Resource of the Week: "Visualizing Chaucer"

It me. Finishing mah booke. 

It me. Finishing mah booke. 

I've meant to write about this for a while, but time's short and so forth. Plus I'm in the final stages of getting my book out (or mah booke as it's known in my house), so this will have to be short and sweet.  You, and everyone you know, should head on over to "Visualizing Chaucer", a digital project by the Robbins Library (University of Rochester, New York), created and developed by Kara L McShane. It's a repository of images used to illustrate Chaucer over the years, ranging from the seventeenth- to the twenty-first century. The image collection is accompanied by an extensive (and often hyperlinked) bibliography of illustrated editions of Chaucer. By clicking on a hyperlinked entry, of which there are many, you can jump straight to the given work and browse through its visual content, if available. Nice. 

Animated gif, feat Paul Bettany as Chaucer, in   A Knight's Tale   (Brian Helgeland, 2001)

Animated gif, feat Paul Bettany as Chaucer, in A Knight's Tale (Brian Helgeland, 2001)

I blogged recently with breathless exultation about Michael John Goodman's "Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive", and the way in which the database enables us to discern the ways in which the Victorians (re)interpreted Shakespeare, his work, and indeed the entire early modern period itself. "Visualizing Chaucer" operates in much the same way, but with a broader historical stroke and literary focus: as a means to identify the different ways in which postmedieval readers were presented with Chaucer's works, thus allowing us to deduce the ways in which the canonical medieval texts have been (re)imagined throughout the centuries. This lets us make out the ways in which the notion of the "medieval" itself has been processed and refashioned in different temporal eras, as the illustrations reflect a popularly circulating image of medieval characters, objects, and motifs. Somewhat predictably, I'm glad that filmic depictions of Chaucer are also included in the database, notably stills from Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1972 film I racconti di Canterbury (The Canterbury Tales). More cinematic entries would certainly be welcome, but there is an annotated Chaucer filmography on offer if you dig around. 

The database is not the most user-friendly to navigate, sadly. I can't find a chronological filter, for example, which would help sort images based on when they were produced. And some areas need more work, which I assume is in progress. For instance, the filter for "images and motifs" currently only returns one: pilgrimage. But the character-level search is much more filled out, and searching via "artists and images" produces tons of results. These are the two query frameworks I suggest you consult first. ( "Authors and texts" confuses me, I admit: it seems to link to pages in which a given work has been transcribed online (great!) but doesn't return image-specific stuff?) I'd also like some explicit guidance regarding the copyright status of the images in the repository. Can they be re-used, re-blogged, or inserted in papers without issue? Are they governed by a Creative Commons license? Enquiring minds want to know! Nevertheless, "Visualizing Chaucer" is most definitely worth your perusal, and a useful addition to the teaching and learning arsenal.  

Video Resuscitates the Manuscript Star: Medieval Literary Texts in Performance

There are some things that bond people together, that create a feeling of intense camaraderie. Surviving a trauma together knits invisible strands between individuals, a web of kinship that promises to endure. I am not talking about war, no siree. I am talking about the trauma of shared and acute awkwardness. This is the kind of social discomfort in which you have to brainwash yourself that this is all an elaborate dream from which you will awake. Or the floor will definitely be caving in, any minute now, so you can disappear without a trace. This, my friend, is the horror of being a shy lit student and having to perform - in front of other people! - the text which you thought, naively, you'd just be sitting around and discussing with other reticent book nerds. The only upside is that snaking bond fabricated by shared horror that now, suddenly, binds you to your fellow reticent actors. You are, if only for a moment, Team Awkward.

OK, so perhaps this is not actually a universal experience. But it is one I have gone through a few times, from A-level English lit to undergrad medieval French. Flashback: declaiming Chaucer's 'Wife of Bath' whilst everyone in the class avoids eye contact. Flashback: desperately trying to make it through a seminar read-along of the filthy fabliaux without melting into a puddle of shame giggles. As you might have gathered, I'm a fan of reading by nature, and not of performing per se. It's like all my cultural Britishness - that stereotype of being shy, retiring, polite - is channelled into this one area. But these kinds of performances are actually really important, and very useful teaching moments - and not as some kind of medievalist hazing ritual. Rather, they shake up the way we, as citizens of the modern era, approach medieval narratives, and open the texts themselves up for greater contextual understanding. The overwhelming awkwardness I (used to) feel in performing medieval works lies in the disjuncture between how I expected to be interacting with the texts (safe, silent, solo reading) and how I was compelled to interact with them in a more authentic medieval context. 

The thing is, our convention of identifying "literary texts" as predominantly "things to be read (silently alone)" - as opposed to say, "plays" which are principally "to be performed as a group, to an audience of some kind" - is just that, a convention. J. A. Burrow sketches the very different medieval convention(s): 

People in the Middle Ages commonly treated books rather as musical scores are treated today. The normal thing to do with a written literary text, that is, was to perform it, by reading or chanting it aloud. Reading was a kind of performance. Even solitary readers, especially when confronted with unfamiliar or difficult forms of script, will often have needed to spell words out in an undertone – performing texts to themselves, as it were – and reading was not solitary. The performance of a text was most often a social occasion. (Medieval Writers, p. 49)

Of course, there's lots of granularity possible here - different kinds of medieval reading possible according to different factors, including who is doing the reading - but Burrow captures the gist of the situation.* Burrow is also on point when they note that

Undoubtedly the best way to realize almost any medieval text, prose or especially verse, is to read it aloud or hear it read. […] [Medieval] writers composed most often for the performing voice – speaking, intoning, chanting, or singing - and the expressive effects which they contrived tended in consequence to be boldly and emphatically shaped for the voice to convey to the ear. (ibid., pp. 49-50)

So what I'm saying is, being on Team Awkward is actually a sign of being on Team More Authentically Medieval, and thus - obviously - Team Awesome. 

But, wait! You don't necessarily have to endure the embarrassment-fuelled self-immolation of public performance to join Team Awesome! Evelyn Birge Vitz (New York University) is the leading force behind a whole suite of resources to enable students, scholars, and all interested parties to get to grips with the performative nature of medieval texts. Thanks to Vitz and various collaborators, we now have:

Each site hosts nicely produced videos of dramatic performances of medieval literary works, whether in English translation or original medieval language. Below, I've worked up an overview of each resource - and embedded or linked to my current top pick from their video offerings - to give a (useful) feel of how each might be used in teaching and research. 

The videos on the Medieval Tales in Performance YouTube channel have a very 1990s Calvin Klein-ad vibe, albeit with more modestly clothed actors. They're all shot in dramatic black and white, and run mostly to around 2 minutes. The short run times means they can be easily inserted at relevant points in lectures and so forth without taking up too much space, but also mean the ground the videos cover is understandably limited. All performances seem to be from modern translations, which means they are very accessible and showcase the dramatic potency of the texts, or a specific plot point you might want students to really take on board. On the other hand, they don't convey the linguistic and sonic richness of the original works. My favourite clip, so far, is James Swanson's rendition of an excerpt from Margery Kempe's Book which really highlights the tension between Margery's roles of dutiful, obedient wife and pious holy woman.  

James Swanson performing an excerpt from chapter 11 of The Book of Margery Kempe, from the Medieval Tales in Performance YouTube channel.

The Arthurian Legend in Performance Vimeo channel does exactly what is says on the tin. Here, you'll find 20 videos of performances of material relating to King Arthur, his kingdom, and his knights. The production is a bit rougher for these clips, but that doesn't cause any significant issues. Overall, the videos are a bit longer than for the Medieval Tales in Performance series, running from about a minute to fifteen minutes in length. What I adore about this channel, though, is that there are a fair few in original languages, including Middle English (e.g.), Hebrew (e.g.). Byzantine Greek (e.g.), and Medieval Latin (e.g.). Shout-outs also go to videos which feature performances in modern English with medieval language subtitles, and vice versa:

These subtitled videos are incredibly helpful tools to allow students to engage with the "scary" and "difficult" linguistic forms of the Middle Ages, whilst also developing knowledge of plot, and the nature of medieval textual performance itself. Have a look, for instance, at the Lanval video, which I particularly like because a harpist chimes in on the performance, amplifying the fairy-supernatural ambiance of the selected excerpt. For videos which really demonstrate the social, joyful, performative character of medieval works, though, I have to recommend the performances by Linda Marie Zaerr, in which she - for want of a better phrase - works it, and works it hard, with her full-body multi-modal representation of the story, accompanied by music she plays on a vielle:

Due to the privacy settings of the videos, hosted on Vimeo, I can't embed any directly here, which is not an obstacle to their usage but something worth noting. 

I have saved the best for last. Performing Medieval Narrative Today: A Video Showcase is truly wondrous. The Showcase's mission statement cuts to the heart of the significance of performance in the medieval textual context:

This site focuses exclusively on the performance of narrative, as broadly defined. While many recordings and websites are devoted to medieval music and drama, the performance of medieval narrative is now beginning to be appreciated as an important fact. Modern performers and scholars have long recognized that medieval plays were intended to be played and lyric poems were meant to be sung. Yet medieval epics were likewise typically sung with instrumental accompaniment, verse romances were often recited and even acted out from memory, and fabliaux and other tales were performed by minstrels and other entertainers. Public reading of stories to assembled audiences also became an important performance mode. But private, silent reading, which is the norm today, was extremely rare in the Middle Ages. In short, medieval narratives were created and intended to be performed. Their “performability” was, and remains, part of their fundamental character, affecting in significant ways audience response. This site aims to make these works live again in performance.

From my point of view, the site succeeds. Video resuscitates the manuscript star.** For example, in a clip from the end of Chaucer's Wife of Bath - performed in Middle English - the performer, student Evan Wilson, voices all characters, gleefully switching between roles (and tones) with agility. The scene is enhanced by the audible laughter of the audience, reminding the viewer once more of the social nature of reading, and bringing to the fore the humour of the piece.  Each video also works as a springboard for students to learn more, due to a comprehensive yet concise aparatus.

Fig 1. Screenshot (cropped) of  mednar.org , 17 February 2017.

Fig 1. Screenshot (cropped) of mednar.org, 17 February 2017.

The Showcase's linguistic strength is definitely in modern English translations, currently with 223 videos, whilst only a light smattering of stuff performed in the original language (e.g. the next most plentiful linguistic groups are Middle English (8 clips) and Old French (5 clips)). Nevertheless, what the Showcase lacks in original language performance, it makes up for in the huge amount of texts which are represented - over fifty works, including many of the mainstays of generalist European medieval studies courses - and the fact that they are so very easy to find. One of the site's real assets is the fact that it is incredibly well organised, with a very intuitive and user-friendly "find performances" function (see Fig 1). You can drill down either in terms of the performances themselves - e.g. by type of performance, kind of musical instrument, or location - or by the type of original work you want to see performed, including searching by genre, period, and language. Also available on the website is a generous bibliography of scholarship on medieval text and performance. This is a boon for those wanting to put the modern productions into historical context, not to mention a good primer for undergrads and/or those of us writing syllabi for undergrads...  

I also appreciate the "teaching tips" section, which emphasises the ways in which incorporating performance into studies of medieval literature enhances the learning experience and contributes to better learning outcomes. Basically, being forced to perform literary medieval texts makes students much more intimately engaged with the material. They read the texts more attentively, they become more passionate about them, and they appreciate with far greater insight the context in which medieval texts were produced and consumed. The suggestions for using the Showcase itself as a productive teaching tool is great, guiding teachers away from chucking in video clips to add a bit of audiovisual sexiness, but not really profiting fully from what such clips can teach us about medieval literary culture. I'll be taking the advice very much to heart for my own teaching, I must say. 

I started this post whining overly dramatically about my unease at being tasked with performing medieval texts during my studies. It would be nifty, I guess, if I wrapped up by proclaiming some major internal shift on performance and attendant perceived awkwardness on my part. Alas, no: the thought still provokes a shuddering eye roll, if not filling me with dread exactly. But learning more about performance is a really important aspect of getting to grips with medieval literature, and understanding the context in which works were written and consumed.

So, I dedicate this post to my fellow awkward book nerds. We too can be part of Team More Authentically Medieval (AKA Team Awesome), and encourage our students to join the party too, by watching videos of the kind described above, and incorporating them whenever possible into our teaching. Pay homage to the brave and enthusiastic performers who have sacrificed their social comfort on the glorious altar of medieval studies! Respect the fact that for many performing is just fun and exciting. (I know, unfathomable to me in many ways too, but it is true.) And by making performance a part of our teaching programme, we will get to witness our students inhabit with gusto the narratives to which we direct their scant attention. Maybe, just maybe, we'll join in too? Hmmm.

 

* For a rapid, accessible overview of various modes of reading in the Middle Ages, see these webpages by Dr Dianne Tillotson. The standard guide to historically shifting reading conventions is Alberto Manguel's History of Reading. Manguel's chapter on silent reading in the pre-modern era is transcribed online here ('The Silent Readers', pp.42-53 of the 1996 edition published by Viking in New York).

** If you don't get the dated reference to a 1970s synth-pop band's cult one-hit wonder here and in the post title, please see here and get comprehensively educated. I am sorry for the earworm, so very sorry. 

 

Hardcopy references

Burrow, J. A., Medieval Writers and Their Work: Middle English Literature 1100-1500 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008) (Google books)

Manguel, Alberto, A History of Reading (New York: Penguin, 1996)

Mapping Margery Kempe

Screenshot of  "Aspects of the High Middle Ages"  webpage (cropped), 16 February 2017. Content copyright The University of Edinburgh. Top tip: to skip directly to the Margery Kempe animations, click on the  third green arrow    on the bottom control bar.

Screenshot of "Aspects of the High Middle Ages" webpage (cropped), 16 February 2017. Content copyright The University of Edinburgh. Top tip: to skip directly to the Margery Kempe animations, click on the third green arrow on the bottom control bar.

I was clicking through the cornucopia that is Google Image Search the other day and stumbled across a Most Excellent Thing. Behold: an animated map of Margery Kempe's three principal pilgrimages! This nifty online resource clearly shows the Englishwoman's movements in three tranches:

  • First Great Pilgrimage, 1413-1415
  • Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, 1417-1418
  • Pilgrimage to Prussia, 1433-1434

It's a really great way to visualise how very far Margery travels, and just how dynamic she is in her lifetime in the pursuit of her spiritual goals. If you'd prefer a static series of snapshots, you're covered by a basic webpage too. Before I found the eminently useful static maps, I actually extracted the Margery maps myself via screenshot, to use as visual aids in a talk on Margery. The fruits of my labour are below as Figs 1-3 - if you use these, please remember to include the appropriate copyright and credit details

The animations are part of the "Aspects of the High Middle Ages" digital map project, produced by the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh. More specifically, the animation credits reads: "Produced by IS Apps Division and the School of Divinity, CHSS for PELF funded grant. Dr K Murray, Dr P Parvis, Dr S Parvis, Dr J Paterson, A Robertson, S Virdi. Copyright The University of Edinburgh." Good work, folks! I really don't know why more people don't know about this excellent teaching resource. Wait, do you know about it? Why didn't I know about it? Sigh. There are so many high-quality innovative digital projects going on right now, but there seems to be a significant problem connecting enthusiastic eye-balls to the actual outputs. There are far too many "hidden gems" that should be front and centre on lists of teaching resources. But anyway, let's get back to the excellent work from Edinburgh. 

On top of providing maps showing Margery's travels, the project site also offers further animated maps of:

  • the primary routes taken in the First, Second, Third and Fourth Crusade [static images here] 
  • the vigorous expansion of Cistercian monasteries across Europe, from the Order's inception and Cîteaux Abbey's founding in 1098 to the twelfth century.  [static images here]

The primary utility of these visualisations is that they allow the viewer to grasp just how much terrain is covered by the various actors, and in how (relatively) fast a time such coverage was achieved. It offers a nifty way to debunk some common misperceptions of the Middle Ages held by students and non-specialists, e.g. nobody did anything interesting or travelled anywhere further than the next village. 

A word of caution, though. To make the most of these, you really need to come at them equipped with supplementary information: mainly specific dates for when stuff happens and context for the little zippy coloured lines between cities and countries. The text version of the cartographic animation supplies useful nuggets to ground appropriate interpretation of the maps, but it's laconic to say the least.  

Sometimes, though, precision is not needed. For instance, this past month I gave a public talk to a women's social group in Kent introducing attendees to the majesty, importance, and downright weirdness of Margery Kempe. The maps of Margery's pilgrimages formed a useful talking point. Attendees, who had never heard of Margery before, felt immediately connected with her - and thus more interested in her - when they saw that she visited Kentish towns of Canterbury and Dover in her 1433-1434 excursion(s) (Fig 3) . And seeing that Margery travelled so far and wide across Europe immediately impressed upon listeners that this woman led an incredibly vibrant life, with a devotion to God so great she was willing to risk it all. Not a bad primer at all for diving into Margery's biography, and understanding some of the fascination it exerts upon researchers and readers alike. Digital cartography for the win. 

 

Fig 1. Screenshot of  "Aspects of the High Middle Ages"  webpage, animation from "Pilgrimages" section (cropped, with annotation), 16 February 2017. Content copyright The University of Edinburgh.

Fig 1. Screenshot of "Aspects of the High Middle Ages" webpage, animation from "Pilgrimages" section (cropped, with annotation), 16 February 2017. Content copyright The University of Edinburgh.

Fig 2. Screenshot of  "Aspects of the High Middle Ages"  webpage, animation from "Pilgrimages" section (cropped, with annotation), 16 February 2017. Content copyright The University of Edinburgh.

Fig 2. Screenshot of "Aspects of the High Middle Ages" webpage, animation from "Pilgrimages" section (cropped, with annotation), 16 February 2017. Content copyright The University of Edinburgh.

Fig 3. Screenshot of  "Aspects of the High Middle Ages"  webpage, animation from "Pilgrimages" section (cropped, with annotation), 16 February 2017. Content copyright The University of Edinburgh.

Fig 3. Screenshot of "Aspects of the High Middle Ages" webpage, animation from "Pilgrimages" section (cropped, with annotation), 16 February 2017. Content copyright The University of Edinburgh.

Old News: The Polyvalency of Images and Nicki Minaj's Butt-Glow

The best scholarship, to me, contends head-on with the ambiguous, the potential spectrum of interpretations offered by a single text or image. I remember when I first stumbled across Barthes’ dead author fixation when I was 16 or 17, and it blew my mind. It opened up a world to me where literature and art, and everything really, is continually being re-inscribed with signification. Everybody, in some sense, co-creates that to which they assign meaning – and by so doing the “meaning(ful)” object access its own peculiar afterlife(ives) and even agency. TL;DR: everyone is dead, nothing’s dead, there is no singular truth. Wrestling with this, in various iterations, is basically why I went to grad school I think.

Image from  Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

Anyway, in “old news”, a solidly pop-culture image – and the ensuing online debates about it – demonstrates the exasperating and awesome roads this kind of hermeneutics leads us down. In August 2014, Nicki Minaj’s cover art for her song “Anaconda” (see image to the right) caused quite “le scandale”, even “le uproar”, as we say in my cod-French house. Looking at this particular image and debate offers a case study of the productivity of this theoretical attitude that is accessible to students. It also shows the ways in which such an analytical framework, often relegated – by arbiters of intellectual rigour – to “dry academic scholarship” of “worthy” or “high culture” objects, can and should be deployed more broadly.

There’s a lot at play in the commercial image – race, gender, sexuality, celebrity, socio-economic power, and even pleasure. And, at this point, others have almost definitely said it or said it better than I can. Metafilter, a community discussion site, has a great round-up of the strands of analysis, and some nuanced and informed comments from users too. (Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s November 2014 profile of Minaj for GQ makes for some good reading too, and provides context for those less familiar with the rap-star.) My favourite analysis of the image, by a decisively wide mark, is offered by Moze Halperin on Flavorwire, who draws on Lacan in a slip of piece. (Why yes, many moons ago I did fall hard for Lacanian critique of medieval literature. Once the Lacanian, ever the Lacanian, eh?) Halperin contends:

Whether or not Nicki Minaj meant to position her body so that – in keeping with the phallic motif of her upcoming single’s title, “Anaconda” – it resembles a human phallus, it’s hard not to give in to the powerful signifier, and now impossible to not see the pose Minaj strikes while getting her eagle on as deliberately dick-like. Especially from a distance. Inspired by Lacan, feminist critique often boils down to the insidiousness of society’s perception of the female anatomy as a phallic lack, and to that Minaj (perhaps, and I hope) responds, with a hotly intimidating smirk, not just by “taking” the phallus, but by rendering her entire form phallic, somehow all the while flaunting her exaggeratedly female figure.

 

Illustration from "How to dress like Nicki Minaj"  on WikiHow ; uploaded by Wikivisual. 

Illustration from "How to dress like Nicki Minaj" on WikiHow; uploaded by Wikivisual. 

Whilst I don't want to rehash the insightful critique already floating around the internet, I have been thinking recently about my personal relationship to Minaj and the image. I like Nicki Minaj. I think some of her tracks are fantastic, mainly those from Roman Reloaded – Super Bass, Starships, Freedom I’m looking at you. I think her aesthetic swagger is provocative and interesting. She is, after all, the reason that the delightful “pelican fly” entered my vocabulary as a descriptor for Very Nice Looking people, items, and ideas. Beyond that, I don’t really have much to comment. Of itself, the image doesn’t make me like her more or less. At first sight, I wasn’t particularly scandalised by it. Sure, I “got” the “wow, lady flesh!” element of much of the professed internet shock, but I was more fascinated by the symmetrical reflection of glowing light off each buttock. Somehow, the gleams read to me – remember I look at a lot of hagiography – as almost halo-like, signifiers of some evanescent internal special-ness. So, butt-glow signifying unattainably polished feminine performance, crossed with a “fuck-you” empowerment transmitted by her unapologetic gaze back at the viewer. “Yeah, I see you – I got you – you will never get this” – a gender-neutral retort for women who can never look like her and inhabit her fierceness, and men who want to penetrate (more or less literally) her persona for their own purposes.

The fact is, my reading of the image is not just utterly biased by my own concerns for gender politics and power dynamics, but also by every piece of criticism about it I read before ever seeing the cover myself. My (analytical) sight was, and is, channelled through the reactions of others. I read about the furore, read pieces deconstructing the furore, and then saw the art. As I said, the image doesn’t really affect my feelings towards Minaj more generally. However, Halperin’s interpretation of the image absolutely does. Halperin opens up a hypothetical Minaj-identity in which the rapper forthrightly and playfully challenges us to consider gender, power, and the processes of visual consumption. I too join Halperin’s cry of “perhaps and I hope”. I’ve never seen the “Anaconda” single as a material object, though Amazon UK suggests it was available to purchase at some point. I wonder if my reaction would have been – or would be – different had I ever encountered the image in tangible form, possessed the CD itself? Could I pin my feminist-Lacanian hopes on Minaj after literally buying into the woman’s commodification, her literal objectification as cover art? Would buying the CD be supporting Minaj’s – or Minaj-Halperin’s –  message of empowerment, or undermining it somehow? I honestly don’t know, but I suspect that the digital and material versions may elicit different reactions – in this instance, and more generally in terms of our responses to objects of interpretation.

St Agatha's double mastectomy, from Jacques de Voragine , Légende dorée (1401-1500) -  Paris, BNF, MS  Français 242, fol. 57r.

St Agatha's double mastectomy, from Jacques de Voragine , Légende dorée (1401-1500) - Paris, BNF, MS  Français 242, fol. 57r.

Looking at the Minaj image, and reading the various positions viewers adopt towards it, I’m reminded strongly of a chapter in Bill Burgwinkle and Cary Howie’s 2010 book, Sanctity and Pornography. The book disentangles the relationship of modern pornographic image (and narrative) to medieval hagiography, a genre that so often foregrounds tortured bodies with more than a touch of titillation. (For an image-based example, check out St Agatha's "sexy mastectomy" - shudder - that accompanies this post.) If you’re a scholar of hagiography, Burgwinkle and Howie's book is, frankly, a must-read, particularly given its direct engagement with male saints rather than the more usual focus on sexualised female religious. (If you’re interested, read my review of the book for the journal Marginalia here.) In the chapter “Looking at Saints” (pp. 74-109), the authors argue that images of “sexy” martyrdom elicit a shifting viewing perspective: ‘The viewer of such scenes will almost inevitably flip between identification with the torturer, wielding his power, and the saint who intuits this torture as his opening onto transcendence’ (p. 78).  Further, the viewer’s interpretive ‘strategy’ can – and does – ‘change from day to day: sometimes I am with the victim, sometimes with God, sometimes with the torturer; sometimes I can identify with nothing more than the diegetic viewers or the textual space; sometimes I can identify with nothing at all […]’ (p. 83). The Minaj image – loaded with doubly signifying iconography of female empowerment and gendered oppression – invites such muscular flipping of viewer positioning and concomitant interpretation. All interpretations are subjective, dependant on the viewing subject’s biases and inclinations. More than that, though: the viewing subject’s relationship is not monolithic, but shifting and swirling from moment to moment.

At the end of the day, does it matter if Minaj had none of the intentions Halperin assigns to her? Kind of. Maybe. No? This feels like a deeply personal question, as the internal life of the viewing subject unavoidably shapes the signification of the viewed image. I don’t have any desire to “know” Nicki Minaj in the way you might “know” a family member, friend, or spouse. In this, I am indebted to the scholarly work of celebrity studies, which posit that a celebrity functions primarily as an image-icon: a signifier of values/ideology that is tied to a flesh-and-blood person but certainly not identical to that being. The rapper’s “real” name is Onika Tanya Maraj. “Nicki Minaj” is an image conjured by the woman herself, a rap/star persona she has consciously chosen to animate in particular ways. Nevertheless, I like my Nicki Minaj, who may not be the same as your Nicki Minaj. I like what my Nicki represents to me, what I have chosen to assign to her thanks to my “faith” in Halperin’s deciphering of the image. Talking about faith in the context of secular imagery seems discordant. But, I think this is what it comes down to for me: I have analytical “faith” in the potentiality of the image to signify what I would like it to signify very much, that whilst Minaj might not be making any particular statement at all with the image, she might just be saying exactly what I want to hear.

 

Bonus Minaj analysis: read Elizabeth Dickson’s dissection of hypermasculinity in Minaj’s video for “Pound the Alarm” at The Sociological Cinema.