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Passing for History: Visuality, Humor, and Early Television Historiography

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Abstract:

This paper considers several figures of visual humor in early television, performers whose careers demonstrate historicized complexities between 1) the deployment of racial stereotypes, and 2) practices of racial passing. Passing, like stereotypes themselves, can be understood to participate in a regime of visibility that affords both a regularized site for identification and a difficulty in assuming a stasis or fixity of identity. Humor can work to consolidate such a presumed fixity, or to undermine it.

The performers to be considered were all notable presences on early television in Los Angeles, and include Korla Pandit, Ina Ray Hutton, Iron Eyes Cody, and Spade Cooley. These figures were not widely known to have been passing at the time of their celebrity. Most, in fact, did not pass for “white,” but instead as various non-white races/ethnicities. While some of these figures have received consideration as non-white performers on television, they have not been considered collectively with respect to the complex of ironies attendant to passing. Focusing on three figures (Pandit, Cody, and Hutton), this paper considers the mediated performance of racial passing within a series of empirical and methodological crossroads: between presumed nodes of racial/ethnic identity and representation, between local and national (television), and between the public memory of the performers and contemporary historicized knowledges about them. I envision these figures as demarcating a kind of “minor literature” within early television history, in that they perform what Deleuze and Guattari described as “creative lines of escape” within the more broadly conceived rules and strictures of a culture of white dominance. In this way, they can be seen to figure a previously unforeseen historiographic crossroads.

The place of humor in this analysis therefore involves both the pleasure of these performances and their consideration within an informed historiographic economy. In conjunction with critical race theory, I position the “knowledge” of passing, and these specific performances of passing, in relation to the model of classic joke structure: one that configures the presumptive economies of whiteness as the “object” of historicized visual humor. In this way, this paper places into relief and newly engages the site(s) of non-whiteness within an implicitly dominant “white” imaginary of representation, so as to mobilize visual humor about race away from the “comic” fetishization of difference that underlies racial stereotypes.
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Name: American Studies Association Annual Meeting
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MLA Citation:

Williams, Mark. "Passing for History: Visuality, Humor, and Early Television Historiography" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hyatt Regency, Albuquerque, New Mexico, <Not Available>. 2014-11-30 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p244356_index.html>

APA Citation:

Williams, M. "Passing for History: Visuality, Humor, and Early Television Historiography" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hyatt Regency, Albuquerque, New Mexico <Not Available>. 2014-11-30 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p244356_index.html

Publication Type: Internal Paper
Abstract: This paper considers several figures of visual humor in early television, performers whose careers demonstrate historicized complexities between 1) the deployment of racial stereotypes, and 2) practices of racial passing. Passing, like stereotypes themselves, can be understood to participate in a regime of visibility that affords both a regularized site for identification and a difficulty in assuming a stasis or fixity of identity. Humor can work to consolidate such a presumed fixity, or to undermine it.

The performers to be considered were all notable presences on early television in Los Angeles, and include Korla Pandit, Ina Ray Hutton, Iron Eyes Cody, and Spade Cooley. These figures were not widely known to have been passing at the time of their celebrity. Most, in fact, did not pass for “white,” but instead as various non-white races/ethnicities. While some of these figures have received consideration as non-white performers on television, they have not been considered collectively with respect to the complex of ironies attendant to passing. Focusing on three figures (Pandit, Cody, and Hutton), this paper considers the mediated performance of racial passing within a series of empirical and methodological crossroads: between presumed nodes of racial/ethnic identity and representation, between local and national (television), and between the public memory of the performers and contemporary historicized knowledges about them. I envision these figures as demarcating a kind of “minor literature” within early television history, in that they perform what Deleuze and Guattari described as “creative lines of escape” within the more broadly conceived rules and strictures of a culture of white dominance. In this way, they can be seen to figure a previously unforeseen historiographic crossroads.

The place of humor in this analysis therefore involves both the pleasure of these performances and their consideration within an informed historiographic economy. In conjunction with critical race theory, I position the “knowledge” of passing, and these specific performances of passing, in relation to the model of classic joke structure: one that configures the presumptive economies of whiteness as the “object” of historicized visual humor. In this way, this paper places into relief and newly engages the site(s) of non-whiteness within an implicitly dominant “white” imaginary of representation, so as to mobilize visual humor about race away from the “comic” fetishization of difference that underlies racial stereotypes.


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