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American Quarterly 57.1 (2005) 237-247

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Marginalized Bodies and the Politics of Visibility

Picturing Poverty: Print Culture and FSA Photographs. By Cara A. Finnegan. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2003. 260 pages. $36.95 (cloth).
Imaging Japanese America: The Visual Construction of Citizenship, Nation, and the Body. By Elena Tajima Creef. New York: New York University Press, 2004. 245 pages. $55.00 (cloth). $19.00 (paper).

Pictures of Afghani women taking off their burkhas, a crowd pulling down a statue of Saddam Hussein, and American soldiers in desert surroundings are among the notable images compiling the current visual discourse of the U.S. "war against terrorism." What histories lie behind the images we see today, and the images we don't see, as we watch bombs drop, view the aftermath of explosions, and listen to the embedded reporters? Recent media deployments of Orientalist motifs, for instance, call for historical mappings of the foundations for these visual spectacles. In the last decade or so, scholarship on visual culture has begun to consider in depth the histories of which bodies perform citizenship and secure the boundaries of the nation.1 Questions raised in this research include how have visual cultures contributed to both the privileging of certain subjects and the disciplinary control of subordinated citizens? Moreover, how have marginalized subjects used visual discourses to resist such control? Related, what impact do representations of bodies in "need of rescue" (as in the example of the Afghani women) have in sustaining or challenging U.S. imperialist agendas? Equally important, historical analyses of embodied citizenships must also contend with the traumas that are elided or erased in visual representations. For instance, which histories are represented and which occluded in recent visual articulations of the "new" multicultural military?2

The two books under review provide important insights into the historical production of visible citizenship, focusing specifically on the histories of marginalization, racism, and oppression at moments of social crisis. Although asking different historical questions, both Cara Finnegan and Elena Tajima [End Page 237] Creef examine the elisions and articulations of alterity that are central to the production of visual rhetorics of nationhood. As David Morley so aptly argues, "It is not the presence of otherness per se which is problematic but only that of undomesticated otherness."3

In exploring marginalized bodies in national visual culture, these two books also provide methodological perspectives relevant to current developments in visual culture studies. Finnegan's analysis of Farm Security Administration photographs from the 1930s convincingly argues for a methodological approach that includes the study of circulation in order to understand both the "specificity" and "fluidity" of meanings in the public sphere (56). Picturing Poverty challenges historical accounts that assume a monolithic voice in mainstream debates about poverty in the 1930s by focusing on the production of multiple visual rhetorics in the popular press. In this way, Finnegan studies how images operated within a broader scopic field at a key moment in the emergence of a national American culture.

Studies of the role of visual culture in the production of national identity have primarily examined mainstream media and have been less attentive to alternative representational practices. To what extent, we need to ask, have alternative and oppositional visual practices worked with and against dominant visual rhetorics of citizenship? In Imaging Japanese America, Creef examines a range of historical visual and literary sources that imaged and imagined Japanese America. She places mainstream media representations of the Japanese-American body in dialogue with alternative visual practices produced by Japanese-American artists and writers. Methodologically, then, Creef asks different questions about the public sphere that explore how alternative practices intervene, disrupt, and/or challenge hegemonic practices.

Picturing Poverty reexamines the now-famous archive of photographs produced by the Historical Section of the Resettlement Administration/Farm Security Administration (hereafter referred to as the FSA) from 1934 to 1943. Although numerous scholars over the years have studied this archive,4 Finnegan argues that no one has examined the different sites of publication and how these sites produced multiple discourses on poverty. She employs a rhetorical...


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