Elizabeth Abel, “Signs of the Times”


Abel argues that the “thickness” of the ostensibly black/white binary of Jim Crow semiotics was reinforced and complicated by visual signifiers outside the bounds of the two words white/colored. She begins with the asymmetry of signage, entrances, etc. – rarely were there two equally set-out choices in the interface.

“Driven by the opportunity and the urgency of narrowing the gap between a forgetful present and a shameful history, these entrees to the scene of inequality exploit the potential of their three-dimensional space to deliver the effect of immediacy, even as that effect is inevitably mediated by the terms of access to that space. Photography’s flat surface, by contrast, may be better suited to examining the effects of mediation to which its own existence inescapably bears witness” 2.

Abel looks at the photographic proof (1980) of an old “Colored Service” entrance sign painted on a wall in New Orleans as an approach to “America’s most obvious yet strangely invisible inscription of race as a network of signs” 4.

“These signs constitute a collective and flexible articulation whose dimensions were determined more by custom, taste, and convention than by law. The result was a sign system produced by many hands in a multiplicity of forms that emerged across a spectrum of geographic, economic, and political positions… Jim Crow signage gave race a graphic body that shaped the meaning of its abstract terms” 5.

Abel begins a later chapter by considering segregation and cinema, beginning with Baudry’s insistence on the disembodying effect of the apparatus. Abel argues that the positioning of the segregated spectator (in the balcony) enables him to see the other spectators, to throw popcorn on them – disturbs this suture. Discomfort and an awareness of the audience above, too, waxed and waned according to which film was being shown, and where.

Ultimately, she advocates a “third way” – neither effacing it with multiculturalism or color-blindness, but “reading the traces of these signs in order to displace them” 300.


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