Lenticular Vision as an Analytical Tool

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mcphersoncoverToday’s post is reflection on a concept I learned from Tara McPherson’s Reconstructing Dixie - which I highly recommend as a detailed and nuanced analysis of the meanings accrued by the American South from the mid-20th century through to the 1990s. If you’re interested in the cultural construction of nostalgia, there’s a lot of food for thought there, but today’s theme is specifically her central image of ‘lenticular vision’.

A lenticular lens is one that magnifies different images when viewed from different angles, and is used to produce pictures which change with changes in the position of the viewer. McPherson introduces this concept via the example of a picture of an old plantation house which from one angle showed the White people that owned it, from another, the Black people who serviced it.

Up until the mid-20th century, these kinds of emblematic representations of the South would show both social worlds in the same image, the image of happy Black workers in the fields forming an essential backdrop to the romanticised White idyll. McPherson contends that the lenticular view, which allows you to see only one group at a time, epitomises the way that representations of the South in the later 20th century changed in response to the civil rights movement. What emerges is a white-only vision of the South that conceals how the Southern identities presented were constructed in the context of racial difference.

So, up to and including Gone With the Wind, Southern femininity, and its associations with home, roots, gentility, and hospitality, was a specifically White identity, because the White belles and wives were depicted in contrast with the Black women on whom their roles depended. The latter were presented as inherently unattractive and unfeminine, even while they were invested with nostalgia and longing. But they were essentially props in a White story.

After the civil rights movement, you still see depictions of Southern femininity, and these are still imbued with the same sense of nostalgia and associations of home, but now the Black labour that underpinned the economy that produced these tropes has been erased. As segregation of public spaces ended (at least officially if not in many areas in practice), representations of culture became segregated instead. It was no longer acceptable to show the happy darkies as part of the stage set of the South, so Black people were simply airbrushed out, leaving the rest of the picture largely intact.

This analysis makes sense of the images of the South from within my lifetime. The Dukes of Hazard taught me in childhood about the existence of the Confederate flag and the tune to Dixie, but did not teach me that anyone other than White people inhabited that world. And of course barbershop has likewise been able to peddle Dixie nostalgia untroubled by the history of lynchings and Jim Crow that made the world their songs yearned for a very different place for its Black inhabitants.

Two specifically musical thoughts arise from this, one closely related to the substance of McPherson’s work, the other by analogy. The first is that this process clarifies why simply bowdlerising songs to remove offensive lyrics doesn’t rescue Dixie songs from their baked-in racism. Rendering exploitation invisible doesn’t make it disappear, it just makes it harder to dismantle.

The second connects over to the debates of last summer about the extent to which white-supremacist views held by music theorists are built into the way their theories work. Could the stripping-out of polemic from Schenker’s work as it was repackaged for use in Anglophone HE render the theoretical content morally neutral, or even benign? Considering this as another form of lenticular vision suggests it may take more than a focus on the ‘purely musical’ to achieve.

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