besiege Court: Panes Broken, 3 Arrested in Hill Protest,” The Washington Post, Times Herald, May 30, 1968, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpwashingtonpost/docview/143583910/2AF6A90D58884DB3PQ/1?accountid=11311.


[26] Ibid.

[27] Paul W. Valentine, “Marchers’ Rift Breaks Into the Open,” The Washington Post, Times Herald, June 6, 1968, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpwashingtonpost/docview/143583910/2AF6A90D58884DB3PQ/1?accountid=11311.


[28] Ibid.


[29] Paul W. Valentine, “Too Many Factions Sap Poor People’s Unity,” The Washington Post, Times Herald, July 13, 1968, accessed April 23, 2014, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpwashingtonpost/d....

[30] Willard Clopton, Jr., “Rustin Quits March; Tucker New Choice,” The Washington Post, Times Herald, June 8, 1968, accessed April 23, 2014, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpwashingtonpost/docview/143362239/3B48C075F76D4F13PQ/1?accountid=11311.


[31] “The Goals of the Poor People's Campaign, 1968,” PBS; “Poor Marchers Have Dropped Rustin,” The Times-News, June 8, 1968, accessed May 7, 2014, http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1665&dat=19680608&id=plcaAAAAIBAJ&sjid=kCQEAAAAIBAJ&pg=3656,5578126.


[32] Ben A. Franklin, “The Poor: Campaign in Trouble,” The New York Times, June 9, 1968, accessed May 6, 2014, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpnewyorktimes/docview/118248238/B6F5679A35F142BCPQ/9?accountid=11311.


[33] Ibid.; White, “Leadership Crisis Perils Poor March.”

[34] “Highlights From Speeches at ‘Solidarity Day,’” The Washington Post, Times Herald, June 20, 1968, accessed May 7, 2014, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpwashingtonpost/docview/143426629/CD1EFEAC81134551PQ/1?accountid=11311.


[35] Jean M. White, “Five Years Later: Dream Pursued,” The Washington Post, Times Herald, June 20, 1968, accessed April 23, 2014, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpwashingtonpost/docview/143354293/2391281F946348CCPQ/1?accountid=11311.; William Raspberry, “Potomac Watch: March Lacked 1963’s Mood,” The Washington Post, Times Herald, June 20, 1968, accessed April 23, 2014, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpwashingtonpost/docview/143498779/BE9E2E4FB264C00PQ/1?accountid=11311.


[36] Paul W. Valentine, “343 Poor Marchers Arrested: Abernathy, Aides Offer No Resistance,” The Washington Post, Times Herald, June 25, 1968, accessed April 23, 2014, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/hnpwashingtonpost/docview/143475503/203936315C55438BPQ/1?accountid=11311.


[37] “Poor People’s Campaign.” The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University. Accessed May 6, 2014. http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_po...

On Uncertainty and Possibility: Consequences of an Unproven Science

Marc Bornstein

“A thought, even a possibility, can shatter and transform us.” - Friedrich Nietzsche


            When scientific questions are first posed, they often become the center of contentious debate—think the heliocentric theory, evolution, and even climate change today. At first, they are just thoughts, mere possibilities, but ones with the potential to transform the way we understand the world around us. However, in any science in its beginning stages, there are upsides and downsides to pursuing a revolutionary possibility. What are the implications of the ideas on society? And what does it mean that they are still uncertain? These are the questions with which E. O. Wilson (1978) and S. J. Gould (1978), two of the most prominent evolutionary biologists of their time, grapple in the face of the new field of sociobiology, the study of the evolutionary basis of behavior and its application to humans. Recognizing the claims made by these two authors and the potential benefits and harms to society that they bring up is the key to understanding the value of sociobiology, and furthermore, the value of any other unproven science. Wilson and Gould fundamentally disagree over whether sociobiology, as an uncertain and yet underdeveloped science, is beneficial or detrimental to society, a point that remains hotly contested even to this day. While both authors agree that there is not enough evidence to prove sociobiology definitively, Wilson stresses the benefit and importance of using biology to learn more about human social behavior despite, and even because of, the underlying uncertainty; whereas Gould argues that because of the doubt and lack of substantial evidence regarding the field, the high level of cultural significance would undermine the fields of the human sciences and cause unnecessary conflict while adding very little of value. Furthermore, through an understanding of these two viewpoints on sociobiology, we can elucidate the underlying elements of the greater debate over what to do with an unproven science in general.

            Both Wilson and Gould agree that the breadth of understanding of the field of sociobiology is quite limited. Much of Gould’s (1978) argument revolves around a dearth of evidence to support the claims made by supporters of sociobiology. He asserts that sociobiology is no more than storytelling since it relies on general correlations and consistencies without providing direct proof to support the claims. He also brings up the fact that very little is known about the genetics of behavior in humans and states that this prevents us from proving the validity of sociobiology. While Gould focuses a majority of his article on proving this lack of evidence, Wilson (1978) does not seem to be adamantly opposed to conceding the point. Wilson certainly recognizes more evidence than Gould (for instance, citing the differences in testing between fraternal and identical twins); however, he does acknowledge that the field of sociobiology is still quite new and that not much is known yet. Wilson even goes so far as to call the field “a rudimentary science [whose] relevance to human social systems is still largely unexplored” (Wilson 1978, 12). Wilson, for the most part, agrees that at that point in time, the evidence is limited. Therefore, despite the fact that much of Gould’s argument revolves around the lack of substantial proof, the main disagreement between the two authors is not whether there is enough evidence to definitively prove the validity of sociobiological claims. Rather, their main conflict results from differing opinions on the value of pursuing the field in spite of the present lack of evidence.

            The differing valuation of the field by Wilson and Gould stems from divergent attitudes regarding plausibility. Both refer to specific ideas and concepts as plausible, but they address the uncertainty in different ways. Gould disapproves of the uncertainty. He makes reference to a theory made by Psychology Professor David Barash stating that aggression in mountain bluebirds is heightened before eggs are laid, an evolutionary adaptation developed due to better chances of effective reproduction. Gould remarks that it is “a perfectly plausible story” (Gould 1978, 531); however, he goes on to “criticise its assertion without evidence or test” as well as its reliance on “consistency with natural selection as the sole criterion for useful speculation” (Gould 1978, 531). “Plausible” to Gould carries a negative connotation, suggesting that the mere possibility of truth is not nearly enough to credit a theory.

            For Wilson, though, the idea of something being possible fills him with energy and excitement. When referencing the theory that the mind, the will included, is based in neurophysiological pathways subject to natural selection, Wilson goes so far as to say that his “point is that it is entirely possible” (Wilson 1978, 10). Ironically, Wilson and Gould are making the same point, but they make the point with differing attitudes. Unlike Gould who saw plausibility as a lack of certainty, Wilson saw possibility as an opportunity to learn more. To Wilson, “possible” carries a positive connotation, implying that the theory’s plausibility should motivate us to study and research the field further so as to learn more about human social behavior. In essence, Wilson and Gould agree that many of the sociobiological theories have not been proven with certainty, but remain distinct possibilities. However, the two profoundly differ in their attitudes toward this uncertainty.

            Wilson’s and Gould’s divergent attitudes toward uncertainty result in conflicting views on the spread of sociobiology as either detrimental or beneficial to society. While Gould does state that he believes future research will disprove many of the sociobiological claims, he views the prospective end product of sociobiology as the “reduction of the human sciences to Darwinian theory” (Gould 1978, 533). He believes that the claims inherently invalidate and undermine the value of the human sciences and cultural fields, causing them to suffer profoundly. Additionally, he believes that the mere pervasiveness of the idea causes unneeded conflict, citing a New York Times article suggesting that sociobiology’s contention that women and men are biologically unique is a reason why women will never (and perhaps should never) be fully equal to men. Gould asserts that if the claims were proven that he would accept them and make no effort to suppress them; however, he argues that because the claims are uncertain, the potential ramifications of accepting the hypotheses are a big enough concern that the spread of the claims serve as a detriment to society.

            Wilson (1978), on the other hand, feels that sociobiology will bring an illumination of the human condition that will improve society, the human sciences included. He believes that only further research on the brain and application of Darwinian principles can elucidate a more profound understanding of the way human behavior functions, which Wilson sees as integral in providing “humanity with the perspective it requires to formulate its highest social goals” (Wilson 1978, 11). Wilson believes that not only will advances in sociobiology help us gain a better understanding of human behavior scientifically, but they will also bring positive effects for cultural fulfillment. Therefore, Wilson, focusing on the potential benefits, sees the possibility of finding truth in sociobiology as something to be celebrated as a step toward improving our cultural understanding. He even believes that future research will enrich the social sciences that Gould feels will be undermined. Wilson, in believing that sociobiology, despite its uncertainty, can bring improvements to society, is in stark contrast with Gould who, focusing on the potential detriments, cautions against the spread of the uncertain claims.

            Gould’s and Wilson’s views, while central to the debate over sociobiology, have wider implications that speak to the value of any uncertain and unproven science. Gould, a well-known and well-recognized scientist himself, by no means implies through his article that no science should be legitimized if it begins as an uncertain possibility. Naturally, all science must begin as just a hypothesis before it undergoes sufficient testing to be deemed generally accepted by the scientific community. However, Gould feels that in some instances more caution should be taken—perhaps even to the point of dismissal, as in the case of sociobiology. Gould’s criteria for restricting the advancement of scientific research are “political clout” and “social importance,” which he references when talking about sociobiology and the large amount of unrest over the area (Gould 1978, 532). Gould believes that when the content of an unproven science has implications on the greater community, it is acceptable to curb the spread of the ideas so as to avoid causing rifts in society.

            To Wilson, however, nothing is more important than the pursuit of truth and scientific discovery. He believes that since all science begins as an uncertainty, we should not only respect but also actively pursue further investigation so as to illuminate as much of the world around us as we can. Wilson does not see social unrest as a valid reason to stifle research and the spread of ideas, and his 1978 paper is largely a rebuttal of these particular claims. While Gould feels that the spread of an uncertain science that causes detrimental rifts in society does more harm than good, Wilson believes that the chance to expand our breadth of knowledge outweighs any potentially negative consequences.

            Despite their disagreement, Wilson and Gould both recognize that sociobiology is a possibility with earth-shattering and transforming effects on our society. However, where Wilson believes the revolutionary effects to be beneficial, Gould believes them to be detrimental. Wilson and Gould’s debate over sociobiology presents a wider debate over the valuation of any science that is not absolute. New scientific hypotheses, like sociobiology, are arising constantly; and many have the potential to have a significant impact on the way humans perceive science and the world around us. Only once we reconcile the future possibilities and present drawbacks of these hypotheses can we determine the role that they can, and perhaps should, play in the domain of science and in our everyday lives. The debate between Wilson and Gould over sociobiology is both fervent and specific, but in truth, it also serves as a lens by which to understand the benefits and complications at the birth of any uncertain scientific possibility.


Gould, S.J. (1978). Sociobiology: The art of storytelling. New Scientist, 16, 530-533.


Wilson, E.O. (1978). Introduction: What is sociobiology. In M.S. Gregory, A. Silvers, and D. Sutch (eds), Sociobiology and human nature: An interdisciplinary critique and defense. San Francisco: Jossey-Batch, 1-12.


The BBC’s Pride and Prejudice: Falling in Love through Nature

Serena Eggers

The first line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is one of the best-known lines of English literature: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (5). It captures succinctly both the author’s dry humor and the social setting of her stories. It is significant, therefore, that the BBC’s 1995 miniseries adaptation of Pride and Prejudice begins neither with this line as an epigraph, nor with some translation of the tone that the line encapsulates. It begins instead with an invented scene: Darcy and Bingley ride horses through the environs of Longbourn, discussing Bingley’s intention to settle at Netherfield, and are observed by our heroine, Elizabeth, whom we first see out walking, gaily running down the lane and plucking flowers as she returns home. The opening of the story—and Elizabeth’s first sight of Darcy—is thus removed from the context of social machinations, the marriage market, and ironic humor and relocated to the outdoors and the open air; this decision marks the beginning of a visual refrain that is carried throughout the entire miniseries. Picking up on a preexisting theme of “nature” in the novel, the BBC’s adaptation develops nature imagery into a symbolic sub-narrative that accompanies and translates the progression of Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship and that even comes to motivate that progression.

Austen firmly establishes Elizabeth’s affinity for nature as a hallmark of her character in the novel itself. Elizabeth has a “love of solitary walks” (178)—which Mr. Darcy mentions in an attempt to make conversation at one point—that, while it is not dwelt on as explicitly significant in the text, is a very consistent mode of operation for her, especially in that she uses walks as a means of escaping unpleasant situations and seeking comfort. At Rosings in particular, Elizabeth walks in the grounds as a way of avoiding Lady Catherine (165) and, later on in her visit, of avoiding Mr. Darcy and dwelling privately on the upset his proposal has caused her:  “not a day went by without a solitary walk, in which she might indulge in all the delight of unpleasant recollections” (206). Emotional turmoil in general causes Elizabeth to seek the outdoors—“walking together in the shrubbery behind the house” (285) with Jane during the crisis over Lydia, and walking “out to recover her spirits” (320) after Darcy and Bingley’s first visit to Longbourn after the crisis—where other characters are often quite dramatically inclined to do the opposite, as Mrs. Bennet does in refusing to so much as leave her room for meals while Lydia’s fate is unknown (284). In a famous line, exclaiming delightedly over her planned visit to the Lake District with her aunt and uncle, Elizabeth half-jokingly sums up her love for nature and the balm it represents for her: “Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men to rocks and mountains?” (152).

Elizabeth’s fondness for walks and association with the outdoors carries important implications for her character not just in terms of temperament, but also in terms of social standing. The most dramatic instance of this occurs quite early on, as a result of  her willingness to walk on foot to Netherfield to see Jane:  “Elizabeth continued her walk alone… jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity… with weary ancles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise” (33). This walk and the shockingly muddy petticoats that accompany it, in the eyes of the highly cultivated Bingley sisters, represent a certain vulgarity and lack of civilization in Elizabeth. According to Mrs. Hurst, “she really looked almost wild,” and Miss Bingley adds that “It seems to me to shew an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country town indifference to decorum” (36). Indeed, the “wild” and “country” aspects of Elizabeth are precisely what this passage of the novel underlines. From very early on, then, the novel presents Elizabeth as standing firmly on one side of a dichotomy of which the Bingley sisters stand on the opposite side: a dichotomy between country and town, between nature and cultivated (or perhaps over-cultivated) civilization. Darcy comes from the same world as the Bingleys, and, in the novel, begins as Elizabeth’s polar opposite in terms of this dichotomy. Their falling in love in the novel, then, is subtly accompanied by a slow progression of both Elizabeth and Darcy to somewhere in the center of the scale, Elizabeth learning culture from Darcy, and Darcy learning openness from Elizabeth. It is this progression, and the importance of nature within it, that the BBC’s adaptation picks up on and expands to proportions and to an importance well beyond what is found in the original novel.

The nature imagery of the adaptation is at first centered around Elizabeth; it represents one of the primary physical themes of her character, and is used to differentiate her visually—and symbolically—from those around her. At a very basic level, Elizabeth’s clothing in the majority of the scenes of the series evokes nature in some way, whether in its floral patterns or, most often, in the warm earth tones—tans, browns, and greens—that she sports. This color scheme is established especially in key moments such as the Bennet family’s arrival at the Netherfield ball: Elizabeth, climbing the steps to the party, wears a green coat that seems to almost blend into the dark lawns behind her—as well as actual flowers in her hair—while Jane and Mrs. Bennet, wearing ruffled pinks that surround Elizabeth in the shot, serve to further underscore the uniqueness and naturalness of the color (Pride and Prejudice, Part 1). Similarly, while walking into Meryton with her sisters Kitty and Lydia, both of whom wear a blinding red, before meeting Wickham for the first time, Elizabeth wears a deep green coat and a warm brown bonnet that are signature costume pieces of hers throughout the miniseries (Pride and Prejudice, Part 3). Reds and pinks are the direct visual opposite—the complementary color—of greens, and both instances therefore push Elizabeth’s clothing to the forefront visually and also symbolically heighten her emotional distance from most of her family, all of whom wear colors much more divorced from nature.

In a similar way, Elizabeth’s fondness for and association with literal nature—flowers and other plants—are used time and again as visual tools to differentiate her from less likeable characters. The most dramatic instance of this is the beginning of the scene in which Mr. Collins proposes to Elizabeth: as soon as Mrs. Bennet closes the door, Mr. Collins sidles towards Elizabeth, and she hurries to take up the flower vase she had been arranging, distancing herself as far from Mr. Collins as possible within the shot and holding the vase between them almost as a shield (Pride and Prejudice, Part 2). The image is one of comically dramatic opposition of character. Mr. Collins—clad in a severe clergyman’s black—leans towards Elizabeth, while she, dressed in white and shrinking ever so slightly back despite the distance of the table between them, subtly wards him off with her flowers. An equal disparity of character, though different in tone, is translated in natural imagery when Elizabeth and her mother discuss Mr. Bingley’s absence from Netherfield after Elizabeth’s return from visiting Charlotte (Pride and Prejudice, Part 4). While Jane, earlier in the scene, had delicately cut a few flowers from a bush before going inside, Mrs. Bennet, while complaining to Elizabeth, viciously decapitates stem after stem, accompanied by loud snipping sounds and brandishing her scissors as she speaks. Elizabeth’s mildly exasperated amusement, in the cuts to shots of her face, seem as much in response to her mother’s dramatic way of taking out her feelings on the plant as to the ridiculousness of her remarks. Perhaps most subtly, there is also a moment when, walking in the garden at Longbourn with a scarlet-clad Mr. Wickham who is announcing his departure, Elizabeth plucks a few leaves from a tree (Pride and Prejudice, Part 3). She does this to escape having to look directly at Wickham as she assures him that she bears no grudge for his pursuit of Ms. King. Knowing the truth of his character that is later revealed, it seems fitting that Elizabeth should use the nature around her—her own element—as a way to distance herself from him, even if only in an uncomfortable conversation.

Beyond being associated with small, symbolic reminders of nature, Elizabeth is also quite literally found in nature far more than any other character, and it is her fondness for nature in part that helps to soften her feelings toward Darcy upon visiting Pemberley. The miniseries makes a point of embracing the rambles through nature that are so typical of Elizabeth’s character in the novel, and it even adds scenes that do not appear in the book to drive home this tendency. Most notably, Part 1 of the miniseries includes a scene at Netherfield where Elizabeth, walking through the garden, finds a dog and, joyously tempted, runs off to play with it out on the grass. In the shot of their retreating backs, Elizabeth and the dog appear as two renditions of the same idea, running side by side—the implication being that Elizabeth, too, is a playful, natural creature that belongs outdoors. For such a woman, there could be no home more welcoming than Pemberley. While Pemberley’s beautiful natural setting is certainly made much of in the novel—“[Elizabeth] had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. …and at that moment she felt, that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!” (235)—there is a lushness to it in the adaptation made possible by the visual medium. And the adaptation lingers on the grounds far more than on the house, pushing the natural setting even father to the forefront than in the novel. This is made especially apparent when, instructed by the housekeeper to look at a beautiful view from a window at Pemberley, Elizabeth gazes out at a pond, smitten, and says to herself, “Of all this I might have been mistress” (Pride and Prejudice, Part 4). It is made unmistakably clear that she is thinking of the natural beauty of the grounds and not of the house as she speaks by the unwavering way her eyes focus on the view throughout the line, and, during the cut to the view of the pond, by the idyllic summer noises and quacking ducks that are heard just before she speaks. In the novel, by contrast, the focus is spread much more evenly across the grounds and the furnishings of the house before Elizabeth thinks about being “mistress” of it all (236). This is a subtle shift in focus, but an important one: rather than falling a little bit in love with Darcy’s taste, the BBC’s Elizabeth falls a little bit in love with Darcy’s taste for nature.

The miniseries begins by distinctly disassociating Darcy from Elizabeth—and thereby from nature—by giving him a dark color scheme that places him in direct visual opposition to her. For the first few episodes, Darcy appears almost exclusively in black and very dark colors: his horse, when he rides one, is black in contrast to Bingley’s lighter horse, and his coat is similarly dark. This has the effect not only of conveying a certain sobriety of character and brooding mood, but also of separating him distinctly from Elizabeth, who appears in several important scenes in white to oppose his black. At both balls—the first, in which they are introduced, and the second, at Netherfield—Elizabeth wears a white dress and Darcy a black coat, both of them contrasting with the more mixed and colorful palettes of the characters that surround them (Pride and Prejudice, Parts 1 and 2). Black and white are, of course, the most classically opposite colors; they are also, however, the colors of a groom and a bride, and the double-layered symbolism—the romantic beneath the combative—is a fitting visual translation of the complicated beginnings of the characters’ relationship.

A similar visual setup with added implications is at work in the scene in which a black-clad Darcy proposes for the first time to Elizabeth, once again all in white (Pride and Prejudice, Part 3). In this scene, however, the significance of Darcy’s black and Elizabeth’s white in the context of the adaptation’s nature imagery is incorporated as well. In the shots of Darcy, he paces along the shaded interior wall of the Collinses’ sitting room, all the fripperies and trappings of a cultivated house—from china plates to framed pictures—visible behind him, while our views of Elizabeth place her squarely in front of a window to the garden through which white light and birdsong pour and green trees are visible. The standoff could not be clearer: Elizabeth stands for natural beauty and light—even for happiness, perhaps—and Darcy remains in shadow, with all the rich knick-knacks that come with cultivation.

Darcy comes eventually, however, to a natural association of his own that mirrors Elizabeth’s; where she is associated with earth, Darcy is associated with water, and the development of this association brings him closer to her and gives a symbolic explanation of their falling in love. Darcy is first linked with water in a scene invented for the adaptation, in which he takes a bath at Netherfield (Pride and Prejudice, Part 1). The shots of Darcy’s bath are interspersed with shots of Elizabeth playing with the dog in the garden, a juxtaposition which creates symbolically the tension of similarity and difference that already links the two characters emotionally. Simply by being shown naked in a bathtub, Darcy appears in a vulnerable and far more “natural” state than he ever comes close to in the novel, even beyond that fact that he is explicitly immersed in water, one of the elements of nature.  The water, however, is indoors, in a bathtub, as captive and civilized as water can be. After getting out of the tub, Darcy gazes from the dim room at an Elizabeth playing in the outdoors and is transfixed; but he is separated from her by her ignorance of his watching and by the distance and the pane of glass (another unnatural, civilized element) between them.

The second example of Darcy’s connection with water, coming much later in the miniseries and also specifically invented for the adaptation, represents a crucial advance in his connection with nature and thereby with Elizabeth. Upon arriving at Pemberley, Darcy dismounts from his horse by a small pond near the house and, partially undressing, proceeds to dive into the pond and swim; this sequence is interspersed with shots of Elizabeth, inside the house, gazing pensively at a grand painting of Darcy (Pride and Prejudice, Part 4). Where before he had bathed indoors, in this scene he quite literally dives headlong into nature; an underwater shot reveals pondweed and algae streaming past as he swims through the cloudy water. In letting go and embracing this moment of communion with the natural world, Darcy is embracing a principal that Elizabeth has stood for throughout the series. The interspersed shots of Elizabeth looking at his painting are a critical parallel in their relationship: as Darcy learns the lessons that Elizabeth has taught and very strikingly comes around to her mode of being, Elizabeth too is learning to come around to a new understanding of Darcy and to embrace the cultivation from which he comes and for which he stands. It is as Darcy too becomes a creature of the natural world for a few brief moments that Elizabeth finally falls in love with him.

Darcy’s swim in the pond also represents a symbolic “restarting” of his relationship with Elizabeth, a rebirth as a transformed and improved Darcy who is newly suited for partnership with Elizabeth. It is no accident that bathing and immersion in water are symbols often associated with baptism and the concepts of purification and rebirth. Darcy, then, is washing himself clean of the unpleasantness that has accrued between himself and Elizabeth and being “reborn” in preparation for his (as yet unknown to himself) reformulated attempt to win her affection. The fact of this scene representing a kind of rewinding of their relationship and a chance to try and do it over in a better way is emphasized in the deliberate echoes it creates of the scene in the adaptation’s first episode when Elizabeth walks to Netherfield. Where Elizabeth’s boots had been covered with mud, here we see Darcy squelch his way up a hill in waterlogged boots—another instance of the water and earth parallel imagery of the two characters. In a further echo, where Elizabeth had emerged suddenly from the trees into the garden at Netherfield and startled Darcy, Darcy here emerges suddenly from the trees into the garden at Pemberley and startles Elizabeth in turn.

Furthermore, Darcy’s new beginning as a better version of himself is carried out even more basically in a shift that his color palette undergoes. Even before swimming in the pool, Darcy approaches Pemberley wearing a green coat and riding a pale gray horse, and after encountering Elizabeth he dresses in earth tones before chasing after her and the Gardiners who, impressed, comment on his “transformation.” Though the Gardiners are referring on the surface to his pleasant manners, in the eyes of a viewer Darcy’s visual transformation is no less striking, especially when he walks side by side with an Elizabeth in coordinated earth tones on the lawn outside Pemberley in a subsequent shot. The couple presents a united image that could not be further from the visual confrontation epitomized in the proposal scene. This transformation of Darcy holds true for the rest of the series in that he dresses predominantly in earth tones or at the very least in lighter colors after his encounter with Elizabeth at Pemberley. The fact that this shift is both deliberate on the part of the filmmakers and significant is underscored by Darcy’s saying to his manservant as he is dressing and choosing a coat before going to see Elizabeth, “Oh, no, the green one” (Pride and Prejudice, Part 5). Even in the darkness of the streets of London, where he wears his black coat once again as he searches for Lydia and Wickham in a scene created for the miniseries, Darcy’s vest flashes a vivid green as he passes a lit window, the color a visual clue hinting that his thoughts and motives are still tied wholly to Elizabeth (Pride and Prejudice, Part 5).

The theme of nature in the BBC’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice has been noted by critics, who offer a number of different explanations for its prominence. Mark Amis, in his article “Jane’s World” in The New Yorker, attributes it to the filmmakers’ sensitivity to our modern cultural perceptions of and responses to Jane Austen’s work. According to Amis, “We notice, above all, the constriction of female opportunity…We fret and writhe at the physical confinement.” He notes, as an aside and as an explanation of the film’s way of dealing with this physical confinement, “how desperate these filmmakers are to get their characters out-of-doors.” He also dwells on the serial’s “revealing the latent ‘sensuality’ of Jane Austen’s imagination,” adding, “naturally it reveals much more about the blatant sensuality of our own.” To Amis, this “sensuality” is expressed in moments of nature: when “Darcy and Bingley thunder toward Netherfield Park on their snorting horses, while Elizabeth enjoys a hearty tramp on a nearby hillside”; when, “climbing from the bath, Darcy looks out of the window and sees Elizabeth romping with a dog”; and when, “returning to Pemberley, unshaven, with the hot horse between his thighs, [Darcy] dismounts and impetuously plunges into a pond.” Viewed in this way, the adaptation’s focus on nature becomes less a translation and enrichment of the original text, and more a bowing of the filmmakers to modern sensibilities; an “update” of Austen. To view the mini-series’ use of nature in this way is, however, to do it a great disservice. It may certainly have the effect of rendering Jane Austen’s work more exciting to a modern audience. More than that, however, the adaptation’s natural imagery creates a narrative in and of itself. It begins in the original text, taking up the threads of “town” and “country,” adds to them “water” and “earth,” and brings them through a progression that not only makes the love story between Darcy and Elizabeth a visually vibrant and visceral thing, but also enriches the love story in a way that could only be accomplished in a film medium. The filmmakers thus manage simultaneously to stay true to the spirit of Pride and Prejudice—in a way that Mark Amis’s pure sensuality interpretation would not—and to make it very much their own, a feat that one could only wish more adapters of literature were capable of managing with such finesse.


Works Cited

Amis, Martin. “Jane’s World.” The New Yorker 8 Jan. 1996. N. pag. The New Yorker. Web. 1 Apr. 2014.

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003. Print.

Pride and Prejudice. Screenplay by Andrew Davies. Dir. Simon Langton. Perf. Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. British Broadcasting Corporation, 1995. Amazon Prime. Web. 12 Mar. 2014.


The Interactions of Heuristics and Biases in the Making of Decisions

Alice Newkirk

Given the sheer number of decisions the average person makes on any given day, the brain's use of shortcuts to help assess different choices makes perfect sense. It would be a waste of time and energy if someone had to do an exhaustive cost-benefit analysis to decide which brand of laundry detergent to buy, or which kind of pizza to order. As a result, people use a number of mental shortcuts, or heuristics, to help make decisions, which provide general rules of thumb for decision making  (Tversky & Kahneman, 1982). However, the same glossing over of factors that makes heuristics a convenient and quick solution for many smaller issues means that they actually hinder the making of decisions about more complicated issues (Tversky & Kahneman, 1982). Heuristics are simplifications, and while simplifications use fewer cognitive resources, they also, well, simplify. Furthermore, since people mostly use these shortcuts automatically, they can also preempt analytical thinking in situations where a more logical process might yield better results. Although heuristics are useful shortcuts for everyday judgment calls, they can lead people to make hasty, sometimes incorrect decisions about issues that are more complicated.

An excellent case study for the flaws and complications of heuristics is the hypothetical case of Audrey, a hypochondriac whose vitamin-taking regimen is challenged by a new study linking vitamins with increased risk of death. Audrey attributes her good health to her vitamins, and her decision making process is further complicated by the advice of her friend, who tells her that the study is worthless and she should ignore it completely. Whether or not Audrey later goes through a more thorough reasoning process, her initial judgment will be highly influenced by common decision making heuristics. Audrey’s case is an excellent lens through which to look at common heuristics and the problems they create because her hypochondria makes her perceive her decision as having potentially dire consequence; she has a strong emotional investment in the decision, which has the potential to override her reasoning self. Although her situation is unique, the way she uses heuristics will follow common patterns of thinking. In Audrey's case, heuristics will lead her to believe that vitamins can only either be completely toxic or utterly harmless; her emotional attachment to her vitamins will give her a strong bias in favor of the second conclusion, and as a result she will reject the study entirely. This extreme reaction will highlight common heuristics and biases in an extreme way.

From the start, Audrey will be looking at her vitamin dilemma through the lens of her emotions. The affect heuristic suggests that strong emotional reactions often take the place of more careful reasoning (Sunstein, 2002), and Audrey has plenty of reason to have strong emotional reactions. Hypochondria is a mental illness centered around an irrational fear of serious disease, and hypochondriacs are obsessed with staying healthy as a result of this fear (Medline, 2012). As a result, by challenging Audrey's beliefs, the study presents her with massive emotional turmoil. Her vitamin regime, which provides her with a way to control her irrational fear of illness, is being called into question, and as a result her fear and anxiety levels are likely to be even greater than usual. Both giving up and continuing to take her vitamins are choices with massive emotional weight: giving up her vitamins means giving up a source of security, and continuing to take them means possibly continuing to expose herself to future harm. 

Audrey's emotional complications will be further exacerbated by a whole category of mental shortcuts known as intuitive toxicology. Intuitive toxicology governs the ways people think about chemicals, compounds and toxins, and includes the false notion that chemical compounds are either entirely dangerous or entirely safe: in other words, that there is no such thing as moderately dangerous or dangerous only in excess (Sunstein, 2002). While not technically heuristics, these simplifications often erase the complexity associated with carcinogens and chemical health risks (Sunstein, 2002). By falling prey to the all-or-nothing model of risk, Audrey will not be able to think of the risk presented by the vitamins as a slight increase in the statistical probability of death. In her mind, her vitamins will either be completely harmless or dangerously toxic.

Furthermore, other effects of the affect heuristic will increase the stakes, and her emotional investment, even more. The affect heuristic links the perception of risks and the perception of benefits: when people perceive something to be high risk they perceive it to be low benefit, and vice versa (Sunstein, 2002). People have trouble believing that something is simultaneously risky and beneficial, especially where the risks are perceived to be very high (Sunstein, 2002). So as a result of the affect heuristic, if Audrey thinks that her vitamins are high risk, she will also think that they are low benefit. For Audrey, choosing to give up her vitamins as a result of the study would not only be admitting that she has been doing something actively harmful, but also that the regime on which she based her good health and safety had no benefits at all.

These high emotional stakes will give Audrey a bias in terms of what she wants to be true, even if her emotions play no further part in her reasoning process: accepting the study as true would mean that her main source of safety and support was extremely dangerous and not beneficial through the lenses of the all-or-nothing and affect heuristic biases. As a result, she will be motivated to show that the study is completely wrong. Her emotional investment in this hypothesis will lead to a number of other biases which will further affect her reasoning process, especially since she already strongly believes vitamins are healthy. Most notably, she will be subject to the belief-bias effect and confirmation bias.

The belief-bias effect, the first of these biases, has two parts: when a conclusion is unbelievable, it is much harder for people to accept, even when the logic is sound; and when a conclusion is believable people are much less likely to question its logic (Evans & Feeney, 2004). There are two potential explanations for these effects, both with implications for Audrey's decision making process. The first, the Selective Scrutiny Model, suggests that people are more likely to think critically about evidence when presented with a conclusion they disagree with (Evans & Feeney, 2004). In Audrey's case, she is more likely to be skeptical about the evidence provided by the study because she disagrees with its findings. The second, the Misinterpreted Necessity Model, suggests that people rely on prior beliefs to guide their judgments when the evidence is unclear (Evans & Feeney, 2004). This model has clear applications to Audrey's situation: when presented with the conflicting evidence provided by her friend and by the study, she is likely to rely on her previous belief to make her choice, i.e. that vitamins are healthy and harmless. Both of these models will lead Audrey to be far more skeptical of the studies findings, and far more accepting of evidence supporting her original beliefs.

Not only will Audrey be far more accepting of evidence supporting her preferred hypothesis, she will actively seek out evidence, as suggested by confirmation bias, that validates her beliefs. Confirmation bias leads to people seeking out information that confirms their hypotheses instead of refuting it (Evans & Feeney, 2004). Once Audrey has decided on a hypothesis—in this case, the one suggested by her previous beliefs and emotional reaction—she will look for pieces of evidence that support it, instead of searching for conflicting evidence and revising her theory based on that. As a result of the belief bias effect and confirmation bias, Audrey will actively search for information that supports her belief in vitamins, accept it more easily than she would other information and scrutinize conflicting evidence more aggressively.

Audrey will be able to find plenty of support for her hypothesis through other heuristics and biases. A variety of heuristics and biases can take the place of empirical evidence in decision making (Tversky & Kahneman, 1982); These heuristics, and their resulting biases, will provide Audrey with 'evidence' in favor of her all-natural vitamin regime. This evidence might not stand up to critical, unbiased analysis, but since she is looking for evidence that confirms her hypothesis and not scrutinizing confirming evidence too carefully as a result of belief bias and confirmation bias, her shortcuts will have a strong effect on her decision making. The first of these biases is another facet of intuitive toxicology. A number of specific biases come into play when people think about chemical risks, and one of these is the bias concerning the benevolence of nature (Sunstein, 2002). The chemicals produced in nature are not inherently safer than manufactured ones- for example, arsenic is a natural chemical, and is definitely not harmless. But as a rule of thumb, people tend to instinctively assume that natural compounds are somehow healthier and more benevolent than compounds which are man-made (Sunstein, 2002). This has clear implications for Audrey's all-natural vitamin regimen: since nature is fundamentally benevolent according to intuitive toxicology, Audrey's natural vitamins cannot be dangerous.

Audrey will find further evidence for her hypothesis through her previous positive experience with her vitamins. The representative heuristic, describes the different ways people often misattribute causes to various effects (Tversky & Kahneman, 1982). (Tversky & Kahneman, 1982). One example of this is the misconception that past experience is a good indicator of future forecasting. Even when present experience has little to no bearing on what someone is trying to predict, they are likely to try to use their present evidence to support their hypotheses for the future (Tversky & Kahneman, 1982). In Audrey's case, she will base her expectations of her vitamins off of her past experience with them, whether or not the two things are at all connected or if the effects of vitamins are supposed to be instantaneous. Since she attributes her good health to them, she presumably thinks of them very positively. Furthermore, the affect heuristic applies here as well; in this case, instead of high risks being associated with low benefits, high benefits are associated with low risk. Because she has previously seen vitamins as being extremely beneficial, she will also see them as having previously been low risk. She will use this as confirming evidence that the study is wrong: because she has in the past experienced only the positive effects of vitamins, she will assume that vitamins only have positive effects.

Audrey's confidence in her vitamins will be further strengthened by her conversation with her friend, who provides direct evidence to confirm her hypothesis. Audrey will be subject to the effects of group polarization: when multiple people of similar beliefs talk about something they share an opinion on, the opinion of the entire group is likely to shift further to the extreme, since people both have their beliefs confirmed and may be exposed to the beliefs of more radical people (Sunstein, 2002). Audrey is already motivated to prove the study wrong, already believes in the healthiness of vitamins and already has 'evidence' supporting these claims as a result of intuitive toxicology and the representative heuristic; her friend's rejection of the study will support her beliefs and polarize them even further.  As a result, Audrey is likely to have her beliefs about vitamins confirmed and strengthened, and feel confident rejecting the results of the study completely.

Her previous positive associations with vitamins will help mitigate some of the potential negative effects of heuristics as well. Specifically, she will be less susceptible to alarmist bias, increased fear and urgency surrounding alarmingly vivid threats (Sunstein, 2002). Although the 'risk of death' mentioned by the study sounds very dangerous, it is also extremely vague. Death by vitamin does not have the urgency or vivid imagery of a plane crash or a terrorist attack.  The threat of death will also be lessened by the availability heuristic, a mental shortcut for estimating the size or probability of something with how many examples come to mind—for example, estimating the number of five letter words ending in -ing by thinking of a few examples (Tversky & Kahneman, 1982). Audrey will not be able to think of examples of people who have died by vitamin overdose because that sort of thing doesn't make the news and is not particularly graphic, so her estimation of the threat will be severely diminished. Conversely, she will be able to think of a great many positive instances associated with vitamins, since she has used them for a long time and attributes her good health to them. As a result, she is likely to underestimate the severity of the negative consequences of her vitamin regime and overestimate their positive effects. The fear and anxiety brought up by these heuristics will be mitigated, and these heuristics will therefore have a much smaller effect on her reasoning process.

One of the other biases of intuitive toxicology also seems to work against Audrey's hypothesis. Laypeople often assume that it is possible and desirable for a chemical to have absolutely no associated risk, which trained toxicologists know to be untrue (Sunstein, 2002). At first, this seems to be a strike against Audrey's vitamins. They cannot be healthy or worthwhile if they have any associated risk at all, and the study suggests that they do.  However, this fallacy's interactions with a number of other biases negates its effect. First, since Audrey is more critical of things she finds unbelievable as a result of the belief-bias effect, she is more likely to subject the zero-risk fallacy to critical examination. As a result, she is more likely to think logically about it and dismiss it as illogical than she is any of her other assumptions. Second, if she does not examine it critically, its interaction with the all-or-nothing fallacy will actually strengthen her notions about the safety of her vitamins. If her vitamins have associated risk, then by the all-or-nothing fallacy they must be dangerously toxic, a hypothesis which she is eager to reject. On the other hand, if they are completely healthy, the other option presented by the all-or-nothing fallacy, then they must have no risk associated, because the zero risk fallacy suggests that no risk is optimal and attainable for compounds. The zero-risk fallacy initially seems to counter Audrey's theories about risk, but as a result of her emotional investment combined with the biases driving her reasoning process, it will actually strengthen her argument.

Audrey's emotional reaction to the information presented by the study will dominate her initial thought process, and will guide her reasoning along with a number of general heuristics. Her mental polarization of the dilemma and her emotional investment in proving her original beliefs correct will lead her to instinctively reject the study in its entirety. However, her reasoning process does not have to end there, should she so choose. Heuristics are fundamentally shortcuts for reasoning, and people are perfectly capable of taking the long route to reach a better result. But whether or not Audrey decides to analyze the potential effects of her vitamins more critically, her beliefs and biases will play a role in the ways she initially thinks about her situation. Audrey's particular biases may be exacerbated by her intense situation, but they are the analogues of biases common to everyone. While our instincts can provide easy guidance in simple decisions where they accurately represent what's actually going on, in multifaceted issues like Audrey's vitamin dilemma, they can often lead us astray. By knowing when these heuristics may be working against us rather than for us, we can choose when to engage in deeper critical thinking and learn to overcome our own biases.


Evans, J. & Feeney, A. (2004). The role of prior belief in reasoning. In J.P. Leighton & R.J. Sternberg (eds.) The nature of reasoning. (pp.78-102). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Sunstein, C. R. (2002). Risk and reason: Safety, law, and the environment. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Ch 2: Thinking About Risks, (pp. 28-58)

Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. (1982). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. In D. Kahenman, P. Slovic, & A. Tversky (Eds.) Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. (pp 3-20). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.  

Then and Now: Healing in the Aftermath of Cambodian Genocide

Marisa Houlahan

The works of Thet Sambath and Kho Tararith plunge us into a world of layers and degrees, of acute loss and enduring struggle, of brewing regret and budding forgiveness. Their worlds pulse with emotions in flux, emotions that grow and change with time and distance. Both illustrate the unearthing of past actions buried beneath layers of time, memory, pain, and regret, and the process of unifying past and present to take responsibility for those actions in the hope of moving on.  Thet’s documentary Enemies of the People delves into the minds of the killers of the Cambodian genocide and seeks to help them acknowledge their actions so that they can stop hiding their pasts. Once this separation between past and present is broken down, the perpetrators can stop running from what they have done and can instead begin searching for a way to heal. In the process of bridging that separation, the subjects of Enemies of the People use distance both to disassociate and pull themselves closer to their pasts through physical space and language.  A similar idea of distance comprised of and encompassing layers is at work in Kho’s “Daughter,” which unearths a mother’s regret at leaving her child and then shifts to an intimate confession of love and loss that allows the mother to embrace her past, however painful. The protagonist of “Daughter,” like the real-life subjects of Enemies of the People, tries to run from her regret before finally accepting responsibility for and coming to terms with her actions, and in doing so peels back the layers of separation that distance her past from the present.

Although both works make use of distance and layers alternately to disassociate from the past and to unify the “then” and “now” of genocide and its aftermath, the ways in which they do so are unique and situational. In Enemies of the People, Thet preserves emotional distance between himself and his interviewees so that he can systematically peel back the layers of justification and guilt that the subjects have wrapped around themselves, and in doing so break down the separation they maintain between themselves and the past. This allows Thet slowly and methodically to uncover the past from the outside.  “Daughter” takes on a different form in that the layers of emotional distance and grief are ripped back from the inside out. The mother narrating the poem first tries to justify and deflect using passive language, then shifts abruptly and powerfully to recognition, where each step closer she takes to what she has done is heavy with ragged pain and raw confession.  From the juxtaposition of these works arise two alternate ways of bridging the distance between the past and the present and uncovering the emotions within: one a careful dissection from outside in and the other a desperate clawing from inside out. Though Thet and Kho employ different methodologies in processing the physical and emotional violence of genocide, together their works bear witness to the silences that bookend healing.  Whether it is the victim or perpetrator that must come to terms with years of regret, memory, and guilt, these works track the movement of healing from a silence of denial to one that transcends words and allows the pains of the past to be felt and ultimately released.

To understand the ways in which distance and layers work to bridge past and present within Enemies of the People and “Daughter,” it is necessary first to look at the distance, or lack thereof, maintained between a creator and the work itself. In his film, Thet emphasizes that despite the personal loss he suffered during the Khmer Rouge regime, his goal is to document why and how the genocide occurred. He says that “many Cambodians still do not understand why [the] mass killings happened,” and chooses to bear the responsibility of recording testimonies of victims and witnesses for the sake of history (Conversation).  This emotional separation that Thet maintains from the lives he records is reflected in his camerawork and the way he approaches his subjects. During particularly weighted interviews, like the first time Nuon Chea admits to the killings, the viewer sees Thet’s questioning filmed through the lens of a second camera held by Thet himself (Enemies). This creates a separation, another layer, between Thet and Chea that emphasizes Thet’s emotional distance. Interestingly, it has the effect of creating more space between the viewer and Chea, both by placing the viewer behind the lens with Thet and by constructing an intermediary visual barrier between the Chea and viewer’s perspective. Chea already appears as an inhuman figure, someone capable of casual cruelty unthinkable to most viewers, and the addition of another screen between the observer and Chea, especially at the moment when he confesses to such widespread murder, serves to separate Chea even more from the reality of the average viewer.  This extra filter between viewer and subject also emphasizes the historical work Thet is doing as he reaches into and unspools the past through his cameras. In using layers of cameras and screens, Thet also creates the effect of distance when he is filmed editing and reviewing footage from interviews. Whereas the distance created by layers of screens during interviews serves to separate Chea from both Thet and the viewer, here the multiple screens have the opposite effect. At one point in the film, four images of Chea from three different screens stare out at Thet and the viewer. This pulls the viewer in and creates the effect of being enveloped and surrounded, placed face to face with Chea. The angle of this particular shot also places the viewer in Thet’s seat in the editing room, which makes Chea’s words seem all the more immediate, and helps build an emotional connection between both the viewer and Thet and between the viewer and the project itself. In addition to pulling the audience in, the footage of Thet editing interviews reveals the moments in which the careful emotional distance Thet preserves with his subjects breaks down.  After a scene in which Thet says goodbye to his children before setting off to work on his film, Thet is shown watching footage of Chea play with the baby of one of Chea’s family members. Thet’s emotion is immediate and visible as he speaks of the pain it causes him to see parents interact with their children, as he was deprived of parents and a brother by the Khmer Rouge and now sacrifices his own family again because he feels he must record the past for future generations of families. Here the layers Thet works into his film through editing scenes serve not only to separate, but to pull the viewer in closer to Thet’s emotions.

More than simply coloring the approaches to these projects, distance and layers of separation are instrumental within the works themselves. This is particularly evident in the film scene in which Mr. Khuon reenacts a killing, though much of the scene’s impact comes from the way Thet carefully layers his film with images leading up to this point. Enemies of the People starts out moving from shot to shot of concealment: hazy images of fog blurring the landscape; stagnant, murky water; grass waving in the wind so individual blades are indistinguishable. This system of images has the effect of making the viewer hungry for more, for clarity. This technique emphasizes what is unseen and untold, and sets Thet up to clear the haze and reveal what lies below. These concealing images repeat throughout the film, but decrease in frequency to mirror the way Thet slowly and methodically unearths the hows and whys of the killings from the perpetrators he interviews. A similar setup is at work in the first fifteen lines of “Daughter,” but where Thet uses imagery, Kho uses distant, unspecific language. In the first section of “Daughter” the narrator is repeatedly acted upon. She was “ripped” from her home and blown far away, her daughter was “taken,” she was “tricked” and “had no choice” (Kho).  Everything about the mother’s language distances her from the fact that she left her daughter, and part of creating that distance comes in the form of justification. The mother repeats her identity to herself like a mantra, “I am a housemaid in Malaysia: / I am a servant,” as if trying to convince herself that what she did was right.  She does not acknowledge the choice she made to leave her daughter and tries to keep herself separate from the past by repeatedly affirming her new identity. As in Enemies of the People, these layers of deflection and justification serve only to emphasize the unsaid and draw the audience deeper into the work.

The defensive, distancing language that is so prevalent in “Daughter” surfaces also in the film, though here Khuon is distancing himself from the killings not just as a way to live with himself.  Khuon is especially reluctant to speak because anything he divulges is bared before Thet and the eyes of the world, whereas “Daughter” reads as a mother’s intimate confession to both daughter and self. Thet’s masterful phrasing in this scene allows Khuon to slowly open up and drop the layers of defense he has wrapped around himself; Thet draws Khuon outward by telling him to “just pretend… just help me… just use me as an example” (Enemies). By distancing Khuon from his responsibility for the killings and making the reenactment seem like a favor, Thet sets Khuon up for more honest, genuine interaction before Khuon even speaks.  Thet’s language of pretending also distances Thet from his own victimhood, allowing Khuon to feel he is talking to an outsider and continue telling his story. Thet’s approach of using manufactured distance allows him to bridge the very real distance that Khuon creates between himself and his actions and between the stories each man has to tell.

However, the process of reunifying past and present requires more than the acknowledgment of past wrongdoings or regrets; the subject must shift from detachment to consciously and intentionally taking responsibility. In “Daughter,” the collapse of the detachment the mother so carefully constructs in the first fifteen lines comes as a sharp transition: “I ran from you” (Kho).  It is as though all that comes before has been one long breath and here the mother is cutting off her justifications and explanations and laying the bare truth out before herself, her daughter, and the reader. This line distinguishes itself as a transition not just within the context of the poem, but visually and rhythmically as well. There are no stanzas or breaks in “Daughter,” and this line is markedly shortest, disrupting the flow of the mother’s confession. Here, the mother is not biding her time and getting comfortable with the subject as Thet allows his interviewees to do. “I ran from you” comes like ripping off a bandage — abrupt and startling, revealing the wound beneath (Kho). The pain it causes the mother to acknowledge her loss and struggle, and that of her daughter, manifests itself in the poem almost as a physical wound. This is reinforced by the body imagery of the “tears [that] cut into [her] heart” and the bodily suffering the mother experiences that is “like fire touching the flesh” (Kho). The confessional form of the poem allows it to breach the distance between disassociation and acknowledgement very abruptly, which makes the moment especially striking. Thet, on the other hand, must handle bridging that gap differently because he works face to face with real people on film, who come complete with their own sets of memories, vanities, and reservations. Thus Thet must approach his subjects delicately and non-judgmentally so that moments of acknowledgement like “I ran from you” can surface (Kho).  During Khuon’s reenactment of a killing, this moment is less distinct, but it emerges nevertheless. Between nervous, deflective laughter and smiles, Khuon admits that he feels “embarrassed to kill” Thet (Enemies), which gives the viewer a glimpse of the shame and regret that Khuon seems to feel and that Thet has worked so carefully to reveal.  Khuon will not reenact a killing using Thet, whom he has gotten to know over the course of the project, and instead uses another man. This suggests that Khuon must still preserve some distance between himself and his actions and between himself and Thet as he grapples with his own past and with Thet’s dual roles of victim and historian. Using Thet as an example would make his actions too personal and real.  It seems also to be an odd choice of words to be “embarrassed” to kill someone, rather than horrified or disturbed, as if his shame arises from being found out.  Khuon’s word choice suggests again that he is still holding some distance between himself and his actions, and that although he feels shame, he will not publicly acknowledge any deeper emotional or moral conflict.

Thet and Kho take different approaches to bridging the distance between past and present created by layers of regret, pain, and loss, but after stripping away all of these emotions, they both find the same thing at the core: silence. This surfaces repeatedly in Enemies of the People as Thet’s interviews uncover glimpses of real emotion, like the moment after Nuon Chea learns of the death of Thet’s family. Chea expresses his surprise and sorrow and then pauses, looking away from the camera with a troubled expression on his face, and sits in silence. Moments of silence also frame Khuon’s reenactment of the killing, which lets the words and images sit with the viewer for a moment and also gives a chance for those moments of vulnerability to break through, when the human being behind the role of victim or victimizer is revealed.  For Kho, however, these moments do not need to be earned the way Thet must earn the confidence of his subjects. Because of the intimate nature of “Daughter” and the raw pain it expresses, silence comes organically at the close of the poem.  The mother has exerted an enormous emotional effort to claw her way out of the layers of justification and guilt and pain that separate her from acknowledging her abandonment of her daughter. After she has poured out “every word [she] knows to quiet the despair” (Kho), she has left only silence and the dull, aching physical pain of loss. In the silence the days tick by, her heart pounds, and suffering leaves indelible marks in its passing, “like fire touching the flesh” (Kho).  Both works arrive ultimately at silence, be it one of remembrance, realized humanity, exhaustion, or catharsis. That they do so despite taking such difference paths suggests that after all is said and done, no matter who peels back the layers or how they do so, there are still emotions that cannot be expressed by any words. Once the separation of past and present has been broken down, there remains a gulf between words and reality, what can be spoken and what is.

Kho deepens and complicates this idea of something beyond words in his 2012 poem “Sugar Cane,” in which he paints a picture of a village stripped of its identity by the Khmer Rouge and explores how those people cope with their physical and emotional displacement. Here, the collective voice of the village professes, “the more we appeal, the more we’re hurt” (Kho, “Sugar Cane”). This cycle of appeal and violence suggests that although there is enormous value in acknowledging something out loud as a means of overcoming it, at some point this stops helping and begins to hold one back from moving on. After all the loss and regret and pain are spoken and past and present are rejoined, moving forward requires that one stop dwelling on the past. One must find the delicate balance between remembering so that such a thing never happens again, and letting go enough to find peace. By exploring distance both in relation to and within their works, Thet and Kho are in their own ways able to peel away the layers of emotion surrounding the Cambodian genocide to arrive at the silence that is left at the core of the aftermath, after the past has been acknowledged and all that can be said has been spoken. Together these works suggest that perhaps it is reflecting and sitting in those moments of silence, after one has “run out of language” (Kho, “Sugar Cane”), that time can do its work and that one begins to heal. 

Works Cited

Enemies of the People. Dir. Sambath Thet and Rob Lemkin. Old Street Films, 2010. DVD.

Thet, Sambath. Conversation with Students. Harvard College. Lamont Library, Cambridge. 23 Oct., 2013.

Kho, Tararith. “Daughter.” Trans. Aisha Down. 

—. “Sugar Cane.” Trans. Aisha Down.